Electoral Shock in Georgia: Time for Tbilisi to Abandon NATO Nightmare

October 8, 2012 • Commentary
This article appeared on Forbes on October 8, 2012.

Since the so‐​called Rose Revolution brought Mikheil Saakashvili to power in January 2004, the U.S.-educated lawyer has dominated politics in this country of 4.7 million. But opposition leader Bidzina Ivanishvili’s Georgia Dream coalition won last week’s parliamentary elections. Presumptive Prime Minister Ivanishvili should abandon his nation’s forlorn quest for NATO membership.

Saakashvili came to power after popular protests overwhelmed Eduard Shevardnadze, the former Soviet foreign minister who led one of the new countries to emerge from the break‐​up of the U.S.S.R. Georgians looked west as they enjoyed their new‐​found freedom.

The new president implemented a market‐​oriented economic program. Georgia now ranks 16 out of 183 on the World Bank’s “Ease of Doing Business,” above such nations as Germany, Japan, and Switzerland.

However, Saakashvili lagged far behind on political reform. His self‐​professed models were tough authoritarians, Turkey’s Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew.

During my recent visit to Tbilisi one human rights activist told me that “lots of issues are worse under Saakashvili” than under his predecessor. “Between them there is not too much difference” regarding democracy, argued Irakli Melashvili of the Coalition for Freedom of Choice. Despite some improvements, he complained, in other ways the “democratic environment” was worse than before Saakashvili took power.

The U.S. State Department’s latest report on human rights in Georgia cited a number of serious problems, including “abuse of prisoners and detainees,” “shortfalls in the rule of law, such as concerns about ensuring the judiciary’s” independence, and “government interference with unions’ fundamental freedom of association.” In fact, a scandal involving the abuse of prisoners broke on Georgian television shortly before the October 1 parliamentary elections. State also pointed to the “use of excessive force against demonstrators,” “harassment of members of the political opposition,” and limited citizen “access to diverse and unfettered media.”

Human Rights Watch called Georgia’s record “uneven,” citing government restrictions on the media and labor unions, and use of “excessive force to disperse anti‐​government protests” last year. Amnesty International highlighted police abuses. Overall, Freedom House only judged Georgia to be “partly free.” The group’s most recent report on Georgia cited “the abuse of state resources, reports of intimidation aimed at public employees and opposition activists, and apparent voter list inaccuracies” in prior polls.

Freedom House also expressed “concerns that the government has sought to control the independent and opposition media, particularly broadcast outlets.” This is not a new problem. Despite the extensive international sympathy won by Georgia during its war with Russia, the New York Times later observed that “a growing number of critics inside and outside the country argue that it falls well short of Western democratic standards and cite a lack of press freedom as a glaring example.”

However, out of either conviction or overconfidence the Saakashvili government held a free vote. And President Saakashvili speedily conceded defeat, an act of statesmanship for which he deserves credit. The result was a victory for billionaire businessman Ivanishvili, who only entered politics last year.

Georgia Dream is a disparate six‐​party coalition ranging from urban professionals to xenophobic nationalists whose only source of unity is opposition to Saakashvili. Economic views and political objectives appear to range widely within the grouping. No one knows what to expect from presumptive Prime Minister‐​designate Ivanishvili.

He will need to work to deepen Georgia’s democratic transition. He also faces a significant international challenge. Saakashvili’s greatest failure was starting and losing a war with Russia in 2008. Just as Georgia seceded from the Soviet Union, the territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia seceded from Georgia. In this endeavor they were assisted by Moscow, but they had as much right to a separate existence from Georgia as the latter did from Russia. Alas, Saakashvili believed that the right of self‐​determination stopped with his own people and attacked South Ossetia despite the presence of Russian troops.

Even before the war Tbilisi sought membership in NATO, technically the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Saakashvili’s government even sent troops to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan to curry Washington’s favor. In return the Bush administration showered Georgia with praise and economic assistance, funded and trained Tbilisi’s troops, and even sent President George W. Bush on a state visit. Only European opposition blocked alliance membership.

While it made sense for Tbilisi to seek help from a distant friend, it made no sense for NATO to agree, which would have meant confronting nuclear‐​armed Russia over border disputes considered vital by the latter but irrelevant to the West.

The purpose of NATO is to ensure the safety of Americans and Europeans, not frivolously risk their lives in unnecessary wars elsewhere. Yet bringing Tbilisi into NATO would greatly increase the risk of conflict with Russia. Of course, the U.S. would do most of the fighting in any war. The majority of European states are moving toward de facto disarmament, convinced of Washington’s willingness to forever defend the improvident, diffident, cheap, and lazy.

In 2008 NATO promised Tbilisi that Georgia ultimately would be included, but little has happened in the intervening four years. No new members were added at the Chicago summit earlier this year, causing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to declare that Chicago should be the last summit that did not focus on enlargement. The military powerhouses of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, and Montenegro, as well as Georgia, are considered to be “first tier” applicants. Kosovo, Serbia, and Ukraine sit on the rung below. In a recent NATO research paper Karl‐​Heinz Kamp of the NATO Defense College declared: “All NATO members certainly concur that the door for new members should remain open; the question is which countries should join the Alliance, and when?” Kamp admitted that “The crunch point of the enlargement question” is Georgia.

Washington should pull the plug on a process that would actually multiply security liabilities. Georgia is the most dangerous aspirant, but the other hopefuls also suffer from both internal problems and external complications which America and the rest of NATO should not adopt. The better question is: why does the U.S. remain in NATO, since the Europeans today have a greater population and economy than America?

In any case, soon‐​to‐​be Prime Minister Ivanishvili should take the lead. He promised to improve relations with Russia. “If you ask me, ‘America or Russia?’—I say we need to have good relations with everybody.” Regarding Abkhazia and South Ossetia, he announced: “We will start talks with our brothers, of course with the involvement of Russia too.” However, Ivanishvili will have to work with President Saakashvili, who retains control of the ministries of defense and foreign affairs. The latter’s term runs until October 2013, after which a new constitution will transfer more powers to the prime minister.

The best way to improve relations with Moscow would be to abandon attempts to join NATO, which would advance the quintessential anti‐​Moscow military alliance to Russia’s southern border. So far Ivanishvili supports the status quo: “Our strategy is NATO and moving toward NATO.” However, membership won’t happen, irrespective of what Tbilisi has been promised. Even if Washington is foolish enough to risk war with a nuclear‐​armed power over Georgia, the Europeans aren’t likely to agree. It would be better for Georgia to drop the hopeless campaign than to continue poisoning Georgia‐​Russia relations.

Instead, Tbilisi should emphasize Western economic ties—both America and Europe have GDPs in excess of ten times that of Russia. Those markets beckon a small country which continues to struggle economically.

Indeed, Ivanishvili announced that his first trip as prime minister would be to America, which he called “the first friend.” He also should pursue membership in the European Union, which would preserve some international balance without committing the allies to war with Russia if relations went awry. Although Moscow undoubtedly would prefer to secure economic dominance in Georgia, expanded trade and investment with the West would not threaten Moscow’s security in the same way as NATO expansion.

Georgia’s election has yielded dramatic results. Neoconservatives like James Kirchick of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies complain that Ivanishvili’s victory is a win for Moscow. However, the U.S. really would lose if Tbilisi dragged it into a war with Russia. Washington has little stake in the outcome of Georgia’s geopolitical game. Americans will triumph by staying out of yet another unnecessary conflict.

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