I obviously spoke too soon when on November 5th I praised Georgian president Mikhail Saakashvili for his restraint in handling large demonstrations in Tbilisi. Just after that item appeared, he declared a state of emergency, sent his riot police out to break up the demonstrations, and shut down an opposition TV station by force.
This has led many commentators to proclaim that the Rose Revolution is over and that Saakashvili is just another strongman bent on aggrandizing himself. (See, for example, this New York Times article.)
Not so fast. Ron Asmus, a former State Department official in the Clinton administration who is a major architect of NATO expansion and whose judgment I trust, offers a more nuanced view in this Financial Times op-ed.
Reporting on a recent visit to Tbilisi, he suggests that the decision to declare a state of emergency was not simply a whim of Saakashvili’s: “It was debated fiercely and decided collectively in the cabinet, including by many whose democratic credentials can hardly be questioned.”
The decision may still have been a wrong one, but Asmus pleads for some sympathy for a genuine reformer who is attempting to consolidate a process that has made Georgia a stand-out performer among former Soviet republics, notwithstanding a consistent campaign of subversion emanating from Moscow. “As westerners living in comfortable societies,” he writes, “we have trouble understanding the insecurity of a country that has teetered on being a failed state.”
This is not meant to be a whitewash of Saakashvili, who almost surely overreacted when he imposed the state of emergency. It’s a good thing that he has now lifted this decree, which is more than can be said of Pervez Musharraf in Pakistan. The Georgian president is undoubtedly headstrong and can be high-handed in dealing with opposition. But a more accommodating or weak leader would have trouble getting anything done, as witness Viktor Yushchenko’s struggles in Ukraine.
I second Asmus when he pleads for the West, while pressuring Saakashvili to respect democratic norms, to also pressure Moscow to keep hands off its former republic. There is no doubt that some bloom has come off the Georgian rose, but the revolution is not over yet.