Georgia, the largest and most pro-Western of the Caucasus states, has seen growing unrest since last year, as its dynamic leader, President Mikheil Saakashvili, comes under increasing scrutiny by opposition parties and former government officials. Saakashvili is the youngest man to be elected president of a European state, and is widely recognized as the architect of Georgia’s “Rose Revolution,” which toppled then president Eduard Shevardnadze, a former First Secretary of the Georgian Communist Party and Soviet Foreign Minister under Mikhail Gorbachev.
A graduate of Columbia University Law School, George Washington University, and the International Institute of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, Saakashvili has a strong affinity for the West. He counts Thomas Jefferson and John F. Kennedy among his influences, and has studied one notorious Georgian, Josef Stalin. But Saakashvili is accused now of using some of the same authoritarian tactics that sparked the popular uprising he rode to election in 2003.
Georgia has been beset by ethnic and political strife since it declared independence in 1991 around the breakup of the Soviet Union. Georgia’s first president was deposed in a bloody coup d’etat followed by four years of civil war. Shevardnadze returned to the country in the midst of the conflict, joining the leaders of the coup and eventually being elected president in 1995. The status of the breakaway provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia remained un-resolved after the conflict, and continued to be a thorn in Tbilisi’s side. It was in this climate that Saakashvili was elected to Georgia’s parliament as a member of Shevardnadze’s party. In office, he took a lead in designing reforms to the justice and electoral systems, as well as the police.
Immediately after ascending to the presidency in 2004, Saakashvili moved to align Georgia more closely with the West. He pressed for membership in both NATO and the European Union, and sent Georgian troops to Iraq and Afghanistan, earning the country a visit from former President George W. Bush. Early in his first term, Saakashvili’s government peacefully defused a crisis in another rebellious province, forcing the pro-Russian leader of Adjara to resign. But that success was not duplicated in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. There, Saakashvili turned to force. The Georgian military battled Russian-supplied militias to a stalemate in the summer of 2004. A government peace proposal in 2005 did not gain traction, leaving the situation ripe for another flare up.
The inevitable and disastrous conflict came in the summer of 2008 in the form of the ten-day South Ossetia War. The Georgians launched a full-scale military incursion into South Ossetia. Saakashvili stated that his actions were in response to the (very real) shelling of Georgian peacekeeping troops and to Russian efforts to move non-peacekeeping units into the region. It was just the opening Russia needed.
The Russian army — which had been massing on the border for months prior to the incursion — invaded, driving Georgian troops out of the province entirely and pushing into the heart of the country. They briefly took control of the city of Gori, on the road to Tbilisi, and bombed targets on the outskirts of the capital. At the same time, Russian units in Abkhazia pushed Georgian troops out of that province and advanced south along the Black Sea coast, taking the port city of Poti. A cease-fire was brokered, after which Russia recognized the provinces as independent republics and established army bases in each. Saakashvili’s rash move cost Georgia control over nearly 20 percent of its territory and gained Russia a foothold from which to further meddle in the country’s future.
Domestically, Saakashvili has presided over the modernization of the country, successfully building a market-based economy and attracting foreign investment. He reduced and simplified the tax structure while at the same time improving collections and privatizing many state assets. Revenues to the government are up since Saakashvili took office, and the government’s pension liability has been erased. The government also eliminated barriers to business formation and placed strict deadlines for government action on permits and licenses. Combined, the efforts led Forbes magazine to rank Georgia the 11th best place in the world to do business.
International observers say that Saakashvili has been largely successful at eliminating the cronyism and corruption that characterized Shevardnadze’s reign. However, he has been slow to implement justice and electoral reforms he championed as a member of parliament, and has shown evidence of backsliding. Protesters accuse Saakashvili’s government of using state media to stifle political opposition. The government did not help matters when it deployed riot police using tear gas, rubber bullets, and water cannons to disperse anti-government protests in 2007 and again in 2011. The heavy-handedness of the government crackdowns only served to solidify opposition to Saakashvili, and earn him criticism from the West, all of which strengthens Russia’s hand in its barely-concealed push to remove Georgia from Europe’s orbit.
The effect on Georgia’s political development, despite a series of constitutional reforms, has been significant. Georgia’s democracy score, given by Freedom House, is statistically unchanged over the last ten years. No small amount of this lies at Saakashvili’s feet.
Under heavy pressure from Russia both externally and from its footholds in the breakaway provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia and facing growing political unrest at home, the next two years will likely determine whether Georgia continues on its path toward liberalization and democracy, or falls back under Moscow’s spell. Parliamentary elections this year are likely to be hotly contested. Saakashvili’s party holds a large advantage over its chief rivals in popularity indices, but it must respect political pluralism, accept criticism as part of the functioning of a healthy multi-party system, and continue to advance promised reforms.
Saakashvili’s second and final term expires in 2013. Georgia’s constitution mandates that he step down and make way for fresh elections. There are rumblings among the protestors that Saakashvili will follow Vladimir Putin’s lead, becoming prime minister and installing a puppet president. Close advisers deny that he would consider such a move, and he must heed their advice. Saakashvili’s rise to power brought with it much hope for a democratic and free Georgia. Now that the end of his era is in sight, Saakashvili must ensure that the nation remains committed to the principles that he rode to election in the inspirational fall of 2003.
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