So Long, Saakashvili

The Presidency That Lived By Spin -- And Died By It

Saakashvili, Clinton, and Gordon in front of a ferris wheel in Batumi.
Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Philip Gordon, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Eurasian Affairs, stop in front of a ferris wheel as they walk through the streets of Batumi, June 5, 2012. (Saul Loeb / Courtesy Reuters)

Georgia's reputation for charm has long preceded it. Travelling in the Soviet Union in 1947, the writer John Steinbeck heard Russians repeatedly evoke the “magical name of Georgia.” “They spoke of Georgians as supermen, as great drinkers, great dancers, great musicians, great workers and lovers,” Steinbeck wrote at the time.

It was the singular achievement of Mikheil “Misha” Saakashvili, elected Georgia's president in 2004, to have elevated his country's capacity for charm into the centerpiece of a grand strategy, one designed to secure power in Georgia by winning over the West in general and the White House of George W. Bush in particular. As was inevitable, the strategy eventually failed. Only a year ago, Saakashvili fully expected that he would win parliamentary elections and that his team would stay in power almost indefinitely. But defeat in the October 2013 parliamentary vote and a spate of revelations since then about abuses committed by his government have sent his popularity into a tailspin. A poll commissioned last month found that 57 percent of Georgians dislike Saakashvili; only 15 percent of the country approves of his job performance. After dominating Georgia for nine years, Saakashvili has still been head of state for the past twelve months, but in practical terms he has been virtually irrelevant.

But for Saakashvili, it always seemed that the pursuit of Western celebrity was just as important as maintaining popularity at home. In some sense, the bigger question is not why this pursuit failed but why it lasted as long as it did. And that is a question only Saakashvili's enablers in the West can answer.

PR STRATEGIST IN CHIEF

If it is hard to disentangle myth from reality in assessing Saakashvili's political legacy, that is because he intentionally blurred the lines between Georgia’s political reality and his own PR efforts. Much of Saakashvili’s presidency was a rebranding exercise along the lines of Tony Blair's “Cool Britannia” campaign in the 1990s.

The popular Rose Revolution, which Saakashvili led in November 2003, was real enough. It swept the regime of his former patron Eduard Shevardnadze from power. Two months later, Saakashvili became the youngest head of state in Europe, and he appointed one of the youngest governments, eager to try a series of state-building reforms.

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