Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Just as Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. was addressing a dinner held at President Mikheil Saakashvili’s modern glass “palace” in Georgia’s capital city of Tbilisi last month, praising the country’s commitment to democracy, 18-year-old Melor Vachnadze was outside on the street being beaten by police and arrested for daring to offer a one-man protest against the authoritarian regime.

(This week, Russia has accused Georgia of reigniting violence in the breakaway province of South Ossetia by firing mortars and grenades into the South Ossetian capital city, Tskhinvali, over the past several days.)

Mr. Vachnadze, a member of the Youth Movement that participated in the massive spring rallies, in which hundreds of thousands of Georgians took to the streets to protest the government’s political corruption, crackdown on free media and lack of free elections as well as the de facto loss of their territory in South Ossetia, has joined dozens of other political prisoners rotting in the filthy, rat-infested jails in Tbilisi for daring to organize peacefully and challenge Mr. Saakashvili’s authority.

Mr. Biden was wined and dined and played like a Stradivarius. Although observers of the Caucasus predicted his visit to Georgia would be one of “tough love,” it turned out to be anything but. His off-the-cuff statements regarding Russia’s “invasion” of South Ossetia and hints that the United States would provide anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles to help replenish the Georgian army did serious damage to President Obama’s efforts to “reset” relations with Russia.

Bobblehead Biden, at it again.

An international report, due next week, is likely to put the blame for the disastrous three-day war in South Ossetia squarely on Mr. Saakashvili’s shoulders. Why is it that Americans have this fantasy about exporting freedom to former-Soviet republics when the man in charge — no Lech Walesa or Vaclav Havel, to be sure — is more committed to highly insulated personal power than democracy?

The Republic of Georgia has 5 million people. The United States already has sent $1 billion in aid. This makes Georgia the highest per-capita recipient of American aid in the world. Sending more tanks and guns to the unstable Mr. Saakashvili is like sending a gift-wrapped nuclear weapon to Iran.

Mr. Saakashvili proclaimed that U.S. weapons in Georgia “would make the hotheads think twice about further military adventures,” presumably referring to Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev, who took the military actions in South Ossetia only after Mr. Saakashvili had displayed his own hotheadedness by invading Tskhinvali in August 2008, leaving hundreds of women and children slaughtered.

Some facts about Georgia: The foreign trade turnover for the first six months of 2009 dropped 37.2 percent, to $2.5 billion, against $4 billion during the same period last year. The value of export was down 35.3 percent from last year, and imports were down 37.7 percent.

Unemployment stands at 17 percent. Opposition parties are fractured, after the street protests that were, thankfully, peaceful compared to the November 2007 riots in which hundreds of protesters were tear-gassed and beaten.

There are no free media; the only independent television station, Imedi, was shuttered by government troops before the 2008 elections in which Mr. Saakashvili eked out a 52 percent victory, compared to his once 90 percent support.

Even Freedom House, an early supporter of Mr. Saakashvili, is realizing that the dream dies hard. In its just-published Freedom of the World 2009, Georgia is ranked as “only partly free,” with the trend arrow pointing downward.

Former Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili, one of the opposition members who have been coming to Washington in recent months looking for support, resigned after telling the press that Mr. Saakashvili had ordered him to assassinate a wealthy businessman who had dared disagree with the president. Mr. Okruashvili accused the government of “dishonesty, injustice and repression” right before he was arrested. Critics who have resigned in a steady stream from Mr. Saakashvili’s Cabinet — some of whom are in political exile — say he is out of touch with reality.

Georgians who heard Mr. Biden’s speech, in which he vowed that democracy could not be achieved until “the media is totally independent,” scoffed at the vice president’s lack of information and intelligence. Mr. Biden did more harm than good, sounding naive and weak and also out of touch with reality. Georgia is good, free and independent … Russia is evil and plans to invade the country.

The fact is, Russia has no problem with Georgia. Russia’s problem is Mr. Saakashvili. He has misstated the facts, appropriated money for his personal “palace” while citizens starve, paid thousands of dollars to a personal masseuse who bragged about it and posted a video on YouTube, and made a mockery of his office. He has displayed a shocking lack of diplomacy and thinks the United States will blindly support his ever-increasing erratic behavior. Abuse of power is a polite way of saying what Mr. Saakashvili has done to his countrymen, who are still bent on changing administrations before Mr. Saakashvili’s term expires in 2013.

In an interview with London’s Independent two weeks ago, Mr. Saakashvili appeared distracted and disengaged. Then the reporter noticed his watch. It was a plastic Swatch called the BunnySutra. When you press the watch face, the different pink bunny figures at each hour assume lurid sexual positions. Mr. Saakashvili suddenly focused and delightedly demonstrated it to the reporter, who sat there, stunned.

This is a man to whom Americans are going to send deadly anti-aircraft tanks and missiles on the Russian border?

Maybe Mr. Biden also has a Kama Sutra bunny watch.

Tsotne Bakuria, a former member of Parliament from Georgia, is co-founder of Georgians for Democracy in Washington.

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