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Mikheil Saakashvili's Polarizing Legacy

  • Claire Bigg

A young Saakashvili salutes during his inauguration ceremony in 2004. Many held high hopes for his leadership.

A young Saakashvili salutes during his inauguration ceremony in 2004. Many held high hopes for his leadership.

Few leaders have been as polarizing as Mikheil Saakashvili, Georgia's outgoing president.

To some he is the hero of the "Rose Revolution," the man who stamped out corruption and raised the country's international profile.

Others see him as an authoritarian leader who cracked down on dissent, persecuted his rivals, and thrust the small Caucasus country into a disastrous war with Russia.

As Saakashvili prepares to step down after two presidential terms, Georgians remain deeply divided over his legacy.

He is widely credited with sweeping away corruption and launching a raft of historic reforms aimed at transforming Georgia into a modern, Western-style nation.

His own democratic credentials, however, are in tatters, underscoring the paradoxes that have marked his decade-long tenure.

Thomas de Waal, a South Caucasus expert at the Carnegie Center in Washington, said that Saakashvili attempted "a kind of modernization from above" that was done without engaging society.

"There was an idea that 'We are pushing through an enlightened, Westernizing, modernizing regime, and we are going to use all method available, including quite abusive methods, to achieve the end,'" he said.

In 2003, as the young Saakashvili led mass protests against President Eduard Shevardnadze's regime following a parliamentary election widely seen as rigged, his pledges to shake off Soviet-era hangovers and steer the country toward the West struck a deep chord with Georgians.

Eager for change, they overwhelmingly cast their ballots for the young opposition leader in the wake of the Rose Revolution, ushering him to power in a January 2004 election with more than 96 percent of the vote.
Saakashvili as an opposition leader, giving instructions to his supporters in the Georgian parliament in November 2003

Saakashvili as an opposition leader, giving instructions to his supporters in the Georgian parliament in November 2003

But many of those who backed him then are now bitterly disappointed. These include some of his closest political allies and many of those in the West who once hailed him as a beacon for democratic change in the region.

Saakashvili's breakneck crusade to modernize Georgia has certainly yielded mixed results.

Anticorruption Success

His success in rooting out corruption and red tape, rampant under Shevardnadze, is seen as one of his proudest achievements.

He ruthlessly sacked politicians, officials, and police accused of shady practices. To further discourage bribe-taking, he also dramatically raised the salaries of state employees.

"Under Shevarnadze, state salaries were so small as to be symbolic, and public servants and policemen had to use their position to obtain money by other means," said Ghia Nodia, a Georgian political analyst. "I think the main result of Saakashvili's reform is that public servants and law-enforcement officers depend on their salaries."

A poll published earlier this month by Gallup showed that 25 percent of Georgians viewed corruption as widespread in their government in 2012, down from 52 percent in 2007.

The study put Georgia on par with Norway and far ahead of many Western countries.

Saakashvili is also praised for vastly improving the quality of public services and upgrading the country's creaky infrastructure.

"The success has been in state-building," said the Carnegie Center's de Waal. "[It has been] in building a viable state that provides public services, that is free of petty corruption, where the bureaucracy works, which has built infrastructure [and] roads."

At the same time, Saakashvili's government took important steps to overhaul its economy, combatting crippling tax evasion, lowering barriers to opening a business, and courting foreign investors.

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The gross domestic product per capita more than doubled during his presidency. Georgia now ranks as the world's ninth-best country in terms of ease of doing business, according to the World Bank.

Despite these advances, poverty has only marginally receded, with close to a quarter of Georgia's population still living in poverty. At around 15 percent, unemployment also remains a major issue.

Critics also denounce a lack of transparency with regard to the wealth of top officials, including Saakashvili himself. They accuse the president of giving police a free hand in fighting corruption, allowing suspects to be severely mistreated.

In education, too, Saakashvili's reforms have had limited success.

"There were some very important improvements, especially at the university-education level, which was cleaned of corruption. The system of university admission, especially, was extremely corrupt. But there is still strong disappointment about the quality of education," said Nodia, who served as education and science minister in 2008. "It increased at the university level but not at the [primary- and secondary-] school level. School-level education is still low quality, and not enough resources were dedicated to improving it."

Saakashvili is also under fire for stifling the media, even though his government decriminalized libel and pushed legislation safeguarding free speech.

Justice Problems

But most of the criticism leveled against Saakashvili centers on the country's justice system, which remains woefully unreformed.

The vast majority of court cases end up in plea bargains, with only a fraction leading to acquittals.

Georgia's prison population has soared in the past decade amid accusations that he used the courts to punish his opponents.
Saakashvili makes a statement during the 2008 war with Russia, saying he was looking to the U.S. with "hope."

Saakashvili makes a statement during the 2008 war with Russia, saying he was looking to the U.S. with "hope."

The case of murdered banker Sandro Girgvliani, in particular, raised serious doubt in Georgia about Saakashvili's commitment to a strong, independent judiciary.

Girgvliani was stabbed and left to die on the outskirts of Tbilisi in January 2006 after reportedly getting into a dispute in a restaurant where a top Interior Ministry official was celebrating his birthday with friends and colleagues -- including the wife of then-Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili.

Four police officers were swiftly sentenced to prison for carrying out the attack, but critics alleged a massive government cover-up.

Saakashvili stood firmly by Merabishvili -- whom prosecutors now accuse of paying each of the four officers $100,000 to take the blame – and eventually pardoned the four sentenced police.

The Girgvliani affair alienated many of Saakashvili's supporters and marked a turning point in his presidency.

In November 2007, Saakashvili violently broke up antigovernment protests and declared a state of emergency that restricted public gatherings and broadcasts. The crackdown drew international condemnation.

PHOTO GALLERY: Saakashvili Retrospective 2003-13

Less than a year later, Georgia fought and lost a war with Russia over the breakaway region of South Ossetia.

The barrage of damaging revelations that have emerged in recent years -- including graphic videos that showed prisoners being raped by guards -- has further swelled the ranks of detractors, who believe Saakashvili betrayed the democratic ideals of the Rose Revolution.

De Waal said the list of grievances against Saakashvili is long.

"[These include] an extremely punitive and abusive criminal justice, law-and-order system, which ended up with the highest per capita prison population in Europe -- even higher than in Russia -- in which torture became absolutely routine," de Waal said. "Almost zero acquittal cases in criminal trials, mass surveillance, telephone tapping, and a lot of pressure put on businessmen, including intimidation, so they contribute to government projects."

Bidzina Ivanishvili's Georgian Dream coalition won the parliamentary elections in a landslide last October, sealing Saakashvili's political downfall.

The outgoing president still takes credit for instituting massive changes in Georgia, many of them positive.

But after a humbling final year as president, he appears ready to own up to his failures.

He told the United Nations last month in his farewell speech that "in our rush to impose a new reality, against the background of internal and external threats, we have cut corners and certainly made mistakes, went sometimes too far and other times not far enough. I acknowledge fully my responsibility in all the shortcomings."

Saakashvili said he was aware that some of his reforms had come at "a very high cost" and extended his sympathy to all those who felt wronged by his "radical methods."
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    Claire Bigg

    Claire Bigg covers Russia, Ukraine, and the post-Soviet world, with a focus on human rights, civil society, and social issues. Send story tips to​