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The Dramatic Rise and Fall of Mikheil Saakashvili

As he leaves the stage, many wonder how the passionate reformer gave way to the reviled megalomaniac.

by George Tarkhan-Mouravi 18 October 2013

The German sociologist Max Weber famously remarked almost a century ago, “The only man who has politics for a vocation is one who is certain that his spirit will not be broken if the world, when looked at from his point of view, proves too stupid or base to accept what he wishes to offer it, and who, when faced with all that obduracy, can still say ‘Nevertheless!’ despite everything.”

 

How better to describe Mikheil Saakashvili, whose stubborn optimism has taken him through 18 years in Georgian politics and nearly a decade as president?

 

On 27 October, presidential elections in Georgia will draw a curtain on Saakashvili’s tumultuous rule. As has so often been the case in Georgia, his ascent to power was coupled with excessive popularity, hopes, and expectations, and his exit is marred by massive disappointment, derision, even contempt.

 

Is such a dramatic political cycle simply the Damocletian sword that hangs over all Georgian politicians in power? Or is there some special reason why the euphoria caused by Saakashvili’s coming to power in 2004 morphed in just a few years into its opposite?

 

Against the backdrop of cyclical Georgian politics, Saakashvili’s rise and fall raises other, much older questions about the relative power of personality, as opposed to the currents of history, as an agent of reform and change. Indeed, there have been many attempts to link his policy successes and failures to his eccentric, outsized persona, often via supposed psychological problems revealed in his taste and manner: his extravagant projects and admiration for fountains, merry-go-rounds, and modern architecture; his impulsiveness, narcissism, and uncouth eating habits; his probable womanizing. But also his dogged, focused approach to politics; his charisma, brains, determination, and flexibility; his linguistic talents; his boundless ambition. 

 

Talented, driven, impulsive. Photo from the website of the Georgian president.

 

Those who dislike Saakashvili readily recall his many foibles, both widely rumored (his overactive sex drive) and well-documented (nervously chewing his tie; sudden paroxysms of rage; and panic attacks, as demonstrated by his sudden run from an imagined aerial attack in 2008 in Gori, in the presence of journalists and diplomats). Back in 2005 a group of international psychiatrists even diagnosed him as an expansive paranoid type who displayed signs of hysteria, although it was never clarified who had actually financed the evaluation, later reprinted in some Russian newspapers.

 

FAMILY TIES

 

At a 1987 Princeton University conference on the modern presidency, a gathering composed largely of distinguished political scientists and former presidential advisers exploded into laughter when Wilbur Cohen, who had worked for every American administration since that of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, suddenly declared, “To be president, you need to have a good mother. The father doesn't matter. You need a good mother.”

 

It’s a funny statement, but it gets at the formative importance of the early life of a politician. And it rings true for Saakashvili, who was brought up by his historian mother after his parents divorced, in a family where intellectual discourse thrived alongside a sense of belonging to the Soviet elite linked to intelligence circles. The future president’s uncle, Soviet diplomat Temur Alasania, served for many years on the UN Committee on Disarmament and International Security. Alasania remained a strong influence during most of Mikheil’s adolescence, and by some accounts continued to influence his nephew’s career and policies throughout his political life.  

 

It is only natural that the life story of a conspicuous political figure in a small country is surrounded by myths and rumors. These are as important to political image as facts, and equally difficult to corroborate with great certainty. Still, it is believed that Saakashvili was a fairly uncommunicative young person – gifted, but closed and insecure – who spent much of his time learning foreign languages and dreaming of future deeds. It is also alleged that during his school years he got involved in distributing pornographic films.

 

In the ensuing scandal, Saakashvili went abroad to study international relations at the Taras Shevchenko National University in Kyiv. He was drafted into the army in the middle of his studies, although, presumably thanks to some string-pulling by relatives, he pulled easy duty for two years with the border troops (subordinated to the Soviet KGB), mainly at the Borispol airport in Kyiv. This put off his graduation until 1992, when he was 25.

 

After this slow start, Saakashvili’s career rapidly picked up speed. In 1993 he served briefly, and unexpectedly, in a rather high position at the Human Rights Committee of Georgia. After that he continued his studies as an Edmund S. Muskie graduate fellow at Columbia Law School, focusing on human rights law, and he held an internship at the New York law firm of Patterson, Belknap, Webb & Tyler, where Constantine Sidamon-Eristoff, an acquaintance of his uncle, held an “of counsel” position.

 

In 1995 Saakashvili returned to Georgia and quickly became the fastest-rising figure on the country’s tumultuous political scene. That December he was elected to parliament with help from Zurab Zhvania, then-President Eduard Shevardnadze’s right hand and founder of the then-ruling Citizens’ Union of Georgia. In 2000, at the age of 33, Saakashvili was appointed justice minister and launched reforms of the judiciary that were highly commended by many Western politicians.

 

Saakashvili left the government a year later, however, having accused some influential ministers of corruption. He was soon a leader of a group of so-called “young reformers” who were gradually becoming the key opposition force. Even before the legislative elections of November 2003, he shared with parliamentary speaker Nino Burjanadze the title of the most popular politician in Georgia. They joined forces with Zhvania in a formidable alliance.

 

Those who hoped to take power after the aging Shevardnadze – already a lame duck in what seemed sure to be his last year in office – were scared enough of the possibility that these “young reformers” would win to engage in scandalous vote rigging, which caused a public outcry and the relatively peaceful change of power that would come to be called the Rose Revolution.

 

Thus did Georgia enter a “post-post-Soviet” era infused with a euphoric optimism. A new generation of politicians emerged, unburdened by the Soviet legacy and often more fluent in English than in Russian. On 4 January 2004 Saakashvili was elected president with more than 96 percent of the vote. In February the post of prime minister was restored and given to Zhvania. New parliamentary elections were held in March, and although observers reported more procedural violations than in the presidential election, along with other dubious approaches to the formation of the new parliament, Saakashvili and his small circle of allies strengthened their grip on power.

 

EARLY WARNING SIGNS

 

Several of the new leadership’s policies and practices caused serious questions: controversial changes to the constitution that strengthened presidential powers while dramatically weakening parliament and the judiciary; numerous human rights violations; ill-considered moves in South Ossetia that brought Tbilisi to the brink of war with Russia in August 2004; and abolishing the lowest echelon of self-governance.

 

However, there were striking achievements in many areas during the first few years, even if some of the success was built on previous progress. The corrupt traffic police force was replaced with a much “cleaner” patrol unit. The tax system was dramatically simplified and collection improved. Longtime electricity shortages in much of the country were finally ended. A massive influx of direct foreign investment secured impressive economic growth, and street crime went down. The new government launched an ambitious program of political and economic reforms and put Euro-Atlantic integration high on the national agenda.

 

But the concentration of power in the hands of the small circle of “revolutionaries,” and in Saakashvili’s hands in particular, came with a heavy price. For all of the achievements of their first years in power, the president and his coterie inherited many of the vices of the old government – intolerance of opposition, conceit, complacency, impulsive and irrational decision-making, imitation of democratic practices, little real dialogue with civil society and the people, and, ultimately, a loss of touch with reality.

 

These tendencies were aggravated by impatience and arrogance that fueled intimidation of the opposition and of citizens. Saakashvili initiated a bizarre sequence of grandiose projects: moving the parliament west from the capital to the town of Kutaisi; building a multimillion-dollar presidential palace in a country where half of the population lives on the brink of poverty; launching construction of a new city, Lazika, in the swamps of the Black Sea coast. But the worst and the most damaging for Georgia was probably Saakashvili’s personal contribution to starting the disastrous August 2008 war with Russia, when his actions, regardless of any misdeeds by his Russian counterparts, had no moral, political, or military justification.

 

This loss of touch with reality brought the shock of defeat to Saakashvili and his allies last year, when the united opposition overcame all the obstacles and administrative resources employed by the government and swept into power on the wings of a scandal about torture in Georgia’s prisons, previously lauded by the president as exemplary.

 

After admitting defeat, Saakashvili used many of his remaining resources to sabotage the new government during the one year of a chimerical “cohabitation,” but all in vain. On 27 October the new president, though with much-diminished powers, will be elected. He – and it will almost certainly be a man – will probably be the candidate of the Georgian Dream coalition, which toppled Saakashvili’s United National Movement last year.

 

There is speculation that with the end of his rule Saakashvili will flee the country, or end up in prison for a number of alleged misdeeds, including involvement in the 2005 death of former ally Zhvania, ruled by the coroner as accidental carbon monoxide poisoning. Still, Saakashvili seems to hope to recover, and just recently he was re-elected as leader of his party. At the end of the party conference, he declared, “This is the beginning of our comeback!”

 

This brings to mind an assessment by the distinguished American psychologist Vamik Volkan of another president with some similar personality traits. “When a narcissistic person is intelligent − as Nixon certainly was − and capable of finding or creating a ‘fit’ in the environment to match his internal demands, that person may respond to frustration and humiliation by collecting new sources to support his grandiose self, and engineering a comeback,” Volkan wrote.

 

It is difficult to imagine Saakashvili engineering a comeback. But one thing is clear, whatever his further fate: Saakashvili imposed his paradoxical and controversial personality on so many aspects of Georgian reality, from symbols such as the national flag and anthem to the concrete architectural images of many cities and towns, that his legacy will last for years.

George Tarkhan-Mouravi is co-director of the Institute for Policy Studies think tank in Tbilisi.

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