By Shaun Walker in Tbilisi
Tuesday, 20 May 2008
Two photos stand out in the office of the Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili – there’s an autographed one of him with his buddy, George Bush; then there’s the unsmiling one with his nemesis Vladimir Putin. The body language says it all – the Georgian looks the other way, the Russian disdainfully at the ground. Yet more than anyone else, Mr Putin has defined the presidency of Mr Saakashvili, who came to power in the rose revolution of 2003 promising to bury Georgia’s Soviet past.
This week’s parliamentary polls come at a time when Mr Saakashvili’s battle with the Kremlin has plumbed new depths. With both countries refusing to blink first in the showdown over the renegade province of Abkhazia there is a very real prospect of war.
“We are the fighting ground for a new world war,” Mr Saakashvili explained during an interview in Tbilisi. “It’s like rich Russians behaving very arrogantly in some European resort. That’s the way they behave in international politics, because they believe that money brings power. There should be some concierge out there telling them to behave.”
There’s no doubting that he wants the concierge to be Nato and the EU – into whose orbits he wants to move Georgia, much to Russia’s annoyance. He is out to convince the West that the Kremlin’s real goal is the takeover of territory the Soviet Union lost, and force it into action. “Russia is trying to reverse everything that has been done in Europe since 1991, and Western Europe is still hesitating with what answers it should come up with,” he complains.
Abkhazia will help determine what kind of country he leaves behind when his second term ends in 2013. War might be the only way to return the territory to the Georgian fold, but with the Russians likely to get involved, it may destroy the internal reforms he has worked hard to implement.
Mr Saakashvili paints himself as the victim of a neighbouring bully, but he is no longer held aloft as the darling of the West. When he came to power, his regime was hailed as a democratic bright spot in a region of despotism. Western leaders, led by Mr Bush, heaped praise on the giant, charismatic man who likes to be called “Misha”.
Then, last November, out came the riot police and the tear gas. The teacher’s pet of the Caucasus seemed to have morphed into the troublesome post-Soviet adolescent. “It looked ugly, and very much fitted the stereotype of a hot-headed impulsive leader getting dictatorial,” admits Mr Saakashvili. But he insists that the unrest was an unavoidable consequence of his attempts to reform Georgia from a bandits’ paradise to a place where people pay taxes and abide by the law.
One of the reasons behind November’s protests, says the analyst Alex Rondeli, was that the new rulers were perceived to be “young and arrogant” by the old elite. The President himself has only just turned 40, and his team has always been young.
“The Defence Minister was appointed when he was 28, but at 26 he’d been head of the tax police and created our tax system,” says Mr Saakashvili. “Things are so irrationally difficult that you need people who are young enough that they can think a bit irrationally.”
Most observers agree that his domestic agenda is impressive. There are still thousands living in extreme poverty, but the economy is booming; international institutions record a huge drop in corruption. Just compare the bright, clean streets of Tbilisi today with the constant power cuts and lawlessness of a few years ago.
When Mr Saakashvili took over, he said that the economy was so ruined that before he set off to the World Economic Forum in Davos, he received an envelope containing $20 (£10) – it was his allowance for the trip. Now, he’s having a presidential palace built in the centre of Tbilisi; its glass dome, reminiscent of the Reichstag, is visible from many parts of the city. Misha is undoubtedly in charge. And accusations of hubris are hot on his heels. Tina Khidasheli, one of the leaders of the opposition Republican Party, accuses him of behaving like a “king” and says that the campaign for tomorrow’s polls has been permeated with “intimidation, pressure and vote-buying”.
Mr Saakashvili promises that his second term, which began in January, will be see radical reforms and institution building rather than personality politics, but there’s no doubt that he enjoys playing the benevolent tsar. After getting a letter from a refugee family who were living seven to a garage, Mr Saakashvili visited them to hand over the keys to a new spacious flat with a sea view, as a “surprise”.
Most independent observers expect his government to keep its parliamentary majority. The opposition is fragmented and divided – a ragbag of nationalists, populists and opportunists that operates under the United Opposition banner.
The real opposition, some would say, is in Moscow where Mr Saakashvili is Enemy No 1. He’s been the target of much vitriol, and one nationalist politician has even made a porn film with a hirsute Mr Saakashvili look-alike cavorting with a naked midget in a sauna. But for all that, Mr Saakashvili says it’s an exaggeration that there’s a personal hatred between he and Mr Putin: “I’ve never insulted him, this isn’t true. I’ve always been very, very careful.”
Perhaps he will have more in common with the new Russian President Dmitry Medvedev? “So far I tried to call Medvedev several times but I was always connected to Putin,” says Mr Saakashvili with a grin.