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NATALIA ANTELAVA is a journalist for the BBC.
THOMAS DE WAAL is a senior associate in the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.See more by Natalia AntelavaSee more by Thomas de Waal
IN PRAISE OF SAAKASHVILI
In his recent article “So Long, Saakashvili,” Thomas de Waal sums up the presidency of Georgia’s Mikhail Saakashvili as a “rebranding exercise” for a country with such a mixed political legacy that it is hard to disentangle myth from reality. As a Georgian, I find such a definition of my country’s last decade both grossly inaccurate and degrading.
I was born and raised in Georgia. In 1998, at the age of 19, I won a scholarship to study in the United States. It was an incredible opportunity, but the Georgian government stood in the way. I was told it would take months to get a passport to travel unless I paid a bribe. I borrowed the money and paid. Fast-forward to 2012. Midway through a conversation at a dinner party in Tbilisi about corruption in the former Soviet Union, the host’s 12-year-old son raised his head. “What is corruption?” he asked.
Corruption is not the only malady that Saakashvili cured. Georgians only slightly younger than me have no idea what it is like to live through a winter without electricity, to cook on kerosene stoves, or to stand for hours in a breadline. We no longer have to rush home after dark in fear of being kidnapped or robbed at gunpoint. Police help us instead of asking for a bribe. Saakashvili’s reforms may seem unimportant to outsiders, but to Georgians they have been life-changing.
It is true that Georgia has not changed enough. Poverty is still widespread and unemployment is rampant. Saakashvili did clear gangs out of schools and ensure that bribery would no longer be a condition for university attendance, but Georgia’s education system remains mostly in disrepair. Still, contrary to de Waal’s claims, Saakashvili’s reforms were not a PR stunt; they were radical and entirely necessary political interventions. Saakashvili sought approbation from Western press and American politicians, but that doesn't lessen his achievements.