Georgia’s President Mikheil Saakashvili is one of those larger-than-life figures whom people either love or hate, blindly and passionately. To some a beacon of democracy and free-market revolution, to others he’s a deranged autocrat.
On Oct. 1, Georgians will hold elections that could mark the beginning of the end of Saakashvili’s rule. Although his final term as president doesn’t end until next year, changes he engineered to the constitution will shift power then to the prime minister. Next week’s vote is for the chamber that will select that new prime minister. So a lot is at stake in a country that has yet to see a full transfer of power through the ballot box, that hosts big oil and gas pipelines, and that remains partially occupied by Russian troops.
The campaign, spearheaded by Saakashvili for the ruling United National Movement party and by billionaire businessman Bidzina Ivanishvili for the opposition Georgian Dream coalition, has been divisive and ill-tempered. Last week, when two opposition TV stations aired graphic footage of prison guards beating and sexually abusing a male inmate, emotions boiled over.
The footage seemed to underscore all of the reasons that Saakashvili’s opponents give for why Georgians -- and the president’s Western allies -- should dispense with a man they say has no regard for individual rights. An election that previously looked certain to end with another victory for Saakashvili’s party now looks like a contest.
So how bad is Saakashvili, really? When he took over from Eduard Shevardnadze in 2004 after the so-called Rose Revolution, Georgia was home to three breakaway territories and crippled by civil war. Tax collection made the Greek system look effective, corruption was legendary, criminal bosses and warlords ruled. The new U.S. educated president, just 37 years old, took a radical approach, very different from most other post-Soviet rulers.
He fired the entire 30,000-strong traffic police force to end a daily source of petty corruption. He had businessmen who pillaged the state arrested, forcing them to choose between jail and large arbitrary payments to the state, with no pretense at due process. Georgia ranked 64th on Transparency International’s corruption perceptions index last year, improving from 133rd in 2004.
Saakashvili put libertarians in charge of the economy. They introduced a flat tax and benchmarked the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Index, using it as a guide to make the country more business friendly. Today, Georgia ranks 16th of 183 countries on the index -- above Germany, Japan and Switzerland. The economy is growing at about 8 percent, amid deepening inequality.
Saakashvili also declared a zero-tolerance approach to crime. As a result, streets became much safer and the prison population soared to more than 23,000 in July, from 8,000 in 2004. Conditions for inmates deteriorated from a low base. The regime took a tough line inside the prisons, too, aiming to eradicate the influence of the criminal bosses who had effectively run them.
So when the prison abuse videos were aired, they were instantly believable, despite allegations that the opposition paid for them. Saakashvili saw the political danger, fired the prisons minister and replaced her with a vocal critic of prison conditions. Most important, he secured the resignation of Interior Minister Bachana Akhalaia, a powerful figure in the regime and a former prisons minister widely seen as responsible for prison conditions. It may not be enough, because he ignored calls for reform for too long.
Saakashvili promised to bring a Western-style democracy to the Caucasus and failed to do so. But he was never a plausible democrat. As Saakashvili said in an interview soon after he took power, his role model was Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, a great leader but no democrat. Saakashvili sees political opponents as trouble makers, if not Russian agents, trying to interfere with his nation-building. He responded to opposition demonstrations with tear gas and developed a personal feud with Vladimir Putin that in 2008 led to war.
But Saakashvili compares well on a more realistic scale of measurement: his neighbors. Notably, there are opposition TV stations to run the prison videos in Georgia, something that couldn’t happen in Russia; elections are real if imperfect; and the government has welcomed election observers, something many of Georgia’s neighbors don’t do.
Who wins on Monday matters less than how. Despite being consistently behind in opinion polls, Ivanishvili, who made his estimated $6.4 billion fortune in Russia, has insisted that he’s on course to win by a wide margin and that losing is unimaginable. That smacks of a plan to reject the results and take to the streets, no matter how fair the vote. The last thing Georgia needs is another revolution. He should accept the result unless international monitors declare the election stolen.
Saakashvili can still rescue his reputation, if not as a democrat, then as a nation-builder. But he needs to wind down his revolution by dictat and start sharing power. Above all, if his party wins he needs to resist any temptation to switch seats with the prime minister he just appointed, when the time comes to step down as president next year. Otherwise, he truly will be no better than Putin or any other ex-Soviet autocrat who has sought to play musical chairs to cling onto power.
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