Mikheil Saakashvili’s star was riding high in the summer of 2008.
The young man who had led street protests in the Rose Revolution still retained a lot of the popularity which had brought him an election victory with 96 per cent of the vote. He was seen as the darling of the West, the face of reform who had broken the shackles of a former Soviet satellite state.
Under him Georgia, had gone to great lengths to court the US as an insurance policy against the newly resurgent Russia of Vladimir Putin, even sending troops to Iraq. There had also been sustained overtures towards the European Union.
Then came the war with Russia, and Georgians discovered that it had been rather a one-sided love affair. As journalists drove from the airport into Tbilisi along the ‘George W Bush Boulevard’, members of the US military and private security contractors who had been training the country’s army were heading the other way.
Exactly who started the conflict in which Russian forces went into South Ossetia and Abkhazia became a matter of bitter dispute. To the few of us who went into Tskhinvali, the Ossetian capital, there were certainly signs that Georgian forces had carried out aggressive operations, but there was also evidence of Kremlin provocation.
Western envoys offered words of support; Condoleeza Rice, David Miliband, Nicolas Sarkozy – but there was to be no intervention. The bedrock of Mr Saakashvili’s foreign policy had crumbled and, for a while, it seemed to put the independence of Georgia in danger. Although Russian tanks did not press on their charge to Tbilisi, South Ossetia and Abkhazia were lost.
Other aspects of Mr Saakashvili’s rule began to be questioned. Sweeping measures had been implemented to curb corruption, but there had also curbs on civil liberties.
The gross domestic product per capita has more than doubled since he came to power, but poverty only receded marginally, with a quarter of the population surviving in extremely poor conditions and unemployment not moving below 15 per cent.
The state of the judicial system became an issue of international concern with courts acquitting a fraction of the defendants before them and Georgia gaining the dubious accolade of having the highest per capita prison population in Europe.
Critics maintain that Mr Saakashvili had found the confrontation with Russia five years ago useful to distract attention from protests at the time. But he has had to become much more circumspect since that turned to disaster.
Now, he is undoubtedly hoping for outside intervention again – this time to safeguard his own liberty.
A number of his allies and associates have been arrested and charged with a variety of offences after his United National Movement lost the elections last year. Leaving the post of president may well see him facing the same fate.
Billionaire Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili has already stated that Mr Saakashvili may face “multiple prosecutions” after yesterday’s elections, in which Sakaashvili could not stand, having already served the limit of two terms. The foreign ministers of Poland and Sweden, Radek Sikorski and Carl Bildt, on a visit to Tbilisi, urged the government this week not to pursue “the politics of revenge”.
It remains to be seen whether this will have any soothing effect on the bitter divisions which accompanied the undoubted strides made during the rule of Mikheil Saakashvili.
Georgia exit polls indicate win for candidate backed by PM
Exit polls in Georgia’s presidential election last night indicated a big win for the candidate backed by the billionaire Prime Minister, Bidzina Ivanishvili, cementing his control over the US-aligned former Soviet republic.
Giorgi Margvelashvili, a former university rector with limited political experience, should get about 67 per cent of the vote, the exit polls predicted. He will succeed Mikhail Saakashvili.
His party’s candidate, the former parliamentary speaker Davit Bakradze, was in second place with 20 per cent. Mr Bakradze, who now heads the opposition in parliament, quickly congratulated Mr Margvelashvili and said he was ready to work together with the prime minister and president.
Mr Ivanishvili has promised to step down next month and nominate a new prime minister. AP