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Georgian President's Record Mixed When Judged Against Ambitious Goals

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili
Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili
Most sensible people tend to agree that Mikheil Saakashvili's record since he was first inaugurated as Georgian president on January 25, 2004, has been mixed, though there will be a heated debate over whether his achievements outnumber his failures, or vice versa.

I believe the one thing that best summarizes his record so far is that he has substantially raised the standards against which Georgian politics are judged, and every future leader of the country will have to live with that. But when goals are set higher, failures become more conspicuous.

Saakashvili's overriding ambition was to transform Georgia from an impoverished and failing state and an object of Western compassion into a country that is respected and recognized as part of the West. This entailed pursuing several objectives simultaneously: (1) transforming Georgia into a functional state that actually provides services to its citizens; (2) restoring Georgia's territorial unity and integrity; (3) achieving recognition of Georgia's Western vocation through accession to NATO and the European Union; (4) building a functional liberal democracy, which necessitates transforming society by convincing Georgians to give preference to the rule of law over those customs and practices that Westerners usually brand as "corrupt"; (5) achieving high economic growth and stamping out poverty.

Saakashvili's most conspicuous achievement to date is creating state institutions that function effectively. "Do you mean effectiveness in dispersing protest rallies?" members of the tempestuous Georgian opposition would ask sarcastically. OK, preventing a change of power every time an angry crowd gathers in front of the parliament is also important.

But strengthening the state is first and foremost about not allowing organized crime to set rules for Georgian citizens; ensuring noncorrupt services provided by decently paid public servants; providing electricity to villages that have not had it for 15 years and restoring other public infrastructure; and many other things.

Damaged Economy

Turning around an economy that started to pick up and attract considerable foreign investment was also an obvious success, until first the August war and then the global financial crisis interrupted that upward trend. The August 2008 war with Russia was the greatest test for the new state -- and it did not implode, as Georgians think Russians counted on happening.

Georgians quickly started to take those improvements for granted. Saakashvili's rhetoric, however, has made people expect increasingly spectacular achievements. The primary difficulty when evaluating his record is what to take as the reference point: the very ambitious goals he set for himself, or measuring the current situation against the starting point. Today, Georgia is a quite different and in many ways much better country than it was five years ago. But if one compares Georgia today with what Saakashvili promised it would be -- that's another story.

In 2004, at the beginning of his first term, Saakashvili was hinting that by 2008, Georgia could be a NATO member. Today, the prospect of NATO membership has been postponed indefinitely. Is this not a failure? Remember, however, that before Saakashvili, the idea of Georgia joining NATO looked like a joke, while now there is an overall commitment to accepting Georgia into NATO eventually, however heated the debate on the issue is in the West.

War With Russia

The August 2008 war with Russia is the episode for which Saakashvili has been most widely criticized, both domestically and internationally. He has been accused of acting irresponsibly and thus providing Russia with a perfect excuse to attack Georgia, which most observers believe Russia had wanted to do for a long time.

I personally believe that on the evening of August 7, pressed to choose between very bad and even worse options, Saakashvili made a decision that, although extremely controversial, can still be justified against the alternative. His broader strategic error was made years earlier when he oversimplified the issue and pledged to bring Abkhazia and South Ossetia back into the fold before his presidential term expired. One has to bear in mind, though, that the only reasonable alternative was to reconcile himself to the impossibility for the time being of resolving those conflicts, and do nothing. But he would have been harshly criticized for that, too.
Saakashvili's major strategic error was to believe that with the Rose Revolution, Georgia had already achieved the status of consolidated democracy

However, the overall results of Saakashvili's efforts to restore Georgia's territorial integrity are more positive than negative. Determining (presumably once and for all) the status of Ajara, a region that also had strong separatist aspirations, was a spectacular achievement. Russian military bases in Ajara and Samtskhe-Javakheti, the mostly Armenian-inhabited region where the Russian military presence created fears of possible unrest, were closed. The August war ended with Georgia losing control over Georgian-populated enclaves within Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and a new wave of internally displaced persons.

If the assumption was that those conflicts could be solved peacefully and within a reasonable time frame, then their existence could have served as a bargaining point for compromise. But the August war also exposed the foolishness of the illusion that the conflicts could be solved through diplomacy and confidence-building measures while Russia's attitude remained unchanged. In the meantime, those enclaves were sources of short-term instability. The August war was a human tragedy for many people, and the threat of a resumption of hostilities is still there. But the war has also destroyed illusions and false hopes, so now one may hope for more stable security arrangements.

Arguably the most difficult aspect to quantify is the level of democracy. Saakashvili inherited from his predecessor, Eduard Shevardnadze, a hybrid political regime that contained elements of both democracy and autocracy. The Rose Revolution of 2003 gave rise to expectations that Georgia would swiftly become a fully-fledged democracy. It didn't.

However different Georgia may be, it is still a hybrid regime, and in some areas there may even have been some backtracking. The blame for this does not lie solely with the government: the political party system is embryonic at best, the opposition is incompetent and irresponsible, the media unashamedly serves political interests, civil-society organizations are dependent on Western financial support and have only weak links with the population. They seemed stronger under Shevardnadze's inept regime, while energetic government has exposed their weakness.

Saakashvili's major strategic error was to believe that with the Rose Revolution, Georgia had already achieved the status of consolidated democracy, and so the development of democratic institutions no longer counted as a separate priority. Moreover, he used postrevolutionary political momentum to push through sweeping and often unpopular reforms, and adduced the real need to make the state more functional as justification for concentrating power in the executive by means of constitutional amendments that have made the Georgian Constitution more similar to that of Russia than to those of other new democracies.

When in November 2007 people took to the streets in protest, the government panicked and overplayed its hand, greatly damaging Georgia's international reputation and exacerbating domestic tensions. Raiding the opposition television channel Imedi was probably the single most notorious decision Saakashvili has made during his presidency.

What Georgia lacks most is a proper system of checks and balances. Now Saakashvili is more humble and recognizes that Georgia has still a lot to do to qualify as a consolidated liberal democracy. The key question is whether serious progress can be achieved before his second and last term expires in early 2013. (He has repeatedly said he will not seek a third term.)

The manner in which he transfers power to his successor will be the ultimate test. It will require a great deal of wisdom simultaneously to maintain stability during an economic recession resulting from the war with Russia and the global financial crisis, and to move towards promoting greater pluralism and a more balanced democratic system. But that is the only way to ensure Georgia's long-term stability.

Ghia Nodia is professor of politics at Ilia Chavchavadze State University. The views expressed in this commentary are his own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL