The Mubarak of Georgia

Conditions are ripe for revolt in Georgia. Washington shouldn't prop up Saakashvili's authoritarian regime.

American foreign policy experts, having been caught off guard by the swift regime changes in Tunisia and Egypt, are now examining other countries where citizens have been oppressed and denied basic democratic freedoms. Countries where peaceful street protests have turned violent, where opposition political parties have been brutally squashed, and where economies are in tatters, elections rigged, judicial systems corrupted, and free media bound and gagged.

One of those states is Georgia, where U.S.-backed President Mikheil Saakashvili must be concerned by the latest turn of events in Egypt. He and former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak have many similarities.

Georgian opposition leader and former Speaker of the Parliament Nino Burdzhanadze, one of the masterminds of the so-called Rose Revolution which swept Saakashvili into power in 2004, warned that the Georgian capital Tbilisi could erupt in a passionate cry for democracy and change the same way Cairo did. As Burdzhanadze said this week, “a social explosion may take place.” Censorship has increased in Georgia. The Internet and all media outlets are under personal control of the government. Unlawful wiretaps are common.

And popular anger about Saakashvili’s extravagances is brewing. The president built himself a multi-million-dollar palace, bought a private jet with a special ejection seat and is now erecting another palatial domed estate for his wife. He travels with a phalanx of bodyguards and is known, like Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi, as a man of “appetites.”

Saakashvili’s term expires in 2013, but he has changed the constitution to allow him to remain on as prime minister. He has also hired four top lobbying firms in Washington, one of which counted Hosni Mubarak as a client.

If the United States really intends to reset relations with Russia, it must examine its role in propping up Saakashvili’s authoritarian regime at a time when dictators are no longer in fashion. In a recently released WikiLeaks document, Saakashvili met with U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs Alexander Vershbow last October to discuss the volatile climate in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two breakaway regions which the president of Georgia has vowed to reclaim. In August 2008, according to a European Union report, Saakashvili invaded South Ossetia, sparking a five-day skirmish that ended with thousands injured, several dead, homes and churches destroyed, and Russian tanks headed toward the Georgian capital.

The United States has pressed Saakashvili for a peaceful solution in the separatist regions (most of the citizens hold Russian passports and consider themselves Russian), but the stubborn Georgian leader refuses to back down. During the meeting, Saakashvili asked Vershbow for “deepened defense and security assistance,” according to the leaked cable, and “stressed that time matters, as Georgia needed a [military] deterrent.” (The country, with roughly 4.5 million inhabitants, is the size of West Virginia.)

Saakashvili felt Russia would attack Georgia if Moscow believed the country to be weak and undefended. The American security adviser was taken aback. He then had to remind the Georgian president that “even with added capabilities, Georgia needed to be realistic as it could never defeat Russia.” Vershbow strongly advised that there was no military solution to the conflict. Saakashvili then asserted that “every minute of delay of Russia’s invasion mattered because only international intervention had prevented Russian tanks from rolling into Tbilisi.” The leaked classified cable is revealing, as it shows the Georgian president is clearly delusional, paranoid and itching for a fight. In September 2008, the United States provided Georgia with a $1 billion aid package but since then has refused to sell arms to the country, whose the army is woefully inept.

Saakashvili cut diplomatic ties with Russia, which now seems to have been a misstep given Obama’s wish to warm up relations with the Kremlin and ease the tension in the Caucasus. Saakashvili’s trump card has always been the area of Pankisi Gorge, with a growing and violent Islamic insurgency responsible for various terrorist attacks against Russia—the most recent being the airport suicide bombing in Moscow. He has been viewed as soft on the terrorists, tacitly approving of their continued efforts. Saakashvili has also been a keen supporter of Belarusian dictator Aleksandr Lukashenko and indeed was the only foreign leader to telephone Lukashenko and congratulate him after the phony presidential elections in Belarus last December. The election was so fraudulent, the United States and the European Union have broken all ties to Belarus.

When Saakashvili took power in 2004, his wife gave a magazine interview in which she compared her husband—a strong leader—to Beria and Stalin. Indeed, there is a question of Saakashvili facing a trial for war crimes. If he is seen as culpable, there is no doubt he will turn to the United States for help. By that time, however, the fever from Cairo will have spread.

In the words of the vice president of the World Congress of the People of Georgia, Badri Meladze, “Georgia cannot tolerate injustice forever.”

Tsotne Bakuria is a former member of the Georgian parliament.