Commentary Magazine


Topic: Mikheil Saakashvili

Will Obama Mourn Georgian Ally’s Defeat?

I share the two cheers Max seems to offer for the slight forward march of democracy, especially in Georgia, where longtime American ally Mikheil Saakashvili has yet again proven his detractors in the global left wrong and his supporters right. Saakashvili’s behavior was exemplary to the point of uniting in thought and praise Max and the Economist, and I join them. The Economist, long a skeptic of Vladimir Putin’s intentions and supporter of post-Soviet demokratizatsiya, writes:

Peaceful political and constitutional change is routine in much of Europe. But it is rare (the Baltic states aside) in the old Soviet Union. By conceding, Mr Saakashvili has admirably secured his reformist legacy, demolishing claims that his rule was Putinesque in its heavy-handedness. Westerners who trusted him can feel vindicated. For his part Mr Ivanishvili stoked suspicions about his own judgment when he demanded that Mr Saakashvili step down immediately (he quickly backtracked). The constitutional position is clear: Mr Saakashvili has another year to go. He is ready to work with his victorious opponent, despite the deepest of disagreements. Mr Ivanishvili should reciprocate.

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I share the two cheers Max seems to offer for the slight forward march of democracy, especially in Georgia, where longtime American ally Mikheil Saakashvili has yet again proven his detractors in the global left wrong and his supporters right. Saakashvili’s behavior was exemplary to the point of uniting in thought and praise Max and the Economist, and I join them. The Economist, long a skeptic of Vladimir Putin’s intentions and supporter of post-Soviet demokratizatsiya, writes:

Peaceful political and constitutional change is routine in much of Europe. But it is rare (the Baltic states aside) in the old Soviet Union. By conceding, Mr Saakashvili has admirably secured his reformist legacy, demolishing claims that his rule was Putinesque in its heavy-handedness. Westerners who trusted him can feel vindicated. For his part Mr Ivanishvili stoked suspicions about his own judgment when he demanded that Mr Saakashvili step down immediately (he quickly backtracked). The constitutional position is clear: Mr Saakashvili has another year to go. He is ready to work with his victorious opponent, despite the deepest of disagreements. Mr Ivanishvili should reciprocate.

That is well said, and also underscores the withholding of that third cheer for Georgia, since Saakashvili has behaved far better (and more democratically) than his ascendant pro-Russian rival. But here is where I diverge slightly from Max, who writes (my emphasis): “The ability to peacefully transition authority from one party to another is crucial, and if Georgia can pull it off, that will be a boon for its nascent democracy, even if the policies advocated by the new government are not those that American policymakers would prefer.”

Those new policies may not be what Max would prefer, nor those of us who have recognized the importance of Georgia’s pro-Western leaning, from its role in the disintegration of the Soviet Union to its sending troops to Afghanistan. But I think it is wishful thinking to assume that the current administration sees it that way.

The Obama administration has shown less interest in expanding NATO–that is to say, none at all–than his predecessors. The most recent NATO conference, which we hosted here in the U.S., was a historic meeting, in that it took not a step toward the inclusion of allies who have made progress at each meeting until this one. In fact, the NATO conference was notable in that it displayed an organization that seemed to have no interest in itself.

Georgia has sent more troops to Afghanistan than some NATO members (and was apparently the highest per-capita troop contributor to the effort). But the Obama administration remains unmoved. Russia is currently occupying chunks of Georgian sovereign territory, violating the ceasefire that ended the 2008 war, which Russian leaders had been planning for about a decade and which included documented cases of anti-Georgian ethnic cleansing. The Obama administration admitted to the New York Times that it was fully aware of Russia’s violations, but that raising the issue would have imperiled the imaginary “reset” that was, at that time, still one of the administration’s prized delusions.

That border dispute was one reason Georgia held fast to its one piece of leverage over Russia: the latter’s accession to the World Trade Organization. U.S. Ambassador to Moscow Michael McFaul wisely made Russia’s WTO membership one of his primary goals–getting Russia to play by the same rules as the international community will bring a certain degree of accountability to Putin’s management of “Russia, Inc.” and give American businesses a boost in new markets as well. But the border dispute remains, even after McFaul strong-armed Georgia into letting go. Both Russia and the U.S. got what they wanted; Saakashvili got an insincere pat on the back.

Because the “reset” was based mostly on Western rhetoric toward Russia, Saakashvili’s bombast proved an annoyance to the administration. So when Bidzina Ivanishvili, whose party bested Saakashvili’s in the recent parliamentary elections, took to the pages of the Wall Street Journal to outline his vision for the country he hoped to lead, he knew exactly how to make his pitch. “If elected, my Georgian Dream coalition will drop Cold War rhetoric and do a better job of defusing the real causes of the explosive situation in our region,” he wrote, echoing the hollow nonsense of the Obama administration’s persistent complaints that criticism of Putin is evidence of a mind “still stuck in a Cold War mind warp.”

A better relationship with Russia seems to be exactly what the Obama administration would want for Georgia, since Obama and McFaul have now gotten everything they needed from Georgia and no longer have much use for our ally. Georgia hasn’t been treated much worse than the rest of our allies by the Obama administration, but that’s still pretty terrible. In any event, I would guess the Obama administration is willing to offer all three cheers for the Georgian election.

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Two Uneasy Steps Forward for Democracy

Recent days have brought dispiriting news for those us who believe that democracy is the best form of government and that the U.S. government should be doing its utmost to promote its spread around the world.

In Georgia, the recent parliamentary election was won by a party led by the enigmatic billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, who made his fortune in Russia under mysterious circumstances and is said to maintain close links to the Russian leadership. He was widely seen as the more pro-Russian candidate over the party led by the English-speaking, pro-Western president, Mikheil Saakashvili.

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Recent days have brought dispiriting news for those us who believe that democracy is the best form of government and that the U.S. government should be doing its utmost to promote its spread around the world.

In Georgia, the recent parliamentary election was won by a party led by the enigmatic billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, who made his fortune in Russia under mysterious circumstances and is said to maintain close links to the Russian leadership. He was widely seen as the more pro-Russian candidate over the party led by the English-speaking, pro-Western president, Mikheil Saakashvili.

Now in Venezuela, the anti-American demagogue Hugo Chavez, who has already been in power since 1999, has won reelection to yet another term in office, taking 55 percent of the vote over his more moderate leftist challenger. Considering that Chavez has worked to develop alliances with unsavory states such as Iran and Cuba, and with unsavory movements such as Hezbollah and FARC, and that he has done great damage to the Venezuelan economy with his nationalizations of industry, imposition of price controls, and other socialist measures–well this is certainly not the outcome that U.S. officials would have preferred.

For neither the first nor the last time, the outcomes in Georgia and Venezuela show that democratic systems are hardly perfect–at least from the standpoint of U.S. policy interests. But they also show that the best cure for a “bad” election outcome is to have another election.

That is something that Chavez allowed to occur–even if he did use the full resources of his government, which controls the radio and television broadcasts, to turn out of the vote for his candidacy. Still, this was Chavez’s lowest winning margin, and it suggests that he could conceivably lose a future election, should he live that long–or if not, at least upon his demise there is a good chance of Venezuela returning to more competitive elections.

As for Georgia, the loss suffered by Saakashvili’s party (the president himself remains in office) could actually be a blessing in disguise: Although Saakashvili has been an effective reformer, he has also been in office since 2004, and it is always healthy in any democracy to see a change of power. Indeed, that is the very test of whether a country is truly a democracy or an autocracy with fixed elections. The ability to peacefully transition authority from one party to another is crucial, and if Georgia can pull it off, that will be a boon for its nascent democracy, even if the policies advocated by the new government are not those that American policymakers would prefer.

If I had a vote in some cosmic election, I would vote for the democratic systems of Venezuela and Georgia, imperfect though they are (especially in the case of Venezuela), over the faux stability of countries such as Saudi Arabia where dissent is impossible to express in public and the only way to change the government is to overthrow it. As we have learned in Libya, Tunisia, Syria, and Egypt (and as we previously learned in South Korea, the Philippines, the Shah’s Iran, and other once-authoritarian countries), the stability imposed by dictatorships comes with high costs. And in any case, it is a faux stability that only lasts until the coming of the revolution.

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The Georgian Election and Democracy

The electoral defeat of the ruling party of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili — which helped usher in Georgia’s Rose Revolution — is being greeted with mixed feelings from democracy promoters. On one hand, the free and fair election and Saakashvili’s concession were a remarkable success in a region that’s known for its rigged votes. On the other hand, the party that won the parliamentary elections, and gets to choose a new prime minister and cabinet, is run by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, a man who supporters of Saakashvili and others worry is a cutout for Russia.

Whether or not that’s true remains to be seen. Ivanishvili made his billions in Russian state-owned industries, and was recently able to sell off these assets at a fair rate, something that just doesn’t happen without the green light from Russian President Vladimir Putin. As James Kirchick explains at the Wall Street Journal:

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The electoral defeat of the ruling party of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili — which helped usher in Georgia’s Rose Revolution — is being greeted with mixed feelings from democracy promoters. On one hand, the free and fair election and Saakashvili’s concession were a remarkable success in a region that’s known for its rigged votes. On the other hand, the party that won the parliamentary elections, and gets to choose a new prime minister and cabinet, is run by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, a man who supporters of Saakashvili and others worry is a cutout for Russia.

Whether or not that’s true remains to be seen. Ivanishvili made his billions in Russian state-owned industries, and was recently able to sell off these assets at a fair rate, something that just doesn’t happen without the green light from Russian President Vladimir Putin. As James Kirchick explains at the Wall Street Journal:

Announcing entry into Georgian politics last year, Mr. Ivanishvili promised to sell off his assets in Russia. He began selling to Russian state-owned concerns and other Kremlin-friendly businessmen, an option not afforded to oligarchs (such as Alexander Lebedev) who have run afoul of the Kremlin. One doesn’t become a billionaire in Russia in the 1990s, maintain that wealth and sell those assets at a fair price without the approval of President Vladimir Putin.

What’s clear is that Ivanishvili has pushed for much more favorable relations with Russian than Saakashvili, an arch adversary of Putin’s. And Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s enthusiastic response to Ivanishvili’s party’s victory certainly raises red flags:

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev yesterday said the opposition’s victory showed a desire for change and offered a chance for dialog with Georgia.

“We can only welcome this as it likely means that there will be more constructive and responsible forces in parliament,” Medvedev told reporters in Makhachkala, the capital of Dagestan, the Russian region neighboring Georgia.

The Russian Foreign Ministry today said Saakashvili’s defeat may allow the Black Sea nation to bring about the “normalization” of ties with its neighbors and to establish “constructive and respectful relations.”

It’s reasonable to be concerned about Ivanishvili’s victory, but it’s also too early to say that Georgia’s democratic reforms will be rolled back or that it will devolve into a Russian satellite. While Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream party will now choose a prime minister and cabinet, Saakashvili will still hold the presidency until the 2013 elections. It will be important to watch how the current transition takes place, who the Georgian Dream party elevates to key roles, what policies they pursue in office, and how the relationship with Russia changes. Saakashvili has set a critical example in the region for how a democratic leader acts, and Ivanishvili’s party should be expected to follow that lead.

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What Georgia Can Teach Israel About Iran

One thing pretty much all Israeli commentators agree on is that Western acceptance of the Iran-Brazil-Turkey nuclear deal would be a disaster for Israel.

Unlike the original deal on which it is modeled, and which Iran rejected last fall, this deal makes no pretense even of delaying Iran’s nuclear program. The original deal sought to buy time by transferring most of Iran’s enriched uranium outside the country, leaving it without enough to build a bomb until it enriched more. This deal would transfer a much smaller percentage of Iran’s uranium overseas, and would thus still leave it with enough to build a bomb.

Yet Western acceptance of it would not only kill any chance for tougher sanctions on Iran (no great loss, since the sanctions effort wasn’t going anyplace anyway); it would also make it much harder for Israel to take military action against Iran: Israel would then be portrayed as the warmonger ruining the world’s chances for peace in our time.

As Israel’s government contemplates this grim scenario, it might do well to read a new book on the Russian-Georgian war of 2008 — or at least Prof. Shlomo Avineri’s review of it in Haaretz.

In A Little War That Shook the World, former State Department official Ronald Asmus chronicles the events leading up to the war and its disastrous consequences for Georgia: it lost its last remaining foothold in the separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, saw hundreds of its citizens killed and tens of thousands turned into refugees, and effectively destroyed its chances of joining either NATO or the European Union.

Yet Asmus thinks a Georgian failure to respond to Russia’s provocations would have had even worse consequences, Avineri notes: President Mikheil Saakashvili’s government “would have been toppled and there may well have been a coup d’etat in Tbilisi, which could have resulted in a particular well-known pro-Russian politician taking Georgia’s helm. In effect, Georgia could have lost its independence and become a Russian satellite once again” — for the third time in two centuries.

Avineri finds Asmus’s conclusion persuasive. But even if one doesn’t, it is hard to argue with Avineri’s conclusion. “There is something of a moral here for small countries,” the dovish professor writes. “Sometimes, being unwilling to give in is strategically the right move, even if it exacts a high price.”

An Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities would exact a very high price: military counterstrikes by Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas and perhaps Syria; international opprobrium; a schism with Washington; and perhaps even international sanctions. And that would be true even if the West ultimately rejects the Brazil-Turkey deal and returns to the Obama administration’s plan A: declaring the problem “solved” by passing another watered-down sanctions resolution that, like its predecessors, will do nothing to halt Iran’s nuclear program.

Nevertheless, the consequences to Israel of a nuclear Iran could well be even worse. And if so, Israel’s government might have to decide that the price of military action is worth paying.

One thing pretty much all Israeli commentators agree on is that Western acceptance of the Iran-Brazil-Turkey nuclear deal would be a disaster for Israel.

Unlike the original deal on which it is modeled, and which Iran rejected last fall, this deal makes no pretense even of delaying Iran’s nuclear program. The original deal sought to buy time by transferring most of Iran’s enriched uranium outside the country, leaving it without enough to build a bomb until it enriched more. This deal would transfer a much smaller percentage of Iran’s uranium overseas, and would thus still leave it with enough to build a bomb.

Yet Western acceptance of it would not only kill any chance for tougher sanctions on Iran (no great loss, since the sanctions effort wasn’t going anyplace anyway); it would also make it much harder for Israel to take military action against Iran: Israel would then be portrayed as the warmonger ruining the world’s chances for peace in our time.

As Israel’s government contemplates this grim scenario, it might do well to read a new book on the Russian-Georgian war of 2008 — or at least Prof. Shlomo Avineri’s review of it in Haaretz.

In A Little War That Shook the World, former State Department official Ronald Asmus chronicles the events leading up to the war and its disastrous consequences for Georgia: it lost its last remaining foothold in the separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, saw hundreds of its citizens killed and tens of thousands turned into refugees, and effectively destroyed its chances of joining either NATO or the European Union.

Yet Asmus thinks a Georgian failure to respond to Russia’s provocations would have had even worse consequences, Avineri notes: President Mikheil Saakashvili’s government “would have been toppled and there may well have been a coup d’etat in Tbilisi, which could have resulted in a particular well-known pro-Russian politician taking Georgia’s helm. In effect, Georgia could have lost its independence and become a Russian satellite once again” — for the third time in two centuries.

Avineri finds Asmus’s conclusion persuasive. But even if one doesn’t, it is hard to argue with Avineri’s conclusion. “There is something of a moral here for small countries,” the dovish professor writes. “Sometimes, being unwilling to give in is strategically the right move, even if it exacts a high price.”

An Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities would exact a very high price: military counterstrikes by Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas and perhaps Syria; international opprobrium; a schism with Washington; and perhaps even international sanctions. And that would be true even if the West ultimately rejects the Brazil-Turkey deal and returns to the Obama administration’s plan A: declaring the problem “solved” by passing another watered-down sanctions resolution that, like its predecessors, will do nothing to halt Iran’s nuclear program.

Nevertheless, the consequences to Israel of a nuclear Iran could well be even worse. And if so, Israel’s government might have to decide that the price of military action is worth paying.

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