A wake-up call for Georgia, Ukraine – and the West
Bickering and divisiveness among democrats within former Soviet states could lead to authoritarian, anti-Western rule.
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The Rose Revolution in Georgia in 2003 and later the Orange Revolution in Ukraine raised high hopes around the world for democracy in the former Soviet Union.
But since then democratic forces – torn by personal animosities and corrupt interests – have put the future of both countries at risk. In Russia, it was bickering among democrats that eased the way for Vladimir Putin to return Russia to an authoritarian path.
Moscow is now exploiting this vulnerability in Ukraine and Georgia by demonizing democrats, aiding their opponents, and abetting separatists. The failure for democrats within those countries to work together could lead to authoritarian or anti-Western rule.
If Ukraine and Georgia are going to steer clear of that, they must now make hard choices.
In Georgia, US-educated President Mikheil Saakashvili made reforms but then dismissed opposing views and stifled some media and debate. Former compatriots in the Rose Revolution now lead opposition parties. They have blockaded streets and stopped some trains. Tens of thousands of demonstrators packed a football stadium on Georgia's national day, May 26.
Last month the US and the European Union urged the opposition to negotiate reforms. This was largely ignored. Instead, much of the opposition demands the immediate resignation of the Georgian president. Polls show he retains the support of only two-fifths of Georgians. The risk of violence is a serious concern. A Georgian military unit mutinied, and a hand grenade exploded at an antigovernment television station.
Ukraine's current President Viktor Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko catalyzed democratic forces in the Orange Revolution and then led reforms. But corruption sapped much of the benefits of rapid economic growth and the east-west divide within Ukraine persists. The two leaders became bitter foes. Mr. Yushchenko has gone out of his way to irritate Moscow, while Ms. Tymoshenko has flirted with a coalition that would tie Ukraine closer to Russia. And that's just the scratching the surface.
What lessons do these political tales of woe teach?
First, the Stalinist legacy of pervasive fear which fueled political and social distrust still impedes open debate even though it strengthens countries.
In the wake of a disastrous war with Russia last August and an economic downturn, fissures in Georgia have grown. Debate has helped Georgians come to grips with them. Mr. Saakashvili has wisely avoided a repeat of his 2007 crackdown on peaceful protests and the free media.
The need now is for serious negotiations between sides, and democratic solutions. In Ukraine, open discourse is facilitating tough economic decisions enabling International Monetary Fund support and modulating inter-regional tensions.