Four years ago Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili tried to conquer South Ossetia in a bid to restore the territorial integrity of his country by force. The ensuing military rout did not lead to his political collapse. Contrary to expectations, Saakashvili held his ground and even grew stronger. However, the conflict has dramatically changed his political approach.
Saakashvili realized he should not count on closer institutional ties with the West as a means to transform his country. Neither Europe nor America would risk full-scale war with Russia over Georgia. He continued to use democratic slogans abroad to maintain the West’s attention and support. Meanwhile, in Georgia he relied on other examples, notably Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Republic of Turkey, and Lee Kuan Yew, the founder of modern Singapore. His priorities seem clear: both leaders created their states from scratch. Ataturk also deliberately put an end to the Ottoman tradition. Both tried hard to change the mentality of their compatriots. They ruled their respective countries for a very long time and rejected democracy as a vehicle of modernization out of principle.
Saakashvili fully shares this worldview and it shows in his attempt to reform his own country. He has been radical from the very start and ready to neglect a considerable portion of the population of his own country – people over 40 and 50 and employees of industries that were deemed unpromising (the Georgian reformers have listed agriculture in this category). His main idea is to stop looking back – whether to the Soviet or pre-Soviet past – because he insists on overcoming tradition, which he blames for preventing Georgia from becoming a normal country. Clearly, he needs a powerful repressive machine to implement such drastic reforms. This function is performed by Georgia’s Interior Ministry, which has unlimited power.
Strange as it may seem, the defeat in the war with Russia was good for the regime. First, Saakashvili has been relieved of the need to restore the country’s territorial integrity, which used to be a heavy burden for his predecessors. The defeat allowed him to talk about force majeure and engage in effective PR. Second, to recover from the damage, Georgia received more financial assistance from the West than it got in the 15 years before the war. No matter what Europe or America thinks about the Georgian leader, under the circumstances he is bound to be supported as a potential victim of “Russian aggression.” Third, Moscow’s extremely tough personal attacks on the Georgian leader played into his hands. Although many of his compatriots accused him of being adventurist, after the war they preferred to side “with one of their own.”
Saakashvili’s problem now has to do with developments in Georgian society rather than the war. Georgia’s wealthiest man Bidzina Ivanishvili first stepped into the political arena last fall. This was a watershed moment in Georgian politics. Apart from huge financial resources, Ivanishvili has an impeccable reputation. His entry into politics inspired many opponents of the current course who had been demoralized and divided. Almost everyone joined the Georgian Dream coalition, but this is more consequence than a cause of the changes in Georgia. The problems are rooted in the nature of the president’s policy. He has done what could be done with his methods of choice but they are not capable of deepening reforms.
During his time as president, Saakashvili has made one indisputable achievement – he has built an effective state machine. Suffice it to mention Georgia’s polite and well-groomed police and border guards, the absence of low-level corruption (in a country where it used to be regarded as endemic), flawless government services (whereas lazy indifference had been considered part of the national character) and better tax collection. No other post-Soviet state has come anywhere close.
The secret of this success is easy to explain: Georgia is a police state where practically everything is under control. Any initiative must be endorsed from above, formally or otherwise, and this only happens if its author wants to help Saakashvili build what he considers the right kind of state. But the administrative model cannot ensure further development. Moreover, continued attempts to crudely destroy Georgia’s national mentality and tradition will engender resistance. It is necessary to rethink the reforms with due account of the country’s unique “human raw material” rather than attempting to remake it.
However, this is not what the authorities are going to do. They hope to dominate the decisive parliamentary election in the fall because next year Georgia will turn from a presidential republic into a parliamentary one, and Saakashvili intends to become prime minister. He has descended into a strategy of retaining power by any means, which has never produced the desired effect.
Saakashvili is sincerely confident in his mission. He believes he cannot and should not leave power until he realizes his vision for Georgia. In practical terms, this means he will increase pressure on the opposition, which he considers a “force for chaos,” and try to hold onto power, whatever the cost. This is a dangerous road that does not guarantee success. Moreover, this is a painfully familiar post-Soviet road – one that the Georgian reformer detested and tried so hard to avoid.