Tuesday, February 4, 2014


Twenty-three years ago, Ukraine won its independence from the Soviet Union. I was a student, a 20-year-old idealist, in the country of Georgia, looking forward to our own freedoms.

But in 1991, my country was almost destroyed by a disastrous civil war that raged for three years, killing innocent civilians and leaving deep wounds — and an even deeper divide — among those who survived.

I am reminded of this when I witness demonstrators in Kiev as protesters continue to take to the streets and blood has already been shed. Violence leads to more violence. Tyranny falls only when a country is united, not divided.

The civil war in Georgia began in much the same way. Georgia’s first freely elected president was Zviad Gamsakhurdia, a mild-mannered intellectual. He was faced with serious economic and political challenges with regard to Georgia’s relations with the Soviet Union.

Ethnic tensions erupted in the region of South Ossetia, and the new government blamed agents of the Kremlin for the unrest. Opposition grew fierce, and the new president was accused of dictatorial behavior and human rights violations — charges that threatened international recognition of the new democracy.

Demonstrators took to the streets in Tbilisi that year, with mass arrests, political offices ransacked and opposition newspapers shuttered.

Barricades were erected, and demonstrations continued for the next three months. A state of emergency was declared. On Oct. 4, anti-government groups attacked the supporters of Gamsakhurdia; one supporter of the president was killed.

In December, the rebels, who by then controlled most of the capital, attacked the parliament building. Anti-government forces fired on pro-government crowds, killing or wounding 113 citizens.

On Jan. 6, 1992, Gamsakhurdia fled the country and remained in exile before his mysterious death in 1993 by a single bullet to the brain.

For the next decade, Georgia would suffer near fatal blows to the economic and social order.

The new president, Eduard Shevardnadze, would himself be overthrown in the 2004 Rose Revolution.

Now comes Ukraine.

Without international intervention, the deeply divided country could slide into a civil war — possibly more disastrous than Georgia’s. Violent clashes are escalating as opposition to Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych, who assumed power in 2010, grows more intense.

The government is following a civil war playbook. Forcing through laws curtailing free speech and assembly, and restricting free press. Police brutality. Rigged elections. Judicial corruption. A culture of bribery. Refusal to negotiate. Playing fast and loose with the laws.

Opponents say he steered the country away from a free-trade agreement with the European Union and back toward Russia, establishing himself as a strongman like Russian President Vladimir Putin.

As the third-largest exporter of grain in the world, the country of 46 million people is certainly attractive economically to Russia, which keeps hiking the price of gas.

Then there is the State Security Service, the government intelligence agency secret police that protects the oily elite from media scrutiny. The Security Service deputy head was photographed wearing a $32,000 luxury wristwatch, a price that was estimated to equal his yearly income.

One recent casualty was 34-year-old Ukrainian journalist Tetyana Chernovil, who was savagely beaten last month. She was known for her fearless investigations into government corruption.

The story that allegedly led to the attack was an expose of the interior minister’s lavish estate, hardly affordable on a Ukrainian state officials salary. Hers was just one of 101 acts of violence against Ukrainian journalists in 2013, up from 65 in 2012.

As U.S. diplomats and lawmakers try to find a solution, more buildings will be seized, more civilians killed, more journalists roughed up.

I applauded Sen. John McCain’s trip to Kiev and his statement supporting “the sovereign right of Ukraine to seek its own freedom and independence.”

Just as they did with Syria, President Obama and Mr. Putin must intercede to stem another civil war. I’ve been through one. There is nothing civil about it.

Tsotne Bakuria is a former member of parliament from the nation of Georgia.

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