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Opinion In Georgia, friends of the West are suddenly under fire

Supporters of Alliance of Patriots of Georgia attend a protest in front of the U.S. Embassy in Tbilisi on Sunday. (Vano Shlamov/AFP/Getty Images)

David J. Kramer is a senior fellow in the Vaclav Havel Program for Human Rights & Diplomacy and director of European and Eurasian studies at Florida International University’s Steven J. Green School of International & Public Affairs.

When I traveled to a conference in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi this month, I didn’t expect to find myself the focus of an angry demonstration in front of the U.S. Embassy or attacked in a broadcast on a pro-government TV channel. The experience was less upsetting than mystifying; I have been a strong supporter of Georgia and its Euro-Atlantic aspirations for years.

Yet the fact that some in the country used me and other supporters of Georgia to launch an anti-Western propaganda campaign tells you a lot. Since this nation of 4 million people escaped from the wreckage of the Soviet Union 28 years ago, Georgia has been an island of democracy amid a sea of authoritarianism, surrounded by neighbors including Azerbaijan, Russia and Turkey.

Over the decades, Georgians have made great strides in moving toward a truly democratic, European nation, despite daunting challenges — not least from Russia, which invaded in a brief but vicious war in 2008 and still occupies 20 percent of Georgian territory.

Yet now pro-Russian forces are on the rise — which helps to explain my brief sojourn in the limelight of Georgian politics. Along with the first-rate Economic Policy Research Center in Georgia, the McCain Institute, a legacy of the late senator John McCain, sponsored the conference in Tbilisi. Cindy McCain, chair of the Board of Trustees of the McCain Institute,opened the conference with a moving reminder of her late husband’s fervent support for Georgia’s westward path. During the 2008 war, he famously declared: “We are all Georgians.”

Times are changing in Georgia. The political environment struck me as more on edge and polarized than I have noticed in more than a dozen previous visits to Georgia over the past few years. Members of Georgian Dream, the ruling party, have vowed to crush the opposition, exacerbating divisions within society. Tensions risk boiling over.

In June, demonstrators took to the streets to protest the presence in the Georgian parliamentary chamber of a Russian Communist Party member and outspoken supporter of independence for the separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Georgian security forces responded harshly. Some 240 people were injured, including several who lost their eyes after being shot deliberately in the face with rubber bullets. Opposition leaders called for the resignation of the official who oversaw the brutal crackdown, then-Interior Minister Giorgi Gakharia.

Instead, three months later, Gakharia, a highly polarizing figure, was promoted by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, Georgian Dream’s controversial leader, to the position of prime minister. Gakharia is a highly polarizing figure. On the day of his confirmation by Parliament last week, he spoke directly to the opposition: “I will finish you,” he said.

Meanwhile, investigations and prosecutions of Georgian Dream’s political opponents are on the rise, as is government pressure and intimidation of media outlets and civil society organizations that don’t toe the party line.

A group of leading civil society organizations recently issued an open letter bemoaning the “dire state of affairs” and “democratic backsliding and state capture,” as well as the “concentration of power in the hands of the ruling political party, thus dangerously undermining the balance of power and the viability of institutions.”

A recent poll conducted by the International Republican Institute shows that a majority of Georgians see Russia as Georgia’s greatest political and economic threat, while 52 percent of respondents criticize the government for its perceived soft handling of the relationship with Moscow.

Ivanishvili made his fortune in Russia, and Gakharia, the new prime minister, also has deep roots there.

This might help to explain why pro-government media and politicians — such as Irma Inashvili, a member of a pro-Russian party who crashed the session on Russia I was moderating at the conference with a TV crew in tow — decided to focus their ire on me, John McCain and other supporters of Georgia’s integration with the West.

For more than a decade now, Georgia has sought deeper integration in both the European Union and NATO to help protect the country from further Russian aggression and to secure its rightful place in Europe. Georgia signed several agreements with the European Union in 2014 that have significantly enhanced trade and travel between the two.

Georgia has been a steady contributor to various U.S.- or NATO-led operations around the world, and at one point was the largest non-NATO contributor of foreign forces in Afghanistan, where its troops have suffered 32 fatalities. In many respects, Georgia is more qualified for NATO membership than some current members.

Georgians refuse to kowtow to Moscow, but they need support from the West and especially the United States in consolidating democratic, rule-of-law-based institutions and deterring further Russian aggression.

Some supporters of Georgia are reluctant to criticize the recent developments, fearful that doing so will lead Western leaders to lose interest in this island of democracy. In fact, Georgians deserve to have their international friends speak truth to power and stand with them against those threatening to take the country in the wrong direction.

Read more:

David Bakradze: Remembering the Soviet massacre in Georgia, 30 years ago

Salome Samadashvili: Georgians are taking a stand against Vladimir Putin. Where is the West?

Mikheil Saakashvili: The oligarchs are suffocating what’s left of democracy in Eastern Europe

Condoleezza Rice: Don’t say America didn’t respond when Russia invaded Georgia