Georgia's partner in democracy: US

Washington gave more than $1 billion over the past decade to build a multiparty system

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

From Paris to Pakistan, Americans have grown used to television footage of American flags going up in flames or being trampled under foot by angry crowds.

But in Georgia, a handful of American flags have been held high among the sea of opposition banners that protesters used to usher in their revolution - waved in gratitude for Washington's role in facilitating democratic change here.

"We are so grateful to the US and European Union, our friends that have supported us," says Giorgi Baramidze, a chief strategist of interim President Nino Burjanadze. "We can now teach our children how to defend democracy, using Georgia's 'Rose Revolution' as the example."

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Senior US officials pushed diplomatic buttons before and throughout the crisis - in concert with Russia and others - making clear to all sides the dangers of a forceful crackdown or street violence. But untidy as the opposition's seizure of power has been, analysts say that billions in Western aid - and steady prodemocracy brow-beating - proved a key to regime change, one achieved without a shot being fired.

"The US government has gone to great lengths to back a [democratic] process and institutions, and to be very careful - amid big pressure from both sides - not to back certain individuals," says Mark Mullen, head of the Georgia office of the National Democratic Institute (NDI), funded by the US government, which has engaged in democracy training here since the mid-1990s.

"In the end, this was done by Georgians - it was not done by Americans - and that is vital to everything," says Mr. Mullen, who has spent more than six years in Georgia. "We worked closely with all parties, and did enormous training with the president's party. But the reality is, most of them were not as enthusiastic."

Washington committed $2.4 million to help conduct Georgia's Nov. 2 election. But widespread fraud sparked the street protests that led to the storming of parliament on Saturday. It was part of a 10-year investment of $1.3 billion aimed at helping Georgia create a civil society.

Unlike pro-government parties, the opposition lapped up lessons in working together, using the media to spread its message, making a parallel vote tabulation - to provide credible "real" election results, to counter the falsified official returns - and in raising expectations of a free and fair vote.

NDI and other Western-funded groups also taught lessons from case studies - from the US civil rights movement to the revolutions of East Europe that caused the Soviet Union to collapse to the example of the overthrow of Slobodan Milosevic in Belgrade in 2000.

One result, says a Georgian observer who asked not to be named, is that "in many minds, the new leadership is equal to the USA." And indeed, some draw parallels to the long-term, targeted support that Washington gave to Yugoslav opposition parties, to unite and strengthen them enough to topple Mr. Milosevic, who Wednesday is defending himself at the war crimes tribunal in The Hague.

But a Western diplomat familiar with both cases says the Georgian example is one of "generic" democracy building, that did not aim to unseat Shevardnadze - a former Soviet foreign minister widely respected in the West for guiding the peaceful collapse of the Soviet Union.

Still, protesters in Tbilisi drew some inspiration from the burning of parliament in Belgrade. The same clenched fist symbol used by Yugoslavia's Otpor student movement was evident on some banners, along with the order "Gotov Je!" which means in Serbian, "Get out!"

"There is clearly US influence in this," says George Khutsishvili, head of the International Center on Conflict and Negotiation, one of many prodemocracy groups in Tbilisi that receives US, EU, and other Western funding. "The US has supported this government for so many years, with so little outcome. It was a disaster. Finally they realized [Shevardnadze] is not the man to count on" and that the "only thing is to remove [him]."

What was unclear was whether the Belgrade example was "possible in Georgia, without blood," Mr. Khutsishvili says. "Without the US - which was crucial - there would have been a more unpredictable, violent, and painful way," though Georgians still would have forced change on their own, he says.

Perhaps more important was the environment created by the flood of prodemocracy cash in recent years, that convinced many Georgians that the vote was a farce - and that act they must.

"Now that it has reached a seemingly successful result, one of the things you have to say is that all of this election hoopla, largely financed by the Western community ... [helped] raise public expectation that this would be an honest and decent election," says a Western diplomat, who asked not to be further identified.

The result "exposed to the public ... what people were doing to cheat them of the full weight of their ballot," the diplomat says, noting that the vote was transparent, if not honest.

"You could see the cheating going on right in front of your eyes," causing widespread indignation, the diplomat says. That anger was used by the opposition to mobilize street action that was "dangerous," because of the uncertain outcome, but ultimately "successful," the diplomat says. "It appears to be an exercise in almost pure democracy."

Indeed, that message seems to have been heard widely, since protests included even the most poor, and some elderly - constituents that make little political difference elsewhere in the region.

"We showed the government what we wanted," says Maria Mamasashvili, a now-unemployed laborer wearing an orange scarf, who came from the provinces to take up vigil outside the parliament building. "It was my election, they stole my vote, so I showed them my voice means something."

Already the cash lavished by Washington on this small Caucasus country of 5 million - renowned as much for its corruption as for its wines and fruit - has come under scrutiny.

US officials recently assessed their programs here, then canceled some, curtailed others, and imposed a series of new benchmarks to ensure future progress.

Georgia's new leaders hope that their democratic revolution will change that dynamic, and ensure new aid. Already, they have asked for $5 million to conduct fresh elections. Their experience in the US - where many opposition leaders have been at least partly educated - is high in their minds.

"It is absolutely essential, and was absolutely decisive," says Mr. Baramidze, who spent a year at Georgetown's School of Foreign Service. He has a red US Marines baseball on his desk in parliament and uses an FBI gift pen.

"Now [donors] are happy, because they realize that this money is not gone," says Baramidze. "This money hasn't solved all problems of corruption or economy, but [it] definitely created one more democratic nation on this planet."

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