Mikheil Saakashvili

Misha is Leaving(?)

Mirian Toidze

Proceeding from the current situation in Georgia, the issue of the crystallization of political forces in the country is becoming increasingly topical. If events unfold in a peaceful way, within the constitutional framework and not according to an apocalyptic scenario, we may soon witness the establishment of a bipolar political system of a Western type in Georgia. And since the political forces will be divided not by ideological affiliation – such as leftists versus rightists – but rather by their geopolitical orientation, these two poles will most likely be taken by supporters of the Euro-Atlantic direction, on the one hand, and the Eurasian idea, on the other. The experience of past years shows that the representatives of the former government (and their supporters) undeniably make up the core of the "Euro-Atlantists." Considering that the key idea of a bipolar political system is the alternation of political forces, the viability of the United National Movement (UNM) and its leader, Mikheil Saakashvili, becomes of principle importance. Consequently, at this stage, it is necessary to analyze both the positive experience accumulated over the period from 2003 to 2012 and, more importantly, the mistakes that were made during that period. Starting from right now, the UNM must start thinking about a model for political management and communication that will neutralize its image as a "manipulator" and transform it into a modern party that rests on truly democratic values.

Photo: Reuters
irst and foremost, however, Mikheil Saakashvili himself must conduct a thorough evaluation of the work performed. No one questions Misha's political savvy, strategic vision and phenomenal zeal, but his methods of administration and style of communication are problematic. All these require fundamental correction.

Evolution of image: a promising start...

Having first appeared as a young politician in the Georgian political arena and, consequently, the media, several years before the Rose Revolution, Mikheil Saakashvili increasingly captured the attention of society. Most frequently associated with him, were hopes for renewal and development. Aside from purely political aspects, the starkly different appearance of Saakashvili further contributed to the feeling of novelty that surrounded him. In contrast to the old-fashioned administrative style of Eduard Shevardnadze, a remnant of the Soviet epoch always clad in formal suits, the hyper-active Saakashvili was building an image of "Westernism." As is characteristic of modern, dynamic politicians, as the then Justice Minister and thereafter chair of Tbilisi City Council, Saakashvili never shunned the camera when taking a bicycle ride or kicking a ball around with young kids at the opening of a new playground. The image of a "sportsman-politician" was a novelty previously unseen in the Georgian political reality of that time.

After January 2004, President Saakashvili's style of administration became innovative too. Well-versed in the science of politics and communications, the president seemed to be following the advice of Niccolò Machiavelli: "He [a leader] ought, moreover, at suitable seasons of the year to entertain the people with festivals and shows. And because all cities are divided into guilds and companies, he should show attention to these societies, and sometimes take part in their meetings; offering an example of courtesy and munificence...." The abundance of concerts and shows that Misha often attended served to show the unity of the leader with his people, to demonstrate the closeness of "the ruler" with his "subjects."

Initially, the impression that such moves left were indeed positive, as was intended. Crowds of people were happy to see the young president among their ranks. However, over time, power, if not corrupting, at least causes fatigue. Power tires both the politician and the voters.

... and an oppressive continuation

Over time, President Saakashvili's style of administration increasingly came to resemble that of Middle Eastern rulers. The liveliness and spontaneity he had earlier cultivated gave way to the image of an autocratic ruler. This was primarily manifested through external signs. When visiting construction sites or opening new facilities one could see a familiar picture: Saakashvili sporting jeans and a jacket or, sometimes, a white summer suit, comfortably leading an army of public servants all clad in formal, dark suits and ties. Such an image gave the impression of the president emphasizing his exceptionalism, his elevation over the "masses" accompanying him. Such images are extremely rare in Western politics, but such scenes could be seen in the societies of Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi, Ben Ali and other societies of the Asian type.

მიხეილ სააკაშვილი Photo: Reuters
The image of the "sportsman-president" also experienced a setback. Over time, President Saakashvili gained weight: the young man of an athletic build has transformed into a rather rotund man. Consequently, his sporting activities in front of TV cameras were no longer as pleasant to watch as they once were (the scene of him skating on an ice rink was particularly grotesque).

The strict control that was imposed on electronic media and the style of reporting political events by television channels is another issue. When discussing the reasons for the UNM's defeat in the parliamentary elections, Kakha Bendukidze correctly noted that young Georgian voters do not remember the hardships of the past (power shortages, corruption, and organized crime) and hence the negative aspects of the past mean nothing to them. Nor can they be made to compare the old with the new. One of the reasons why the Georgian youth cast their ballots in favor of the Georgian Dream on 1 October 2012 must be sought in the totally powerless propagandist methods Saakashvili and other UNM members employed. In the epoch of globalization and digital television, any person can switch on any media and watch the communication style of Barack Obama, David Cameron, Angela Merkel or other Western politicians. It seems that the leaders of the Georgian Dream drew the correct conclusions from this, whilst the UNM's leaders did not.

It is unfortunate that it was only in the final year of his presidency that Mikheil Saakashvili started to hold direct and unpretentious TV interviews with various journalists. What impeded him from conducting news conferences of the type that Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili regularly does? Although the current prime minister found himself in an unfavorable situation because of his political immaturity during his most recent meeting with journalists, Saakashvili's political savvy and experience would probably have spared him from such a fiasco. The problem, however, is that Saakashvili preferred not to take risks. He limited himself to those TV shows staged in the manner of Soviet times, engaging in pre-structured discussions of topical issues.

The reason for the poor PR system must also be sought in the authoritarian manner of administration. Saakashvili never experienced a shortage of qualified consultants in political communications (both local and foreign). But it appears that he did not consult them much – it is, after all, absolutely unimaginable that people like Daniel Kunin and Raphael Glucksmann (who both served as advisors to the president at various times) would have advised Saakashvili to apply a style of communications from Leonid Brezhnev's vintage.

The all-encompassing passion for secret video recording

During the UNM's rule, the airing of surreptitious video recordings on national television reached amazing proportions. Whilst it is true that these were often the result of considerations of state security, in some instances these recordings clearly smacked of politics. Was, for example, there any need for MP Koba Bekauri to secretly film journalist Shalva Ramishvili accepting a bribe from the former in exchange for destroying compromising material on him and to subsequently use this footage to send the journalist to jail? Or, what was the aim of filming MP Koba Davitashvili receiving money from a citizen in exchange for putting him on the party list to run in the elections? Were these two episodes filmed for the consideration of state security?

However, despite these clear deviations, the decisive role of Mikheil Saakashvili in the construction of the modern Georgian state is absolutely conspicuous.

The unprecedented strengthening of the country's sovereignty and state structures

During the rule of Saakashvili, the country saw the launch of a conceptual model previously unseen in the recent history of Georgia. With relative success, the government made painful progress in offering society the form of social contract practiced, without exception, in every Western country – one that implies the strengthening of state protection at some detriment to the personal comfort of citizens. This was primarily manifested in the impressive decrease in crime – though for inevitable and absolutely understandable reasons, Georgia rose to have one of the highest incarceration rates in Europe.

მიხეილ სააკაშვილი Photo: Reuters
At the same time, the enhancement of government structures and institutions enabled Saakashvili and the UNM to pursue sovereign domestic and foreign politics that were independent of anyone else's will. Disregarding the amorphous governance of the Mensheviks during the first independent republic of Georgia (1918-1921) as well as the rule of President Zviad Gamsakhurdia when the country had yet to gain de jure independence, for the first time in many centuries, the country's most important political decisions were taken not in Tehran, Istanbul, Moscow or Washington, but in Tbilisi. Consequently, the foreign policy of Georgia was primarily oriented on national interests and not on the desires of its large neighboring states. This all set a precedent that will remain an example of national dignity in the years to come.

The process of modernization implemented during Saakashvili's rule has virtually no analogue. Leaving aside the ratings of the World Bank and other similar organizations, it is suffice to just arrange an excursion to neighboring Armenia and travel 20-30 km into that country. An interested person will see, at least something similar to the situation of the Soviet Union in the Perestroika epoch: corrupt traffic police officers ambushing drivers at every turn of the road; outdated Soviet cars; a total lack of sign posts and traffic signs; abandoned and empty factories; the poor quality of local housing, et cetera. And then, crossing back to the border of Georgia at the Sadakhlo border checkpoint, the contrast will be so conspicuous that even Marneuli, the very first settlement encountered, may appear to be a modern European city. Such a comparison would make one realize at what speed Georgia's modernization was carried out and just how much the country of Shevardnadze's time differed from that of Saakashvili's epoch.

It is a fact that the Georgian state was built under the presidency of Mikheil Saakashvili. It is thus unfortunate that, at the same time, this strengthening led to some negative developments...

The adverse effect caused by the strengthening of the state

In February 2013, President Saakashvili, having already been sidelined from real power, made an amazing statement in an interview to journalist Eka Kvesitadze: "when a representative of a law enforcement body used provocation against an owner of a booth on the Eliava marketplace and the prosecutor's office was involved in that, this was of course an abuse of power. On the one hand, we wanted to limit unregistered business, whilst on the other hand, as the saying has it – appetite comes with eating – and the prosecutor's office developed the instinct to collect more revenues for the budget." With this statement, Saakashvili actually admitted that the prosecutor's office breached the law and became a quasi-criminal body for extorting money from private entrepreneurs by any means. Any excuse or justification for this, like the government had "to build the center of Telavi or some other facilities in Batumi and Kutaisi" is, of course, not a valid argument for people engaged in business. Consequently, during the UNM's rule, business circles dreaded the state; they were afraid that they might be ruthlessly fined or even sent to prison on any minor technicality.

მიხეილ სააკაშვილი Photo: Reuters
This is an extremely dangerous example of governmental abuse of power. The former Foreign Minister turned into a political opponent of Saakashvili's government, Salome Zourabichvili, recently declared that the Western idea became discredited under Saakashvili's administration. Even though Salome Zourabichvili herself was systematically engaged in discrediting the former government and, consequently, her own country with such insinuations, this opinion certainly contains a grain of truth. Furthermore, even the idea of national sovereignty became unintentionally discredited during Saakashvili's rule. Individual citizens developed a sense of being unprotected by their state. This resulted in a blurring of the image of the enemy. A sort of apathy emerged towards the aggressive politics of our northern neighbor: "when our government does this to us, what worse can the Russians do?"

Future imperative: Saakashvili acting within the constitutional framework

The above cited mistakes and the authoritarian manner of administering the country caused the painful political defeat of the UNM. The situation has since become alarming: the timid and often capitulatory foreign policy of the Georgian Dream has weakened the country's sovereignty. According to statistical data, the country's economy is on the brink of collapse. The member parties of the Georgian Dream coalition, each having different views and motivations, will find it increasingly difficult to maintain unity. Moreover, the failure to fulfill those promises so lavishly distributed before the parliamentary elections has already caused dissatisfaction among voters and this process will likely further deepen.

On the other hand, the events of late show that instead of disintegrating, the ranks of the UNM are expanding with new members. The party, with its strong ideology, correct orientation and solid structures, will necessarily compete with the existing government in the years to come and one may well assume that those future battles will once again be led by Mikheil Saakashvili.

This may sound too pretentious, but taking into account the impressive scale of the country's modernization and the enhancement of governmental institutions during his rule, Mikheil Saakashvili can, when parallels are drawn with similar examples of modern state building, be ranked alongside such outstanding modern historical figures as Mustafa Kemal, David Ben-Gurion and Carl Mannerheim. However, Saakashvili still has to write his history. His inborn political intuition, perseverance and a feeling of his own role in history are those factors that will inevitably facilitate Mikheil Saakashvili's comeback to the forefront of Georgian politics. Misha will return. However, that time around we shall expect a wiser, more tolerant Misha and, more importantly, one who acts within the boundaries of constitutional power.


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