If a global wave of democracy does ultimately transform the politics of the 21st century, future historians may well trace its roots not to the rhetoric or actions of the Bush administration, but to developments in a tiny republic nestled in the Caucasus. For it was in Georgia in November 2003—before the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon, or the purple-fingered elections in Iraq—that a frustrated population took to the streets to demand the ouster of a corrupt and autocratic government. The result of those street protests was Georgia’s “Rose Revolution,” a peaceful regime change that has inspired others to refuse to accept a deeply unsatisfactory status quo.
Since then, the government in Tbilisi has been struggling to show that democracy can succeed—even under the challenging conditions of a largely poor, multi-ethnic society with big problems and powerful, meddling neighbors. Under the leadership of 38-year-old Columbia law school graduate President Mikhail Saakashvili, Georgia has implemented far-reaching economic reforms, cracked down on corruption, and extended an olive branch to its Russian-backed ethnic minorities in the separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. It is creating a new national security strategy to bring some order both to its diplomatic objectives and its military planning—which includes participating in multinational efforts in Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq (where today it has about 900 troops). President George W. Bush’s May 2005 visit to Tbilisi—where he was greeted by huge, cheering crowds on Freedom Square—highlighted the importance the United States places on helping Georgia’s nascent democracy become a model for those who might follow in its footsteps. Senators Hillary Clinton and John McCain went so far as to propose Saakashvili—along with Ukrainian President Viktor Yuschenko—for a Nobel Peace Prize.
Yet Georgian democracy is not secure. The problem with a government that swept aside a discredited leadership on the back of public protests is that it has no opposition—an essential ingredient for democracy and a key guarantee against abuse of power. In talks with a variety of Georgians while traveling throughout the country, we found concern about media freedom (“self-censorship” seems to be the method) and about budgetary transparency (a so-called “presidential fund” that can be used at the executive branch’s discretion outside appropriate parliamentary control and without much transparency). And the death of Prime Minister Zurab Zvhania last February robbed the government of its most effective statesmen, who often balanced the sometimes impulsive Saakashvili.
On the whole, though, given the problems faced by the new team when it took power, Georgia remains a success story. Our impression is that most of its problems—including the lack of fiscal transparency and parliamentary oversight—stem more from the new government’s inexperience and the lack of a genuine opposition than from anything nefarious. Its political leaders, most of whom are in their 30s—and look even younger—seem committed to fulfilling the country’s centuries-long ambition of escaping Russia’s shadow and “joining Europe” as a democracy.
Whether they will be welcome in Europe is another question. And the growing risk that they will not be welcome, following the recent setbacks to the EU enlargement process, is deeply disturbing. For in Georgia—as in Turkey, Ukraine, and the Balkans—a sense that EU membership is a possibility, however far off, can be the difference between democracy taking hold or not. Without any hope of joining Europe, even in 15 years or more, Georgia’s young government would have less political incentive to carry out difficult domestic reforms. This environment would probably be more conducive to the kind of nationalist and authoritarian politics that has so damaged this country in the past.
Few in Tbilisi are under the illusion that membership will happen anytime soon. Despite the fact that the blue EU flag already flies proudly outside their government buildings, they know that others are ahead in the queue. Yet they all stress the importance of leaving the door open, if even just a bit. While it makes sense for European politicians to reassure their publics that their national identities and interests will be protected in a wider EU, those leaders must explain to voters that their interests are also best served by an EU whose doors remain open.
Why should West European voters—understandably worried about their sluggish economies, terrorism, and rising energy prices—care about stability and democracy in a place that few of them could find on a map? Because a stable Black Sea region—the crossroads between Europe, Russia and the Middle East—is a direct and material interest not only of those who live there, but of EU citizens themselves.
In the late 1990s, Georgia was an unwilling haven for Islamic terrorists who would seek refuge in its mountains before returning to Chechnya to fight. With help from the United States, it managed to expel the terrorists, and the EU is now helping to ensure that Georgia’s borders remain secure. (Although with only three border “mentors” helping the Georgians, the EU needs to do much more.) Whereas an unstable Georgia could again fall prey to the extremists aiming to turn the Caucasus into a base for exporting global terror, a Georgia on the path toward the West will be a reliable security partner.
Economically, Europeans have an interest in thriving high-growth neighbors that can boost demand for EU goods—not economic basket-cases that require ever increasing levels of foreign aid. Thanks in large part to the enlargement process over the past decade, the 10 members who joined the EU last year are not only stable democracies, but their economies are also growing at nearly 6 percent per year (compared to just over 2 percent for the 15 existing members). This same virtuous circle can apply to future candidates, provided that the EU remains capable of thinking long-term. And with the opening of the Baku-Tblisi-Ceyhan pipeline last spring, Georgia is now also a critical energy corridor. Two separate, underground pipelines will carry vast reserves of oil and natural gas from the Caspian Sea to the Mediterranean—and to European consumers—without having to rely on Russia or Iran.
The United States must also play a critical role in helping to secure Georgia’s future, especially if its European allies fail to step up. So far, Washington seems prepared to do so. It is amazing—and rather telling—that America seems to be more engaged in the democratic evolution of a country like Georgia than Europe is. The Georgians clearly see this, and are increasingly looking to the United States for help. Regardless of what the EU does, America and its allies must work to keep open other doors, using NATO enlargement the same way they did in 1990s: as a way to move the boundary of a whole and free Europe further east. The United States must also help to ensure that Russia plays a constructive role—or at least refrains from assuming a damaging one.
Georgia’s peaceful revolution is a source of great inspiration, but the legacy of that revolution hangs in the balance. It would be a tragedy if Europeans and Americans allowed their own distractions and domestic politics to prevent them from helping to ensure democracy and stability in a region where the stakes are so high.