In an April 3rd op-ed in the NY Times, former Georgian foreign minster Salome Zourabichvili shreds Saakashvili and his government and calls for a “fresh start.” Taking her grievances at face value Saakashvili looks like a despot, which he may or may not be, depending on your point of view. But there are a few things people should understand.
The pre-Saakashvili government was a failed state and corrupt to the core. International investment amounted to little more than arms and drug trafficking. More than half the country lived in the dark because the energy ministry was selling the nation’s electricity abroad and pocketing the money instead of investing it in the infrastructure.
When Misha Saakashvili came along, he eliminated a strata of corruption when he fired most of the old-school police and replaced it with fresh young men, who no longer stopped cars randomly to demand pay-offs. Within two years stable electricity was restored to most of the country. Economically, Georgia became one of the fastest growing economies in the world as global investment had finally arrived.
This isn’t to say there have been major screw-ups, war not withstanding. The poster boy for democracy in the making didn’t really make such great leaps in democracy building. “Due process” and “equality before” the law are concepts that in some cases have been more deconstructed than in Shevardnadze’s period. For example, one of the first things Misha did was arrest government officials and businessmen and persuade them to pay more than they allegedly embezzled to be released. A case in point: Gia Dzhokhtaberidze, Shevardnadze’s son-in-law was charged with tax evasion but was released and charges dropped after his wife paid a $15.5 million fine.
There is truly something amiss in the judicial system when a 14 year-old boy can be sentenced to 12 years in detention for attempted murder, while the men who beat banker Sandro Girgvliani to death are sentenced to 7 and then ultimately pardoned, seemingly because they were high-ranking employees of the interior ministry.
The former foreign minister is absolutely right when she states the US shouldn't dump a pile of cash to people who cannot fully account for it, but what she forgets is that it has never been US foreign policy to do otherwise. Compared to the authoritarian regimes the US supports all over the world, Georgia is pretty mild.
Zourabichvili’s beef with the press is legitimate to a degree but a few things must be understood about the standard of Georgian journalism, the first being, it sucks. Objectivity doesn’t just exist because of censorship, but because journalists are poorly trained and more importantly, the editors don’t practice it. Journalists are often lazy and underpaid. Zourabachvili calls Inga Grigolia one of Georgia’s most prominent journalists, which is true in that she is well-known, but that’s only because she has a big mouth. She is a good example of how bad the state of journalism is in Georgia.
The opposition likes to whine about there not being free media when they should be griping about responsible media. They want a TV station to use as a platform, to counter the government’s mouth-piece, Rustavi-2. This is the kind of free media they talk about. Imedi TV functioned as the opposition’s megaphone before Misha sent his goons in to shut it down and destroyed its equipment in November 2007.
Free speech, like democracy, is open to interpretation. On one hand you can find a newspaper with a picture of Misha as Hitler but you won’t find an investigative report that implicates government officials on television. This is a tragedy.
In her op-ed, Zourabichvili says she has called for new elections in Georgia. What she did not mention is that she and a loose coalition of opposition parties is calling for the resignation of the president and will be holding a demonstration on April 9th to demand it. She also failed to mention her group refuses to hold talks with the president.
What is sad about Zourabachvili is that she is perhaps the most experienced diplomat in the opposition and is pursuing the most undiplomatic means to achieve her goals. All or nothing politics leave no room for dialog. When she says “democracy needs a fresh start in Georgia,” what she is saying is that Saakashvili must be overthrown and replaced by a fragmented group of people who can only agree on one thing - that they hate Misha.
(image 1. Zourabichvili, lifted off www.lexpress.fr David Mdzinarishvili/Reuters 2. G. Zerekidze, Justyna Mielnikiewicz 3. I. Grigolia, lifted off lady.ge)