Georgia’s Clownish Mikheil Saakashvili Is the Perfect Embodiment of Post-Soviet Capitalism

Ousted from the Georgian presidency in 2013, Mikheil Saakashvili bizarrely moved his anti-Putin crusade abroad, as he became governor of Ukraine’s Odessa region. His recent return to Georgian politics is the latest in a series of quixotic antics — but also expresses the essential shallowness of liberal democracy in the post-Soviet space.

Mikheil "Misha" Saakashvili, whose Georgian citizenship was revoked in 2015 and faces charges for various counts of abuse of power, is not only vying to return to office in his homeland, but convinced that he is the right man to lead the country through the storms of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The United States isn’t the only country facing terrible options in its elections this fall. Georgia, in the Caucasus region south of Russia, is again looking at the usual lineup of right-wing parties to choose between — something typical of its politics in recent years. But there are also dozens of new vanity-project parties that have formed in order to take advantage of the low barrier to get into parliament — and hence access state funding.

The low barrier was itself a victory won by the opposition, after protests last summer prompted by an MP for European Georgia (a splinter from former president Mikheil Saakashvili’s United National Movement). He rushed into the parliamentary auditorium draped in the Georgian flag and threw Russian MP Sergei Gavrilov out of the chamber. If Gavrilov was chairing a routine meeting — a barely political event connected to the Orthodox Church — the optics couldn’t have been worse for the dominant Russophobic mood: a Russian politician sat in the most powerful seat in the Georgian parliament, and so he had to be chased out.

Such histrionics have been the norm in Georgian politics over the last three decades — a blend of farce and tragedy perfectly symbolized by Saakashvili himself. After his election defeat in late 2012, he was ousted as president by the then-new Georgian Dream coalition, bankrolled by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili. Forced to flee the country, Saakashvili curiously pursued his political career abroad — becoming a Ukrainian citizen and governor of that country’s Odessa oblast. His time as governor was short-lived, as he turned on Petro Poroshenko — the president who appointed him in the first place — with accusations of corruption.  Ukraine’s new leader, Volodymyr Zelensky, has since appointed Saakashvili to chair the executive committee of its National Reforms Council. But in recent weeks, the well-traveled Saakashvili has announced his return to Georgian politics.

This story of one country’s former president becoming another country’s governor seems bizarre. But it isn’t quite so odd if one considers the former Soviet space as one entity. Twenty-seven new countries were “born” again into capitalism after the destruction of the Eastern Bloc, and they were all prescribed the exact same shock therapy by international organizations. These latter would also use one country’s radical liberal reforms to pressure another unwilling government to follow the same line, thus forcing the whole region to swallow neoliberalism and compete for foreign direct investment. This — combined with the anti-Russian politics that hold sway in much of the region — gives “Misha” Saakashvili huge sway, not least given the legendary status drawn from the August 2008 war with Russia. There was even a tasteless Hollywood film about the conflict, with Andy Garcia playing Misha.

Saakashvili is particularly important because he has the Western connections vital to any burgeoning government’s success (John McCain and Hillary Clinton nominated him for a Nobel Prize). Added to this is the lack of other experienced personnel locally. But also key are the limits on democracy in postcommunist countries. Neoliberalism gets voted out by the people again and again, only for the same policies to be recycled through international and regional organizations. The neoliberal reformers ousted by the electorate often get jobs in these international bodies and think tanks, which then preach these same measures to other governments in the region.

Now Misha — whose Georgian citizenship was revoked in 2015 and faces charges for various counts of abuse of power — is not only vying to return to office in his homeland, but convinced that he is the right man to lead the country through the storms of the COVID-19 pandemic. But it’s also worth noting that he remains popular in Georgia. With each passing day under Georgian Dream’s lackluster rule, Misha’s period in charge seems better and better for most people — especially if one takes into account the fact that the economic policies have stayed the same.

This forgiveness takes many forms. Back in 2012, Saakashvili’s presidency was undone by revelations of “excessive” police brutality in prisons, as videos circulated showing shocking scenes of torture and rape of inmates. Yet with the current government proving feeble in the face of COVID-19, it seems as if such footage has been relegated to a distant and blurred memory. Today, a repentant Saakashvili admits that “mistakes were made” and claims to be a new man — while also playing down these “errors” by insisting that “only those who don’t do anything, never make mistakes.” This barely apologetic attitude also shone through in an interview where it was suggested that many of his opponents doubted the realism of his current plans; he retorted that his record on criminal justice had proven his sincerity. As he put it, “I said zero tolerance towards criminals and everyone would be jailed — and it happened, no?”

Eating His Tie, Breaking up Old Ties

Why Saakashvili remains popular is a troubling lesson for the Left, which often considers him simply as the pro-Western father of Georgian neoliberalism and a madman who ate his own tie on national television. For despite his neoliberal and radical-libertarian policies, most Georgians remember him not for being laissez-faire, but for being a statist and interventionist who disregards cultural norms.

This especially owes to the fact that Georgian politics and society has a tendency to inertia, due to elaborate friendship and familial ties that perpetuate patron-client relationships and an inflexible hyper-patriarchal culture. Such relationships have been disrupted to some extent by capitalism, internal migration, and emigration, but among men, these strict behavior codes often persist. Such relationships also fuel corruption, in the absence of strong institutions.

Misha was forever willing to disrupt all this. He has always been absolutely shameless — never backing down from situations that could be humiliating for other men afraid of losing their standing. This is the source of both his popularity and the hatred he attracts. Polite (elite) society finds him embarrassing and insane, while others look at him as a fighter who risks his personal comfort and reputation for the greater good: “Misha isn’t loyal to patrons,” “Misha will bite the hand that feeds him,” they say. This makes him a liability for many elites.

At the same time, all those who have been typically on the losing end of patron-client relationships — and in relatively poorer areas of Georgia — have provided Misha’s electoral base. In general, he projects the image of doing whatever is necessary to implement his ideas. As compared to the stereotype of the lethargic Georgian politician with a huge belly (their size was even the object of an academic study), the energetic Saakashvili seems like an obsessive workaholic. If some pundits claim it’s a disaster for the united opposition to put him up as a candidate — since this is somehow playing into Georgian Dream’s hands — they underestimate his popularity.

In fact, Saakashvili’s prospects benefit from much deeper weaknesses in Georgian Dream. This broad coalition was founded in the run-up to the 2012 election for the sole purpose of defeating Saakashvili and started out with promises of social programs and reindustrialization. Yet such ideas were quickly abandoned in favor of rightfully vilifying Misha for his eight years in office as a monster who jailed everyone. Unfortunately, once it reached power the following year, Georgian Dream didn’t even undermine his legacy effectively. First, in its 2016 constitutional reform, it kept Saakashvili’s egregious Liberty Act, which outlawed progressive taxation and tightly capped social spending, even though the coalition had a supermajority that would have allowed it to revoke this measure. Then — in a  more blatant act of insincerity and hypocrisy — Georgian Dream kept and handed lifetime appointments to the very judges who had 99 percent conviction rates under Saakashvili. This became such a scandal in early 2019 that many MPs quit Georgian Dream.

In a remarkable illustration of its fecklessness, Georgian Dream’s leader Bidzina Ivanishvili publicly stated late last year that Georgians should go and look for work abroad — declaring himself surprised that anyone demanded jobs be created at home. Startlingly, he deemed this an unrealistic prospect for the coming decades. His government has mostly worked to secure legal jobs for the Georgian workforce in Europe, negotiating with each government. Bidzina, who once promised dozens of factories would be built in Georgia, was surprised to learn Georgians expected to be gainfully employed, without having to leave for other shores.

Further, Georgian Dream abolished the profit tax and forced a state-sponsored private pension scheme upon the population. Before COVID-19, the current minister said that she wouldn’t mind if the Ministry of Economy and Sustainable Development would be renamed the “Ministry of Tourism.” The current government has thus failed to break with any of Saakashvili’s own purported failings. As one United National Movement activist stated, “I loved some things Misha did, and I hated some things Misha did, but I just hate GD, I haven’t found anything to love or like.”

Misha’s Legacy

In his day, Saakashvili’s politics were developmentalist and went beyond other postcommunist reformers who were more or less technocrats — indeed, he compares himself to state builders like Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and David Ben-Gurion. Obsessed with his legacy as a national icon, he is conspicuously ideologically flexible. Hence, while he started out damning his predecessor Eduard Shevardnadze for blaming Russia for all his problems — thus distracting Georgians from domestic failings — now, in both Georgia and Ukraine, he has cast himself as an anti-Putin hero. He went from criticizing British Petroleum’s poor environmental and social practices and the Baku–Tbilisi–Ceyhan pipeline — “We won’t be bullied by BP,” he insisted — to wholeheartedly supporting it.

But an opportunist like Misha couldn’t have ended up as anything else but right-wing in substance. The difference between left and right on the political spectrum is weakest in postcommunist countries, especially after the collapse of the Soviet Union — indeed, such a split is often unhelpful in understanding what is happening in the region. Since socialism was discredited among elites (if not among the population), and there was no alternative to neoliberalism, no mainstream political party or political figure could emerge to challenge capitalist hegemony. The main differences instead revolve around the implementation of neoliberal reforms — how quickly and how efficiently.

Such political differences as do exist between the so-called Left and Right never dent a wholesale acceptance of neoliberalism as prescribed through the Washington consensus and European Union. At times, there were disputes over selling foreigners land in postcommunist countries — but even this ended up as a difference over the time frame of implementation, rather than of stopping the reform completely. After all, the EU made land liberalization a deal-breaker for countries to earn associate membership. Indeed, according to one study, left-wing governments in postcommunist countries were more effective in implementing neoliberal reforms than right-wing ones. Even when left-wing governments could have undone reforms, in fact, they continued them. It’s no surprise that most of the criticism of capitalism, the EU, and liberalism in postcommunist countries has come from the Right, presented as a cultural critique.

In his spell living in the United States, Misha claims to have observed the limits of liberal democracy when he saw the road leading to the White House in DC. “You get a sense what different governments are,” he recounted. “The road was really very bad, worse than roads [in Georgia] in Shevardnadze’s time. But because local D.C. government was broke — even if it was leading to the White House, who cares? There he sits, the most powerful President in the world, but he cannot fix the road!” He went on, “They call it separation of powers. Some people would call it democracy. I would call it inefficient.”

As president from 2004 to 2013, Saakashvili thus needed a strong state. But to this end, he had to manipulate the dominant international and regional organizations peddling structural adjustment programs. He learned that it was easiest to placate the international community by adopting their reforms on paper, while relying on more informal practices to continue implementing his own “successful” brand of postcommunist capitalism. This approach was characterized by mafia-type extortions of businesses, which were then channeled to certain development funds. If Georgia was rife with corruption and informal patron-client networks, Misha followed the Mussolini/Rudy Giuliani practice of jailing everyone for petty violations in order to break the larger racket leaders and fund the state budget through bail. Such primitive accumulation through dispossession and violence was, indeed, fundamental to the transition to capitalism. Far from the rosy story liberals tell themselves of rising capitalism bringing democracy and “human rights,” we had what Karl Marx called “expropriation, written in the annals of mankind in letters of blood and fire.”

Harry Cleaver’s use of the concepts “devalorization” and “disvalorization” is very helpful in understanding what happened in post-Soviet Georgia (and elsewhere in the region). A “devalorization” happened after the fall of the Soviet Union, which is a loss of skills, abilities, and knowledge, including their passing down over the generations. The entire political economy of the USSR was erased in one fell swoop — and so, too, the professionals and bureaucrats that went with it. The higher skill sets which the Soviet Union had relied on — for example, occupational disease specialists — were no longer needed in post-Soviet Georgia, since the new regime no longer tracked occupational diseases. Similarly, Georgian silk production was completely destroyed, as part of an abrupt deindustrialization.

While devalorization was occurring throughout the Shevardnadze period, with Misha we saw a much more powerful “disvalorization” — meaning, a recasting of skills and abilities and knowledge in service of whatever can make most profits. Georgia is known to be hospitable, so let’s turn every home into a guesthouse; Georgia has great food and wine, so open up restaurants. Misha did accelerate the development of capitalism in Georgia, but a peculiarly Western-sanctioned one. Our neoliberal comparative advantage in a province hidden in the Caucasus didn’t require highly trained and highly skilled people, but a low-skilled service economy heavily composed of hosts, drivers, sales associates, restaurateurs, and servers for tourism. This kind of political economy evidently limits the economic and social development of the Georgian people — and has additionally proven vulnerable and volatile through crises like the 2008 war and the current COVID-19 pandemic.

Comeback King?

Saakashvili remains widely credited for tearing down the post-Soviet purgatory capitalism of Eduard Shevardnadze’s rule and implementing capitalism as prescribed by neoliberal institutions. He used the heavy hand of state power as well as informal power to force these reforms onto the population. He also used big infrastructure plans, colorfully painted buildings, and many other shiny-looking projects to coax the population into his vision of Georgia. But though his is a legacy of liberal economic policies that limit the state’s formal responsibility toward its people and sends them to sell their labor on a market defined by precarity, most Georgians remember him as a “big government” man — and that is precisely why many want him back. Despite his horrendous human rights record, he retains his reputation as a capable — or at least, ever-present — leader.

Georgian Dream’s unabashed laissez-faire attitude seems to have made Georgians nostalgic for a time when the government acted like they cared about them — even if that meant disciplining them. It’s unimaginable that anyone from the current government would run into the Liberty Bank office and scream at management for mistreating the elderly, like Misha did when he saw a long line of pensioners waiting to get their measly pensions. Today, the pension lines are still extremely long, but no one in power protests about it even for PR reasons.

In a country where remittances from abroad make up three times the amount salaries do, where people are systematically beaten down every day, where employers are not held accountable for their oppression and exploitation, and where huge sections of the population are addicted to gambling and debt, it’s easy to understand why many Georgians want “big government” back. So long as we don’t have a Left willing to promote a state interventionism that actually gives Georgians public services they can rely on — finally reversing the post-Soviet destruction of the social fabric — it seems Georgians will continue to look to a “madman” like Saakashvili as their defender.