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

Share
Related Topics

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.”

React Now

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Information Security Manager (ISO 27001, Accreditation, ITIL)

£70000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Information Security Manager (ISO 27001, A...

C# Developer (HTML5, JavaScript, ASP.NET, Mathematics, Entity)

£30000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Developer (...

C# Integration Developer (.NET, Tibco EMS, SQL 2008/2012, XML)

£60000 - £80000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Integration...

Biztalk - outstanding opportunity

£75000 - £85000 per annum + ex bens: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited: Biztalk Te...

Day In a Page

Read Next
It's not only the British who haven't been behaving well abroad; pictured here are German fans celebrating their team's latest victory  

Holiday snaps that bite back: What happens in Shagaluf no longer stays in Shagaluf

Ellen E Jones
Simon Laird (left) and Sister Simon Laird, featured in the BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets  

Estates of the nation: Let's hear it for the man in the street

Simmy Richman
Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

The evolution of Andy Serkis

First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

Blackest is the new black

Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy: Was the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?

Otter man Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy

The aristocrat's eccentric devotion to his pets inspired a generation. But our greatest living nature writer believes his legacy has been quite toxic
Joanna Rowsell: The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia

Joanna Rowsell: 'I wear my wig to look normal'

The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef gives raw ingredients a lift with his quick marinades

Bill Granger's quick and delicious marinades

Our chef's marinades are great for weekend barbecuing, but are also a delicious way of injecting flavour into, and breaking the monotony of, weekday meals
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014 preview: Why Brazilians don't love their neighbours Argentina any more

Anyone but Argentina – why Brazilians don’t love their neighbours any more

The hosts will be supporting Germany in today's World Cup final, reports Alex Bellos
The Open 2014: Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?

The Open 2014

Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?