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WILLIAM COURTNEY AND KENNETH YALOWITZ

Georgia's fragile democracy

GEORGIA, the former republic of the USSR, has made a peaceful leadership transition from President Eduard Shevardnadze to a reform team riding a wave of popular support. The young leaders -- led by Mikhail Saakashvili, Nino Burdzanadze, and Zurab Zhvania -- won by hammering on corruption, staying united, and offering an appealing democratic agenda following the fraudulent parliamentary elections on Nov. 2. In the Soviet era, Georgia was a tourist haven on the Black Sea, with a vibrant wine industry and fruit and nut production. As the Soviet Union was breaking up, territorial and ethnic disputes flared in Georgia, and the first popularly elected president was ousted leading to civil war. Shevardnadze returned in 1992 to the republic he had run prior to becoming Soviet foreign minister under Mikhail Gorbachev. Warlords provoked a disastrous civil war in the coastal region of Abkhazia, and only later could Shevardnadze neutralize them.

 

Shevardnadze then allied with young leaders from the Green Party and formed his own political group. They won honest elections in 1995 and launched reforms that made Georgia briefly a growth model. Then, like Boris Yeltsin, Shevardnadze felt threatened and played off the young leaders against entrenched elites. Corruption grew, and the economy stagnated. Some asked what the United States had achieved with its more than $1 billion in aid to Georgia, including wheat and fuel oil to help survive its winters.

The Georgians themselves, by their responsible actions, have given an answer. The new leaders and Shevardnadze have set a high standard in the peaceful turnover of power, according to Georgia's constitution. Shevardnadze deserves a great deal of respect for negotiating an end to Soviet dominance of Warsaw Pact countries and for the early successes after he returned to Georgia. His final act of statesmanship was his decision to resign in favor of the young leaders he earlier had nurtured.

What is being achieved is a change in Georgian society toward the rule of law, democratic values, and citizen participation. Two years ago a government security agency raid on the independent Rustavi II television station brought thousands of people into the streets, peacefully. This time, the forces seeking democracy and free and fair elections have again prevailed without the loss of blood as the army and police stood aside as peaceful demonstrators walked into parliament.

The peace and stability of Georgia are a matter of considerable concern to the United States and NATO. The country is a crossroads between Russia, Turkey, and Central Asia and a gateway to the Middle East. It is the fulcrum for major east-west oil and gas pipelines which will connect Caspian energy sources to Turkey and West Europe. Many US and coalition aircraft involved in the war on terrorism either over-fly or refuel in Georgia, underscoring the country's importance in that struggle.

What should America do to continue to encourage the turn toward democracy?

* Support the upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections with assistance and observers.

* Increase USAID-funded political party, governance, and civil society programs, such as those run by the National Democratic Institute and International Republican Institute.

* Expand educational exchange programs; all of the new leaders have benefited from exchange programs in America and Europe.

* Sustain US military training and presence, helping Georgia to be a confident and peaceful neighbor.

* Work with the EU and Russia to help Georgia resolve its separatist disputes, especially in Abkhazia.

* Bolster programs to fight pervasive corruption.

Difficult but promising days lie ahead for presidential candidate Saakashvili and other leading reformers, including the challenge of building a broad political base throughout Georgia. Corrupt elites and some Soviet-era sympathizers will resist change. Georgia's Western orientation will continue, but good relations with Russia must also be maintained. Russia should close its remaining military bases in Georgia as it has committed to do, and cooperate with Georgia to reduce tensions caused by the Chechen war to Georgia's north. A peaceful and united Georgia is in Russia's best interest.

Georgia is still burdened by separatist regimes in Abkhazia and South Ossetia and the warlord-controlled Adjara region. The best way to resolve these problems is to promote democracy and prosperity throughout the country. Separatists have to see benefits in returning to Georgian rule.

New presidential and parliamentary elections will be held Jan. 4. Georgia and its new leaders will need and deserve even more support as they strive to overcome problems that could sink even established democracies.

William Courtney is director of the National Security Programs at Computer Sciences Corp. Kenneth Yalowitz is director of the Dickey Center for International Understanding at Dartmouth College. Both are former US ambassadors to Georgia.

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