Vienna, September 16 – Georgia’s possible inclusion in the Western alliance, NATO’s secretary general has made clear, will depend just as much on the willingness of its government to meet the norms of democracy as on the threat that the Russian Federation so obviously poses to that South Caucasus country.
In an interview published in “The Financial Times” in advance of his visit to Tbilisi this week, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said that the message of his NATO mission there would be that “you are a democracy, act like a democracy, strengthen your democracy, strengthen the rule of law” (www.ft.com/cms/s/0/b2a02cd6-82bb-11dd-a019-000077b07658.html?nclick_check=1).
The NATO official pointedly called attention to the OSCE final report in May on Georgia’s parliamentary elections had found “significant shortcomings,” something that he suggested could delay or even derail Georgia’s effort to become part of the Western alliance, whatever threats it faced.
Georgian officials in advance of Scheffer’s visit and even during it have acknowledged the need to promote democracy, but the dominant theme of their comments is that the NATO delegation’s visit to Tbilisi accelerates Georgia’s effort to enhance its security by joining the Western alliance (www.civil.ge/eng/article.php?id=19506&search=dot%20ru).
The government of any country attacked as Georgia has been will inevitably seek to defend itself by taking measures that most people would view as incompatible with democracy and freedom. In at least three areas, President Mikhail Saakashvili has done just that. What is at issue now, as NATO has now made clear, is whether Tbilisi will now reverse course.
First, on August 29, President Saakashvili suggested that Georgia needed what he called a “Patriot Act” to give him the tools to prevent Moscow from overthrowing his government. But both then and subsequently, he provided no details, thus making his announcement in the minds of many more an act of intimidation than a defensible defense mechanism
Many members of the Georgian opposition have suggested that Saakashvili is less concerned about what Moscow may do than he is about the possibility that they will be able to limit his power by mobilizing Georgians against him, and that to prevent that, he is prepared to label anyone who opposes him or his policies “an agent of Moscow.”
Indeed, as Nino Burjanadze, the former parliamentary speaker and current president of the Tbilisi Foundation for Democracy and Development, has said, “if this document is somehow linked with the restriction of democratic freedoms … this will only aggravate the political situation in the country” (www.civil.ge/eng/article.php?id=19487&search=patriot%20act).
Second, as almost any government would do during an invasion, Tbilisi blocked Russian television news at the start of the war by ordering local cable networks not to carry them -- Satellite providers were not affected – a move that as of this week, it has not reversed (www.civil.ge/eng/article.php?id=19459&search=internet).
Given the Georgian government’s dominance of most Georgian news outlets, this measure has the effect of isolating the citizens of that country from hearing alternative views and, perhaps the real motive behind this action, gives President Saakashvili a largely unchallenged opportunity to structure public opinion.
And third, the Georgian authorities have actively interfered with the Internet, not only blocking dot RU sites for a month – they were unblocked on August 9th – but reportedly trying to impose censorship on Georgian portals that featured political discussions and criticism of Saakashvili.
The editors of the Georgian site, www.forum.ge, which was closed during the active phase of the war with the Russian Federation, for example went back online on September 1st but asked potential posters to restrain themselves from criticizing Tbilisi lest that “again trigger a closure of the forum” (www.civil.ge/eng/article.php?id=19414&search=internet).
“It is necessary that we all stand by each other and not make any irresponsible statements; there is no need for internal strife. For that reason,” the site’s moderator said, “everyone [should] maximally refrain from posts” that might lead to “an internal split within the country” or be “inappropriate for the state’s interests.”
Such developments over the last month make NATO’s message now especially important, but in considering what is likely to happen next, several things need to be kept in mind. First of all, during this crisis, Moscow and its surrogates have not only hacked Georgian sites but subjected many of them to denial of service (DOS) attacks.
Second, as the NATO message implied, the Georgian government can act like a democracy now that the active phase of the military conflict is over and reverse course in these areas. That is what other democratic countries are expected to do, and NATO is thus making an entirely appropriate demand.
And third, the chances that Tbilisi will do so are currently being undercut by Russian statements about what Moscow will do if NATO takes in Georgia and by Russian actions on the ground in Georgia, statements and actions that will make it less likely that President Saakashvili will change course and more likely that there will be a political crisis in Georgia.