Saakashvili as an Inspiration


His reputation has certainly been diminished in Georgia (and Ukraine) somewhat, but it appears that Ex-President Saakashvili’s divisive persona still fascinates people far and wide. Among those who admire him and his achievements is Christina Pushaw, a development specialist from the US, who was one of the organizers of the rally in support of Saakashvili in front of the Ukrainian embassy in Washington DC this month. Christina, who has spent several years working in Georgia, was glad to share her insights on the man she calls her “political mentor” and “inspiration”.

You know the man personally. What’s your Saakashvili’s story?

My Saakashvili story is interesting. I was studying history, Russian history specifically, at university. It was in 2008, of course, that many of us really heard for the first time about Georgia, during the war. I was always Republican and volunteered for John McCain’s campaign as a student. When McCain said: today we are all Georgians, I started to look into the country and its leader, and soon realized what he had done for his country: quite significant accomplishments compared to the neighboring countries, and I admired him for it. Then I began volunteering at the Reagan Library in California and Saakashvili was speaker there a couple of times. My family is sort of political. I’d say we move in the same circles [as him], especially on the Republican side. When I applied to move to Georgia after I graduated university, Saakashvili’s government was running a program for native English speakers to teach English in villages. And that was originally my motivation to go to Georgia. I went to Georgia, loved it, had a couple of different jobs, mostly in education. It’s a quite long story but in the end, I think it gives me quite a different perspective on the political situation in Georgia and now in Ukraine.

There is quite a glorifying assessment of Saakashvili on your Facebook page. You call him the Simon Bolivar of Eastern Europe and your mentor

First of all, he calls himself that. When I was getting my MA in International Development and Economics last year, I did my field research in Ukraine. Me and my 10 classmates had a meeting with Saakashvili. During that meeting he called himself that because Bolivar was one of the few people in history to lead two countries. So, I liked that. I thought, he is not a leader of Ukraine yet, but I can see so many parallels as far as Ukraine’s great struggle against corruption, against Russian occupation, etc. I think he was joking a little and my class laughed, but we all understood the truth in it. As for political mentor, I’d say more of a political inspiration because, as I said, I’ve been always active in politics in the US. I wish we could have people over there as committed to fighting corruption and special interests as he is. And that’s what I aim to do in my own career. A lot of Americans look up to that because we see how much bravery it takes to stand up to in countries where the rule of law is weak.

There is also a motto: never surrender! That’s probably also applies to Saakashvili

It’s from Winston Churchill’s famous speech against Germany. That was Saakashvili’s office quote. I like it; it suits him very well. Because something about him that’s interesting from my perspective is that he could have been living in the US right now, teaching or enjoying life, but he chose not to. Most people in his position, who were presidents of a country facing controversy at home, would love the lifestyle he could have had in the US as a political exile. Instead, he went back to Ukraine at the risk of life and health, at risk of arrest. I think he’s really a political animal, with no interest in life other than pushing forward, fighting for what he believes is right.

His reputation in Georgia in the five years since the end of his 9-year governance is damaged. How is it in the US?

That depends who you ask. Let’s start with experts in Washington. I have to say it’s very divided along partisan lines. A lot of conservative republicans support the government in power right now, while democrats tend not to support. A lot of experts from the Atlantic Council or various reputable think tanks, which focus on the post-Soviet sphere, get donations from people in power in Ukraine. Many experts have personal consultation businesses in which they advise businessmen who’d like to invest in Ukraine or Georgia. So, in order to carry out those businesses successfully, you cannot be critical of anybody who is in power in those countries. Even though they are experts, expertise is kind of for a sale there, and here, I’m referring to those who are writing that Saakashvili is destabilizing Ukraine. If you look at their backgrounds, many have consultation businesses that rely on a good relationship with the Ukrainian government.

As for what Americans think in general; it’s split, and there are people who legitimately criticize him. But whose opinion matters? Not mine, not the Atlantic Council’s, but Kurt Volker, our president and those people who actually have the position to make policy, yes. Volker, Special Envoy to Ukraine, is very careful not to take a side publicly because he’s a diplomat, but he said after Saakashvili crossed the border in Ukraine, which Kyiv said he did illegally, “No, let him have a fair trial and I trust your country to fight corruption”. So, reading between the lines: Volker is a little supportive of Saakashvili. I’d say the people in power right now in Washington, while not jumping on his side and defending everything he does, are maybe more sympathetic than Obama’s admin was, or your government is in Georgia.

What’s your take on the current Georgian government? Were they brought in by Russian forces, as Saakashvili claims?

I have nothing negative to say about the current government of Georgia, though I have lot to say about the current government in Ukraine. On the current government in Georgia, I think there’s a lot of speculation as to how they came into power and I’ve spoken to many Georgians who supported and voted for them. Saakashvili’s biggest achievement was stepping down and peacefully transitioning power to the new government. I can’t tell you how rare this is in Georgia’s part of the world: it almost never happens. We were amazed in the US to see that peaceful transition of power and that he didn’t start a war to try and stay in power. I respect democracy. If people voted for this government and still support it, which it seems, as recent elections show, who am I to say you cannot support them or you are brainwashed by Russia? You can’t overturn the results of a democratic elections.

What’s ahead for Saakashvili in Ukraine?

When that judge released him from prison and said: no house arrest, I was shocked, but after that we saw that our President signed an act authorizing defense assistance to Ukraine, basically increasing it quite substantially. I think there are many things happening behind the scenes that we don’t know about.

So, that act on defense assistance is related to Saakashvili being free to go?

I cannot say 100% for sure, but I think pressure from the US helped. Ukraine’s judiciary is very corrupt. There might be a good judge there and I’ll be happy to see that. I do think, though, it is more likely somebody, maybe not directly our President, maybe the Special Envoy for Ukraine, was behind the scenes in this. Saakashvili still has a lot of friends in the US. Ukraine values its relationship with the US, as does Georgia.

General Prosecutor Lutsenko said that there is a high chance that Saakashvili will be extradited to Georgia. I don’t see that happening because I don’t see why the Georgian government would want to do so. Extradition is a difficult process, taking several months, and I think if Saakashvili was to come back or be convicted of crimes and imprisoned, it would cause not only unrest in Georgia but also lead us to question what’s going on. We had presidents in the US who committed crimes…

Nixon, for example

Yes. And he wasn’t sent to prison. You have to have tradeoffs. In democracy, the most important thing is to avoid anything that could be shown as political persecution. For somebody who admires Georgia for its democratic development, it looks bad, and I’d foresee some pressure from the US if it happens. This is a projection into the distant future, but I want to emphasize that we in the US value our bilateral relationship with Georgia very much and the reason we value it is that it’s one of the few democracies in the former Soviet space and we want to see it stay that way. That’s why it’s important to be careful how you approach the very delicate issue of Saakashvili.

Vazha Tavberidze

27 December 2017 18:34