The Failed State of Georgia, by Tsotne Bakuria

I never thought of former Beatle Sir Paul McCartney as an expert on foreign affairs, but a recent story caught my eye. Having played a summer concert in Ukraine, he was scheduled to appear in Georgia in August when war with South Ossetia broke out. The concert was canceled. This was McCartney's version of events: "I did think conspiracy theory. [Senator John] McCain was losing the presidential election and someone said to [Georgian President Mikheil] Saakashvili, 'Why not tick Russia off?'"

The plan, as we now know, backfired. The impulsive Saakashvili invaded South Ossetia, hundreds of innocent people died, and the country's territorial integrity was lost forever. For those tense few days in August, all communication in the country was down. I couldn't reach my mother or two children as Russia sent its troops and tanks toward Tbilisi.

Saakashvili displayed a temperament that was defiant and cowardly at the same time, being caught before a BBC interview chewing on his tie and staring blankly ahead. The next day, he was seen ducking under a tank flanked by burly bodyguards.

In the aftermath, Saakashvili's pricey public relations firm went into overdrive, trying to spin the story of David vs. Goliath, a brave little democracy up against the giant Russian military.

But for the first time, Saakashvili's U.S.-backed public relations campaign failed. There were too many witnesses. The truth was clear. Then, as was reported in Le Nouvel Observateur, Putin told French President Nicolas Sarkozy that he wanted to depose Saakashvili and hang him by his family jewels -- at which point the U.S. neocons rushed to Georgia's defense.

Even worse is the fact that Georgia is no longer the focus of NATO's and the European Union's interests. Georgia failed as a democratic state. It failed to have free media or an independent justice system. The country did succeed in locking up political prisoners, taking over private properties from independent business owners, and having the most corrupt government in the Caucasus.

According to Human Rights Watch, there are 86 political prisoners in Georgian jails. The recent arrest of Archil Benidze, who donated money to the strongest opposition movement for justice, the Georgian Labor Party, sent shockwaves through political circles. Benidze has since been sentenced to seven years in jail.

Then came the bailout: $4.5 million from U.S. taxpayers sent to Georgia for recovery and relief. Knowing Georgia's history of corruption, it is doubtful that the money will actually go to those in need.

Georgians deserve a better future. Unemployment is at 68 percent. The best and the brightest have fled the country. Joining NATO now seems like an impossibility given Saakashvili`s international war crimes, hot and unpredictable temperament and disregard for the democratic ideals he once so fervently supported.

Many people ask me the same question: What happened to Georgia? I watch the demonstrations in front of the Georgian parliament building, the thousands of citizens protesting Saakashvili's authoritarian government, and I too wonder what happened to the dream.

In recent weeks, the BBC and Human Rights Watch have reported that United States armed and trained the Georgian troops who attacked unarmed civilians in the sleeping city of Tskhinvali. British Foreign Secretary David Miliband also called the Georgian government "reckless" for its military actions, and the European Union has formed a commission to investigate Saakashvili's actions and determine whether international laws were violated.

In Tbilisi, the president's Cabinet is undergoing another major shakeup. Those who disagree with the president are shoved aside or forced into exile. Highly unqualified Saakashvili loyalists occupy positions of power, and the government's infrastructure is crumbling under their feet.

How long Saakashvili will be able to withstand this crisis is a serious question and one that the new administration of U.S. President Barack Obama needs to address. They also must demand that Georgia hold free parliamentary elections, which are slated for this spring. The opposition is getting stronger, and its young leaders are committed to carrying out a peaceful change of government and save Georgia from turning back to the dark era of Soviet-style rule.

Georgia had a dream. But the man who stormed the parliament building in the fall of 2003 has been weakened by ego, hubris and greed.

Georgia's failure as a state demonstrates that when the dream dies, it dies hard.

Tsotne Bakuria, a former member of Georgia's parliament, lives in Alexandria, Virginia.

Source: The Moscow Times




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