Failed No Longer

How Georgia came back from the brink.


This week’s Nuclear Security Summit included not only large nuclear powers, such as Britain and India, but also countries like Georgia — a small state with no nuclear weapons, no nuclear energy, and no nuclear materials.

Why is a small country like Georgia relevant to the large challenges facing our world? Although the deep transformations Georgia has undertaken in recent years are important to our own people, they also are relevant to global efforts to address such crucial challenges as nuclear proliferation.

To understand Georgia’s role in a global challenge like nuclear proliferation, it helps to understand how Georgia is evolving and how Georgians see their place in the world.

Just a decade ago, Georgia could not seriously speak of playing any constructive role in the world. We were, to be perfectly frank and accurate, a failed state. Major areas of our country were effectively run by warlords. The police system was corrupt beyond description, with state police extorting payments from prisoners’ families and shakedowns by traffic police at almost every corner.

Young people with talent and ambition sought to join local gangs — or they simply fled the country. Our economy was literally in the Dark Ages. Even in Tbilisi, the capital, people had electricity for only a few hours a day. Real civil liberties did not exist because there was no one to enforce them. Chaos and corruption, like their predecessor, communism, deadened any sense that merit mattered.

Against that backdrop, our Rose Revolution in 2003 was not just about waving flags and storming the Parliament. It was a decision to move our state from failed to functioning. Even more, it was an attempt to change the very relationships between our citizens and their state, and among our people. It was, simply, the start of an audacious process to create a new Georgian society.

Seven years later, we are far from declaring victory. Our people continue to face hard times, with far too much unemployment and poverty. The 2008 Russian invasion and continuing occupation of our country exacted a terrible toll. And though we made big changes, we also made big mistakes, such as our overly harsh response to the opposition street protests in November 2007. Our democratic reforms remain incomplete, a work in progress.

Yet the changes that Georgians have dared to make since 2004 are nonetheless sweeping. We are steadily pursuing reforms to ensure we are not only a democracy, but a liberal one that protects individual rights and civil society.

In just six years, we have gone from near feudalism to an emerging and modernizing market economy. A series of dramatic, liberalizing economic reforms have catapulted Georgia to No. 11 in the world in terms of ease of doing business, according to the World Bank — just after Norway and No. 1 across Central Europe.

Where once Georgians lived without electricity or were vulnerable to energy cutoffs and pipeline sabotage from our neighbors, we are now one of the most energy-independent countries in the world –and our energy is notably green.

Our war on corruption has produced dramatic results. Less than 1 percent of Georgians say they get any requests for bribes. Indeed, Georgia has made more progress on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index since 2003 than any other state and now ranks above several members of the European Union.

We are expanding social services, including subsidized health insurance for the poor. In 2006, only 48,000 individuals in Georgia had health insurance. Now it’s 1.5 million, including 1.2 million covered by the state. And we are doing this even as we provide housing and income support for the tens of thousands of internally displaced persons who were ethnically cleansed from Georgian villages in South Ossetia and Abkhazia in August 2008.

Above all, we are working to transform the way individuals in Georgia conceive of their relation to the state, and to each other. We have created protections against discrimination on account of race, religion, or sexual preference — a novelty for the Caucasus. This also means stronger protections for dissent. When protesters took to the streets in Tbilisi last April, we stood aside, with no recourse to force, as they shut down the city’s main streets for nearly three months. We are also steadily reforming our electoral system.

All this was made possible, in part, by generous support from the international community, including billions from the United States and the European Union in the aftermath of the 2008 war. Here in America, this has been a bipartisan project, sustained by the leadership of President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden.

Failed states do not only fail their own people. They also tend to fail in their responsibilities to the broader world. And that is why this story of Georgia’s recent transformations is relevant to a broad series of international challenges — including the challenge of nuclear proliferation that was addressed at this week’s summit.

The fact is, the nature of the world’s challenges is changing. The old threat of cross-border aggression remains — unfortunately, I can testify to that firsthand. But the world also increasingly confronts a range of more diffuse challenges that, as Obama said more than a year ago in Berlin, "cannot be contained within the borders of a country or by the distance of an ocean."

In such a world, the calculations that underlie security change. We all need not only a balance of power, but also a balance of cooperation. We need formal alliances and informal networks of countries that act in close concert to defeat the era’s new threats.

That balance of cooperation begins with the like-minded states that bring the greatest capacity and leverage to the table — starting with those in the transatlantic community, which is why we support a strong NATO and European Union, even though we are not yet members.

The connection between Georgia’s internal governance and our external responsibilities was clear to us from the first days of the Rose Revolution. Very early in my presidency, then Russian President Vladimir Putin called me to say that he would be ready to accept our new Georgian regime, as long as I was willing to agree to just one, small, innocuous provision … that he could name our ministers of interior and foreign affairs. In other words, that we agree to be something less than a fully independent, sovereign, and functioning state.

Instead, we determined that, as we nurtured personal responsibility among our own people, we would also show responsibility to the global community. That is why we have undertaken a range of steps to do our fair share in addressing pressing global problems.

In recent years, as we rebuilt a functioning state and stepped up to our international responsibilities, we have played a significant role in efforts to combat the illegal sale of small arms, drug smuggling, human trafficking, money laundering, and more. We helped break up numerous uranium smuggling attempts. We have contributed nearly 1,000 troops to the multilateral war effort in Afghanistan. We aren’t doing all this as a way to win points. We are doing this as an expression of our own values.

All this may seem sensible and unexceptional — a normal, responsible state expressing normal, responsible values. Yet for some states, these normal, responsible values are, indeed, profoundly threatening. Ideas of individual liberty, responsibility, and merit pose a real danger to any regime that maintains its power through repression, intimidation, and cronyism.

As new histories show, that was the real reason for Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008 — the fact that we were choosing to "go west" in how we govern ourselves and relate to the world. Our small state did not threaten any of our neighbors. But our far-reaching values did.

Yet this is what Georgia has chosen to be — a country that lives its values at home and abroad. Sometimes, this makes us a bit troublesome. But I would also suggest it is what makes us a reliable partner in the new efforts to build cooperation on crucial matters of global security.

Mikheil Saakashvili is head of the National Reform Council of Ukraine and was president of Georgia from 2004 to 2013.

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola