Mikhail Saakashvili: new romantic or modern realist?

Nino Nanava
11 December 2003

The culmination of Georgia’s recent political crisis, termed a velvet or rose revolution, has provoked huge interest in the world outside Georgia and a good deal of apparent goodwill towards its suddenly empowered citizens. Within Georgia itself, a huge amount of media and popular attention has been focused on the charismatic figurehead of the revolution, Mikhail Saakashvili. Indeed, some of this interest has bordered upon morbid curiosity, as if displaying a pre-emptive Schadenfreude rooted in expectations that his glory days will be short-lived.

Saakashvili has proved by example that he was the right person to lead the country in the process of resistance that led to the resignation of Eduard Shevardnadze. The question now, as presidential elections on 4 January 2004 approach, is whether he is the right person to take Georgia into a new era.

Notably, Saakashvili has been compared to Zviad Gamsakhurdia, the melodramatic and ultimately tragic first president of the current Georgian republic (1990-92). This has been explained partly by an ostensible similarity of emotional political style and rhetoric, and partly by the wave of support from a restive population upon which both men swept to power. Indeed, Saakashvili self-consciously drew upon the pool of latent Zviadist support in the western, Mingrelia region in launching his final push on Tbilisi.

A new romantic?

But are these comparisons adequate? Zviad Gamsakhurdia was born in 1939 in the family of Konstantine Gamsakhurdia, a prominent Georgian writer of historical novels. Zviad was inculcated from an early age with a most un-Soviet Georgian nationalism and was groomed for a romantic mission to save Georgia, which later fed into his writings on the “spiritual mission of Georgia”.

He became an expert on American literature, was interested in the linguistic theories of 18th century Romantic nationalists and the influence of the historicist tradition of German philosophy (Herder, Fichte and Schlegel) fuelled his obsession with language and history. Despite his reputation for fiery mobilisation of people, he was much more an intellectual than a politician and this, in the end, contributed to his downfall. Moreover, he was paranoid and distrustful and believed in the destiny of one man – himself – to fully embody Georgian history.

In contrast, Saakashvili is of a quite different generation. Although it is tempting to view him as ‘new romantic’ this is misleading. There are four respects in which his political character is markedly different from that of his predecessor.

First, although determined from the young age to become a politician, Saakashvili’s nationalism is civic in the secular materialist traditions of the American and French Revolutions. Indeed, he was one of the drafters of the 1995 constitution, and his speeches often make references to the US “founding fathers”.

Second, Saakashvili’s relative youth, at 35, belie tremendous political experience on the domestic and international stages. He has been at the heart of Georgian politics since 1995: as chair of the parliamentary committee on rule of law and justice; as minister of justice; as vice-president of the Council of Europe parliamentary assembly; and latterly as chairman of Tbilisi city council. He has proved himself to be a capable, determined and charismatic leader, who has escaped largely untainted by his long (1995-2001) apprenticeship in Shevardnadze’s political machine.

Third, his struggle, though perhaps articulated in a populist manner, has been consistently rooted in the very hard issue of anti-corruption. His campaign against graft has stretched far further than Gamsakhurdia’s metaphysical rhetoric on the ‘spiritual corruption of the nation’. Saakashvili, the US attorney and Georgian justice minister, is capable of implementing real change by identifying real obstacles, as opposed to Gamsakhurdia’s paranoid depictions of ‘agents of the Kremlin’, ironically inclusive of the then US president, George Bush senior.

Fourth, Saakashvili is (unlike Gamsakhurdia) surrounded by a core of professional politicians of proven ability – including interim president Nino Burdzhanadze, another of the constitution’s ‘founding fathers’, and interim state minister Zurab Zhvania, the arch political organiser who invited Saakashvili back from New York. He has proven ready to cooperate with other serious parties, courting an alliance with the small but intellectually credible Republican Party from 2002 while avoiding entanglements with the detritus of Georgia’s multiparty populists.

Most importantly, Saakashvili realises the necessity of engaging coherently with both Russia and the west. It is notable that, despite his diplomatic pedigree, Shevardnadze’s policy towards Russia was every bit as erratic as the political style associated with Gamsakhurdia.

The bear next door

Both Eduard Shevardnadze and Zviad Gamsakhurdia were castigated in Moscow – the former for allegedly plotting the destruction of the Russian empire, the latter for rejecting the (Russified) Soviet model of “future man”. By contrast, Saakashvili comes with little baggage. Educated (in the Russian language) at university in Kiev, Ukraine, he has a fine appreciation of Russian culture. Although demonstrably pro-western, he has stressed on numerous occasions the critical role of Russia for the region and appraised positively the role played by Russia’s foreign minister, Igor Ivanov, in mediating Shevardnadze’s bloodless exit . He has also spoken of his desire to engage with Armenia, Moscow’s key ally in the Caucasus.

Saakashvili has many outspoken opponents in Georgian politics such as party leaders Vakhtang Rcheulishvili (Socialists), Shalva Natelashvili (Labour), Akaki Asatiani (Traditionalists’ Union) and the leader of the south-western province of Adzharia, Aslan Abashidze (Revival). However, unlike Zhvania and Burjanadze, all of these may be considered populists in their own right and (Abashidze apart) can be considered yesterday’s men in Georgia’s post-revolutionary political context.

Saakashvili’s real enemies, rather, are the sub-political business / criminal clans that surrounded Shevardnadze and his nomenklatura cohorts. Tackling corruption at its core means attacking the vested interests of these powerful and very dangerous individuals. As the Financial Times concluded in 2000, great hopes have been invested in Saakashvili . . . providing he remains alive.

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