Mikheil Saakashvili

Misha’s Legacy

Ghia Nodia

or the End of Political Romanticism in Georgia

The nine years of Mikheil Saakashvili’s rule belong to the heroic-romantic genre. This refers not only to the style of politics at that time, which was completely determined by the esthetics of the Rose Revolution, but also to the content of political activity, which was inspired by great ideas and goals. True, on the level of PR we became used to hearing overly prosaic things: that the government imported yellow buses, and then tractors, that it increased pensions and so on and so forth. But the overall pathos of the politics was the creation of a new, absolutely different type of country.

It certainly proved fruitful. No matter how busy we are counting the mistakes, deviations and failures associated with that government (and there were quite a few, despite these having been drastically exaggerated by its opponents), Saakashvili will enter history as the creator of a new, qualitatively different Georgia.

The “Dream” and dreams

I was one of the first among those who had supported the Rose Revolution to have started publicly criticizing Saakashvili. Back then, I demanded that the government “put an end to revolution,” i.e. return to ordinary, procedural politics. For this is what democracy means in reality. My friends in that government did not treat such criticism with understanding. The Rose Revolution of 23 November 2003 was only the beginning, the real revolution started thereafter. By 2007, the period of cardinal changes had ended, but Saakashvili failed to fully embrace that fact, instead remaining loyal to the revolutionary rhetoric and style. This was simultaneously both a strength and a weakness.

Conventional wisdom requires that when we “objectively” assess the activities of politicians, we create two columns – writing a list of strengths (for example, a radical decrease in

Photo: AFP
corruption) in one and a list of weaknesses (for example, the torture in prisons) in the other – and then estimate whether the balance appears positive or negative. Such an approach is reasonable, but in doing so we may miss the key point. It is impossible to scrape the mistakes and vices off Saakashvili and just leave good, nice Misha. But it is just as impossible to imagine that he could have achieved what he achieved by employing those methods that are, for example, appropriate for a modern Dutch prime minister.

It is an ironic twist of fate that the political team that crowded out Saakashvili is called the “Dream.” The opponents of this team, including me, frequently belittled the importance of this movement because of its name – which carries connotations of the passive expectation of unrealistic benefits. That perception proved correct: Bidzina Ivanishvili indeed succeeded in creating such expectations. However, the use of the word “dream” in politics can also carry positive connotations: it can reflect a bold and ambitious vision of transforming reality – a point well illustrated by the famous speech of Martin Luther King that opened with “I have a dream….”

The irony of the situation is that it was Saakashvili’s policy that rested on exactly such a vision, whereas his successors and opponents worked within the opposite paradigm. The “mythologem” of the Dream remained in the form of pre-election PR targeting ordinary, i.e. “ignorant,” people (and let’s admit that it certainly was well-targeted): ultimately people did not receive either manna from heaven or cheaper petrol, let alone “restored dignity.” So what? Not a big deal. Intellectual ideologists and supporters of the Dream regard the very fact that politics was made ordinary, unromanticized and earthly as the real achievement.

The justification Bidzina Ivanishvili provided for stepping down from the post of prime minister after one year of coming to power was that the country no longer needed “messiahs” and that it must be run by ordinary people. He was supposed to be the last messiah; after his exit there was to be no room left for messiahs in Georgian politics. How lasting this result will prove to be is questionable (I am skeptical about that), but, for the time being, Ivanishvili has indeed managed to crowd out visionary politicians and hand over the administration of the country to his truly ordinary assistants. The essence of the Dream coalition lies in not having a dream – i.e. politics built upon a bold vision.

However, it might turn out that Ivanishvili was, in reality, driven by a more esoteric political project: a great vision continues to exist, but does so in the mind of the now “supervising” messiah who has moved into civil society. But this is a matter for separate discussion.

Why heroic and romantic?

Saakashvili started his rule by essentially erecting a monument to himself in Freedom Square in Tbilisi. The monument of Saint George slaying the dragon reflected what his politics would be like. Esthetic critics deplored the monument, which was created by Georgian artist Zurab Tsereteli, as being kitsch – and I must admit that, in terms of its artistic value, I am not among its fans either. But my interest here lies in its symbolism: politics for Saakashvili was the fight against the dragon. The dragon may imply various things: corruption, Russian imperialism, poverty, or the crime boss mentality. In any case, winning such a fight requires clarity of values (a clash been good and evil) and heroic efforts: that’s why this politics was of a “heroic-romantic” nature.

This does not exclude that Saakashvili was, at the same time, a pragmatic, flexible and rational politician: were this not the case, he could never had acceded to power and stayed there for a period of nine years. His maneuvers often irritated even his supporters: for example, his gestures of reverence towards the Church – an institution that nonetheless remained his main ideological opponent and, ultimately, (in the opinion of many) delivered a serious blow to him. However, those maneuvers were not only prompted by his burning desire to stay in power – though for Saakashvili, a politician by nature, striving towards power came as a basic instinct. Saakashvili never lost his vision of those goals that gave sense to him being in power.

Misha’s dream

What, after all, was that vision or dream? Was it a Georgia without corruption? A Georgia without poverty? Georgia’s integration into NATO and the European Union? Georgia as a mixture of Singapore and Switzerland?

It is easy to say that his dream was all of these things combined – and that would be correct. Just as any experienced modern politician knows how to speak, be it with an ordinary person or to an audience of think-tanks in Washington, Misha never found it difficult to describe his political vision in the format of several bullet points. But this does not mean that he ever had a consistent concept for Georgia’s transformation or for the development of multi-year action plans – he and his colleagues were often criticized for considering the development of such documents to be a waste of time. His vision existed on the level of several general, blurry ideas which became realized in concrete political projects.

For me, the central idea was the existence of independent politics. Corruption, pro-Russian positions and crime boss mentalities – these are various names for those evils that this political team perceived as its mission to fight against. But the basis of the problem of that corruption was not corrupt public servants or police officers, but rather the perception that such corruption was a normal, endemic phenomenon for Georgia; that for Georgians, in contrast to the Swiss of Finns, corruption is an inborn quality, whereas the fight against it is either a form of quixotism or just cynical PR. That was how even those who managed to stay clear of corruption thought – with such an attitude they were raising the value of their moral asceticism. Expression of the same paradigm is found in the mythologem about the “elite corruption” of Misha’s times: that it is impossible that the government does not want to steal money; that mass corruption was eliminated only to allow elite corruption to flourish more.

Photo: AFP
Such an attitude is based on the perception that Georgians cannot create a state by themselves; that they are incapable of constructing order; that they are only capable of being parasites within an order created by others (that’s what Georgians are good at!). This syndrome developed over many centuries as a result of the experience of living under various empires, though it was especially strengthened during the Soviet period. After all, Georgian social conservatism (including of the quasi-religious variety) is fed with nostalgia about “sweet” Soviet parasitism.

The main essence of Misha’s dream was the eradication of this syndrome. Georgia was to transform from an object of history into a subject of history; into a nation capable of determining its own order, choosing its own goals and deciding on the ways to achieve those goals.

This is essentially the same as pro-Westernism because being master of your own fate is precisely the Western idea. Only within the boundaries of Western order it is possible for a small country to become an independent player of a certain scale; that is why Russians, and Georgians with a Russian mentality, cannot understand how a small country like Georgia can avoid being a political concubine of someone else.

It is important to say that Misha’s dream was not for a Georgia which is pro-Western, but for a Georgia which is Western. The notion of being pro-Western may imply parasitism once again, though in the hands of a richer and stronger master. One symbol of this idea was the Baku-Ceyhan oil pipeline – a key project of Eduard Shevardnadze’s time. The construction of this pipeline was an extremely important achievement that must be highly appreciated, but this endeavor, as well the idea of Georgia’s transit function, fits within the notion of a small parasitic country: by offering its territories, it made the USA, the most powerful nation of modern times, assume an obligation to care for its security. Georgia was given the chance to trade with its body. For a small, weak country this may be an absolutely legitimate strategy, but Misha set a higher goal.

What does being a Western country mean in reality? The content of Misha’s dream can be boiled down to the principle of making Georgia a “normal democratic country.” But this prosaic normalness runs counter to Saakashvili’s heroic-romantic style and methods. Perhaps this was the main conflict of his politics.

Romanticism and democracy

Romantics are not big democrats. Romanticism is oriented towards lofty ideals that exist in the minds of people who are exceptional, elevated over others. Democratic politics (in contrast to the fight for democracy), however, is the opposite of that: it involves constant trading, adjusting to multiple groups’ interests, cynical pre-election PR, cooperation with people whom you do not have anything in common with, et cetera. Ignorant opponents, however, use the democratic process against the very goals that were prompted by high ideals.

Therefore, transformational leaders, those who strive to fundamentally change their countries and not just tackle specific problems, are rarely democrats by nature. Many of them are obvious autocrats, whilst others somewhat manage to contain themselves within the frames of democratic systems. General Charles de Gaulle was quite an authoritative personality, but it was he who laid the foundations for the most stable democratic institutions in France. One cannot call Kemal Atatürk a democrat by any measure, though he was the one who created the first ever germs of democratic institutions in his country.

Mikheil Saakashvili lacked the instincts and temperament of a democratic leader. According to his vision, a small team of educated and ambitious people was supposed to pull the country out of the quagmire towards the path of development. That is where the arrogant attitude toward opponents and a large segment of society came from, something which the latter group responded to with extreme hatred. But Saakashvili also understood full well that his “promised land” was a prosaic procedural democracy. Therefore he always tried to confine his authoritarian instincts in the frames of democracy, but lacked the necessary counterbalancing forces inside the country. Although the nature of the “hybrid” that resulted will remain a topic of debate for quite some time, I will sum things up with two theses: first, with his modernizing reforms Saakashvili created a new reality that prepared the ground for considerations of a higher degree of democracy; secondly, he was the first to set the precedent of ceding power through elections, thereby leaving a higher standard to his successors that he himself inherited.

The sustainability of achievements

In the broad historical context, the achievements of transformational leaders are measured by the degree of sustainability their reforms continue to have after those leaders leave power. The classic example is Margaret Thatcher: the main evidence of her success is that her opponent, Tony Blair, continued the main direction of her politics.

It may be paradoxical, but in our case the issue also stands like this: putting aside all the rhetoric against the United National Movement, will the Georgian Dream actually change any significant aspects of the politics of its predecessor? We will be in a position to discuss this question soon.


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