Is the West losing Georgia?


People wear plastic handcuffs in Tbilisi, Georgia on June 2, 2011 as a protest against the May 25 violent break up a five-day rally against President Mikheil Saakashvili's government.


Vano Shlamov

TBILISI, Georgia — Attempting to understand Georgian politics is a bit like imagining a therapy session between Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

First, Dr. Jekyll speaks about how he single-handedly destroyed the corruption around him, battled crime and is building a modern state. You believe him. He speaks perfect English, is sitting in a brand new air-conditioned office and burns with the energy of youth.

Then Mr. Hyde takes over and spends all his time talking about how Dr. Jekyll is a dictator, how he swept corruption from the streets only to put money into his own pocket and goes to great lengths to ensure that his opponents are left with no voice. He also speaks perfect English, occupies a bustling office in Tbilisi's charming center and rages with the passion of the wronged.

Just like both personalities exist within one man, so both realities exist within one country. Welcome to Georgia: land of contrasts.

“It’s a country undergoing radical change and radical change splits society,” said Shota Utiashvili, the country’s deputy interior minister. He’s sitting inside the ministry’s new headquarters, a long curvy building outside the city center built entirely of glass — a nod, the government says, to its commitment to transparency.

Several weeks earlier, interior ministry officers, wielding tear gas and rubber bullets, had violently dispersed a rally by a marginal opposition group in the center of Tbilisi. The images were violent: fires burning in front of parliament, police cracking pensioners over the head with batons. To many it was yet another sign of President Mikheil Saakashvili’s inability to broker dissent. Even to those who saw the protesters, led by Russia-friendly radical Nino Burjanadze, as provocateurs, the crackdown was harsh.

Utiashvili says an internal review has been ordered. “We can see from the footage that some police used excessive force,” he said. “Those will be punished.”

“But overall I don’t think it was too brutal,” he added, noting that “only” 37 people were hospitalized.

The demonstration, which gathered about 1,000 people, was a far cry from the protests that rocked Georgia in November 2007, when tens of thousands took to the streets against Saakashvili, only to meet police truncheons. To many outsiders, that was the first major sign that Saakashvili, hailed as the West-loving democracy hero of the 2003 Rose Revolution, wouldn't quite live up to that reputation. The war with Russia over the breakaway republic of South Ossetia followed less than one year later. An EU report later found that Georgia sparked the conflict, while also blaming Russia for a disproportionate response. The impulsivity that prompted Saakashvili to take on mind-blowing reforms with breakneck speed had appeared to spill over.

That Saakashvili instituted massive changes can’t be denied. “Georgia was really some kind of a failed state,” said deputy justice minister Giorgi Vashadze, who, at 29, is around the average age of Georgia’s new generation of politicians. “Corruption was a way of life for all our citizens.”

That’s no longer true. Georgia has joined the Baltics as one of the few post-Soviet countries where neither corruption, nor a constant heavy-handed security presence, reigns. Saakashvili’s government famously instituted wide-ranging reforms upon coming to power that involved firing a large chunk of its police and civil service force, as well as lifting state employees’ salaries (with the help of Western aid). It now consistently places near the top of World Bank rankings on qualities like reform and the ease of doing business.

“We created the possibility for the young generation to start working in the government sector with normal salaries,” said Vashadze. “Of course there were people who didn’t like this process. Seven to 10 percent of the population don’t like any reforms.”

That’s not how Tina Khidasheli, the co-head of the opposition Republican party, would put it. “The big problem of this government is two fold,” she said. “They believe they hold the ultimate truth and cannot be challenged. And, while they manage to do very good progressive reforms, they do it in such a way that most of it is discredited.”

Among the opposition’s top complaints are state control of the media, whimsical constitutional changes, and a lack of transparency when it comes to top officials’ wealth and precisely where the money for Saakashvili’s grand building projects comes from. No one knows for sure just how much Saakashvili’s opulent new presidential palace cost to build.

Khidasheli was one of the top supporters of the Rose Revolution, and, trained in the United States as a human rights lawyer, won a couple of cases for Saakashvili back in the day. “He was also crazy when he was an opposition leader,” she said, “but then it was OK — he wasn’t in charge of things.”

There are certain indelible images that have been blazed into people’s minds: Saakashvili filmed while chewing on his tie at the height of the Ossetia war, a fake news report on newly state-acquired media seven months later saying Russia had invaded the country (Saakashvili didn't apologize for the panic that followed, saying, "this report is maximally close to reality and maximally close to what may really happen”).

More disconcerting still is the country’s justice system, which even government officials admit remains woefully unreformed. Vashadze notes proudly that some 24,000 people are now sitting in Georgian jails (versus 6,000 before the Rose Revolution). According to the Supreme Court, around 80 percent of court cases in Georgia last year ended in plea bargains, adding tens of millions of dollars to the country's $3 billion annual budget. Only 0.2 percent of cases end in acquittals, according to the court.

Opposition politicians and analysts speak of politicized arrests — at first, by falsified drug charges, now, through alleged “offense of the public order,” a charge Utiashvili denies as “completely groundless.”

“The entire world is ready to be BS'd by this government,” said Khidasheli. “As long as Saakashvili sends more troops to Afghanistan then it’s OK.” Georgia recently announced it would boost its number of troops in Afghanistan, from about 925 to over 1,600. It also maintains troops in Iraq.

Yet the West’s championing of Saakashvili has been toned down in recent years, particularly since the Obama administration turned its attention to improving relations with Russia.

With the $4.5 billion aid package it received in the wake of the Ossetia war running dry, Georgia has now turned its attention to attracting foreigners and their investments. The government has lowered barriers to opening businesses, boosted tourist infrastructure and made a loud case for its economy, which still faces enormous challenges in terms of unemployment and poverty.

A key test will be the country’s upcoming elections — a 2012 parliamentary vote and a presidential vote set for the year after. There have already been rumblings that Saakashvili will seek to stay on, perhaps “pulling a Putin” and moving to the prime minister’s post while installing a loyal ally as president.

Opposition parties, in the face of limited power and the overwhelming state resources directed towards Saakashvili’s National Movement, are looking skeptically upon electoral reform that could open the system up to more competition.

Government officials clearly have no intention of going anywhere, speaking in terms of five- and eight-year plans to finish the reforms they have begun. They attribute their staying power to, simply, their popularity.

“Georgian society is very pro-Western and very pro-reform,” said Utiashvili. “The ruling party represents their interests.”

He admitted that opposition parties “have no chance to challenge the national movement. If you look at the political spectrum in Georgia, you have one giant and many dwarves.”