Opinion

Georgia President Saakashvili: Russian hostility won't sap our commitment to democracy

Mikheil Saakashvili says Russian hostility has helped turn Georgia into a democratic laboratory for the region, and argues that true security cannot be separated from democracy.

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In 2003, the Rose Revolution in Georgia was the first of a wave of popular standoffs against authoritarianism, fraud, and corruption in the post-Soviet area.

Seven years later, some people might think the recent events in Ukraine or Kyrgyzstan have sparked a re-evaluation of the so-called colored revolutions, believing that they have failed to radically transform our region.

In light of the profound transformations in my country, I strongly disagree.

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Of course, the challenges of building democracy and stable institutions are many, and the path of reform is not always easy to navigate.

Changing leadership is possible, seizing a parliament is spectacular, and waving flags in the street is gorgeous – but changing systems and institutionalizing those changes is profoundly difficult. Nevertheless, this process of reform is what constitutes a true revolution, not the colorful images on TV.

In Georgia’s case, we pursued our reform agenda while facing serious external threats to our security, including the August 2008 invasion by Russia. Our democracy had no choice but to grow at gunpoint – in the face of occupation and chronic threats to our government.

Today, over 20 percent of our territory is occupied; Russian tanks stand just 30 miles from our capital. And the Kremlin has long taken the view that our democratically elected government must be changed by whatever means. But our new institutions are robust and will not collapse, our will to reform is unwavering, and our economy is growing with renewed vigor.

In fact, the threats we face have only strengthened our commitment to democracy and nation building, because we understand that the best – if not only – guarantee of our security is a democratic Georgian state that has built lasting partnerships with Western institutions.

Security, in our view, cannot be separated from democracy. They are two sides of the same coin.

Security is knowing that we can freely choose our future.

Security is knowing that responsible governance can yield tangible returns.

Security is poverty alleviation; it is education; and it is health care. It is systems of social responsibility that ensure the benefits of our development reach all our citizens.

Security is the creation of economic opportunity through steadfast reforms that create a transparent and attractive investment climate.

Security is freedom of expression, vibrant media, and a vocal civil society.

Security is diversity and tolerance; it requires inclusive policies for minorities, a commitment to a multicultural and multiethnic government, police, army, and judiciary. Because when your state is not run by security forces, your best security is the support of the people.

Security, finally, is knowing that if your leaders fail to deliver on their promises, you can replace them without taking to the streets. You can rely on rule of law and electoral processes to channel popular demands.

Our democracy cannot flourish without security, but our security will never be achieved without democracy.

It is for this reason that our partnerships with the United States and European Union have been so crucial to our progress: Our democratic reforms are strengthened by our engagement with our Western partners, and vice-versa.

Watching how Georgian democracy has evolved, it’s clear to see how it drove our reforms.

When Georgia was confronted with a complex arsenal of economic measures designed to crush our economy, we responded by deepening our reforms, learning the true value of economic independence.

It is for this reason that our early reforms were so bold and fast. We had no other option if we were to stimulate our economy and ensure that the tangible benefits of our democracy were visible to Georgia’s citizens.

In just six years, we have gone from a stagnant post-communist economy to a modernizing free market. A series of reforms to increase transparency, streamline business registration, and facilitate investment has catapulted Georgia to No. 11 in the World Bank’s “Ease of Doing Business” ranking, ahead of the rest of Central and Eastern Europe.

We also successfully tackled corruption. Today, Georgia has made more progress on Transparency International’s corruption index since 2003 than any other state in the world.

Where others sought to limit dissent, we chose to strengthen political rights and freedoms. When protesters took to the streets in Tbilisi in April 2009, I did not crack down but waited for the demonstrations to stop, and I let the more radical opposition groups know they could come to the negotiating table when they were ready.

We have invested heavily in building true rule of law: Judges are now selected by an independent merit board and will soon have lifetime appointments that insulate them from outside pressure. We will begin our first jury trials in the coming months.

And we are continuing to reform electoral laws to deepen our participatory democracy. In May, we will have our first-ever direct elections for mayor in Tbilisi. We have worked to ensure that all candidates have equal access to the media to make their case to Georgia’s voters.

From Belarus to Kyrgyzstan, our region today is at a crossroads. Despite Georgia’s successes, we know our democracy is not perfect and is still a work in progress.

But we have demonstrated that the choice of governance is not limited to either unpredictability and chaos, or authoritarian order – that a third path is possible. Georgia’s example proves that the only way to achieve lasting stability is to base it on respect for fundamental freedoms. Ironically, the Kremlin’s persistent hostility to our democratic experience has turned Georgia into a laboratory for the region.

Building democracy requires consistent engagement and support from allies and friends. Georgia can be an eastward anchor of democratic ideals – a bridge to other eastern neighbors aspiring to transatlantic integration. But for this to succeed, our security and democracy must be viewed as two parts of the same challenge – both by ourselves and those who would help us.

Mikheil Saakashvili is the president of Georgia. This essay is adapted from a speech he’ll give at Harvard University April 19.

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