Almost anyone who has met him would agree. What people are wondering these days is how history will remember the man who took the helm following the Rose Revolution and then the turbulent and bitter 2008 war with Russia. Saakashvili’s second term ends next year, and there is growing curiosity over whether he will be appointed as prime minister at that point. When I posed this question to ordinary Georgians, I was often met with a look of surprise and a perplexed, “Georgia, without Misha?”
But not everyone is unable to imagine Georgia without Misha. Despite his popularity both at home and abroad, many have come along to challenge the president’s leadership during his term. And now, with the appearance of Bidzina Ivanishvili, Georgia’s richest man, the rules of opposition politics have been dramatically changed. Ivanishvili has formed the opposition coalition Georgian Dream, which includes academics, politicians and various public figures. This poses a real challenge to the current leadership. When former president Eduard Shevardnadze left his post, everybody knew that Saakashvili would take his place, and for several years, there has been no real alternative to Saakashvili. Though there have been no reliable popularity ratings since Ivanashvili has entered the political scene, most people believe that Saakashvili’s popularity is unmatchable. And yet the statistics do on occasion tell a different story: For example, according to a poll by Georgian journal “Banks and Finance,” conducted in Tbilisi in November 2011, of the 600 people interviewed, personal approval ratings for Mr. Ivanishvili are 61.6 percent versus a tiny 9.6 percent for President Saakashvili. A healthy dose of skepticism is healthy in reviewing such polls, of course, but nonetheless, these numbers have been unsettling to many.
In the meantime, last week’s meeting between the president and the participants of Atlantik-Brücke’s European Young Leaders Conference provided valuable insights into the government’s visions of Georgia, past and future. One of the key slogans during the 2003 Rose Revolution was “Georgia without corruption,” which the current government has upheld, and largely achieved. From Saakashvili’s perspective, “every country is capable of fighting against corruption; it’s easy to remove corruption anywhere in the world” -- this statement surprised not a few people, but he later qualified this bold declaration, adding that “the main achievement is not removing corruption, but rather changing the corrupt mentality which is a legacy of Soviet times.” Saakashvili sees the main achievement of his government as changing this Soviet mentality, not only with regard to corruption, but across every sector of development. In fact, Georgia is the first country in the post-Soviet space that has destroyed the myth that corruption is a cultural disease. In 2004, Georgia was ranked 133 out of 158 by Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, compared to 64 in the 2011 report.
The other prevailing challenge is without doubt Tbilisi’s relations with Moscow, which shadow every speech by every Georgian minister. According to President Saakashvili, Georgia demonstrated openness by helping Russia to join the World Trade Organization last year, and furthermore by lifting visa requirements for Russian citizens several months ago. During the same speech, the president highlighted the differences between the domestic and external threats posed by Russia. The Saakashvili government clearly perceives Ivanashvili as a Russian envoy, a political representative to enact Russia-friendly policy from inside the heart of the Georgian government. The “external” Russian threat is obviously Moscow’s continued occupation of the territories in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Ironically enough, polls indicating that tiny Georgia is Russia’s greatest enemy after the US is a source of great national pride. This affirmative brand of Russophobia is wholly unconstructive in various directions, including foreign policy. If anti-Russian rhetoric becomes the main instrument for boosting Georgia’s international legitimacy, the possibilities for normalizing relations with Moscow will be increasingly narrow.
Interesting at this juncture is Saakashvili’s reference to Russian military exercises: In the run-up to Georgia’s October elections, Russia has moved its military exercises (“Kavkaz-012”) to September. This suggests that Moscow is seeking to put pressure on the border areas, and may even try some kind of provocation. In fact, prior to the August War in 2008, “Kavkaz-008” was held in June and played a significant role in igniting the conflict. This is the type of challenge that Saakashvili does best; his rhetoric of national pride and courage may be the source of inspiration that will win him voter support and further cement his image as a courageous leader -- rather than the adventurist he is occasionally accused of being.
It seems that Saakashvili understands that if he pursues the “Putin path” -- becoming president and then prime minister -- his public image will be destroyed. Just a few days ago the mayor of the Moldovan capital Chisinau proposed recruiting Saakashvili as a presidential candidate for Moldova once his domestic term has been served. Saakashvili replied that he was deeply honored. It seems reasonable to expect that he will not participate in the Georgian presidential election, nor take on the post of prime minister, but rather wait for Chisnau-style invitations from his local competitors.
The next few months will be decisive in illuminating Georgia’s future trajectory. It remains clear that a Westernized agenda will set the pace of development. Nonetheless, Saakashvili’s recent description of Georgia’s identity as “European-Mediterranean” indicates a new direction for foreign policy, or at least a diversification, adding a neighborly dimension to Tbilisi’s foreign policy. In the coming months, we shall no doubt see a battle between challenges and courage.