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Answering Russian Aggression

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By Mikheil Saakashvili
Tuesday, September 23, 2008

TBILISI, Georgia -- When tens of thousands of Russian troops and armored vehicles overwhelmed our country last month, the international community rallied to support us. Had Georgia been just another autocracy on Russia's border, it is unlikely that so many world leaders would have traveled to Tbilisi to stand with the Georgian people.

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This show of solidarity reinforced our belief that Georgia's survival depends on becoming an ever more open and democratic society, firmly embedded in the community of free nations. How we respond is also pivotal to the future of the West.

Georgia was a corrupt, failing country that transformed itself into a liberal and promising nation in only a few years. To be sure, our democracy is still a work in progress. But it is a beacon in a difficult part of the world. And because Georgia lies at a crucial energy crossroads, an open, transparent government is even more vital.

Georgia also stands for the ability of the free world to respond with resolve to Moscow's violent attempts to roll back democracy, reassert its empire and control European energy resources.

In hurrying to recognize the "independence" of our regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Moscow erased universally recognized borders and challenged the system of sovereignty that underpins international law. It also concealed the ethnic cleansing that was undertaken by Russia and its proxies.

The West's challenge now is to stand up to Russia without resorting to its brutal tactics. Our best protection lies in the ideas and values that guide our community of nations.

My government understands that how we conduct our affairs is a matter of consequence not only for us but also for our allies. We recognize that Russia's insistence on using force has left it isolated politically and vulnerable economically.

Our belief in openness is not mere rhetoric. Despite the ruins created by the invasion -- hundreds dead; nearly 200,000 displaced, according to the United Nations; our economy disabled -- my government is putting our convictions into practice.

Transparency must begin with an understanding of how the war started. For years, Russia sought to slander Georgia and my government while also blocking any meaningful negotiations with the separatists. This was part of a campaign to weaken international support for Georgia and lay the groundwork for invasion. As has been reported, Russia began a sharp military buildup this spring in both conflict zones, leading to armed attacks this summer by its proxy militias. Russia then started its land invasion in the early hours of Aug. 7, after days of heavy shelling that killed civilians and Georgian peacekeepers. At the time, Russia announced that 2,100 South Ossetian civilians had been killed by Georgians, thus forcing Moscow's "humanitarian intervention." This lie, subsequently debunked by Human Rights Watch (which estimated 44 dead) and others, was an attempt to conceal Moscow's true motives.

On Aug. 17, standing next to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, I called for an international investigation into the origins of the war. My government is ready to share every piece of evidence and provide access to every witness sought by investigators. Is Russia willing to do the same?

Our second front in pursuing openness and transparency is at home. Last week, I announced a series of measures to strengthen Georgia's democracy, giving opposition parties a central role in our reconstruction and defense planning. We are working to foster pluralism in media and civil society, including giving opposition parties more funding and greater influence over public broadcasting. Initiatives also aim to make our judicial system more independent.

We are committed to transparency with our partners as well. My government has established rigorous mechanisms to ensure the accountable use of the aid that has been pledged so generously by, above all, the United States as well as by Europe, Japan, Canada, Australia and others.

But the West also must respond to Russia with conviction. We cannot allow Russia's annexation of South Ossetia and Abkhazia to stand. Nor can Moscow be permitted to continuously flout the cease-fire to which it has repeatedly agreed.

My government welcomed the European Union's decision to accelerate Georgia's integration into European institutions. Last week, we were heartened by the first official visit to Georgia by the North Atlantic Council, and we hope that NATO will move forward with our membership application.

We Georgians will continue building our democratic future. We are focused on strengthening the community of democratic nations. The world must not permit Russia or others to assert spheres of influence and thus deny the right of free people to associate with like-minded nations.

The writer is president of Georgia.


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