Georgia's Ex-Leader Puts In Final Spurt On Comeback Trail

By Tara Bahrampour
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 2, 2008

TELAVI, Georgia -- Before his helicopter touches down, Mikheil Saakashvili already has his hand on the door handle. A bodyguard leans forward but can't restrain him long; within seconds, Misha, as Georgia's former president and now campaigning candidate is informally known, has jumped out, ducked into a black SUV, and is barreling at top speed through the countryside.

In Telavi, the capital of Georgia's wine region, he unfolds his broad 6-foot-3-inch frame from the car and grabs a microphone. "I live for you," he booms to a crowd in the street. "You can't imagine what it means when you smile for me." Then he's off to a local university; by the end of the afternoon he has hit a church, a theater, a vineyard and a farmhouse, chased after by out-of-breath assistants, bodyguards and TV crews.

Saakashvili, 40, has spent every day of the past month like this, on an intensive, often frantic, 41-day presidential campaign that culminates when voters go to the polls Saturday. "I love campaigns," he says with a grin as the helicopter lifts off again. "It's like a boxing championship; you go up and up and up, until the last one."

But this campaign, meant to be his last, wasn't supposed to happen this way.

His term as president was slated to last through 2008. But he cut it short in November to defuse a crisis that began when he sent out baton-swinging riot police after five days of peaceful anti-government demonstrations, accusing the protesters of being stooges of Georgia's rival, Russia. Police also raided and violently shut down a popular opposition TV station.

The tactics angered many Georgians and shocked allies of this former Soviet republic; the United States had praised Georgia under Saakashvili as a successful new democracy.

Western governments and human rights organizations condemned the police attacks, saying Saakashvili had taken a troubling authoritarian turn, and some analysts said the country could fall into military rule or civil war. But the next day Saakashvili had a surprise response: He moved the presidential election ahead to Jan. 5, which required him to step down and run again. Georgians, he declared, would show with their ballots whether they supported him.

A former member of parliament and justice minister, Saakashvili came to power in 2004 by leading the bloodless Rose Revolution, which swept out the corrupt government of President Eduard Shevardnadze. Shortly afterward, he was elected with 97 percent of the vote, in an election that monitors ruled essentially clean despite his enormous tally.

In Washington, the charismatic, American-educated leader became a golden boy. A Columbia- and George Washington University-educated lawyer, he set about trying to reform a collapsing bureaucracy at the same breakneck speed he seems to use in everything. He encouraged foreign investment, repaired roads, replaced a corrupt police force, and brought reliable gas and electricity service. He pushed for membership in the European Union and NATO, reined in a rebellious autonomous region and moved to win back two breakaway regions along the Russian border.

He became known for scheduling state business after midnight, treating visitors to impromptu rides on Ferris wheels and showing up in unexpected places, such as a conflict zone where he confronted Russian soldiers (an event captured on film and replayed repeatedly on television).

The United States helped train the Georgian military and selected the country for a $300 million Millennium Challenge grant. President Bush called Georgia a "beacon of democracy," and Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) nominated Saakashvili for the Nobel Peace Prize.

But critics accused him of creeping authoritarianism and infringements on free speech and the rule of law. He promoted big business and international investment at the expense of ordinary people, they said, and some charged that his bluster was unnecessarily escalating tensions with Russia over trade, energy and border disputes.

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