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Saakashvili: Saviour or Threat?

After a turbulent first half-year as president of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili shows no signs of slowing down.
By Thomas de Waal

Six months into his presidency, Mikheil Saakashvili, Europe’s youngest head of state, continues to turn Georgia upside down and fascinate the outside world.


Opinions are still polarised about the 36-year-old Georgian president, with most people applauding an energetic champion of reform while a minority say he is a volatile man who risks re-igniting separatist conflicts and leading the country to disaster.


The current crisis over the breakaway region of South Ossetia will be a test of Saakashvili’s political abilities. On July 5, it escalated further when the Georgian interior ministry seized two Russian military trucks carrying weapons in the province, and the Russians demanded their immediate return.


This time last year, the then opposition leader cannot have been expecting to become president so soon, hoping at best to get the job in 2005.


Last November’s Rose Revolution changed all that, when President Eduard Shevardnadze fell precipitately from power. Shevardnadze stunned his two main opponents, Saakashvili and Zurab Zhvania – both men his former protégés – by announcing that he had decided to resign straightaway.


Sources in Tbilisi have since made it clear that he decided to step down only at the last moment on November 23 , going back on an earlier plan under which he would stay on temporarily.


The abrupt departure of the veteran leader left a totally inexperienced team in charge of a country with a terrifying list of problems.


Saakashvili has since delegated the business of running Georgia’s shattered economy to Zhvania, who has been made prime minister with enhanced powers, and to another widely welcomed appointee, former Russia-based oligarch Kakha Bendukidze, who is the new economics minister (see following article).


He himself has continued to be a master of public theatre. Observers describe a man who is rarely if ever seen reading or writing, and is always in motion or in action.


Since January, prominent Shevardnadze cronies have been arrested, Georgia’s constitution has been changed, and its parliament and government have changed entirely. The country also has a new flag and is in a new time-zone.


“My impression is that he does what he himself considers is best,” said Giorgi Gogia of the International Crisis Group in Tbilisi. “He talks to a couple of people but he is the one who takes the decision. Although he does read the Western press.”


Saakashvili devotes a lot of time to selling Georgia abroad, giving frequent interviews and making a string of foreign trips. He is expected in London on July 12.


“So far Saakashvili does two things,” Tinatin Khidasheli of the Georgian Young Lawyers Association commented in April “He travels and gives press conferences.”


Georgia matters to the West because of its strategic setting, between Russia and the Middle East and because it is soon to be host two Caspian Sea energy pipelines. But it also matters because Western governments have identified it as a rare potential beacon of European-style democracy in the former Soviet Union.


Saakashvili’s foreign PR offensive has been extremely successful. While continuing to put a high priority on relations with Washington (as Shevardnadze did), Saakashvili has also courted the European Union, which his predecessor did not do. The most obvious mark of this new approach was the surprise appointment of Salome Zurabishvili, formerly French ambassador in Tbilisi, to be Georgia’s new foreign minister.


In an interview in March, Zurabishvili told IWPR said that she wanted Georgia to cultivate Europe as the third and potentially most important point in its foreign-policy “triangle” alongside Russia and the United States.


This new rapprochement with the EU helped bring in a record pledge of one billion dollars of aid in a donors’ conference last month in Brussels, while raising some concerns in Tbilisi.


“I think Saakashvili’s making some mistakes, but he still has a very big mandate of trust, perhaps even more in the West than in Georgia,” commented Gogia. “One billion dollars was given without any conditionality. No substantial programme was shown. And I find that worrying.”


Dennis Sammut, executive director of LINKS, a non-governmental organisation which works intensively in Georgia, makes the point that “Saakashvili is less popular in Georgia than is sometimes suggested in the Western media”, and that his human rights record in particular troubles many.


“Western countries are right to support Saakashvili in his ambitious programme for reconstruction and reform,” said Sammut. “However, they must also insist on the highest standards when it comes to respect for human rights and adherence to democratic principles.”


Saakashvili is not quite the uncompromising pro-Westerner that he is sometimes perceived to be – he has also set about trying to rebuild relations with Russia. Last week in Moscow he announced that he was unilaterally easing visa restrictions on Russians coming to Georgia.


But the growing relationship with Moscow – and far more besides – is at risk because of the two unresolved conflicts with the pro-Russian breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, both of which have been de facto independent of Tbilisi for more than a decade.


Saakashvili has risked and won in two very difficult situations, in the standoff over the Georgian parliament last November and in the autonomous republic of Ajaria in May. On both occasions he prevailed and no blood was spilled.


But the problems presented by Abkhazia and South Ossetia are of a whole different order. The populations there are much more suspicious of Tbilisi and the Russian interest there is much stronger.


Dennis Sammut argues that South Ossetia is a problem that Saakashvili simply cannot afford to let alone.


“South Ossetia is only 60 minutes’ drive away from Tbilisi,” he said. “No serious Georgian government can allow the criminal situation that has developed there to continue. Many Ossetians are fed up with the failures of the authorities in Tskinvali. They may not necessarily want to go back under the control of Tbilisi, but in any confrontation they will remain largely passive.


“In the end the Russians will determine if the standoff will be resolved peacefully or violently.”


Some fear that Saakashvili will try to rush things and provoke a “Rose Revolution” in the Georgian-populated villages of either South Ossetia or Abkhazia, but that this time the backlash by the separatists will cause bloodshed.


“There is no doubt that Saakashvili is ready to take risks, sometimes high risks,” warned Sammut. “However, these are usually calculated risks, based on a lot of anlysis and intelligence. This strategy has so far paid off. Yet some wonder if there will be one risk too many.”


Thomas de Waal is IWPR’s Caucasus Editor.


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