First Ukraine, Now Georgia?

Georgian opposition leader: The new government in Tbilisi is following in Viktor Yanukovych's footsteps.

For more than a month, the world has witnessed the bravery and sacrifice of Ukrainian protesters fighting for their country's liberty. With unrest in the streets of Kiev and growing concern about a potential window of instability across the region following the Sochi Olympics, the United States and Europe are looking for ways to demonstrate support for the Euro-Atlantic aspirations of former Soviet states at the periphery of Europe. In an effort to do just that, President Barack Obama met with Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili on Feb. 24 at the White House. The official visit was intended as a show of public support for the Georgian people -- and their right to determine their own future.

There is indeed a need for a strong response to President Vladimir Putin's continued attempts to undermine the sovereignty of Russia's neighbors. While all eyes are on Ukraine, the Kremlin continues to occupy 20 percent of Georgia's territory, and during the last few months, Russian forces have installed new barbed wire fences along the occupation line while moving it deeper into Georgian territory. While temporarily halted for the Sochi Games, this building resumed virtually as soon as the Olympic flame went out.

America has long stood by Georgia as it has worked to strengthen its security and build its democracy. Hopefully the Obama administration will reward the accomplishments of that partnership by reenergizing the push for Georgia's further integration into NATO at the next summit, to be held in Britain in September, and by continuing to support Georgia's sovereignty and democracy.

Unfortunately, Georgia appears to be on a similar trajectory as Ukraine, where President Viktor Yanukovych's penchant for jailing his pro-Western opposition precipitated the current crisis. Following Georgia's first peaceful transfer of power through free and fair elections in 2012 and 2013, the new government has used the courts to detain several political opponents, including a former prime minister who is currently secretary-general of the main opposition party, the United Nations Movement (UNM). The courts have also been used to remove another UNM leader, the directly-elected mayor of Tbilisi, from office. According to Human Rights Watch, 35 former UNM officials are currently under investigation and 6,000 UNM activists have been questioned -- though the UNM's own numbers show that twice as many party members have been questioned.

In the past few weeks, while Garibashvili was planning his visit to Washington, three local officials were sentenced to pretrial detention for alleged minor fraud charges, and the lawyer representing one former government official in court was detained. Georgian NGOs have also spoken out against the detention of political opponents in advance of local elections in June.

Garibashvili has repeatedly voiced his belief that the former ruling party cannot be accepted as legitimate opposition, that it has no right to criticize the government, and that it should "disappear" from Georgia's political landscape. Just like Yanukovych, the new government of Georgia has defended its actions by citing the need to strengthen the rule of law and address alleged past crimes. But a closer look at the case against the current government's political rivals reveals a clear picture of political motives, intimidation, pressure on judges and witnesses, manipulated evidence, and selective justice.

Just as Yanukovych did prior to backing away from the E.U. association deal in November, the new leadership in Georgia appears to embrace the pro-E.U. foreign policy of its predecessors -- the policy that the people of Georgia demand. But at the same time, this government has allied itself internally with forces openly hostile to Western integration and those who argue for the defense of "traditional values" -- the same traditional values referred to by Putin when he speaks of the need for anti-LGBT legislation. Mobs inspired by these values have physically attacked the main opposition party, anti-homophobia demonstrators, and other pro-Western critics.

A common criticism of UNM's legacy in government is that we focused more on state building than on democracy building. And in retrospect -- despite transforming a failed state, reforming and rebuilding the economy, and doing much to end corruption and organized crime -- there are aspects of democracy building that we should have done much more to address to strengthen our nation against very real external threats.

After the Russian invasion of Georgia in August 2008, our allies reminded us that the best defense for Georgia was a strong democracy. While being a stronger democracy might not always be sufficient inoculation from Putin's pressure, it is certainly true that the Kremlin's influence thrives in transitional and new democracies because by nature these countries have relatively weak party systems and institutions of political accountability. This was exactly what happened with Yanukovych's Ukraine.

Georgia must not go down that path. Now that it has past one of the most important tests of a liberal democracy by peacefully voting out the UNM government, it is crucial that it does not fail the next one by attempting, as Yanukovych did, to prevent the former ruling party from competing as opposition through the heavy use of prosecutions and intimidation.

While there are differences between Georgia and Yanukovych's Ukraine, this trend, if not reversed, will result in another transitional democracy on the Russian periphery that is weak and easily manipulated, with internal systems easy to corrupt and subvert.


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Dear Kremlin: Careful with Crimea

Why a Russian intervention in southern Ukraine could rebound against Moscow.

Russia seems to have made a bad bet in Ukraine. Its foreign policy, tactically agile as ever, was strategically unsound. It was certainly possible, as Russia proved in November, to bribe Ukraine's then-President Viktor Yanukovych not to sign an association agreement with the European Union. It was also possible to promise a $15 billion loan in return for a policy of repression in Ukraine. After accepting the money in principle, Yanukovych illegally forced a package of legislation through parliament that was closely modeled on similar laws in Moscow restricting freedom of speech and assembly. Right after the Kremlin freed up a $2 billion tranche of the promised loan, the Yanukovych regime gave orders for the mass shooting of protesters.

Yet all did not turn out as planned. Moscow's strategic goal was to draw Ukraine into the Eurasian Union. This institution, meant to rival the European Union, will come into being in 2015. The prospective members at this point are Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan, none of which can be accused of a democratic surplus. Putin has made clear that for him the Eurasian Union is meaningless without Ukraine. He, like everyone else, understands that the Russian empire without Ukraine is without glory. But the Eurasian Union cannot possibly have democratic members, since their citizens, in trading with and emigrating to Russia, would spread dangerous ideas. Thus, Ukraine had to become a dictatorship.

The problem with this was the Ukrainians themselves. Instead of backing down in the face of batons, rubber bullets, and a sniper massacre, they made a revolution. Although this amounted to an act of almost unbelievable self-organization, determination, and simple physical courage, it would not have happened without Russian foreign policy. If the Kremlin had no Eurasian dream, it would not need to be so concerned about the character of the Ukrainian regime and the suppression of Ukrainian civil society. It was precisely the mass killing last week that made the Yanukovych regime inconceivable in Ukraine, not just to its opponents but to many of its allies. Now, Yanukovych has fled and parliamentary rule has been restored to Ukraine.

In overreaching, the Kremlin has lost a leader it could manipulate, and provoked the kind of revolution that its propaganda apparatus likes to blame on Washington and that its foreign policy is designed to stop. What now? There seem to be two alternatives. One would be a reconsideration of the totality of Russian foreign policy, and a genuine recognition that both Russia and Ukraine have, first and foremost, an interest in good relations with their common major trading partner, the European Union, as well as with each other.

The other alternative is to deny reality and continue to pursue the Eurasian dream. This would entail maintaining the line Moscow has so far taken in the crisis, namely that Ukrainian activists are fascists, terrorists, and gays. It could, perhaps, also translate into a Russian attempt to lay claim to some part of Ukraine. The greatest potential for mischief is to be found in the Crimean Peninsula, in the extreme south, where Russia has a naval base and where much of the population is ethnically Russian. (The photo above shows members of Russia's Black Sea Fleet at their base in Sevastopol, Ukraine.) The policy which seems to be under consideration in Moscow has three parts: first, to claim, as Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev has already done, that Russian interests in Ukraine are under threat; second, to extend Russian passports to Ukrainian citizens in Crimea; and third, to claim a right of protection -- which, in the case of Russia's neighbors, Georgia and Moldova, has already resulted in the creation of Russian protectorates. As of this writing, Russia's Black Sea Fleet is on alert, and a Russian parliamentarian is in Crimea discussing passports and the possibility of a Russian annexation.

It should go without saying that an attempt to seize Ukrainian territory would be a disaster in the short run, ruining Russian credibility around the world and likely starting a major war. In the long term, such an action, even if it were to succeed, would set a rather troubling precedent -- for Russia itself.

If Russia excludes its own borders from the general international standard of inviolability, it might face some unwanted challenges down the road. If Russia's external frontiers are flexible zones, to be pushed in various ways with appeals to the rights of ethnic brethren and passport holders, then what will happen, down the line, in Russia's eastern Siberia? There, Russia holds major natural resources along its border with China, the world's longest. Some 6 million Russian citizens in eastern Siberia face 90 million Chinese in China's bordering provinces.

Beijing pays attention to Ukraine because it has a major stake in Ukrainian agricultural territories. It will likely note the developing Russian doctrine on the flexibility of Russia's external borders. China also has a stake in eastern Siberia. It needs fresh water, hydrocarbons, mineral resources such as copper and zinc, and fertile soil for its farmers. The Chinese economic relationship with eastern Siberia is a colonial one: China buys raw materials and sells finished goods. Beijing actually invests more in eastern Siberia than does Moscow. No one knows the exact number of Chinese citizens in eastern Siberia -- in part because the last Russian census declined to count them -- but it certainly dwarfs the number of Russians in Crimea, and is expected by Russian analysts to increase significantly with time.

It seems rather risky for Russia to develop, on its own border, a challenge to the basic premise of territorial sovereignty. Beijing and Moscow currently enjoy good relations, and Chinese leaders are too sophisticated to consider open threats to eastern Siberia. But down the road, as demographic pressures mount and Russian resources beckon, a Russian doctrine of the ethnic adjustments of Russian borders could provide Beijing with a useful model.

Vasiliy BATANOV/AFP/Getty Images