Saakashvili: make or break

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As the Soviet Union approached breakdown, its borders became inflamed with former republics trying to find their place in the new political scenario, some struggling to escape from Russian surveillance-Baltic Republics-, others conspiring with it to seek greater independence-South Ossetia, Abkhazia-. This was particularly true for the Caucasus, a region of major strategic importance that has been a constant focus of destabilization and unrest during the last three centuries where it has served as battleground for confrontation between Russia, former Ottoman Empire and the West. Among the bloodiest recent conflicts, the carnage of Chechnia, a dramatic and brutal showdown that Vladimir Putin eventually sorted out by shattering the region to pieces with little distinction between civilians and combatants. In Georgia, transition has been smoother so far: a corrupted government led by former Soviet Union Foreign Affairs minister Edward Shevernadze collapsed in 2003 and a new young leader emerged from the Rose revolution, the pro-western and urbane Mikhail Saakashvili. After a landslide victory in general elections in 2003 (96.2% of the vote), he built up a government of extremely young ministers and officials determined to root out widespread corruption and embarked on a series of liberalizing reforms that have yielded impressive, sustained double digit growth during last years -though unevenly distributed and with inflation getting out of hand. That is why news from last week came as a shock: after six days of massive demonstrations organized by all opposition parties in the capital Tiblisi (estimates of more than 50.000 in a country of less than 5 millions), Saakashvili imposed state of emergency and shut down private TV stations, on grounds-not yet proved- that opponents backed by Russia were plotting a coup. The day after, he called for early elections on the 5th of January.

What brought Georgia to this point? How can a president take office with overwhelming support and end up being forced to clampdown demonstrators and to modify his agenda in order to content the opposition, barely 4 years later ? It all started with a government cabinet rearrangement in 2006. Irakli Okruashvili ,then Minister of Defense and originally a close ally of Saakashvili, was appointed Minister of Economic Development, resigning a week afterwards. He then founded a new political party, heavily criticizing the president and his practices, but in 2007, he was arrested on charges of extortion, money laundering and abuse of office while Georgia’s Minister of Defense. Okruashvili, a controversial character, has been playing with fire retracting and unretracting from heavy accusations against Saakashvili: he has accused him of planning to murder the Georgian Tychoon Badri Patarkatsishvili, now a possible candidate in elections next January. But this crossed fire, together with growing divide between rich and poor, seem to have helped gathering non negligible support against Mr.Saakashvili, erupting in the demonstrations last week.
Why does Mikhail Saakashvili, already an arch-rival for Moscow, have so many powerful internal enemies? Russia does not seem to have much to do with it all, at least until the contrary is proven. In fact, if a new president emerges from the opposition campaign, chances are that he will not be Pro-Russian. Just to give an example: after the ominous and shameful-because unjustified and evidenceless in a global scale- Russian ban on Georgian wine and water in 2006, Georgia admitted some falsified wine had been exported in the past to Russia, but not to other countries-which never complained of low standards-, because, then Defense Minister Okruashvili stated, some producers “were able to export wine there which would never be sold, for example, in Europe because even if you export – excuse me for this expression – feces to Russia it can be sold there”. Anti Russianism seems to be a cohesive force rather than a dividing drive in Georgia.

Saakashvili’s task is surely no easy one. Leading a country under constant strain to escape long-lasting Russian interference, while at a time having to quell internal centrifugal turmoil from breakaway regions as Abkhazia-where about 200,000 Georgians are waiting to return home after civil war in the nineties, see outrageous demographics – and South Ossetia, in addition to pushing through an ambitious agenda of economic reforms, can be too much even for the stakanovist, ambitious, multi lingual current president. The mystery, even after reading western-minded reports, is why and how he managed to generate such a fierce opposition in so short a time, and why so many people believe the apparently dodgy Okruashvili. A close analysis of Mr.Saakashvili recent statements may help shedding light on it: he has repeatedly insisted that one of the main principles of his life is the fight against corruption. It is notorious that leaders or officials who make the uprooting of corruption their first priority often risk ending up tearing the country in two-like in Italy, for instance-, and even more dangerous, winding up themselves into privileged ruling and enclosed radicalism and sectarianism. This web page makes no secret it considers battle against corruption one of the most important and decisive tasks in politics, one of those driving principles applicable everywhere, every time. The problem is, as ever, how to better tackle the issue: there approaches may vary quite significantly. Fighting against corruption –especially in countries transitioning from controlled markets to free ones-always involves structural elimination of old, die-hard habits which might have convened a significant part of the society. The funambulist’s skills are much required in convincing or forcing this old guard to step down, but also in deterring new tycoons from proliferating like locusts seeking for quick enrichment. It is the task of a responsible governor to make this transition as smooth as possible while, at a time, showing sufficient assertiveness to be able to push through actual, measurable reform.
Also the fact that Saakashvili’s government was constituted from the very beginning with extremely young members may have played an important role: ambition is known to itch harder among people who have yet to face major defeats throughout their political life and are still seeking their limits, and it is also often incompatible with patience and moderation. A 96.2% victory is necessarily dictated by temporary euphoria and it should not be forgotten that Shaakasvili was elected as consensus candidate for all opposition parties after the Rose revolution.
Europe again, pushing in favour of Georgia’s candidacy to NATO-top priority in Saakashvili’s foreign agenda-, could give a hand. Russia is essential in terms of energy policies-and therefore many in Europe do not want to anger it too much-, but also moral principles should be at the core of the strategy.

The president must have felt the breath of his opponents very close, according to the aggressive response he inflicted to demonstrators. He must have had the impression that the situation was getting out of hand and this is indeed a worrying precedent.Also Human Rights issues are far from being fixed -but let us remember that Saakashvili started his career as a Human Rights lawyer. Decolonization processes -Russia has still military basis in Georgia- are never solved in just one political term, and reforms necessarily anger those who do not directly benefit from them and rather feel their downsides. Saakashvili needs to build greater consensus around his presidency: on one hand such early election may limit the opposition’s ability to campaign properly; on the other too divided a vote may weaken the country’s ability to operate in such troubled waters. What sometimes Western Countries fail to grasp is the sheer complexity of breaking away from assertive colossus like Russia, obsessed with the constant weaving of security webs around its borders, regardless of the methods employed –like issuing a massive number of Russian passports to citizens of breakaway regions-. In such scenarios, skilful and moderate, transition-minded leaders are certainly needed, but at a certain point, courage and determination become the paramount ingredients, in order to get through as the decisive gamble with history approaches.

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