KyivPost

Don’t cry for Saakashvili

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Oct. 7, 2012, 5:46 p.m. | Op-ed — by Olena Tregub

Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, right, his son Nikoloz, left, and his wife Sandra Roelofs stand around a ballot box before voting at a polling station in Tbilisi, Georgia, on Oct. 1. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)
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Olena Tregub

Olena Tregub is a journalist, educator and civic entrepreneur. She is leading the Kyiv Post Reform Watch project the Kyiv Post, which analyses Ukraine's post-Maidan transformation progress. In the United States, Tregub co-founded the Global Education Leadership consultancy. She also worked as an adjunct professor of political science at Adelphi University and as a media liaison at the United Nations in New York. For several years, she served as a Washington, D.C.-based foreign correspondent for the Ukrainian News Agency and a columnist at the Kyiv Post, as well as a researcher on Ukraine for The New York Times. Tregub is a World Economic Forum Global Shaper and a Young Atlanticist of the Atlantic Council. She is a graduate of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. She can be reached by email at olenatregub@gmail.com, on Facebook at www.facebook.com/olenatregub, by Twitter @otregub and on Skype at olenatregub.

TBLISI, Georgia -- Over the years, watching how Ukrainians look up to the Georgian president, I thought he is more popular in Ukraine than in Georgia.

Naturally, in the light of our helplessness, rampant corruption and crime, the Georgian oasis of reforms and modernization looks almost as paradise. However, I do not understand Ukrainians complaining that we do not have our own Mikheil Saakashvili and failing to evaluate his presidency objectively.

Since I was involved in the Georgian political drama, I cannot remain silent when I see how in Ukraine purposefully or due to ignorance we keep a distorted view of Georgia.

Let’s shed our illusions of and not tears for Saakashivili. This will give us better foundations for building our own country and democracy.

My critical view of Saakashvili does not aim to discourage our democrats and activists who need examples to follow. I myself respect and admire him.  And despite his mistakes he inspires young Ukrainians who are hoping for positive changes in their own country.

Saakashivili is the only person in the entire post-Soviet space who was not afraid to challenge and clean the ossified post-Communist system, remove its cronies and build the country of his dreams, even if many of his own fellow citizens discovered that it was difficult to find their place in the newly transformed state.

Having had a chance to communicate with Saakashvili and his team, I saw that his personality is largely influenced by the Western or, more precisely, globalized, culture.

This neoliberal culture disdains classic do-nothing bureaucrats who only control, divide among themselves and their allies and waste existing resources. Corruption is not tolerated. Education and personal achievements are highly valued.

In the Western culture, innovators who create things and come up with new ways of solving technological obstacles enjoy greatest respect. People with entrepreneurial spirit and independent thinking are the vanguard of the tech-savvy, prosperous and democratic society.

Saakashvili’s hyperactivity translated into concrete reforms, including building new infrastructures and institutions of Georgia that service its citizens more fairly and effectively. The changes are the realization not only of hisown ambitions and vision, but also of values ​​of this Western culture.

Ifthe mayor of London or CEO of McKinsey were told to run such a dilapidated state like Georgia, they would probably implement the same ideas and reforms as Saakashvili did.

When, during one of the trips to Washington D.C., the Georgian president and his team met with Russian leaders, they said they did not have much to talk about. They are not only people of different generations, but also people of different cultures.

Gerogian yuppies, educated in the West, even in their manners and style, sharply differ from traditional post-Soviet leaders.

At the same time, Saakashvili -- as well as his government -- are representatives of the Caucasian and post-Soviet culture, no matter how hard they try to internalize Western values. This culture has some positive characteristics, like adventurousness, creativity, readiness to take great risks. But it is also responsible for a tendency to abuse power, deception, corruption, manipulation and intolerance.

Having written a few articles and blogs that included some criticism of Georgian democracy, I had to deal with attacks and accusations of our Ukrainian fans of the Georgian miracle. Believe me, I am paid neither by Russia nor billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, the opposition leader who won the Oct. 1 parliamentary election. I love to get the facts straight. I am not against the Georgian modelof reforms, but I am for an even better model for Ukraine – a European model -which would take into account mistakes Georgia and its leader made.

I will not go into details, given that it is not an investigative journalism but an opinion piece. I will just state that Georgia has many of the same problems that allpost-Soviet countries face.

It’s corruption at the highest levels, illegal monitoring of communication channels,  abuse of law enforcement agencies, a lack of respect for human rights, a controlled media and a bunch of other, mostly socio-economic problems. I rely on the information from common people, from Georgian friends as well as Americans who live and work in Georgia - in business, government, international organizations and media, as well as from my own research.

The fact that Ivanishvili, with his money but in the absence of any charisma, was able to defeat ruling party - is not a Russian conspiracy. This is a logical outcome in the society that remains largely poor, with high unemployment and where people still rely on the state and family to support them.

Traveling across Georgian villages, I was struck by how much Georgians were weary of their young leader.

Village and countryside clearly fell out of the orbit of Saakashvili’s reformist agenda and the lives of people who rutinely came to expect a support from the state, had not improved. Instead they feel a considerable administrative burden and control, combined with attempts of intimidation by local officals. They also complain that Saakashvili's government spent more time and money doing “fancy things”  -  external PR, attracting foreign visitors and investors, trying to impress with glass bridges and palaces, a daily "reality show" about the president on state-controlled television - than trying to solve the everyday problems of the needy population.

Why did all these people vote for Ivanishvili?

The answer is simple. He is the richest Georgian in the world, worth more than $5 billion. So there is a chance – the thinking goes- he will share his wealth with the people and will build churches, playgrounds, libraries and hospitals for them. He is unlikely to steal from people, since he is already that rich and his populist promises are just too hard to resist.

The second motivation is that people want Saakashvili to realize that one cannot keep his nation in such a tight grip. The way he tried to stifle political competition backfired. After Ivanishvili was openly prosecuted by the authorities, he started being viewed by people as a real and serious alternative to the current government.

If the government is so much after him, he must be worth something after all! He gradually became ever more serious challenger to the president. All in all, Invanishvili as a politician was of Saakashvili own making.

Thirdly, some Georgians find it extremely difficult to survive. For example, a family I met on my trip to Georgia had no money for coal, and pick up wood in the forest to heat their home. Under the government of Saakashvili,  they were severely fined and had to stop going to the forest. They complained about having to live in a cold house without any money. This is a typical profile of opposition voters.

This group of people is very large in our own country. One may call them lazy losers, or victims of communism, but eventually they are citizens with voting rights that cannot be ignored.

Finally, I would mention that Ukraine is one of the countries exposed to a planned advertising  information campaign led by the Georgian authorities. This is a legitimate public diplomacy of a country that cares about its image in the world. Ukrainian journalists, analysts, activists, politicians – leaders of public opinion- at the expense of the Georgian government and related structures –have been invited to tour "places of fame" of the Georgian reforms.

It's noble that Georgians share their experiences with us and want us to suceed. However, it’s bemusing to me when Ukrainians, who were showed a shiny packaging, eat the candy even without unwrapping it. Yes, some reforms, e.g. civil registry or road police reform, may qualify as "small miracles," but do not believe in the big miracle. It did not happen. Georgia is no Singapore yet, but still Georgia.

 

To say the truth one person – no matter how noble, charismatic and wise he is – cannot move the country into brighter and better future without the cooperation of and contribution, if not sacrifice, and patience of the public.

Irreversible results of reforms are achieved through the movement from below, when society is ready to embark on a new path of development, as it happenedin Central Europe after the collapse of communism.

So instead of bemoaning Saakashvili, let's take steps to change the thinking and awaken our people. Our society has plenty of leaders we need. These leaders may be bringing change not in a lightning pace as in Georgia, but through consensus building across main segments of the society one can finally reform our country, which 20 years after the collapse of the empire remains Soviet in its mentality, behavior and actions – or more precisely a lack of thereof.

What we should learn from the Georgians, it is their ability to inject curiosity about their country. When I compare the promotional tour of our officials, such as September ministerial delegation to Washington D.C., and Georgia’s "road shows," it is heaven and earth. This is despite the fact that objectively Ukraine is a wealthier country with the better economy.

Georgian authorities are much more educated, speak English and are comfortable on the international scene they understand how to campaign and which data to demonstrate to inspire confidence in international business and respect for their country among foreign leaders.

At the same time, the spin-doctoring can easily get out of hand. A friend of mine from Transparency International has recently told me a story about the Georgian reformers who used TI rankings in a promotional booklet about Georgia. The material was, in fact, distorting information - exaggerating progress made by Georgia. But Georgian authorities flatly refused to correct the data as demanded by TI. This caused a rift between Georgia and TI.

Sadly enough, the Ukrainian officials are not even interested in those ratings to start with. As the Deputy Minister of Finance at a conference in Kiev claimed, Transparency International simply uses a wrong methodology, implying that the Ukrainian government knows better – through their own ‘safer’ methodology – that the level of corruption is in fact lower. In short, we, Ukrainians, have a long way to go.

Olena Tregub is a freelance journalist in Washington D.C .and a CEO of Global  Education Leadership

 

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