Sunshine Democrats

America says democracy is great. Why aren’t we promoting it in Georgia and Afghanistan?

The dilemma of the recent Afghan presidential election that is beguiling the West looks like a repetition to Georgian eyes.

In January 2008, we too had a very questionable presidential election. We too had a previously popular president-and yet he barely garnered 45 percent of the vote in the initial count, despite controlling all the administrative resources, and obvious and less-obvious frauds. We too had a situation where the opposition appeared less familiar and less predictable than the incumbent government. Like Afghanistan, Georgia witnessed the rise of corruption in the form of fraudulent votes, but it was said to be a benign local characteristic, not an illness that should be eradicated.

While Georgians voted, the mood in Washington was one of caution. Should America condemn Tbilisi's poll and risk stability in the region for the sake of an ideal democracy? Especially one that might be out of reach for some time?

The answer in Georgia's case was a blunt no. Before the votes were fully counted, the U.S. envoy congratulated the incumbent president, Mikheil Saakashvili, upon his reelection. The American head of a team of election observers followed suit, and Saakashvili's final count went up to an unexpected 53 percent. For the Georgian opposition and public opinion alike, it meant that the game was over, despite demonstrations calling for a much-deserved second round election. There would not be a second chance for Georgian democracy.

Our Western partners, however, assumed stability in the Caucasus had been preserved, and that Georgia could have another try at democracy in its parliamentary elections the following spring. But both assumptions proved wrong. The region was thrown into chaos in August 2008, when Saakashvili walked into the Kremlin's trap and fought a war with Russia over South Ossetia. Meanwhile, democratic freedoms were curbed throughout the country, making the outcome of the parliamentary election illegitimate. The opposition refused to take its seats, so as not to condone the mock vote.

A year and a half later, Georgia is a mess-with both permanent internal turmoil and permanent confrontation with its northern neighbor. Stability and democracy seem as far away as ever.

America should think hard on this lesson from the Caucasus and apply it to Afghanistan. Prematurely barring a second round between President Hamid Karzai and his primary challenger, Abdullah Abdullah, shows a lack of trust in the mechanisms of democracy. It prevents the political opposition from emerging as a credible alternative (which, not so incidentally, is the main criticism aimed at the Georgian opposition today). It also does little to convince the population that democracy is an effective means of governance. And it means a rising indifference and hostility to the very Western allies who preach democracy, but only up to a point-as they appear more concerned with protecting powerful friends than the promotion of the principles they claim to defend. Skepticism and cynicism of the electoral process are hardly feelings America should want to spread amongst the peoples of a nascent democracy.

Georgia went through this sordid process in the past year. Afghanistan shouldn't have to. The lesson is clear-lasting peace and stability cannot come without democracy. Washington should be a firmer believer in the form of government it preaches, whether that be in Kabul or Tbilisi.

 

Salome Zourabichvili served as Georgia's minister of foreign affairs from 2004-2005. She is now in the democratic opposition and is leader of The Way of Georgia political party.