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Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2012

Post-Soviet Georgia reaffirms democratic system

The Washington Post

TBILISI, Georgia — The final test of any emerging democracy is whether its rulers are willing not only to stage a fair election but also to peacefully accept defeat.

Last week, Georgia became only the second post-Soviet country outside the Baltics to cross that threshold. Suddenly the question about this small Caucasian nation is not whether its U.S.-backed leaders can create liberal institutions but whether an electoral upset will spell their demise.

Georgia's breakthrough came on the afternoon of Oct. 2, when in a nationally televised address Mikheil Saakashvili, the charismatic and mercurial leader of the 2003 "Rose Revolution," conceded that an opposition coalition headed by an eccentric billionaire had captured a majority in Parliament. "You know that the views of this [opposition] coalition were and still are fundamentally unacceptable for me," Saakashvili said in his three-minute speech. "But democracy works in a way that the Georgian people make decisions by majority."

For the region composed of former republics of the Soviet Union, that was a landmark statement. Almost all elections in this part of the world over the past two decades have been rigged, and sometimes violent, affairs in which the losers never accept defeat, much less publicly acknowledge it. The foremost practitioner of this pseudo-democracy is Saakashvili's nemesis, Russian President Vladimir Putin, who invaded Georgia in 2008 in an attempt to topple the pro-Western government and who is now surely toasting its defeat.

Most Georgians give Saakashvili credit for restoring order in a country on the verge of becoming a failed state. But in recent years his opponents, as well as the army of lobbyists they hired in Washington, argued that Saakashvili was becoming another Putin — persecuting his opponents, limiting media freedoms and plotting to avoid term limits by becoming prime minister in the new parliamentary system.

The events of last week should silence such talk. Saakashvili's defeat was produced, in large part, not by his autocratic ways but by his embrace of democratic institutions — from the opposition media that broke a scandal about torture in state prisons two weeks before the election to the tens of thousands of election monitors who ensured a fair vote.

Now the question is whether Saakashvili's successors will expand on the liberal political foundation he laid or dismantle it, as happened in Putin's Russia and more recently in Ukraine.

Bidzina Ivanishvili, the political novice who assembled and paid for the winning coalition, is an enigmatic character — as I discovered when I met him on Sept. 30 in the palatial steel-and-glass pavilion he has constructed on a hill overlooking Tbilisi. As he led a group of journalists (brought here by the German Marshall Fund of the United States) around the grounds while chatting about his pet penguins, lemur and zebra, the trim 56-year-old oligarch prompted playful comparisons to the evil masterminds in James Bond films.

Although he made his $6 billion fortune in Russia, Ivanishvili does not appear to be a Kremlin stooge. But neither is he a liberal democrat: His political behavior is typical of Third World populists. His often extreme rhetoric varies wildly from day to day; he is autocratic in managing his coalition, and he appears intolerant of criticism. He bristled at questions from our group, wagging his finger and demanding to know where the queries came from. His coalition, held together by his own heavy spending, includes pro-Western liberals but also a motley collection of nationalists and xenophobes.

Ivanishvili appears eager to reach out to the same Western governments that Saakashvili assiduously courted — starting with the U.S. When I saw him briefly Monday night at his election headquarters after exit polls had predicted his victory, he said his first foreign visit would be to Washington, because "the first country, the first friend, is USA." Moments later he delivered a victory speech in which he thanked the crowd of Washington-based consultants in his campaign war room and predicted that Georgia would someday become a member of NATO.

But the new leader also appears eager to mend relations with Putin, who regarded Saakashvili as a personal enemy and Georgia as a renegade Russian province. Ivanishvili claimed, ludicrously, that "in terms of human freedom," Georgia was "much worse than Russia."

On Tuesday, he responded to Saakashvili's extraordinary concession by demanding that he resign immediately — an ultimatum he reversed the next day under pressure from Western diplomats.

Georgia's future — and the hope that democracy can begin to grow in the former Soviet Union — now depends on whether this unlikely new leader can sustain and extend the economic and political reforms that Saakashvili began.

Thanks to him, we know what success will look like: a speech someday by Ivanishvili, accepting political defeat and reaffirming the democratic system.

Jackson Diehl is deputy editorial page editor of The Washington Post.

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