A wilted rose

January 02, 2008

The Bolsheviks were people on a mission when they seized control of Russia in 1917. They believed in the creative power of destruction, and their credo was a straightforward one: The ends justify the means. It's a disastrous credo to live by, and you'd think that 90 years after the Russian revolution more people would have caught on to that.

But we seem to be living in a revived era of ends pursued without thought to consequences or morals. In the financial sphere, subprime lending. In Pakistan, Islamic militancy. At Abu Ghraib, humiliation and abuse. There are examples large and small, some relatively harmless and others positively deadly. They stem from an all-too-characteristic human trait, one that goes beyond self-confidence to what might be called self-belief.

Today's example comes from the little country of Georgia, which as a former Soviet republic has had plenty of experience with Bolsheviks. Four years ago, Georgia had its Rose Revolution, in which a dashing young lawyer with a Western degree led a peaceful transformation that swept away the old corrupt regime and ushered in what was supposed to be a new dawn of democracy. That lawyer, Mikhail Saakashvili, is smart and foresighted and under constant harassment by Georgia's big neighbor to the north, Russia, but maybe his one big mistake was in coming to believe that he personified the revolution.

He wanted to open Georgia up to the West, and Georgians were happy with that, and he wanted to root out corruption and stoke the economy, things no honest Georgian could object to. But he rammed through reforms and made wrenching changes to the old economic structure, and after a while a lot of people began to realize that plenty of Georgians were getting hurt and very few were prospering. The government acted as though it knew what was best, and didn't have the time to listen to other points of view.

Protests broke out last November, which were put down by the police with a heavy hand. That didn't look like the Rose Revolution at all. A chastened President Saakashvili called for new elections, and they are to be held Saturday. He appears to hold a lead in the polls, which isn't a surprise since the government has thrown its full weight behind him, and other candidates are struggling to be heard.

Georgia is important to the West, because the Caspian oil pipeline runs through it. Georgia is also a test, because Russia is clearly set on bringing it back into Moscow's orbit. If Mr. Saakashvili is re-elected, we hope he learned something from the November protests, and can tamp down the vision thing. We hope he and others will consider the intangible but no less real strengths that come with truly representative government - one that listens to those who are led.

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