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High Hopes for Georgian President Saakashvili - 2004-03-03


Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili received a royal welcome in the United States during his recent five-day visit. Many American and western leaders have praised the 36-year-old leader for paving the way for democracy in the Republic of Georgia by leading a bloodless overthrow of former president Eduard Shevardnadze last November. But some analysts say now that the honeymoon is nearly over, Mr. Saakashvili's leadership will be tested in a country plagued by severe poverty and weak central authority. VOA's Brent Hurd reports on the challenges the newly elected president faces and the risk of pinning a country's hopes on a single leader.

It was a moment of triumph for Mikheil Saakashvili. Last November, he stood at the door of the Georgian parliament with tens of thousands of demonstrators at his side. They were peacefully protesting against President Eduard Shevardnadze's government for widespread corruption and allegedly rigged parliamentary elections.

Inside, the embattled President Shevardnadze -- a former Soviet Foreign Minister -- convened the new lawmakers. Tensions ran high as protesters faced baton-welding police. But unexpectedly, the police dropped their shields and let the demonstrators pass into the parliament building.

Mr. Saakashvili shouted across the parliament chamber at President Shevardnadze to resign and declared a velvet revolution was taking place. The next day, the longtime leader capitulated and Georgians celebrated all night in the streets.

The bloodless revolt focused international attention on a region where democracy is still struggling to take root. In January, Mr. Saakashvili was elected president by 96% of the vote in a field of six candidates. Despite some reported irregularities, most international observers agreed that the election ran more smoothly than previous polls in Georgia.

Late last month, President Saakashvili traveled to Washington and New York to discuss what has become known as the "Rose Revolution" and his efforts to end corruption and attract foreign investment. “The revolution was not a protest against low wages, or electricity shortage, or the lack of basic security guarantees,” he said. “Rather, the revolution was about people coming out and fighting for their freedom, and their desire to live in a democratic society -- a society that respects human rights, freedom of speech, the rule of law and the belief that citizens have the right to choose their leaders and their destiny.”

During Mr. Saakashvili's five-day visit, he held more than 50 official meetings. He addressed the UN Security Council, met with the World Bank president and top U.S. lawmakers. He also had lunch with U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and spent nearly an hour at the White House with President Bush. At a press conference following the lunch Mr. Bush said: “I know first hand that the president will do everything he can to earn the confidence of the Georgian people by representing their will, by fighting corruption, by working for a system based upon integrity and decency and human rights. I am impressed by this leader. I am impressed by his vision and by his courage.”

But many analysts say the end of the story is yet to be written. Cory Welt, an expert on the Caucasus at the Center for Strategic and International Studies here in Washington, points out that President Saakashvili faces a thorny legacy of widespread corruption, separatism and severe economic problems that have left half of Georgia in poverty. “The problems didn't go away (when he was elected). What he is banking on is that the problems are solvable. But there wasn't a political will to solve them. Now that there is a political will, they are going to be able to move forward. This new team does not have the debts that Shevardnadze had to other people within the ruling or economic circle that were putting the breaks on reform.”

Despite the daunting task of fostering democracy, the outspoken, energetic president has made all the right moves so far, says political scientist Charles King of Georgetown University here in Washington. But Professor King warns that relying too much on one individual to reform an entire country can be risky: “I think it is rather dangerous to invest so much hope, and now so much money and political capital in the commitment of one particular person -- especially for the United States were we have seen this over and over, especially in the last decade and a half with pegging someone as being the hope for their country, indeed hope for the entire region -- and then at the end of the day, being rather disappointed.”

Professor King adds that former Albanian President Sali Berisha and Haiti's recently exiled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide are two examples of failed leaders. He notes that when Eduard Shevardnadze came to power a little more than a decade ago, he too was seen as a savior to his people embraced by the United States as a great hope for democracy. However, Mr. Shevardnadze was a product of Soviet communism, unlike Mr. Saakashvili who studied law in the United States. Professor King says that President Saakashvili's experience sets him apart from many leaders in the region. “Saakashvili is in his mid-thirties, educated at Columbia and speaks impeccable English,” he says. “He also spent time as justice minister under Shevardnadze and spent time as a real anti-corruption crusader. In fact, he eventually left because justice (in Georgia) could not be reformed. Saakashvili is someone who stands out because he is really representative of the possibility of democratic change in a part of the world that's been sliding back on the democratic scale for the last decade and a half.”

While in Washington, President Saakashvili told a group of international scholars that his first hand experience in democracy building would help him succeed where the previous government had failed. According to the president, “what the former government never understood, never grasped or never believed was that democracy, in order to be successful and to be genuine, must be derived from the people and be responsible and accountable to the people. Otherwise it will not be a true democracy.”

But critics are already challenging some of President Saakashvili's recent moves as less than democratic. Some analysts say that constitutional amendments rushed through parliament by Mr. Saakashvili have strengthened the president's powers. This concerns some international observers who strongly supported the November revolt.

Analyst Cory Welt of the Center for Strategic and International Studies says criticism will be common as President Saakashvili's new team finds its way. “I think the greatest challenge they face is to be able to respond convincingly to the criticism levied against them for the next six to 12 months,” he says. “One of the hallmarks of a strong regime is how it takes criticism from opposition. Right now, the government has not been able to answer the critics in a way that convinces them and the population that he is taking their interests into consideration and that he is serious in moving towards democracy and economic reform.”

During his U.S. visit, Mr. Saakashvili told President Bush that improved relations between Georgia and Russia also are a top priority. In fact, his first official visit as president was not to Washington, but to Moscow. “Georgia is ready to cooperate with Russia and meet Russia halfway on many issues,” Mr. Saakashvili said. “As long as Russia abides by its international commitments to remove its bases (from Georgia) and as long as Russia realizes we will not become a battlefield between two great powers -- I intend to continue down the path with new and improved relations with Moscow.”

The Kremlin maintains military bases and close ties with three autonomous republics within Georgia. Two of those territories -- Abkhazia and South Ossetia -- broke away completely after a bloody civil war just over a decade ago. President Saakashvili says he is committed to finding a peaceful solution and understands that expectations of both Georgians and the international community are high: “We know that many challenges lie ahead, we know that rebuilding our country will not be romantic and will require very hard work, sacrifice, focus and commitment. We know we have to deliver concrete actions and measurable results. What is important in this respect is maintaining this pace of change and providing leadership that sets an example for the first time in a decade.”

Mikheil Saakashvili, Europe's youngest elected leader, admits that this window of opportunity is limited. But he says he believes Georgia can inspire change in the Caucasuses, not by exporting revolutions, but by serving as an example of democracy and prosperity. Most observers agree that will be a tall order to fill.