Saakashvili: Ukraine is 'first geopolitical revolution of the 21st century'

Mikheil Saakashvili, the former president of Georgia and antagonist of Vladimir Putin, told the Monitor that the streets of Kiev are a battleground between East and West.

Efrem Lukatsky/AP/File
Former Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili (r.) and Ukrainian opposition leaders Vitali Klitschko (l.) and Arseniy Yatsenyuk (c.) cheer Pro-European Union supporters at a early December 2013 mass rally in Kiev's Independence Square. Mr. Saakashvili says that Ukraine 'is the first geopolitical revolution of the 21st century.'

To say there’s no love lost between Mikheil Saakashvili and Vladimir Putin would be an understatement.

The way Mr. Saakashvili remembers it, the last meeting the two presidents were both in attendance – a February 2008 summit of post-Soviet leaders – Mr. Putin talked openly about wanting to hang Saakashvili by various body parts. Saakashvili, who stands over 6 feet tall, once mocked Putin’s own diminutive height, drawing from Jonathan Swift’s satirical writings to dub him “Lily-Putin.”

These days, Saakashvili, the US-trained lawyer who stepped down as president of the tiny Caucasus nation of Georgia last year, is a “senior statesman” at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. But he is still inclined to call Putin a “thug” and a “godfather” for, among other things, what’s happening in former Soviet republics like Ukraine

The streets of Kiev don’t resemble an urban battlefield merely because Ukrainians are disaffected, venting about their government, Saakashvili insists: they’re a battleground between East and West. Under Putin, the Kremlin is trying to rebuild an empire.

Ukraine “is the first geopolitical revolution of the 21st century,” he tells the Monitor.

“We are seeing people out in the streets again. They’re fighting against corruption among other things, but they’re also fully united against Moscow,” he says. “For them, [Ukrainian President Viktor] Yanukovych is the principle source of this, but it is the Kremlin that’s basically symbolizes this way of life.”

Russian neo-imperialism?

Saakashvili yielded the presidency in November after elections that saw the defeat of his allies; he was constitutionally barred for standing for a third term. His eight years as Georgia’s president were a mixed bag: strong economic growth and reduced corruption, but also stubborn poverty, brief spasms of authoritarianism, and a disastrous, arguably self-inflicted war with Russia that generated thousands of refugees and cut off the country from its largest market.

Now, Saakashvili is fashioning himself into both a consultant and a Cassandra: trying to sell “the Georgian model” to places like Ukraine, and to sound the alarm about what he insists is Russia’s dangerous neo-imperialism via means both military, as in Georgia, and economic, like the Eurasian Economic Union, a Moscow-led trade bloc.

“It’s really between two different visions, ways of life. The Eurasian Union ... is all about corruption, violence, and the thinking is that Russia has no borders, ... only peripheries that only Russia can organize into something with viable functioning,” he says.

Georgia, on the other hand, "is an inspiration, a model for [the Ukrainians],” Saakashavili adds.

In Ukraine, Saakashvili forged a close relationship with Yanukovych’s predecessor, Viktor Yushchenko, a kindred spirit who was also willing to defy Moscow and seek the close embrace of the West. The two men both took power after color revolutions; Georgia's was known as the Rose Revolution, while Ukraine's was the Orange Revolution. 

Saakashvili now says he’s in close consultations with Ukraine's opposition leaders who have been instrumental during months of protest after Yanukovych spurned closer ties with the European Union. Moscow then stepped in with a $15 billion package of loans, cheap natural gas, and other carrots. 

Earlier this week, as political winds shifted in favor of the mask-wearing, Molotov-cocktail-throwing demonstrators, Yanukovych ceded to one of their demands, pushing his prime minister, Mykola Azarov, out of office. 

“The Russians aren’t offering a viable alternative. What are they offering?" Saakashvili asks. "What Putin told me in February 2008 was: ‘your friends are promising lots of nice things but it … remains to be seen whether they’ll deliver.’ But he said ‘I don’t promise you nice things but for sure I’ll deliver,'" a comment Saakashvili took to mean "'we can certainly cause you trouble.’”

'The Georgian model'

Georgia shows Ukraine a different path, says Saakashvili.

Georgian voters arguably repudiated his leadership in the 2012 parliamentary election and last year’s presidential vote, instead choosing lawmakers allied with billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili. His popularity among Western politicians followed a similar arc, from the frothy reception after the Rose Revolution to cooler relations in later years, particularly after his brinksmanship during the 2008 conflict with Russia. 

But Georgia managed to pull off a peaceful transfer of power between opposing political forces, a rarity in a region known better for family dynasties (Azerbaijan), a thin veneer of democracy (Russia), election violence (Armenia, Kyrgyzstan), and rulers-for-life who predate the Soviet collapse (Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan).

And despite his ouster, Saakashvili notes that Mr. Ivanishvili’s allies have been running the country for more than a year now and have not dismantled the reforms and institutions Saakashvili built during his term. “Everything is still in place," he says. "Nothing has been touched.”

“The most dangerous period for us was the first several months after election was when they thought they had a mandate to do anything and no one would care immediately. They didn’t. That’s a measure of how sustainable the policies are,” Saakashvili says.

That shows, he insists, that the election results were a matter of “Saakashvili fatigue” after nearly eight years in office rather than a rejection of his policies. And maybe that peaceful transition in tiny Georgia can influence its larger neighbors.

“For people in countries like Azerbaijan or Russia or Central Asia,” he says, "the way I went, left office, maybe had a bigger impression than the reforms we passed."

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