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Georgia: The Sudden Fame Of 'Misha' Saakashvili

  • Don Hill

The man who is virtually anointed to win the Georgian presidency on Sunday (4 January) is aggressive and personable, skillful and youthfully self-confident. His many friends in today's Georgia treat him as a national hero. But, as RFE/RL reports, skeptics say that Mikheil Saakashvili has shown only that he can manage a revolution. The question now, they say, is can he manage a fractured nation?

Prague, 2 January 2004 (RFE/RL) -- A little over two months ago, Mikheil Saakashvili was the head of the City Council of the Georgian capital Tbilisi. Now -- one small, bloodless revolution later -- he is widely expected to easily win Georgia's presidential elections on Sunday (4 January).

Saakashvili's plump, open, 36-year-old face was little-known outside Georgia until that late November Saturday (22 November) when television cameras recorded him leading his followers on a charge into parliament. Wearing jeans and a black leather jacket, he plunged up the aisle toward President Eduard Shevardnadze, shouting for the leader to resign. Saakashvili's demonstrators overturned desks and chairs and leaped onto the podium. Shevardnadze's bodyguards hustled the aging leader from the room.

The next day, a quieter, more formal Saakashvili participated in negotiations, with Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov mediating, that ended with Shevardnadze's resignation. In his own country, he became simply "Misha," a national hero. And his face was seen on TV screens and front pages around the world.

He moves these days with evident self-confidence. He and his allies have said they will build a Westward-leaning government, in consultation with Russia. Speaking last month in Ukraine, Saakashvili insisted that Georgia's dealings with its powerful neighbor will be on a basis of equality.

"We are a state, Russia should understand that we are a state. Of course we will also respect Russia's interests. Russia has taken several rather unfriendly steps since the events in Georgia. [Russian Foreign Minister Igor] Ivanov played a constructive role that day. But after that they received a number of separatist leaders in Moscow and issued some rather critical statements. But I think it's a temporary reaction, and we hope very much they will understand that they will now have a good partner for negotiations in Georgia," he said.

Saakashvili studied law at Columbia University in the United States and worked for a time in a New York law firm. He is an internationalist who has also lived in France. His wife is Dutch. He speaks fluent English, French, Russian, and, of course, Georgian.

But, he says, even when he was living abroad he always intended to return to Georgia. He did so, and became a protege of Shevardnadze. The wily old Georgian leader and former Soviet foreign minister recognized Saakashvili's promise and began grooming him for high office. In October 2000, Shevardnadze appointed him justice minister.

As Saakashvili recounts it, he soon became sickened by the cronyism and corruption he found in the Shevardnadze government, a political and administrative rot that led to the "Revolution of the Roses" three years later.

The young lawyer set off a furor at a cabinet meeting, showing documents and photographs that he said proved fellow ministers had acquired expensive villas from the proceeds of corruption.

He's a curious mixture of coalition builder, diplomat, and activist, sometimes tactful, sometimes aggressive, sometimes passionate, sometimes humorous. He showed all sides at once in a speech on 30 December at Tbilisi State University.

"When I was on the way to the university, I got a call that there might be a bomb here. Probably some people think that I am the bomb, and maybe they're right. For the enemies of Georgia, my friends and I could really turn out to be a bomb, a bomb that could go off in hostile hands -- but never to injure Georgia," Saakashvili said.

In 2002, Saakashvili resigned from the Shevardnadze cabinet, saying he found it immoral to remain in such a government. He formed an opposition party, the National Movement. And he ran for and won the position as head of Tbilisi's council. He turned that highly visible position into a power base.

Shevardnadze had become president of Georgia in 1992, himself the beneficiary of pressures that forced his predecessor to resign. His rule was troubled from the start. Forces loyal to the former president attempted a coup. Then separatist elements in Abkhazia, an autonomous republic within Georgia, launched a bloody rebellion. There were charges that Shevardnadze rigged the later elections that kept him in office. Shevardnadze maintained shaky control of the country by balancing the interests of former communists and cronies and winking at corruption.

That was the situation Saakashvili set out to confront last November. There had been yet another election tainted by charges of rigging. Saakashvili orchestrated the revolution deftly, urging the protesters to avoid violence and bloodshed, choosing a red rose as a symbol.

When Shevardnadze stepped down the day after the invasion of parliament, Saakashvili and his allies spoke respectfully of him. They announced that as a matter of national honor his security and that of his family would be guaranteed. There was an orderly transition of power. Parliamentary speaker Nino Burdjanadze became acting president, as mandated by the constitution.

The opposition leaders announced that they would unite behind one candidate. The next day they named him: Mikhail Saakashvili.
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