U.S. Needs to Help Georgia Fulfill Its Commitment to Democracy

By Howard L. Berman
Friday, August 7, 2009

A year ago, Russia and Georgia went to war. The anniversary has renewed debate about the causes of the conflict and the future of the Caucasus region. Our country's main focus now should be on helping Georgia cultivate the institutions that will promote democratic development and stability. Georgia has made considerable progress in physical recovery over the past year, but its political environment remains fragile and polarized, with a muzzled media, weak civil society and demonstrations in the streets.

Georgia has consistently expressed its strong

desire for modernization and integration into the Euro-Atlantic community, and the United States continues to view it as an important ally in this strategic region. At the request of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, I traveled to Georgia within days of the conflict last August to express solidarity with the Georgian people and to deliver humanitarian aid. The United States has since demonstrated its commitment by providing substantial assistance for post-conflict reconstruction.

During his recent trip to Moscow, President Obama reaffirmed that the United States supports Georgia's sovereignty and its right to choose its own alliances, and that the United States will not recognize the independence of Georgia's two separatist regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The president has also expressed U.S. backing for diplomatic efforts to restore Georgian territorial integrity. Vice President Biden visited the Georgian capital of

Tbilisi last month and said: "Our partnership rests on a foundation of shared democratic ideals. . . . and we will continue to support your work to fulfill the democratic promise of six years ago."

The reforms needed to strengthen Georgia's nascent democracy are well known: further development of fair electoral processes, an independent judiciary, respect for human rights and the rule of law, a vibrant civil society, independent media, accountable and transparent policymaking, and a balance of power between the executive and legislative branches. It is clear that President Mikheil Saakashvili understands what needs to be done. In a speech to parliament days before Mr. Biden's visit, he proposed reforms that could significantly improve Georgia's political system.

These proposals are strikingly similar to measures that Mr. Saakashvili outlined in September, when he promised the U.N. General Assembly that there would be a second "Rose Revolution" in Georgia. Now the reality must match the rhetoric. All Georgians have to work together to ensure that these reforms are fully implemented before presidential elections in 2013. Mr. Saakashvili and his government should bring the same energy and commitment to building democracy that they have demonstrated in restructuring the economy and public sector, while the opposition should come to the table and engage in constructive negotiations. The reforms must be deep and genuine; an amended tax code and streamlined bureaucracy, while important, do not by themselves constitute true democracy.

The United States should seize this opportunity to help Georgians engage in serious dialogue and introduce key changes. Yet only 4 percent of the assistance provided to Georgia in the wake of the conflict is currently allocated for programs to strengthen democracy. While this additional money would result in a short-term doubling of funds for democracy and governance programs, I am concerned that such funding will fall back to the previous inadequate levels in the critical phase preceding the 2013 election.

I have repeatedly called on the Bush and Obama administrations, in hearings and in legislation -- most recently in the bill that authorizes the State Department's activities, which the House passed in June -- to focus on Georgia's political development. While the U.S. Agency for International Development and its partners should be commended for their efforts in Georgia, they do not have enough money to develop a long-term strategy to address the endemic problems plaguing this fledgling


As the administration prepares to distribute the remaining funds that Congress just appropriated for Georgia, I urge officials to consider increasing the percentage devoted to long-term democracy and governance programs. This would demonstrate that democratic development is a key goal and not simply rhetoric. Surely investing in Georgia's political future is more important than building another road.

Georgia stands at a critical juncture. One need look no further than the country's declining rankings in Freedom House's annual assessment of post-Communist transitions in Europe and Eurasia to see that the trends are heading the wrong way. The most recent report by this nonpartisan organization gave Georgia its lowest democracy score since 2005. In the aftermath of the conflict with Russia and subsequent economic hardship, the government of Georgia must resist the temptation to seek stability at the expense of democracy.

The United States has a significant stake in Georgia's future. We should use our influence with Georgia's political leaders to ensure that it continues to move in the right direction. In terms of building Georgia's political institutions, we need to put our money where our mouth is. Let's make the legacy of last year's war a renewed commitment by Georgia, in partnership with the United States, to fulfill the promise of the Rose Revolution.

The writer, a Democratic representative from California, is chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company