Georgia: In need of a closer look from US leaders

President Mikheil Saakashvili is pushing Georgia in a bad direction and in fact is effectively undermining U.S. interests. Democracy is deteriorating rapidly as President Saakashvili and his allies are increasing repression and rights of opposition political parties, as well as average citizens.
 

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Since the “Rose Revolution” in 2003 when President Saakashvili came to power, Georgia has sought to present itself as a reliable partner for the United States.  Georgians have fought in meaningful numbers alongside the U.S. in Iraq and Afghanistan and have supported other U.S. foreign policy goals.  The U.S. in turn has invested over $1 billion in Georgia’s development and millions on democratization and President Saakashvili would like Americans to think of Georgia as a beacon of democracy in the South Caucasus.
 
Unfortunately, the situation on the ground is quite different and it appears the U.S. is no longer getting a return on its investment and is at risk of inadvertently funding the repression of the Georgian people through the Saakashvili regime. The U.S. government should not assume Georgia has a democracy at home just because they have a significant number of troops in Afghanistan.
 
Reports emanate daily detailing the harassment, detainment and abuse of innocent civilians that happen to support the opposition. Reporters have been arrested, laws changed, teachers fired and shots taken all in the name of forcing support of the Saakashvili regime. Much of this has been noted by organizations such as the United Nations and Amnesty International, but despite this attention, the frequency of outrageous events is increasing.
 
President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have each taken recent opportunities – Saakashvili’s White House visit in January, the NATO Summit in Chicago in May, Secretary Clinton’s visit to Georgia in June – to remind Saakashvili and his allies, with no ambiguity, that “free and fair elections” and a “formal transfer of power” are expected to take place.
 
These comments come on the heels of cautionary statements in the last two months from John Bass (U.S. Ambassador to Georgia), Irakli Alasania (former Georgian Ambassador to the United Nations), Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD), Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN), Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), Representative Jim McDermott (D-WA), as well as Amnesty International and a United Nations Human Rights Rapporteur.
 
On June 7, U.S. Congressman Howard Berman (D-Calif.), ranking member on the House Committee on Foreign Affairs said, “I am concerned by efforts to prevent a prominent political opponent from running in the parliamentary election and reported attempts to intimidate local opposition leaders, including denying them access to media.  We will continue to watch this process closely.”
 
As all of these leaders are noting, some more subtly than others, that “democracy” is not in order. These are not the actions of a democratic government and strong partner of the U.S.  These are activities of an authoritarian government attempting to keep a vice grip on power.
 
The coming elections in Georgia (parliamentary in 2012 and presidential in 2013) are absolutely critical to the future of my country. The U.S. should strongly and publically condemn what is happening in Georgia and remind the current government that unfair elections and rampant human rights violations will severely damage the bilateral relationship. Rumors persist that President Saakashvili could become Prime Minister in an effort to stay in power.  In essence, “pulling a Putin,” which is the last thing Georgia needs.
 
What Georgia needs are free, fair and competitive elections honestly reflecting the will of the people to choose their leaders. On Georgian Independence Day at the end of May, more than 150,000 people filled Freedom Square in Tbilisi supporting these very ideals.
 
If Georgia is to fully realize the democratic promise of the decade old “Rose Revolution” and be a true partner of the U.S., significant changes must be made in Tbilisi. The current government is not on a path toward freedom and prosperity. In order for this to happen, the lives, rights and voice of ordinary citizens must be protected and heard.
 
Japaridze served as Georgian Ambassador to the United States from July 1994 until March 2002.  Currently he is a foreign policy advisor to Bidzina Ivanishvili, the leader of the “Georgian Dream” coalition.