This is not a column about Mikheil Saakashvili. If we are honest, the onetime Georgian president, former Odesa governor, professional revolutionary, and lifelong rabble rouser is now so minor a figure in global or regional affairs that he barely merits mention at all. And yet, with every new protest, charged public proclamation, or new twist in Saakashvili’s manic career, we are challenged to assess and scrutinise the brightness of his star in the firmament of Eurasian politics, and it is increasingly dim.
Long the darling of Western boosters, the cult of personality he cultivated was most enthusiastically nurtured—and is arguably still most fastidiously maintained, if diminishing—by an army of fawning politicos, analysts, and functionaries in the US and European capitals. Even as Saakashvili’s support in his home country cratered, Western operatives and analysts continued to uncritically service and “run interference” for him and the authoritarian apparatus he created, while privately (and sometimes publicly) parroting his inevitable propaganda about the supposed Kremlin origins of the political adversaries that bested him in elections.
Yet, this is not a column about Mikheil Saakashvili. This is about us. Why do so many Western politicians and key segments of the international commentariat lavish such praise and attention on someone with such a chequered record? Has there ever been a regional politician of such celebrity with so tenuous, or at least asterisked, a history of success? Ultimately, the story of Saakashvili’s rise and fall is not about coloured revolutions, or Ukraine, or Georgia, or Russia, or even of Saakashvili himself—but about the stubborn triumph of a flawed brand over reality.
There is no question that Saakashvili’s tenure in Georgia brought stability and some newfound prosperity to a largely broken country, but only through an unusual confluence of favourable conditions: seemingly unlimited political capital (that he quickly squandered); generous Western political and economic aid; and broad control over the organs of state power. Even then, Saakashvili’s regime triggered mass protests less than three years following his accession to the presidency; stumbled into a disastrous war less than a year later (formalising and cementing the loss of 20% of Georgian territory); and was ejected from power in 2012, despite expansive structural advantages.
And yet, improbably, Saakashvili’s Western fame persisted. Without presidential immunity, Saakashvili was granted refuge in the United States, where he was granted a golden parachute as a “senior statesman” at Tufts University, which was as generous an opportunity as it was short-lived, with university life apparently ill-suited to Saakashvili’s high-octane ambitions. Decamped to Ukraine, his career newly buoyed by Ukraine’s EuroMaidan and subsequent Russian aggression, Saakashvili eagerly attached himself to the new Ukrainian government and eventually found work as the presidential proconsul in Odesa. That, too, did not last.
As it turns out, reform is hard without a primed political consensus, imperial powers, and major periodic injections of Western cash. Frustrated, Saakashvili rebelled against Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko—his onetime patron and old university buddy—and predictably found himself politically adrift, accused of colluding with pro-Russia forces for his own personal ambitions, and has now been exiled to Poland.
In a way, one can hardly blame Saakashvili for carrying on as he does. On his shoulders long sat the projected hopes and aspirations of the Western democracy bureaucracy, who desperately sought a liberal democratic kwisatz haderach to lead Eurasia to a Western-style end of history. Whatever the paltry merits of such an approach, Saakashvili was clearly not the man for the job, but his Western backers and their array of subsidiaries on the ground persevered—dutifully inflating Saakashvili’s purported state-building powers, while rounding down on his undemocratic excesses.
Saakashvili seemingly went from success to success, winning a US scholarship to study law at Columbia University, accepting recruitment to serve as Georgia’s justice minister, and capitalising on a civil society awakening that culminated in the 2003 Rose Revolution and his presidency shortly thereafter. As president, he garnered global acclaim, his country prematurely dubbed a “beacon of liberty” by President George W. Bush in a 2005 visit, and streams of Western-calibrated media interest, international delegations, and gobs of foreign direct investment. When it all came crashing down in 2012, Saakashvili and his backers could hardly believe it. They still can’t.
And why would Saakashvili think otherwise, surrounded by a bleating, uncritical branding apparatus? In the media, Saakashvili rarely earned a mention without some reference to his US taxpayer-financed study at Columbia. Columbia surely has a fine LLM program, but one year at an elite Western university is hardly sufficient qualifying evidence of liberal democratic instincts. Even as his presidency in Georgia rightfully lost its sheen over time, Saakashvili’s defenders (and more than a few casual observers) attempt to artificially bifurcate his tenure between an autocratic latter period and rosier (pun intended), democratic earlier days, as though November 2007’s mass protests and the crackdown that followed occurred in some kind of vacuum.
The tale of Saakashvili is an unflattering mirror image of the West’s stuttering and oftentimes self-defeating attempts at regional engagement. More than a parable of the pitfalls of investing in any one person, it also reveals an embarrassing synthesis between lofty democracy promotion rhetoric and politically-driven strategic engagement. That Georgia resembles an electoral democracy today is only marginally, at best, the product of Western efforts, and in some respects may exist only in spite of them.
When it comes down to it, Saakashvili is an ordinary person thrust into extraordinary circumstances and found to be wanting. This is not a criticism; after all, many of the best among us are, when it comes down to it, ordinary people. In a way, having been so long burdened with outsized global expectations, his failures ought to elicit our sympathies, and perhaps even pity—but certainly not our adulation.
Michael Cecire is an International Security Fellow at New America and a non-resident Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.