The sudden death of American foreign-policy expert Richard Holbrooke is bad news for Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili.
The democrat Holbrooke—known as a bull headed maverick who often went rogue—was a staunch ally of the president, and upon his death last week Saakashvili named a cobble-stoned street in the capital of Tbilisi after him.
The Georgian leader is an equal-opportunity street namer: there’s also one for George W. Bush.
With Holbrooke gone, Saakashvili must be refreshing his Facebook page, trying to come up with U.S. policy makers willing to “friend” his troubled regime.
According to a “secret” missive released by Wikileaks in recent days, a cable from the U.S. ambassador in Tbilisi to prep Holbrooke for his last trip to Georgia shows a country deeply troubled.
Excerpts from the leaked cable show a lingering doubt that democracy is flourishing in the Caucus nation. In the words of Ambassador John R. Bass:
A palpable sense of insecurity still permeates society and politics. Miscalculations and provocations—domestically, in the territories or north across the mountains—could easily spark renewed crisis. With a more stable economy and no viable rival, President Saakashvili is stronger politically, but paradoxically more insecure, burdened by the fear history will judge him to have lost irrevocably the occupied territories.
This is a reference to Saakashvili’s invasion of South Ossetia, sparking the brief war with Russia in August 2008.
Bass also notes “a steady drumbeat of Russian accusations about the legitimacy and behavior of his government.
Reading between the lines, the abassador is no doubt referring to the corruption in Saakashvili’s government and the continued stream of scandals. (The most recent one, according to The Daily Mirror, involved the Georgian delegation hiring dozens of prostitutes in Lisbon to party after the summit. A party which apparently woke up Nicholas Sarkozy and resulted in a police raid.)
Further, the cable to Holbrooke states:
Saakashvili continues to cast about for the ‘one big thing‘ that will secure Georgia's place in the west, recently adding an offer to NATO and the U.S. to provide a logistics hub for Afghanistan to his substantial troop commitment over the next two years.
This makes it sound as if Georgia is a mighty player, and an invaluable force to be reckoned with in the war. In fact, Saakashvili has sent 173 men to Afghanistan, being trained under the French.
Officials have avoided suggesting that the contribution will help Georgia get into NATO, saying instead that it will help Georgia demonstrate itself as a contributing partner, with the apparent implication that NATO allies will then take Georgia more seriously.
What Bass doesn’t say is that Georgia will never be admitted into NATO as long as Saakashvili is president. Indeed, Bush himself in his new memoir assessed the Georgian president’s personality as “hot blooded.”
European leaders do not take Saakashvili seriously, and more are joining in Russian President Medvedev’s assessment that the brash Georgian leader is “a political corpse.”
Whether they make the connection explicit or not, the Georgians see their contributions to Afghanistan as a down payment on their admission into NATO,” Bass concludes.
On the domestic front,
It is hard to overestimate the extent to which an intense climate of insecurity permeates Georgian society. . . . Although consumer indicators are improving, the economy remains a concern, as unemployment is up and investments and government revenues have fallen.
Speaking of the burgeoning opposition to Saakashvili’s authoritarian rule, Bass noted that the current pesident “allowed” a free election for mayor of Tbilisi, “However, substantial government influence, if not outright control, over broadcast and other media steepen the slope the opposition needs.”
Georgia as a beacon of democracy? The cable to Holbrooke undermines this image.
“Much of the public,” Bass said, “is still looking for the government to make good on its promises of a new wave of democratic reform as articulated by Saakashvili after the August 2008 conflict. “
One of these concerns is a free press, certainly one hallmark of a functioning democracy.
Nationwide television channels remain the main source of information for most people. Television content is limited, resulting in a majority of the population which is poorly informed about a variety of issues and everyday concerns. Limited news programming by the Georgian Public Broadcaster in Azeri, Armenian and Russian leaves members of ethnic minorities poorly informed about developments in Georgia; many receive news via satellite from Azerbaijan, Armenia and Russia. There are no hard walls separating the editorial and management sides of media organizations.
The so-called Rose Revolution, which ushered in a wave of optimism, has resulted in a stagnated administration. Where there is no free media and where the president is driven by his own ego and paranoia, as the cable reveals, the West has little choice but to face the truth.
There is no democracy in Georgia. There is only a small street named Holbrooke.