Washington’s Forgotten Golden Boy Is Trying for a Comeback in Georgia
Mikheil Saakashvili has forced himself back on the political stage—despite the danger.
By Ani ChkhikvadzeNOVEMBER 5, 2021
It’s over a month since the former president of the South Caucasus nation of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili, announced his hunger strike. Against the advice of his allies and the wishes of his enemies, Saakashvili, who ruled the small former Soviet republic between 2004 and 2013, returned to his native country on Oct. 1 in secret and was subsequently arrested. He had been living in Ukraine in exile for eight years, had been convicted in absentia of abuse of power, and faced six years in jail on what he says are politically motivated charges.
Two weeks after his arrival, tens of thousands of people took to the streets in Georgia to demand his release. But few in the United States have rallied for a man who Washington once embraced. Georgia, like Saakashvili, was once seen as a post-Soviet success story. Today, it is a disappointment. Georgia’s democratic gains are now in peril, and Saakashvili’s arrest adds to the growing concerns voiced in Western capitals around the country’s individual, media, and judiciary freedoms.
Saakashvili’s career covers one war, two countries, a number of romantic adventures, and many political battles. His meteoric rise and fall reflect the trajectory of several countries’ democratization in the post-Soviet space. Since 2003, when Georgia’s Rose Revolution toppled a corrupt post-Soviet government, Washington has spent billions of dollars to help the country become a democracy and a close ally in the Russia-dominated Caucasus. Saakashvili was the key figure in this endeavor.
Hardly anybody thought Saakashvili would go back to Georgia. He’d made the threat before but never followed through. Before he finally made good on his threat, he toured Washington and Brussels. Many urged him not to go back for fear his arrest would lead to unrest, chaos, and general disorder. But Saakashvili has a reputation to save, history to correct, and above all, a powerful desire to get himself back on political center stage.
Back in June when I interviewed him for Voice of America’s Georgian Service, pressing whether he was indeed returning to Georgia, he told me: “Napoleon went back. That didn’t end well. … Is this your Waterloo?” I pushed. Searching for words, he said: “What I don’t want to see is a Waterloo for the Georgian people.”
Left: A Georgian opposition supporter carries a portrait of Mikhail Saakashvili in Tbilisi, Georgia, in November 2003. SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES Right: Georgians surround opposition leader Mikhail Saakashvili (center) in Tbilisi, Georgia, in November 2003. SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES
Back in November 2003, thousands of people protested in front of the parliament building in the capital, Tbilisi, when Saakashvili, then a young legislator, pushed his way through the crowds and strode up to the podium. Moments before, then-Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze had addressed the parliament. A cup of tea Shevardnadze was drinking until he was forcefully dragged away by his security detail was still hot. Saakashvili took the cup and drank it.
Saakashvili very quickly became the golden boy, both in Washington and Tbilisi. He won the post-Rose Revolution election in 2004 with an astonishing 96.9 percent of the vote. But he wasn’t just popular at home. Saakashvili was U.S. trained, a graduate of Columbia University and George Washington University. He was energetic. He was young. He said the right words about democracy and freedom. It was a contrast to his predecessor, Shevardnadze, who—although liked by Washington for helping end the Cold War—had presided over tremulous years of civil war, chaos, endemic poverty, corruption, and failed institutions.
The Rose Revolution was followed by other “color revolutions” in the region: in Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan. It was 1989 all over again. Former U.S. President George W. Bush liked Saakashvili; German Chancellor Angela Merkel had a difficult time with him. Soon, he became the poster child for the neoconservatives and democracy promoters, an inspiring success story of what was possible. He was always well received in Washington. He had friends on both sides of the political aisle. In 2005, then-Sens. John McCain and Hillary Clinton even nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Saakashvili’s government was led by young people who had no connections to the old Soviet nomenklatura, the privileged, party-connected class that had dominated for a decade even after the Soviet Union’s fall. Things started to get better: Reforms were unleashed, corruption was rooted out, roads became functional, GDP tripled, and the government could now collect taxes. But more importantly, Saakashvili’s government achieved something else: lasting social change. It opened up universities, created a whole new class of professionals, and invited Western-educated Georgians back to the country to lead.
At the same time as he appealed to Washington, though, Saakashvili was an adept spinner of patriotic myths. Saakashvili changed the flag, picked a new national anthem, and rewrote the constitution. He often spoke of Georgia’s century-old struggle with the goliath, Moscow, in the north as a contrast to what he was hoping to achieve. To his credit, this wasn’t chauvinistic ethno-nationalism. It was about Georgia as a state, where minorities were full-fledged citizens. He removed ethnicity from national identification and gave other religious denominations the same rights as the dominant Georgian Orthodox Church. These steps caused a reaction from the church and other traditionalist groups, which would eventually help bring him down.
In 2005, Bush danced in Tbilisi’s central square, where 100,000 Georgians gathered to see the U.S. president. It was a national celebration, a symbol that Georgia had finally arrived. It showed that Washington cared. Tbilisi was becoming a significant player in U.S. national security interests, and Georgia was now seen as a staunch U.S. ally. (Tbilisi was number two after Israel for U.S. aid in 2007 and 2008, per capita.)
But more importantly, in Washington and Tbilisi, there was a sense that Georgia was finally escaping the Soviet curse and was becoming a success story in the post-Soviet sphere. Saakashvili’s government announced its desire to become a member of NATO and the European Union. There was a sense of destiny. In his speeches, Saakashvili spoke over and over about Georgia’s return to Europe and the West: its “natural home.”
But disappointment—and military catastrophe—soon followed.
In April 2008, Georgia was refused a Membership Action Plan, a path to NATO membership, largely because of French and German opposition. Those familiar with the discussions recalled Europeans were nervous about Saakashvili’s temperament. They didn’t trust him. The lame duck George W. Bush administration, already tarnished by Iraq, couldn’t convince Europeans to bring the Georgians onboard.
A few months later, in August 2008, Russia invaded Georgia. Tbilisi was hoping for more help from Washington but was frustrated. In the runup to the war, Saakashvili had already become a personal nemesis to Russian President Vladimir Putin. At one point, Putin reportedly threatened to hang him by his testicles. The two men despised each other. In her memoirs, former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice recalls that during a call with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, the Russians demanded Saakashvili “had to go.” “Emotional,” “impulsive,” “proud,” and “capricious” are a few of the words Rice uses to describe Saakashvili in her writings.
Ironically, Saakashvili had one thing in common with Putin: a deep devotion to public relations. Like Putin, Saakashvili was also seen everywhere: in bazaars, factories, and mountains as well as skiing or swimming in the sea. He often spoke about following in the footsteps of former Turkish leader Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and former Singaporean leader Lee Kuan Yew, the fathers of their respective nations. He wanted to make a Singapore out of Georgia, he often said.
His cult of personality grew—at least, on his own side. He was the image and essence of the newly born Georgia. There was no Georgia without him. At least, that was the message his public relations machine tried to cultivate.
Despite these efforts, Georgians grew increasingly exhausted by his capricious, impulsive, and emotional nature. At the same time, they were getting tired of the demands that reforms put on them, and they were drained by an ever-present government. With radical reforms, black market crackdowns, and growing demands for skilled labor, many were left without jobs—and now they had to pay their tax bills in full. Revolution and social transformation bred reaction. The church found him too liberal, liberals found him too populist, and populists found him too progressive.
Discontent started to accumulate. In 2007, Saakashvili violently cracked down on an anti-government protest, raided a TV station, resigned after the backlash, and called for snap elections he won. The protests were aided by Russia-connected individuals, and Saakashvili believed Moscow was out to get him. The crackdown led to criticism from Washington and other capitals. He subsequently faced uprisings in 2009 and 2011. He, like many others before him, was becoming unpopular at home and abroad. Saakashvili started obsessing about retaining power. The old hero slowly transformed into a villain. Although he had cleaned the courts of corruption, questions regarding political influence in the judiciary persisted, media and individual freedoms were under question, and businesses were under growing pressure. The space for dissent and opposition grew limited.
Soon the country had another savior: billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili and his political party, Georgian Dream. Ivanishvili, who had earned his fortune in the murky business of Moscow in the 1990s, had one promise: Get rid of Saakashvili and all that he represented. He leveraged the widespread disappointment and frustration with Saakashvili’s reforms, he promised better relations with Moscow to a country fearing another invasion, and he teamed up with reactionary and traditionalist groups upset by social progress. He won the 2012 parliamentary election by 54.9 percent of the vote.
Saakashvili stepped down. Washington declared the elections and the peaceful transfer of power to be an important step for Georgia’s democracy. Saakashvili was the first president who peacefully left office in a region where such transfers of power were uncommon. That alone would get him into history books. He could have been the George Washington of Georgia. But it wasn’t enough of an achievement for him.
Soon, fearing prosecution, he left Georgia and moved to Ukraine. He was only 46. It was an embittering experience. He was voted out of office and persecuted in a country he had done so much for, putting it on the map and engineering the dramatic makeover Tbilisi underwent. Former teammates said he thought he lost for his liberal policies, his too-secular team members, and progressive approach—and that needed to be corrected. He turned to populism.
Back home, the new Georgian Dream government dubbed his years in power the “bloody nine years.” Purges started. They opened cases against all leading members of Saakashvili’s government, including against Saakashvili himself. They jailed his defense and interior ministers and the former mayor of Tbilisi. And then they came for Saakashvili himself. He was found guilty in 2018 in absentia on two counts: covering up evidence in the case of a beating of an opposition lawmaker and the death of a Georgian banker. An additional two charges under investigation relate to his 2007 crackdown and misappropriation of state funds.
There was a fear in Washington among Georgia’s friends that the new government would bring Georgia close to Moscow. This has not fully come to pass, largely because the public remained wary of Russia—although Georgian Dream’s policies have been far more conciliatory than its predecessors.
But hardly anybody was paying attention anyway.
Washington was turning elsewhere; then-U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration had attempted to reset relations with Moscow and was pivoting to Asia and domestic problems. There was no time for anything but the big issues: Iran, Cuba, and reelection.
Initially, Saakashvili stayed out of politics. He toured universities and gave lectures but soon got bored and took a job in Ukraine, which had just gone through its second wave of protests and its Revolution of Dignity. In 2014, the new government in Kyiv was dealing with a Russian invasion and annexation as well as battling corruption on another front. Then-Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko turned to those with experience, inviting many Georgian reformers to do what they had done in Georgia. Saakashvili took Ukrainian citizenship, reinvented himself as a Ukrainian politician, and became governor of Odessa in 2015. But Ukraine, a country of 45 million people, proved to be a more difficult challenge than Georgia’s 3.9 million people.
He lasted a bit longer than a year, had a fallout with Poroshenko, and turned against him. In response, in 2017, Poroshenko’s government, unhappy with Saakashvili’s loud criticism, stripped him of his citizenship while he was on a trip to Washington. At that point, he was left stateless since Georgia had taken away his Georgian citizenship on the grounds of accepting Ukrainian citizenship.
That was the first time he illegally crossed a border. Along with hundreds of supporters, he marched in force and breached the Polish-Ukrainian border, creating a crisis in the country. He made international headlines, primarily because of the absurd nature of the whole affair. A few months later, he was sitting in a restaurant when masked men showed up, seized him, rushed him to an airport, and deported him to Poland.
While leading the life of a Ukrainian politician, first alongside Poroshenko and later against him as well as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s subsequent government, Saakashvili never stopped being active in his native Georgia. The fight around his role in his United National Movement led to multiple splits within the party. Up to his arrest, he was giving televised addresses, campaigning online ahead of every election, and always promising to return.
Back in Georgia, Ivanishvili was assuring the opposite: to never allow Saakashvili back in power. Ivanishvili had resigned from his official position as prime minister but to this day is widely seen to be the decision-maker behind the scenes. Opposition to Saakashvili was the only thing that defined Georgian Dream as a party: Anger against his time in power and the negation of Saakashvili’s legacy remains the chief rationale. Georgian Dream leaders paint critical voices at home and abroad as Saakashvili’s stooges. Journalists, activists, and nongovernmental organizations are dubbed his puppets, all while many in Washington speak of democratic backsliding, state capture, and Ivanishvili’s government’s increasingly authoritarian nature.
The game of shadows—of exiled president and informal ruler Ivanishvili—has polarized Georgian politics. Over the years, Saakashvili tried to play on the same field as Ivanishvili under the rules of populism. He cozied up to the Georgian church; once a champion of small government and pro-business, he started to criticize banks and supported any movement that appeared to shake the government, no matter the cause.
But as Georgian voters are growing weary of polarization, so are Georgia’s remaining friends in Washington. Saakashvili offers them the past while Ivanishvili represents the rejection of that past with no vision of the future. A country once seen as the vanguard of democratization is going from crisis to crisis.
And every crisis for Saakashvili is an opportunity. He wants history to repeat itself or to rhyme—for him to reemerge as a revolutionary leader, hero, and martyr. But Georgians do not seem to follow, and he was growing uneasy that he was losing the stage, that he would be replaced and someone else would become the new Saakashvili. In his party, another leader, Nika Melia, has been emerging, posing a challenge to him.
So, he decided to go back, partly—as some argued—because of jealousy and ego and partly to reinvent himself.
He crossed the border illegally for the second time. Did he ultimately hope his friends in Washington would save him? Did he hope for another popular uprising? Did he miscalculate?
It’s not certain. But so far, few in Washington have spoken up for the man who was once their golden boy.
Correction, Nov. 5, 2021: A previous version of the article incorrectly stated the number of TV stations Mikheil Saakashvili raided in 2007. It also misstated the population in Georgia.
Ani Chkhikvadze is a reporter at Voice of America. Views expressed in this piece do not represent the opinions of VOA, the U.S. Agency for Global Media or the U.S. government.