Exactly one year has elapsed since President Saakashvili ordered his troops to retake Georgia’s breakaway region, South Ossetia, by force of arms. Russia, whose citizens form a majority of the territory’s population, responded by driving Georgian forces back beyond the Ossetian boundary and deep into Georgia proper. Its president’s military adventurism has provided further impetus to increasingly strident political opposition within the former Soviet republic. Realist foreign policy observers within the EU and US have begun to scrutinise the Georgian leader’s democratic credentials with more care. South Ossetia and Abkhazia have sought, and gained, Russian recognition for unilateral declarations of independence. By any sensible criteria, Saakashvili has presided over a tactical and strategic disaster for his country, yet, in today’s Guardian he marks the anniversary of his invasion with a self-valedictory article, portraying his regime as a bastion of freedom which will drive forward democracy in the region and a straightforward victim of Russian aggression.
The first claim certainly does not echo the findings of the Foreign Policy Centre’s ‘Spotlight on Georgia’ pamphlet. The influential think tank drew from a wide range of sources in its examination of the country’s geo-political and socio economic position. It highlighted an authoritarian streak to Mr Saakashvili’s style of presidency, found that, by most indicators, Georgian democracy has diminished since the Rose Revolution and advocated western institutions tying their support for Tbilisi much more unambiguously to commitment to human rights. Corruption and authoritarianism have flourished under Saakashvili’s leadership, certainly since 2007, whilst democratic freedoms for the opposition and a free press have withered.
In its editorial, the Guardian notes that prevailing international opinion does not concur with the Georgian president’s claims about the war’s genesis either. The most charitable analyses suggest that Saakashvili reacted unwisely to Russian provocation. Authoritative sources are increasingly convinced that Georgia prepared a pre-meditated strike, timed to coincide with the Beijing Olympics, to which Moscow reacted with alacrity. Der Spiegel has already reported that majority opinion of an EU fact finding commission, deployed in the South Ossetian border region, is that Tbilisi started the war. Commissioner Christopher Langton, a retired colonel from the British Army is reported as saying, ‘Georgia’s dream is shattered, but the country can only blame itself for that’.
Of course a country is only partially responsible for the actions of its government, particularly if its democratic freedoms are curtailed. Georgia has suffered a catastrophic failure of political leadership, for which Saakashvili should be held largely responsible. Certainly Russia is not blameless as regards increased tensions with its Caucasian neighbour, but it is entitled to be concerned when a president with a recent and proven record of adventurism seeks help to reconstruct his war machine. Given the particularly disastrous course which Saakashvili has set for Georgia, its people should be permitted fresh and fair elections. Rather than stoking his conceit, and encouraging his posturing, western leaders should be pressing the president to grant them.