Washington, 20 February 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze has announced that despite the assassination attempt against him, "Georgia will become even more stable."
While Shevardnadze's words earlier this week were entirely natural under the circumstances, his reference to stability calls attention to the variety of ways in which that term is now being employed in the post-Soviet states.
After almost a decade of unrest, both the governments and peoples of this region are naturally searching for stability, a situation in which life is more predictable and the future less threatening. And they are being urged to move in that direction by foreign governments and firms who find it difficult to operate where conditions are unsettled.
Not surprisingly, governments of the region have responded to these desires. But these governments divide according to whether they see stability as a means to achieve other things or as an end in itself. Those who see it as a means -- and they include Shevardnadze -- stress that at least some stability is necessary for any progress to take place.
Without some predictability in their lives, the leaders of these countries argue, individuals will be unwilling or even unable to make the choices and take the risks necessary for their countries to move from the authoritarianism of the past to democracy and free markets in the future.
And like the Georgian president, they explicitly link the search for stability to the achievement of these larger goals. Indeed, in the same paragraph of the speech in which he said that Georgia will become "even more stable," Shevardnadze noted that this was a precondition for accelerating reforms and expanding cooperation within his country and beyond.
But far more leaders across this region have taken the opposite position. They insist that the pursuit of stability is an end in itself and that other values, such as democracy and freedom, must be sacrificed if they undermine the achievement of that goal. And they argue that authoritarianism is a proper response to current difficulties.
All too often, such leaders enjoy significant support at home and even acclaim abroad precisely because they appear to be able to solve problems that the leaders of other governments, more interested in and committed to democracy, appear unable to address. But for three reasons, their "successes" are more apparent than real and are likely to evaporate over time.
First of all, the elevation of stability over democracy and freedom in such countries inevitably stifles the very initiative and interaction that is at the heart of a modern society. As the Soviet system under Leonid Brezhnev showed, the pursuit of stability at the expense of everything else led to decay, stagnation, and ultimately to disintegration.
Second, the elevation of stability above everything else contributes to the kind of authoritarian system in which the supreme leader cannot tolerate the emergence of the kind of political forces that would link him to the population or allow for the emergence of a successor.
Lacking the kind of ties to the population that more open and democratic societies inevitably require, leaders who see stability as an end in itself over time lose the ability to mobilize the population. And as a result, they increasingly rely on the army and the police to keep themselves in power.
Not only does that preclude the development of democratic institutions and values, but it means that the current leader cannot tolerate much opposition or the emergence of a successor. And that in turn means that leadership change, something inevitable in all systems and especially so in those with aging leaderships, is inevitably rocky and unpredictable both for the populations and for outside investors.
And third, and most seriously of all, the pursuit of stability as an end in itself by many of the leaders in this region means that the populations will have a far more difficult time overcoming the legacies of the Soviet system and in acquiring the values and skills needed for both democratic self-government and free markets.
Without such skills, these countries are likely to stagnate just as the Soviet system did. And consequently, those enjoying authoritarian stability today are leading candidates to be the victims of both stagnation and instability in the future.
In short, those who put their faith in stability as an end in itself are almost certainly doomed to discover as so many rulers have in the past that they and those they admire will soon lose the means to achieve it. By contrast, those who understand that it is only a means to other goals are likely to find that they will achieve it as well.