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The Trouble With Saakashvili

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By Jackson Diehl
Monday, September 8, 2008

The crisis in Georgia had settled by late last week into a test of wills over the survival of Mikheil Saakashvili's pro-Western government. Russia's president called Saakashvili "a political corpse" and said Moscow will no longer deal with him, while the Bush administration rushed him a $1 billion package of aid, delivered in person by Vice President Cheney. U.S. officials portray the rescue of the 40-year-old president as the best way to punish Vladimir Putin's regime for its reckless invasion of its neighbor last month. After all, there's little doubt that Saakashvili's ouster has been a prime Kremlin objective.

The irony is that, beneath that overweening campaign to contain Russian belligerence, American officials are still seething at Saakashvili. His impulsive and militarily foolhardy attack on the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali on Aug. 8 opened the way for Putin's aggression. True, provocations by Russian-controlled Ossetian militias preceded the Georgian move, and Russian troops' subsequent takeover of much of Georgia was clearly planned and prepared well in advance. But the mercurial Saakashvili disregarded direct American warnings that he not fall into Putin's trap. He embarrassed his staunchest defenders in Washington and plunged both his country and the United States into what has been a costly -- and so far losing -- battle.

That's why during the same State Department news conference at which Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced that Georgia would become one of the largest recipients of U.S. aid, Saakashvili's move was again labeled "a mistake" by his principal administration handler, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matt Bryza. It is also why other administration officials are privately far more scathing in their assessments of a man who repeatedly has presented Washington with ugly surprises. Just nine months before the South Ossetian fighting, Saakashvili sent riot police to attack demonstrators in his own capital and closed down an opposition television station, forcing a U.S. intervention to rescue the political freedoms that justify the American alliance with Georgia.

The truth is that it would be considerably easier for the United States to defend Georgia and its democracy if it did not have to defend -- and depend on -- Saakashvili himself. Yet the media-savvy president easily won reelection earlier this year and is due to serve until 2013. And a Russian victory in forcing his departure would destroy the country's political system. The crude public attacks on him by Putin and sidekick Dmitry Medvedev, who publicly called him a "lunatic" and "bastard," have only served to strengthen Saakashvili both in Washington and Tblisi.

Still, if Georgian democracy needs Saakashvili to survive, it also needs, eventually, to reckon with him. If and when the Russian occupation can be ended and the imminent threat to the country overcome, the test for Georgians will become whether they can use democratic institutions to investigate and challenge their president's behavior and hold him accountable for the huge reversal he has inflicted on the country.

That point was made in Washington last week by Nino Burjanadze, the former speaker of the Georgian parliament who helped Saakashvili lead the Rose Revolution of 2003. Burjanadze broke with her old ally last spring and created the Tblisi-based Foundation for Democracy and Development to address the glaring weaknesses in Georgia's new politics. She's been advocating for a freer press, more independent judges, and a more powerful and independent parliament -- the absence of which arguably opened the way to Saakashvili's Ossetian blunder.

Like all Georgian politicians, Burjanadze feels constrained from criticizing Saakashvili while Russian troops are still blockading the country's roads and ports. Nevertheless, she says, "the way for us to resolve this crisis is to act like a real democracy. People who have questions about what has happened need to be able to raise them. The government should answer, and then the people should decide."

The Bush administration, too, needs to figure out how to separate its support for Georgia as a country and a democracy from its defense of Saakashvili. The new aid package doesn't do that -- a large part of the money will be channeled directly into the government budget. All of the funds are earmarked for economic support and reconstruction; none are aimed at strengthening democratic institutions or civil society. Perhaps that's necessary to deny Putin his victory. But it won't help solve Georgia's leadership problem.


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