Monday, 1 February 2010

Propping up Saakashvili. The West is helping to neuter democracy in Georgia.

Former Georgian foreign minister and leader of Georgia’s Way, Salome Zourabishvili, has published a withering assessment of democracy in Georgia on Open Democracy’s Russia site. She is one of a number of prominent figures from the Tbilisi establishment who supported the Rose Revolution and Mikheil Saakasvhili but have since become disillusioned by his authoritarian and anti-democratic tendencies. In this latest broadside she wonders whether taxpayers in Europe and the United States will eventually lose patience with the diversion of large amounts of money to a regime which Freedom House confirms cannot be considered an electoral democracy.

Saakashvili is due to step down from the presidency in 2013, but the Moscow Times reports that manoeuvres have already begun to ensure that a loyal adjunct is best placed to become his successor. The campaign to elect Tbilisi’s next mayor is underway and the pro-government candidate, Gigi Ugulava, has been omnipresent in the national media. Ugulava, a member of Saakashvili’s United National Movement Party, will be well positioned for the presidency if he wins the election.

It is ironic that the shape of politics in Russia is a consistent source of western criticism, yet the US's client in Tbilisi frequently employs precisely the same methods. And as Zourablishvili argues, the Georgian President remains intent on provoking Moscow.
Today, just as in communist times, the most powerful man in the state other than the chief is the interior minister. The Constitutional Security Department, the direct descendant of the KGB, roams free from legal constraint. They prefer menace to direct shows of force, but they are not afraid to shoot if required and know they can do so with impunity. When they used illegal guns to shoot peaceful demonstrators last June, the government’s response was not to sack the offenders but to legalise the weapons.

An external distraction is also required to ensure that the population cannot focus on what is happening at home. So the president keeps poking the Russian bear with the stick of propaganda. Each week Misha makes a speech about “the enemy” and tells us all to be ready for war: most recently he promised to teach all our schoolchildren how to use a gun. At the same time he spends money on a Russian language satellite channel to ensure the message is heard loud and clear in Moscow. The bear obligingly growls and Misha pokes it some more.

If the West is horrified by this – and it ought to be – it has kept quiet. The thinking still seems to be that at least Saakashvili keeps the country stable. But it is the stability of balancing one-legged on the edge of a cliff.

If Georgia is to escape from this mess, then the West needs to play its part. About five cents of every dollar circulating in Georgia comes from the United States, Europe or the IMF in the form of aid or soft loans. Without that money our government would be crippled, yet with it the regime can continue to keep Georgia in thrall.

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