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Carl Thomson: We should not view Saakashvili’s Georgia through rose-tinted glasses

Thomsoncarl Carl Thomson is a commentator on Russian and East European affairs and was the Conservative Party candidate for Glasgow East at the 2005 General Election.  He recently travelled to Georgia, Armenia and the breakaway republic of Nagorno Karabakh.

The Russians may have won the war for South Ossetia, but the long-term victory belongs to the Georgians.  Even though it was Mikhail Saakashvili who ignited the conflict by ordering the shelling of Tskhinvali, his government won the battle for Western public opinion.  Russia was clearly identified as the aggressor.  By issuing a joint statement condemning Russia in much stronger language than other EU member states did, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, along with Poland, moved from being suspicious and distrustful of Moscow to outright hostility, and demonstrated their ability to adopt a common stance against Moscow while the rest of Europe dithered.  The Kremlin has put a lot of diplomatic effort into trying to obtain a visa-facilitation programme with the EU and gain access to the World Trade Organisation over the last ten years.  These aspirations may have suffered a fatal blow.  The idea of expelling Russia from the G8, once shrugged off as unrealistic and impractical, is being taken a lot more seriously in Europe’s capitals following the events of the last few weeks.

Russia is a country which always makes for exciting headlines, and Georgia is sufficiently obscure to be portrayed as exotic, even romantic.  However, the ease with which the British press made broad-sweeping statements about both countries during the four day conflict is deeply unsettling.  It seems that, faced with a quarrel in a far away country about which they knew little, our media fell for the narrative the Georgians were trying to sell them: that this war was about a small, democratic country that was being bullied by its larger, imperialist, authoritarian neighbour; a simple case of good guys versus bad guys.  Sadly, most of the experts and commentators that appeared on our television screens and opined in the pages of our newspapers failed to ask the questions they should have been asking, such as whether Georgia under Mikhail Saakashvili really can be described as a democracy.

Saakashvili has been unambiguous in his desire to turn Georgia into a “normal” European country and build a strong relationship with America.  Georgia sent the third largest contingent of troops to Iraq, after the United States and Britain.  Tbilisi’s public buildings, such as the presidential office and the parliament building on Rustaveli Avenue, fly the EU flag.  Saakashvili has undoubtedly grasped the essentials of free-market economics, and the progress he has made in modernising Georgia’s economy is obvious to anyone who has spent time in the country, even if most people outside the capital are still desperately poor.  However, in their enthusiasm for Saakashvili the West has often failed to stand up and condemn the creeping authoritarianism he has introduced into Georgia over the last five years.  In his first year as president Saakashvili regularly accompanied the police on televised arrests of his opponents, denouncing them as corrupt before they even had the chance to stand trial.  Opposition leaders are frequently harassed, intimidated and accused of working for Moscow, and the country’s judiciary freely admit that, under the new regime, they are forced to make judgements based not on principles of justice and fairness, but according to the wishes of the prosecutor’s office.  When anti-government protests swept Tbilisi in 2005 and late 2007, Saakashvili’s response was to send in the riot police, who proceeded to gas and beat opposition demonstrators in full view of the world’s media.

Media freedom in Georgia has been declining steadily ever since Saakashvili came to power in 2003.  According to Freedom House, Georgia is classed as being only “partly free” and moved backwards in terms of press freedoms in 2007.  Earlier this summer Georgia’s newspapers were ordered to re-register with the authorities or face being shut down. The country’s radio stations have been banned from carrying reports on political developments and, and, of Georgia’s twelve domestic television stations, the only one allowed to broadcast news reports is owned by the state.  In the run up to last year’s parliamentary elections, the country’s only editorially independent television station was taken off the air, ostensibly to neutralise the destabilising effects of “Russian propaganda” and, just last week, an international satellite network that features regular reports critical of the Kremlin was ordered to stop broadcasting in Georgia after it aired comments by the Russian foreign minister critical of Saakashvili’s policies towards the breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

In September 2007 Georgia’s former defence minister Irakli Okruashvili accused Saakashvili of human rights violations and announced his intention to form a new opposition party.  He was arrested two days later, and, in a disturbing taped performance that was released to the media, pleaded guilty to charges of extortion and corruption and retracted his accusations against the president.  Okruashvili was later granted bail and left Georgia.  He claimed the retraction of his accusations had been extracted under duress, and was granted political asylum in France.  Another exiled critic of Saakashvili’s regime was the media tycoon Badri Patarkatsishvili.  Patarkatsishvili was found dead in his Surrey home earlier this year after claiming to have uncovered a plot by the Georgian security services to kill him, although no evidence has been uncovered to suggest he was actually assassinated.

In the murky world of Caucasian politics it is difficult to know how much of this really means anything and how much is mud-slinging.  We know enough, however, to realise that we should not view Saakashvili’s Georgia through rose tinted glasses. An authoritarian nationalist who has pledged to force South Ossetia and Abkhazia back under the control of the central government by force, regardless of the wishes of the people who live there, Saakashvili joins a long list of leaders who have been similarly feted as “democrats” by the West, only to later reveal their more odious nature.  The two may profess to despise one another, but the similarities between Saakashvili and his arch-nemesis Vladimir Putin are striking.  Both were elected on a platform of economic and political reform and sought closer ties with the West. Both portrayed themselves as youthful, modern and dynamic.  Both were initially lauded as democrats but went on to use force against a breakaway region of their own country.  Both are keen to project themselves as tough and uncompromising.  They are both intolerant of dissent, and both seek to legitimise their rule through calls for a restoration of national pride and unity in the face of threats from abroad.

Saakashvili undoubtedly wants to be a friend to the West, and will certainly have given David Cameron a warm welcome in Tbilisi.  However, the best thing David Cameron could have done for Georgia in the long-run would have been to ask why, if Saakashvili is such a democrat, the EU still feels obliged to accept his opponents as political refugees.


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