While speaking at a conference in Tbilisi this week, the Georgian Prime Minister referred to former President Mikheil Saakashvili as “the political past for our country-a very sad past.” Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili is, on balance, probably right about that, but unfortunately for Georgia, the words of William Faulkner are also probably relevant here as well. The great American writer noted that “The past is never dead. It's not even past.”
The latest episode of Saakashvili’s post-presidential political shenanigans occurred over the weekend as he sought a return not to Georgia, but to Ukraine. Saakashvili’s Ukrainian sojourn began shortly after the Euromaidan movement when new Ukrainian President Petro Poroschenko made him an advisor in Ukraine’s battle against corruption. It ended, at least for now, more ominously for Saakashvili when he left his position as governor of Odessa last November and was then, in July of this year, stripped of his Ukrainian citizenship by Poroschenko who had grown increasingly exasperated with Saakashvili’s accusations and ambitions. Saakashvili had given up his Georgian citizenship to accept the position in Odessa, so over the summer became effectively stateless.
Poroschenko’s decision to strip Saakashvili of his Ukrainian citizenship probably originated with the Ukrainian President’s frustration with the former Georgian president’s destructive role in the delicate balancing act that is Ukraine’s journey towards the west and democracy. However, it was clear from the moment it happened, that decision was going to help revive Saakashvili’s global profile and help him return, perhaps only briefly, to the spotlight. For a man like Saakashvili for whom media attention is only slightly less important than oxygen, this was no small thing.
After a few weeks in the US and later Poland, trying to determine what to do, Saakashvili returned to Ukraine a few days ago. His return was dramatic as he mobilized a crowd to demand his right to come back to Ukraine despite not having a valid passport of any kind. This was Saakashvili if not at his best, than at least at his most comfortable-making grandiose claims, mobilizing crowds and presenting the world as an eternal struggle of right (himself) against wrong (anybody who stands in his way.)
The problem for Georgia is not just that their former President is currently at loose ends in Ukraine, Poland or elsewhere searching for his next political project and way to get back in the media spotlight. Rather it is that for the former President in question the past is very much inspiring the present. This is where Faulkner comes into the picture. When it comes to Misha, as he is still known in both of the countries of which he used to be a citizen, the past is never really past. Many politicians have singular moments that define their careers. For the Clinton political operation it was the 1992 election. That is why in every election since then, the Clintonites have repeated the mantra “its the economy, stupid,” even when, as in 2004, it so obviously wasn’t.
Similarly, former New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s finest moments were after the terrible attacks on our city on September 11th, 2001. While his response made him a national figure again, Giuliani was never a successful national politician because he was, in many respects, always stuck in September of 2001. This was summed up by then US Senator Joe Biden in a 2007 debate, during the early stages of the 2008 presidential election, when he said of Giuliani, “(t)here’s only three things he mentions in a sentence-a noun, a verb and 9/11.”
For Saakashvili, that moment, or more accurately those months, were from November of 2003 through most of 2004. Politically speaking those days are never going to be dead for Saakashvili, and in a very real way will never be in the past. I am not equipped to probe the question of possible psychological explanations for this, but the political explanation is pretty clear. These were Saakasvhili’s finest days, when he was broadly respected and when there was no perceived limit to what he could accomplish. Governance for him has never been so unambiguous or rewarding since then. More significantly, his impressive accomplishments during this period grew directly out of his specific skill set. In late 2003 and 2004, Misha succeeded because of his temperament, pace and adrenaline. Similalry, Saakashvili’s world view that the leaders are either oligarchs or reformers, pro-Putin stooges or brave pro-western democrats has rarely been accurate, but at least during a revolutionary movement has some value. Since then, whether or not he and his most die-hard supporters recognize it, these approaches have all hindered Misha's efforts. This approach earned him a reputation of being all talk in Odessa and alienated him from the Ukrainian leadership that Saakashvili, to the surprise of nobody, branded as oligarchs when they did accede to his every demand.
Despite the accuracy of the Georgian Prime Minister’s words, they do not fully reflect the position of the Georgian government. If Misha were simply yesterday’s news, the Georgian government would be less interested in bringing him back to Georgia and pursuing the criminal case it has lodged against him. If Saakashvili were to return to Georgia and criminal proceedings against him would continue, that story would become the dominant political event in Georgia. It would overshadow almost everything else, redraw political divisions and dramatically blur the lines between Georgia’s past and present. Ironically, while the Prime Minister is right in declaring that Saakashvili is the past, his government seems to want very badly to change that and force him back into the future. For now at least, Kvirikashvili is right that Saakashvili represents his country’s past, but the problem is that the past is not quite past and that Misha will do everything he can to ensure that it stays that way.
The tortured syntax of that previous paragraph notwithstanding, what we have seen from Misha in recent days, and indeed throughout his tenure in Odessa, is that he consistently returns to the tools that served him well when at his best moment, even though those tools are of very limited use to him now. His tactics of hurling accusations of corruption at everybody in power, making unrealistic promises, casting himself both as the hero and the victim, and when necessary mobilizing crowds to support him are very much the stuff of democratic breakthroughs, or if you prefer, revolutions. They are less useful for the hard slog of governing or implementing reforms in challenging environments. In this regard, in both Georgia and Ukraine, Saakashvili’s methodologies are of the past, or at least that is what the leaders of the countries and the majorities of their population think.
Although losing his Ukrainian citizenship has created legal and political problems for Saakashvili, it was also a political gift, giving him something to talk about in the west and an issue around which to mobilize his supporters in Ukraine. If Saakashvili still had Ukrainian citizenship, he would be doing the arduous work of trying to build a political party in a country where his moment has come and gone, instead he had his best political day in years this past Sunday. The challenge for Saakashvili is how to build on that when few people want to buy the political product he is selling.
It is a platitude that Georgia should look forward, not backward. It is also not entirely appropriate for that comment to come from an American when my own country seems to be caught up in revisiting the history of a civil war that ended more than 150 years ago. However, Georgia’s current leadership is, in some respects tempted to, like the former President, spend some political resources in a past that is not fully past. The Georgian Dream’s (GD) greatest political triumph is part of that past and is a reminder of a time when the GD was a stand-in for many Georgians, representing hope for the future. Today, after five years in office, they are simply a ruling political party that has done some good and made some mistakes. While they are still the most popular political force in Georgia, expectations and hopes for the GD are muted, or worse, both inside and outside of the government.
Georgia is in a moment when the present is arduous, but not exactly exciting. Steady, but often slow. Progress is being made in developing the economy. Democratic development is rocky but the threat of a strong undemocratic system no longer looms over Georgia. The conflict regions are, more or less, stuck in neutral with little hope of resolution anytime soon. The local elections next months will almost certainly result in a clear but uninspiring victory by the GD. Similarly, the future, is remains uncertain and ominous. Given that, the temptation to focus on a past that, for all involved, seems much less ambiguous is very strong, albeit not very productive.
The Georgia Analysis is an occasional analysis of political and other major developments in Georgia. Lincoln Mitchell is a political development, research and strategic consultant who has worked extensively in the post-Soviet region. You can follow him on Twitter @LincolnMitchell. If you would like to be on the Georgia Analysis mailing list or are interested in more research, analysis or consulting for your business, government, campaign or other organization, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.