The Saakashvili paradox

This is a guest post by Salomé Zourabichvili

A year ago, Georgia was the place where for the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russian troops marched into an independent country. They demonstrated to the world that Russia had recovered power and the will to exert it. And for a few days, the world was wondering where the Russian army would stop.

A year ago, Georgia was the first place where the EU, through its acting president, Mr Sarkozy, managed to broker a cease fire that, despite its many flaws, still holds now. The EU demonstrated that peace in Europe was a concept worth defending and where the EU could make a difference.

A year ago, the United States, represented by an outgoing administration, reacted relatively passively, allowing European nations to take the lead in facilitating the dialogue between Georgia and Russia. The question is whether our European friends and allies will take a lead in rebuilding Georgia’s shattered democracy one year on.

A year ago, President Saakashvili managed after 6 months of protests, demonstrations and disputed elections to shut out the opposition claiming that the defence of Georgian independence was at stake. Georgia lost a fifth of her territories and suffered an economic collapse but the regime managed to cling to power.

What has changed today? In appearance nothing; tension is back at the border, daily provocations might trigger an escalation; now as then, nobody knows to which side to attribute the responsibility of this confrontation; and again the question arises: could a new war erupt in the heat of summer in this remote part of Europe?

However, despite appearances, many things have changed: the relationship between the US and Russia is no longer compared to the cold war as it was at the end of the Bush administration. The Obama factor has produced some effect already – the Russians know that they have more to gain from the “Restart” button than they would from a new conflict. His Moscow visit has not solved things, but it has raised possibilities that neither side would want to shatter yet.

The Russians have got all they wanted and maybe more: the borders have moved deep into Georgian territory making their leverage even more pregnant. They have recognised the separatist entities of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and have thus used the ultimate threat against Georgia. It is less probable that they would like to conquer more Georgian territory and have to occupy a hostile and fiercely independent country. They would have more on their hands as they cannot decide what to do with those “very new” independent states that nobody wants to recognise and that they are unable either to totally absorb or to relinquish.

As for the idea that Prime Minister Putin or President Medvedev might go to war in order to finish the job and get rid of President Saakashvili, it is an argument for Saakashvili, by Saakashvili.

The reality is different, for there is a “Saakashvili paradox” that reads as follows: having lost much of his legitimacy within and most of his international credit outside, he is the Georgian leader the Russians hate most, but also their best objective ally.

He has managed to give Russia everything they want: NATO membership for Georgia has moved from a feasible project to a distant possibility; 20% of our territories have been lost and seem for many to be lost for ever. The Georgian economy has, through an opaque privatisation process, been transferred mostly to Russian hands and western investment is more of a myth than a reality. Finally, as Freedom House and others have demonstrated Georgia has moved from the promising democracy of the Rose Revolution to an increasingly authoritarian state that can no longer exert a positive role model on Russia.

Ironically, President Saakashvili is the most helpful leader the Kremlin could wish for.

For the President, the threat of war is the last resort to raise European interest and American support for ‘small Georgia’ by making it appear as a victim of its big and imperial neighbour, while hiding the failures of its democratic process.

The threat of war is one of the last cards that an illegitimate regime can use to force the opposition to a demonstration of national unity and get a temporary popularity boost.

The prospect of war can be handy for Russia too. President Medvedev could be tempted to deliver nationalist propaganda to a population that is going through a deep economic and social crisis.

Now, unlike a year ago, there is no rationale for a war; for it cannot achieve any of the real objectives of either country. But now as then, two undemocratic regimes can use mutual belligerence for political profit.

Of the two, Georgia pretends to be democratic. It wants to be considered as a part of the European family. But it should be made clear to President Saakashvili that time has come to stop playing with fire and blackmailing friends. Time has come to deliver a pluralistic, open government as the only guarantee of peace and stability. Our best defence against Russia is democracy.

When Vice President Biden visited Tbilisi last month he set several tests for the regime to realise the democratic ideals of the Rose revolution – from media freedom to the rule of law.

But just days ago, some opposition supporters were kidnapped, beaten and shot with plastic bullets in a horrific attack. They are certain it was because of their political views. It was carried out by men driving in a vehicle belonging to the police. The lack of a credible investigation raises suspicions as to whether it was carried out on the orders of the government.

This is just the most recent example of the human rights abuses by the regime, despite the promises of a “new wave of democracy” by our President. Keeping the pressure on Mr Saakashvili to reform will require support and pressure from all our allies – in the United States and Europe – just as they supported us a year ago.

Salomé Zourabichvili is a Former Foreign Minister of Georgia and leader of the pro-European opposition party “The Way of Georgia” Her party’s website is at but those who cannot read Georgian can see Georgian opposition content at