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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