Nov 15th 2007
From The Economist print edition
Mikheil Saakashvili's crackdown has outraged his friends. What should they do now?
MOST ex-Soviet countries have already abandoned the idea that rapid economic and political reform can bring a future based on openness, freedom and legality. Some (such as Ukraine) are stuck in political stalemate. Others (such as Russia) have turned to what the Kremlin calls “sovereign democracy”—crony capitalism laced with nationalism. Now Georgia, which until recently was one of the few bright prospects left, risks turning into yet another ill-run country with a corrupt elite squabbling over the spoils of office.
This is not a total surprise. Since the 2003 “rose revolution” that swept him into power, President Mikheil Saakashvili's weaknesses have included impetuousness, self-indulgence and a reliance on too narrow a circle of advisers. But until now these seemed to be outweighed by his drive, vision and charm—and the spectacular successes of his deregulation and free-market reforms.
Now the balance has tipped. Unleashing riot police on demonstrators, leaving dozens in hospital, then declaring a state of emergency, seem an inexplicable overreaction to protests that posed no threat to public order. Blanket bans on demonstrations and on anti-government radio and television are tactics that would raise blushes even in the Kremlin.
Mr Saakashvili claims his country was facing a putsch organised by outside provocateurs. Though Georgia has certainly suffered much from Russian mischief-making, he has produced no convincing evidence that it has played a decisive part in recent days. Having cried wolf, he may find it harder to win outside attention when his country faces a genuine threat.
His decisions to call an early presidential election on January 5th and to lift the state of emergency (see article) are not big concessions. The election looks like a cynical stunt to capitalise on the opposition's divisions and unpreparedness, in conditions in which the contest can hardly be free or fair. Although the opposition has now found a candidate, the president's command of the media and the state's resources is likely to assure him an easy victory; it will not be a democratic mandate. Rigged elections are a favourite tool of tyrants.
Is anybody paying attention?
The West has been shamefully slow to condemn the abuse of power by its protégé, “Misha”. America and the European Union have expressed some regret and called for calm, but they have not said bluntly and publicly that the Georgian authorities' use of force is unacceptable. They should. It would also be worth investigating how the foreign aid showered on Georgia has been spent. It is not just that some may have leaked away on mistresses and Mercedes cars. It would be a sad business if American tax dollars had paid both for the security forces' training and equipment and for the broadcasting facilities that they recently smashed up.
Georgia's friends should also urge Mr Saakashvili to postpone the presidential vote, and instead hold a fair, internationally supervised parliamentary election in the spring. The speaker of parliament, Nino Burjanadze, who retains the statesmanlike image that Mr Saakashvili has lost, should convene talks between all political forces, at first to reach agreement on election rules, then to discuss constitutional changes. A new parliament should take back some of the powers that the presidency has recently misused. Until that happens, Mr Saakashvili should be in political quarantine. Any planned official visits to Western capitals, and particularly to Washington or Brussels, should wait until Georgia has returned to normal.
This is not just about salving Western governments' wounded feelings. Failure to criticise Mr Saakashvili's mistakes will undermine the West's cause throughout the region. Russians will wonder whether outside support for Georgia in recent years was a cynical bit of Kremlin-bashing and energy politics, rather than good-hearted help for a country yearning for security and freedom.
Yet even as they urge Georgia's leader to change course, Europe and America should also bolster the country's security. One reason for twitchiness in Mr Saakashvili's inner circle is a feeling that Georgia faces a threat from a resurgent Russia, and the West is a wobbly ally. The latest shenanigans must not send the Kremlin a signal that Georgia is up for grabs. A NATO summit in Bucharest in April is due to consider the conditions for Georgia, eventually, to join. Any offer must not give Mr Saakashvili a free ride. Membership would require not only continued development of Georgia's well financed armed forces, but also the entrenchment of NATO's central values: the rule of law and political pluralism. The path to membership is likely to be longer and tougher, thanks to Mr Saakashvili's blunders. But these must also not give Russia any veto over Georgia's future.
Thursday, November 15, 2007