Georgian Spring

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NATO's decision not to offer Georgia an immediate path to membership appears at first glance to be a blow to Washington. Although the NATO secretary-general announced that Ukraine and Georgia would eventually become members, Russia's envoy to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, confidently predicted that nothing would change anytime soon.

Offering Georgia's leadership a Membership Action Plan so soon after its crackdown on dissent and the flawed January elections was never a good idea. Washington will achieve a better outcome by making a push for real political reform in Tbilisi before the issue of NATO membership for Georgia is debated among alliance members in December.

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili's November 2007 crackdown on political demonstrations, which included using special forces to take an opposition television station off the air, revealed the authoritarian tendencies lurking behind his Ivy League-educated exterior. Although the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe claimed that the January 2008 special elections that gave Saakashvili another term were "in essence" consistent with democratic norms, disproportional media coverage, reported vote irregularities in key territories and Saakashvili's alleged use of state resources to campaign revealed the thorns in his Rose Revolution. By moving to grant Tbilisi the powerful legitimacy of potential NATO membership, the United States sent the wrong signals to allies, to Moscow and to Georgia itself about its objectives in the region.

After arguing Georgia's case so forcefully, Washington faces a credibility problem. This is true both in West European capitals, where NATO expansion into the Caucasus was seen as U.S. President George W. Bush's bid to secure his legacy, and in Tbilisi, which contributed troops to the Iraq coalition and let international election monitors prowl its territory in the hope NATO would approve its membership bid.

The problem is that Washington's thinking on Georgia has been a confused jumble of perceived hard security aims and idealistic wishful thinking. One the one hand, the United States says it wants to make clear to Russia that it must respect the sovereignty of its neighbors -- in other words, to contain its influence. On the other, Washington claims that NATO is based on common values and is not directed against any country and that a road to membership is not membership itself.

To skeptical Europeans, it seems clear that while Poland, the Czech Republic and aspiring members such as Macedonia have long been anchored in the democratic traditions of Western Europe, Georgia has a far more tenuous record. It is also a deeply divided country, mired by separatist conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Unconvinced by the U.S. rationale that NATO expansion to Georgia was about bringing a fledging democracy under a security blanket, Paris and Berlin saw no reason to anger Moscow any further.

Even NATO allies, such as Poland and the Baltic states who backed the U.S. position, do not believe that Georgian accession is primarily a project to effect democracy promotion. Like the Georgians, the Poles and others who have suffered at the hands of Russian imperialism are more interested in sending a signal to Moscow that its special role in its former sphere of influence has ended. Such a calculating assessment may be the impetus behind the Georgian leadership's decision to support the U.S. mission in Iraq. Otherwise, Tbilisi would seem to be more concerned about democracy in Iraq than in its own country.

Moving now to press Georgia's leadership to live up to its democratic talk would win greater support for Washington's future plans in reluctant European capitals. It would also enhance its standing vis-a-vis Russia, which sees NATO expansion into Georgia as a mere power ploy. Furthermore, it will help create a basis for a government that can be a long-term, reliable security partner in a strategically important region.

Washington should start by holding Tbilisi's feet to the fire to ensure that parliamentary elections in May are conducted in a free and fair atmosphere without intimidation. In this respect, a recent amendment to the Election Code that eliminates runoffs for those who win more than 30 percent of the vote is a backward step.

But it should not stop there. One of the lessons of former President Eduard Shevardnadze's rule was that Washington had to have good relations with all parties, including the opposition. Saakashvili's opponents are weak and divided, and few have compelling democratic credentials. But by making clear it is not exclusively tied to the interests of one leader, Washington will avoid being tarnished by any further backsliding on Tbilisi's part.

In short, if the Bush administration is motivated to expand NATO at least in part by concern for its legacy, it should change tactics and hold Georgia up to the standards of the administration's own rhetoric.

Gregory Dubinsky is a junior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.