Editorial in The Times on 22 August 2012. “Georgia on our mind”

The influential London Times newspaper on 22 August published an editorial on the forthcoming Parliamentary Elections in Georgia. We reprint here the editorial in full:

Back in the bad old days, or so it is said, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, when apprised of the malefactions of a South American dictator, replied: “He may be a sonofabitch, but he’s our sonofabitch.” This sentiment was self-defeating enough then, discouraging as it did the development of democracy in regions that have never forgiven the West for its double-speaking. Now it is nearly impossible. It has become more and more difficult for democratic countries to give their wholehearted support to nations and leaders who deny liberty and constrain democracy.

President Mikheil Saakashvili has not yet forfeited the goodwill of the West. He played a leading role in the peaceful “Rose Revolution” of 2003, was elected President of his small country in January 2004 and was re-elected in 2013. During that time he moved to root out the endemic corruption that disfigured his country, to liberalise its economy and to align Georgia with the Western democracies. As a result, while its Caucasian neighbours are regarded as nightmares to do business with, Georgia has come to be regarded as a good place to invest. Georgia’s big problem, however, is its situation in a troubled and contested region and its proximity to and relationship with Russia. In 2008 Russia intervened on the side of a breakaway region of Georgia, South Ossetia, and its military power resulted in an inevitable Georgian defeat. What has become known as the Five Day War strained relationships between the West and Russia, and was regarded with understandable nervousness by Russia’s other small neighbours – who have also been subject from time to time to Moscow’s methods of dealing with those on its borders.

So there is much for a democratic President of Georgia to worry about, quite apart from the exigencies of running a small and boisterous country. And one of those things is knowing when to depart.

Next year, 2013, Mr Saakashvili will come to the end of his second and final term as President. Over the past couple of years the fear has arisen that his constitutional changes, aimed at decreasing the powers of the presidency while increasing those of the prime minister, are a preparation for him to “do a Putin” and simply swap jobs when the time comes. In addition, credible claims were made at the time of the last parliamentary elections that the Government abused the state-run media and official positions to give advantage to the ruling party.

Now the opposition are complaining, in advance of parliamentary elections on October 1, that the President and his party are attempting to undermine their capacity to contest those elections by sequestrating their funds. Rumbles out of Russia suggest some satisfaction that their enemy might now be tarred with their very own brush. The Georgian opposition is an odd affair, led by a billionaire oligarch, Bidzina Ivanishvili, who made his fortune in Russia and whose personal wealth is said to be equal to half of Georgia’s annual economic output. That is a lot of clout.

But both Georgia’s reputation and its support in the West depend crucially upon its adherence to the rules and practices of democracy. For Mr Saakashvili and his successors to enjoy full-hearted backing they must offer something better than a painful slide back into authoritarianism and political corruption. The October elections must be fair and they must be seen to be fair.