Why Georgia’s presidential election is a make or break moment for Eastern Europe

The stakes in the second round of Georgia’s presidential elections, scheduled for Wednesday, could not be higher — for Georgia and the West. Either Georgia will demonstrate that it has passed the point of being a transitional, post-Soviet democracy and earned its place in the European family, or its image as a modernizing democracy will suffer a major blow, pulling Georgia back into a post-Soviet limbo.

Most important is that this election be peaceful, free and fair, and that both sides must accept the outcome, regardless of who wins. In the first round of the election on Oct. 28, emotions ran high, political debate often turned into ugly personal attacks, and the threat of violence and popular unrest came close to becoming a reality. A peaceful and internationally validated second round can now restore national unity, and keep Georgia on track with its European aspirations.

Georgia is already an exception in the former Soviet space. It has done far better on democratic institution-building, economic reforms and fighting corruption than all other former Soviet states (except the Baltics), and has been a major contributor to NATO operations in Afghanistan.

Fifteen years ago, in November 2003, Georgia’s “Rose Revolution” ushered in major democratic and economic reforms. When momentum slowed after 2007, then-President Mikheil Saakashvili overreached, using special police forces to raid and shut down an opposition TV station and to attack anti-government demonstrators.

Even so, in 2012, Georgia had free and fair elections, resulting in the first peaceful transfer of power in the country’s modern history. The new Georgian Dream government also overreached at first, arresting many of the members of the former government, but its practices improved over time.

Six years later, Georgia passed yet another democratic milestone: For the first time since 1991, the government-backed (or incumbent) candidate did not win in the first round of presidential elections, leading to a second round and indicating a genuinely democratic process.

Today, Georgia is at the cusp of a further step forward: a free and fair second round of presidential elections, in which the winning and losing candidates both accept the decision of the voters.

Georgia still faces other challenges to its democracy.

The media environment has become completely politicized, with major pro-government and pro-opposition television stations openly campaigning for their preferred candidates. Civil society organizations are treated harshly by government authorities, who see them as part of the opposition. The richest man in the country bankrolls the government-supported candidate and ruling political party, to the disadvantage of other parties. Russia, which occupies 20 percent of Georgian territory, is using disinformation and cyberattacks to skew the election as well.

Given these other challenges, if Georgia fails to hold a free and fair second round of elections, skeptics in many European capitals will take it as confirmation that Georgia is not ready to be part of the West. That would be a tragedy for those Georgian reformers who have brought the country to this stage.

On the other hand, a successful election, no matter who wins, will reward the vast majority of the Georgian people, who have demonstrated that they are Western-minded, freedom-loving and value an open society.

Critically, such a result should keep Georgia on track to becoming a full member of the transatlantic family.

This should matter as much to the West as it does to Georgia itself. If Georgia succeeds in becoming a stable democracy and growing market economy, it will have major implications for Ukraine, Armenia and other post-Soviet states — including Russia.

As a result, both Georgia itself and the western community must do their share to make this election a success. Georgians must ensure that the upcoming election is free and fair, and that the winner is accepted by all sides. The transatlantic community must rigorously hold Georgia to this standard, and if it is met, step forward with enhanced support, engagement, partnership and, ultimately, offers of membership in Western institutions. That would truly be a “win-win” for Georgia, the West and the post-Soviet democratic experiment.

Ia Meurmishvili is the anchor of “Washington Today,” a weekly news magazine produced by the Voice of America’s Georgian Service.

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