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Mikheil Saakashvili’s contribution to Georgia’s transition

The former President of Georgia has a strained relationship with his homeland. To some a hero, to others a villain – his legacy is much debated, as his time in power was crucial for the country.

August 16, 2018 - Givi Gigitashvili Robert Steenland - Articles and Commentary

Mikheil Saakashvili attending the European People's Party congress in June 2013 Photo: European People's Party (cc)

Earlier this year in February 2018, Mikheil Saakashvili’s political adventure in Ukraine came to an apparent end with his deportation to Poland, after his earlier detainment, illegal border crossing to Ukraine as well as the earlier stripping of his Ukrainian citizenship. These events have reinforced interest in perhaps one of the most important characters of the post-Soviet era that was once a darling of the West.

Whereas he failed to bring about the kind of revolution in Odessa of which he was a governor, let alone Ukraine, we will reflect on his contribution to Georgia’s post-Soviet transition, in which he played a key role as President between 2004 and 2013.

After leading the Rose Revolution against the fraudulent Parliamentary Elections of 2003, which were won by the incumbent Eduard Shevardnadze, a former Foreign Minister of the USSR as well as Saakashvili’s former mentor, he managed to successfully turn things around and win the early elections. This brought him and his political party United National Movement (UNM) into power for the following decade.

Saakashvili was not shy of ambitions. Not only did he pledge to make to make the country a strong state again, he also stated his desire to make Georgia an exemplary democracy and move it towards the EU. The challenge could not be greater, given that Georgia at the time was close to being a failed state: several regions and areas were outside government control, the state coffers were near empty and the country was one of the morst corrupt countries in the world.

State-building

Nonetheless, Saakashvili initially turned out to be a skilled state-builder. He restored government control over Adjara after forcing autocrat Aslan Abashidze to leave the region in May 2004 and regained control of the troubled Pankisi Gorge in 2005. Subsequently, he managed to make Russian troops leave Georgia in 2007 (apart from South-Ossetia and Abkhazia) and established control over Azerbaijani and Armenian minority inhabited areas. This went along with significant military budget increases.

Corruption was swiftly dealt with, in thanks to measures such as reforming the traffic police, introducing an education reform and tackling bribery, among others. As a result, Georgia was the least corrupt country in the region, ranking 51st out of 174 countries in 2012. At the same time, Saakashvili’s government managed to fill the state’s coffers again, as state tax revenues went from 7 per cent of GDP in 2003 to 24 per cent in 2012. This made it possible for the state to provide basic services again.

However, Mr. Saakashvili undermined himself and his government through periodic (violent) political repression of protests and opponents. The crackdown of protests in 2007 backfired, forcing him to backtrack, call a situation of emergency and eventually early Presidential elections in 2008. While he did win those, his support went down to 53 per cent, after being at 96 per cent in 2004.

In the same year, he overreached and made the blunder decision to react to Russian provocations in South-Ossetia by invading it, which was perhaps his biggest mistake with devastating consequences for the country, as Russia disproportionally retaliated and invaded Georgia, making sure it could never retake South-Ossetia, nor Abkhazia, both regions which Russia subsequently recognised as independent states. An even worse outcome was prevented through a cease-fire pushed forward by the then French President Sarkozy.

Democracy

Mikheil Saakashvili’s turned out to be less of a democrat, symbolised by his initial act of concentrating power by establishing a strong presidential system, that left little power for the Parliament or the Cabinet. Intending to stay in power, he had the constitution changed which would allow him to continue as a strong Prime Minister in a more parliamentary system, given that his second term as President would expire in 2013. This was averted as he lost Parliamentary Elections in 2012, despite having structurally put elections in favour of him and UNM, as observed in OSCE election reports by politicising election commissions, rigging electoral laws and using state resources to his advantage.

Civil society’s influence deteriorated under Mr. Saakashvili as well. This despite initial curbs to the industry such as favourable tax codes and deregulation. However, civil society’s most prominent figures moved on to the UNM administration. By the time civil society recovered, those critical of Mr. Saakashvili were not involved by the government and their coverage in the media decreased.

Media freedom was not sacred either. While being given more space initially, he later had certain media outlets closed or controlled that were unfavourable to him, due to which press freedom became worse than before the Rose Revolution. Following 2011, both internal and external pressure pushed him to allow more plural representation in the state media, whereas billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili entered the political scene and took over several media outlets, which broke Mr. Saakashvili’s near monopoly.

The judiciary continued Georgia’s tradition of being a political tool of its regimes and used to confiscate property and sabotage political opponents, including putting them in prison. Mr. Saakashvili quest to take on the mafia and crime was also pursued at the serious cost of human rights, due to which Georgia became the top 4th incarcerator per capita in the world in 2011, whereas the amount of people in prison went from 6,119 in 2003 to 24,114 in 2011.

As the regime increasingly securitised, shown by political repressions of opponents and violent dispersion of protests such as those in 2007 and 2011, the people revolted. The final straw was the publication of country-wide practices of human right violations in prisons, including torture, which led to the electoral loss of Mr. Saakashvili’s political party in 2012’s Parliamentary Elections.

Mr. Saakashvili’s loss did contribute to Georgia’s democracy, as he was the first leader to concede defeat and peacefully transfer power without attempting to hinder the democratic process. 

Economy

Right from the start, Mr. Saakashvili implemented a series of neo-liberal reforms to attract investments and realise fast economic growth. At several occasions, Mr. Saakashvili praised the economic model of Singapore, one of the most deregulated and liberal ones in the world. The reforms he enacted included mass deregulation, privatisation and liberalisation of the economy, which made it much more easier to do (international) business in the country and acquire (state) property.

The private sector boomed and foreign direct investment soared. As a result, grow the economy did, as Georgia’s GDP went from  3,911 billion (current USD) in 2003 to 15,846 in 2012, whereas it experienced continuous economic growth between 6-12 per cent in this period, which was only briefly halted by the dual shock of the financial crisis and the 2008 August War.

The country also jumped in international indices between 2004-2013: it went from rank 112 to 16 in the Ease of Doing Business Index; its position in the Economic Freedom Index jumped from 78th to 21st and moved from rank 94 to 77 in the Global Competitiveness Index.

However, the overly neo-liberal reforms made Georgia one of the countries most easy to fire an employee and inequality rose. Poverty also remained an issue, just decreasing slightly from 1.4 million people in 2003 to 1.3 in 2011. Unemployment did not decrease either, which was 11.5 per cent in 2003 and 15 per cent in 2012, which is an actual over optimistic figure given that 57 per cent declared themselves unemployed in another public opinion poll of 2012.

Legacy

In this reflection on Mr. Saakashvili’s contribution to Georgia’s transformation, it can be concluded the record was a mixed one. While having played an important part building the state by recovering significant government control over its territories, he blundered by falling into the Russian trap, in effect losing any chance of regaining South-Ossetia or Abkhazia.

With his authoritarian traits, he was no friend of democracy either, as shown by his actions to centralise power in his hands and that of UNM, while repressing his opponents and violating human rights where he deemed necessary. It is not clear whether Georgia’s democracy would have developed for the better if he had managed to continue ruling as Prime Minister.

Furthermore, regarding the economic model Mr. Saakashvili pursued, neither did he manage to include most people in society to benefit from it as unemployment increased, poverty remained and inequality rose.

However, Mr. Saakashvili did shift the country’s fortunes from a near-failed state to one that survived a serious military invasion from Russia, something which could have been different in 2003. Due to him, the state was able to perform basic state services again with the increased tax revenues he realised, whereas the country, once one of the worst corrupt, made a reputation due to him for its successful anti-corruption measures.

He also proved to be reactive to protests at times and compromised where needed that led to an early election. His most important gift to democracy was by simply not fighting his loss of power. In addition, while his economic model might have been non-inclusive, it did arguably put the economy in much better shape for the future.

Therefore, despite the serious flaws of his time in power for Georgia’s development, Georgia today is doing much better than it did before. As mentioned by historian Thomas de Waal: “He’s been a transformational figure for Georgia, and everyday life is in many ways a lot better now than when he came to power”.

Givi Gigitashvili was born in Georgia and is currently working as a Consultant for Ecorys Polska, an International Research and Consultancy Company. He holds an MA degree in EU-Russia Studies (EURUS) from the University of Tartu, Estonia. Previously, Givi has been engaged with a number of think tanks in Kyiv (Maidan of Foreign Affairs), Riga (Latvian Institute of International Affairs), Berlin (Institute of European Politics) and Warsaw (Center for Social and Economic Research), where he contributed to a variety of research projects. The main fields of Givi’s interests include post-Soviet politics, EU-Russia relations and Eastern Partnership Program. 

Robert Steenland
was born in the Netherlands. He is an Associate and Analyst at the Centre for International Relations, an independent non-governmental think tank based in Warsaw. He holds a double degree master in European Governance and Politics and Public Administration from the University of Konstanz and Utrecht University, as well as bachelor’s in Law & Economics and International Relations from Leiden University. He has a special interest in Eastern Europe and wrote his master thesis about Georgia’s democratisation process.

A more extensive version of this analysis has been published on 7 August 2018 by the Centre for International Relations. It was also earlier selected for the Warsaw East European Conference (WEEC) of 2018. 

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