Their View: New Leaders Threaten Fragile Democracies In Georgia And Ukraine

WASHINGTON, DC -- For much of the last decade, Georgia and Ukraine stood out among post-Soviet nations for their pursuit of liberal democracy and integration with the West following popular uprisings against authoritarian governments.

Viktor Yanukovych

The United States and the European Union devoted considerable resources and diplomacy to encouraging their sometimes-halting progress and to fending off attempts by Russia to undermine it.

Sadly, all that work is close to being undone.

Since winning power in a democratic election in 2010, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych has overseen the prosecution and imprisonment of his chief opponent, prompting the European Union to put an association agreement on hold.

Now Georgia's new prime minister, who defeated the leaders of the 2003 Rose revolution in a democratic election last October, has taken a similar step.

Last month, the longtime interior minister and prime minister of the post-revolutionary government, Vano Merabishvili, was jailed without bail pending trial on charges of misusing government funds.

A serving provincial governor who was labor minister in the former government also was charged.

Like Yanukovych before him, Bidzina Ivanishvili, the new prime minister, assured his countrymen that these political prosecutions would not harm relations with the West.

Unfortunately, neither the Obama administration nor Brussels has clearly contradicted him.

The cautious statements issued by the State Department and two E.U. commissioners did not object to Merabishvili's arrest, though he is the current chairman of the opposition party and was a presumed candidate for president in elections due later this year.

Instead, the Western governments were said to be "closely" following the case and hoping for respect for the rule of law.

The State Department advised the Georgian authorities to avoid "the perception or reality of political retribution" — a line that Ivanishvili already has crossed.

"How unfortunate that we have lost such a 'candidate for' president," was his sarcastic and cynical comment on his rival's arrest.

Georgia's previous government under Merabishvili and President Mikheil Saakashvili was guilty of bending laws and occasionally pressuring opponents and the media.

But the pair also presided over the most democratic elections in Georgia's history and quickly accepted defeat in the vote that brought Ivanishvili to power.

The notion that Merabishvili is not being prosecuted for political reasons is no more credible than that Ukraine opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko is imprisoned because of her previous malfeasance as prime minister.

Ivanishvili, a billionaire who acquired his fortune in Russia, could have built on Saakashvili's peaceful and democratic yielding of power by avoiding prosecutions of the previous regime and focusing on sustaining what had been years of steady economic growth.

Instead, the economy has stalled as the new government has attacked its opposition in the courts and in the streets.

Many Georgians who voted Saakashvili's government out approve of such tactics.

Still, an enduring legacy of the Rose revolution is strong popular support for Georgian integration into the European Union and NATO.

It's time for E.U. leaders as well as the Obama administration to make clear that if Ivanishvili continues to prosecute his chief political opponents, those doors will be closed.

Source: Washington Post