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Mikheil Saakashvili’s second try

Winston Featherly
Monday, January 21
The 2003 Rose Revolution looked a near-miracle. Saakashvili, a charismatic young reformer, an educated man of action, was seen as the solution to more than a decade of war, poverty and endemic corruption.

Heavy expectations for one man.

Yet Saakashvili accomplished what his two predecessors never could. Basic infrastructure went up, Adjaran dictator Aslan Abashidze went out, and, in a few years, a failing state turned into a realistic candidate for NATO membership and an increasingly pleasant place to do business.

Saakashvili and his close cadre of allies instituted some big changes, but other things did not change nearly enough.

Most perceive the multi-layered corruption of the Shevardnadze years replaced only by a self-profiting and arrogant state elite. South Ossetia and Abkhazia remain out of reach, not a surprising failure but one still frustrating for Georgians. The judiciary is incompetent and corrupt, the criminal law often perverse. And the media, while still strong for the region, is perhaps less free to criticize than under Shevardnadze.

Discontent turned out onto the streets last fall, and authorities’ disastrous decision to use force on peaceful demonstrators plunged the country into severe crisis. Saakashvili’s snap election, begun under emergency rule and waged with trickery and intimidation, was anything but a strong step for democracy. The opposition refuse to recognize the results, and the tension is not defused, but stretched alarmingly as another crucial election approaches.

In his inauguration speech, Saakashvili spoke of reconciliation at home and abroad, of commitment to democracy and to reforms which elevate the country’s weakest, not just the well-positioned.

It must be more than lip service. The president’s mandate is not strong, nor are the country’s institutions of democracy and stability. Saakashvili begins his second term with lower expectations than the first, but far weightier commitments.