As the helicopter crossed the Black Sea coast and began descending toward the airfield in Abkhazia, a breakaway region of Georgia, I could see the telltale aftermath of war through the window. Against the incongruous backdrop of lush vegetation and citrus groves were abandoned, burnt-out houses and farms, untouched since Georgians and ethnic Abkhaz fought for dominance of the region in 1992-1993. Since the end of the fighting, the conflict has remained frozen in place. Abkhazia has declared independence from Georgia, but Tbilisi remains intent on reasserting its control. Abkhaz officials and international diplomats alike fear that rising nationalist sentiment in Georgia may soon bring another round of bloodshed to the area.
The U.S. government and press insist that Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s ascent following the so-called Rose Revolution of 2003 represents a triumph of democracy. And, to be sure, the last two years have brought positive changes. Saakashvili has clamped down on petty corruption, overseen important reforms in law enforcement and education, refurbished roadways and public services, and improved public finances. Economic growth topped 6 percent in 2004, and the figures for 2005 should be even better. He has also boosted civic pride by raising Georgia’s profile among American policymakers, earning Washington’s adulation as he orchestrated a peaceful transition of power, sent troops to Iraq, and balanced Russian influence with closer ties to the United States.
But, in reality, the bloom is off the Rose Revolution. Saakashvili’s accomplishments have been undercut by the excessive concentration of power in his own hands—what the intelligentsia calls the “Putinization” of Georgia. Saakashvili combines his lust for power with a blustery patriotism, a particularly troubling mix. He vows to restore Georgia’s territorial unity by defeating separatist movements in South Ossetia as well as Abkhazia, and he has backed up the confrontational rhetoric with a major increase in military spending. Should fighting erupt in either region, it might well spread across the Russian border to the North Caucasus, where both Ossetians and Abkhaz have ethnic kin and where Moscow already has its hands full keeping the lid on a daunting number of flashpoints. The recent attacks on the gas pipeline from Russia to Georgia have left the area particularly jittery.
Despite the backsliding on political reform and the mounting dangers of war, the Bush administration continues to showcase Saakashvili as a model democrat. When President Bush visited Tbilisi last May, he pronounced Georgia a “beacon of liberty.” The flowery rhetoric has been accompanied by generous allotments of economic and military assistance—on a per capita basis, Georgia is one of the world’s leading recipients of U.S. aid—only enabling and encouraging Saakashvili’s domineering ways. Washington, however, had better start reining him in before Georgia becomes yet another faltering democracy wracked by ethnic conflict. As in other countries in the midst of political transition—such as Russia, Ukraine, Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, and Egypt—the Bush administration’s freedom march has focused too much on democratic elections and not enough on what comes next.
Soon after taking power, Saakashvili rammed constitutional changes through the legislature that dramatically increased the authority of the presidency at the expense of other institutions. He began to misuse and overdraw a discretionary fund, flouting parliamentary oversight of the budget. His inner circle became tighter and more intolerant of dissent, triggering, according to one member of parliament, a “brain-drain” of “free-minded and professional people” from the government. Another member of parliament, David Zurabishvili, recently stepped down from a leadership position in the ruling party to join the opposition, motivated by his concern that Saakashvili is amassing too much power.
David Usupashvili, chairman of the opposition Republican Party, asserts, “We have nothing to be proud of in terms of building democracy. Going slowly is fine as long as we are moving in the right direction. But we are not just going slowly. We are moving in the wrong direction.” Usupashvili insists that “it is principally impossible to preserve democratic rhetoric and authoritarian-style management for a long time. We have a democratic façade just to demonstrate it to the West.”
Neither the courts nor the press are serving as effective checks on Saakashvili’s power. Despite modest reforms, the judiciary remains corrupt. Hidden cameras recently caught over a dozen judges accepting bribes. Not infrequently, judicial authorities confer with government officials before ruling—lest they find themselves on the wrong side of Saakashvili’s team. And, while Georgia has an independent press, many news outlets are owned by powerful oligarchs whose business interests are directly dependent upon the government’s goodwill. It is no surprise that self-censorship is pervasive and impartial voices are hard to come by. “Pluralism is waning,” according to a senior European diplomat.
The opposition in parliament is growing but has thus far been unable to curb the powers of the presidency. And, although Saakashvili’s public support has ebbed somewhat, he remains popular, bolstered by his skill at tapping into the nationalist currents that run deep in Georgian politics. Indeed, it is Saakashvili’s populist and patriotic drumbeating that makes his preference for illiberal democracy so worrisome.
Saakashvili came to office pledging that Georgia’s territorial integrity would be a top priority. Three unruly regions—Ajara, South Ossetia, and Abkhazia—have made this goal a tall order, especially because Russia seeks influence by aiding and abetting separatist forces. Saakashvili started with Ajara, a region nestled in Georgia’s southwest corner. During the first half of 2004, Tbilisi took on the area’s strongman, Aslan Abashidze, by helping to orchestrate a popular movement against his rule and by holding out the prospect of military intervention. Abashidze capitulated in May 2004, fleeing the country and clearing the way for Saakashvili to assert his control.
Emboldened by his success in Ajara, Saakashvili focused on South Ossetia during the summer of 2004, seeking to shut down the smuggling rings vital to the breakaway region’s economy. But, as Georgian security forces tried to close the area’s main market, ethnic Ossetians rallied behind their de facto president, Eduard Kokoity. Fighting broke out along communal lines, killing at least 20 before an uneasy truce took hold. Intermittent negotiations have since made little progress toward resolving South Ossetia’s political status.
Abkhazia is Saakashvili’s greatest challenge—and the one most likely to trigger major bloodshed. South Ossetia has a weak hand; without Georgia, its only lifeline to the outside world is a single tunnel running through the Caucasus Mountains to Russia. In contrast, Abkhazia could survive on its own, prospering from its fertile soil, its Black Sea beaches, its port in Sukhumi, and its highway and rail connections to Russia.
For now, however, Abkhazia is a pariah statelet. The international community has joined Georgia in imposing a political and economic embargo. Getting to Abkhazia from Tbilisi entails hitching a ride with the United Nations, which regularly flies to Sukhumi to supply and staff its monitoring and humanitarian missions. I took a Ukrainian-piloted, Russian-built propeller plane to what had once been a sprawling Soviet air base outside Senaki, a town in Georgia’s west. From there, a U.N. helicopter shuttled passengers and cargo out over the Black Sea for the trip north to Sukhumi.
The drive from the airstrip in Sukhumi to the center of town was a slow one, due to the cows, pigs, and horses loitering on the roadway. Downtown, resorts that were once the envy of the Soviet elite lay battered and vacant. Despite the warm sunshine, the boardwalk was devoid of tourists, populated instead by locals drinking Turkish coffee and playing backgammon. “We are closed in like spiders in a jar,” complains Sergei Bagapsh, the president of Abkhazia. He insists that Abkhazia and Georgia, just like the Czech Republic and Slovakia, should be allowed to go their separate ways. In the meantime, the Abkhaz government struggles to bring its fictional sovereignty to life. Abkhaz and Russian authorities, for example, have offered residents Russian passports so that they can travel abroad—a move that has provoked considerable ire in Tbilisi.
Stanislav Lakoba, Abkhazia’s national security adviser, says the region is well past the point of waiting for Tbilisi to warm up to the idea of federation. But he suggests that there may still be room for dialogue, adding, “Don’t think that the people here are not prepared to compromise and talk.”
Whether Lakoba has a willing partner in Tbilisi remains an open question. Irakli Alasania, Saakashvili’s point man on Abkhazia, explains that “ Georgia is changing its approach. We understand that isolating Abkhazia will only make matters worse and push them into the hands of the Russians.” He went on to call Georgia’s resort to force in 1992 “a big mistake,” and he envisages a future in which Abkhazia remains “within the Georgian state, but with a vast amount of autonomy.”
The problem is that Saakashvili himself takes a much harder line. On my way back to Tbilisi from Sukhumi, I was at the Senaki airfield when Saakashvili arrived for a visit. He inspected a new military unit stationed not far from the boundary with Abkhazia and later delivered a televised address to the nation, vowing to reunify the country and to “liberate” and “reclaim” Abkhazia, “our promised land.” “We must spare no effort and mobilize all our internal resources,” Saakashvili proclaimed. “We Georgian patriots, people who love their motherland, people who have a special sense of pride and dignity—we will certainly achieve our cherished goal.”
Such rhetoric is especially disconcerting in the context of Saakashvili’s heavy investment in Georgia’s armed forces. In the words of one European diplomat, he has been on a military “shopping spree.” In 2004, the defense budget shot up by roughly 40 percent, followed by another sharp increase in 2005. Recent purchases have included tanks and armored personnel carriers, enhancing the army’s offensive capability.
The Bush administration was right to stand by Saakashvili as the Rose Revolution unfolded and democratization advanced. Washington has lavished attention on Tbilisi, providing well over $100 million in assistance on an annual basis and helping to train and equip the Georgian army. The United States shelled out $64 million for an initial package of military assistance, and a follow-up program is now in place. The resulting improvements may help Georgia eventually qualify for a coveted slot in the NATO alliance. In gratitude for U.S. largesse, a main road leading from downtown Tbilisi to the airport has been renamed George W. Bush Street.
But it is time for the Bush administration to begin speaking truth to Saakashvili’s unchecked power. Not only has unwavering U.S. support been viewed by Saakashvili as a blank check, but it also provides political cover for his less-than-democratic habits. As opposition leader Usupashvili observed, “The political elites are supported by Washington, and this helps to keep them in power and arrests democratization.” U.S. influence in Tbilisi does have its limits, but Saakashvili is known to keep close tabs on U.S. policy and news media. Zurabishvili noted at the end of our meeting that “a bit more pressure from the United States and the American media would go a long way.”
The Bush administration was wise to put democratization at the top of its global agenda. But surely it must see the project through, ensuring that liberal democracy takes root not just in form, but also in practice and spirit. Otherwise, stunted transitions may succeed only in stirring up the political and ideological pathologies that often lead to conflict. Unless liberalization prevails over centralization and compromise takes the place of nationalist pandering, Georgia could become yet another tinder box in the Caucasus. Saakashvili may lack the inclination, but he has the power and the political skills to put his country back on track. Washington urgently needs to nudge him in the right direction.
Reprinted by permission of THE NEW REPUBLIC, © 2006, The New Republic, LLC