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Georgia, on the rebound, challenges Moscow to take down 'new Iron Curtain'

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Mikheil Saakashvili, President of Georgia, addresses the 65th session of the United Nations General Assembly, on Sept. 23. / AP/Richard Drew

By John J. Metzler

UNITED NATIONS — Two years after an invasion, the threat of annihilation and partial occupation by neighboring Russia, the small but spunky Georgian Republic has not only survived but thrived and succeeded against all odds.  That was the upbeat assessment of Georgia’s once-embattled President Mikheil Saakashvili in an impressive and stirring address before the UN General Assembly. 

 “Today, Georgia is back,” Saakashvili extolled in the sonorous Assembly hall; “Georgia is back, first as a laboratory for political reform and social transformation. More than ever we are committed to the promise at the heart of the Rose Revolution, to turn a failed state into a modern European  one.”   

First a little background.  A former Soviet republic in the southern Caucasus mountains, Georgia gained its fragile freedom after the fall of the communist system.  Though independent, the region was beset by graft, corruption, and instability.  After a democratic and reformist Rose Revolution in 2003, Russia slapped an embargo on its former satrap and in 2008 invaded the tiny country of just under five million people. 

The 2008 Summer War between Russia and Georgia thrust the small land into world headlines.  International support both by the Bush Administration to safeguard Georgia’s fragile sovereignty and from French President Nicolas Sarkozy who brokered a ceasefire before the situation totally spun out of the control, were equally crucial in the nervous days of August.

Currently, two ethnic enclaves Abkhazia and Ossetia remain under Moscow’s control, ruled by local rump regimes.  Over 500,000 people remain internally displaced by the occupation.  “Our two occupied regions exist in a black hole of governance, today in these lands, criminals act with impunity, ” said Saakashvili adding “The Russian army has not withdrawn as required by the ceasefire.” 

“A New Iron Curtain” illegally divides our country,” he conceded, before imploring to assembled delegates,  “It is noticeable that despite enormous pressure and multiple threats from Moscow, not a single former soviet republic has recognized this dismemberment of Georgia. It shows that the former captive nations of the Soviet times became strong independent states that can determine their own policies.”

But not all Georgia’s problems came from its northern neighbor. “The Georgian people have tasted freedom, the absence of corruption, the fruits of economic development” he stressed, “Once one of the most corrupt countries in the post-Soviet world, Georgian has made greater gains in the fight against corruption, as measured by Transparency International, than any other country over the past five years….once a place where foreign investors were kidnapped by gangs and mafias, Georgia is not ranked by the World Bank as number 11 for the ease of doing business in the world.”  

Growth rates before the invasion reached an amazing 12 percent annually. Following the invasion, economic and political instability plagued the young state. Given Georgia’s democratic system, political rifts from the handling of the 2008 conflict remain deep.

“Georgia is winning the peace — Georgia is winning  through peace,” the American- educated President extolled before the delegates.

Strategically situated on the crossroads of Europe and Asia and historically shadowed by competing power interests, (Russia, Turkey, Iran) and courted by the USA, Georgia wishes to firmly anchor its social and political future to the West. In its bid to become an active player in Europe and join NATO in the future, Georgia has dispatched almost 1,000 soldiers to Afghanistan to serve in the multinational mission. This ancient Christian nation, with the St. George Cross on its national flag,  aspires to join the European Union and NATO.

Georgia’s president strongly exhorted Russia to act as a  “rational international player and not a revisionist one; a Russian Federation that will have chosen cooperation instead of occupation, union of markets rather than embargos, tolerance instead of crackdowns.”

He added, “Modernization without freedom is not sustainable; computers are not enough if you do not have free minds of use them. So let us free our minds from out common soviet past in order to build a common future.”

He called on the international community to stay committed and secure peace not only in Georgia  but the entire unstable Caucasian region.  But most importantly, President Mikheil Saakashvili implored, “I personally want Russia as a partner and not as an enemy.”  This aspiration may remain his biggest challenge.

John J. Metzler is a U.N. correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He writes weekly for WorldTribune.com.

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