Krzysztof Lisek is the standing rapporteur for Georgia in the European Parliament and head of parliamentary mission for the Georgian presidential elections. He is a member of the European Parliament in the European People's Party.
Mikheil Saakashvili’s ten year presidency will end next Sunday as a result of new elections to be held in Georgia. He leaves a legacy to his successor of a country that has changed beyond recognition, having established a number of important relationships, reducing corruption in the country and by modernising both the landscape and infrastructure of the country. However, it hasn’t been all plain sailing having made a number of blunders along the way.
Ruling as President, his UNM party led the government until a year ago when in parliamentary elections he had to concede defeat to the coalition movement ‘Georgian Dream’ established by Bidzina Ivanishvili, a mysterious businessman who made his billions in Russia.
A few months ago a young Georgian contacted me via facebook, he wrote:
"Saakashvili should be considered from the perspective of what has happened to Georgia in recent years. I remember that a decade ago there was no state budget or social security and the country lacked a number of fundamental institutions. A teacher’s salary was $15 and pensions were often not paid at all. There was a pervasive corruption - in the administration, police and judiciary."
Saakashvili had a vision and he pursued it. He was surrounded by a group of young, pro-Western officials and politicians who graduated from American and British universities. These influences enabled him to set a new course for Georgia; focusing on building relationships and alliances with the United States of America, Western Europe as well as with Nato and the EU.
His warmth and charisma enabled him to build good working relationships with countries like Armenia, Azerbaijan, Turkey and the Arab states which paid off attracting numerous investors.
Ultimately, as a result of his dislike with Putin and his policies, he paid a heavy price by entering war with Russia in 2008. The consequences of which meant that Georgia lost 20% of its territory, namely Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
In national politics he fought against corruption and organized crime, for the first time citizens started to feel safe in the streets of the capital, Tbilisi. There was even talk that the police stations which were all glass buildings had become symbols of reform and transparency within the country. However, his relentless fight against bribery had its consequences. Before the last amnesty announced by the government of Ivanishvili, Georgia had the highest (next to Russia) ratio of prisoners per 1000 inhabitants in Europe. As a result, a member of almost every community within the country was involved in legal proceedings which took its toll on the popularity of the President.
Nevertheless many institutions and international organizations respect Saakashvili’s output to the modernization of the country. Recently Georgia took a high position in the rankings of the World Bank and Transparency International as countries which offered good investments to investors as well as being the least corrupt.
Over the last decade the country has changed beyond recognition thanks to Saakashvili. He hired the best architects in the world in order to build an impressive parliament in Kutaisi and a bridge in Tbilisi. Public buildings, even in small towns are architectural gems which became the envy of other countries.
Moreover, Saakashvili invested in establishing good relationship with national minority groups. It wasn’t a coincidence that in the last parliamentary elections the presidential party won in the regions inhabited by Azerbaijanis and Armenians.
He also cared about investing in the future of Georgia’s young people: hiring thousands of young native English teachers to improve skills and break down barriers. It is easy to communicate in English with young Georgians even in a villages located in the mountains. Furthermore, even the smallest schools provide students free access to broadband internet.
On the other hand Saakashvili made some mistakes. The president and his United National Movement (UNM) have ruled continuously. For the past two terms, the parliamentary opposition which consisted of only a few members seemed to be created only for the needs of the visiting western delegations.
Civil society remains at its infancy, there are only a few non-governmental organisations that lack government funding, receiving only financial help from the EU embassies and the USA.
Saakashvili claimed that Georgian elite groups consisted mainly of the former supporters of the soviet system, and their restraint in promoting his policy was an expression of longing for an alliance with Russia. He also ignored calls for talks with the Orthodox Church.
Bidzina Ivanishvili generously sponsored the renovation of churches and monasteries - as a result of the general elections in 2012, the church almost openly supported his people, which determined the final victory of the Georgian Dream.
Saakashvili’s disregard for reports of torture and rape in prisons, just before the elections also cast a shadow over him, with talk of him abusing his power and acting ruthlessness against political opponents.
Ivanishvili skillfully used this decreasing support and appeal for Saakashvili. Georgian Dream which is made up of several groups and politicians and diplomats who the president tried to get rid of had one thing in common: undisguised hatred for Saakashvili. The question is whether, after the end of his presidency it will be enough for the coalition to continue?
Last year Saakashvili fought an on-going struggle with Prime Minister Ivanishvili and the parliamentary majority. It was difficult to accept the new situation for the President who was used to absolute power. He was threatened with prosecutions and a number of investigations , and even arrest.
But you can also look at this year from a different perspective: Saakashvili is the first leader in this part of the world who has accepted electoral defeat and who has peacefully handed over power.
He agreed to amend the constitution and limit his powers, bringing Georgia closer to the model of a parliamentary democracy. He acted consistently about defending the strategic choice of the future Euro-Atlantic integration.
His contributions to the country are unquestionable. He will be remembered as a dynamic leader who had a vision of Georgia as a modern state in the western world. However the most important point is that today before the November summit of the Eastern Partnership in Vilnius, 80% of Georgians support this vision."