Georgia's best defense against Russia: democracy

Moscow wants to make an example of its tiny neighbor in turmoil. If the Georgian president follows through on democratic reforms, he can prove Moscow wrong.

A year ago this Friday, Russian tanks penetrated deep into the former Soviet republic of Georgia, whose military was helpless to repel them. Only international pressure pushed them back.

Even now, the government of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has not lived up to the terms of a cease-fire agreement. And the two countries are trading accusations of aggression along the border in the days running up to the first anniversary.

Mikheil Saakashvili, the US-educated president of this tiny country to Russia's south, naturally rues his country's lack of membership in NATO. And his military certainly needs defensive weapons from the Obama administration in the face of Moscow's bullying ways.

But it is the chronic political turmoil in Georgia that helps encourage Russia to meddle in his country. Moscow wants to make an example of Georgia as a failed state aligned with the West in order to keep other former Soviet states in line.

Strengthening Georgia's democracy is one defense that Mr. Saakashvili can do something about.

The 2003 peaceful "Rose Revolution" that catapulted Saakashvili to power is still a wild thicket, bristling with thorns. Georgia is ranked as only "partly free" and slipping backward by the US-based democracy watchdog Freedom House.

National elections last year were flawed. In 2007, antigovernment protesters were violently dispersed. Georgia has made progress fighting corruption, but its courts are still far from independent.

Key supporters of Saakashvili have peeled off to join the opposition, which began daily street protests in April. Critics liken the president to a dictator and blame him for recklessness in last summer's conflict. They demand he step down and want early elections.

Yet the opposition is itself in disarray, with no leader or program. Its protests have fizzled and now demonstrators are taking a summer break from the street.

On July 20, Saakashvili announced reforms of the media, elections, and the judiciary – just before a visit by US Vice President Joseph Biden. The Georgian leader pledged a more effective system of checks and balances between the executive branch and the legislature – constitutional changes that will have to be worked out with the opposition.

But a huge chasm separates the Georgian president and his critics. Neither side seems to understand that democracy means give-and-take. Neither seems able to accept the possibility of losing, then coming back to win another day.

The onus is on both sides to break this stalemate, but as head of state, Saakashvili has a special responsibility. During his visit, Mr. Biden hinted as much when he referred to Saakashvili's promised reforms – "and we expect him to keep that commitment."

Indeed, the Georgian president must now follow through. Continued internal turmoil bolsters Russia. And as Biden admitted in a speech before the Georgian parliament, "there is no military option" to gain back the two separatist provinces now under Russian influence and that were the focus of last summer's five-day war.

"Only a peaceful and prosperous Georgia" can win over the people of these provinces, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and gain their trust, he said. And only a significantly improved democracy can stabilize Georgia itself, bring back foreign investors, and lay the foundation for economic growth.

As tough as the last year has been for Saakashvili, the work of democracy-building will be tougher. Pruning, weeding, fertilizing, and watering of democratic reform is patient work that must be done if Georgia's "Rose Revolution" is to blossom.

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