A Georgian appeal: open letter to the west

Nino Burdzhanadze
12 June 2009

My dear friends, colleagues and partners,

The condition of Georgia is grave, and change in the governance of my country is essential. In a time of great political momentum, I would like to address you - friends of Georgia living in free and democratic Nino Burdzhanadze is a leading Georgian politician who served as speaker of the parliament in Tbilisi from November 2001 to June 2008. 

She is chair of the Democratic Movement-United Georgia political party societies - in search of hope and understanding. Amid intense weeks of political protest in the streets of Tbilisi, and after extensive communication with the international community, I believe that there in a need to make even clearer both my personal position and the motivation of the current peaceful struggle of the Georgian people.

What is happening now in Georgia can be understood as the attempt to answer a question that has dominated our lives since the break-up of the Soviet empire: how can nations that emerged from under it build an indigenous, independent and democratic society?  

My own political biography has been a long engagement with this question. On two occasions I have been the speaker of the Georgian parliament and acting president of the country, I was among three leaders of the Rose Revolution of 2003 who supported the commitment of the Georgian people to create a better country.

During the five and a half years since then, I have discussed and explored many issues central to Georgia's future: the need for reform and for political unity, the importance of state-building, territorial problems, confrontation with aggression, and dozens of daily priorities. In a number of cases I made choices that harmed my political career, including compromises that seemed to show me to be indecisive and unprincipled; but all these decisions were aimed at one ultimate goal - maintaining the stability of Georgia. 

This is the experience that has brought me to my latest political stance and commitment.

The ground of protest

The view has been much heard from those working in international institutions that current political processes in Georgia have become too "radicalised" and are unhelpful in securing the country's stability - and that I am personally  to blame for that. It's healthy then to remember that only a few decades ago, during the Soviet regime, Georgia enjoyed an incomparable level of stability. There were no problems of territorial integrity, snap elections, conflict with neighbours, and the like.

This shows that stability alone is far from enough to guarantee the foundation of modern, civilised relations: democracy. After all, it was an illusive stability that led us all to the tragic events of August 2008, which vividly exposed the reality that there is neither democracy nor stability in Georgia.

Georgian society has learned a serious lesson since January 2008, when people and parties across the spectrum - and the international democratic community - chose stability to the detriment of democracy. There is no stability without democracy and there cannot be any.

At that time, I exhausted all my efforts as speaker of the Georgian legislative body in the effort to strengthen democratic institutions and "checks and balances". But when political processes started to move entirely in the opposite direction from true "democracy-building", I made the decision to break from the governmental team.  

This led me to the present point where, based on my experience and as one of the oppositon leaders, I carry on a peaceful political struggle for democracy in Georgia. I strongly believe that democracy first and "democracy today" - which is also the motto of my political party - is both the only path for overcoming the current political crisis, and the only guarantee of long-term stability in my country. 

Today, when the flashes of hope for a democratic future that were lit in 2003 have become dim, I - together with my political colleagues - protest against Georgia's authoritarian president, Mikheil Saakashvili, and in favour of a stable and democratic Georgia.

Most of us protesting in the streets of Tbilisi about what is happening in Georgia were at one time supporters and allies of Mikheil Saakashvili. But this man has in the course of his presidency become tainted by power, narrowing gradually the constitutional rights and freedoms of Georgia's people in pursuit of a façade democracy in which power is wielded against the very people who are the source of his democratic mandate.

The grounds for our protest include the following six key points:

* The protest is not a matter of personalities; it is directed against the attempt to remodel Georgia's already authoritarian state and create an even more uncertain future. The essential requirement in response is to establish real democratic and pluralist institutions and processes, and accountability for political leaders. 

* The state's institutions are deprived of decision-making authority; all the decisions are made in a non-transparent way by a small coterie around president. This high level of concentration of power must change.

* The fraudulent conduct of elections is in violation of all international democratic norms and standards, and of Georgia's own constitution. President Saakashvili's fraudulent elections have led to the disqualification of Georgia from the category of "electoral democracies" cited by the respected international organisation Freedom House. This must end.

* The control of the interior ministry and security service gives the president total control over the public broadcaster as well as other national TV channels. This centralised mechanism for promulgating ideological propaganda is a denial of rights to the free flow of information and ideas. The place of Georgia in the "press freedom index" of Reporters Sans Frontieres has declined from 78 in 2003 to 120 in 2008.

* The control of the judicial system through the office of the prosecutor-general has allowed violation of the human rights of peaceful protestors, including many cases of police violence. There have also been even more serious incidents involving the murder of innocent people, which remain uninvestigated.

* The president's losing battle cost the lives of hundreds of Georgia's citizens and military personnel, victims of the president's fanatical ambition of obtaining a victory over the Russian army. This worthless military confrontation resulted in the loss of 20% of the Georgian territories, three new Russian bases on Georgian soil, tens of thousands of internally-displaced people (IDPs), and crucial damage to vital infrastructure. The war significantly dented Georgia's pro-western and Euro-Atlantic ambitions, split Georgian society, and lost the president the trust of Georgia's people. Such a political leader is unable to secure the future of Georgia, internally or internationally.

The reality-check

Again, I have been led to these judgments and my current position by personal and political experience. Perhaps until as late as April 2008 the parliament of Georgia had a real chance to become stronger as an institution and more independent of the executive branch - a body to which the members of government could be accountable and where if necessary the impeachment of the president could take place. But President Saakashvili, fully aware of this possible threat to his reign, did his utmost not to allow the parliament - and myself as speaker - to become a balancing authority to his totalitarian ambitions. 

This is a reality which, I believe, is not properly understood by some of you, Georgia's western friends. Perhaps this is because for so long in the post-2003 period, Georgia was deemed to be a democracy success-story. But when, for example, some western friends call on the Georgian opposition (including myself) to launch a dialogue with the government in one or other institution, it is clear that our partners may not grasp that there are no democratic institutions in Georgia and no state institution which are willing or able to protect the constitutional rights and freedoms of citizens. This is a country which has reached a dead-end for democracy.  

The failure to apprehend this reality, and the support that Mikheil Saakashvili still enjoys in the Euro-Atlantic community, is a source of increasing frustration among the Georgian population. Here, Georgia's friends need to look beyond the messages and signals that they are receiving from the government in Tbilisi and become aware of the flow of misinformation (and even worse, lying) of which they too, as well as Georgia's people, are victims. It is very important that they do so; for otherwise, this alarming tendency of frustration with the west may lead to drastic and regrettable changes in Georgia's political orientation, affecting the entire region as a result.

The historic choice

The Georgian people deserve to live in a free and democratic society. We must then realise that our country today is in this respect at a crossroads. We all - representatives of Georgian society and its political spectrum, as well as the international community - face a historic choice: accept the façade democracy which conceals a state of power and cannot ensure the country's stability, or support a decisive campaign for freedom and real democracy in Georgia. 

Along with my colleagues in opposition, aware of Georgia's political dynamics and the nature of Mikheil Saakashvili's methods and principles of running the state, I have come to believe that to engage in a peaceful, political battle for the future of the country is the only answer. Georgia will not be a stable country under undemocratic rule; the current president is taking the country in a dangerous direction; his removal is the precondition for the arduous process of creating a democratic order founded on the rule of law, good governance, an independent judiciary, a free media, responsible and accountable institutions, and free and fair elections.

We believe that our struggle cannot be left unheard by the international democratic community. As a result, in the midst of an intensive and often brutal political standoff, I appeal to you: look more closely at what is happening in Georgia, maintain your most valuable engagement is securing our national independence and territorial integrity, and continue to work for freedom and democracy in our country. 

With the shared hope of a better future,

Nino Burdzhanadze

Among openDemocracy's articles on Georgian politics, including the war with Russia in August 2008:

Robert Parsons, "Georgia's race to the summit" (4 January 2008)

Robert Parsons, "Mikheil Saakashvii's bitter victory" (11 January 2008)

Robert Parsons, "Georgia, Abkhazia, Russia: the war option" (13 May 2008)

Thomas de Waal, "The Russia-Georgia tinderbox" (16 May 2008)

Robert Parsons, "Georgia's dangerous gulf" (30 May 2008)

Alexander Rondeli, "Georgia's search for itself" (8 July 2008)

Ghia Nodia, "The war for Georgia: Russia, the west, the future" (12 August 2008)

Donald Rayfield, "The Georgia-Russia conflict: lost territory, found nation" (13 August 2008)

Neal Ascherson, "After the war: recognising reality in Abkhazia and Georgia" (15 August 2008)

George Hewitt, "Abkhazia and South Ossetia: heart of conflict, key to solution" (18 August 2008)

Ivan Krastev, "Russia and the Georgia war: the great-power trap" (19 August 2008)

Robert Parsons, "Georgia after war: the political landscape" (26 August 2008)

Paul Rogers, "Russia and Iran: crisis of the west, rise of the rest" (21 August 2008)

Ghia Nodia, "Russian war and Georgian democracy" (22 August 2008)

Vicken Cheterian, "Georgia's forgotten legacy" (3 September 2008)

Rein Müllerson, "The world after the Russia-Georgia war" (5 September 2008)

Martin Shaw, "After the Georgia war: the challenge to citizen action" (22 September 2008)

Katinka Barysch, "Europe and the Georgia-Russia conflict" (30 September 2008)

Robert Parsons, "Georgia: the politics of recovery" (24 October 2008)

Donald Rayfield, "Georgia and Russia: the aftermath" (16 November 2008)

Thomas de Waal, "The Caucasus: a region in pieces" (8 January 2009)

Thomas de Waal, "Georgia and Russia, again" (30 January 2009)

Tedo Japaridze, "A Georgian chalk circle: open letter to the west" (12 May 2009)

Robert Parsons, "Georgia on the brink - again" (20 May 2009)

Plus: openDemocracy's Russia section publishes articles, reports, and debates on Georgia and Russia

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