Georgia's Revolution, America's Opportunity

December 3, 2003

Georgia's Revolution, America's Opportunity

 Georgia may be a small country, but its strategic importance is large.

 Georgia may be a small country, but its strategic importance is large.  Its strategic significance, as real estate agents might say, derives principally, if not exclusively, from its location.  Many observers cite this location with respect to the Caucasus being a bridge between Europe and Asia and between Russia and the Black Sea and the Middle East.  Alternatively, the important Baku-Ceyhan pipeline, which offers to Azerbaijan and Central Asia a chance to avoid reliance on Russia's energy monopoly, adds to Georgia's strategic significance.  However, these facts, though critical, do not fully capture Georgia's significance for the United States.

First of all, Georgia, like its neighbor, Azerbaijan, is a major link in the logistical chain that supports our war on terrorism from bases in Central Asia.  If Georgia was to disintegrate into permanent instability - that scenario remains a genuine possibility - our ability to sustain our military position in Central Asia would suffer serious impairment.  Therefore, Georgia's stability is a major interest of the United States.  Second, Georgia, because of its support for the United States, has become a target for Al-Qaida and its affiliated organizations who targeted the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline earlier this year.  As that pipeline's continuing functioning is vital to both Azerbaijan and Georgia, it is essential for them and important for Washington that it be secured against further attacks.  Georgia's proximity to Chechnya and the vulnerability that would inevitably ensue from any period of prolonged instability would heighten the attraction of that pipeline as a target to Georgia's and America's enemies.

However, beyond these immediate issues, there are at least two other critical issues for both Georgia and the United States.  Georgia under Edvard Shevarnadze, despite his international reputation, had long since become a failing state beset by massive corruption, civil violence, ethnic separatism and a government that was neither representative, nor effective, nor accountable. Shevarnadze's efforts to rig the election of November 2 and the ensuing signs that he was flirting with bringing separatists to power and thus threatening his opponents with either separatism or the use of Russian forces to back his wholly corrupt and unrepresentative government would inevitably have precipitated an explosion in Georgia.  As it happens, the explosion came sooner rather than later.  And during the crisis, the United States, which had become progressively disillusioned with Shevarnadze's regime, made clear its opposition to these maneuvers thereby emboldening the opposition.  The strong and disciplined show of public opposition that then overthrew Shevarnadze also owed much to its leaders' study of the Serbian movement that overthrew Slobodan Milosevic in 2000 after he too rigged elections. Thus the United States has achieved an opportunity to help promote a democracy that came to power peacefully and to use it as an example throughout the CIS.

Such democracy promotion is essential because every government in that region, including Russia, suffers from a major deficit of democracy.  Though the extent of that deficit differs from state to state there is no doubt of its existence.  Nor is there any doubt that this democratic deficit facilitates the ultimate and inevitable explosion of violent opposition that will benefit terrorists and their allies when they occur.  But in the meantime, the prevailing misrule also facilitates Moscow's efforts to regain an imperial position in the CIS and thus reinforce the all too visible efforts now underway there to undermine and roll back the democratic gains of the last twenty years. 

This is not just a case of Russia's opposition to "exporting democracy" as stated by president Vladimir Putin.  Rather we see Russia's use of organized crime figures and the exploitation of these regimes' massive corruption to secure preferential economic and political positions in Georgia and other CIS regimes.  We also can see an attempt to impose permanent Russian military bases in these areas, often in violation of solemn international agreements, to ensure that Moscow's dictates are obeyed.  In Georgia and elsewhere, we also see efforts to monopolize the local energy economies while Russia simultaneously exploits local and regional ethnic rivalries in order to maintain a belt of subservient regimes on its frontier.  These operations also allow Moscow to threaten Georgia with dismemberment of rebel provinces like Abkhazia and Southern Ossetia  All too often this exploitation of local insecurities masquerades under the facade of waging the war on terrorism.

Consequently the triumph of a peaceful democratic opposition movement in Georgia is not at all what Moscow wanted.  But it certainly redounds to Georgia's and America's benefit.  Moscow clearly preferred a divided, weak regime that would have to look to it for support.  Meanwhile it would manipulate Georgia's economic weakness and ethnic divisions to its own advantage and strive to exclude the United States from the area.  Nor is this victory congenial to the CIS' other dictators or would-be authoritarians who must all see portents of their future in Shevarnadze's fall.

But unless there is progress towards democracy and open societies in these regimes, we can be certain that they will collapse and, quite likely, in violent circumstances.  While the Bush Administration must perpetually balance the need for security and stability against the urgency of reform; Georgia has now provided it with an opportunity to urge other rulers to follow a more enlightened course of action.  It is all too clear that Russia's perception of its own vital interests in Georgia and elsewhere in the CIS entails the continuing stagnation of those societies in a state of neo-colonial backwardness which inevitably ensures a violent outcome.  On the other hand, Georgia's revolution now offers America a heaven-sent opportunity to advance democracy throughout the CIS.  While this revolution faces daunting challenges and could yet go awry; Washington's first steps have been masterfully calculated.  Now the Administration and the new Georgian government must seize the opportunity at hand to help stabilize a vitally important region against the manifold threats of war, terrorism, backwardness, misrule and neo-colonialism that challenge security there.  It is urgent that we and they do indeed seize the day for, as we know, there are few if any second chances in world history.


Stephen Blank is a professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College. The views expressed here do not in any way represent those of the U.S. Army, the Defense Department or the United States Government.