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Georgia, On the Rebound

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By Mikheil Saakashvili
Thursday, August 6, 2009

TBILISI, Georgia -- On the night of Aug. 7, 2008, Russia's 58th Army crossed over Georgia's internationally recognized borders. Thus began what the evidence shows was a long-planned invasion aimed at toppling my government and increasing Moscow's control over our region. A year later, the results are not what the Kremlin expected.

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Tragically, 410 of our citizens, mostly civilians, were killed, and more than 1,700 were injured. Almost 130,000 people were forced to flee their homes, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, including tens of thousands ethnically cleansed from villages in the Georgian territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Costs ran into the billions. And in violation of the cease-fire that Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed Aug. 12, about 10,000 Russian troops remain in the two Georgian territories.

Russian provocations have not stopped; snipers in Russian-controlled areas have killed 28 Georgian policemen. In recent days, Moscow has engaged in a series of provocative acts and statements, echoing its prelude to last year's invasion. Even as the world watches, Moscow has vetoed monitoring missions from the United Nations and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. In violation of the cease-fire, Russia also denies European Union monitors access to the occupied territories.

Despite all this, and contrary to some expectations, Georgia has rebounded. Our democratic institutions are growing. Foreign investors are returning. The world should recognize that the kind of behavior Russia exhibited last August threatens not only Georgia but our entire region.

Since the 2003 Rose Revolution, we have worked hard to replace a deeply corrupt, failing state with a modern, responsible state that is allied with the West; run by European standards; and committed to liberal democracy, free-market principles and peaceful relations with our neighbors. Twenty years after the fall of communism, that goal should be unremarkable. Indeed, Russia should have welcomed a prosperous, stable neighbor. Instead, Moscow feels threatened by our aspirations.

After the war, we faced a choice. Most countries confronting dire threats turn inward. We chose to reinforce our commitment to values we share with the West, such as personal and economic freedom. Such values provide our best protection and inspired our people to rebuild, even as we now sit within the range of Russian artillery.

I committed to even deeper democratic reforms. When domestic political protests emerged in April, my government pursued a policy of openness and restraint. We allowed protesters to illegally block the main avenue in Tbilisi for three months and then invited opposition leaders to begin a dialogue over reforms in our constitution, the handling of elections, the media and the judiciary.

Last month, I committed to specific reforms with firm deadlines, including the direct election of mayors next May; a new electoral code and a consensus chair for our Central Election Commission; less power for the president and more for parliament; stronger sanctions against officials trying to influence judges; and a public television broadcasting board with equal representation of the governing and opposition parties.

All along, we have appreciated the international response to what happened. More than $4.5 billion was pledged to help us repair war damage and care for internally displaced Georgians. Foreign investment is flowing again. The international community has condemned Russia's serial violations of the cease-fire. In Moscow last month, President Obama firmly defended our territorial integrity and NATO aspirations.

Georgia faces a situation that is new and old. Just as a wall used to divide Germans, a barbed-wire border divides us from our two occupied territories. Within those territories, monitors have been expelled, media are muzzled and Georgian citizens are forbidden to return to their homes -- while Russia builds military bases.

These developments threaten all free nations that believe international borders must not be changed by force. If we do not stand up to tactics such as cross-border aggression, creating "frozen conflicts" that destabilize sovereign states or attempt to legalize ethnic cleansing, or cutting off energy supplies for political gain, none of us will enjoy lasting stability.

That is why we are responding in ways that mirror the steps that helped peacefully end the Cold War.

We have called for other countries to insist on Georgia's territorial integrity and not to recognize the occupied territories, and we are grateful that most nations have embraced this approach. We do not seek to retake the territories by force -- but we are resolute that we will never forget the rights of the displaced. And in pursuit of a greater good, we continue to build an open democracy and economy. As Vice President Biden said last month in Tbilisi: "Every progressive nation in the world has a stake in your success, particularly nations in this region."

Twenty years ago, the attraction of a free and prosperous West brought down the Berlin Wall. We believe the example of a free and prosperous Georgia ultimately will restore our sovereignty and reverse the wrongs caused by Russia's invasion. With the support of our friends in the United States and Europe -- support for which we are deeply grateful -- Georgia will continue to rebound and set an example for the region.

The writer is president of Georgia.



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