Bush and Georgia's faded 'rose'

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Unlike Iraq, Afghanistan, and Ukraine, where President Bush's morally clear leadership has been instrumental in expanding freedom, following the 2003 Rose Revolution, Georgia has seen a dramatic downward spiral. Unfortunately, some US officials - who need democratic "success stories" to prove that the president's foreign policy is working - conveniently ignore key political developments in Georgia. When President Bush travels there Tuesday, he should press leaders toward real democratic change.

For much of the 1990s, former Georgian leader Eduard Shevardnadze was lionized as a democrat, even though he was clearly failing at reforms. Today, some US officials are repeating this mistake by tying US policy to the new President Mikhael Saakashvili rather than to the country's political process. The irony is that Georgian leaders, who view Bush as a great friend, are bound to listen to constructive criticism from Washington.

In 1995, with US assistance, Georgia established the most balanced constitutional system of any former Soviet republic. While the Constitution granted extensive powers to the president, it also empowered the legislative and judiciary branches with the independence to check presidential dominance. Mr. Saakashvili's first move in office was to amend the Constitution to create a "superpresidential" system, eliminating checks and balances and concentrating powers in the executive. Bush should urge him to begin an open dialogue with all political elements about restoring the constitutional balance of power and implementing these changes by the end of the year.

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An independent press was one factor that made the Rose Revolution possible, but since then this freedom has steadily eroded. When Giga Bokeria, Saakashvili's closest parliamentary ally, was asked whether the cancellation of shows critical of the government on three channels violated press freedoms, he declared that if a station owner "wants a good relationship with the government, that is his choice, and freedom of speech has nothing to do with this, because freedom of speech means that he can have the kind of television that he wants."

Since the revolution, only four of the original six private TV networks still operate in the capital, Tbilisi. Of the four remaining, one was "sold" to the brother of the president's national security adviser; another was "sold" to the defense minister's best friend. A new network was refused a transmission license. Government pressure on political journalists is common, while investigative reporting is nonexistent.

It is vital for Bush to address the problems faced by the Georgian media. He should publicly ask the government to rethink its approach to freedom of expression and he should speak to journalists candidly about the censorship they face. Bush should direct the US Embassy and USAID to help reporters set up a trade union to defend their rights.

Georgia's democratic experiment requires stable political parties competing in free and fair elections. Last month, Parliament approved legislation to fill the central and district election commissions with presidential appointees, without any representation for opposition groups. Understandably, elections conducted by such commissions will never pass democratic muster.

It's not even clear that the Georgian president wants opposition groups to exist. During his State of the Nation address in February, Saakashvili declared that parties that disagree with him on issues such as the presence of foreign troops in Georgia, which he opposes, or membership in the European Union, which he supports, should be "outlawed."

Bush should meet opposition leaders to demonstrate his commitment to a multiparty democracy and speak publicly about the need to respect political pluralism.

Finally, Bush should enlist the support of the Georgian Orthodox Church, a powerful potential ally often ignored by democracy activists, including American ones. Georgians are extremely faithful; a majority regularly attend services. America's standing with the Georgian people would be well served if Bush met with Ilia II, the beloved moderate patriarch of the church, to encourage him to maintain support for the democratic process.

Irakly Areshidze was chief strategist for the November 2003 and March 2004 parliamentary election campaigns of Georgia's opposition New Conservative Party and is completing a book on democracy in Georgia in the aftermath of the Rose Revolution.

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