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Interview with Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili

Dhsaak Prior to the Russian invasion of Georgia in August 2008, and the occupation of one fifth of its country by Moscow's troops, few people had heard of the Republic of Georgia, formerly part of the Soviet Union. Even fewer had heard of their 43-year-old President Mikheil Saakashvili who was swept into office on a wave of public support after the ousting of the corrupt Eduard Shevardnadze.

In office since the ‘Rose Revolution’ of November 2003, two very different and distinct pictures exist of Saakashvili.

To his supporters, he’s “Misha”, a modern-day King David IV who has battled his country’s enemies - internal and external - while at the same time putting Georgia on the path to real democracy, economic prosperity and international respect. To his enemies, he’s a hot-headed autocrat whose provocative choice of language and pig-headed obstinacy has imperilled not only Georgian democracy but the country’s very survival as an independent nation state.

I had the opportunity to spend an hour with him last Wednesday evening, while on a visit to the country’s capital city of Tbilisi, to explore his record in government.

The Presidential complex, which occupies an imposing plot at the top of the valley looking down on Tbilisi, is an imposing place.  I visited early in the evening, just as the sun was coming down.  The view was stunning; scores of sandstone Orthodox churches clung to the hillside on the other side of the valley, bright neon lights flickered on houses in the city of a million people below and the River Mtkbari flowed by on its journey to the Caspian Sea.

The building itself – a vast modern construction, topped by a glass dome can be best described as a modern architect’s attempt to recreate the charm of the White House – nestles in the historic Avlabari neighbourhood of traditional Georgian homes. It’s impressively modern in keeping with the image Saakashvili desires for the country as a whole; its Spanish-designed sculptures and locally-commissioned mosaics reminding you of the rich history of the country locals call Sak’art’velo, the homeland of sixty-seven different ethnic groups.

The perfectly-manicured Presidential gardens sit cheek-by-jowl with small working-class houses, one of whose balconies directly overlooked the lawns of the garden. Security is surprisingly light, with only one small fence guarding against intruders.

Why”, I asked our attractive young female guide as she led us through the courtyard as the sound of her stilettos echoed all around us, “haven’t they strengthened security around the Palace?”. She shot back immediately, deploying the characteristic bluntness I have come to expect from the Georgian people, asking “why? We are not in hiding”.

That much is true. In recent years, nobody could accuse the Georgian people – and President Saakashvili in particular – of being in hiding.

Like, love or loathe Saakashvili, he has transformed his country from a little-known statelet in the Caucasus, to one that commands the attention (and in some cases, admiration) of the world’s most powerful leaders. The President’s office is testament to that, with photos of multiple leaders adorning his walls – from George W. Bush to Nicolas Sarkozy, Her Majesty the Queen to Barack Obama. Indeed, there is only one world leader missing from the walls: Vladimir Putin.

Sitting down with the President in his airy, modern office, I opted for the easiest of possible questions to begin our discussion with: What would he would like his legacy to be?

Most politicians, from village mayors to heads of state, have pre-prepared answers to questions like this – talking of boosting the economy, improving educational opportunities and strengthening infrastructure. I’d expected a similarly empty response from Saakashvili, but was not given one. Instead, he drew breath and spoke for some minutes about the struggle his country faces to survive. His desired legacy, it appears, is to have successfully maintained Georgia’s independence; won for three short years between 1918 and 1921 and the nineteen years since 1991.

While no shots have been fired or bombs dropped on Georgian soil since August 2008, the fear of Russian invasion has inflicted deep scars on the Georgian body politic. Indeed, to this day 20% of Georgian territory continues to be illegally occupied and vast refugee camps housing those ethnically cleaned from Abkhazia and South Ossetia by the Russian army rest in the countryside. (Indeed, it's a testament to the government's pro-active record that thousands of homes for these refugees were constructed within three months of the August 2008 war.  A more cynical leader may have been tempted to leave them in tents during the cruel winter to draw international sympathy).

The President doesn’t remain maudlin for long. Glancing up at the photographs on the wall of his family skiing in the Georgian mountains and fishing one of the country’s hundreds of picture-postcard lakes, it’s hard to see how anyone could not be optimistic living in Georgia.

Unlike his predecessor as President who had served as the final Foreign Minister of the Soviet Union before taking office, it’s clear that Saakashvili is attempting to mould himself very much in the model of a Western democratic leader. On the bookshelves behind his nick-nack littered oak desk are copies of biographies of John F Kennedy, Margaret Thatcher and Bill Clinton; figures he clearly wishes to emulate.

In an effort to boost Georgia’s links to the West, the Georgian government is driving through a programme of reforms designed to reorientate the education system away from a focus on the Russian language towards English. In order to do this, they are recruiting more than 10,000 teachers from the United Kingdom, United States and Canada in order to, in the President’s own words, “modernise” learning in the country.

President Saakashvili is keen on the word “modernisation”, deploying it at numerous points during our hour together. “Modernisation”, in Saakashvili-speak, is not simply a word used to describe improving public services and the opportunities available to the country’s citizens, but also a code for polices designed to ensure his country will never again be a mere satellite state of the Russian Federation. The President’s zeal for modernisation of the Georgian economy extends to all areas of governance, from the hiring of hundreds of Boers from South Africa to assist with agricultural reforms designed to boost production, to the opening in 2012 of a rail link connecting major Georgian cities to European inter-city routes.

It is on an economic level that the boldest reforms have taken place. The President is an articulate mouthpiece for free market economics, declaring confidently that “an economy cannot be too open” and opining that “as soon as you get interference in business, it will collapse”.

He’s practiced what he preaches.

Personal income tax has been slashed to 18%, corporation tax to 15% and 95% of the business permits and licences have simply been abolished. On a structural level, budget deficits are legally limited to less than 3% of GDP and a maximum debt-to-GDP ratio of 60% has been instituted. While the economy continues to suffer in the aftermath of the 2008 Russian invasion, International Monetary Fund figures suggest the country’s GDP grew by a hansom 5.5% in 2010 and will continue to recover in the years ahead.

One of the most significant political challenges Europe is likely to face over the coming decades is that of energy security, particularly given the reliance many states place upon Russia for their energy supplies. Barely a winter now passes without some form of spat between the Kremlin and a small European country about energy, the most recent example being the 2009 oil crisis which threatened supplies to Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic.

It is only as a result of remarkable foresight that Georgia remains immune from Russian threats in this respect. In recent years, the government has invested heavily in renewable energy sources to a point that 85% of the country’s electricity is now obtained from hydroelectric power stations. More remarkably, the capacity of the existing hydroelectric facilities is only running at around 20% of capacity at present. The fact Georgia is able to sell Russia energy rather than be forced into diplomatic servitude to the Kremlin each winter in order to keep the lights on affords Saakashvili the ability to display a type of self-confidence in his dealings with Russia that leaders in the region do not have.

It is no surprise, given the efforts Saakashvili has made to insulate his country from the Kremlin’s icy-winds, that he sees Georgia’s future as part of, not only NATO, but the European Union as well. His frustration at the lack of progress the country has made towards full membership of either organisation is clear to see, describing Georgia as “the best pupil in the class, yet the only pupil who isn’t allowed to go on to the next grade” as a result of fear among Western European states at the possible reaction of Russia to such a move.

While full membership of either organisation appears to be off the table for at the last the medium term, positive steps are being taken to increase cooperation with the EU, in particular on issues such as visa liberalisation and a free trade agreement which would allow Georgian exports easier access to European markets. And the EU remains strongly committed to the Eastern Partnership of six nations, including Georgia.

I had not expected, when discussing NATO – an organisation explicitly set up to guard against military incursions from the USSR – to hear the Georgian President make clear his intention to work with Russia on regional security issues. Leaving the issues of the Russian occupation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia to one side, Georgia shares a border of more than 100 miles with Chechnya, a province which has been plagued by radical Islam for decades. One of his first acts as President was to undertake a review of security in Georgia’s border areas with Chechnya, handing over Jihadi terrorists who had been sheltering in the country to the Russian police force. While critical of the human rights record of Ramzan Khadyrov, Vladimir Putin’s hand-picked enforcer in the neighbouring province, the offer for future cross-border cooperation on anti-terrorist measures remains open to the Kremlin.

Nobody could deny that Saakashvili is a strong political figure who has dominated the Georgian political landscape since his election in 2004. Indeed, his frenetic activity on the international stage and fiery rhetoric has led even some of his own supporters to concede that “Misha’s” rumbustious form of leadership may well be “too big for Georgia”. With the exception of a few on the political fringes who advocate nakedly Russophile agenda and seek to justify the wrenching of Abkhazia and South Ossetia from the Georgian state, nobody accuses Saakashvili of operating a dictatorship. Far from it.

Indeed, such a claim would be impossible to sustain given not only the economic freedoms that have been introduced since Shevardnadze’s outstanding but the fact vocal opposition parties are well represented in Parliament and opposition newspapers and TV stations operate freely.

Where opposition figures do offer criticism of the government’s record is in the field of judicial reform, a process some have argued has been too slow. Saakashvili rejects such criticisms, yet appears to acknowledge the concerns in some quarters that he has placed too heavy a focus on economic modernisation in the aftermath of the 2008 than anything else. There are key “wins” in this field that can be pointed to though: the introduction of full jury trials, a doubling in the number of civil cases being brought to court since 2009 and a new system for the appointment of judges.

The most significant problem for the Georgian opposition boils down to its highly fractured nature, with none of the plethora small parties offering a real platform for government to rival the overall popular support received by the United National Movement. Saakashvili does, however, admit that his party has taken significant heat from opposition figures on contentious issues such as pensions, healthcare and education reform (sound familiar?) which could lead to opposition gains at the next parliamentary elections in 2012.

Saakashvili may have made a few mistakes in the past, but his handling of opposition demonstrations in April 2009, when 50,000 people took the streets demanding his resignation, was admirable (and could be a model for Hosni Mubarak at this time!).  In contrast to the reaction of Shevardnadze five years before, Saakashvili calmly welcomed the demonstrations as part of the democratic protest and ordered the police to confine themselves to their stations while the demonstrations went ahead. The protests went on for three months but fizzled out without any significant violence or injuries, leaving the opposition humiliated and dejected.

It is partly because of his “no sacred cows” approach to politics and governance that Saakashvili appears to have courted controversy among the country’s political establishment - particularly in the higher education sector. While the average man on the street continues to back his government, it is the well-heeled political establishment who profited for so long under the Shevardnadze regime who offer the loudest critiques of his policies.

Put simply, the technocrats who held political office prior to the 2004 revolution have been swept aside in favour of an army of impressive young leaders such as the charming 32-year-old Deputy Interior Minister, Eka Zguladze, whose anti-corruption measures have increased confidence in the Police from 4% to 84%; the eloquent 30-year-old Deputy Foreign Minister Tornike Gordadze, who heads up relations with the EU; and the gutsy Minister for National Reintegration Eka Tkeshelashvili.

It was Tony Blair who, when asked about how he viewed his record in government back in 2003, offered the characteristically pithy response of “lots done, lots to do”. The same could be said for Saakashvili, whose undimmed – even evangelical – enthusiasm for the job he now holds does not sit easily with constitutional rules which mean he is barred from standing for a third term in 2013.

Some have speculated Saakashvili will seek to remain involved in politics, taking up the newly-strengthened post of Prime Minister. The President, who is nothing if not an excellent politician, refuses to confirm his intentions, unwilling to suffer the same “lame duck” syndrome which paralyzed Blair’s final years in office.

Whatever he – and the Georgian people – decide to do, Mikheil Saakashvili’s place in history is secure.


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