Why Georgia is serious about democracy

MIKHEIL SAAKASHVILI
The Financial Times

During his visit to the UK last month, President George W. Bush proclaimed America's commitment "to the global expansion of democracy, and the hope and progress it brings, as the alternative to instability and to hatred and terror". His adversaries no doubt scoffed at this declaration. But we in Georgia understand and value these words and welcome America's principled engagement in the defence of our own young democracy in recent weeks. America stood firm for the democratic franchise of our people and their right to turn even Eduard Shevardnadze - a favourite of US diplomats and a longtime friend of the Bush family - from office.

The "rose revolution" in Georgia was not at root about disgust with a tired leader or frustration with corruption, though these factors certainly played a part. In its essence, it was about democracy our right as a nation to determine our own path and not to be dictated to by rulers we did not choose. The crowds swelled in the streets when it was clear this right was being stolen from us. We have learnt to take democracy seriously. If there is only one message from the uprising, that is it.

Since Mr Shevardnadze's noble decision to depart, Georgia has entered an interregnum that will not end until presidential elections on January 4. If its people are to enjoy a brighter future, the next president must focus on three main areas: relations with the west; relations with Georgia's immediate neighbours; and economic reform.

Fortunately, as recent events have shown, Georgia shares with the US and Europe a strong commitment to democracy and the values of an open society. Mr Shevardnadze did a good job of forging a strong relationship with the west; to build on this, we must develop in Georgia itself the social and political structures that have made western democracies strong and stable. Under Mr Shevardnadze, Georgia participated in Nato's partnership-for-peace programme, and this will continue, but the time has come to develop the relationship further.

At the same time, Georgia must improve relations with its neighbours. Georgia does not have the benefit of being in a peaceful and prosperous neighbourhood. The Caucasus has been plagued with violence and inter-ethnic conflict for centuries and we sit on the periphery of the volatile Middle East. Good relations with the nations that surround us are essential.

Above all, that means Russia, for 200 years Georgia's closest partner and a country with which we have many cultural, political and religious links. Positive Russian-Georgian relations are the essential first step to building peace and prosperity in the north Caucasus. Crucial to this will be co-operation with Russia in ending conflict and eliminating terrorism in Chechnya.

Economic links are also important. Agriculture forms a large part of the Georgian economy, and Russia whose economy has remained vibrant despite the recent worldwide slowdown has historically been our main export market. Russian investment can also help develop many sectors of Georgia's economy and should be welcomed. Conversely; many Georgians who reside and work in Russia have made important contributions to Russia's economic development.

Of course, Georgia must look south as well. It must remain committed to furthering the historically strong and friendly relations with Armenia and Azerbaijan. Turkey is another important partner, and trade between Georgia and Turkey has bloomed in recent years. The oil pipeline from Baku in Azerbaijan via Tbilisi to the Turkish port of Ceyhan is nothing less than a revival of the old Silk Road, a path for the flow of goods and services from the Caspian Basin to the outside world.

In Soviet times, Georgia's standard of living was the envy of its neighbours. It can be so again, provided the country moves to a real market economy and takes determined action against the pervasive corruption that holds us back. A blueprint for a war on corruption was worked out when I was justice minister under Mr Shevardnadze. His equivocation over implementing it was one of the factors that led me and other reformers to quit the government. The first step must be to cut back state bureaucracy and to cast light on the way the government acts when it grants permits end licences.

The era of rule by one man in Georgia has come to an end. We look now to an era of democratic pluralism and civic engagement. Georgia's rose revolutionaries deserve nothing less.

The writer is a candidate for Georgia's presidency