TBILISI – Two cities. Two countries. One historical anecdote. One message.
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden used a single story from the founding decades of the American republic in Kyiv and Tbilisi to drive home a point about the progress and promise of the popular revolutions that swept pro-Western forces into power in Ukraine and Georgia earlier this decade.
Here is the vice president in his address to the Ukrainian people on July 22:
Near the end of his life, one of the authors of America’s freedom, Thomas Jefferson, who is credited with writing the Declaration of Independence, wrote a letter to his old friend and political foe, John Adams -- Adams had been the second President of the United States and Jefferson the third -- and they were great friends but political competitors. And he wrote a letter to Adams -- there was a long correspondence for decades. He wrote a letter to Adams about 35 years after our revolution. And in the letter, he said, ‘The generation which commences a revolution rarely completes it. The generation which commences a revolution rarely completes it.’
Biden repeated the story later the same day in Tbilisi at a banquet in his honor, as Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili looked on.
The message Biden was sending to both the Georgian and Ukrainian leadership was that the Rose and Orange revolutions were works in progress, that they were still incomplete, and that their promise was yet to be fulfilled.
But a deeper signal Biden appeared to be sending was that institutions are more important than individuals and that Washington would structure its policies toward these two allies accordingly.
In 2003 and 2004, Georgian and Ukraine brought the term “colored revolutions” into the international political lexicon to describe pro-Western popular uprisings that usher in a more democratic form of governance.
Despite the widespread popular dissent and participation that made the Rose and Orange Revolutions possible, each quickly became personalized and tightly identified with their leaders. In the case of Georgia with Saakashvili’s charismatic style of rule; in Ukraine with the troubled political tandem of President Viktor Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.
And in both cases, the public soon became disillusioned and cynical.
One of the key messages coming out of Biden’s trip this week was that it was time for a “colored reset.”
Biden chastised Ukraine’s leaders for their constant political squabbling and for putting personal ambition above the good of the nation. He urged Saakashvili, who opponents accuse of concentrating power in his own hands, to create lasting democratic institutions that will endure after he leaves office.
And in both Kyiv and Tbilisi, the vice president made a point of meeting with political forces from across the spectrum.
In Ukraine he sat down one-on-one with each candidate who plans to seek the presidency in next year’s elections. Holding bilateral meetings with Yushchenko, Tymoshenko, and Parliamentary Speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn was a no-brainer. They are the country’s top three public office holders, after all.
But Biden also gave face time to Party of Regions leader Viktor Yanukovych, who was not long ago dismissed by many in the West as a pro-Moscow stooge. He also met Arseniy Yatsenyuk, a former foreign minister and parliamentary speaker turned opposition figure, seen by many as a rising political star.
In Tbilisi, where presidential elections are not scheduled until 2013, he sat down with members of the parliamentary and non-parliamentary opposition: former UN ambassador Irakli Alasania, ex-parliamentary speaker Nino Burjanadze, United Opposition head Levan Gachechiladze, and Christian Democratic Movement leader Giorgi Targamadze.
Each is widely believed to have presidential ambitions.
U.S. officials repeatedly told reporters things like “we don’t have a favorite” and “we don’t have a top dog,” in either Ukraine or Georgia.
When I asked an administration official in Tbilisi if the close and highly personalized relationship that the United States has had with Saakashvili since 2003 was undergoing a shift, the quick response: “This relationship transcends personalities.”
-- Brian Whitmore