New Internationalist

Mikheil Saakashvili

January 2009

The fate of Georgia’s Rose Revolution and its charismatic leader Mikheil Saakashvili (known affectionately as Misha) is a classic case of the hangover following the intoxication of power. Saakashvili, a lawyer with a degree from Columbia Law School in the US, shot to prominence as the ‘young Turk’ at the head of the democratic forces that threw out the Georgian leader and former Bush darling Eduard Shevardnadze and his corrupt nomenklatura in 2003.

This ushered in what was supposed to be a model of democracy for the Caucasus – a region hardly used to this form of governance. The headstrong Misha was never going to have an easy time of it. His tilt toward the West, particularly his love affair with the Bush Administration, was bound to annoy Moscow. There is a tendency amongst some of the leadership emerging from Russia’s shadow in the post-Soviet world to believe ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’. An unfortunate mistake when it comes to the US.

Then there was the vexing question of territorial integrity. Georgia had lost control of two of its regions – the small and poverty-stricken enclave of South Ossetia, and the far more important Black Sea region of Abkhazia. Both are populated by groups ethnically distinct from Georgians and have experienced more than 15 years of separation after being alienated by the extreme chauvinism of Zviad Gamsakhurdia, who ruled post-Soviet Georgia in the 1990s. It has become common currency among Georgian politicians that these two territories should be regained by any means necessary. Unfortunately, Vladimir Putin et al do not share this view and in the Caucasus the Great Bear looms over everything.

At first Saakashvili brought in significant reforms, particularly tackling Georgia’s staggering level of corruption. He restored some degree of confidence in the police – no small task. But the US-style free-market policies that Misha embraced, while bringing initial prosperity to some, inevitably resulted in increased inequality and poverty. To keep the restive poor in line, the police and judiciary embraced a tough law-and-order stance. The age of criminal liability was dropped to an incredible 12 years of age and Saakashvili encouraged the use of live ammunition against prisoners rioting over what Human Rights Watch called ‘inhuman and degrading treatment’. Political disaffection grew and broke out into open revolt by November 2007. This too was greeted with the usual draconian measures – TV stations shut down, demonstrators beaten, with dark rumours of much worse in the background. Saakashvili’s personal intolerance of dissent and opposition was undermining the very grounds on which the Rose Revolution had been established.

US influence grew as Misha welcomed Pentagon and Israeli advisors to train the growing Georgian military. The military budget grew from $50 million under Shevardnadze to almost $1,000 million in 2008 – a huge drain on resources for a small, poor country. Saakashvili showed his gratitude over US military largesse by dispatching up to 2,000 Georgian troops to help prop up the military occupation of Iraq.

An oil and gas pipeline was pushed through Georgia (to avoid a Russian route) west to Turkey for Caspian Sea petroleum reserves. In Moscow there was anger and alarm as tensions gradually escalated. It called for a skilled and delicate kind of tightrope-walking by the Georgian political leadership. But such traits are hardly Saakashvili’s strong suit. He just kept upping the ante – first with talk of joining NATO (although Georgia is thousands of miles from the Atlantic) and finally an assault on the South Ossetian statelet. Under cover of the Olympics, Georgia’s shiny new army launched an artillery barrage and then a ground assault. The numbers of civilians killed (plus a few Russian ‘peacekeepers’) are still hotly disputed. Misha says 44 and the Russians say 1,500.

The results of this ill-conceived gamble are by now well known. Georgian troops were thrown back by a Russian military that had been dying to teach Saakashvili and the Georgians just this kind of lesson. In Misha’s fevered imagination he may have thought that this was Sarajevo at the start of World War One and that the West would risk total war with Russia to defend Georgia’s increasingly dubious democracy. Er, no.

Thanks to Saakashvili’s mindless pro-US policies, Georgia has got itself caught up in a great power game that is serving it ill. Cheney and Bush cared about Georgia only as a way of outflanking Russia. Putin and Medvedev owe their recent popularity to making Russia sound and act like the belligerent old USSR. There is little for Georgia to gain here.

But Saakashvili, no longer the darling of the Rose Revolution, his democratic credentials looking increasingly tattered, may have felt he had to fall back on nationalism – that last resort of scoundrels everywhere, to enhance his political status. In the short run this has worked. Georgians, hugely fearful of the Russian bear, have rallied around the Government. But the accounting for Misha’s precipitous actions has yet to be made. No politician in Belgrade dares recognize the independence of Kosovo. None in Tbilisi dare say it of Abkhazia or South Ossetia. Yet these are facts on the ground that certainly cannot be changed through the use of force.

So, for the foreseeable future, Saakashvili will have to survive based on how he manages Georgia’s internal political and economic affairs. To do this, grand proclamations of liberty will need to be combined with a much more tolerant and democratic temperament. So far the record is not very encouraging. Some former Rose Revolutionaries, such as Nino Burjanadze, don’t hold out much hope. They are forming a new opposition party.

Mikheil Saakashvili Fact File
Name
Mikheil Saakashvili
Job
President of Georgia.
Reputation
Leader of the Rose Revolution; US man in the Caucasus; Political hothead.
Sense of humour
Saakashvili has been feeling the pressure during recent events, but eating his tie on a widely distributed YouTube video clip is a marvellous way to let off steam. Ah, the dignity of office!
Low cunning
Saakashvili likes to quote Human Rights Watch figures for minimal casualties caused by his assault on South Ossetia. This despite continuous criticism by Human Rights Watch of his record and specific denial of the figures he quotes.
Sources
Sources: Institute for War and Peace Reporting; www.opendemocracy.net; Stephen Zunes, ‘US Role in the Georgia Crisis,’ www.globalexchange.org; Human Rights Watch; _The Economist_; Wikipedia; bbc.co.uk

This column was published in the January 2009 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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