President Saakashvili believes that Georgia’s future lies in western-style reforms. But can one small country in the Caucasus make them work?by David Goodhart / February 23, 2011 / Leave a comment
On my last night in Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, a Frenchman was murdered in my hotel. As it was the Caucasus I immediately assumed there was some murky political motive behind the stabbing. I was with a group of other journalists on a tour of the country sponsored by the Georgian government, and when we discovered the victim was involved in the modernisation of Tbilisi’s transport system, our suspicions only grew.
It turned out to be a private liaison gone horribly wrong—a “normal” western murder in a country striving to be an outpost of the west in a dark corner of the post-Soviet world. Georgia aspires to be not just an outpost, but a model. Though the country is home to only 4.2m people, President Mikheil “Misha” Saakashvili aims to use its “soft power” to make it a beacon of political and economic freedom—much like west Berlin during the cold war—and an alternative to the region’s historic Russian master.
Earlier that evening I had met one of the president’s closest advisers in a drinking den near my hotel. The place was full of bohemian young Georgians and westerners working for NGOs, and it did remind me of west Berlin in the 1980s—down to the pleasingly retro Bob Dylan and Beatles music.
After many days of hearing about Georgia’s successful experiment with freedom from smart thirtysomething government ministers, or the failings of Saakashvili’s centralised, “guided” democracy from dowdier and older opposition figures, I still had a question that I had no proper answer to. It was one that I had hesitated to ask the president when I had met him earlier that day (see interview p50). I put it to his adviser instead.
Why, when the Middle East is on fire and the west is distracted by its power slipping eastwards, should anyone care about Georgia? The adviser had a good answer. “A lot of people in the west think that the colour revolutions in Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan have all failed or slipped back. But that is not true of Georgia—we remain absolutely part of the west.”
And why does that matter? “In eastern Europe there was still some memory of pre-Soviet freedoms. Out here there was none. We are surrounded by Chechnya, Dagestan and Ingushetia in the Russian Federation, the Caucasian former Soviet republics of Armenia and Azerbaijan, and then the countries of central Asia. These are not…