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President Bush Praises the Georgian Republic’s Role in Spread of Democracy

May 10, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT
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KWAME HOLMAN: Once again, tens of thousands gathered in the main square of Tbilisi, capital of the country of Georgia. This time they were cheering President Bush, who ended a five-day overseas trip there this morning.

But two years ago thousands of Georgians peaceably pushed out a government accused of rigging an election. Georgians called it the “Rose Revolution,” and President Bush praised them today.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Because you acted, Georgia is today both sovereign and free and a beacon of liberty for this region and for the world. The path of freedom you have chosen is not easy, but you will not travel it alone. Americans respect your courageous choice for liberty. And as you build a free and democratic Georgia, the American people will stand with you.

KWAME HOLMAN: President Bush said Georgia’s peaceful revolution inspired other revolutions in two other countries that used to be part of the Soviet Union, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan. Their post-Soviet governments, though nominally democratic since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet state, had turned more authoritarian in the face of massive economic and social problems.

The president, fresh from his two-day trip to Moscow, also cautioned Russia against putting too much pressure on those neighbor nations, with which it has maintained strong economic links and some military ties.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: At the same time, the territorial and sovereignty of Georgia must be respected by all nations.

KWAME HOLMAN: But he stopped short of calling on Russia to withdraw immediately from the two bases it still maintains in Georgian territory. In all three countries, these latest post-Soviet revolutions were sparked by protests over rigged elections.

In Georgia, a nation of five million, Eduard Shevardnadze tried to keep the country together against separatist groups, but was accused of tolerating corruption. The Rose Revolution, followed by an election in January 2004, brought the American-educated Mikheil Saakashvili to the presidency.

In Ukraine, a nation of 48 million strategically located between Russia and Europe, Viktor Yushchenko was elected to the presidency late last year, winning a rerun election after his country’s Orange Revolution forced the nullification of the first, rigged round of balloting.

The latest and least orderly transition came in the Central Asian Republic of Kyrgyzstan, a nation of five million. In March, massive protests over disputed elections forced President Askar Akayev to flee the country and resign. Kurmanbek Bakiyev has been named as acting president and prime minister.

All three republics have appealed for more aid from the United States and Europe. Ukraine and Georgia have expressed interest in eventually joining NATO and the European Union.

JIM LEHRER: Margaret Warner takes it from there.

MARGARET WARNER: So how are these former Soviet republics doing after going through not just one, but two wrenching changes of government? And what are their chances of success as democratic states? For that, we turn to former assistant secretary of state Toby Gati. She dealt with Russia and the former Soviet states on the National Security Council staff in the Clinton administration. She’s now senior international advisor on developments in that region at a Washington law firm.

And Adrian Karatnycky, former president and now a senior scholar at Freedom House; it promotes political and economic freedom around the world. He’s written widely on Eastern Europe and the post-Soviet states. Welcome to you both.

Mr. Karatnycky, is there a common problem, a common challenge that these three countries face now as they’re trying to become functioning, flourishing, successful democracies?

ADRIAN KARATNYCKY: I think there are some common problems. The first problem is to have a normal political opposition. The new regimes that come in to power, the new democratic forces usually come with a wave of — mounting wave of support, and there is very little legitimate opposition that can act as a legitimate check and balance on the — you know, the natural inclinations of people who have a mandate. They ought to be questioned. They ought to be checked. They ought to have a strong parliamentary opposition. In many of these cases, after these transitions, parliamentary oppositions are fairly weak, and those people that are in opposition are often discredited by their association with criminal activities, with corruption. So what these countries really need is opposition politics to be an important feature.

A second problem is the legacy of corruption. All three of them face huge problems deriving from the many years of graft and favoritism and cronyism that was at the root of the way the economies of these three economies were run. Corruption was actually the main trigger that promoted disaffection with the leaderships of these countries, and it was elections that became the mechanism for these public protests, but it was really this dismay at the growing massive wealth of the families of these rulers.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Let me get Toby Gati in this. What would you add to that list of common challenges?

TOBY GATI: The common challenges that Adrian has talked about were the political challenges. The economic challenges are just as daunting. The people in these countries of course wanted democracy. But what they wanted even more was a better standard of living and a country they could live in without having to bribe every second official that they met. They also wanted countries that were united.

In Ukraine you have problems between East and West. In Georgia you have breakaway provinces, Kyrgyzstan, the tensions between North and South. And of course they want to find their place in the world, which they really haven’t yet found.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Mr. Karatnycky, how are they doing? And I know — we’re talking about three different countries here, but just in a broad sense, how are they doing on the measurements we look at, the progress on democracy and on economics and on corruption?

ADRIAN KARATNYCKY: Well, let me start with a more basic point, and I think that countries where there has been a very vigorous and vivid civic nonviolent protest movement tend to have a fairly durable result in terms of their transitions to democracy, countries where we’d seen a lot of people power, countries like the Philippines, countries like Poland with solidarity. Those tend to, over time, to develop the right way institutionally because they start out the right way. They start out with this explosion of public engagement, and I think that that carries them a long way in the early years of the transition towards democracy and economic life.

And I think that Ukraine is moving — yeah, I would say Ukraine of the three is moving in the most, I would say, significant way. It has the highest rates of growth of the three countries. It has a strong shift of public support. The East-West regional differences in terms of support for President Yushchenko have diminished. It has a bit of an opposition because there is still some support for the Communist Party and for some of the parties of the old ruling elite. It has pretty much a substantial degree of diversity and media.

Georgia has a different problem; it has a democratizing and reform-minded president, but he was elected with a 96 percent mandate, and his party controls 90 percent of the seats in parliament, his coalition of parties. And I think it’s very hard without the growth of a substantial opposition to keep the government honest to — it’s a little harder to bring about democratic change in the absence of that kind of opposition. Over time I think we’ll see the erosion of support for Saakashvili, and more democracy.

But I say Georgia and Ukraine seem to be on the right track, Ukraine a bit ahead of Georgia. Kyrgyzstan remains to be seen. After all, we have had the parliament sitting there is the parliament people protested against. As a result of a compromise among the you know leaders and elite of the Georgia getting rid of – Kyrgyzstan getting rid of Akayev, they kept the second parliament that was elected in very questionable elections, and now they’re only going to have their presidential elections in July and only then will we see the institutional developments that we need to keep track of; it’s really premature in Georgia –

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Let me get a report card from Toby Gati. How do you think they’re doing?

TOBY GATI: I think they started. It doesn’t make a very good theme for a presidential speech or congressional appearance but in point of fact, what we’ve seen in country after country is it’s not the first election; it’s the second election and the third election. How are the institutions doing? How have they resolved the problems in their own internal corruption issues, for example? How have they dealt with their neighbors, and in this case, of course, their neighbor is Russia.

MARGARET WARNER: Let’s take corruption. Let’s just take one, and take Georgia, which has had the most time to work on this. Is Saakashvili making progress on that? Measurable?

TOBY GATI: Well, it’s very difficult. The old elites have a great interest in keeping what they have already taken or stolen or gotten, and in Georgia, of course, you’ve got two breakaway provinces now where there is an awful lot of money and weaponry and whatever taking place. And it’s not just a problem for Georgia. It’s a problem for Ukraine, which had a high growth rate, very true, but a very corrupt political system.

And the question is: Will it become less corrupt? And in Ukraine, I think one of the great issues is going to be what do you do? Do you now say, okay, guys, you stole too much, we’re taking it back, and if you do that, who’s going to invest, if you start going into the past privatization? So each of these countries has huge challenges, and I think they shouldn’t get carried away with the idea that just because they were swept to power on the wave of a revolution, that success is guaranteed; it really isn’t.

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Karatnycky, President Bush has for the last few days been warning Russia, saying to Russia, one, don’t be threatened by these democracies on your borders, and don’t meddle. Fairly briefly, if you could, do they have — did he need to issue that warning? Does Russia have a stake in the failure of these states? Is Russia trying to use its leverage to make it more difficult for them?

ADRIAN KARATNYCKY: Well, I think Russia is in a kind of a midcourse correction. It was working under Putin along a particular vector, integration into the commonwealth of independent states, or a common economic space. Now all these plans have gone awry; they’ve lost, or the parties and forces they backed have lost election after election, and I think now they’re looking for a different approach.

In Georgia they announced that they will be withdrawing troops by the year 2008, which is a substantial concession to the Georgia government, also a way of reducing tension. I think they’re looking to have normalized economic relations. In the case of Ukraine, I think that after a little bit of a chill between Mr. Yushchenko and Mr. Putin, who backed Mr. Yushchenko’s opponent, I think there is something along way of normalization. Russian businesses are very interested in investing in the Ukrainian economy. They want in the wake of Yukos and in the wake of Russian efforts to reexamine Russia’s privatizations. They want to come to an environment where there will be the rule of law and respect for property rights.

And I think that Toby Gati is absolutely right. Ukraine and Georgia have to come to terms with quickly resolving the issues of the misdeeds of the past, but some of these thefts done in the last couple of years of billions of dollars simply cannot be overlooked. They have to be dealt with very quickly within the rule of law.

MARGARET WARNER: Okay. Toby Gati, a follow-up on that in terms of the economic situation in these countries and whether these — weren’t these countries all quite dependent on relations with Russia, and did these new revolutions make that — weaken those links? Was it a setback for the economies or is it potentially a boost?

TOBY GATI: Well, these countries were not only in the past dependent on Russia. They still have great links with Russia. They have energy dependencies, a lot of them get the majority of their energy from Russia or their energy from Russia transits, their country, as in the case of Ukraine. So there are a lot of dependencies; a lot of the Russian businessmen would like to see those dependencies increase on a normal basis.

Ukraine has a lot of heavy industry. It’s inconceivable to me that the Europeans are going to want to enter into joint enterprises with, for example, the Russian military – excuse me, the Ukrainian military enterprises that are left. But the Russians — Russia is a large market, and it’s a large market for labor. It’s a large market for goods. So I think if we get away from some of the politics, and of course what we’ve seen in the last week is all politics – it’s the interpretation of history; it’s the interpretation of where Russia is headed now. We get away from that — I really think that these countries will probably find some kind of modus vivendi. The United States and Europe cannot be a substitute for the Russian market.

MARGARET WARNER: Are the U.S. and Europe doing everything they can though to help them — help these countries make this transition?

TOBY GATI: Well, I think the answer to that is no. We probably could do a lot more. It’s true in the supplemental, for example, in Congress, the Ukraine got some more money, Kyrgyzstan got some more money. And Georgia has had money for a while, not only for economics, but we shouldn’t forget the Defense Department has been training Georgian troops for some time.

But I don’t think we will look back– we shouldn’t look back and say in a year we should have done more. This is a very important time. The United States can do more. It’s doing a little bit more in these countries. It should do more with Russia if it’s concerned about democracy. And I think the Europeans have a great stake in the stability over those countries.

MARGARET WARNER: And very briefly, Mr. Karatnycky, we have a few seconds, does the EU appear open to the — to Georgia and Ukraine, or have they been pretty cool towards the idea of even eventual membership?

ADRIAN KARATNYCKY: I think there are different kinds of lobbies within the EU. After all, the EU has now expanded to include the most pro-Ukrainian of countries, Poland, and they’re all in the inner councils, and I think that the balance is shifting. There are — certainly in the German leadership there are mixed opinions. France is a little bit more skeptical, but there is a lot of support for Ukraine, for example, in places like the Netherlands.

There’s a substantial amount of interest in the public opinion. Polls have been done that show that the majorities of populations and places like Britain and in Germany favor Ukraine’s eventual entry into the European Union. And I think it’s really in large measure up to the Ukrainians. Can they get their economy going? It’s been growing at 12 percent, 8 percent, 7 percent, the last few years. Can they keep that and sustain that level of economic growth, because if they succeed in pushing the economy forward, they will become attractive to Europe itself as both a market and a potential member.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. We have to leave it there. Adrian Karatnycky and Toby Gati, thank you.