- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 25, 2004

Democracy’s not had smooth sailing in the former Soviet states. Some such countries have reverted to totalitarianism, others to tin-horn dictatorships and many to kleptocracies. Overall, it’s a disappointing lot.

But one place is not so dismal. In fact, it’s fairly bright: Georgia.

Contrary to the Ray Charles classic, this Georgia’s not on our minds. Not, at least, as it should be — especially this week on the first anniversary of its own democratic revolution. Despite its modest population — less than five million — Georgia remains the only true democracy among ex-Soviet states and in that rough neighborhood featuring Russia and Iran.

One year ago, Eduard Shevardnadze finally got the message. A man I knew fairly well when he served — nobly, to my astonishment — as foreign minister of the Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev.

After that historic role, Mr. Shevardnadze served ignobly as the president of Georgia. So badly that, a year ago, hundreds of thousands of Georgian protesters took to the streets — reminiscent of those stunning scenes throughout Eastern Europe in 1989 — with a simple message: It’s time for you to go. While a heroic reformer in Moscow, Mr. Shevardnadze resisted real reform in Tbilisi. During his eight years in office there, Georgia stayed frozen in its backward past. Corruption became rampant. The economy kept going nowhere. Pledges of liberty remained mere words. Shevardnadze was simply unable to shake his communist past, as he had before in Moscow.

Regardless, Mikhail Saakashvili came along. This youngish, Columbia University-educated lawyer began a fresh start for Georgia. At critical moments, he was the local version of Vaclav Havel — a strict advocate of peaceful nonviolence who implored his countrymen to carry roses, not rifles.

The Rose Revolution worked there, as it had in Czechoslovakia in 1989. It ushered in a new era, one launched neither with blood on the streets nor leaders swinging from lampposts.

Two months later, Mr. Saakashvili won the presidency in an internationally-recognized landslide. Since then, he has been diligently crusading to root out corruption and repair relations with the West, particularly the United States.

While others among what President Bush dubs “the coalition of the willing” in Iraq are heading for the exits, Mr. Saakashvili is increasing Georgia’s troop strength in Iraq five-fold, to 850. Georgia also has troops performing nicely in Afghanistan and Kosovo. Granted, the number of its soldiers in such global hotspots isn’t staggering. But then again, neither is Georgia’s population.

Recognizing Georgia’s contribution, the United States is helping to train and equip many of its forces so they can contribute more in the war against terrorism. Moreover, the new U.S. foreign aid initiative, the Millennium Challenge Account, has chosen Georgia as one of the first recipients. Georgia, rare among developing states, met the strict guideposts for the Challenge Account, which overall signify “good local government.” Mr. Saakashvili’s anti-corruption campaign — easy to talk about as a candidate, but tougher to implement once in office — is continuing. In the past year, notoriously dishonest police officers were fired and replaced by highly-trained and better paid professionals.

And Georgia’s creaking, Soviet-era tax system is now being overhauled — something badly needed here, during Mr. Bush’s second term — and capped with a flat tax on personal income. Privatization is proceeding in Georgia, with big slabs of state-held property being sold to interested parties.

Such reforms are appealing — not only to Americans but also to Georgians long in the diaspora. Thousands living abroad are returning to the land of their ancestors, giving the nation a morale boost and boosting its intellectual capital. There’s a “brain gain,” since many returnees are highly-educated.

It’s important to us, and to them, that this Georgian experiment succeed. It could be a model to other states which were part of the Soviet Union. We need a decent, successful Georgia to be on their minds, too.

Ken Adelman, a U.N. ambassador and arms control director under President Reagan, now co-hosts TechCentralStation.com, an online think-tank.

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