Former President of Georgia Saakashvili Warns that His Country Is On a Dangerous Path
Mikheil Saakashvili – the former Georgian president known for taking Georgia out of the post-Soviet chaos through successful reforms but criticized for heavy
-handed methods – now lives in exile due to an arrest warrant issued by authorities in his home country. Unhappy about the direction his country is heading, he plans a comeback and hopes to put Georgia back on the road to success.
Saakashvili warns his homeland is controlled by pro-Russia oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili, who doesn’t hold any formal position in the government. He blames on Ivanishvili many of the country’s problems and accuses an oligarch in usurping power. Saakashvili alerts that this may lead Georgia to an uprising similar to Ukraine’s Maidan movement. That, eventually, would cause violence, destabilize Georgia and drive it into Russia’s arms against the people’s will.
Former president of Georgia says he won’t be watching his country’s troubles from a distance: “I’ll be back in Georgia,” he says. He’d be involved in Georgian politics one way or another, “I want our country to shine.”
Here are Saakashvili’s thoughts from an exclusive interview with Guga Sulkhanishvili of Forbes Georgia in Brussels, Belgium.
Where is Mikheil Saakashvili now: “I live mainly in New York. I spent the first semester at Taft University as the first Senior Statesman at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. Basically, I delivered a few lectures there, and since it coincided with the revolution in Ukraine, I did not really get to work full-time. I spent most of my time in Kiev. I have a new offer in Washington — at a new Leadership Institute. It has to do with the political developments of our region, new contacts with Washington politicians, project reforms, etc. I delivered a lecture at the Jamestown Foundation Hudson University and I am scheduled to deliver another lecture at the Harvard Club. So this is my current occupation, from a professional point of view.
From presidency to real life: “I had tried to lead a relatively normal life (during his time as president – Forbes). However, it is very difficult even in a small country like ours—security guards, assistants follow you everywhere. I live alone in New York. This means that there is no one to help me. So every morning I dump garbage, do shopping and sometimes cook. I bought a small barbecue grill and put it on our terrace. I am pretty good at grilling meat and fish. I invite guests over for barbecue. I only have pity for people who rule countries for 20, 30, 40 years and have no clue what normal life is like. Because if you have no contact with this … nothing works without it … For instance, I lived in the U.S. in mid 90s. The technology has changed completely since then. In the mid 90s almost no one had a cell phone in the US. We had some sort of electronic mail at our University. But naturally there was no Internet and Facebook. Life has changed completely from a technological point of view. If I had not kept abreast of these changes, in a few years I would have been “disqualified”. That is why I believe my transition to normal life was very timely.
“My son had to travel back and forth to Georgia recently. So did my wife, since they took away her apartment. Her security guards and assistants went through real hell. It was impossible for them to stay there under the circumstances. We could not get our son into school here, since it was the middle of the academic year. So my wife’s school in Netherlands agreed to accept Nikusha into their school. That’s why our family is currently located in different parts of the world.
Why some in Georgian society were disappointed in Saakashvili’s two-term presidency:“Well, Georgia has undergone a cultural revolution. The political and mainly mental culture has changed completely (during his term – Forbes). This process is bigger than people can imagine. People name particular political processes, facts, and crimes as reasons for this aggression. Personally, I would take a broader look at this. If we look at Georgia nine, ten years back, it was a completely different country. The colors were dark and gloomy; and it was not only due to lack of electricity and heating. It’s just that the people were different… It’s like watching the old Soviet footage and being shocked how different people were. Nine years of our governance has totally changed that. Georgia made a leap from the post-soviet setting. When such a cultural revolution occurs – especially in view of the situation at that time, when the ruling political force, or rather caste, had a feudal mentality based on some criminal and tribal principles – and in that situation we created completely different kind of relationships. Obviously this caused a cultural shock. Of course a lot of things could have been done differently, but one thing is obvious – rapid transformation leads to sharp rejection.
On political life in Georgia: “Georgia had a unique opportunity in 2012, in spite of the fact that Mr. Ivanishvili and his team was not progress-focused. Needless to say that in 2012 a regressive force won in Georgia. There is no denying that. They came to power with regressive slogans and they did not try to hide it. They disliked the institutions that we had created and planned to take apart the buildings we had built. But the main problem is that the country has lost not only the pace, but also the drive. “Drive” cannot be measured by political categories. Five, six, seven years ago all the foreign newspapers described Georgia as “a tiny, corrupt, corruption-ridden country”. The current government is deliberately planning to bring it back. This is a short assessment of the current political processes in the country.
On the fallout between the President Giorgi Margvelashviliand the Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili (the interview took place before the Georgian government was shaken by the resignation of pro-Western Defense Minister Irakli Alasania, Foreign Minister Maia Panjikidize and the Minister of Euro-Atlantic Affairs, Alexander Petriashvili – Forbes): “The main thing that has happened is that the country has departed from the constitutional boundaries. Who cares about the fallout between the president and the prime-minister, when in fact none of them runs the country? The constitutional system as a whole does not function. All the decisions in the country are made by a single individual, who is not accountable for anything. This person offered the society such rules of the game and unfortunately society has accepted these rules.Everyone who took his side knew that they would be the continuation, the product of one individual. He told his followers that the circumstances demanded that he should be the only decision-maker and they had to trust him. So. what we have now is the consequence of the choice made. To be more precise, every choice has its price and consequence. However, in the case of Georgia, which faces an existential threat, the price for your choice may lead to the collapse of the country. These institutions are simply being leveled and there is not really any “fallout” between these institutions.
Saakashvili on the legal cases launched against him by Georgian authorities: “It was obvious from the very beginning that this would happen. Some said that Ivanishvili would not dare to do this. However, Mr. Ivanishvili came to power with a kind of mandate and attitude that enabled him “to dare” to do this. This is mainly because he has other duties and responsibilities … of course to Putin. I am not saying that Ivanishvili will do everything that the Russians want, but he will definitely do everything that he wants. However, on this issue his interests coincided with the interests of the Russians and he had huge backing from the Russians.
On Bidzina Ivanishvili, a Russia-friendly oligarch who resigned from his Prime Minister position a year ago but, according to Saakashvili, continues to run the country: “There were three main reasons behind his decision to resign: he was planning to conduct repressions and did not want be held accountable for it. He has said repeatedly – what does the West want from me? I do not even have a formal position in the government. The second reason was to make money. His cousin, Ucha Mamatsashvili, is running all the major enterprises and controls all the cargo shipping in the country. Formally, Ivanishvili does not hold any position in the government and no one can hold him accountable for the actions of his relatives. And the third motivation was to escape responsibility for everything, including the promises he gave and did not keep.
On his growing popularity on Facebook and involvement in Georgian life: “Ivanishvili annulled the political system by launching a criminal case against me. By this statement he refused to challenge his main rival in the political fight and he is planning to hold the next elections just “formally”. Luckily, Georgia is a small country. The new technologies enable us to organize things in a different way. In the last few weeks I met about 500 young Georgians in various countries, some far and some close to Georgia. It turns out that I have many supporters in Georgia, who want this to work. Besides, I have 400,000 followers on my Facebook and every week the number of visitors goes as high as one million people.
The absolute majority of these people are naturally Georgians. I recently posted a “platform-project” on my Facebook (the “United Platform for a New Day” – Forbes) and it earned lots of “likes”. So this type of communication has become much easier now than they could have imagined. Nowadays it is impossible to get isolated in a small country and hide political processes. Ivanishvili takes his example from Russia. However, this model is not going to work in Georgia – which knows the taste of democracy.
On Georgian civil society: “I think that there will be a lot of new leaders, especially among the youth. I have met these young people. They are very interesting people. They do not have any particular political preferences. And the fact that they have met with me does not mean that they will follow anyone blindly. They are fearless, they have no reservations and they have nothing to lose. Do you remember what kind of people gathered at Kiev’s Maidan? These were successful people – they ran companies, businesses, had successful academic lives. But because they faced the threat of losing all this, they were ready to sacrifice themselves. It was a battle for life or death.
“There is a group of people emerging in Georgia that is facing the threat of losing what is most important for them – they fear that this illiterate, unsettled oligarch is trying to deprive them of their future. This is a very bitter feeling. It is not just about managing or not managing the political processes. When they take away your future, they deprive you of what is most valuable to you. This is a time when the instinct of self-preservation awakens.
About Russia’s recent move to complete the annexation of Abkhazia – a region in Georgia occupied by Russia – and possible response to Putin’s aggressive foreign policy: “He (Putin – Forbes) has a very specific plan and he is not trying to hide this: restoring the Soviet Union in some new form and joining territories directly with Russia. This is some sort of a Eurasian Union. He is following this plan. Based on this knowledge, you have to do your best to ruin Putin’s plans and avoid becoming a victim of this plan. First, you need to strengthen your institutions, boost your patriotic morale, and show that it will cost Russia a great price. Second, you’ve got to have strong allies.In order to avoid spreading panic in the country, on many occasions we deliberately hid things that Russia was doing against us. Russia worked day and night on destabilizing Georgia. I’d say, 80% of what Russia was doing was never announced. This is because we wanted to have positive environment in the country. However, if you want to extend your rule it is easier to proclaim your enemies and shift the focus. But this will slow down the economy; it will stop investments from coming.
“Georgia relies mostly on investments, international reputation and progress and without it the country is no good. Therefore, when we talk about plans for destabilization we should keep in mind that it is always the government that causes destabilization. When you arrest everyone, naturally this leads to destabilization. When you resort to violence, this leads to destabilization. Creating some sort of uncertain groups, attacking offices as part of your preventive measures, talking about a coup d’état—all of this leads to a sense of instability.
On the possibiity of people’s popular uprising in Georgia in response to domestic problems and the Russian threat: “It’s all about Ivanishvili’s choice. One thing is clear: that this man decided to privatize the country, as if he had inherited it. Georgia cannot be anyone’s asset and property right now. The Georgian society will reorganize and respond to this. I have no doubts about it. I am sure that our society is not suicidal and it definitely aspires to a better future… We believe, I believe, that it will happen much sooner than he imagines. I think it is not a matter of years; it’s a matter of months, when the society reorganizes itself and responds adequately to Ivanishvili’s attempts of usurpation. And second – when the society responds to the end of Georgian sovereignty and international standing. These are two vital threats.
On the Georgian government’s response to events in Ukraine and the posibility of violence: “It’s no coincidence that Ivanishvili’s entire team is constantly scolding Maidan and constantly threatens with Maidan. They say that Maidan is bad and that it is bad to be on the side of Maidan. They could not find anything in common with the new Ukrainian leadership. Unfortunately, the Ukrainian people know that the current government of Georgia is not supporting them. From the geopolitical point of view, this is disastrous for the country. Because, this is a time in the history of Georgia when we should seek allies, especially in the near neighborhood.
“So I think that we should do everything to prevent violence in Georgia. This is a very fundamental issue. Because violence in Georgia, will automatically be an opening for Russia. On the one hand, we have Georgia that has weakened and on the other hand, if this weakness grows into violence it will give Russia an ideal background for its actions. We all, I mean the entire society, must mobilize so that our country does not move to self-destruction. Because we are no longer dealing with “a paused mechanism”, now “a self-destruction” mechanism is working. These are two different topics.
The future of Georgian politics: “I think that Georgia will never be ruled by one person. Especially after our recent experience. There are some new leaders and new groups emerging in Georgia. We have many friends and one strong enemy. On the one hand we have Russia and on the other hand we have ISIS, which poses a great threat. The Islamic factor has emerged in Georgia under the current government. It means that Georgia is facing the threat of a religious conflict between Christians and Muslims. We have not had this problem for centuries. That is why we should all do what we can to come out of this situation.
Saakashvili on his possible political comeback: “I’ll come back to Georgia… In the past Georgia served as a standard to which other post-soviet countries aspired, regardless of whether they were in Central Asia, Belarus or Ukraine. The current government of Georgia does not want me to travel there. Because they are scared of me. They’re a group of cowardly people. These are very weak people. They will not stay for long. We have a far more difficult mission. It is not our mission to overthrow Ivanishvili. This process is inevitable. Our goal is to prevent violence in Georgia and protect the sovereignty of our country.
“I see my role is in consolidating the society around issues such as education and civil consent. I really have no ambitions for any position since positions will no longer be a determining factor in Georgia. We are entering a very exciting, very dangerous and a very complicated era. In fact we have already entered this era. Formal positions will no longer be decisive. We should all take our share of responsibility. However, this responsibility cannot be distributed among too many people. But it will never be in the hands of just one person.
About a book he’s writing that’s due to be published next year: “It is an analysis of the recent political events. In my opinion, this book will be partly for the American audience, but mainly for the post-Soviet states and naturally for the Georgian audience. So I think that I have an obligation to give a fair account of events without whitewashing them as biographers tend to do