Georgia’s wayward son

When it comes to Mikheil Saakashvili and his legacy as president, Georgians praise and curse him simultaneously. His announced return should the largest opposition party win in upcoming elections should be seen through the lens of the local society, most of which would not warmly welcome such a homecoming.

Former Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili announced a “come back” to Georgian political life. In a short advertisement video, the prominent politician asked the local society for forgiveness and promised to complete reforms that he and his political party United National Movement (UNM) initiated before being defeated later in parliamentary and presidential elections in 2012-2013. Saakashvili, who chairs the executive committee of Ukraine’s National Reforms Council, stated that Georgia is in total stagnation, returning to the so-called “dark” 90s as a result of a traitorous policy pursued by the government of the Georgian Dream. Soon after, the UNM, the main opposition party, stated that in the case of being victorious in the parliamentary elections set for October 31st, it will nominate its “founding father” as candidate for prime minister. Saakashvili, who actually has never really left Georgian politics, announced that, if victorious, he would occupy the post for two years and then continue his career in Ukraine.

While some parts of the political opposition, as well as civil society, expressed gratitude for the readiness to help liberate the state from, what they call, a Russian-controlled oligarchy represented by typhoon Bidzina Ivanishvili and Georgian Dream, others expressed serious concerns. Giga Bokeria, a former high-ranking official under Saakashvili who established a new political movement called European Georgia, stated that Saakashvili’s aspiration is to return Georgia to the past.

Political rivalries aside, it is time to finally speak out on issues that make him a significant historic figure that will probably never “come back” again. Moreover, for the sake of Georgia’s democratic development, it would be best for Saakashvili to not return.

Georgian Che

Mikheil Saakashvili is extremely popular among American neo-conservative circles, Eastern European political figures and, of course, liberal and even non-liberal elites in the post-Soviet space. He is known best for being a highly successful reformer who transformed Georgia from a “rogue” state into a developing pro-western country. Most importantly, he is respected by some groups in the West for his harsh anti-Russian rhetoric. At the same time, he has been continuously seen by Russian liberals as a counter-example to Vladimir Putin; thus, his fall from power was well-celebrated in the Kremlin. Paradoxically, the former president of Georgia is also notorious among those considered pro-Russian elites in Armenia, as well as pro-governmental groups in Azerbaijan and Central Asia that are sick and tired of systemic corruption, violence and the inability to build a career beyond loyalty to existing political regimes.

All these actors, unfortunately, lack fully objective information when it comes to Saakashvili’s true legacy, overwhelmed by his tremendously well-performed PR campaign. So far, they often simply can’t understand why so many people at home praise and curse him at the same time.

To understand this inconsistency, we should accept, once and for all, that Saakashvili is not a reformist but first and foremost – a revolutionary. What’s more the former president truly believes in his own path – the “Misha Way”. In other words, he believes that he knows what is true and false; what is patriotic and what is unpatriotic. Generally speaking, there is only one right way, the “Misha Way” and Georgia, as well as the local society, should follow it whether they express willingness to or not.

As the revolutionary, Saakashvili is ready to pursue and fight for his ideas and goals till the end. This disposition was perfectly reflected during his governance when there was no dialogue, no debate and no exchange between the state and the people. Furthermore, after the constitutional amendments introduced in 2004, Georgia’s political system became hyper-presidential, in which parliament played no role while Saakashvili ruled over the state almost as a sheikh.

Soon after, the state developed its media platforms as well as the business sector. As a result, the processes in the country were driven solely by the will of its leader, Saakashvili, and a small group of individuals. Moreover, democratic values such as human rights, freedom of speech and the press and private property were largely abandoned for the sake of revolutionary breakthroughs – a modernisation which by all means has not been coordinated and harmonised with the Georgian people.

Yet another factor that we should emphasise is the unique PR skills of the former president of Georgia, as he manages to exaggerate achievements, on the one hand, while being able to fully overshadow the negative sides on the other hand. For example, police reform was tremendously successful in fighting “petty corruption” and ensuring the fight against crime, while being a total failure in defending local society from elite corruption and state abuse or the impunity of the security services that were involved in hundreds of criminal cases including killings, tortures and other grave misdeeds. This state reform protected Georgian society from crime but was incapable of doing the same when the state behaved as a criminal itself.

Thus, at the end of the day, Saakashvili gave the local population much-needed hope for a better future but, at the same time, sacrificed a desirable, democratic institutional development. Logically, Georgians praise and curse him simultaneously, depending on what was and is more important for each particular citizen.

Despite this paradox, all sides agree that Saakashvili is a historic figure – the “Georgian Che” who motivated Georgian society to continue its state-building process. Yet, the “Misha Way” was unable to live up to the strong desire for nation-building fully in line with democratic values.

The article was originally published by New Eastern Europe.

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The Georgian crusade against Kiev: Can Saakashvili bring together the Ukrainian opposition into a new Maidan?*

The campaign of Mikheil Saakashvili, the former president of Georgia (two consecutive terms from January 2004 to November 2013) and the ex-governor of Ukraine’s Odessa region (2015-2016), against Ukrainian leader Petro Poroshenko reached its apex and now it is close to the end.

On Dec. 17, Saakashvili’s supporters made an attempt to seize the building of the October palace in Kiev: the campaigners broke the entrance doors, got through the National Guard into the building, but the police stopped them with fire-extinguishers. As a result of the failed seizure more than 30 police officers and protesters got injured. The Ukrainian authorities imposed criminal charges against those who tried to seize the palace, while Saakashvili described this incident as the orchestrated provocation.

The relations between Saakashvili and the Ukrainian president sharply declined in July 2017, when he was forcefully resigned from the position of the governor of the Odessa region. On Sept. 10, the former Georgian president illegally crossed the borders of Ukraine through Poland to bring together the Ukrainian opposition against President Petro Poroshenko. This is how the Georgian-Ukrainian saga has been developing. After Saakashvili’s direct calls for overthrowing the current regime in Ukraine, the Ukrainian authorities have no choice, but keep him at bay from the domestic policymaking.

Amidst this background increasing number of experts are concerned with the repetition of the events of 2014 — a new revolution or the Saakashvili-initiated Maidan. However, many forget about the fact that numerous foreign politicians, including the Georgian ones, have been involved into Ukraine’s internal policymaking for years.

The Georgian trace in Kiev: A new old story

The very fact that Saakashvili has been participating in the Ukrainian political life since 2003 (and he makes no bones about it) is remarkable in its nature. It was the time when Georgian professional revolutionaries from the organization “Kmara” (in Georgian it means enough) trained their Ukrainian counterparts from the group “It is Time!” how to conduct protests and oust undesirable governments.

“Kmara” was very active during the 2003 Rose Revolution in Georgia, which toppled the government of President Eduard Shevarnadze. After these events a new government under Saakashvili actively supported political changes in Kiev both on grassroots and governmental levels.

It is not secret that the representatives of the organization “It is Time” used the same methods, which they learned from their Georgian colleagues. Moreover, Saakashvili personally knew ex-Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, who got power as a result of the so-called Orange Revolution in 2004, and was an ardent supported of the latter’s government.

One could also remember the scandal between Tbilisi and Kiev in 2010, when almost 2,000 people were sent to monitor the presidential election in Ukraine as unofficial observers. Yet Ukraine’s central electoral commission denied them in registration: Viktor Yunukovich’s Party of Regions accused then-Prime Minister Yulia Timoshenko of using the Georgian observers to destabilize the situation in Ukraine. At the same time, the Georgian opposition accused Saakashvili’s government of attempting to interfere in the election of the friendly country, which could result in the crisis in the Georgian-Ukrainian relations.

The second wave of the Georgian interference in the domestic affairs of Ukraine started in 2014, with the Euromaidan movement: in the beginning of the protests the Saakashvili coalition, which lost both the parliamentary and presidential elections in 2012-2013, was actively engaged in the internal policy of Ukraine. The former Georgian president regularly took the floor before the protesters, with his calls for overthrowing the Yanukovich regime.

After the Euromaidan protests, his colleagues were appointed to the key positions in the post-revolutionary government of Ukraine. Saakashvili himself was promoted to the position of the governor of the Odessa region. But he failed to implement his reforms and apply the Georgian experience in Ukraine, because he could not come up with a compromise with the Ukrainian government.

Because Georgia required the extradition of Saakashvili, a political refugee, who faced criminal charges in his home country, the diplomatic ties between Tbilisi and Kiev were in decline.

Moreover, the deterioration in the Georgian-Ukrainian relations could be also explained with Kiev’s rhetoric:  Ukrainian politicians accused the Georgian Dream, a new ruling party, and its leader Bidzina Ivanishvili of having close ties with Kremlin.

Will Saakashvili bring together the opposition for a new Maidan?

Despite Saakashvili’s perseverance, he and his supporters are hardly likely to orchestrate a new revolution.  There is no reason to expect another Maidan so far.

First, the revolutionary potential of the Ukrainian society is exhausted. One should remember that between the first revolution in 2004 and the second one in 2014 there were 10 peaceful years. So, the Ukrainians had enough time to weigh up all the pros and cons of the Orange revolution and prepare to a new one in 2014, which took place after ex-President Yanukovich didn’t sign the Association Agreement with the EU. Today the Ukrainian population is still recovering from the 2014 events and not ready to take to streets again. Moreover, the society cannot fight on two fronts — with its own authorities, on the one hand, and with Donbas, on the other hand. Now the Ukrainians are interested in maintaining the country’s territorial integrity, which could be easily undermined by another upheaval.

Second, the political diversity in Ukraine could prevent a new revolution: Today people interpret the domestic political events and the reasons of the revolutionary movement in different ways. Today there is no unifying idea, which could bring people together. During the Euromaidan people were inspired by the idea of the common European path, today there is no such trend. The rhetoric of Saakashvili, who seeks to organize another coup d’état, is too radical for most Ukrainians, who are fed up with these calls for overthrowing Ukraine’s current government. After all, any upheaval goes beyond the well-established democratic frames and might be met with criticism in the West.

The fight with corruption could not be an option as well: this campaign can’t bring people together and reinvigorate the revolutionary movement. Thus, Saakashvili’s unilateral attempts, supported by Yulia Timoshenko, produce the impression that we are witnessing nothing but another political rivalry within the country.

Finally, the possibility of a new revolution is very dim, because the Ukrainian government learned how to deal with emerging protests, became more sustainable and has a sort of immunity against a new upheaval. And the experience of the Euromaidan is helpful in this regard. Poroshenko takes into account the experience of his predecessor and is reforming the country’s law enforcement forces to be able to withstand any social unrest in future.

Foreign factors

Foreign factors are also not in favor of the Saakashvili-led Maidan in Ukraine. Yes, the former Georgian president enjoys the support of some representatives from the Western countries, for example, in the U.S.  Yet today he does get a free ride from his Western patrons. Yes, he could get some financial support and guarantees to launch the political activity in Ukraine, but it is the West that determines the limits of the allowable, and Saakashvili should know this.

That’s why his opportunities today are very limited.  Both Ukraine and the West are fed up with the perennial instability and internal conflicts.  All this means that the Saakashvili-led revolution is hardly likely to take place. The question of his political activity will be resolved depending on the level of his radicalism.

Yet if he is removed from the political rivalry, this will mark the end of the Georgian political influence on the Ukrainian policymaking. It will also raise the question about the future of the Georgian troops in eastern Ukraine, which are loyal to the ideals of the Saakashvili government.

Yes, Saakashvili contributed a lot to the post-Soviet space, but many stakeholders are tired with him and want his show to come to an end.

*In the Russian version, the author used the term “Mikhomaidan” which consists of two words — the first name of former Georgian President “Mikheil” and “Maidan”. This neologism means the capability of Saakashvili to organize a new revolution in Ukraine. The Russian headlines reads: “The Georgian crusade against Kiev: Is “Mikhomaidan” possible?

The article was originally published by Rethinking Russia.

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Who do I call if I want to speak to “pro-Russian forces” in Georgia?

In Georgia, whether you’re in opposition or in power, you can always call your opponent an agent of the Kremlin.

Russia may be actively involved in the Georgian economy, but our foreign policy narrative represents Russia as an existential threat. With Georgia’s status as a “beacon” of democracy in the South Caucasus taken as standard, the country finds itself under a continuous phantom threat from outside.

This is where Georgia’s domestic political narrative comes in. Ever since Mikheil Saakashvili divided society into “patriots” and “non-patriots” in the post-revolutionary years, the Georgian state has publicly searched for “enemy agents” in the form of “pro-Russian forces” and “fifth columns” — these groups are “traitors” who try to undermine Georgia’s sovereignty and aspirations to become a member of the civilised world.

This tactic has been transformed into an approved pre-election campaign to marginalise opponents and mobilise further support from Georgian society

Indeed, these exact terms have been used to abuse, oppress and libel various Georgian opposition groups and political parties by the political elite. Fast forward to 2016, this tactic has been transformed into an approved pre-election campaign to marginalise opponents and mobilise further support from Georgian society and the country’s strategic partners.

In fact, there is no clear definition of Georgia’s “pro-Russian” phenomenon. Instead, there are various interpretations that make it easy to deploy this term against “undesirable” elements and thus legitimise the use of questionable methods against them.

Saakashvili’s rise, fall and rise again

Russia’s involvement in its southern neighbour’s political life is an old story. During the 1990s, the Russian state contributed to the unrest in Abkhazia and South Ossetia (separatist regions recognised by Russia) and Georgians were fully aware of that.

Still, there was no public obsession with Russia in Georgia. Russia wasn’t the focus of discussion locally or internationally. Eduard Shevardnadze, Georgia’s president from 1992 to 2003, did not push the idea of Russia as an enemy, instead trying to maintain good relationships with both the west and the north.

Saakshvili’s government managed to make it acceptable for Georgian society to use questionable methods against so-called “pro-Russian forces” and the “fifth column”

Everything changed dramatically after the Rose Revolution in 2003. The newly elected political trio of Mikhail Saakashvili, Zurab Zhvania and Nino Burjanadze assured the international community that they will put the state on a democratic “path”. After the death of Zhvania in 2005, Saakashvili and his political team in the United National Movement (UNM) became the undisputed leaders of Georgia. Saakashvili tried to “restart” Georgian-Russian relations, but failed.

After the events of August 2004, when Saakasvhili’s government clashed with separatists in South Ossetia’s Tskhinvali region, it became clear that there was little ground for political dialogue between Georgia and Russia.

It was obvious that Saakashvili’s enormous support had melted away. In November of that year, Saakashvili ordered the dispersal of this peaceful protest, which led to mass riots, the closure of opposition TV broadcaster Imedi and the declaration of an emergency situation.

After Saakashvili was forced to resign and announce new presidential elections, it was clear Saakashvili was in need of a new political campaign that could consolidate Georgian society around him and legitimise his actions. He found it in Russia.

From November to November

The people who gathered in downtown Tbilisi in November 2007 came out against authoritarianism, abuse of rights and corruption. But prominent figures from UNM initially labelled it as a “pro-Russian rally” that aimed to dismantle Georgia, its sovereignty and overthrow the democratically elected pro-western government.

Saakashvili told local news agencies that “high-ranking officials in Russian special services are behind this”. Givi Targamadze, the former chairman of the parliamentary defense and security committee, warned protesters that the government would not let the Russian flag be raised on Rustaveli avenue, Tbilisi’s central thoroughfare. Moreover, Targamadze argued, the participants of these events would “drown in blood”. This was the first case in which a high-ranking Georgian official directly accused a foreign country of an attempt to overthrow the government.

Step-by-step, and using “secret recordings”, Gvaramia explained that the leaders of Georgia’s main opposition forces, such as Levan Berdzenishvili of the Republican Party, Giorgi Khaindrava of the Equality Institute, Konstantine Gamsakhurdia, leader of the Freedom Party and Shalva Natelashvili, the leader of the Labor Party, directed the 2007 protests under the guidance of foreign agents. From November to November thus introduced the concept of “pro-Russian forces” and “fifth column” into Georgia’s domestic political culture, justifying the government’s actions as a “necessary evil”. Despite these allegations, no one was arrested or with treason or the organisation of an attempted coup.

By the end of Saakashvili’s rule, every single individual, group of people or political opponents who had alternative approaches had been labeled “pro-Russian” and “non-patriotic”

Saakshvili’s government managed to make it acceptable for Georgian society to use questionable methods against so-called “pro-Russian forces” and the “fifth column”. As Koba Turmanidze, the director of Caucasus Research Resource Center, argued, an openly “pro-Russian” position could provoke a “harsh response”. This “response” was revealed several years later on 26 May 2011, when protesters led by Nino Burjanadze in Tbilisi were accosted by security officers and brutally beaten. Four people were later found dead.

The government called this protest “pro-Russian”, and easily justified its actions while members of Georgian society — afraid of the same fate — turned a blind eye to this “punitive” operation. By the end of Saakashvili’s rule, every single individual, group of people or political opponents who had alternative approaches had been labeled “pro-Russian” and “non-patriotic”.

Russia, again

Even though Georgia’s post-Rose Revolution government tried hard to stay in power, it lost parliamentary elections to the “pro-Russian” political party Georgian Dream in 2012.

Saakashvili’s attempts to represent Bidzina Ivanishvili, the oligarchic leader of Georgia’s opposition movement, as a close ally of Vladimir Putin failed. As soon as these “agents of foreign states” came to power, they assured Georgian society they would normalise Georgian-Russian relations.

But while there were hopes that the new government would dismantle the dubious concept of “pro-Russian forces”, Georgian society was deceived. Saakashvili’s legacy remained strong. Just like UNM in the past, Georgian Dream slowly haemorrhaged support thanks to its frequently illogical and ineffective reforms in various fields, including the extremely sensitive judicial and electoral systems. And on top of that, the failure of the Georgian-Russian “reset” intensified dissatisfaction among the electorate, on the one hand, and positions of anti-Russian groups, on the other.

So, who do I call if I want to speak to “pro-Russian forces” in Georgia? It seems the addresses are growing exponentially.

By September 2015, one year before parliamentary elections in October 2016, and in the wake of Georgian Dream’s falling approval ratings, Russia became relevant again. In a BBC interview, Tina Khidasheli, Georgia’s defence minister at the time, urged western states to support Georgia on its way toward NATO and EU integration — otherwise pro-Russian forces would be represented in the new parliament. Funnily enough, it was a colleague of Khidasheli’s who appeared in the secret recording with a Russian intelligence operative in From November to November that “proved” Russia’s involvement in the November 2007 events.

It is a paradox that Tina Khidasheli, an active participant of the “Russian-led” events in November 2007, began a search for “Russian spies” among opposition members in the lead-up to this year’s parliamentary elections. Nowadays, both the government and opposition use the concept to corral votes and marginalise one another other.

For instance, take July’s OSCE parliamentary assembly annual meeting in Tbilisi. During the session, OSCE members should have voted for a new president. The UNM presented its own candidate Gigi Tseretely, while the ruling party opposed. By the end of the day, the dispute was not about Tseretely’s candidacy, but rather about which side was cooperating with the Russian delegation. It should be noted that while the Bush administration was previously keen to trust Saakashvili on “pro-Russian forces”, nowadays, it is a less popular topic abroad.

Russia is both an important trade partner and a threat to Georgian security, but Mikheil Saakashvili managed to transform the country into a popular political method to marginalise his political opponents and oppress them.

Now, two months before Georgia’s parliamentary elections, the Georgian Dream ruling coalition, which is unable and unwilling to crack down on opponents, is also using the concept to consolidate the electorate.

So, who do I call if I want to speak to “pro-Russian forces” in Georgia? It seems the addresses are growing exponentially.

The article was initially published by OpenDemocracy.

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