Friday, May 27, 2011

Georgia's Independence Day “Celebrations”

Georgia's President Mikheil Saakashvili chose an interesting way to celebrate the 20th anniversary of his nation's independence – by sending in riot troops to break up a protest against his regime in a move that left at least two protesters dead and several dozen others injured. As we reported here earlier in the week, about 6,000 people turned out for a protest against what they say was the growing autocracy of Saakashvili's regime (a protest that was also broken up by the riot police) and planned for an even bigger showing on Wednesday, Georgia's Independence Day. Saakashvili was quick to blame the protests on his old nemesis – Russia, contending that the demonstrators weren't Georgians asking for better government, but rather were provocateurs acting on behalf of Geogria's “enemy and occupier” (here Saakashvili is referring to the regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia which both declared their independence from Georgia. Russia currently has peacekeeping troops based in both).

Saaakashvili's statement begs two questions: First, why do these leaders always insist protesters are crazy or foreign agents or “on drugs” as Libya's Moammar Gadhafi and Uganda's Yoweri Museveni both have recently done? Can't they just accept the fact that in any country, no matter how well or poorly run, there will be people opposed to your rule for a whole host of reasons? Scapegoating the protesters only makes the ruling regime look weak.

Secondly, and more importantly, is how long will the United States continue to have a double standard in responding to the violent putdown of obstensibly pro-democracy protests? Shortly after Saakashvili sent in the riot troops, US ambassador John Bass said “it is also important to remember that there were clearly a number of people included in that protest who were not interested in peacefully protesting, but were looking to spark a violent confrontation.” By comparison, the European Commission said that while they understood the need to restore order, the use of force was “very regrettable”, especially since Saakashvili had riot troops violently breakup pro-reform protests just four years ago, a fact ignored by Ambassador Bass.

It's not surprising since the United States has been more than willing to overlook Saakashvili's democratic shortcomings for years now because he is staunchly pro-Western and is seen as a check against Russian influence in the region. But he's also part of a disturbing pattern in US foreign policy. While the US has been vocal in its support for the Libyan rebels who are opposing Gadhafi and after deciding that Hosni Mubarak was no longer worth the trouble, the US threw its support behind Egypt's pro-democracy movement; America has been largely silent about the government of Bahrain's violent put-down of that country's pro-democracy movement because the current rulers of Bahrain a) allow their country to be used as a base for the US Navy's Fifth Fleet and b) are tightly allied with the House of Saud. So as long as Saakashvili remains reliably pro-Western/anti-Russian, and allows his country to be used as a transit route for western-bound oil and Afghanistan-bound troops, he'll likely get no complaints from the United States.

On the topic of democratic reform movements then, the United States is sending some very mixed signals; the problem is that the rest of the world is listening.
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