Georgia on Their Minds

Article excerpt

Byline: Anna Nemtsova

A charismatic president and a billionaire prime minister fight for the country's soul.

Once upon a time, the presidential palace perched on a hill overlooking the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, was bathed in light and its gilded halls hummed with activity as President Mikheil Saakashvili worked on his pro-Western reform plans.

But last year's election, which elevated Saakashvili's rival, the pro-Russian billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, to the post of prime minister, shut off that light. (The new government argued that exterior lighting of the palace was too expensive.) And Misha, as the burly, once ebullient Saakashvili is known, now toils in darkness, his famous smile having long since been replaced by gloom.

The shenanigans of his enemies, he says, "do not stop surprising me." The president, who was swept to power after the 2003 Rose Revolution, claiming an impressive 97 percent of the vote, is decidedly less popular these days. In recent weeks, protesters have gathered outside his residence, demanding he step down before his term is up in October. And his once remarkable approval rating now hovers, abysmally, around 29 percent, according to the National Democratic Institute.

Saakashvili insists that in the last few months, under the new government, economic growth has fallen from 6 percent to zero. It is clear: everything he has worked for, his opponents will turn to naught. "Georgia used to be an example of the best reforms," says Saakashvili. "And now we demonstrate how fast we can destroy them." Before becoming president, Saakashvili traveled and lived in the West, marrying a Dutch woman and studying law at Columbia University in New York. Upon his return to Georgia, he took a job in the administration of Eduard Shevardnadze; he later quit and led the peaceful revolution that brought down Shevardnadze's government and ushered in a period of Western-style reforms. Georgian troops fought alongside American soldiers in Iraq, and the nation applied for NATO and European Union membership.

Since taking office in November, the new Georgian government has battled openly with the president, initiating more than 100 criminal investigations of Saakashvili allies on suspicion of fraud and corruption. …