Shortly after the 2003 Rose Revolution which brought Mikheil Saakashvili to power in Georgia, his wife explained that her husband aspired to follow in the tradition of strong Georgian leaders “like Stalin and Beria”. Saakashvili gave a taste of things to come when his seizure of power was consolidated with a victory of 96% in an election where his nearest rival garnered just 1.9% of the vote, and an interview in which he said that he did not see the point of having any opposition MPs in the national Parliament. At the same time, Saakashvili also pledged to bring his county closer to the West and seek both EU and NATO membership for Georgia, and so international observers chose to ignore the ominous warnings.
Ever since Georgia’s war with Russia in 2008, it has been fashionable to promote Saakashvili’s regime as a counter to Russia’s influence in her neighbouring republics. When the war first broke out, politicians from all parties untied to condemn “Russian aggression” and praise Georgia as a thriving democracy on Russia’s borders. It was even suggested at the time that Georgia could be admitted into NATO and the EU without having to meet the entry criteria, and British troops sent to confront Russia in the Caucasus. The scale of this proposal, and what it would have entailed in terms of Britain’s military commitments at a time when we were bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan, was apparently not considered. Moreover, subsequent investigations by the EU and the OSCE placed the blame on Georgia for starting the conflict by ordering the shelling of innocent civilians.
It is true that Saakashvili can point to an impressive record in reforming Georgia’s moribund economy, turning it from a borderline failed state to one of the easiest places in the world to start a new business, and that this turnaround has largely been achieved by adherence to free market principles and lower taxes. However, it is also the case that since Saakashvili came to power, human rights have been subjected to greater abuse, free speech stifled, and the rule of law sacrificed in favour of increasingly arbitrary state power.
Georgia’s slide into authoritarianism has been obvious since the moment Saakashvili took power, with critics of the regime hauled up on charges of corruption, and the death of several prominent political figures under mysterious circumstances. The catalyst for the current politically charged atmosphere in the country came in November 2007, when more than 50,000 demonstrators took to the streets of Tbilisi to protest against Saakashvili’s misrule. Faced with this challenge to Saakashvili’s authority, the Georgian authorities responded by deploying riot police to use truncheons and tear gas against the protestors. The only television station to air coverage of the protests was taken off the air at gunpoint and seized by the state, while Saakashvili’s former Defence Minister was arrested and tortured two days after announcing his intention to contest the upcoming presidential election.
Saakashvili has claimed that “high ranking officers” in Russia’s FSB are behind protests against his rule, and frequently accuses the opposition of seeking to take power in a Moscow-backed coup. Russia has proved to be a useful enemy for Saakashvili and a distraction from his loss of moral authority as a reformer. A resumption of the protests against his regime in 2009 was violently put down on the basis that the demonstrators were Russian provocateurs. Radio and television stations have been raided and shut down with the excuse that reports critical of Saakashvili are Russian propaganda. A purge of army officers last year was explained by claims that a tank regiment loyal to Moscow was plotting to assassinate Saakashvili, although a lack of evidence meant these allegations were later quietly dropped.
Sadly, the greater international attention that was paid to Georgia after the 2008 conflict has not encouraged the authorities to show restraint in their dealings with the opposition. On the contrary, the unequivocal moral support for Georgia’s position in the war and the oft-repeated description of Saakashvili as a beacon of democracy has emboldened his regime to act with greater impunity. Just weeks after the end of hostilities, the son of the former president Zviad Gamsakhurdia was arrested on charges of espionage. Human rights organisations have declared the younger Gamsakhurdia a political prisoner. Of the five candidates who stood against Saakashvili in 2008, two have fled abroad and one was found dead in suspicious circumstances. A year after the start of the war, when many European capitals reaffirmed their solidarity with the Georgia people, an activist for Nino Burzhanadze’s Democratic Movement for a United Georgia was left with multiple fracture wounds and brain damage after masked men in police vehicles abducted him from his car and used electric shocks, batons and rubber bullets on him.
In March 2010 Georgian state TV caused mass panic by broadcasting a hoax report of a new Russian invasion. The rationale for the broadcast, which used archive footage of the real war, was that the Georgian people had to “be prepared for what the worst day in Georgia’s history might look like”. The real aim was to discredit Saakashvili’s opponents. The premise of the report was that Georgia’s opposition figures had requested Russian intervention to depose Saakashvili in a coup. The British Ambassador, Denis Keefe, demanded an apology after footage of him was shown with a falsified voiceover in which he expressed support for Saakashvili’s position.
Georgia is one of the bigger recipients of foreign assistance in the world, with 5% of its economy made up of aid or loans from the IMF, the EU and the United States. Britain sent £8.2m to Tbilisi in 2008-09, and is committed to securing EU and NATO membership for the country. However, Georgia’s supporters in the West, rather than equating support for the Georgian people with unquestioning loyalty to Saakashvili and denial of the human rights crisis there, should heed warnings from Reporters Without Borders, which recently ranked Georgia 120th in the world in terms of media freedom; from Freedom House, which said in 2009 that Georgia was now less free than before the Rose Revolution; and from the Foreign Policy Centre, which has recommended that Western institutions tie their support for Tbilisi to guarantees of human rights.
Those who condemn Russia’s “occupation of sovereign Georgian territory” and proclaim their support for Georgia’s territorial integrity with wearying regularity need to explain why it is in Britain’s national interest for us to deny South Ossetia and Abkhazia the right to determine their own fate. They would also do well to ask why the people of South Ossetia and Abkhazia remain so determined to stay outside of Georgian control, and why they have demonstrated their willingness to take up arms to defend this position. Having been subjected to ethnic cleansing in the early 1990s that was designed to eradicate all trace of their culture and existence, it is unrealistic to expect the two provinces to return to a Georgian state whose former president declared the Ossetians to be “trash that needs to be swept out through a tunnel”, and demanded that subversive minorities be “chopped up and burned out from the Georgian nation with a red-hot iron”.
The state of democracy in Georgia matters because, in a part of the world which is of strategic importance to Europe’s energy security and rife with ethnic conflict, autocratic regimes lacking in legitimacy and divorced from the needs of their people are less able to act rationally and respond in a responsible manner to tinderbox situations which, as has been demonstrated in the Caucasus on a number of occasions, can easily spill into other countries and descend into civil war or ethnic cleansing. If Georgia is really deserving of our support and entry into the EU and NATO, then it must accept the right of South Ossetia and Abkhazia to self-determination and show a commitment to Western values that may only become apparent long after Saakashvili leaves office.
> On Monday ConHome published Daniel Hamitlon's interview with Mikheil Saakashvili