While US elections hold center stage, the recent election in the small state of Georgia proved to be a major victory for democracy. The reelection of Mikheil Saakashvili to the presidency vindicated his pro-Western policy of reform in the former Soviet republic. Saakashvili led his country towards greater Westernization, but the recent protests and subsequent election were the first big test of the new course that Georgia has charted.
Georgia is a small Cacusus nation nestled in between the Caspian and Baltic Seas. Historically, it has always been a strategic crossroads: along the Silk Road, between Russia and the Middle East, and between the two major seas. Today it continues to serve this crucial role as part of the US-supported Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline that pumps oil from Azerbaijan to Turkey. However, Georgia has recently made great efforts to bridge itself to the West through NATO and the EU.
Mikheil Saakashvili spearheaded the Rose Revolution of 2003 that swept out the old regime of Eduard Shevardnadze and set the stage for his ascendance in the 2004 presidential election with 97% of the vote. His reforms have catapulted Georgia from a poor ex-Soviet satellite to the “Most Reformed” country for two consecutive years according to the World Bank. His ardent support of free markets fueled his push to reduce government bureaucracy and to attract foreign investment during his first four years in office. Georgia has seen remarkable GDP growth of about 9-10% for the past few years, largely due to the reforms.
One of his greatest victories in his overarching reforms is the sharp decline in government corruption. Most famously, he fired 15,000 corrupt traffic officers to purge the force of bribery. He has also restructured the Interior Ministry and the military.
Internationally, Georgia played David to Russia’s Goliath as it defiantly stood up to the regional powerhouse. Relations between the two countries soured and declined as Georgia continued its path to a more pro-Western outlook. Russian imposed economic embargoes, deported numerous Georgian nationals residing in Russian, and funded separatist groups in two troubled provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Georgia is a resilient defender of its sovereignty, but it needs the protection and support of the United States and European Union. President Bush visited Georgia in 2005 in support, but the country still struggles to hold the West’s attention over abuses by Russia to the north.
In November 2007 thousands protested in the streets of Tbilisi, the capital, against Saakashvili’s presidency. Many opponents claim that he is too autocratic and that the economic reforms enacted haven’t made headway against the endemic national poverty. In a move of poor judgment, he declared a state of emergency and cracked down on the protests with riot police, tear gas, and rubber bullets. After the outcry even from his close Western allies, Saakashvili called for early elections.
On Saturday January 5th, the Georgian people went out to the polls a second time to evaluate the progress of the Rose Revolution. Saakashvili garnered just above 50% of the vote, the bare minimum to prevent a runoff election. His nearest rival, Levan Gachechiladze, only got 27%. Gachenchiladze has criticized Saakashvili’s strong rule, and supports dissolution of the presidency to make Georgia a parliamentary republic. Both sides however, agree on pro-Western policies that include joining NATO and the EU. The election included a referendum on NATO membership that was supported by about 61% of the people, according to exit polls.
At first glance, the criticisms leveled against Saakashvili seem valid. A leader trying to promote democracy should live by the checks and balances of democracy. However, the development of democracy sometimes requires a strong hand, at least in the initial stages. The most famous example is Turkey’s Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who resembled a dictator in his push to secularize and Westernize Turkey. Through his strong-willed personality, Ataturk pushed through reforms that would not have been palpable to compromise or soft approach. It appears that Saakashvili, in his first four years, has guided Georgia through painful, but necessary reforms on the road to progress.
The Rose Revolution has genuinely altered Georgia’s internal politics and external outlook. Although the recent election was highly contested, both the majority and the opposition support closer ties to the West and differ mostly in the course to get there. Of the major democratic revolutions started in 2003, both the Orange Revolution in Ukraine and the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon have struggled with backslides and lack of progress. Georgia alone seems to be the most successful and continues to earn the public’s support. Georgia, the crucial crossroad of centuries past, may now be the crucial ideological bridge between the West and the developing democracies as a successful example of autonomous struggle and the triumph of democratic reform.