"Be good and be generous," then-French President Jacques Chirac told participants of an international donors conference for Lebanon in January 2007. That gathering produced pledges of $7.6 billion for the war-torn country.
Now, 21 months later, the French presidency of the European Union co-hosted another donors conference, the purpose of which was to "mobilize external assistance to support [Georgia] in the reconstruction of damaged infrastructure, reintegration of internally displaced people, and in accelerating recovery from the impact of the August 2008 conflict on its economy, as well as improving the security of Georgia's energy infrastructure."
The pledges offered on October 22 in Brussels by the 67 participating states and international organizations were impressive. They significantly exceeded the target of $3.2 billion set by the World Bank and the United Nations, reaching $4.55 billion in aid and loans. About one-third of that amount was pledged by the 27 EU member countries, and the United States made the largest single promise -- $1 billion.
"A day of joy" was how EU External Affairs Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner described the results. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Fried went further, calling the show of generosity "a minor miracle." Considering the current global economic turmoil, these words don't seem like much of an exaggeration.
This economic aid is crucial for restoring the Georgian economy. The money will help tens of thousands of people who have fled their homes. It will help repair houses, bridges, railways, and other infrastructure damaged by Russian air strikes. It will even make it possible to build new houses and bridges and construct new rail lines.
Political Message Paramount
However, as important as all this is, even more significant is the political message this overwhelming show of support by Western democracies is sending to Tbilisi and, indirectly, to Moscow. The West is demonstrating that it vehemently opposes Russia's invasion of its small neighbor and is offering an extraordinary show of solidarity as a time of profound crisis.
All the West's reconstruction efforts will remain marginal and, ultimately, ineffective if world leaders soften their insistence that Russia withdraw all its forces from occupied Georgian territory. After all, billions spent rebuilding houses and bridges will be wasted if they are simply bombed again. And that remains a real possibility if pressure on Russia is reduced, especially pressure on Moscow to allow all displaced persons from Abkhazia and South Ossetia -- those displaced by the recent violence and, crucially, those displaced by the conflicts of the early 1990s -- to return safely to their homes.
Also crucially important is the West's message to Georgia, whose commitment to transparency and an open, liberal society has been widely questioned. The West must carefully monitor the monies transferred to make sure that they reach those in need and are not mismanaged or, worse, siphoned away by corruption.
There is, after all, no shortage of examples of vast sums of aid money raised at donors conferences disappearing into the pockets of dishonest officials. That is why Tamar Karosanidze, executive director of the Tbilisi-based NGO Transparency International Georgia, said in a statement on the eve of the Brussels conference that the West must establish "clear transparency and accountability procedures for all parties involved."
In addition, Ferrero-Waldner correctly emphasized that Georgia must enact democratic reforms and ensure freedoms, including securing an independent judiciary and vibrant independent media. The Brussels show of support came the same week that Reporters Without Borders issued a press-freedom ranking that saw Georgia fall from 66th place in 2007 to 120th this year.
Europe clearly has, as European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso has said, a compelling interest to help a neighbor in need because "any conflict on Europe's borders clearly has implications for European security and stability." In Georgia's case, the implications of the conflict for European energy security are in the forefront. However, Tbilisi clearly must meet Europe halfway by implementing robust measures to polish the country's tarnished democratic image.
And maybe Tbilisi understands this at last. Georgian Deputy Prime Minister Giorgi Baramidze told RFE/RL moments after the Brussels conference ended that Georgia bears a mighty responsibility for the proper use of the pledged funds. "It is up to the Georgian population, opposition politicians as well as ruling-party members, to decide how this money will be spent," he said.
These were encouraging words indeed. But what about deeds? Despite repeated calls from NGOs and opposition leaders in the run-up to the Brussels meeting, only government officials were allowed to participate in those talks. This is worrisome. Perhaps in the case of Georgia it is necessary to modify Chirac's instructions to donors: "Be good, be generous, but be vigilant."
David Kakabadze is the director of RFE/RL's Georgian Service. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL