The “Rose Revolution” of 2003 finally allowed Georgia to turn the page on the Soviet era: the country’s politics personified by one man.
Since then, President Mikhail Saakashvili has won two elections and survived a war he started with Russia over Georgia’s breakaway territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
Strategically important on the post-Cold War chessboard, Georgia’s goals to join the EU and NATO have amplified friction with Moscow.
Last week domestic problems brought street demonstrations in Tbilisi, as protesters complained of poverty and accused Saakashvili of monopolising power.
The West and human rights groups condemned the police use of force as “excessive”.
Several days later, the atmosphere was very different when Mikhail Saakashvili spoke to euronews. The man who likes to be called “Misha” chose a public park for the location, near the presidential palace where he had hosted a dinner.
Alasdair Sandford, euronews:
“Mr President, the event tonight has been called “Atlantic Dinners”. Your admiration for the West is well known. How Western is Georgia today?”
President Mikhail Saakashvili:
“Well I think it’s one of the oldest Christian nations, it always had wanted to be Western, but it had always been in geographic alienation from the West. So it’s like the dream that never came true, but it was always there, it was always around. And the lucky occasion is that the country has survived as Georgia, and now maybe it’s another chance to get back to our historic roots, or to get back to Europe. Let’s see.”
“Now you’ve talked about the progress you’ve made since the Rose Revolution. Equally we’ve seen evidence of problems that manifested themselves with protests last week, including some violence. How do you explain those events?”
“Look, we have groups that don’t run for Parliament and don’t run for elected offices. They have full access to television but they say they cannot count really on people supporting them… then they say they want to overturn government through violent or some kind of street means. But the good news is that they are not that numerous.
You know we decided to come here to a public park spontaneously, at the last minute. The people you see around us were not selected and you see the neighbourhood here, people are very friendly. That doesn’t mean that all of them vote for me, I would bet that some of them don’t, but they are here and people in this context are peaceful. So it is safe, but there are people who sometimes want to express themselves in violent ways, and this is very unfortunate, I really regret it.”
“But equally human rights groups criticise what they say was excessive violence by the police…”
“Look, the European Union ambassador clearly said here that the government’s actions were legitimate, and even if some people might claim – as he said – that there was excessive use of force, it’s very hard to verify. And certainly I would be the last one to want to use violence. There is a due process of law, we are upgrading our police force, I think they have acted much more professionally than in the past, I still think they are not ideal. The problem is that when you are encountering radicalism and violence, this is bad and then when you have unfortunately victims – when basically cars of the demonstrators overrun police officers, killing some of them and injuring some of the others very badly, then emotions run high. And we try to calm these emotions, but of course we need to upgrade ourselves even further.”
“You yourself have acknowledged that there are underlying social problems. For instance, you hinted tonight at a “generation gap”: you say that Georgia is very young… but there are a lot of people over a certain age who perhaps are excluded and are poor and unemployed, and are not benefiting from the way the country has been going.”
“Yes, there was this generational change here. We had to find new approaches, we had to implement very brave reforms. We fired 90% of bureaucracy after the Rose Revolution, we fired the entire police force in Georgia. Every time you want to get turnout against us in the streets, you’ll find it: people in the recent rallies, half of them were former policemen, fired a few years ago. Now, in firing those people we knew we would be running into problems. People get used to better situations: we have right now a crime rate five times less than we used to have, we are the second safest country in Europe, we are one of the three least corrupt countries in Europe. But that came with a price tag. The price tag is that we alienated certain people in the local society, and these people will always strike us back. But you know, we have to handle it through some kind of political dialogue, and explain to everybody that there is no turning back.”
“You mention political dialogue. A major problem for Georgia as a country is relations with Russia, given all that has happened. You seemed to make light of those problems tonight, certainly on a personal level. But do they not worry you?”
“I’m very worried about Russia, and you know, I’m very worried about a Russia that will not reform and tries to get stronger in terms of military buildup and aggressiveness towards neighbours. And I’m also worried about a weaker Russia, because they have inherent problems, they have strong institutional problems and corruption. And the point here is, we have to find a middle way. We need a Russia that is more open-minded, more liberal, more open towards modernity, and then with this kind of Russia we can find a common language. We are not suicidal, we don’t want to confront Russia, we’ve already seen the bad fruits of that. On the other hand, we want to stay free and we want to be on our own, and we don’t want to be back in an old Russian imperial fold – which basically is a fiction but which is still in the minds of some politicians out there, not least Prime Minister Putin. So you know, it’s a big challenge for small and vulnerable countries like Georgia.”
“Does your relentless push west antagonise Russia, and could you do more in terms of making overtures?”
“Our push towards the west is not based on geopolitical priorities, it’s based on our own internal values. And I think an open society – a tolerant or democratic, transparent one – is something that brings us closer to what is I think more or less a mainstream European model. We don’t want bad relations with our neighbours. The last thing you want when you want to become an open society – as a hub for the region – the last thing you want is to alienate your biggest neighbour. Now, how to normalise those relations? I think it goes still through modernisation of Russia, through some kind of open-minded approach on their part, and you know, ultimately they should leave our territory with all their troops and bases here, and allow us to be ourselves. And then they will find good friends in Georgia.”
“You mention Prime Minister Putin. As far as your position is concerned, it’s been suggested that after you’re president, that you might like to be prime minister here?”
“Look, I think that Georgia has a totally different system. I think we are now focussed on very important reforms for the next two and a half years. My remaining mandate will go on for another two and a half years, it’s almost an eternity for us. When we have all these challenges, the last thing I want to get here from my perspective is being a “lame duck”. So certainly the debate about my future position is not my priority, because I want to avoid being a lame duck. But one thing I can say for sure: Georgia will have a democratic transition, Georgia will have a much more open society, Georgia will never be run by just one person or a small group of people in the future. This is a country where there should be lots of political stakeholders, and it should be much more liberal and open-minded, and much more egalitarian in terms of who is running it. And I’ll make sure that it happens, whatever my position in the future is.”