President of the Republic of Georgia
B orn December 21, 1967, in Tbilisi, Georgia; son of Nikoloz Saakashvili (a doctor) and Giuli Ala-sania (a professor); married Sandra Roelofs; children: Eduard, Nikoloz. Education: Kiev University Institute of International Relations, undergraduate degree, 1987; Strasbourg Human Rights International Institute, law degree, early 1990s; Columbia University, J.D., mid1990s; studied law at the George Washington University National Center of Law, mid1990s.
Addresses: Office—Administration of the President, 7 Ingorokova St. Index 0134, Tbilisi, Republic of Georgia.
W orked for Norwegian Institute of Human Rights, 1992; worked for Human Rights Committee of Georgia, 1992-93; lawyer, Patterson, Belknap, Webb, and Tyler in New York City, mid1990s; elected to parliament, Republic of Georgia, 1995, then named majority leader in parliament, 1998; leader of Georgian delegation and assembly vice-president, Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, 2000; minister of justice, Republic of Georgia, 2000-01; elected to parliament, Republic of Georgia, 2001; chair of Tbilisi city council, Republic of Georgia, 2002-03; president of Georgia, 2004-07, 2008—.
M ikheil Saakashvili, a young, brilliant, but brashpolitician, became president of Georgia, the former Soviet republic between Russia and Turkey, in 2004, after leading a dramatic and peaceful revolution that forced former Soviet official Edward She-vardnadze out of the presidency. He quickly and dramatically moved Georgia toward a free-market economy and a closer alliance with Western countries, all while sparring with Russia and breakaway regions of his own country. Georgia’s economy boomed under Saakashvili’s leadership, but he grew intolerant of increasing opposition to his policies. His suppression of protests in the fall of 2007 wounded his image as a democratic reformer, but he won re-election as president in January of 2008 and continued his pro-Western, pro-capitalist, anti-Russian policies.
Saakashvili was born in Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi, in December of 1967 to Nikoloz Saakashvili, a doctor, and Giuli Alasania, a professor who has studied Georgian history. After graduating from secondary school, Saakashvili attended the Kiev University Institute of International Relations, a prestigious Soviet school in Ukraine (which, like Georgia, was then part of the Soviet Union and is now an independent country). He studied human rights law at the Strasbourg Human Rights International Institute in Strasbourg, France, where he met his wife, Sandra Roelofs, who is Dutch.
Despite his youth, Saakashvili quickly became a key player in negotiations to settle ethnic and separatist tensions unleashed in Georgia by the breakup of the Soviet Union. Two regions of Georgia, South Ossetia and Abkazia, fought civil wars with the Georgian government in the early 1990s because they wanted to be connected to Russia, not Georgia. In 1992, while working at the Norwegian Institute of Human Rights, Saakashvili organized a peace conference that led to a cease-fire between the Georgian government and South Ossetian insurgents. In 1992 and 1993, while working for the Human Rights Committee of Georgia, he helped negotiate prisoner exchanges between Georgia and separatists in Abk-hazia and between Armenians and Azeris, who had fought over Nagorno-Karabakh, a breakaway region of Azerbaijan.
In the mid1990s, Saakashvili studied law in the United States. He earned a master’s degree in law at Columbia University and studied for a year at the George Washington University National Center of Law, then practiced commercial law in New York City for about a year; however, when Zurab Zhva-nia, a leading politician in Georgia, visited him in New York and asked him to come home and join the government, he accepted the invitation.
Elected to Georgia’s parliament in 1995, Saakashvili became chair of a committee on legal and constitutional issues. He and the committee successfully pushed for major legal and judicial reforms, such as merit-based selection of judges and making the courts more open and transparent. Saakashvili’s reform work made him a popular figure in Georgia. He became majority leader in parliament in 1998. About a year later, he was elected to lead Georgia’s delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, which elected him to the position of assembly vice-president in January of 2000.
In October of 2000, Georgia’s president, Edward Shevardnadze, a former foreign minister for the Soviet Union, named Saakashvili minister of justice. In his new job, he pushed for prison reform, visiting prisons as part of his work. Saakashvili also displayed a populist streak that impressed many Georgians. Unlike most of the country’s leaders, he walked and took public transportation to work; citizens often stopped him on the street to tell him their complaints about the government.
Saakashvili launched several investigations of corruption in the government, but Shevardnadze and other officials did not follow through with prosecutions. In one dramatic moment at a cabinet meeting, Saakashvili confronted several other ministers with photos of their lavish vacation homes. He asked how they could afford them on their official salaries of $100 a month and accused them of acquiring them through corrupt land deals. In September of 2001, Saakashvili resigned from the cabinet, complaining that he could not serve in a government that tolerated corruption.
Saakashvili was elected to parliament as an independent a month later, and he soon founded a new political party, the United National Movement, with an anti-corruption platform. He left parliament to run successfully for city council in Tbilisi, the capital, where one-third of all Georgians live. He was elected council chair. Under his leadership, the council improved city services and rooted out corruption in the city government.
In November of 2003, Saakashvili ran for parliament again, with the slogan “Georgia Without Shevardnadze.” Observers and pollsters forecast that his National Movement would win the elections, but officially released totals showed Shevardnadze’s coalition winning. International observers called the elections deeply flawed, and a Georgian human rights group reported ballot stuffing, beatings of election officials, and the burning of an opposition party office. Saakashvili and two other Georgian leaders, Nino Burjanadze, speaker of parliament, and Zhvania, leader of the United Democrats party, accused the government of rigging the election and called for national protests. Saakashvili (according to Owen Matthews and Frank Brown of Newsweek) asked Georgians to “declare civil disobedience to the Shevardnadze regime.”
The protests, which became known as the Rose Revolution, lasted 19 days and attracted up to 40,000 people. Saakashvili traveled across Georgia to convince supporters to come to Tbilisi to join the demonstrations. On November 22, when the parliament was scheduled to meet to certify the election results, Saakashvili, Burjanadze, Zhvania, and other protesters flooded the parliament session to stop the vote. As Saakashvili entered, he held a red rose in one hand to show he was leading a peaceful protest. Guards, whom the protesters had fed during the long siege, stepped aside and let the protest-ers in. Shevardnadze and other legislators fled. The next morning, after an overnight negotiating session with Saakashvili and other members of the opposition, Shevardnadze resigned.
“We were afraid all the way through,” Saakashvili told Newsweek writer Ken Stier. “To the superficial observer, it looked like a music festival, but it was not. It was very close to violence. It could have gone very, very badly. When we went into the Parliament, there were a lot of armed people there, and when we entered the square in front of Parliament, there were a lot of arms, busloads of weapons.”
New elections were held in January of 2004, and Saakashvili ran practically unopposed for president, winning in an enormous landslide. He said he looked to American political figures such as former president John F. Kennedy and U.S. Senator John McCain as role models. “I was really raised on American democracy,” he told Peter Baker of the Washington Post.
To many in the West, the Rose Revolution and Saakashvili’s electoral victory were signs that democracy was advancing in the former Soviet republics. “Saakashvili is bright, charismatic, energetic, and very honest,” Georgian political analyst Dodona Kiziria of Indiana University told Anna Kuchment of Newsweek. Standing up to the government’s corruption “really took courage, because Shevardnadze was a giant,” Kiziria added. At the same time, she noted, Saakashvili’s brash, popu-list personality had a downside. “The only problem with Saakashvili is that he must be restrained once in a while and taught to be more subtle and diplomatic,” she said.
That was the polite way of putting it. “If he becomes president, it will be an economic and political disaster for Georgia. Saakashvili is not very sane,” Irina Sarishvili-Chanturia, a Shevardnadze supporter, told Baker of the Washington Post. “He’s absolutely uncontrolled . He’s really dangerous.”
As president, Saakashvili pushed for Western-style free-market economic reforms and promised to create elite investigative units to tackle corruption. His government abolished dozens of permit rules that restricted business. It laid off almost half of its civil servants and disbanded the traffic police, infamous for taking bribes. It also privatized many state-run institutions, such as the country’s hospitals. The moves succeeded in stimulating the impoverished Georgian economy; its gross domestic product tripled during his first term.
Saakashvili declared that he wanted Georgia to become a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the Western military alliance. United States President George W. Bush showed his support of Saakashvili with a visit to Georgia in the spring of 2005. Bush praised him for “building a democratic society where a free press flourishes, a vigorous opposition is welcome, and unity is achieved through peace,” according to Anne Apple-baum of the Washington Post. The U.S. also helped train Georgian troops and awarded the country a $300 million grant from its Millennium Challenge program, designed to help the economies of small democracies.
Saakashvili also tried to exert greater control over the still defiant South Ossetia and Abkhazia regions. That increased tensions with Russia, which supports the separatist movements there. Like other former Soviet republics, Georgia has also quarreled with Russia over the high prices Russia charges for natural gas exports. The tensions became especially strong in 2006, when Russia embargoed imports from Georgia, expelled many Georgians from Russia, and slowed its approval of visas for Georgians who wanted to visit Russia.
Saakashvili defiantly proclaimed that Georgia would find new markets. “We’ve been thrown into the open sea. The time has come for us to learn to swim,” he said, according to Owen Matthews and Anna Nemtsova of Newsweek International. To lessen its dependence on Russian natural gas, Georgia signed gas deals with Iran. In September of 2006, tensions escalated further, as Georgian authorities arrested four Russian military officials. Saakashvili accused them of plotting to overthrow him. Russian President Vladimir Putin threatened to formally recognize South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent countries if Western nations did the same for Ko-sovo, the breakaway province of Serbia.
During his first term, critics of Saakashvili argued that he had an authoritarian streak, did not always respect the law and free speech, and was inflaming tensions with Russia with rash actions. Laid-off police, civil servants, and residents of rural areas that had not experienced much economic growth also opposed the government. In November of 2007, after protesters staged five days of peaceful protests outside the parliament, Saakashvili sent riot police to break up the crowd with rubber bullets and tear gas. Next, he declared a two-week state of emergency, banned public protests, and shut down most news outlets, including two opposition television stations and cable broadcasts of foreign news channels. He defended his actions, accusing the protesters of being manipulated by Russian agents. But Saakashvili had injured his democratic reputation. Faced with extreme criticism from his international allies, he announced that he would move up the presidential election from the fall of 2008 to January 5.
Saakashvili stepped down from the presidency for two months in order to run for re-election. He spent the end of 2007 campaigning across the country, promising to fight unemployment and poverty and change his cabinet. Before the vote, international observers complained the government was engaged in voter intimidation and had padded the voting rolls with untraceable names.
In January, Saakashvili was declared the winner of the election with 53 percent of the vote, enough to avoid a runoff election and far ahead of his closest rival, who got 26 percent. In an ironic echo of the Rose Revolution protests, opponents of Saakashvili organized protests, claiming that Saakashvili had not actually won more than 50 percent and was obligated to participate in a runoff. But European election observers called the vote a major step forward for democracy, while also pointing to some violations of election law.
On January 20, Saakashvili was sworn in for a second term as president. “This election proved that our democracy is blossoming, and that we can build democratic institutions that will endure far longer than any single individual,” he said in his inaugural speech, according to a transcript on his presidential Web site. He promised that the opposition would have a more influential role in government institutions. He also pledged to make the fight against poverty the central goal of his new term, through improved social benefit programs, credit programs, and aid to rural areas.
In March of 2008, Saakashvili visited the United States and won Bush’s endorsement of Georgia’s request to join NATO. Acceptance into the military alliance, Saakashvili hoped, would send Russia a strong signal that it could no longer threaten Georgia; however, tensions with Russia escalated in the spring of 2008 when Putin declared he would seek even closer relationships with South Ossetia and Abkhazia and sent more troops to the area. It appeared that the same international issues that Saakashvili confronted in his first four years as president would also dominate his second term.
Economist, January 12, 2008, p. 43-44. Newsweek, November 24, 2003, p. 41; November 25, 2003; December 8, 2003, p. 60; May 11, 2005; August 2, 2007. Newsweek International, May 17, 2004; August 23, 2004; May 8, 2006; October 9, 2006; October 16, 2006; November 19, 2007. U.S. News & World Report, November 19, 2007, p. 30. Washington Post, November 26, 2003, p. A1; January 5, 2004, p. A11; February 21, 2004, p. A19; November 9, 2007, p. A16; November 13, 2007, p. A19; January 2, 2008, p.A9; January 6, 2008, p. B6; January 14, 2008, p. A18; March 24, 2008, p. A13; May 1, 2008, p. A10.
“Biography” President of Georgia, http://www.president.gov.ge/?1=E&m=1&sm=3 (May 11, 2008).
“Inauguration” President of Georgia, http://www.president.gov.ge/?1=E&m=1&sm=1 (May 11, 2008).
“Profile: Mikhail Saakashvili” BBC News, http://news.bbc.co.uk/go/pr/fr/-/2/hi/europe/7084480.stm (May 11, 2008).