IN PRAISE OF SAAKASHVILI

Natalia Antelava

In his recent article “So Long, Saakashvili,” Thomas de Waal sums up the presidency of Georgia’s Mikhail Saakashvili as a “rebranding exercise” for a country with such a mixed political legacy that it is hard to disentangle myth from reality. As a Georgian, I find such a definition of my country’s last decade both grossly inaccurate and degrading.

I was born and raised in Georgia. In 1998, at the age of 19, I won a scholarship to study in the United States. It was an incredible opportunity, but the Georgian government stood in the way. I was told it would take months to get a passport to travel unless I paid a bribe. I borrowed the money and paid. Fast-forward to 2012. Midway through a conversation at a dinner party in Tbilisi about corruption in the former Soviet Union, the host’s 12-year-old son raised his head. “What is corruption?” he asked.

Corruption is not the only malady that Saakashvili cured. Georgians only slightly younger than me have no idea what it is like to live through a winter without electricity, to cook on kerosene stoves, or to stand for hours in a breadline. We no longer have to rush home after dark in fear of being kidnapped or robbed at gunpoint. Police help us instead of asking for a bribe. Saakashvili’s reforms may seem unimportant to outsiders, but to Georgians they have been life-changing. 

It is true that Georgia has not changed enough. Poverty is still widespread and unemployment is rampant. Saakashvili did clear gangs out of schools and ensure that bribery would no longer be a condition for university attendance, but Georgia’s education system remains mostly in disrepair. Still, contrary to de Waal’s claims, Saakashvili’s reforms were not a PR stunt; they were radical and entirely necessary political interventions. Saakashvili sought approbation from Western press and American politicians, but that doesn't lessen his achievements. 

The article’s simplistic narrative is equally disappointing. For example, de Waal argues that responsibility for the brief but disastrous Russia-Georgia war in 2008 lies solely with Saakashvili. His mistakes in handling Georgia’s breakaway provinces were indeed unforgivable. But the war cannot be blamed on him alone. Even Russian President Vladimir Putin has admitted that Russia had been preparing for the war and training local militiamen.

In another argument, the author offers vivid descriptions of Saakashvili’s close relationship with George W. Bush and claims that it played a fundamental role in his downfall. Yet he fails to explain how. Arguably the most damaging outcome of Saakashvili’s closeness to Bush, and one that the author does not mention, was that it antagonized left-leaning Western intellectuals in Georgia. Domestically, though, Saakashvili’s relationship with Bush was never an issue. 

What did indeed matter at home was Saakashvili’s authoritarian style, which turned many of his allies into enemies. He sidelined his opponents, refused to listen to advice, and grew increasingly intolerant of dissent. Georgia’s justice system was as crooked as before, and too many people fell victim to Saakashvili’s drive to root out crime. But to call Georgia a “police state” degrades not only those who worked extremely hard to bring change but also those who were inspired by Georgia’s example in the region’s real police states: Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. 

Saakashvili’s greatest achievement and his greatest failure are encapsulated in the moment of his downfall. In a region where rulers never leave power by choice, his eloquent concession speech was worthy of a mature democracy. But it was equally significant, and much more unfortunate, that he handed power over to a man with no democratic credentials. Saakashvili’s system had become so stifling that Bidzina Ivanishvili, a billionaire with a murky past and even murkier ambitions, became the only political opponent capable of defeating him. Ivanishvili’s promise to free the country from Saakashvili’s domineering rule resonated with many, but what won him the election was his pledge to share the wealth he made in Russia. 

De Waal lists the achievements of Ivanishvili’s first year in office as prime minister, which include, he argues, a better judiciary and a more diverse media landscape. He admits in passing that Ivanishvili’s record is mixed, but neglects the details: an alarming rise of state-endorsed xenophobia, the empowerment of the most radical forces within Georgia’s Orthodox Church, and the harassment of religious minorities. De Waal says nothing about the prime minister’s habit of publically threatening journalists at press conferences. Nor does he hint that the European Union has expressed serious concerns about the recent arrests of some of Saakashvili’s allies. Most important, the author expresses no concern that Ivanishvili’s decision to resign, nominate a successor, but continue to rule Georgia informally is a great threat to the fragile democratic institutions he has inherited.

De Waal is so intent on scolding Saakashvili, it seems, that he is even prepared to show sympathy toward supporters of a real Georgian dictator, Joseph Stalin. He condemns Saakashvili’s decision to remove the statue of Stalin from his hometown of Gori without public discussion, because the Soviet tyrant, he argues, is still popular with many Georgians.  

Under Ivanishvili, several statues to Stalin have already been erected. For me, and for thousands of other Georgians, this is reason enough to worry.

NATALIA ANTELAVA is a journalist for the BBC.

THOMAS DE WAAL REPLIES

Let me begin my response to Natalia Antelava’s letter by saying that I consider her a friend and that I respect her passionate commitment to her homeland, even as I do not share her analysis.

We can both agree that Georgia is a much better place than it was ten years ago, in large part due to Saakashvili. I have written at length about the state-building and anticorruption reforms undertaken by Saakashvili’s government, which had a transforming effect especially in the early years of his rule.

However, what you might call the “Saakashvili project” went badly off course, and a year after he lost parliamentary elections his ratings have crashed. His candidate polled only 22 per cent of the vote in the country’s recent presidential election.   

How did it all go so wrong? Anyone who cares about Georgia needs to grapple with this question, and I believe it would be disrespectful to the millions of Georgians who voted for change -- including some of its most educated and Western-looking citizens -- not to do so.

Thomas de Waal
De Waal is a senior fellow with Carnegie Europe, specializing in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus region.
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My argument is, indeed, that “much of Saakashvili’s presidency was a rebranding exercise,” and that he was unhealthily focused on pleasing constituencies in the West rather than meeting the needs of ordinary Georgians. PR is important, but when the main volume in your election campaign literature is a glossy book advertising new works of architecture it is a sign that something has gone wrong.

As I wrote, much of the criticism for this state of affairs should be directed at Saakashvili’s enablers in the West, who often seemed more interested in projecting their own geopolitical agendas on Georgia than on helping the real country in the Caucasus.

This unhealthy and overly cozy relationship with some Western friends directly contributed to the blackest page of the Saakashvili presidency, the 2008 Georgia-Russia war. I concur with Antelava that equal culpability for the conflict lies with Vladimir Putin, which was why in the article I referred to “a massive -- and well-prepared -- Russian assault on [Saakashvili’s] country.”

But we must be clear that the Russian attack on Georgia was instigated by Saakashvili’s clumsy attempt to recapture South Ossetia by force on the night of August 7, 2008. This was no overnight conflict. On the Georgian side, the slide to war began in 2006, when Saakashvili sidelined the negotiator who was close to a deal with the Abkhaz and massively increased military spending. On the day in May 2006 when the United Nations envoy managed to bring the de facto Abkhaz foreign minister to Tbilisi, Saakashvili chose not to meet him but went instead to inspect an army base near the border with Abkhazia.

The same negative dynamic took place with regard to Saakashvili’s deteriorating record on democracy and the rule of law. I would never compare Georgia as a whole to Uzbekistan, but for those who ended up in the claws of its enforcement structures, Saakashvili’s government had indeed become a police state. Once cases came to trial, there was only a 0.01 percent acquittal rate in Georgian courts.

The recent report by the EU’s human rights envoy to Georgia, Thomas Hammarberg, highlights how unaccountable Saakashvili’s government had become. He writes, "The separation between the State and the party tended to become blurred. Land and other property were confiscated with little or no possibility for appeal; properties were also 'donated' to the State under pressure and threat. There were complaints about 'elite corruption'." If more journalists working for Western media had highlighted these abuses, they might have been curbed.

The way Saakashvili conceded defeat last October indeed told us good things about Georgia and gives hope for the future. But we should be clear that this was not the script that he planned. The main reason that Georgia’s richest man, Bidzina Ivanishvili, could win the vote was that he was probably the only man Saakashvili’s system could not contain or suppress.

Change is healthy, and the government is still popular with citizens. Georgia’s foreign policy course is set the same, as was confirmed by the recent Vilnius summit, where the government initialed an Association Agreement with the EU. But I also see clearly the negative sides of the new government, which is why I wrote about the “ominous” arrest of former interior minister Vano Merabishvili and referred to “a number of nasty episodes of bigotry and violence against national and sexual minorities, who felt more protected by the pro-Western Saakashvili.”

Antelava ends her letter by referring to Stalin, and in fact the outward resurgence of public support for Stalin over the past year illustrates my main argument very well. I would have been the first to congratulate Saakashvili on dismantling the Stalin statue in Gori if the statue had stayed down. But for that to happen, he needed to tackle Georgians’ Stalin-on-the-inside as well as Stalin-on-the-outside. Not to do so was only to repeat the mistake Nikita Khrushchev made in 1961 when he withdrew Stalin’s body from Lenin’s Mausoleum on Red Square without a campaign in newspapers and schools.

Sadly, we now see that Saakashvili’s de-Stalinization campaign failed for the same reason. Like so much else during his rule, it was more surface than reality and not accompanied by an effort to discuss the issue with society as a whole.

This exchange was originally published by Foreign Affairs.