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President-elect Mikheil Saakashvili's victory in the 4 January Georgian presidential election has transformed Georgia into a proving ground for democratization in the reform-starved arc of lands that runs from the Black Sea to China's western frontier. That election represents a consolidation of the political gains that emerged from President Eduard Shevardnadze's forced resignation on 23 November in response to an impressive display of "people power" that harnessed widespread anger and resentment at the falsification of the parliamentary ballot three weeks earlier.
But whether Georgia's "Rose Revolution" is a template for peaceful civic action that has wider application -- or simply an isolated phenomenon that offers limited hope of affecting the rigid regimes that dominate across the non-Baltic former Soviet space -- is not so clear.
In fact, early reactions from the autocrats across the region suggest that, for them, the revolution in Georgia does not seem nearly so rosy. The very aspects of the Georgian revolution in which opposition movements in other countries find inspiration for their own causes, such as the impact of a unified opposition and the transformative power of mass civic action, are precisely those that other regional leaders who place a premium on control find most threatening.
From Ukraine to Uzbekistan, the challenge for reformers in these countries -- and for Western policy makers who are seeking to encourage positive change -- is profound. A short survey of the post-Soviet landscape offers a glimpse of the wide reform gap that must be bridged in order to bring about meaningful political change that can ameliorate growing internal frustration.
Ukraine's President Leonid Kuchma, who has cracked down on the independent press and political opposition and is the beneficiary of a ruling in late December from Ukraine's Supreme Court that might allow him to extend his presidential term beyond the constitutionally set two-term limit, observed of developments in Georgia that "Ukrainians are not Georgians." Kuchma went on to say that he is "positive the situation [in Georgia] cannot repeat itself in Ukraine."
In Kyrgyzstan, during a live year-end phone-in on 30 December, President Askar Akaev commented that Georgia "pursued a policy with a predominantly pro-Western orientation in the 1990s. Everyone in the world and in the former Soviet Union knows where this policy led."
Azerbaijan's flawed presidential election last October -- and its violent aftermath -- testifies to the leadership's paranoia in the face of any overt display of popular support for the opposition. Both before and since the ballot, the Azerbaijani authorities have systematically intimidated and harassed opposition parties despite their failure to unite around a single opposition candidate and inability to formulate a clear political message.
In Uzbekistan, the authorities are reportedly seeking to circumscribe the efforts of international assistance organizations working to build basic political openings in that country in advance of the coming election cycle there.
In all of these countries and other former Soviet republics, to one degree or another, the authorities have relied on stale models of control and have yet to craft, let alone begin to implement, democratization strategies that would enable political modernization and engagement of the wider population in political life. Among the principal challenges is the enabling of vibrant civil society, without which there is no stabilizing middle ground between political elites and the public at large.
All eyes now are on the untested leadership that has taken the reins of power in Tbilisi. The high expectations of the Georgian people will pose a considerable test for President-elect Saakashvili, who must find a way to improve the country's poor economic situation and tackle its endemic corruption, while also holding the fragile Georgian state together.
The United States and its partners have made a considerable investment in supporting the civic forces that helped bring about positive change in Georgia.
Preserving those achievements is of the utmost priority for the United States and its allies, especially given the profound desire of the region's autocrats to see the Georgian democratic experiment fail. Russia can make an important contribution by giving the emergence of democracy in Georgia a chance; the West should ensure Russia meets its obligations in this regard.
Events in Georgia have infused reform-minded forces in neighboring countries with a sense of hope. For the political opposition in those countries, the Georgian experience holds promise as a reform model, whereby determined civic action can bring about a rotation of power, and possibly more meaningful political change.
Autocratically inclined leadership in the region, however, are drawing their own conclusions about the Georgian experience, and taking action. Those regimes may well impose even tighter control over political life, media and civic activity in their countries if the United States and its Western allies waver in their firm support for the new government in Tbilisi, or fail to step up their efforts to promote democratization and the emergence of civil society across the Commonwealth of Independent States. Any such failure would, in turn, only compound the risk of internal frustration and disaffection.
BELARUSIAN PRESIDENT REPEATS THREATS OVER GDP GROWTH. President Alyaksandr Lukashenka told his government on 14 January that he will be strictly monitoring the government's progress toward achieving 10 percent economic growth in 2004, as he decreed last year (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 November and 4 December 2004), Belapan reported. Lukashenka reportedly warned that a failure to meet this economic target would entail "immediate staff decisions." Some analysts believe Lukashenka's push for economic growth is a carrot for the electorate in exchange for granting him a third term in office in 2006, which is currently forbidden for him by the constitution (see "RFE/RL Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report," 25 November 2003). JM
UKRAINIAN PARLIAMENT CONCLUDES SESSION IN TURMOIL. Speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn closed the fourth session of the Verkhovna Rada one day early on 15 January due to the ongoing blockade of the parliamentary rostrum by opposition deputies, Ukrainian news agencies reported. The Our Ukraine, Socialist Party, and Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc parliamentary caucuses are protesting the 24 December vote that preliminarily approved a constitutional-reform bill calling for the election of the president by parliament in 2006 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 January 2004). Those parties are seeking a direct presidential vote. The next session of the Verkhovna Rada is planned to start on 2 February, when the pro-government parliamentary majority is expected to push for the final adoption of the constitutional-reform bill, which requires 300 votes in the 450-seat chamber. JM
UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT SAID TO BE ASPIRING TO 'INTERIM' TERM. Our Ukraine leader Viktor Yushchenko told journalists on 15 January that the pro-government parliamentary majority is seeking to make President Leonid Kuchma an "interim president" in 2004-06, UNIAN reported. Yushchenko said the majority is set to support the constitutional-reform plan preliminarily approved on 24 December, which stipulates the election of a president by direct ballot in 2004 and then by parliament beginning in 2006. Yushchenko quoted Nestor Shufrych, head of the Social Democratic Party-united parliamentary caucus, as saying that the pro-government majority and the Communist Party are 10 votes shy of the 300 deputies required to adopt the constitutional-reform bill and intend to "obtain" these votes from Our Ukraine deputies. Yushchenko added that Kuchma could even become an "interim president" until 2009, following a decision by the Constitutional Court. Last month, the Constitutional Court ruled that Kuchma may run for the presidency in 2004 despite a two-term limit in the constitution (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 5 January 2004). JM
UKRAINIAN COMMUNIST LEADER EXPLAINS ALLIANCE WITH 'BOURGEOISIE.' Communist Party head Petro Symonenko has disseminated a statement explaining why his organization supported the constitutional-reform bill that was preliminarily approved on 24 December, Interfax reported. Symonenko declares that the Communist Party is pushing for a radical reform of the country's political system through constitutional amendments. "[Such changes] can be achieved in a constitutional way only as a result of coordinating positions with other political parties and structures that are represented in parliament, including those protecting the interests of bourgeoisie," the statement reads. Symonenko stresses that the Communists oppose both a plan for parliamentary election of the president in 2004 and a possible third term for Kuchma. JM