Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Comment: Georgia's Lucky President

In Mikheil Saakashvili’s rapid ascent to power, he has not put a foot wrong – so far.
By Ivlian Khaindrava

Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili is a man who needs success, and who so far has always managed to achieve it.

Saakashvili at times gives the impression of believing that his country’s modern political history began in 1995 when, aged 27, he entered parliament as a deputy from the then ruling party, the Citizens’ Union of Georgia, CUG. This personalised view of the world suggests that everything that has happened since then is in some way the result of Saakashvili’s own ideas and actions, culminating with his election as head of state eight years on.

An overview of his career to date suggests a man who is not only talented, energetic and extremely focused on results but also – for the time being at least – extremely lucky.

As chairman of the committee on constitutional, judicial and legal affairs in the 1995 parliament, Saakashvili won a reputation as the father of a programme of court reforms. Along with the leader of the group known as Georgia’s “young reformers”, the then speaker of parliament – and now prime-minister - Zurab Zhvania, he quickly became one of Georgia’s most promising politicians.

In 1998-99, the rising star became the leader of the Citizens Union of Georgia group in parliament. Yet amazingly, he managing to maintain his image as a free spirit, criticising everyone and everything, including his own colleagues and on occasion Georgia’s leadership.

Midway through 1998 however, the reform process came to a halt, as the retrograde majority of the CUG came to the conclusion that Georgia’s flirtation with democracy and liberalism had gone too far. The liberal laws that parliament had adopted were generally not enforced, as the deeply corrupt authorities were governed by their own short-term interests.

In this environment, Saakashvili was persuaded that it was no use him remaining in parliament, and in 2000 he convinced President Eduard Shevardnadze to appoint him justice minister.

A miracle then occurred. What had been a third-rate ministry with little public profile began, under Saakashvili, to shake up Georgian society. The new minister completely changed his ministry’s appearance, hanging the flag of the European Union outside and stationing guards in outlandish uniforms at the door.

More importantly, he changed its way of doing things inside. Regular briefings by the new minister exposing the innumerable sins of the ruling elite gave journalists rich pickings. And literally everyone in Georgia remembers how the minister used a government session to openly accuse cabinet colleagues of corruption.

However, Saakashvili’s fellow ministers continued to enjoy Shevardnadze’s favour and were thus able to let such accusations go unanswered. Less than a year after he was appointed, Saakashvili resigned. In the autumn of 2001 he ran for a vacant seat and got back into parliament, now as an implacable opponent of the president.

By this time, Shevardnadze’s standing had declined so much that even the hitherto loyal CUG was breaking apart. Saakashvili seized the moment, outmanoeuvring Zhvania to become the favourite candidate to succeed Shevardnadze as president.

He again proved masterly at exploiting political opportunities in June 2002 when his newly-created National Movement for Democratic Reforms concentrated its efforts on winning the Tbilisi municipal elections. The election results were a massive shock: the CUG did not win enough votes to gain a single seat in the city assembly, and Saakashvili took it over, in alliance with a growing number of people who were beginning to see him as tomorrow’s man.

As chairman of the city assembly, Saakashvili again mixed the symbolic with the practical. He raised the red crosses of the National Movement flag above the building (this year it became the national flag of Georgia) to announce that he had created an alternative power base in the country, and proclaimed a crusade against corruption.

With his eyes now firmly on the presidency, Saakashvili began to broaden his political constituency, attracting voters by promising action on basic concerns such as a return to free education and healthcare provision and promises to raise pensions and salaries. As a token of this, Tbilisi pensioners received a new, if tiny, pension rise, financed out of the local budget, the city authorities repaired lifts and roofs – and Saakashvili’s popularity grew again.

The ambitious leader at first believed that the general election of November 2003 would be a springboard to the presidential poll due in April 2005, and set himself the goal of dominating the new parliament. So he launched an offensive on all fronts: the National Movement waged an aggressive election campaign even in the autonomous Black Sea republic of Ajaria, where the authoritarian leader Aslan Abashidze traditionally awarded himself as many votes as he felt like.

Saakashvili had caught society’s angry mood, and his forceful and uncompromising style eclipsed the more moderate Zhvania and Nino Burjanadze, the former and current speakers of parliament, even though the personal poll rating of the latter was almost as high as Saakashvili’s. But he kept them as junior allies, promising that if he became president, Zhvania would become prime minister and Burjanadze would remain speaker – exactly what has happened.

Shevardnadze could have remained president if the officially-announced election results had come even close to the truth. But neither the president nor his entourage were equal to the situation, and the Rose Revolution that erupted after the falsified elections swept them away.

In the midst of that revolutionm Saakashvili was transformed into an undisputed national leader. A charismatic figure who demonstrated an extraordinary ability to persuade and mobilise the crowds, he also displayed astonishing political intuition, literally walking a knife-edge without stumbling in those stormy November days.

As a result, the pre-term presidential election of January 4 and the repeat parliamentary vote of March 28 became in effect a vote of confidence in the Georgia’s new revolutionaries and their leader.

At the same time, these elections also saw some innovatory steps. One was involving the people of Ajaria in electing the new president, which helped lead to the republic’s reintegration into Georgia, when Abashidze was overthrown in May in Saakashvili’s second peaceful revolution.

Another was the prominent role played by Saakshvili’s Dutch-born wife Sandra Roelofs-Saakashvili in the election campaign, unprecedented in any of the post-Soviet societies.

On becoming president of Georgia in January, Saakashvili showed respect for nothing that preceded his rule. He appointed people personally loyal to him to key posts, whatever their age, experience or competence. In practice an official position – or lack of one – does not always reflect a person’s real influence. The boundaries between party and state structures have become blurred and so have those between the legislature, executive and judiciary.

In February, the new president managed to push far-reaching constitutional changes through the old demoralised parliament, reconfiguring the constitution to suit his own plans. The new parliament is continuing in the same vein, for example passing a constitutional law on the status of Ajaria which has been widely interpreted as the introduction of presidential rule there. Some experts are concerned that is not so much a temporary fix for Ajaria as a long-term model for the whole of Georgia.

A string of high-profile arrests of Shevardnadze-era oligarchs and officials – most of whom were released after paying large fines – was popular with the public but carried out with little regard to legal process.

The adoption of a hyper-liberal new media law has not been enough to reassure those who worry that Georgia’s once free and independent media now feels restricted, while the country’s lively non-governmental organisations complain that their voice is not being heeded.

These fears were renewed by the June 20 election in Ajaria, which saw a return to Shevardnadze-era methods of voter manipulation.

But Saakashvili is not worried by “details” like this. A man who follows his personal poll rating every day with jealous interest, he needs more successes of the kind he is now used to achieving. In fact, the sort of success he achieved in Ajaria in May by unseating Abashidze.

He is now preparing the ground for a new triumph in South Ossetia, a region that broke away from Georgia in the early Nineties. As in Ajaria, Saakashvili is deploying different methods to rattled South Ossetian leaders and convince the population that it is worth their while returning to Georgian rule.

Saakashvili knows how to unsettle his opponents and force them to make mistakes. He knows how to present himself to the Americans, the Europeans and the Russians. He knows how to keep the attention and love of the population. He knows how to lead his people towards a bright future – as long as they march behind him in step and do not distract him with their own thoughts and alternative ideas.

The only thing that he does not know is when he will meet with failure. And Georgia, as well as its allies and partners, does not know what Saakashvili’s first failure will bring.

Ivlian Khaindrava is director of the South Caucasus Studies programme at the Centre for Development and Cooperation - Centre for Pluralism in Tbilisi.