Most independent observers will agree that President Mikheil Saakashvili and his government have their flaws. No one was happy with the November 2007 crackdown of opposition demonstrations, the attack on Imedi TV and its take-over by government-friendly owners, the unfair advantages enjoyed by government candidates in election campaigns and especially the lack of a pluriform, responsible media landscape. And most people put at least a certain amount of blame for the August 2008 war at Saakashvili’s feet. This slow but steady tarnishing of his image has been accompanied by an equally steady outflow of former allies into the opposition ranks.
But it is also generally felt that Saakashvili and his government have done a lot of good things for Georgia: reducing corruption, modernising its society and, perhaps most importantly, stimulating economic development throughout the country. It is also often pointed out that despite everything, Georgia’s opposition can express its grievances as loudly and as many times as its wants, and that Georgia is anyhow a lot freer than Russia, Armenia or Azerbaijan.
So the question arises: does Saakashvili’s government have the right intentions, despite its flaws, or is it essentially on the wrong track, despite its positive achievements?
A number of incidents from the last couple of months suggest that Saakashvili and his government are fundamentally misguided.
In January it surfaced that in July 2008, the Ministry of Defence-affiliated TV station Sakartvelo TV had run a documentary quoting Hitler:
It must be thoroughly understood that the lost land will never be won back by solemn prayers, nor by hopes in any League of Nations, but only by the force of arms
The choice to quote Hitler reflects a very poor sense of judgement, but as they say, mistakes happen. What is perhaps more worrying is the content of the quote itself, which betrays a deeper misguidedness.
Then on the 26th of January, Saakashvili himself evoked Nazi Germany and Hutu Rwanda, comparing Russia to the perpetrators of two genocides and Georgia to their Jewish and Tutsi victims. Not even by Georgia’s own sanctimonious account of the August 2008 war does this remotely make sense – Saakashvili’s statement can only be qualified as deeply immoral.
And now we have Imedi TV’s absurd fake Russian invasion news bulletin. As with Sakartvelo TV quoting Hitler, it thoroughly discredits the people responsible for its production. What is more troubling is that Saakashvili’s first reaction was that the fake story “maximally reflected reality”. Even if demonising Russia can be explained (though not excused) by misguided nationalism – it is unforgivable that the programme portrayed opposition politicians Nino Burjanadze and Zurab Noghaideli as Russian collaborators.
These are in a way ‘just’ a couple of incidents, but each of them is worrying, and taken together they show that there is a fundamental problem. Saakashvili’s greatest political example is probably Mustafa Kemal ‘Atatürk’, but he may be emulating him in more ways than one. Despite that man’s positive reputation for thoroughly modernising and emancipating Turkish society, his economic and especially his democratic and human rights track record was less than stellar.