The Long Arm of the Strongman
How China and Russia Use Sharp Power to Threaten Democracies
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.
But thereafter, Saakashvili himself was only intermittently involved in the day-to-day business of government. His chief responsibility was to serve two roles: ideas man and chief salesman for his reforms. Saakashvili accepted the role with enthusiasm, tirelessly promoting the idea that, thanks to the Rose Revolution, Georgia had undergone a “mental revolution,” that Georgians had managed to transcend their history and join the West in one sweeping political and psychological transformation.
Needless to say, this message was appealing to many Westerners, especially to political and media elites who were hungry for what might be described as an “anti-Russia,” a post-Soviet success story. (And Vladimir Putin duly did his part in helping promote the message by vigorously opposing it.) Saakashvili gave generous access to Western media, and in particular to publications such as the Financial Times, The Economist, and The Wall Street Journal, which they repaid by giving lavish attention to his government's economic reforms. Saakashvili may be the only person to have twice been the subject of the “Lunch with the FT” column.
Saakashvili's most fateful courtship, however, was not with the media but with a fellow head of state: George W. Bush. When Saakashvili came to Washington in February 2004, he did everything to ensure that it would be love at first sight. Visiting the White House, he told an enthusiastic audience in his rapid fluent English that, as a former George Washington University student, this was a “most special homecoming.” An hour before his first Oval Office meeting with Bush, Saakashvili is said to have been hastily studying the State of the Union speech that Bush had delivered a month earlier. When Saakashvili, in his private meeting with the president, repeated verbatim some of the phrases about freedom and democracy from that speech, Bush and his team listened in rapture. Starting at that moment, it seems, Bush concluded that Saakashvili was “our guy.” In public comments afterward, Bush told Saakashvili, “I'm proud to call you friend.”
Saakashvili perfectly fit Bush's preferred image of a transformative leader: he was young, fluent in English, familiar with the vocabulary of reform and democracy, and, not least, ready to back U.S. foreign policy goals in Afghanistan and Iraq. They were also impressed by his commitment to nation-building in Georgia itself. The first years of Saakashvili’s presidency were a great success story. In short order, he eliminated most of the country's Soviet-era bureaucracy, ushering in a new policy force, traffic police, and tax and municipal authorities. Low-level bribe-taking was stamped out. Everything from the school system to the look of the national flag was overhauled.
But the Americans seemed to be unbothered by the fact that Saakashvili's style of leadership was much more authoritarian than his liberal rhetoric. His government's modernization efforts were imposed top-down, with increasing brutality and disregard for large parts of the population. Saakashvili's interior minister, Vano Merabishvili, served as the president's enforcer-in-chief. Merabishvili rightly earned praise for a crackdown on Georgia's powerful organized-crime lords. But the machine he built turned Georgia into a police state. Heavy surveillance became routine. The law enforcement agencies’ net was cast so wide that Georgia’s prison population per capita became the largest in Europe -- and those statistics concealed thousands of people living in limbo due to a corrupt plea bargaining system that threatened to result in their imprisonment at any moment, even absent a trial. Inside the country's prisons, the government practiced institutionalized torture, including the rape of inmates by prison guards.
ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT
By 2007, Georgia had a large constituency that felt marginalized or left out of the Saakashvili project. Western European governments had also become more skeptical. But most of Saakashvili’s supporters in the United States, as well as those in central and eastern Europe, stayed loyal.
American support served to insulate him from some of the domestic criticism -- but eventually it proved to be his undoing. Although Americans and Georgians had adopted the habit of using the word “ally” to refer to each other, there was never a formal alliance between the two countries. Saakashvili allowed his judgment to be skewed by his glowing testimonials from the Bush White House.
Saakashvili's miscalculations were tragically exposed in August 2008, when war broke out with Russia over Georgia's breakaway province of South Ossetia. We now know that the war was triggered by Saakashvili's decision to attack the South Ossetian town of Tskhinvali in a doomed attempt to reconquer the province by force, only to provoke a massive -- and well-prepared -- Russian assault on his country. Saakashvili probably believed that if he captured Tskhinvali, the United States would back him against Russia. In an interview with the BBC about the war, he tried to explain his reasoning: “Hopefully the international community would wake up and see -- we concentrate efforts, we get some kind of reversal.” We have yet to learn whether this was a blind guess or based on private assurances from supporters in Washington. Certainly, senior officials told him not to try the military option. Back in 2005, Bush himself had told Saakashvili that if he went to war with Russia, “the U.S. cavalry isn't coming over the horizon.” And once the war was underway, the United States duly did nothing to intervene.
The war also exposed the limitations of personal charm and brilliance. Foreign interlocutors said that they were both thrilled and exhausted by Saakashvili’s tendency to launch into monologues. One Western interlocutor said, “After you’ve had a discussion with him, you need to lie down. You need a drink.” Observers noticed that Saakashvili’s decision-making procedures were haphazard, and that he was negligent about maintaining a record of his government’s deliberations. Indeed, most of the government's decisions were made by a small group of advisers -- most of whom were younger than Saakashvili himself, who was only 41 in 2008 -- in meetings held after midnight (which, incidentally, meant that the Georgian government worked more or less on Washington time). Saakashvili’s informal system could not cope with the strain. Among the reasons that the Georgian military is said to have been unable to hold its lines was that it was receiving orders via cell phone, rather than via any standardized chain of command. After only five days, Georgia inevitably accepted its humiliating defeat by the Russians.
Saakashvili’s impulsive, abrasive style won him passionate admirers, but also a long list of enemies, ranging from many of his former ministers to German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Sometime after 2008, an important addition to this list was Georgia’s richest man, Bidzina Ivanishvili. Thanks to indignation against the Russians’ bullying tactics, Saakashvili rode out the storm of the August war. But discontent was growing, and Georgians eventually rallied around Ivanishvili, who had earlier supported Saakashvili’s government and funded many of its projects but had, for reasons not yet fully apparent, angrily broken with him.
The last two years in Georgia have been dominated by a grudge match between the two men. Saakashvili first tried to do everything in his power to destroy Ivanishvili by attempting to withhold his Georgian passport, strip him of his assets, and stop his media outlets from broadcasting. Since he won the election in October 2012, Ivanishvili has done his best to destroy Saakashvili, trying to defund his presidential apparatus and having a number of his allies arrested.
GEORGIA ON THE MIND
It is to Saakashvili’s credit that, although he is no democrat, he was sufficiently conscious of his legacy to allow Georgians to experience the political change they so clearly wanted. Over the past year, Georgia has become, for want of a better word, more Georgian. It is simultaneously more democratic, more open, more nationalistic, and more Christian Orthodox. It now looks as though Saakashvili’s “mental revolution” was mostly a mirage. His much-touted de-Stalinization campaign was a case in point: its defining act was the removal of the huge statue of Stalin from the dictator’s hometown of Gori, but it was done without any public discussion, and masked the unfortunate reality that Georgians respect the memory of Stalin. (A poll, commissioned by the Carnegie Endowment last October, revealed that 45 percent of Georgians still had positive feelings about the dictator.) Now the people of Gori want to put the Stalin statue back up again.
In practical terms, the results for the new government have so far been mixed. It has made progress in tackling some of the problems Saakashvili left behind. The judiciary is being strengthened to make it free of political control. The media is far more diverse. Parliament is lively and no longer a rubber stamp for the president’s fiats. The government has facilitated much greater movement across the border with Abkhazia and has reached out to South Ossetia. But the new government lacks some of the competence of its iron-fisted predecessor. Growth rates have slowed, and Georgia’s biggest socio-economic problems, unemployment and rural poverty, have stayed at the same levels, despite Ivanishvili’s promises. Some policy changes, however long overdue, have also created new problems. A much-needed prison amnesty, which reduced Georgia’s prison population to more civilized levels, has also pushed up the crime rate. Worryingly, there have also been a number of nasty episodes of bigotry and violence against national and sexual minorities, who felt more protected by the pro-Western Saakashvili.
This week, Georgia acquired a new president with fewer constitutional powers, the former university rector Giorgi Margvelashvili. Ivanishvili is also about to step down as prime minister. As a result, Georgia will soon have two leaders, a president and a prime minister, who have almost no name recognition outside the country. But it is still unclear what will become of Saakashvili himself. The main issue now is whether he will be prosecuted upon stepping down as president. That question obviously depends on whether the prosecutor’s office can put forward evidence that is seriously incriminating. But fundamentally, the question is political. Ominously, Saakashvili’s enforcer, Vano Merabishvili, is now in detention facing criminal charges for his actions while an officer. There is a loud constituency in Georgia that would support the arrest of Saakashvili as well. That view may be shared by many in the government, including, perhaps, Ivanishvili himself.
They should be fully aware, however, that the arrest of Saakashvili would blacken Georgia’s reputation abroad. Many Georgians have cooled on Saakashvili’s charm, but it did earn him friends in countries with whom Georgia's new government will need to maintain good relations. Like it or not, Saakashvili’s successors will have to live with the fact that Saakashvili's renown will still outstrip their own, at least for the foreseeable future. Given all that, their wisest course would probably be to quietly appreciate the irony that Saakashvili's pursuit of foreign fame was likely both the source of his undoing and his final saving grace.