Mikheil Saakashvili (Georgian: მიხეილ სააკაშვილი, IPA: [mixɛil saakʼaʃvili]; born 21 December 1967) is a Georgian politician, the third and current President of Georgia and leader of the United National Movement Party.
Involved in national politics since 1995, he became president on 25 January 2004 after President Eduard Shevardnadze resigned in the November 2003 bloodless "Rose Revolution" led by Saakashvili and his political allies, Nino Burjanadze and Zurab Zhvania. He was re-elected in the Georgian presidential election on 5 January 2008. He is widely regarded as a pro-NATO and pro-West leader who spearheaded a series of political and economic reforms. In 2010, he had a 67% approval rating despite being criticized by the opposition for his alleged authoritarian tendencies and electoral fraud.
Some non-Georgian sources spell Saakashvili's first name via the Russian version of the name Mikhail. In Georgia, he is commonly known as "Misha," a hypocorism for Mikheil.
Early life and career
Mikheil Saakashvili was born in Tbilisi, capital of the then Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic in the Soviet Union, to a Georgian intelligentsia family. His father, Nikoloz Saakashvili, is a physician who practices medicine in Tbilisi and directs a local Balneological Center. His mother, Giuli Alasania, is a historian who lectures at Tbilisi State University.
During university, he served his shortened military service in 1989–1990 with the Soviet Border Troops' checkpoint unit in the Boryspil Airport in Ukraine. Saakashvili graduated from the Institute of International Relations (Department of International Law) of the Kiev State University (Ukraine) in 1992. He briefly worked as a human rights officer for the interim State Council of Georgia following the overthrow of President Zviad Gamsakhurdia before receiving a fellowship from the United States State Department (via the Edmund S. Muskie Graduate Fellowship Program). He received an LL.M. from Columbia Law School in 1994 and took classes at The George Washington University Law School the following year. In 1995, he also received a diploma from the International Institute of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France.
After graduation, while on internship in the New York law firm of Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler in early 1995, Saakashvili was approached by Zurab Zhvania, an old friend from Georgia who was working on behalf of President Eduard Shevardnadze to enter politics. He stood in the December 1995 elections along with Zhvania, and both men won seats in parliament, standing for the Union of Citizens of Georgia, Shevardnadze's party.
Saakashvili was chairman of the parliamentary committee which was in charge of creating a new electoral system, an independent judiciary and a non-political police force. Opinion surveys recognised him to be the second most popular person in Georgia, behind Shevardnadze. He was named "man of the year"[dubious ] by a panel of journalists and human rights advocates in 1997. In January 2000, Saakashvili was appointed Vice-President of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.
On 12 October 2000, Saakashvili became Minister of Justice for the government of President Shevardnadze. He initiated major reforms in the Georgian criminal justice and prisons system. This earned praise[dubious ] from international observers and human rights activists. But in mid-2001 he became involved in a major controversy with the State Security Minister Vakhtang Kutateladze and Tbilisi police chief Ioseb Alavidze, accusing them of profiting from corrupt business deals.
Saakashvili resigned on 5 September 2001, saying that "I consider it immoral for me to remain as a member of Shevardnadze's government." He declared that corruption had penetrated to the very center of the Georgian government and that Shevardnadze lacked the will to deal with it, warning that "current developments in Georgia will turn the country into a criminal enclave in one or two years."
In the United National Movement
Having resigned from the government and quit the Shevardnadze-run Union of Citizens of Georgia party, Saakashvili founded the United National Movement (UNM) in October 2001, a center-right political party with a touch of nationalism, to provide a focus for part of the Georgian reformists leaders. In June 2002, he was elected as the Chairman of the Tbilisi Assembly ("Sakrebulo") following an agreement between the United National Movement and the Georgian Labour Party. This gave him a powerful new platform from which to criticize the government.
Georgia held parliamentary elections on 2 November 2003 which were denounced by local and international observers as being grossly rigged. Saakashvilli claimed that he had won the elections (a claim supported by independent exit polls), and urged Georgians to demonstrate against Shevardnadze's government and engage in nonviolent civil disobedience against the authorities. Saakashvili's UNM and Burdjanadze-Democrats united to demand the ouster of Shevardnadze and the rerun of the elections.
Massive political demonstrations were held in Tbilisi in November, with over 100,000 people participating and listening to speeches by Saakashvili and other opposition figures. The Kmara ("Enough!") youth organization (a Georgian counterpart of the Serbian "Otpor") and several NGOs, like Liberty Institute, were active in all protest activities. After an increasingly tense two weeks of demonstrations, Shevardnadze resigned as President on 23 November, to be replaced on an interim basis by parliamentary speaker Nino Burjanadze. While the revolutionary leaders did their best to stay within the constitutional norms, many called the change of government a popular coup dubbed by Georgian media as the Rose Revolution.
Saakashvili's "storming of Georgia's parliament" in 2003 "put U.S. diplomats off guard... [Saakashvili] ousted a leader the U.S. had long backed, Eduard Shevardnadze." Seeking support, Saakashvili went outside the U.S. State Department. He hired Randy Scheunemann, now Sen. John McCain's top foreign-policy adviser, as a lobbyist and used Daniel Kunin of USAID and the NDI as a full-time adviser.
On 24 February 2004 the United National Movement and the United Democrats had amalgamated. The new political movement was named the National Movement - Democrats (NMD). The movement's main political priorities include raising pensions and providing social services to the poor, its main base of support; fighting corruption; and increasing state revenue.
On 4 January 2004 Mikheil Saakashvili won the presidential elections in Georgia with more than 96% of the votes cast, making him the youngest national president in Europe. Saakashvili ran on a platform of opposing corruption and improving pay and pensions. He has promised to improve relations with the outside world. Although he is strongly pro-Western and intends to seek Georgian membership of NATO and the European Union, he has also spoken of the importance of better relations with Russia. He faces major problems, however, particularly Georgia's difficult economic situation and the still unresolved question of separatism in the regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Abkhazia regards itself as independent of Georgia and did not take part in the elections, while South Ossetia favours union with its northern counterpart in Russia.
Saakashvili was sworn in as President in Tbilisi on 25 January 2004. Immediately after the ceremony he signed a decree establishing a new state flag. On 26 January, in a ceremony held at the Tbilisi Kashueti Church of Saint George, he promulgated a decree granting permission for the return of the body of the first President of Georgia, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, from Grozny (Chechen Republic) to Tbilisi and renaming a major road in the capital after Gamsakhurdia. He also released 32 Gamsakhurdia supporters (political prisoners) imprisoned by the Shevardnadze government in 1993-94.
In the first months of his presidency, Saakashvili faced a major political crisis in the southwestern Autonomous Republic of Adjara run by an authoritarian regional leader, Aslan Abashidze, who largely ignored the central Georgian government and was viewed by many as a pro-Russian politician. The crisis threatened to develop into an armed confrontation, but Saakashvili's government managed to resolve the conflict peacefully, forcing Abashidze to resign on 6 May 2004. Success in Adjara encouraged the new president to intensify his efforts towards bringing the breakaway South Ossetia back under the Georgian jurisdiction. The separatist authorities responded with intense militarization in the region, that led to armed clashes in August 2004. A stalemate ensued, and despite a new peace plan proposed by the Georgian government in 2005, the conflict remains unresolved. In late July 2006, Saakashvili's government managed to deal successfully with another major crisis, this time in Abkhazia's Kodori Gorge where Georgia's police forces disarmed a defiant militia led by a local warlord Emzar Kvitsiani.
Although President Saakashvili's reforms are considered to have been of mixed success, the rate of corruption in the country has drastically reduced. According to the World Bank, Georgia is named as the number one economic reformer in the world and the country ranks 11th in terms of ease of doing business- while most of the country's neighbours are ranked somewhere in the hundreds.
In his foreign policy, Saakashvili maintains close ties with the U.S., as well as other NATO countries, and remains one of the key partners of the GUAM organisation. The Saakashvili-led Rose Revolution has been described by the White House as one of the most powerful movements in the modern history that has inspired others to seek freedom.
Georgia has become involved in international market transactions to a small extent, and in 2007 Bank of Georgia sold bonds at premium, when $200m five-year bond was priced with a coupon of 9 per cent at par, or 100 per cent of face value, after initially being priced at 9.5 per cent and investors pushed orders up to $600m.
President Saakashvili sees membership of the NATO as a premise of stability for Georgia and offered an intensified dialogue with the de facto Abkhaz and Ossetian authorities. Until the 2008 South Ossetia war, a diplomatic solution was thought to be possible. Saakashvili's administration doubled the number of its troops in Iraq, making Georgia one of the biggest supporters of Coalition Forces, and keeping its troops in Kosovo and Afghanistan to "contribute to what it describes as global security".
Saakashvili's government maintains diplomatic relations with other Caucasian states and Eastern European countries, such as Armenia, Azerbaijan, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Turkey and Ukraine. In 2004, Saakashvili visited Israel to attend the official opening of the Modern Energy Problems Research Center, and Dr. Brenda Schaffer, the director of the center, described Saakashvili as the Nelson Mandela of the 21st century. In August of the same year, Saakashvili, who holds an honorary doctorate from the University of Haifa, travelled to Israel to attend the opening of the official Week of Georgian-Jewish Friendship, held under the auspices of the Georgian President, for which the Jewish leaders were invited as honoured guests.
On 12 October 2007 Saakashvili officially visited Åland Islands, an autonomous region of Finland, and was informed about how the autonomy is organised.
Relations with the United States are good, but are complicated by Saakashvili's "volatile" behaviour. Former and current U.S. officials characterize the Georgian president as "difficult to manage". They criticize his "risky moves", moves that have often "caught the U.S. unprepared" while leaving it "exposed diplomatically".
Saakashvili's ties with the U.S. go back to 1991 (see Early life and career). Biographies of Thomas Jefferson and John F. Kennedy can be found in his office, next to biographies of Joseph Stalin and Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and books on war. Seeking U.S. support, Saakashvili went outside the United States Department of State and established contacts with Sen. John McCain and forces seeking NATO expansion.
Saakashvili believes that the long-term priority for the country is to advance its membership in the European Community and during a meeting with Javier Solana, he said that in contrast with new and old European states, Georgia is an Ancient European state.
On 10 May 2005, while U.S. President George W. Bush was giving a speech in Tbilisi's Freedom Square, Vladimir Arutyunian threw a live hand grenade at where Saakashvili and Bush were sitting. It landed in the crowd about 65 feet (20 m) from the podium after hitting a girl and did not detonate. Arutyunian was arrested in July of that year, but before his capture he managed to kill one law enforcement agent. He was convicted of the attempted assassinations of Saakashvili and Bush and the murder of the agent, and given a life sentence.
Later in 2007, Georgia faced the worst crisis since the Rose Revolution. A series of anti-government demonstration were sparked, in October, by accusations of murders and corruption levelled by Irakli Okruashvili, Saakashvili's erstwhile associate and former member of his government, against the president and his allies. The protests climaxed early in November 2007, and involved several opposition groups and the influential media tycoon Badri Patarkatsishvili. Although the demonstrations rapidly went downhill, the government's decision to use police force against the remaining protesters evolved into clashes in the streets of Tbilisi on 7 November. The declaration of state of emergency by the president (7 November-16) and the restriction imposed on some mass media sources led to harsh criticism of the Saakashvili government both in the country and abroad. Human Rights Watch criticised the Georgian government for using "excessive" force against protesters in November and International Crisis Group warned of growing authoritarianism.
On 8 November 2007, President Saakashvili announced a compromise solution to hold early presidential elections for 5 January 2008. He also proposed to hold a plebiscite in parallel to snap presidential elections about when to hold parliamentary polls – in spring as pushed for by the opposition parties, or in late 2008. Several concessions in the election code were also made to the opposition.
On 23 November 2007, the ruling United National Movement party officially nominated Saakashvili as its candidate for the upcoming elections. Pursuant to the Constitution of Georgia, Saakashvili resigned on 25 November to launch his pre-election campaign for early presidential polls.
Changes in the Cabinet
Saakashvili publicly announced about his plans of modernising the Cabinet of Georgia well before Georgian presidential elections. Shortly after being re-elected, the president formally re-appointed the Prime Minister of Georgia Lado Gurgenidze and asked him to present a renewed cabinet to the Parliament of Georgia for final approval.
Gurgenidze changed most ministers, leaving Ivane Merabishvili, controversial Minister for Home Affairs, Defence Minister David Kezerashvili and Minister of Finance Nika Gilauri on their former positions. Gia Nodia was appointed as the Minister of Education and Science. Zaza Gamcemlidze, former director of Tbilisi Botanic Garden, took over the position of the Minister of Human Resources and Nature Protection. Famous archaeologist, and already the eldest minister in the cabinet, Iulon Gagoshidze was appointed on a newly designated position of the Minister of State for Diasporas.
Parliamentary elections held during Saakashvili's second term were condemned by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe election monitoring mission for being marred by ballot stuffing, violence against opposition campaigners, uncritical coverage of the president and his party from the state-controlled media, and public officials openly campaigning for the president's party.
On 28 October 2008, Mikheil Saakashvili proposed Grigol Mgaloblishvili, Georgian Ambassador to Turkey for the premiership. According to the President, Gurgenidze had initially agreed to serve only for a year and that Georgia was facing new challenges which needed new approach. The Parliament of Georgia approved Mgaloblishvili as the premier on 1 November 2008.
In 2009 (2009 Georgian demonstrations), 2011 (2011 Georgian protests) and 2012 (2012 Georgian protests) protests against Saakashvili spread across Georgia.
On February 22, 2008 Saakashvili held an official meeting[when?] with the Prime Minister of Russia Vladimir Putin, in his residence in Novo-Ogaryovo. The presidents discussed the issues of aviation regulations between the two countries. This was Putin's last meeting as the President of Russia, having been succeeded by Dimitry Medvedev.
However, a series of clashes between Georgian and South Ossetian forces resulted in Saakashvili ordering an attack on Tskhinvali. In response, the Russian army invaded South Ossetia, later followed by the invasion of Georgia proper. The two counterparts were led to a ceasefire agreement and a six-point peace plan, due to the French President's mediation. On 26 August the Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev, signed a decree recognizing Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states. On August 29, 2008, in response to Russia's recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Deputy Foreign Minister Grigol Vashadze announced that Georgia had broken diplomatic relations with Russia.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev holds Saakashvili responsible for the 2008 South Ossetia war, and states that Saakashvili is responsible for the collapse of the Georgian state. Medvedev has stated "(a)s soon as Georgia gets a new leader we will have every opportunity to restore ties."
2004 presidential election
The 2004 presidential election were carried out on 4 January 2004. The election was an outcome of the bloodless Rose Revolution and a consequent resignation of President Eduard Shevardnadze. It is well known for a very high level of electoral turnout and also for the number of votes cast for one particular presidential candidate — Mikheil Saakashvili (96%). All other candidates received less than 2% of the votes. In total, 1,763,000 eligible voters participated in the election.
2008 presidential election
On 5 January 2008, an early presidential election, was held nationwide with the exception of a highland village Shatili, where the polling station was not opened due to the high levels of snowfall. In a televised address, President Saakashvili had proposed to hold the election earlier than called for by the Georgian constitution in order to resolve the political tension surrounding opposition-led demonstrations, their suppression by the government on November 7, 2007, and the closure of the most popular Opposition television network, Imedi. President Saakashvili said in his Presidential address that "these elections will be held according to our timing, and not that our ill-wishers." of the votes.
2009 opposition demonstrations and armed mutiny
The pressure against Saakashvili intensified in 2009, when the opposition launched mass demonstrations against Saakashvili's rule. On May 5, 2009, Georgian police said large-scale disorders were planned in Georgia of which the failed army mutiny was part. According to the police, Saakashvili's assassination had also been plotted. Opposition figures dispute the claim of an attempted mutiny and instead say that troops refused an illegal order to use force against opposition demonstrators
Journey to Polish presidential funeral
18 April 2010 Saakashvili, despite an ash cloud from the Eyjafjallajökull volcano, because of which airspace over most of Europe has been closed, made his way to Polish president L.Kaczynski's funeral. Dozens of foreign mourners had had their flights cancelled. Mikheil Saakasvhili was flying from the USA and first landed in Portugal, then Italy, Turkey, Bulgaria and Romania and finally found himself in Kraków airport, just on time to meet the funeral conduct walking to Wawel Cathedral.
On 27 March 2006 the government announced that it had prevented a nation-wide prison riot plotted by criminal kingpins. The police operation ended with the deaths of 7 inmates and at least 17 injuries. While the Parliamentary opposition has cast doubts over the official version and demanded an independent investigation, the ruling party has been able to vote down such initiatives.
In November 2007, Saakashvili came under criticism for dispersing with rubber bullets and tear gas hundreds of protesters who were blocking Tbilisi's main transport artery, Rustaveli Avenue. The demonstrations started as protest against the arrest of two well-known sportsmen accused in blackmail but soon grew into a demonstration against the central authorities. 25 people were arrested including 5 members of opposition parties. In November 2007 another series of demonstrations forced Saakashvili to set the pre-scheduled presidential elections for 5 January 2008.
The deceased Georgian businessman Arkady Patarkatsishvili claimed that pressure had been exerted on his financial interests after Imedi Television broadcast several accusations against officials. On 25 October 2007, former defense minister Irakli Okruashvili accused the president of planning Patarkatsishvili's murder. Okruashvili was detained two days later on charges of extortion, money laundering, and abuse of office. However, in a videotaped confession released by the General Prosecutor's Office on 8 October 2007, in which Okruashvili pleaded guilty to large-scale bribery through extortion and negligence while serving as minister, he retracted his accusations against the president and said that he did so to gain some political benefit and that Badri Patarkatsishvili told him to do so. Okruashvili's lawyer and other opposition leaders said his retraction had been made under duress.
Patarkatsishvili's opposition television station Imedi was shut down in November 2007 after the authorities have accused it of complicity with the plot to overthrow the elected government. The channel resumed broadcasts a few weeks following the incident, but did not cover news or talk shows until after the election. Subsequently the station was sold on to supporters of the Saakashvili government and some Georgian journalists have called for the station to be handed back.
In the 2010 study Competitive Authoritarianism: Hybrid Regimes After the Cold War, political scientists Steven Levitsky and Lucan A. Way cite various media and human rights reports to describe Saakashvili's Georgia as a "competitive authoritarian" (i.e., a formally democratic but essentially non-democratic) state.
In September, 2012, during Saakashvili's presidency, a video taken inside Tbilisi prison Gldani #8 showing prisoners being beaten and sodomized was released to the public.
Georgian Minister of Correction, Probation and Legal Assistance, Khatuna Kalmakhelidze was forced to resign over the scandal. Human rights organizations including the U.N. Office for the High Commissioner for Human Rights issued a statement expressing outrage over the video and The U.N. Office for the High Commissioner.
Response to criticism
In spite of these criticisms, Saakashvili's government has been lauded for making "striking improvements" in the fight against corruption. In addition, the U.S. State Department noted that during 2005 "the government amended several laws and increased the amount of investigations and prosecutions reducing the amount of abuse and ill-treatment in pre-trial detention facilities". The status of religious freedom also improved due to increased investigation and prosecution of those harassing followers of non-traditional faiths.
The scrupulousness of Patarkatsishvili's political opposition toward the Georgian president has been questioned by the Jamestown Foundation's political analyst Vladimir Socor who attributed the businessman's discontentment to Saakashvili's anti-corruption reforms, which "had severely curtailed Patarkatsishvili's scope for doing business in his accustomed, post-Soviet 1990s-style ways." Patarkatsishvili - who had fled the Russian authorities after allegations of fraud - was called "a state criminal" by Saakashvili, who accused him of treason while refusing to admit to any of his accusations.
Saakashvili married Dutch-born Sandra Roelofs, whom he met in 1993. The couple has two sons, Eduard (born July 21, 1995) and Nikoloz (born December 19, 2005). Eduard claimed, in June 2011, the world record for speed typing on an iPad.
Apart from his native Georgian, Saakashvili speaks fluent English, French, Russian, and Ukrainian, and has some command of Ossetian and Spanish.
Saakashvili was played by Cuban-American Hollywood actor Andy García in the 2010 Hollywood film 5 Days of War by Finnish-American film director Renny Harlin. The film tells the story of Saakashvili and the events during the 2008 South Ossetia war.
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