Mikheil Saakashvili: Georgia on his mind, Moscow on his back

After the disaster of last summer's war, the charismatic president of the former Soviet republic hopes it won't be sacrificed to improve US-Russian relations. Shaun Walker meets Mikheil Saakashvili

Sunday 05 July 2009 00:00 BST

It's the watch that bothers me. Everything else is presidential – the pressed shirt and sharp tie; the aides tiptoeing in with overflowing bowls of cherries and mulberries, and the huge, book-lined interview room done out in soft woods inside a new, Reichstag-inspired presidential palace. But amid all this pomp, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili is wearing a chunky blue plastic watch that appears to depict frolicking rabbits.

In a region where presidents tend to prefer hugely expensive Swiss timepieces to quirky novelty numbers, it's odd to say the least. But then Saakashvili never was much like any of the other presidents in the region – former party officials turned kleptocrats presiding over systemically corrupt dictatorships. When Saakashvili came to power in the Rose Revolution of 2003, he promised a fundamentally new form of government for the region. The post-Soviet legacy of corruption, privilege and autocracy would be swept aside to make way for a bright new era of democracy, meritocracy and economic development.

That was then, of course, and this is now. The heady days of George W Bush dancing in the streets of Tbilisi, Saakashvili's Georgia being hailed as a "beacon of freedom", and a steady stream of Western correspondents leaving interviews dazzled by his democratic credentials and general all-round charm, are long gone. In the interim came a crackdown on peaceful protesters, an increasingly belligerent opposition movement demanding his resignation, which in recent months has taken to blocking off central Tbilisi roads with pretend prison cells, and the small matter of a devastating war with Russia. When I last met him, a little more than a year ago, he said that one of his major ambitions was for Georgia to become so stable and prosperous that ruling it would be a "boring task". It hasn't quite worked out that way.

But Saakashvili – or, as everybody calls him, Misha – doesn't allow us to begin with negative talk. No sooner have I shaken his hand than he is bounding across the room like an excited child to show me photos of five-star hotels and other architectural developments planned for the Georgian Black Sea resort of Batumi.

"The first investments were made almost as a charity case, but now it's taking off, and we expect tourist numbers to rise 10-fold in the next three years," he says, speaking at a hundred miles an hour in the fluent, lightly accented English that he honed while studying at Columbia University in New York. His mop of black hair is greying slightly at the sideburns, but otherwise he doesn't look like a man tired and burnt out after the last year.

Picture after picture of impressive palatial developments, combined with his effervescent commentary, and I'm almost convinced that Batumi can be the new Barcelona, and Georgia can be the Singapore of the Caucasus.

There's one problem, of course – Russia. With all links cut with Georgia's former major trading partner, the country's exports have dropped dramatically, and with Saakashvili the Kremlin's bête noire, many worry that Russia may pop back into Georgia to finish the job it started last year.

With a new incumbent in Washington, this could be more likely. Outside the American South, few tears were shed when Bush left the White House. But while the world was breathing a collective sigh of relief, Georgians were petrified. Bush had seen Georgia as an important – perhaps the only – neocon success project. Saakashvili enthusiastically packed off soldiers to fight in Iraq, and even named a street in Tbilisi after the Texan president, who treated Misha like a prodigal son.

With Barack Obama coming into office, priorities in Washington shifted. Talk began about a new era of relations with Russia, sticky issues such as Georgia were to be forgotten, and Hillary Clinton even presented Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov with a "reset button" to symbolise a new start for bilateral relations. In Tbilisi the uneasy joke was that the button was also a detonator, destroying hopes of Georgian independence.

President Obama travels to Moscow tomorrow for his first official visit, a much-hyped trip with hopes on both sides for revived engagement. The worry in Tbilisi will be that Georgia will be sold out to the Russians for bigger geopolitical issues. With tensions again rising in the region, Russia conducting huge military exercises on Georgia's border, and a feeling in some sections of the Russian elite that the job wasn't finished properly last summer, Saakashvili says he is hoping that the US president will choose his words carefully in Moscow.

"If Obama says something that looks like some kind of permission for something, then they will go for it. That's why every word counts. You are dealing with Byzantine traditions and doublespeak with Russia, which is hard for the West to understand."

Still, says Saakashvili, his government has received positive signals from the new administration. "I've spoken to Obama several times, and we have a very good working relationship with this administration at every level. They are fresh and focused."

In Moscow, meanwhile, the name Saakashvili has taken on the air of a swear word. Top Russian officials recoil at the mention of the Georgian president's name. President Dmitry Medvedev has referred to him as a "political corpse", and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has said he wants to see Saakashvili "hung by the balls". Both sides react with fury and disbelief when it's suggested that they were responsible for last August's war. Putin claims that hostilities started when Saakashvili recklessly sent tanks into South Ossetia and the Russians had no choice but to respond. Saakashvili insists that the Russian invasion was unprovoked and part of a long-term plan of Putin's to occupy Georgian territory. The truth may be that both sides bear their share of responsibility, though Saakashvili denies this furiously, calling those who wish to believe that he started the war "willingly uninformed".

Putin, says Saakashvili, told him shortly after the recognition of Kosovo by the United States and many European countries, a move that Russia vehemently opposed, that there would be consequences in the Caucasus. "He said: 'You have to pay for your allies. Your allies just recognised Kosovo, and we have to do something. But it won't be very painful for you, don't worry.' It was like somebody standing with an axe at your head and saying 'Don't worry, everything's OK, just close your eyes and relax.'"

Medvedev, who is widely regarded as less of a hawk and less powerful than Putin, has joined in the rhetoric condemning the Georgian president. But, claims Saakashvili, Medvedev as good as warned him that the war was coming a few weeks before the fateful day in August, at an informal dinner hosted by Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbayev in the Kazakh capital, Astana.

"At our first meeting in Moscow, Medvedev had offered to meet in Sochi in June. So I'd been chasing him since then and asking to meet, and he was always avoiding my calls.

"I cornered him at this dinner in Astana and said: 'Come on, let's meet...' He said: 'Now is not the time for meeting, it could end in disappointment.' I said: 'Well, come on, how could our relations be any worse than they are now?' He turned to me and said: 'Here you are mistaken. Very soon it can get much much much worse.' He didn't like that it was coming but couldn't do anything about it."

The Russians, never keen on a man who promised to bring his country out of Moscow's orbit and lead it into Nato and the European Union, have since last summer's war embarked on a fevered propaganda campaign to show that Saakashvili is so unstable that he's in need of medical help. Kremlin-funded English-language channel Russia Today regularly refers to him as "nuts", while Russian television has devoted prime-time slots to chat shows involving psychiatrists analysing Saakashvili's behaviour as classic psychopath material.

He certainly lost the plot at times during the war. One incident, where TV cameras caught him chewing on his tie while waiting to start an interview, has been replayed ad nauseam on Russian television. A joint press conference with Condoleezza Rice held in the hazy heat on the rooftop of his presidential palace was almost painful to watch, as the Georgian president appeared on the verge of tears and ranted semi-coherently about the Russian "barbarians".

But Saakashvili isn't nuts. Indeed, he is without a doubt the most intellectual and charismatic politician in the region. "I was certainly in a shaky mood, and it was visible," he admits, shovelling a handful of mulberries into his mouth. "But I think we pulled ourselves together, put the economy back on track, and found the force to continue the reforms."

Listening to him speak, I can't help being reminded of another politician who, while operating in a very different context, shares a remarkably similar political trajectory to Saakashvili. Coming to power at a time of general disillusionment with politics and the political system, Saakashvili was a man with a very different and engaging vision of the future; a man of eloquence and intellect who captured the imagination of huge swaths of the population and enacted real and sweeping changes; a man whose modernising vision for his country was eventually damaged by the neocon project and involvement in an unwinnable war.

Switch Tony Blair's quiet, dogged Christianity with the occasionally fiery exuberance of the Caucasus male, then the two men seem like political twins. Both of them are obsessed with legacies, both of them care so deeply about politics that the passion seeps out of every pore, both of them were accused by their increasing number of political enemies of dictatorial impulses and an over-reliance on spin. And ultimately, both of them speak with such passion and belief, that even when you disagree with what they're saying, it's hard not to be impressed.

At the end of the interview, I ask him what is going on with the rabbit watch.

"Yeah, it's a bunny watch, so what?" he asks jokily, giving a high-pitched cackle. During their recent protests calling for his resignation, the opposition had unveiled a banner outside the presidential palace saying that Saakashvili was like a scared rabbit, and had thrown carrots – and at one point a live rabbit – over the railings.

"They had this banner in English, saying 'Saakashvili is a rabbit' – presumably for a foreign audience. I don't know what's so bad about this. Unless you keep rabbits at your apartment, they are pretty nice," he says, with a grin. The watch, which he's had for several years, is perhaps his way of showing that he can take the opposition's insults with good humour. The protesters blockaded the main street with makeshift cells, and picketed his office so that he had to work from another building across town for two months. But the mood in Tbilisi seems to have changed, with many ordinary Georgians bored of the fractured opposition, and unwilling to play into Russia's hands by helping to oust the president.

When Saakashvili was the toast of the West, touted as the model democrat and post-Soviet saviour, it was hard not to be struck by his obvious flaws. Now that he's regularly described as a volatile madman, it's striking to remember that despite all those flaws, and for all that he may well bear some responsibility for the war last year, he still offers an energetic, exciting vision for his country that is rare in the region.

"I will leave behind me a country that has modern democratic functioning institutions and modern infrastructure," he says. "It's like a five-year plan for the Soviet Union but for all the reverse reasons – to change everything that the Soviet Union spoiled here. People should get used to living in a merit-based, non-corrupt, democratic society."

That the opposition can so aggressively demand his resignation suggests that the country has already come a long way down this road. And despite everything, looking around the rest of his region, that's not a bad achievement. Whether he will ultimately be remembered for this, however, or instead for the disastrous war and subsequent loss of Georgian territory, remains to be seen.

Biography: Garlands and grenades - a life under pressure

21 December 1967 Born to a doctor father and a historian mother

1992 Graduates from the School of International Law at Kiev State University

1994 Receives LLM (Masters) from Columbia Law School and a Doctor of Law degree from the George Washington University

1995 Gets diploma from the International Institute of Human Rights in Strasbourg, then stands in Georgia's elections and wins a seat for the Union of Citizens of Georgia party

1997 Reportedly named Man of the Year by a panel of journalists and human rights activists in Georgia

2000 Becomes Minister of Justice under President Eduard Shevardnadze

2001 Resigns from government on 5 September and accuses the President of corruption. Later that year forms his own party, United Nation Movement

2002 Elected chairman of the Tbilisi Assembly

2003 Leads the Rose Revolution, a revolt against President Shevardnadze

2004 His party merges with United Democrats, becoming National Movement Democrats (NMD)

2005 Survives an assassination attempt against him and President Bush. The grenade fails to detonate

2007 Calls a state of emergency after street protests

2008 Wins second election, later orders attack on Tskhinvali, South Ossetia, prompting Russian invasion

2009 Pressure mounts against his rule, with mass street demonstrations

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