No America in the Caucasus

The False Promise of Westernization in Georgia

A leader comes to power in Georgia as the country is in economic turmoil and its citizens are in a state of despair. The people overwhelmingly welcome him as a messiah. Gradually, he mobilizes a group of talented officials and puts the country back on track. Although his task is complicated by a poisonous relationship with Russia, he has many friends in Washington and receives extensive U.S. aid and political support. Over time, however, he loses touch with the Georgian public and grows increasingly remote. Many members of his administration accuse him of autocratic tendencies and defect to the opposition. Eventually, an election is held, and the popular vote goes against him. Neither an instinctive democrat nor a bloodthirsty tyrant, he concedes defeat -- if only to protect his reputation in the West.

Curiously, this story has played out not once in modern Georgia but twice. It is the trajectory, most recently, of Mikheil Saakashvili, who surged to power in the peaceful Rose Revolution of 2003. Saakashvili lost decisively in parliamentary elections this October to Bidzina Ivanishvili, Georgia’s richest man, who is now the country’s prime minister and is set to become its most powerful politician when the constitution changes next year. (Saakashvili, however, will remain president until his term expires in October 2013.) But it is also the story of the man Saakashvili defeated in 2003, Eduard Shevardnadze. In 1992, Shevardnadze -- a Western favorite for his stint as Soviet foreign minister, in which he played a major role in ending the Cold War -- inherited a Georgia wracked by civil strife and dominated by warlords. He initially brought progress to his native land on several fronts, but after a few years he lost his way, allowing the country to slide into corruption and inertia. Finally, the Rose Revolution toppled him.

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