TBILISI — In recent weeks, leaders of various opposition organizations in Georgia, such as Antisoros and Fairness, have been jailed on unfair accusations of plotting a coup on behalf of Russia. But the wave of political repression merely reflects President Mikhail Saakashvili’s desperate effort to cling to power.
With popular dissent growing and opposition forces strengthening, the authorities have sought to control nongovernmental organizations and strengthen the security forces. But this will only make mass protests inevitable, ultimately jeopardizing the democratic transition in Georgia that Saakashvili claims to represent.
Saakashvili sees a “Moscow hand” in every challenge to his authority, which could be explained by his government’s close alliance with the United States. But the people rounded up in the latest raid against the opposition were originally imprisoned by Eduard Shevarnadze’s government, which Saakashvili helped depose in Georgia’s supposedly democratic “rose revolution” in 2003.
The latest events clearly indicate that a czarist mentality survived the revolution, reflected in a Byzantine model of political power — an emperor and his court — that has as its main vehicle largely unconstrained presidential authority. Before the security forces targeted the opposition bloc that I represent, supporters of educational reforms were prosecuted, while most of the press came under the influence of the government.
Saakashvili claims that the opposition forces that I represent oppose Western values. But we advocate parliamentarism — genuine separation of executive and legislative power — in Georgia. And, in supporting the Western model of parliamentarism, we are on the side of Georgia, not Russia. It is strange that Saakashvili, a graduate of Columbia Law School, fails to see the disparity between his own democratic rhetoric and autocratic actions.
Those of us who value Georgia’s historical ties with Russia are called, at best, “archaists” and, at worst, “enemies of Georgian independence,” as if Georgia would become a Russian colony if we ever came to power. But what separates us from Saakashvili is that we understand that history, geography and economics dictate close ties to Russia.
We simply see no contradiction between that stance and support for Western values. Indeed, even Russia, with all its imperfections, cannot be said to oppose Western values.
The unfortunate paradox in Georgia — and elsewhere in the post-Soviet world — is that self-serving pro-Western rhetoric has often led democratic values to be sacrificed in favor of a new dictatorship. When the West actively supports popular revolutions, as in Georgia and Ukraine, the newly established power relies on democratic slogans, not democratic behavior.
Shevardnadze, too, was initially viewed as a symbol of post-Soviet Georgian democracy. As a government minister in 1993, however, I was already hearing CIA officials express concern that a “Mafia state” was being created instead.
First with Shevarnadze, and now with Saakashvili, popular disillusionment reflects not rejection of democracy, but frustration with its continuing absence. Saakashvili is evidently mesmerized by the U.S., and the West in general, but what is the point if there is no independent and democratic political process in Georgia today?
And why, then, is sustaining close ties to the U.S. so desirable, while refusing to dismiss Russia as a partner is regarded as being an agent of the Kremlin? Is the U.S., in contrast to Russia, by definition honest, innocent and high-minded?
There should be no place for such unfortunate double standards. Regardless of what the Saakashvili government claims about his opponents, our political orientation is not pro-Russian, but pro-Georgian. We believe that Georgia should pursue its own interests, which it may share with Europe, Russia or the U.S., but which are nonetheless our own.
We have no interest in merely executing U.S. policy, or in basing Georgia’s foreign and domestic policy solely on distancing the country from Russia, as Saakashvili has done.
Thus, pro-Georgian politics should not countenance nationalism. Nowadays, some of our politicians have embraced the slogan “Georgia for Georgians.” But nationalism suggests the lack of a coherent conception of Georgia’s interests. Georgia’s tradition as a multinational, tolerant state, which has been weakened in the last 15 years, must be reinvigorated, because we have no need for enemies against which to define ourselves.
A strong relationship with Russia need not come at the expense of relations with America and the West, and vice versa. Georgia should be neither pro-Russian nor pro-American. It is a small, poor country that desperately needs stability and economic development.
Its model should not be Palestine and permanent battle, but Switzerland and permanent prosperity.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.