Support Georgia, Not Saakashvili

Mikheil Saakashvili suppresses democracy, curbs free speech, and blasts his opponents as radical and unpatriotic. Why is he the media darling of the West?

The hardest thing for opposition groups to do is to criticize their governments while supporting their country. Any regime, especially one that has enjoyed domestic or international support in the past, can typically count on people to view its opponents as opponents of the country it stands at the head of. And it would be a rare administration that did not try to portray those who oppose it-especially if they are calling for its ouster-as somehow disloyal.

In recent months, the Georgian opposition has often heard from our friends and partners abroad that we have become radicalized and thus threaten the stability and even the future of the country. But our "radicalism," if that is the right word, is intended to end the instability our country faces rather than exacerbate it.

Georgia's president, Mikheil Saakashvili, enjoyed near universal support when he helped lead the Rose Revolution. But now, as a result of his disastrous policies, those who supported him in the past now find themselves compelled to oppose him in the name of supporting Georgia.

Not surprisingly, President Saakashvili has alternately sought to portray his opponents as dangerous radicals who do not understand the challenges Tbilisi faces or as unpatriotic given what Russia has done and continues to do in order to undermine the country. And not surprisingly, many ordinary Georgians and even more people abroad accept at least part of his argument, fearful that if they do not support him, they are not supporting Georgia.

That is a false choice, and Saakashvili knows it. But many people, including some internationally respected institutions such as the Jamestown Foundation and the Economist, have fallen into his trap. Over the last four years, President Saakashvili has betrayed the ideals of the Rose Revolution. He has betrayed the ideals of democracy by suppressing freedom and moving against his opponents. And he has betrayed Georgia by actions that have opened the way for our country to lose control over part of its territory and much of its destiny.

Some have argued that Georgia needs another revolution, but that would be dangerous and potentially disastrous. Not only would it create opportunities for foreign meddling that Georgia cannot now afford, but worse, it also would undermine democracy by suggesting that the power of the streets is more important than the power of the ballot box.

Stability is important, but Georgia has learned that the cult of stability can involve the sacrifice of democracy and freedom. And a false stability, which Georgia has seen over the last several years, is no stability at all. That is why we are pursuing democracy and freedom as a means to genuine stability, rather than allowing the current Georgian leadership to sacrifice those values in the name of order.

To that end, the opposition is pursuing the following goals. First, we seek to pull Georgia back from the precipice of civil unrest and the end of authoritarianism in the country. The situation remains serious and explosive and everyone but the president admits it. That is why the head of the Georgian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Ilia II, called on authorities to "take effective steps to defuse tension either through early elections, negotiations, or other means." Unfortunately, President Saakashvili has shown little interest in restraint in his dealings with his own people or with Georgia's neighbors, leading our country into a self-defeating military confrontation, and dividing our citizens and losing their trust, making democracy impossible.

Second, we seek the establishment of a democratic state. That means first and foremost the creation of institutions and values that allow us to hold leaders accountable. Therefore, we want to overcome the divisions the current leadership has created and exploited, and to reach out to the international community.

Some of our Western partners do not yet understand that Saakashvili is building a Soviet-style regime in which the people have no leverage over those in power, undermining the very Western values that he routinely invokes, including freedom of the media, and staging the kind of elections that only a dictator could love.

For these reasons, the Georgian opposition, the "radicals" in the eyes of many, demand that Saakashvili resign because he has violated his oath and his commitment to the Georgian people.

President Saakashvili will continue to say his opponents are "unpatriotic." But the cause of our country and democracy are more important than whatever slanders he may utter. Georgians and their friends around the world will ultimately see his suggestion that people must support him if they are supporters of Georgia is just the latest example of the false use of patriotism as the last refuge of scoundrels.

Unfortunately, many in the Western media describe Saakashvili as pro-Western. But if that is true, then what is the West about? Georgians know the West favors democracy, equality, and the rule of law. But Saakashvili's actions don't correspond to these values.

The Georgian opposition is not fighting against Saakashvili; we are fighting for freedom and democracy, for control over the fate of our country and our lives. It believes the West shares these aims, and rejects a state where the leader invokes his ties to the West in order to destroy Western values.

If this makes us radicals, then to paraphrase an American patriot of two centuries ago, let us make the most of it because our values are right. In understanding, I hope the West will agree and help Georgians build the kind of society of which we all can be proud.