Sun, Nov 18, 2007 - Page 9 News List

The future of Georgia augurs more of the past


Educated in the US and fluent in four languages and the values of free-market democracies, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili was supposed to be different.

When he was elected president of Georgia after a bloodless revolution in 2003, he was deemed a savior for the post-Soviet landscape, as if he had been conjured by a committee of Washington think tanks and European human rights groups.

Yet this week, with Georgia under a state of emergency after his government quashed a large demonstration and violently shut an opposition television station, Saakashvili seemed, even in the eyes of some steadfast supporters, to be ruling with the willfulness of the very autocrats that he once so disdained. Was his true temperament showing, or had the burdens and realities of office somehow changed him?

Georgia has in recent years taken on a prominence far greater than its small size would merit, in large part because under Saakashvili, it had been considered a model for countries trying to shed decades of despotism and decay.

Now, Saakashvili has begun to draw comparisons to a leader who has chosen a different path to lift his nation: President Vladimir Putin of Russia, Georgia's neighbor, former overlord and these days frequent adversary. The Georgian government's announcement on Wednesday that it would cancel the state of emergency two days later appeared unlikely to wipe away the stain on the reputation of Saakashvili, who is only 39 and is known as Misha.

"I think that Misha tends toward the authoritarian," said Scott Horton, a human rights lawyer in the US who taught Saakashvili when he was a student at Columbia Law School in the mid-1990s, later hired him at a law firm in New York and has remained friendly with him.

"I would put it this way: There is a remarkable similarity between Misha and Putin in terms of their attitudes about presidential prerogatives and authority," he said.

Like Putin, he said, Saakashvili has marginalized the parliament and taken to belittling the opposition.

Horton said he did not believe that Georgia -- a former Soviet republic that lies in the Caucasus at the crossroads of Europe and Asia -- was turning into a dictatorship or that Saakashvili was as harsh as Putin.

Still, in Tbilisi and in the West, the question that was being debated among Saakashvili's allies was whether he had become another strongman in a region full of them.

Matthew Bryza, a senior US diplomat who was here this week to try to persuade Saakashvili to lift the state of emergency, told reporters that he was sympathetic to the pressures that Saakashvili had to bear.

But Bryza then went on to say that Saakashvili's closing of the opposition television station "sent shock waves" through Washington.

Washington had been a place where Saakashvili had thrived in recent years, becoming a regular on the policy speech circuit and in the halls of government. He was so popular among officials who wanted to hear of his successes -- the fight against corruption, the strong economic growth, the judicial reform -- that he joked he could turn more heads walking through Congress than Britney Spears.

In recent days, with characteristic brashness, Saakashvili has lashed back, contending that a fragile Georgian democracy was severely threatened by the opposition protests, that Russia was trying to destabilize the country and that the television station was advocating the overthrow of the government. The station, Imedi, remains closed, and officials said on Wednesday that a court had pulled its license, responding to a request by prosecutors.

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