America has big stake in supporting democracy in former Soviet Republic of Georgia, suggest international studies expert

As Americans celebrate independence this July 4, they may wish to consider the plight of another democracy – one that is young and struggling and whose continued success could have a dramatic impact on the world economy, the price of gasoline and other critical U.S. interests, suggests James V. Wertsch, director of International and Area Studies at Washington University in St. Louis.

James Wertsch

Wertsch points to the tumultuous welcome that thousands of Georgians gave President George W. Bush when he visited in May to support his assertion. The visit’s purpose was to cast a spotlight on democratic developments following the “Rose Revolution” of November 2003, the nonviolent popular uprising that overturned the corrupt Georgian government of post-Soviet president Eduard Shevardnadze. Even the subsequent discovery of a grenade in the area where Bush addressed a huge crowd in Tbilisi did little to dampen positive impressions on both sides, he says.

Wertsch says the United States should redouble its efforts to support and strengthen the emerging democratic movement in Georgia because what happens there may be a bellwether for the fate of democracy in nations across much of Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

“The ramifications of the Rose Revolution extend well beyond Georgia’s borders,” says Wertsch, the co-editor of the journal Caucasus Context and the 2005 volume Enough! The Rose Revolution in the Republic of Georgia. “The attention it has garnered has made democratic upheaval thinkable in places like Ukraine, a country where Georgian flags sprouted in the massive rallies of the “Orange Revolution” of last winter. And it is commonly brought up in discussions of Kyrgyzstan’s “Tulip Revolution” of this spring and even in talk about potential upheaval in Russia.”

During his visit Bush was effusive in his praise of Mikheil Saakashvili, the youthful president of Georgia who led the Rose Revolution. This praise is warranted, suggests Wertsch, but the mark of true friendship is the ability to speak frankly about problems others may wish to ignore, and today Georgia definitely is in need of a friend.

“The afterglow of the Rose Revolution has now faded,” Wertsch notes. “Corruption remains a major problem, disruptions in electricity and water services have re-appeared, and Georgians are becoming increasingly frustrated with the lack of jobs and economic development. Thanks to weak opposition, Saakashvili’s presidency is not in danger at this point, but his approval ratings have gone into steep decline. In short, he has largely used up the political capital he acquired from the Rose Revolution, and the country stands at a juncture where a new style of leadership is required.”

“What Georgia needs now is solid, day-to-day leadership, but Saakashvili has continued to rely on populist gestures that all too often appear, at best, impulsive,” says Wertsch.

“There are all too many parties who would love to see the Georgian experiment in democracy and civil society fail. America needs to see it succeed,” says Wertsch. ” As true friends of Georgia, we need to stress that the days of populist revolution are over, and the time for steady, solid leadership and governance has arrived. In the end, Georgians are the only ones who can provide such leadership. The U.S. should stand ready to help in any way possible, starting with ongoing, frank assessments of the problems facing the country today and the steps required of a responsible leadership to address them.”

Regional outlook

Georgia’s regional neighbor Uzbekistan has been in the news as the result of a May 13 anti-government protest that was put down by Uzbek troops in what some describe as a massacre of citizens fed up with the nation’s repressive post-Soviet government.

Wertsch suggests that the volatile situation in Uzbekistan is noteworthy in part because it shows just how that nation is following a much different path than Georgia.

“To be sure, some folks in Uzbekistan looked to Georgia as a model for what they wanted to create there,” says Wertsch “I have discussed this with Uzbeks for over a year. However, what happened there is quite different for some pretty identifiable reasons, and the result is that no democracy has emerged in Uzbekistan and more trouble is inevitable in the future.”

“Ukraine is the best follow-on case, and Kyrgyzstan and especially Uzbekistan are very different. The Russians have a vested interest in portraying all of these “color revolutions” as the same — illegal putsches that are bound to lead to instability and failure, but there is some pretty critical discussion going on in Moscow about how this might be the wrong way to look at things.”