At a two-day conference in Tbilisi on reform in Europe's transitional democracies, President Mikheil Saakashvili praised the 2003 Rose Revolution for "shatter[ing] myths about Georgia" as a failed state. He added that popular trust in the government "has increased significantly" over the past two years.
"The state has taken on responsibility for its people. This is our biggest achievement," Saakashvili told conference participants on November 23, the official anniversary of the Rose Revolution, and a day of national commemoration for Georgia's patron Saint George.
In remarks to foreign reporters at the conclusion of public festivities, the Georgian leader urged observers to focus on "the future" rather than on "what happened two years ago." Education and health care reforms, along with clearing debt from the energy sector, are among the signs that Georgia's reforms have staying power, he said in earlier comments. "The most important thing is these institutions have become popular."
Nonetheless, in opening remarks on November 22, the president noted that "[We are] trying to learn from the negative lessons of reforms." Saakashvili identified a need "to build a sense of responsibility in all sectors of government and society" as among the tasks ahead. "[I]t isn't typical to reach all expectations," cautioned Saakashvili.
Georgia's opposition argues that the Saakashvili's administration has taken steps to squash opposing political views and to muzzle independent media outlets. In a November 21 interview with the online publication Civil Georgia, David Usupashvili, leader of the centrist opposition Republican Party, argued that the Saakashvili administration is showing "a tendency towards the establishment of authoritarian governance."
Expressing a commitment to building democratic institutions was a motif for government speakers at the Tbilisi conference, entitled "Europe's New Wave of Liberation: Democracy and Transformation," and organized by the presidential administration. "[We're] in the stage where institutions really matter," Prime Minister Zurab Noghaideli said on November 23. "Democracy is not only about revolutions. Democracy is about elections. Democracy is about institutions."
Foreign Minister Gela Bezhuashvili cited "the strengthening of democratic institutions" as "a matter of national security for this country." Parliamentary Speaker Nino Burjanadze avoided the term "institutions," but stressed the need for a "strong" civil society, judiciary, parliament and independent press.
The need for democratic institutions also featured prominently in remarks by US Ambassador John Teft and US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for the Caucasus, Central Asia and Southeast Europe Matthew J. Bryza.
Bryza argued that it is "unquestionable" that the Saakashvili reforms "are being institutionalized," citing the Georgian leader's "visionary, concrete" peace plan for the breakaway region of South Ossetia as one such example. In a brief statement, Bryza called for "greater respect for parliament" and for political dissent via the media, and stressed the importance of establishing "inter-agency coordinating mechanisms," but argued that the true test for Georgia "is whether the government enjoys the support of the people."
"Georgia is on the right path in a macro sense," Bryza concluded.
Among the "challenges" facing Georgia, Ambassador Teft stated, are the need for politically inclusive policy discussions, protection for an independent press, defense of ethnic minority rights and respect of the rule of law in resolving the conflicts in the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive]. With "hard work," Teft told conference participants on November 22, "Georgia will take its rightful place among the family of democratic nations."
Securing closer ties with the European Union (EU) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has long been part of the government's plan for taking that place. European Union flags already fly outside all state-owned buildings, and extensive albeit controversial defense reforms are underway to bring Georgia's military up to NATO standards. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Speaking with foreign reporters, Saakashvili predicted that Georgia would join NATO by 2009. "Within my presidential term, we will be members of NATO, that's for sure," Saakashvili said. While NATO Assistant Secretary-General Jean Fournet, another conference participant, did not share Saakashvili's view on Georgia's membership timetable, he acknowledged that Tbilisi is making progress on designing a military reform program, or Individual Partnership Action Plan. "Showing a sustained commitment to reform is essential," Fournet said. Government officials have said that they expect to complete their Membership Action Plan, a document that would establish goals and priorities for potential NATO membership, by the end of 2006.
Work is scheduled to begin soon on a plan to bring Georgia into closer alignment with the European Union. Here, government optimism appears far less robust.
Acknowledging that Georgia has no desire for "premature" membership in the EU, State Minister on European and Euro-Atlantic Integration Giorgi Baramidze took issue with what Tbilisi apparently sees as an attempt by Brussels to dictate terms for cooperation. "This government knows better than anyone sitting in Brussels how to make this country peaceful, secure and prosperous," Baramidze said. "[We] think that Georgia is now strong enough, mature enough . . . to ask the EU [to consider] . . . our principles, our priorities."
Baramidze encouraged the EU to take "a more active role" in conflict resolution in South Ossetia, charging that "They're doing very little in practical terms." In a later session, Heikki Talvitie, special EU representative for the South Caucasus, commented that the Union is "quite active" in working with "existing mechanisms" for conflict resolution.
The lack of a detailed blueprint for building Georgia's democratic institutions did not appear to concern analysts at the conference. "The ambiguity . . . is positive because the future is open and everything's possible," said Dov Lynch, a research fellow at the European Union Institute for Security Studies in Paris. Commented Bruce Jackson, president of the Washington, DC-based Project on Transitional Democracies: "Uncertainty is not a barrier."
Elizabeth Owen is EurasiaNets Caucasus news editor in Tbilisi.