OPEN LETTER TO PRESIDENT SAAKASHVILI
Friday, April 3
Options for your legacy: for good or bad
“There are three classes of intellect: one which comprehends by itself; another which appreciates what others comprehend; and a third which neither comprehends by itself nor by what others have to demonstrate. The first is the most excellent; the second is good; the third is useless”. What Machiavelli has to say here about intellect could as well be applied to the governance of Georgia.
President, the opposition are on the march again. What to do about it?
Forgive me for writing like this. I am not a Georgian. I would be proud to be one. I am certainly proud to have a stake in the country through my daughter and grand-daughter. And I am among millions of people who are watching events in Georgia, the great majority of whom want the country to succeed. They want it to succeed as a society where the relationship between those governing and those governed is based on trust and truthfulness. Without those two things security, stability and prosperity are likely only to be short-lived.
My intervention may be seen as unhelpful – or, worse, ignorant – but I hope it will not be rejected on the grounds of “outside interference”. That was a classic phrase from the time of the Soviet Union. When I knew you in the early years of the Rose Revolution you struck me as a leader who wanted to be judged on how you and your style of government were different from everything Soviet: fear of dissent; perversion of justice through control of the courts; pretence, propaganda, lying and intimidation as essential tools to retain power. To reinforce this very point, at the end of a speech you once made in London you said: “However I come to be judged, by my country and by history, I will never be judged as a hypocrite”.
I remember the powerful impression you made exactly five years ago when you told the BBC that you did not expect to hold on to your popularity; that all democratic leaders had to move aside in due course; but that when it was your time to go you would leave your country in such a position that your successors would have a strong platform to build on.
Those who are now preparing to be your successors do not seem impressed with “the platform”. If, contrary to the demands of some opposition leaders, it is not yet time for you to go, then it seems that there are two clear options.
The first option is to gamble that you can dismiss your opponents, what they stand for and the many people they represent. This option, I think, Machiavelli would describe as useless. You have not previously chosen to hold back on your views. At the polite end of the scale, members of the opposition have been dismissed as incompetent, insignificant and not serious. At the other end: irresponsible, criminal, corrupt, mad, pro-Russian. These epithets have not been applied to all of them all of the time. But I wonder what effect it has had on their various supporters to have these labels applied, by extension, to them.
I once argued with you and your close advisors that a healthy way to build democracy and self-confidence in Georgian society was to show respect to others’ views, indeed to encourage them as “democratic oxygen”: rather than to use a bulldozer against opponents as if – by dissenting with the “Party”, the National Movement – they were enemies of the state. (That phrase brings back chilling historical memories.)
The advice was, then, largely ignored. Whether or not this is a co-incidence you are now facing an opposition that is not only frustrated but also considerably bigger and angrier that at any time since you became President.
The option remains to dismiss them as, at least, still not serious. It is interesting, though, that in addition to the established, experienced, parliamentary opposition there are now also those who stood shoulder to shoulder with you from the start and/or were hand-picked by you for high office. These include a former Speaker, Prime Minister, Foreign Minister, State Minister, Special Envoy, as well as Ambassadors. Quite a roll call of, presumably, serious people. Of course they can be ignored, or told to shut up or even beaten up (as one of them was in November, 2007). But experience suggests that that approach will not make them and their supporters smaller in number, less angry in mood and less determined to have you voted out of office.
The second option, then, is to listen to them. And not just to have “dialogue” for its own sake. There are several common points on the agenda, theirs and yours from the time of the Revolution: transparency and accountability of government; judicial independence; removal of state editorial control over any branch of the media; and a corruption-free economic environment in which businessmen need not fear unfair pressure, let alone expropriation, and both investment opportunities are offered and tenders held fairly.
You can claim that you are delivering these things. You can even claim that you have already delivered. But wouldn’t it be something else if the country believed you?
You are in charge. You have the initiative. You can go down the road of positive, consistent implementation unilaterally: in which case you take the wind out of your opponents’ sails. Or you can do it as part of a collaborative venture, receiving their support – conditional on monitoring – in which case you still retain the initiative. Moreover it will be you, not anyone else, who will then be forcing the pace with the EU agenda. Capture Brussels’s attention with the serious resumption of serious reform and you capture support.
“But these reforms take time. We have achieved much. We have had setbacks. But we really are doing our best. Things are going better now. Just a bit more time” runs the script. Sorry, that script is threadbare. And there is no more time – unless you can rapidly add to it something very substantial and convincing. I suggest as examples: restored respect to the person and office of the Parliamentary Ombudsman; re-invigoration of and proper funding for the Chamber of Control; establishment of an Electoral Commission that is beyond reproach on any charge of conflict of interest. And a full, independent judicial review of the Girgvliani murder case.
On that, some questions. Why did you authorise the premature release of the men convicted in the Girgvliani case? Which came first: your recommendation or that of the Pardons Commission? If the latter, how does that stack up with the statement by some of its members that they did not recommend release? Does your decision, and indeed the handling of the whole case from the beginning, have absolutely nothing to do with your relationship -- some critics would say, your reliance -- on the Ministry of Interior?
President, you were last elected with 53% of the vote, according to the results announced by the Electoral Commission. Do you think that more or less than 53% of the country would now believe the answers you give to the questions above?
You have power. But do you have as much credibility as you have power? Dictators have credibility in the sense that people believe that they will act dictatorially. But your credibility is built on something entirely different: it is built on your claim from when you first came into power that you were a just, reforming democrat.
If you are persuaded that you cannot ignore the opposition, and that they will not quietly go away; and if you are determined that the remainder of your Presidency will shape your legacy – as a leader winning respect on merit – then you will handle the 9 April demonstrations and the underlying messages with respect for your opponents. You will then in your governance “appreciate what others already comprehend” (Machiavelli’s “good”); or you yourself can act, without delay and without swerving, to implement the goals of political and social justice on which you were first swept to power (Machiavelli’s “most excellent”).
There is, I suppose, a third option. That is not to learn the lessons from 7 November, 2007. More tear gas, more arrests, more detachments of “police” brave enough to beat demonstrators but not brave enough to show their faces. And what then? What about the next demonstration? And the one after that?
Mussolini was once asked: “How do you find it possible to put up with the multitude of faces you have to look at here day after day?” He replied: “I merely see in them what they say to me. I do not let them come into contact with my inmost being. I am no more moved by them than by this table and these papers. I preserve my loneliness untouched.” Two years before that, the same leader declared: “We have buried the putrid corpse of liberty.”
In 2004, most of the country shared not just your vision of liberty but trusted you to implement it: judicial independence, media freedom, accountability, no dark corners. Now, nearly half of them have lost that trust. This is not the simple loss of popularity you predicted at the outset. It is fundamental.
Mend trust. Or break more heads. Your call.
Donald MacLaren of MacLaren, former UK ambassador to Georgia in 2004-2007