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Looking Beyond Georgia's Political Crisis

Georgian riot police clash with opposition protesters in Tbilisi in mid-June.
Georgian riot police clash with opposition protesters in Tbilisi in mid-June.
Last August, the world watched in horror as Georgia was invaded. But this year, far fewer people are paying attention to what may prove to be an even more tragic situation -- the very real risk that Georgia may disappear from the map of the democratic world as a result of the actions of a man who cloaks his authoritarian approach with democratic verbiage.

Mikheil Saakashvili's attempts to blur the distinction between himself and the country of which he is president have led Georgia down a dead end for democracy. We are fighting for our freedom and for the western orientation to which we as a nation have been faithful for the last 20 years.

It is all the more frustrating that all the misdeeds of this government have been perpetrated in the name of meeting Western standards for democratic reform. That approach has undermined the Georgian population's faith in the West.

It should be up to the Georgian people to choose its preferred leaders at the ballot box, however, when the possibility of bringing about democratic change through free and fair elections is ruled out and Georgia is disqualified from the list of "electoral democracies," our only remaining alternative is street demonstrations.

Dual Threats

Today, many friends of Georgia believe that the danger from outside the country is greater than that from the inside. There is indeed a very real threat from the north, and we Georgians, at least those of us in opposition, are fully aware of that threat. We were alarmed at this danger even prior to August 2008, unlike the present government, which still claims to have won last year's war.

In addition, it is the Russian factor that President Saakashvili prefers to use for the purpose of undermining his political opponents, trying to demonstrate that everyone who dares to raise his voice against his misdeeds has covert links with, and receives funding and assistance from, Russia. I would like to assure all friends of Georgia that the threat from Russia would be incomparably smaller were it not for Saakashvili's unhealthy ambitions to defeat the Russian army.

It is common knowledge that the chances of revising geography to give us more congenial neighbors are nil. It is equally clear that few observers expect that Russia will abandon in the near future its ambitions to impose its influence over the South Caucasus.

For that reason, our Western friends are wrong to argue that domestic politics should be put on hold until relations with Russia improve, as this moment will never come.

History shows that the Russian threat increases in proportion to Georgia's weakness.

And the present leadership has done everything in its power to weaken Georgia in every respect: geo-politically, economically, and socially. The contradiction between accusing the opposition of maintaining close ties with Russian financial circles and at the same time selling most of Georgia's economic assets to Moscow in the most non-transparent and unclear circumstances demands international attention.

'Serving Russian Interests'?

At present, despite his empty pledges of loyalty to Western values, President Saakashvili, whether deliberately or inadvertently, is serving Russian interests better than anyone.

Or take our leaders' latest decision. Two weeks ago, the Georgian Interior Ministry ordered the Georgian border guards deployed in the Mamisoni Pass on the border with the Russian Federation to pull back 20 kilometers, thereby effectively "ceding" that swathe of Georgian territory to the Russian army without any valid reason. Even though dozens of eyewitnesses and local residents have confirmed the withdrawal, the ministry continues to deny it shamelessly.

It is unfortunate that the ongoing political crisis is compounded by a profound economic crisis that impacts the vital interests of every Georgian citizen. In addition to the global financial crisis, we have to contend with a total absence of accountability, the nonexistence of democratic checks and balances, and extravagant budget spending, all of which severely undermine the prospects for steady economic growth in the next few years.

It is of vital importance that the international community, committed as it is to democratic principles and values, should listen to the voice of hundreds of thousands of Georgians who are resolutely defending their rights and freedoms in the streets of Tbilisi.

We are fighting to change realities where there are prospects neither for democracy nor stability. We are fighting for freedom and democracy, for control over the fate of our country and our lives.

We have already lost 20 percent of our territory; three new Russian military bases have been established on our soil; our defense and economic infrastructure has been seriously damaged; last year's war resulted in hundreds of thousands of new displaced persons; the prospects for Euro-Atlantic integrations have been put back for decades; our economic assets are being sold off to Russia. We simply cannot wait for another, even worse disaster to happen.

It is not our politicians who deserve international attention, but the Georgian people. All true friends of Georgia should take a closer look at the disastrous situation in my country and the devastating rule of President Saakashvili.

Georgia and the Georgian people need their help.

Nino Burjanadze served as Georgian parliament speaker from November 2001 to 2008. Last fall she founded the opposition Democratic Movement-United Georgia. The views expressed in this commentary are her own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL