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The gradual assassination of a democracy and why it matters

By Will Cathcart

On Aug. 18, 2008, upon returning from his visit to a partially Russian-occupied Georgia, then-Senator Joseph Biden stated the following: “The war that began in Georgia is no longer about that country alone. It has become a question of whether and how the West will stand up for the rights of free people throughout the region. The outcome there will determine whether we realize the grand ambition of a Europe that is whole, free, and at peace.”

The future president of the United States then pledged to “send a clear message that the U.S. will not abandon this young democracy.” Today, that is exactly what is happening. Georgia needs the man who wrote these words.

Not long ago, a close friend who I won’t name received an email from someone at the State Department (a person who I should name but will not). This person asked my friend, “How sick really is [former Georgian president and current advisor to Zelensky] Mikheil Saakashvili?”

My friend — who is no stranger to the perfidy or cynicism of the U.S. government — was shocked. The utter absurdity of qualifying this question was a new low. The answer to this question is simple: “How sick must he be for you to act?”

I get the above question a fair amount as well because (full disclosure) between 2009-2011, I worked for then-President Mikheil Saakashvili. It strikes me that those asking this question are suspending their understanding of the binary nature of death, as if death exists on a spectrum, and until some geopolitically correct level of mortality is reached, those with the power to act are not bound by duty or morality to act.

It is time for the West to step up; t is time to intervene. The excuses will not be remembered and failure is irreparable. Life is slipping away from Mikheil Saakashvili. One might say that’s his problem.

Here’s why it’s not and why it is an American and a European problem: Saakashvili’s murder is happening in a Georgian prison hospital at the protuberant direction of Moscow under the guise of Georgian Discipline and Punishment. The public torture on full display is becoming an execution. Rule of law in Georgia is irreparably entwined with the former president’s fate. As the recent bust of yet another black-market uranium sale indicates, Georgian rule of law has global implications.

The specter of Mikheil Saakashvili will inform decades of foreign policy to come.

According to Saakashvili’s lawyer Giorgi Chaladze, his client can no longer speak. “He mumbles faintly. This is a race against time.”

The man who once could not shut up has now been silenced. Saakashvili’s Georgian political enemies know they will not benefit from his death, but that is no longer their decision.

Putin is making an example of the leader who put democracy on his doorstep. His fate is now an existential test for Georgian democracy. Both are in critical condition.

For the sake of the Georgian people, even those who dislike him — especially those who dislike him — Saakashvili must be released. Pretending that negotiation and diplomacy are exhausted is a farce. Sacrificing Saakashvili or worse — allowing him to sacrifice himself — is cowardice by inaction. It is time for those who claim to represent the values and interests of the U.S. in this region to show up for a man who long ensured and espoused them.

I am not here to burnish Saakashvili’s record or reputation. It speaks for itself, warts and all. For as long as I’ve known him, I’ve wondered who is Saakashvili’s greatest enemy: Vladimir Putin or himself? The answer is both.

Now as I watch “Misha” (as he is known in Georgia) die in a Georgian prison, I am reminded of all the leaders who once stood beside him because of what he stood for. He is now dying for it.

Mikheil Saakashvili is the same man he was in 2008 when I first met him. It is the world that changed., and America changed with it. Still, his predictions came true. He was right about Putin, though he is no more popular for it. Instead, he is being abandoned by those who once benefited from his popularity.

He is being killed so that a promise may be upheld. He is being killed to deliver a message to the world. The message goes like this: The West is gutless. Democracy will never be allowed in Russia’s “empire.” And human rights for inconvenient individuals are subject to political whims and news cycles.

What everyone involved seems to forget is that it was a Western-backed soon-to-be-president Mikheil Saakashvili who united disparate forces in Georgia — forces not long out of a civil war — and led them in a revolution that transformed his country into a modern democracy with a modern and democratic government.

If he dies in a Georgian prison, then those same once-contending forces may return to a state conflict. This is bigger than the murder of a man. And yet one man should be enough for this to matter.

Moscow is sowing disunity into the fabric of the staunchest of U.S. allies — an ally that sent troops to fight in two U.S. wars and accepted prisoners from the ethical cesspit that remains Guantanamo Bay.

Diplomatic relations between the outgoing U.S. ambassador and the current ruling party have been deliberately sabotaged. This makes essential procedures like preparing for NATO integration impossible just as the Kremlin wants it. Suddenly, a strategic ride-or-die ally of the U.S. and Europe is acting like a hostile nation.

On the Russian end, this is Kremlin 101. Business as usual. No discord is bad discord; no division is bad division. Every outcome in which Saakashvili dies in Georgian prison is a victory for Putin.

The fallout from Saakashvili’s demise will be every regional diplomat’s worst nightmare. If this story becomes an obituary, then those who did not act will be remembered. They will have the gratitude of the Kremlin.

Among those who have failed to act is the democratically elected president of Georgia, Salome Zourabichvili. She has the legal right to pardon Saakashvili, but she is terrified of the personal consequences. I understand her fear, but President Salome Zourabichvili took an oath to uphold Georgian democracy. For the same reasons that she is afraid, she must pardon the former Georgian president. Bowing to Putin is not a strategy; it does not ensure protection. A litany of dead oligarchs learned this the hard way.

President Zourabichvili has a unique opportunity: She can prove to the Georgian population, which overwhelmingly wants to join NATO and the EU — and to the Western leaders who can make both happen — that Georgia remains a liberal democracy or she can prove their worst fears to be true. The result of the latter will be permanent institutional polarisation and a chaotic desire for vengeance.

The current Georgian government came to power by claiming to be an arbiter of human rights and compassion in the face of a prison abuse scandal. The true test of such values is whether they are extended to political enemies. A dead president in a Georgian prison helps no one but Putin. Ignoring the problem will only compound the consequences.

This is the trolly car problem in reverse. It requires no deliberation, only the courage to act. If those in the position to prevent one death do not do so, others will die too for a reason that heretofore does not exist for a cause that was preventable.

Those who fail to act will have permitted a gradual assassination. They are enabling Moscow. Mikheil Saakashvili’s blood will be on their hands. That is how this will be remembered. The Georgian people will not forget.


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