On Monday, Senator John McCain received Georgia's highest state honor from President Mikheil Saakashvili for his show of support of Georgian sovereignty during the 2008 Russia-Georgia War-a controversial, long-standing conflict in which Senator McCain publicly appointed himself (and by virtue of his political prominence, the entire United States) a friend and partner of Georgia in the wake of what he remarkably called "the most serious crisis since the Cold War."
This would be simple enough if Georgia and the United States actually shared "challenges, common interests, and common democratic values (of) individual liberty and equal justice, human rights and human dignity," as Senator McCain professed. But that is not quite the case, and promising to be Georgia's champion in battles over territorial sovereignty with Russia is risky, potentially coming at high cost for U.S-Russian relations and broader U.S. interests-especially since Russia is vital to negotiating with Iran as well as combating terrorism and nuclear proliferation. Is Senator McCain making empty promises to Georgia, or does he truly believe that the United States can get stronger UN Security Council sanctions on Iran without fear of a Russian veto?
Senator McCain readily points his finger at the Obama administration for what he saw as a timid response to the Iran elections and criticizes it for treading too lightly when dealing with rogue regimes; he clearly views promotion of democracy as key in achieving broader foreign-policy prerogatives. And so, Senator McCain's vision of U.S-Georgian partnership is further complicated by the fact that much of it is predicated upon his belief that President Mikheil Saakashvili shares the same vision of universal human rights that the senator himself propounds. Unfortunately, in view of Georgia's weak democratic institutions, suppressed opposition, heavily regulated media and press, and underdeveloped business sector, Senator McCain should exercise caution before calling Mikheil Saakashvili's Georgia "an inspiration to freedom loving people everywhere."
Senator McCain met with several Georgian opposition leaders before his reception with President Saakashvili-leaders who undoubtedly tried to present the senator with a very different picture of Georgian political and civic life. Three of the leaders reported to have met with the senator-Davit Usupashvili, Giorgi Targamadeze, and Levan Gachechiladze-signed a letter petitioning UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon for electoral observers for the forthcoming Georgian municipal elections, along with a diverse and representative cross-section of Georgian politicians, most of who are pro-U.S. and pro-NATO. Other signatories included Nino Burjanadze, former parliament speaker, Salome Zourabichvili, the former Georgian foreign minister, Irakli Alasania, the former ambassador to the United Nations, and Shalva Natelashvili, the leader of the Georgian Labour Party. Conspicuously missing from the letter are accounts of the "common democratic values" that Senator McCain cites in his acceptance speech. Instead, the authors write that Georgia is now a country in which "autocracy thrives" and "real power is fully and completely concentrated in the institution of President alone." Mikheil Saakashvili's protection of individual civil liberty is likewise missing from the picture; rather than encourage it, the petitioners report that "the Government has strengthened its grip on the media." Outside observers, including the U.S. State Department and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), have criticized Georgia's flawed election procedures, executive branch corruption, and lack of freedom of speech and press.
Courting Georgia and all of its imperfections may be an effective way of pulling an emerging democracy into a position where it can more fully develop its democratic institutions, encouraged by the carrot of European Union prospects and preferential relations with the United States, but only if it includes an honest assessment of Gerogia's semi-authoritarian politics. The potential costs of cozying up to Mr. Saakashvili-losing our credibility as genuine supporters of high democratic ideals and losing Russia's cooperation on Iran-are simply too high.
The United States can and should continue to be a friend of Georgia, but it must first take off its blinders and critically assess Mr. Saakashvili's democratic transgressions just as it does those of its northern neighbor. We must redefine the boundaries of both our relationship with Georgia and with Russia so that each side has a clearer picture of what the United States can and cannot do. There are certainly non-negotiables: America strongly supports Georgia's independence and sovereignty. But we have few credible options for solving deeply-rooted territorial disputes in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, especially for returning them to Georgian control. Washington can potentially improve regional stability, strengthen Georgia's democracy and independence, and pursue a working relationship with Moscow on major international issues. It is easy to dismiss Russia and its laundry-list of shortcomings, especially by viewing the country as a hostile power, as Senator McCain seemingly does. But, it is President Saakashvili and not Russia that is the biggest obstacle to true democracy in Georgia.
Elizabeth A. Sterling is a research associate at The Nixon Center.