Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili finally got what he couldn’t get for several years: an official visit to the White House. President Obama has avoided his Georgian colleague since he first entered the Oval Office in 2009, making it clear that his administration would not absolve Saakashvili of responsibility for the Russian-Georgian war in August of 2008, although officially the United States has always claimed that Georgia was attacked.
Moreover, Saakashvili obviously backed Obama’s rival, Senator John McCain, in the 2008 presidential elections. McCain called the Georgian leader a friend and expressed extremely hawkish views on Russia. Still, under Obama, Washington has not given up on Georgia completely. Vice President Joseph Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton both visited Tbilisi. No matter what the United States thinks about Saakashvili as a person, it does not want to lose a strategic ally willing to support America in the Caucasus.
Russian-Georgian relations had always been bumpy and almost ground to a halt after the five-day war. True, there were some signs of improvement in the past year, which President Dmitry Medvedev recently mentioned. The two countries have restored air traffic and are discussing reopening the Russian market to Georgian goods. Most importantly, they struck a compromise that allowed Russia to join the WTO. Just six months ago Tbilisi’s objections to Moscow’s entry were considered insurmountable because they were linked to a sacred issue for both sides; the status of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
However, these signs of improvement do not change the overall situation, Russia and Georgia remain at odds over Moscow’s recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states and that will not change in the foreseeable future. Numerous attempts at mediation by various European institutions have failed.
Since the early 1990s Georgia has openly attempted to forge the closest possible relationship with the United States and NATO. Relations with Russia were marred by the complicated, long-standing dispute over Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The presence of Chechen commandos on Georgian territory in the early 2000s was a separate problem. But that’s not all. Under Saakashvili, Georgia has sought to create a conceptual alternative to Russia by providing an example of a complete and irreversible break of historical and cultural ties with its powerful neighbor.
An impulsive and not entirely reasonable man, Saakashvili still knows what he wants. The essence of his experiment is to forcibly re-educate the Georgian people. He has a very low opinion of his compatriots, whom he wants to teach to live and work properly. Saakashvili and his very young team employ methods reminiscent of the Bolsheviks, albeit toward liberal ends. His strident Russo phobia is more a means than an end. A decisive break with Russia and the nations’ shared cultural traditions seems to be the best means of rebuilding the Georgian nation.
Compared to other former Soviet republics that are bent on creating a national historical myth, Georgia is much less focused on history. Saakashvili understands that appeals to history, even anti-Soviet and anti-Russian ones, may become an obstacle to overcoming tradition. In simpler terms, he is encouraging Georgians to forget the past in order to prevent its ghosts from interfering with the country’s bright future. The hidden confrontation between the state and the Georgian Orthodox Church, a highly respected institution in Georgia that represents this tradition, is part of the same policy.
Georgia is pursuing deep and radical reforms, the results of which are obvious even without Tbilisi’s PR onslaught. It’s hard to imagine but Georgian state institutions are operating impeccably, and corruption has been eradicated in everyday life (true, there is still much talk about growing corruption at the top).
Georgia still lacks what is it’s the most important brand in the world, democracy, though Obama has called Georgia a “model of democracy and transparency.” Saakashvili has built an authoritarian state where the main agency is the Interior Ministry, which keeps the Georgian people under close supervision. This has its pros and cons. On the one hand, the government machine is working smoothly but it can always be used to crackdown on any opposition.
Democracy is not often mentioned in Georgia, as it is meant only for export. Today, Saakashvili publicly invokes the experience of Kemal Ataturk and Lee Kuan Yew. The former broke the backbone of traditionalist Turkey, having placed his bets on authoritarian pro-Western modernization, while the latter created a new successful nation from scratch. Incidentally, these examples show that Saakashvili is not going to leave his post when his constitutional term expires this year.
It is hard to judge Georgia’s economic progress. Liberal reforms have improved the investment climate, and sparkling Batumi is truly impressive. But it is impossible to conceal Georgia’s massive poverty, while the results of complete privatization are far below expectations. Saakashvili did a good job selling his defeat in the war with Russia. The money received from the West for recovery has more than compensated for the losses and have allowed the country to continue reforms, such as paying high salaries to the incorruptible police. Georgia’s foreign debt represents the flip side of the coin.
Prestige aside, the military defeat has relieved Georgia of a burden and deprived Russia of a major lever; everything is already a fait accompli.
The government’s Bolshevik approach is polarizing society and fostering discontent but the active younger generation will find an outlet. In general, the new Georgia is being built for the young, who are being brought up in the new spirit. Most discontent is coming from older people, but that’s their problem; they were simply born at the wrong time.
Russia’s hopes that Saakashvili’s disastrous failures, particularly the military defeat of 2008, would lead to the collapse of his regime have not materialized. The more time passes, the changes in Georgia become deeper, Georgian society further disassociates from Russia and rapprochement becomes less likely. However, Georgia’s socioeconomic foundation is so fragile that success is by no means guaranteed.