TBILISI, Georgia — Some four years ago, as he stood before a cheering crowd of tens of thousands, former President George W. Bush declared that Georgia's pro-western government was "inspiring democratic reformers . . . across the world."
Georgia's ouster of its Russian-linked leadership in the 2003 Rose Revolution and the following year's U.S.-backed Orange Revolution in Ukraine had sent a message that "freedom will be the future of every nation," Bush said.
Today, though, the governments of Georgia and Ukraine are unraveling — symbols not of freedom but, to a large extent, of U.S. foreign policy errors, tarnished American allies and an emboldened Russia that's capitalized on its rivals' weaknesses.
The diplomatic complications for President Barack Obama over Russia and its neighbors go beyond these two countries in Moscow's backyard. Earlier this month, Russia flexed its muscle in another "rainbow revolution" country, Kyrgyzstan, where democratic reform had never fully taken root.
Russia offered the central Asian country more than $2 billion in loans and aid. Almost immediately, the Kyrgyz president announced, in Moscow, that he plans to close a major U.S. air base in his country that's critical to the U.S. mission in Afghanistan.
Ukraine and Georgia have significant differences — for starters, Ukraine has a population of about 46 million, and Georgia only about a tenth of that — but like Kyrgyzstan, they've been part of the Kremlin's campaign to reduce U.S. influence in what Russian officials call their "near abroad."
Many officials and analysts in the two countries say the Bush administration made the crucial mistake of continuing to fully, and very publicly, back their presidents — Mikheil Saakashvili in Georgia and Viktor Yushchenko in Ukraine — long after it was apparent that they'd lost their way.
By not establishing stronger relationships with rival politicians in Kiev and Tbilisi, those observers said, Bush committed the U.S. to the two men, and their shortcomings, rather than to broad-based democratic reform.
In Georgia, a growing front of opposition officials, which includes former leaders of Saakashvili's government, say that misstep empowered an increasingly authoritarian regime and in the end helped Russia.
"We tried to explain to our American and Western partners that what Saakashvili is doing here, ruling with autocratic tools, it will soon cause mass protests," Kakha Kukava, an opposition leader in Tbilisi, said in a recent interview. No one in the Bush White House, he said, was interested.
In Ukraine, some opposition and former officials say the Bush administration's support for the country's application to join NATO, a key Yushchenko initiative that, like Bush, was widely unpopular in the south and east, only further unraveled the government.
"In Ukraine it backfired," said Oleg Rybachuk, a former chief of staff to Yushchenko. "All critics of Bush, they positioned Yushchenko as a clear puppet of Bush — (as having an) aggressive, pro-NATO policy."
Kukava and Rybachuk emphasized that, like many critics of their presidents, they want democracy and agree on the importance of checking Russian power.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has made it clear that he dislikes Saakashvili and Yushchenko and considers them U.S.-backed interlopers in Russia's "privileged" sphere of influence.
Putin didn't deny reports that he threatened to string Saakashvili up by the testicles. Asked on national TV recently if he said he wanted to hang the Georgian president by a certain part, Putin replied, "Why by one?"
Under Putin's leadership, the Kremlin has taken advantage of Saakashvili's and Yushchenko's mistakes at every turn.
Once in office, Saakashvili made progress fighting corruption and jump-starting the nation's economy, but he also cracked down on civil liberties and began consolidating power. During November 2007, Saakashvili declared a state of emergency after sending Georgian troops to violently disburse protests in Tbilisi, which government officials say were sparked by Russia.
After Saakashvili launched an offensive last August against the breakaway Georgian republic of South Ossetia, lured in part by Russian provocations, Russia invaded Georgia and established de facto control of both South Ossetia and another rebel province. Amid the upheaval, Saakashvili's government recently nominated its fifth prime minister in five years.
In a report last month, Freedom House, an independent U.S. organization that promotes democracy, said it had removed Georgia from its list of electoral democracies. The country that once "represented one of the few bright spots in the former Soviet Union" has taken an "erratic course," that "ranks among the more disturbing developments of the past two years," the report said.
The news also is bad from Ukraine. President Yushchenko's approval rating is in the single digits, and he lost almost all voter support during a series of feuds with his prime minister and one-time ally, Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.
Before a crippling economic crisis hit, the government was headed for its third parliamentary election in as many years in late 2008.
Soon after, Russia shut off gas supplies to Ukraine in January. The contract later signed requires Ukraine to pay market prices after decades of subsidies — a move almost certain to weaken the economy further.
Last week, Tymoshenko said that her country was shopping for loans to shore up its budget. Russian and Ukrainian media reported that Moscow has offered some $5 billion, with conditions not yet made public. One Russian state TV station headlined the story: "Ukraine gets out the begging bowl."
Yushchenko's political ineptness has paved the way for Russia's candidate in 2004, Viktor Yanukovich, to be a leading contender for the presidency again. Still, many Ukrainians don't blame Russia and its propaganda campaign against Yushchenko for his undoing.
"Of course, the Russians were doing their best to discredit the president as the personification of the Orange Revolution, as the personification of democratic values," said Boris Tarasuk, a senior member of Yushchenko's coalition and former foreign minister.
Having said so, Tarasuk conceded that most of Yushchenko's problems emanate from his confrontations with the prime minister. "He happened to be the victim of his own mistakes," Tarasuk said.
Added one Western diplomat in Kiev: The Kremlin "probably enjoyed watching."
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
McClatchy Newspapers 2009