Still sweet on Saakashvili: Why, after all these years, I’ve still got a man crush on Misha

He leaves office almost as reviled as he was adored ten years ago

Misha will leave office on Sunday after almost a decade as president of Georgia. For a president that has always been known by a diminutive, Mikheil Saakashvili is a towering figure in the politics of the former Soviet Union, arguably the most influential politician to have come out of the ex-USSR since his arch foe, Vladimir Putin. It’s traditional to say that his legacy will be divisive. Possibly. His legacy will definitely be huge.

A man of extremes, he leaves office almost as reviled as he was adored ten years ago. He may well go to jail for what Georgia’s current leaders say are a string of abuses committed under his watch. It’s safe to say that a large proportion of Georgians now hate the man they elected with 96 (yes, 96) percent of the vote in 2004.

They have a number of good reasons to hate him. As president, he was often authoritarian, even sultanistic. When he wanted to go to a restaurant, burly men in black jackets would manhandle paying diners out of the way. When he wanted to open a new boondoggle (as he did regularly) supporters would be bussed in for the event while locals were often kept out. There was no chance of an acquittal under Misha’s justice system, and torture and humiliation prevailed in his overflowing prisons.

Personally speaking, I too have a heap of reasons to be glad to see the back of Misha. Over more than seven years working as a journalist in Georgia the authorities have broken into my office twice (the interior ministry apologised the second time), I’ve been shot at with rubber bullets at a peaceful protest (twice) and witnessed paramilitary government goons shut down a TV station that broadcast critical coverage. I also watched as Misha’s hubris and miscalculation catapulted the country into an unwinnable war with Russia, and put up with the fact that my phone was probably being illegally bugged, along with 21,000 others at any one time.

And yet as I watch the final days of Misha I know I will miss him badly, and I’m convinced that in spite of all his egregious mistakes he has made the country I call home a vastly better place. I also think it won’t be too long before most Georgians come to see things my way.

It is so easy to forget just how much of a basket-case Georgia was in 2003: it said ‘post-Soviet malaise’ like nowhere else. It was a place where they shook foreigners down at the border for a ten dollar ‘computer fee’, where blackouts were so common one of the most popular bands was called “the light’s come back on” and where walking alone at night was an invitation to a mugging—not that there was anywhere worth going at night anyway.

It was also a place where there were virtually no functioning democratic institutions, so much so that Misha himself was swept to power in a popular uprising, the Rose Revolution, and only confirmed by election months later. How different things are now. Misha is doing something his critics said he’d never do: peacefully relinquishing power to an opposing political force after conceding defeat in elections.

In Russia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and all of central Asia you either get kicked out by the street, hold on until your dotage or handpick a chosen heir. That one fact alone: peacefully leaving in a region where that never happens, should be enough to cement Misha’s legacy. But if you add to it the elimination of petty corruption; the economic growth; the vastly improved infrastructure; the increased pensions and the fact that, through his tireless publicity campaigns and open door attitude to investment and immigration, Georgia is back on the map in a way it hasn’t been since before the Mongol conquest—well, sign me up for a subscription to have his statue built. (It will probably be built in Washington in front of the Heritage Foundation—another of Misha’s awful traits was his full body embrace of neo-Cons and other American right-wingers, rightly alienating potential progressive allies on both sides of the Atlantic).

Georgia is a country that faces prodigious problems, but after Misha it at least feels like a real country, and an increasingly modern one at that. While paying lip service (and state funds) to Georgia’s super-powerful, unaccountable and reactionary Orthodox Church he also embraced minority rights and resisted the dark forces of ethnic chauvinism that have plagued Georgia for decades. His successors, who are faced with an upswell of religious bigotry and a profusion of hate groups, should follow his lead.

But for all his achievements and his failures his departure will leave a Misha-shaped hole in Georgian politics that no one will be able to fill—and I suspect Georgians will feel a touch of nostalgia for a time when their president would gladly take part in a children’s folk dance class or shamelessly flirt with Hilary Clinton. The Georgian media certainly don’t seem to be able to get enough: in the weeks running up to the election that chose his successor they spent as much time reporting on him moving back into his old house as they did covering the actual campaign.

Love him or hate him, or love him and hate him at the same time like I do, you have to suspect that he won’t be out of the limelight for long. As he put it in his valedictory address to the nation: “Personally I do not need a rest, but the time has come when you have to have a rest from me.”