The Republic of Georgia in the Caucasus is on the cusp of change. Beyond street protests, there is a deep polarization in society that bespeaks an unrest that will not be stopped until the government changes and democratic reforms finally are introduced.
I know this government and its shortcomings firsthand. I served for two years as its ambassador to the United Nations. I resigned in late 2008 because I disagreed with the erratic, unilateral decision-making of President Mikheil Saakashvili and his government.
The government’s inability to tolerate alternative views led my country into an armed conflict with Russia that we had no chance of winning. But wrongheaded decisions keep rolling on. Journalists are protesting the arrest of Mr. Saakashvili’s official photographer on charges of espionage after he documented police brutality. This follows the killing of four protesters in late May.
The solution to these mindless crackdowns is twofold. First, there must be a better mechanism for political competition and the peaceful transfer of power. Without election reform of this kind, Mr. Saakashvili’s authoritarianism will go unchecked. The Georgian people cannot live with that much longer.
Second, freedom of expression must be protected. In the modern world, people must be heard. Unfortunately, in Georgia, dissent is barely tolerated, if at all.
Georgians know democracy and freedom exist in Georgia in name only. They are disappointed and, in many ways, surprised, given the country’s recent history. The world still remembers with awe the Rose Revolution of 2003, when former President Eduard Shevardnadze was swept from power over outrage against massive electoral fraud. Surely a more open society would be the inevitable result.
Not so. Too little has been done to fix Georgia’s broken democracy in the ensuing eight years. The public still needs greater faith in official voter lists. The principle of one person, one vote is undermined by voter lists subject to manipulation and an unfair system that rewards the party in power with more seats than it wins at the polls. In addition, the government must be stopped from spending money freely to retain its stranglehold on power. In effect, the government corruptly buys its influence by using taxpayer resources for its own ends. This must stop.
Despite the efforts of my political party, the Free Democrats, and of five other opposition parties to advance meaningful reforms, the government has taken only a few reluctant steps in the right direction. More needs to be done. Much more.
The dark cloud of censorship must be removed from Georgia’s media. The two highest-rated television stations with national reach run consistently pro-government news. A third, alternative news channel - Maestro - has not been granted a national broadcasting license. Cable companies are quietly discouraged from including this channel in their offerings. If the government were serious about media freedom, it would grant Maestro the ability to broadcast nationwide. It also would stop accusing journalists of being spies. An independent Russian journalist who visited Georgia recently drew the chilling parallel between the state of press freedom in Georgia today and the campaign by Vladimir Putin to silence Russia’s press a decade ago.
These are not simple challenges, to be sure. But a difficult journey begins with a few honest initiatives. Georgia is unique among former Soviet states because of the ingrained optimism of its people. Like Americans, we all say, “Yes, we can.” But first we must speak frankly about what is wrong in Georgia today. Only then can we start working in earnest on the remedy.
Irakli Alasania, former U.N. ambassador for the Republic of Georgia, heads an opposition party, the Free Democrats.