,,Exiting President Reflects on Georgia” – this is the title of David M. Herszenhorn’s article on Georgia in The New York Times.
Mikheil Saakashvili, now the former president of Georgia, was still working his famously late nights, apparently intent on squeezing every last minute from the final days of his term. In an interview late last month that began after midnight and could well have stretched until dawn, Mr. Saakashvili boasted that in his decade in office, Georgia had made huge strides toward becoming an established democracy. He profanely dismissed allegations of heavy-handedness and authoritarian abuses, and voiced regret that he had not spent more money on education and less on weapons.
Mr. Saakashvili, who rose to power as a leader of the peaceful Rose Revolution in 2003 and became a darling of the West – embraced by Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush – also issued a pointed warning that the United States was signaling weakness to President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia by not following through with threats of military action in Syria.
“Russia perceives American hard power is pulling back from the entire region,” Mr. Saakashvili said, sipping tea and munching on hot roasted nuts. “If America had some limited operations in Syria,” he said, “that would still have been a kind of risk for Putin. Now, he is almost convinced or fully convinced that there is no way, whatever he does – you know, shuts off the Georgia pipeline, comes and occupies Tbilisi, goes and kicks out the Azerbaijan leadership – nobody is going to do anything except strong statements and condemnation.”
“What we hear from our friends in Washington,” Mr. Saakashvili continued, “is, you know, ‘You are great guys. We like you, great transition to democracy – you know, peaceful transition of power, big achievements. But, you know, we now have other things to care about. We’re on your side. We’ll be on your side. But what can we do?’ “
That Washington might be losing interest in the South Caucasus, where Georgia has been America’s closest ally, was evident on Sunday at the inauguration of Mr. Saakashvili’s successor, Giorgi Margvelashvili, a former university rector and education minister. Rather than a high-profile delegation, perhaps led by a senior cabinet official with members of Congress who are active in Eurasian affairs, the Obama administration sent some little-known officials led by Rajiv Shah, the administrator of the United States Agency for International Development.
Mr. Saakashvili did not attend the inauguration, because of the arrests and prosecutions of many former members of his government on various charges of corruption and abuse of power; many of those arrests appear to have been politically motivated.
Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili has raised the possibility that Mr. Saakashvili, too, could face arrest and prosecution. The rise of Mr. Ivanishvili, a billionaire whose party, Georgian Dream, swept to power in parliamentary elections in October last year, forced Mr. Saakashvili to spend his final year in office as an opposition figure,
In the interview, Mr. Saakashvili said he fully expected to be a target. “The prime minister envisions for me either prison or exile,” he said. “I will try to fight for my place to be free in my own country.” He said he expected to be proved innocent of any charges that may be brought, but he acknowledged that it was possible that he would be imprisoned anyway.
“Should I be in solitary confinement for one year, without windows, or without any sunlight, because he said that I supposedly ate children alive or killed lots of people in the streets?” Mr. Saakashvili asked. “That’s the issue we are facing.”
On Sunday, aides to Mr. Saakashvili said that he was on vacation with his family in Europe, but that they did not know which country he was in or when he would return home. It was unclear whether he had perhaps begun a sort of temporary exile.
Mr. Ivanishvili and his supporters insisted that they have brought a new climate of openness and civility to Georgia, freeing the judicial system from political influence and ending police and prison abuses. But Mr. Saakashvili said he believed that democracy had suffered a setback in Georgia.
“We are back to the Wild West of some kind of post-Soviet politics,” he said.