The defeat of the United National Movement in Monday’s general election probably heralds the end of President Mikheil Saakashvili nine year rule. At the same time, it comes across as his great victory.

It was during Mr Saakashvili’s term that – for the very first time in the history of the Caucasus! – a democratic government changeover took place. Mr Saakashvili could have rigged the elections, imprisoned his political opponents, or gagged an antagonistic media (all of which he had actually tried to do before), but he chose instead to accept the crushing judgement of his citizens. For this he will go down in history.

“We’ve lost the elections and are moving into opposition ... We must learn to work together,” Mr Saakashvili said in a Tuesday TV address.

This is a precedent on a larger scale. There are few countries east of the EU border where such a scenario would be possible. Democracy has so far worked in Moldova, and it will soon become clear whether Ukraine has remained faithful to it when the country holds parliamentary elections on 28 October.

EU flags fly in front of every government building

All the other post-Soviet countries are authoritarian states that differ only in their regimes’ level of oppressiveness. Let’s say that Russia, unlike Azerbaijan, police don’t open fire at striking workers. Or that Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, the dictator of Turkmenistan, is responsible for more deaths than his Belarusian counterpart, Alexander Lukashenko. Against this background, Georgia’s star shines brightly.

In the European Union, where democracy and freedom are worshipped, this should be noticed and praised. But nothing of the sort has happened. The only official to have made a comment was High Representative Catherine Ashton’s spokesperson. Diplomats in Berlin, Paris, London have been silent. There has been little media coverage too.

And yet Georgia made immense progress under Mr Saakashvili’s administration and its Soviet past is less and less visible. Mr Saakashvili built huge public buildings, opened the country to foreign investment, fought corruption successfully. That is why he is so hated by the Russian elites; polls show that Georgia is perceived as more hostile to Russia than even the United States. The small Caucasian country has succeeded where the mighty Russia has failed: it has successfully taught its policemen not to take bribes; one can safely do business in Georgia today without the fear of landing up in jail.

Mr Saakashvili’s tenure also had its darker side, his liberal economic reforms resulting in higher unemployment and more people living in poverty. The huge public projects were financed by credit, which will have to be paid off, and companies still offer bribes to win lucrative government contracts.

But when one drives through Tbilisi, what stands out the most are EU flags. They fly in front of every government building. Mr Saakashvili, whom western European leaders generally regard as a lunatic, has managed to inspire in his countrymen an enthusiasm for Europe that has long been gone from Germany or France. Georgians believe that the EU and Nato will guarantee their countries’ security and stability.

Saving grace — Eastern Partnership

The problem is that Europe has little to offer to Georgia. Although the Georgians were told at the 2008 Nato summit in Bucharest that they would eventually be offered membership, this has remained but a vague promise. EU membership or even affiliation are out of the question. Europe has too many problems of its own to be thinking about its neighbours.

Georgia, which has for centuries considered itself a European country, is a distant periphery for today’s Europe. And despite strong efforts, Warsaw, Prague and Stockholm have been unable to change this. After all, supporting Georgia means also aggravating Russia, which in 2008 fought a war against its neighbour, tearing the disputed provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia away from it. Meddling in this dispute makes no political sense for Paris or Berlin.

The only thing the Georgians can count on is the Eastern Partnership programme, where they have been included next to, for instance, the Azerbaijan dictatorship. The programme was meant to bring the post-Soviet republics closer to the EU, but at a time when Europe’s attention is focused on the Arab states, it has run aground.

Turning a deaf ear to the Georgian elections, Europe is not only turning its back on its staunchest believers. It is also sending a signal that it cares little about democracy in the East.