|Lunch with the FT: Mikheil Saakashvili|
|April 26, 2008|
April 25, 2008
Some lunches end with coffee in the drawing room; others finish with a brandy on the terrace. But the final course of my lunch with Mikheil Saakashvili is taking place in a Dolphin helicopter, speeding towards a military base in the middle of Georgia.
President Saakashvili – affable over lunch on a terrace in Tbilisi, the Georgian capital – is ebullient once up in the air. As we lean back on our black leather seats, he puts on a CD at top volume: it is Charles Aznavour singing “Je N’ai Rien Oublié”. French is one of the many languages the president speaks and besides – he informs me – Aznavour is of Georgian origin.
Gesturing towards the countryside – and shouting to make himself heard over the helicopter blades and the Aznavour – Saakashvili says that if I look to my right I will see South Ossetia, a Georgian territory controlled by Russian-backed separatists. “We don’t want to fly too close to there,” he laughs. “The last time I did that, they shot a missile at my helicopter.”
He says: “Look down, we’re passing over lands owned by the billionaire Boris Ivanishvili. He’s a crazy guy,” he says affectionately. “He’s imported some giraffes and zebras, maybe we can see them running around.”
Picking at the bunch of grapes that is the remnant of my lunch, I ask whether there are many Georgian billionaires?
“About 10,” says the president.
And do they all support you?
“There was one who opposed me, but he died a couple of months ago. In London.” The president smiles sheepishly, perhaps aware that I will have heard the accusations that he had a hand in the death of his opponent. The British police seem to have concluded that the billionaire in question, Badri Patarkatsishvili, died of natural causes. Still, the exchange crystallises a question that had been forming in my mind over lunch. Am I in the west or am I in the Wild West?
It is President Saakashvili’s political mission both to prove and to ensure that Georgia is part of the west – a country which should be a member in good standing of the “Euro-Atlantic community”.
Georgia, which regained its independence in 1991, after the break-up of the Soviet Union, is a country with an ancient history and a population of around 4.7m, perched on the end of the Black Sea – and bordering Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan. But it is Georgia’s relationship with its giant neighbour Russia that inevitably shapes the country’s destiny. Saakashvili’s biggest political headache is that the Russians are supporting separatists in South Ossetia and the larger Georgian territory of Abkhazia. The Georgians accuse the Russians of a creeping annexation of part of their country.
“Misha” Saakashvili is a burly charismatic man, who is well over 6ft tall. He was 23 in 1991, when the Soviet Union died, and comes from a family with a dissident and Georgian nationalist tradition (his great-grandfather, who helped to bring him up, had spent 15 years in a Soviet gulag). When the Iron Curtain came down, he seized the opportunity to travel and study in the west. The first foreign country he visited was the Netherlands, which is where his wife, Sandra, comes from. (The couple have two children, Eduard and Nikoloz.) From our helicopter the president points out – with great pride – how neat the fields of Georgia now look: “Just like Holland; I never dreamed Georgia could look like that.”
Saakashvili studied law in Strasbourg in France and at Columbia University in New York, specialising in human rights. In 1995 he returned to Georgia and by 2000 he was a rising star in the government of Eduard Shevardnadze, who had been Soviet foreign minister. But, after just a year as interior minister, Saakashvili resigned. He said corruption was so bad in Georgia that the country was at risk of being taken over by criminals. It was a move that bolstered his reputation at home and abroad and when, in 2003, Georgia went through a popular uprising, the “rose revolution”, Saakashvili was swept to power.
A couple of months later at the age of 36, he was elected president with 97 per cent of the vote. When I raise my eyebrows at this rather startling margin of victory, the president shrugs and says, “I know, it makes me sound like Mubarak but there was no real opposition then.”
There certainly is an opposition now. In November Saakashvili, once leader of a popular rebellion, faced the uncomfortable experience of mass demonstrations aimed at his own government. To the embarrassment of his admirers in Washington and Brussels, he shut down a private television station. This January, though, the president regained some credit by restoring media freedom before calling and winning early presidential elections with just over 52 per cent of the votes. The opposition made claims of vote-rigging but international observers approved the elections.
Still, Saakashvili remains a controversial figure. We met not at his chosen restaurant but at his half-finished presidential palace on a hill above the centre of Tbilisi. With its glass dome, the new building resembles the Reichstag in Berlin. I asked, as casually as I could, whether it was controversial to spend so much money on a presidential palace when Georgia remains a poor country, albeit one whose economy is growing very fast. “It would be controversial, if that was all I was doing,” he replies, “but we’re also building schools and hospitals. People can see that life is improving. And if officials work in decent offices, with decent equipment, they are more likely to behave like decent human beings.”
We hop into the middle of a nine-car convoy and head off to the Kopala hotel for lunch. It is a beautiful spring day, so we are out on the terrace – overlooking the River Mtkvari and the ancient yellow-stoned churches and forts of Tbilisi.
The restaurant is expecting the president, so we are not presented with menus. Instead we are led to a table laden with food – salads, olives, two varieties of caviar – one black, one a lurid orange. Throughout the meal, fresh plates of food are brought in: a platter of fish, some lamb shish kebabs, a spicy sausage that Saakashvili urges me to try. He is a solicitous host, ensuring that I try both the red and the white wines. Drinking the wine is something of a political gesture, since Russia banned imports of Georgian wine in 2006 to put pressure on the Saakashvili government, which President Putin regards as dangerously pro-American.
. . .
Inevitably Georgia lives in the shadow of Russia. But it is Saakashvili’s goal to give his country new horizons to look west across the Black Sea towards the rest of Europe and the United States. “Georgians”, he tells me, “were always very proud of being part of the bigger European picture, the Crusaders, the big European trade routes, fighting for Constantinople. When they were part of that, they were happy. Not just being an isolated, faraway country, but part of something bigger.”
But while Georgians are certain that they are part of Europe, fellow Europeans have not always been so sure. “The whole history of Georgia”, says Saakashvili, “is of Georgian kings writing to western kings for help, or for understanding. And sometimes not even getting a response.”
Saakashvili is a firm friend of the most powerful “king” in the west, George W Bush, but even that has not been enough to clinch Saakashvili’s main foreign policy goal. At a Nato summit in Bucharest earlier this month, Georgia failed to get the “membership action plan” it had been lobbying for and had to settle for a vague promise that the country would eventually join the alliance. Saakashvili, however, is clear Bush did everything he could. “He really fought for us at this Nato summit in Bucharest. When I went into the room, he looked like he was just back from the OK Corral – red-faced, very tired, exhausted.”
As further plates of food are brought to the table, I ask the president if he is not over-dependent on his friendship with Bush? What will happen when he goes?
No problem, apparently. John McCain is also a personal friend – “the guy brought me a bulletproof vest in 2003, specially came in with a bulletproof vest to give it to me.” How about the Democrats? Saakashvili points out that Barack Obama was one of two co-sponsors of a recent Senate resolution in favour of Georgia joining Nato. And Richard Holbrooke, tipped to be secretary of state in a putative Clinton administration, is “a good friend for a long time, a real genius”.
The European powers are trickier. Though Saakashvili clearly feels warmly towards French president Nicolas Sarkozy. “I had lunch with him in Bucharest, and he’s very impressive. He is very unusual, different. He is passionate ... fascinated by details that normally no politician would be fascinated by ... In some ways we have exactly the same temperament, which for him is a problem, because it’s not totally European.”
Saakashvili is clearly brilliant at winning friends and influencing people – and I can feel myself buckling before his charm offensive. But his westernisation project for Georgia is about much more than gaining allies and joining new institutions. At several points in the lunch he argues that what he is really intent on is a project of cultural transformation for the country – to change it from a Soviet mentality to a western one.
“We came from an oppressive society that was lawless. We decided to turn it into a society that is free but where the law is enforced. And that is two difficult transformations.” Saakashvili argues that some of the opposition to him is generated simply by his insistence that people pay tax. “Some people see that as oppressive, they are not used to it.” Freedom, he insists, is about “a much more profound transformation than just proclaiming that we will have free elections.”
As the lunch strays on to philosophy and a platter of fruit is brought out, I feel that it is winding down. But then I receive an unexpected invitation. The president is off to inspect some Georgian commandos, who have just graduated from a one-year intensive training course, run by the Israeli army. Do I want to come along?
“Take some mineral water and some fruit,” he suggests. We get back in the car. The road to the airport is lined with policemen with their backs to us, scanning the horizon for threats. After a 45-minute helicopter ride, we arrive at a military base in the mountains. The president is ushered into an underground bunker, where some Israeli military officers put on a video designed, I assume, to showcase the training they have been giving the Georgians. It is a short film showing soldiers rolling around in the snow, shouting and shooting at each other – all set to stirring music. When the video is over, Saakashvili thanks the Israelis in Hebrew and moves on to the passing-out parade for his new commandos. There are salutes, anthems, speeches and then it is back into the helicopter.
The Georgian president is impressive – energetic, intelligent and with strong liberal views but, I wonder, how long you can live like this without succumbing to megalomania? And how you can ever give it up? Saakashvili is only 40 years old. Back up in the air, I ask how much longer he can serve as president. “Five years and two months,” he says with telling precision. And what might he do, once he steps down? Saakashvili’s natural ebullience subsides a little. “I don’t know – go and lecture somewhere. At Columbia, maybe.”
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