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.

The West has a large security and economic stake in the outcome of a little- known crisis in Georgia and Ukraine right now.

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.

The second lesson is that disunity and weakness carry risk at a time when both countries' futures hang in the balance. Blood-letting among democrats in Ukraine weakens their ability to resist Russian pressure on energy transport and Crimea's status. Similar acrimony in Georgia inhibits political conciliation and the development of a loyal and apolitical military.

Appeals are being issued, mainly to the United States, to call local leaders to the woodshed to force resolution of political impasses. Just last week, for example, Yushchenko met with G-7 ambassadors in Kiev (Kyiv) and urged their governments to help save democracy in Ukraine.

But this would not be effective. Politics in Ukraine and Georgia are complex and not well understood by foreigners. Besides this, and perhaps because of this, their counsel is rarely heeded.

In August 2008, Saakashvili ignored repeated warnings, even from the US president, to avoid military confrontation with Russia. In Ukraine, Orange Revolution leaders have turned a deaf ear to the counsel of Western countries and Ukrainian diasporas to seek accommodation and fight corruption.

The hard lesson for Georgia and Ukraine is that governments and citizens must summon courage and solve their own problems. Leaders should make reform their main agenda. If they can't or won't do this, they ought to step aside. A new generation of leaders – young enough never to have been schooled in Soviet ideology – may be better able to contain retrograde forces and carry the banner of reform. Ukraine and Georgia have promising candidates.

The US and Europe meanwhile, must do more to improve conditions for reform – and not disdain prospects for democratic change in troubled areas. The best tool is expanded assistance to foster the rule of law, honest elections, respect for human rights and minorities, and the fight against corruption. Advances in these areas should precede – and will enable – closer ties to the European Union and NATO, not the other way around.

Ukraine and Georgia must fashion their own futures and find leaders who can cooperate for democracy. Street demonstrations, economic crises, and Russian pressure should be a powerful wake-up call. Unless democrats unify, backward-looking forces could take hold – as has happened in Russia, to the detriment of US and European interests.

Denis Corboy is director of the Caucasus Policy Institute at Kings College London and was European Commission ambassador to Georgia. William Courtney was US ambassador to Kazakhstan and Georgia. Kenneth Yalowitz is director of the Dickey Center for International Understanding at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., and was US ambassador to Belarus and Georgia.

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