Magazine article New Internationalist

Mikheil Saakashvili

Magazine article New Internationalist

Mikheil Saakashvili

Article excerpt

Job: President of Georgia.

Reputation: Leader of the Rose Revolution; US man in the Caucasus; Political hothead.

The fate of Georgia's Rose Revolution and Its charismatic leader Mikheil Saakashvili (known affectionately as Misha) is a classic case of the hangover following the intoxication of power. Saakashvili, a lawyer with a degree from Columbia Law School in the US, shot to prominence as the 'young Turk' at the head of the democratic forces that threw out the Georgian leader and former Bush darling Eduard Shevardnadze and his corrupt nomenklatura in 2003.

This ushered in what was supposed to be a model of democracy for the Caucasus - a region hardly used to this form of governance. The headstrong Misha was never going to have an easy time of it. His tilt toward the West, particularly his love affair with the Bush Administration, was bound to annoy Moscow. There is a tendency amongst some of the leadership emerging from Russia's shadow in the post-Soviet world to believe 'the enemy of my enemy is my friend'. An unfortunate mistake when it comes to the US.

Then there was the vexing question of territorial integrity. Georgia had lost control of two of its regions - the small and poverty-stricken enclave of South Ossetia, and the far more important Black Sea region of Abkhazia. Both are populated by groups ethnically distinct from Georgians and have experienced more than 15 years of separation after being alienated by the extreme chauvinism of Zviad Gamsakhurdia, who ruled post-Soviet Georgia in the 1990s. It has become common currency among Georgian politicians that these two territories should be regained by any means necessary. Unfortunately, Vladimir Putin et al do not share this view and in the Caucasus the Great Bear looms over everything.

At first Saakashvili brought in significant reforms, particularly tackling Georgia's staggering level of corruption. He restored some degree of confidence in the police - no small task. But the US-style freemarket policies that Misha embraced, while bringing initial prosperity to some, inevitably resulted in increased inequality and poverty. To keep the restive poor in line, the police and judiciary embraced a tough law-and-order stance. The age of criminal liability was dropped to an incredible 12 years of age and Saakashvili encouraged the use of live ammunition against prisoners rioting over what Human Rights Watch called 'inhuman and degrading treatment'. Political disaffection grew and broke out into open revolt by November 2007. This too was greeted with the usual draconian measures - TV stations shut down, demonstrators beaten, with dark rumours of much worse in the background. Saakashvili's personal intolerance of dissent and opposition was undermining the very grounds on which the Rose Revolution had been established.

US influence grew as Misha welcomed Pentagon and Israeli advisors to train the growing Georgian military. The military budget grew from $50 million under Shevardnadze to almost $1,000 million in 2008 - a huge drain on resources for a small, poor country. Saakashvili showed his gratitude over US military largesse by dispatching up to 2,000 Georgian troops to help prop up the military occupation of Iraq.

An oil and gas pipeline was pushed through Georgia (to avoid a Russian route) west to Turkey for Caspian Sea petroleum reserves. …

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