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Georgia: Failure To Communicate Dogged Saakashvili's First Term

  • Salome Asatiani --> For a while, Saakashvili was the toast of many in the West (ITAR-TASS) One year after the public uprising that ousted Soviet holdover Eduard Shevardnadze and swept Mikheil Saakashvili to power, the Rose Revolution had already become the stuff of legend.

In the capital, Tbilisi, actors were hired by Saakashvili's National Movement party to give a dramatic rendition of the events of autumn 2003.

The chronicle began with protests that followed flawed parliamentary elections on November 2. It culminated three weeks later, with Saakashvili standing on the floor of the Georgian parliament, roses in hand, and demanding change.

"The whole world knows the rest of the story," a young woman shouted proudly. "Mikheil Saakashvili, carrying flowers in his hands, enters the parliament hall, while Shevardnadze runs away!"

A second actor, speaking to throbbing strains of Beethoven's "Ode to Joy," likened the struggle to a battle between good and evil. "Today, good is on the side of the Georgian people! Today, God is with us!"

For many Georgians, the grandiose anniversary reenactment was a disappointing contrast to the real-life enthusiasm of the year before. The Saakashvili government, in its eagerness to commemorate the historic achievements of the Rose Revolution, had instead transformed it into a hackneyed PR event.

It's a criticism that has dogged the administration ever since. Are they working for the good of the public, or for the good of their image?

Mandate To Clean House

Saakashvili, carried to the presidency with an astonishing 96 percent win, vowed sweeping reform. And indeed, the past years have seen striking changes.

One of the most successful programs has been a government initiative targeting corruption in higher education. In just a matter of years, the long-standing practice of bribing officials in exchange for enrollment in prestigious universities has been almost completely eradicated.

Tbilisi universities are now accepting, without bribes, qualified students from the country's poorer regions; the Education Ministry, once a bastion of mismanagement, has been celebrated for its steps to promote merit-based enrollment.

The president's team -- many of whom studied abroad and are familiar with the image-conscious impulses of the West -- were quick to highlight such success stories in speeches and television campaigns. But they repeatedly shied away from delivering difficult news; potentially painful long-term reforms went largely unexplained, outside voices were discouraged.

It wasn't long, says political commentator Ghia Nodia, before Georgians felt they weren't being told the full story. "This government seems excessively oriented toward public relations -- at least, this is a criticism that we often hear," Nodia says. "But this PR is often overtly simplistic, focused only on showing some infrastructural achievements, like building a road or repairing the facade of a building. There has been very little by way of dialogue with the public, little explanation of actual reforms."

For many, it was a question of pace. Saakashvili's young, energetic administration, its eye on the prize of a "modernized" Georgia, pushed through reforms at a rapid-fire rate. In the first year alone, reforms in everything from education to taxation to the Georgian Constitution were instituted. One Georgian lawmaker commented at the time that it was a "record year" for adopting legislation. For ordinary Georgians, the effect could be dizzying -- so many sacrifices, so few apparent rewards.

Numerous segments of society grew increasingly disenchanted as their own lot grew harder. The country's intelligentsia -- professors, artists, performers -- found themselves stripped of old privileges and jobs as market-oriented reforms took hold. Older workers saw themselves pushed aside as administrative posts were filled with robust young hires. Entire cadres of Shevardnadze-era police forces were summarily purged in an effort to clean up the country's notoriously corrupt law enforcement. In one fell swoop, Saakashvili had made a powerful, and deeply resentful, enemy.

Perhaps the greatest discontent with the government was triggered by its policies on private property. Illegal construction and illicit privatization had flourished under Shevardnadze, often with dangerous and unsightly consequences. Saakashvili, seeking to rectify what was widely acknowledged as a serious problem, moved quickly. Perhaps too quickly. Apartments given by Shevardnadze to artists and writers were promptly confiscated; unlicensed buildings were demolished -- often with shovel-bearing government aides the first to dig in for the benefit of nearby television crews.

Evicted residents were often offered compensation, but for the public, it was too much, too fast. But even as discontent grew, Nodia notes, authorities refused to waver, convinced that in the long term, their strategy would pay off.

"Of course, we shouldn't be under the illusion that reforms introduced by the government wouldn't come up against protest; these reforms, after all, are often oriented against ingrained social instincts," he remarks. "That said, it still would have been possible to carry them out -- they just needed to be more patient. The government should have had more human patience regarding different opinions, and perhaps should have explained things many times. But there are not many people in the government who are capable of doing this."

Giga Bokeria, an influential lawmaker and a close Saakashvili associate, says the government may have failed in communicating with the public on some key initiatives, including those related to private property. But, he says, the reforms pushed forward nonetheless -- and that is the more important achievement.

"It's often said that 'the people are not ready for democracy.' I've heard this many times," Bokeria says. "We never shared this [sentiment] – I myself didn't; our team didn't. On the contrary -- I think that ordinary citizens in Georgia are not only ready, but are asking for changes, although this is not to say that we don't have any societal problems of course. Main barriers in our society are created by those elites that used to have comfortable positions in the old order of things."

No Room For Opposition

Still, as time went on, a number of Saakashvili's reforms have had the unintended effect of providing fuel to his detractors. As part of its sweep of law-enforcement structures, the government had sought to encourage the public to cooperate with its new, "Western-style" police force by turning in relatives or neighbors suspected of committing crimes. The initiative was, in some ways, a success -- more than 80 percent of all Georgians now characterize their relations with police as at least "relatively good." But the opposition, capitalizing on Soviet-era suspicion of the authorities, derided the program as undignified and cowardly.

The education reform, despite its successes, likewise raised criticism because of changes imposed on the national curriculum and the way literature was taught. A decision to change the instruction methodology for early Georgian Christian texts, for example, sparked charges by nationalists that Saakashvili deliberately sought to "erode" the standing of Georgian literature in academia. And in the economic sphere, new privatization programs and investment incentives led to accusations that the government sought to sell its soul to "foreigners."

At any point, critics say, Saakashvili and his aides could have stopped to address such critiques. Instead, the government appeared to become even more uncompromising, dismissing complaints as uninformed and the work of troublemakers. Shocking observers, the president himself openly mocked members of the old-school intelligentsia who opposed his rule-of-law campaign, and referred to his opponents as people who had been "flushed down" into oblivion.

Gaga Nizharadze, a Tbilisi-based psychologist, says an unyielding drive to "modernize" society is a frequent characteristic of governments brought to power in a public uprising. In many instances, he says, Georgians initially viewed Saakashvili's reforms as positive and necessary -- but were ultimately turned off by the patronizing style in which they were presented:

"Things were being explained in a very condescending manner. As a rule, the least popular members of the ruling team were speaking about [reforms], with smiling faces -- with a grin, as the English would say -- as if to say, 'this is what should be done, brothers,'" Nizharadze says. "Their PR showed only achievements -- and when it came to shortcomings, we were being told that it wasn't our business."

Anger On The Streets -- Again

Disenchanted, Georgian society decided to make it their business. Four years after the Rose Revolution, a new crowd of protesters had gathered outside the Georgian parliament. For the first week of November, angry complaints about the state of Georgian affairs mingled with calls for Saakashvili's ouster. When Saakashvili finally responded with force, imposing a state of emergency and bringing in riot police to disperse an already dwindling crowd, the once-celebrated reformer seemed to have gone full circle, devolving into a wary, defensive autocrat.

The authorities attempted to distance themselves from the protests. Bokeria acknowledges "some mistakes" were made in explaining and communicating the government reforms. But he says many people came out for strictly social reasons -- unemployment, low standard of living, and lack of money:

"Even if fewer mistakes were made -- and I think no one could be under the illusion that a government exists which does not make mistakes -- but OK, let's say we had better and more timely reforms, with better communication [with the public] -- the protest rallies would have occurred anyway," he says. "And this will remain the case in the future as well. This happens everywhere, especially with such kinds of transitions, and I don't think there is anything surprising in this."

Saakashvili is now one of seven candidates on the ballot for early presidential elections on January 5. The past month has seen a distinct transformation in the leader who could once do no wrong. Saakashvili may win a second term, but not with 96 percent. This time, he has to work to win. He has been an active campaigner, touring a number of Georgian regions, meeting with everyone from farmers to members of the intelligentsia. Instead of promoting sweeping, long-term reforms, he is carefully emphasizing the importance of issues like social welfare, unemployment, and Georgian culture and traditions.

Whether this will translate into a more accommodating presidential term remains to be seen. But for now, observers like Temur Iakobashvili say they are content to see that the bullish, reformist president has become the responsive, reformed candidate.

"After the events of November, Saakashvili realized that the level of discontent is pretty high among the population," Iakobashvili says. "There's no doubt that this discontent is mainly caused by welfare factors, but there were also other mistakes that are not directly linked with the social sphere, and are more connected to rhetorical, or terminological aspects – be it people being "flushed down," the "red" [intelligentsia], and so on. He is trying to rectify these mistakes now. And this, in principle, is the right way to go."

For ordinary Georgians, does the political evolution of Mikheil Saakashvili come too late?

"There's hope, but very little," says one man in Tbilisi. "He started talking only when things became difficult. Where was he before? Why didn't he come out and do good for people then?"

"There are issues on which I trust Saakashvili,” says another. "But there are also those things that I don't know, and therefore I can't trust him completely. If I had known those things too, I might have trusted him 100 percent."

Of one thing, Giga Bokeria is certain. Saakashvili, says the lawmaker, will not turn his back on reforms -- no matter how much he softens his message.

"Of course, politics need to be adjusted. When you see that you made a mistake somewhere, you should try to correct it," he says. "But God forbid there should be developments where Saakashvili revises his political course in any in-depth way. This would mean abandoning the reforms."
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