Mikhail Saakashvili – etymology of a crisis

Erosi Kitsmarishvili
4 June 2009

Fate decreed that at key moments in Georgia's recent post-independence history I should be actively involved. The same cycle kept repeating itself, and the end was always the same. Each time, the government's authority was catastrophically compromised, each time it had to step down before the end of its term.

But there has been some compensation for this unfortunate turn of events. Civil society has developed rapidly and become the bulwark of the country's development.

This should be good news for Georgia's friends, who have done all they could to help us in every possible way throughout this period. And although we have had a series of unfortunate crises of governance, the strength of civil society gives us strong reasons for believing that we are going to be able to achieve stability in future.

One of the greatest mistakes the West made was to focus support exclusively on Mikhail Saakashvili and his government, ignoring what was needed for the development of civil society and free media in Georgia. 

 The West believed that helping Saakashvili would contribute to the development of democracy in Georgia. Events showed the opposite - from 9 April to 26 May there were not just protest meetings, but active attempts by civil society to push the government towards democracy. In this way the Georgians themselves set about correcting the West's mistakes.  They demonstrated that Saakashvili can no longer guarantee the stability required by the international community.

 Mikhail Saakashvili enjoyed considerable authority in his country and unprecedented levels of trust throughout the world when he came to power. At the time of the Rose Revolution a team of four people - Zurab Zhvania, Nino Burjanadze, Mikhail Saakashvili and the author of this article - were not afraid to take on responsibility in order to change the country's future for the better.

A great deal has changed since then, but not for the good.  The government has regressed and society has progressed.  Zurab Zhvania is dead, and Nino Burjanadze is an active member of the opposition coalition. As the last Georgian ambassador to Russia, I witnessed the President's tragic choice to go to war; later at open parliamentary hearings I made an official statement about the real motives for the August events.

Mikhail Saakashvili has betrayed us all to the same degree. His friends. His own people. His reliable and faithful allies in the West. His partners in Russia. He has turned the clock back a long way. This process began when he allowed the "National Movement" (the political party of which he is the leader) to influence him and the government by attacking civil society.

Saakashvili had won the right to govern at competitive elections. But his political union's ability to govern was seriously undermined by manipulation at the next elections. Last November there were mass protests at the government's abuse of power. He defused the crisis by proposing the democratic solution pre-term elections.  The result of these elections demonstrated that people had lost faith in the government. But they assured voters that they knew what needed to be done. Their main priorities were social and economic. Their legitimacy had been considerably weakened by their suppression of rallies and demonstrations.  But they did try to build bridges with society, and they developed a comprehensive strategy to provide support for the socially disadvantaged.

The government tackled this with great enthusiasm. But it concentrated only on the interests of one group in society. At the same time, the increasing pressure being exerted on civil society was pushing it outside the law, in defiance of both moral authority and Georgian tradition.

Faced by a sharp fall in its credibility, the government chose the only remaining path. It fell back on the head of state's unique gift for demagogy, which he pulled off because he is still able to command unwavering personal devotion and trust. The entire state system  - the defence and law enforcement agencies the machine of state and the media - had to swing behind this in order to protect the interests of a small section of society. This elite had itself fallen hostage to an ideology of lies.

The reward of loyalty to such an unpopular leader was unlimited material gain. The fear of losing this became the only common ground between the administrative staff and their leader. Things had reached an impasse. Those in power had no way out and were terrified of losing power.

At the same time the most competent, highly professional and moral section of the civil service proved unfit for purpose. Business efficiency and working by the established rules, as understood by the modern "civil servant", proved incompatible with the need for personal loyalty and unquestioning obedience.  The result was that the most competent officials resigned. Soon catastrophic mistakes started being made in all spheres of government. The events of August 2008, diplomatic impotence in the face of Russia's military provocation and fatal military misjudgments resulted in a complete catastrophe for Georgia. This has been ongoing. It has led to the complete collapse of all management structures.

Controlling the media became the only remaining means of maintaining the virtual government. This gave rise to a curious phenomenon in the media. Journalists with no other means of survival were compelled to promote a narrow political point of view, and were well paid for it. This has adversely affected the quality of journalism and set media freedom back many years. Society reacted appropriately, by protesting.

Today there are clear signs of the government's loss of legitimacy. The consequences of the defeat in the war were particularly disastrous. The war could, and should, have been avoided. But as the former Georgian ambassador to Russia, I can aver that the government consciously relegated diplomacy to the sidelines. The provocations of Russia's war party should have been resisted. They consciously, systematically set traps into which the Georgian president naively fell. My efforts to prevent this resulted in my recall from Moscow.

The world has moved on now and diplomacy is the chief means of resolving the crisis. However, our President continues to exploit the war with Russia, using the threat of external aggression as his rallying call. Today this is government's only remaining strategy, and a virtual one at that.

The nation can forgive a lot, but not an insult to its honour, especially when they come so thick and fast. If the President had admitted his mistake to his people, such an action would have served to discredit the military solution for the foreseeable future. But no, once more the government chose another path. This time it was a virtual fantasy involving conspiracy, spies and rebellion. This culminated in the Mukhrovani events. For the home audience Russia was deemed to have been involved. For the world media, it was not. Maybe there was some sort of spontaneous rebellion in the army. After all, it had lost the war with Russia, been accused of insurrection and conspiring with the enemy. Attempts had even been made to use it to suppress meetings of the opposition.

In the end what has discredited this government is not so much the war, but the peace that followed it.  This is currently the most serious threat to Georgian society.  If thousands of people say without anger or any personal resentment that their trust has run out, this demonstrates the strength of civil society. The government's attempt to hang on and wait until resistance has died down is hopeless. For resistance is increasing. On 26 May, Independence Day over 100,000 people took to the streets of Tbilisi, but they did not get an adequate response to their protest. After this events escalated even further and a picket was set up on the central railway line.

Georgia's fully-fledged, mature civil society has developed under extreme conditions, but this has only made it stronger. Civil society, not the opposition, is leading this resistance. Protest has been gathering momentum since 9 April. The rallies are entirely peaceful. There have been no instances of breaking the law.   Given the length of time this has been going on and the violence used by the authorities, this shows an unprecedented degree of maturity. 

The international community and friends of Georgia must understand that it is her mature civil society that will be chiefly responsible for the future of the country. I hope that Georgia's friends will not repeat the mistakes of the past, and that they will concentrate on the development of civic institutions and free media. This is the priority of the 2020 Foundation, of which I am the director. But right now the most important task is, of course, to help society by setting up a dialogue with this inadequate government.

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