Wednesday, February 25, 2004

None of you care, but TOO BAD.

Last night I saw the new President of Georgia, Mikhail Saakashvili, speaking at John Hopkins International Studies school down the way. It's his first visit to Washington since his election, and he put on a solid show for a crowd that clearly adored him. He was just as he has been described: young, passionate, energetic, and maybe a little hotheaded. It's exciting to see a dinosaur oligarch in a post-Soviet state replaced with an active young leader (who isn't former KGB). And it was nice to hear that a former UT Law School grad is the new Minister of Defense. Hook 'em! The fact that Saakashvili himself was schooled at Columbia Law and George Washington is usually enough to convince people on our side of the pond that he is a true-blue dyed-in-the-wool democrat, and people one the other side that he is clearly a high-level CIA operative.

But as we've seen time and again, dissidents do not always make the best leaders. Saakashvili certainly convinced me that he's in it for the long haul, and is truly committed to deep structural reforms. But there have already been a few eyebrows raised at Saakashvili's early measures. To wit: he has already pushed through constitutional amendments that strengthen the presidency with the power to dissolve parliament, he has changed the national flag of Georgia to the flag his party used during the revolution (which, admittedly, is an ancient flag of Georgia), and there is some suggestion that he may be putting a subtle damper on Georgia's remarkably free and open media. People cite actions like this and see in them Saakashvili's autocratic tendencies.

I don't know about that. I'm willing to put faith in the new president, but the West would be wise to keep one critical eye on him. The West let its decade-long affection for Shevardnadze interfere with criticism for his ineffective, autocratic, incompetent regime, and Georgia was the worse for it. The best favor we can do Saakashvili and the Georgians is to keep him from resting on laurels and riding out popularity and make him show his true democratic stripes and commitment to rule of law. This might means he has to watch the demise of pet projects if he can't muster support for them in parliament; leaders in this part of the world are typically loath to take no for an answer, but that's democracy folks. Ain't it a bitch?


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