Six years ago, on 25 January 2004, Mikheil Saakashvili took the oath of office as president of Georgia for the first time.
Then it was a day of hope and high expectations. At last our country would have a president truly committed to democracy, an end to corruption and peaceful reunification.
And for some time those hopes looked justified. One breakaway province, Adjara, returned to the fold and the other two in Abkhazia and South Ossetia looked as though they might follow suit. I joined the president’s government as Foreign Minister and secured the removal of Russian military bases. Corruption was tackled and as a result tax revenues grew and tax rates fell.
But even in those early days there were warning signs of what was to come. The president was given a vastly increased range of powers. Our police force was radically reformed but also became addicted to excessive force – gunning down the innocent in the name of fighting gangsterism. And the president already showed he lacked the patience needed to really win over the would-be secessionists.
Now, more than two thousand days since he took that oath, it is not just Georgians who are wondering how we went from such bright optimism to today’s reality of restricted media freedom, deep division, occupied territory and economic crisis.
European and American taxpayers contribute around one and a half billion dollars to Georgia a year, making it one of the largest per capita recipients of foreign aid. When Freedom House recently reported that Georgia was still not an electoral democracy, but a country held back by judicial corruption, a bent electoral system and a propagandising media, it is no wonder some of our closest friends must ask if they are getting value for money.
I am angry for my country and about the consequences of Saakashvili’s continued rule. Two years ago he took the oath again, after fighting an election that was born in the violence of his attack on peaceful demonstrators in November 2007 and then marked by intimidation and corruption. Since that day we have fought and lost an unnecessary war, sacrificing Georgian lives and leaving one-fifth of our country under Russian occupation. We have seen poverty and unemployment worsen, despite promises in the election campaign to eliminate both. Our media are less free than ever and we have been relegated to the second division of post-Soviet states.
Our president loves to strut on the international stage, most recently by appearing to meddle in Ukraine’s presidential poll. And while our media faithfully report the increasingly incredible denials of official involvement in the election, they ignore the salient fact that Ukraine’s orange revolution has succeeded in creating a vibrant democracy while our rose revolution has been betrayed. Our country is slowly turning into an imprisoned society, albeit one graced with the glass and concrete of the property speculators attracted by Saakashvili’s bubble economy of the middle of the last decade.
Mikheil Saakashvili has elevated the tactical ruthlessness marking the successful electoral politics that took him to power into a principle of executive authority. It is as though he has not really grown up in office and has proved incapable of understanding that dissident voices and accountability are part of what keeps governments on their toes and effective.
The result is a country where history can appear to run backwards. We are not a dictatorship, but the drift is clear. Today, just as in communist times, the most powerful man in the state other than the chief is the interior minister. The Constitutional Security Department, the direct descendant of the KGB, roams free from legal constraint. They prefer menace to direct shows of force, but they are not afraid to shoot if required and know they can do so with impunity. When they used illegal guns to shoot peaceful demonstrators last June, the government’s response was not to sack the offenders but to legalise the weapons.
An external distraction is also required to ensure that the population cannot focus on what is happening at home. So the president keeps poking the Russian bear with the stick of propaganda. Each week Misha makes a speech about “the enemy” and tells us all to be ready for war: most recently he promised to teach all our schoolchildren how to use a gun. At the same time he spends money on a Russian language satellite channel to ensure the message is heard loud and clear in Moscow. The bear obligingly growls and Misha pokes it some more.
If the West is horrified by this – and it ought to be – it has kept quiet. The thinking still seems to be that at least Saakashvili keeps the country stable. But it is the stability of balancing one-legged on the edge of a cliff.
If Georgia is to escape from this mess, then the West needs to play its part. About five cents of every dollar circulating in Georgia comes from the United States, Europe or the IMF in the form of aid or soft loans. Without that money our government would be crippled, yet with it the regime can continue to keep Georgia in thrall.
It is time Saakashvili was told enough is enough.