After Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili broke up an opposition rally in Tbilisi with rubber bullets, tear gas and clubs, Washington, which provided one billion dollars in aid to Saakashvili two years ago, was once again faced with the agonizing question of what to do with the "first democrat" of the Caucasus.
This always happens when it is impossible to give up on somebody and yet unqualified support seems inappropriate. It is always very unpleasant to face the truth about one's political proteges. American faced this situation repeatedly with its dictators in Central and Latin America. President Franklin D. Roosevelt supposedly said of the Nicaraguan dictator, "Somoza may be a son of a bitch, but he's our son of a bitch." However, this is no basis for a foreign policy in the 21st century.
The last dictator and the first democrat
For all the differences between Alexander Lukashenko and Mikheil Saakashvili, their attitude to demonstrations by the opposition is very similar. This proposition may sound criminal until you look at it through the lens of the law.
By law both Lukashenko and Saakashvili had every right to break up any unsanctioned demonstration. This happened in Minsk last winter and in Tbilisi on May 25. The consequences and response were completely different, but this isn't the point, even though there was a lack of objectivity in how they were portrayed. But everyone has the right to political interpretation, and we do not live in an absolutely black and white world.
However, as regards Saakashvili, especially after his performance with clubs and police and his attempts to blame opposition leader Nino Burdzhanadze for the death of a policeman during the effort to break up the rally, the change of attitude is becoming more obvious. In this volatile time of Arab revolutions and universal protest against authoritarian rule (against dictators, tyrants, satraps and autocratic rulers) it is very difficult to apply double standards - to see some things in one place and turn a blind eye to very similar things in others. All American and European newspapers acknowledge that the change of attitude to Georgia and in Georgia itself would be much more pronounced if Saakashvili did not have Russia for a neighbor. Both the West and Georgia make allowances for Georgia's proximity to Russia in order not to be blamed for being too pro-Russian.
Saakashvili's cessation from Georgia
The process of updating the view of the Georgian president, as well as his government and entourage, is bound to develop faster after the events of May 21-25. It will hardly lead to an early change in the Tbilisi regime. Nobody is predicting a change of power in Georgia before 2013 unless the opposition becomes strong enough for that, but for the time being this looks unlikely.
However, the attitude toward Saakashvili is obviously changing. Many more people understand now that democracy and Saakashvili are not synonymous and that Georgia and Saakashvili are different things.
These metamorphoses are taking place not only in the expert community but also, tacitly, in the U.S. administration. Jackson Diehl from The Washington Post wrote about Saakashvili: "The truth is that it would be considerably easier for the United States to defend Georgia and its democracy [the author means 'from Russia' without mentioning this] if it did not have to defend -- and depend on -- Saakashvili himself...The crude public attacks on him by Putin and sidekick Dmitry Medvedev, who publicly called him a 'lunatic' and 'bastard,' have only served to strengthen Saakashvili both in Washington and Tbilisi." This is usually said when it is clear that someone has become a burden but "he's our son-of-a-bitch" and must be defended so that there is some counterweight to the Russian bear.
Here is another brilliant passage worth quoting in full. Paul Saunders, executive director of The Nixon Center, wrote: "Ultimately, however, it wouldn't matter to Georgia's president whether the United States was a democracy, a theocracy or ruled by Martians so long as he could use Washington to change the dynamics of Georgian-Russian relations."
Saakashvili should be given high marks for his ability to manipulate public opinion. He is indeed very good at brainwashing his donors.
On the eve of U.S. Vice President Joe Biden's visit to Tbilisi in 2009, Saakashvili announced election reforms (direct elections of city mayors) and promised the opposition a cable channel for broadcasting all over Georgia. Biden, who is susceptible to flattery, was surrounded with such attention that he promised Misha (Saakashvili) an alliance for a long time to come. His words carried little weight but had a big propaganda effect.
In the summer of 2010, Tbilisi was looking forward to the arrival of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. It was important to determine how much Tbilisi could rely on the support of the Obama administration. The opposition to Saakashvili was growing and his former supporters were quitting his camp. Tbilisi was dying for a show of U.S. sympathy.
It did not conceal that if Ms Clinton mentioned even once "Georgia's illegally occupied territories" (that is, Abkhazia and South Ossetia), the visit could be regarded a success. However, on this point Clinton was evasive. She said only that Washington does not agree with the presence of Russian troops in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and that the U.S. and Russia are working together through the OSCE Minsk Group to settle the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict even though they cannot agree on Georgia. On her tour, Clinton repeatedly emphasized that although Moscow and Washington are resetting their relations, they will not necessarily agree on every issue. This statement was intended to encourage the opponents of the reset, while not committing the Obama administration to anything specific. But Clinton could have said the same about the U.S. relations with Israel, France or Germany. It's diplomatic boilerplate, nothing more. The expectations of the Saakashvili regime were not quite justified.
Saakashvili's autocratic tendencies were noticed long before the crackdowns on opposition demonstrations (in November 2007 or even before and then this May). It was noticed even before the war in the Caucasus in August 2008 and before he overthrew his patron, mentor and benefactor Eduard Shevardnadze.
"I think that Misha tends toward the authoritarian," said Scott Horton, a human rights lawyer in the United States who taught Mr. Saakashvili when he was a student at Columbia Law School in the mid-1990s, later hired him at a law firm in New York, and has remained friendly with him. He mentioned Saakashvili's attitude to presidential prerogatives and authority, attempts to marginalize the parliament and belittle the opposition. But it cannot all be laid at Saakashvili's door. Authoritarian tendencies are regional specialty.
The views expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.