Georgians enthusiastically elected Mikheil Saakashvili president of Georgia on Sunday, Jan. 4. He is a the youthful, center-right leader of the Georgian opposition who overthrew President Eduard Shevardnadze in the "Rose Revolution" last November. Mr. Saakashvili has received more than 80 percent of the vote in elections that were the most peaceful and transparent since Georgian independence.
If successful in solving myriad internal and external challenges, his government offers the best chance for Georgia to end 12 years of wars of secession and civil strife.
Moreover, the Georgian revolution may be a model to dissolve
dictatorships in other parts of the former Soviet empire, where the
surge of freedom, started in 1989 with the collapse of the Berlin
Wall, has not been completed. In Belarus and Turkmenistan, ruled by
dictators Alexander Lukashenko and Turkmenbashi, democratic leaders
may be learning the lessons of Georgia, just like Mr. Saakashvili
and his friends learned the lessons of the Serbian revolution that
toppled Slobodan Milosevic. In Belgrade as well as in Tbilisi,
massive protests demonstrated the lack of political legitimacy of
old regimes and caused their disintegration.
However, democratization, as laudable as it is, should not obscure other important U.S. priorities, such as keeping Russia in the coalition against global terrorism and access to energy resources of Eurasia.
As in other postrevolutionary situations, the internal and external threats are many. It will be important for the new leadership to scale down unrealistic expectations, which the former opposition may have generated in the process of ousting Mr. Shevardanadze and the elections.
Reforms in Georgia, with its entrenched corruption, lack of competitive industries, poor work ethic, worn-out Soviet?era infrastructure, and widespread poverty, will be difficult, especially in the face of a deep economic crisis and security threats, including ones from Russia.
The Kremlin holds important cards in the South Caucasus game. Russia views Mr. Saaksashvili, according to of one its senior foreign policy experts recently interviewed in Moscow, as "too pro-American and too unknown." Russia commands four military bases in Georgia. During a December 2003 visit to Georgia, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld called for Moscow to withdraw its troops from Georgia in accordance with agreements signed at the 1999 Istanbul summit of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, but Russia is still balking.
Moscow also controls the vital electric and natural gas grids, acquired by state-controlled Russian companies RAO UES and Gazprom in 2003. Similar to the relationship between the U.S. and Central American economies, close to 1 million Georgians are repatriating their earnings to their homeland to the tune of up to one-fourth of Georgian GDP. Russia also uses the visa-free travel scheme from Georgia to encourage Abkhaz and Adjaran separatism.
The new Georgian leadership understands the depth of challenges they face. These include conducting free, fair and transparent parliamentary elections in spring of 2004; fighting corruption and organized crime, and revamping government institutions which collapsed or withered under Mr. Shevardnadze.
The new regime will struggle to attract honest, competent and
educated people to the government, deliver pensions, salaries and
other social safety payments on time and restarting economic growth
and foreign investment amid deep economic crisis.
Finally, Mr. Saakashvili will face a difficult relationship with Russia while attempting territorial reintegration in the face of Moscow-supported separatist opposition.
The Bush administration also faces numerous challenges in Georgia, the geostrategic key to the Southern Caucasus. Not only is an independent and pro-Western Georgia, which has good relations with Armenia and Azerbaijan, a stabilizing factor in the Southern Caucasus, but it also provides access to the energy resources of the Caspian Sea.
A stronger Georgia will become attractive to its separatist provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and will be more effective fighting terrorism in the area.
Thus, the U.S. should support the new democratic and pro-Western regime in Tbilisi. It should prevent Georgia's territorial disintegration while maintaining a sustainable working relationship with the Kremlin, which still views Georgia as a part of the post-Soviet space. Georgia's relationship with Moscow is becoming particularly sensitive in the aftermath of the nationalist victory in the December 2003 Duma parliamentary elections.
Specifically, the U.S. should encourage economic reform, institution building, and anti-corruption measures through ongoing privatization and deregulation by providing technical assistance to Georgian cabinet and regional governments. U.S. should continue special forces and counterterrorism training; provide assistance in police training; and support legal and judiciary reform started by Mr. Saakashvili in the 1990s. Washington should expand cooperation with Georgia on providing security for Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil and gas Main Export Pipeline.
The State Department should foster the Georgian government's contacts with the leaderships of Abkhazia and South Ossetia to develop a political model that will allow territorial re-integration, possibly along federal or autonomy models, democracy, and respect of minority rights.
Washington should maintain a dialogue with Moscow on Georgia's territorial reintegration; withdrawal of Russian troops from the four military bases; ending Moscow's support to South Ossetian and Abakhzian separatists, and expanding cooperation with Russia and Georgia against radical Islamist terrorists and in Northern Caucasus and their supporters and funders in the Middle East. In addition to the regular diplomatic channels, such dialogue should include the two countries' national security councils and departments of defense.
The Bush administration has a long-term interest in success of
the new administration in Tbilisi. If it fails, Georgia likely will
deteriorate to anarchy and armed conflict, which devastated the
republic in the early 1990s. Such a scenario can be catastrophic to
security and prosperity of the South Caucasus and Eurasia.
Ariel Cohen is research fellow for Russian and Eurasian studies at the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at the Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in The Washington Times