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Georgian Leader on Precarious Pedestal

Times Staff Writer

As Georgian President-elect Mikheil Saakashvili prepares to take power, the fervent support of vast numbers of citizens counting on him to change their lives may be both a blessing and a curse.

They are people like Nino Kharlampidi, a bus station worker who joined last fall’s nonviolent “Rose Revolution” led by the dashing young “Misha,” a Western-educated lawyer known for fiery rhetoric and a boyish smile. Fireworks lighted the sky in the capital, Tbilisi, on the November night that longtime President Eduard A. Shevardnadze resigned in the face of the protests, and the 50-year-old Kharlampidi was among those who danced on the street in front of parliament.

“I danced for joy,” she said. “Because Misha is the leader, we expect things will get better. I love Misha very much. I love everything about him. He’s very strong. He’s very strict. He’s very trustworthy. He’s a person who loves the Georgian people.”

Such sentiments translated into a stunning electoral victory for Saakashvili in Jan. 4 presidential balloting in the beautiful but poverty-stricken former Soviet republic. Official returns showed the charismatic pro-Western reformer winning 96% of the vote against five rivals. That level of support is rarely seen in a free election anywhere in the world, but foreign monitors have said they believed the election was honest.

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Expectations may now be so high that they can only be crushed.

“Until now, he achieved everything,” said Alexander Rondeli, president of the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies. “Now he faces the most difficult task of his life. To make many people happy is not easy.”

Saakashvili, 36, built his enormous popularity on political skills, risk-taking and a reputation as a fighter against corruption in this nation of 5 million perched between the Black Sea and the Caucasus Mountains.

“This is your victory. I have not won the election. You, my people, you have won the election,” he told cheering supporters on election night. His inauguration is set for Jan. 25.

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“His oratorical style is quite emotional, hot-tempered and populist,” said Ghia Nodia, director of the Caucasian Institute for Peace, Democracy and Development, a Tbilisi think tank. “But I personally think that all Mikheil Saakashvili’s populism in his speeches is very carefully calculated. He knows exactly what he is doing. And he knows that in order to be popular in Georgia today, he needs to adhere to this style of talking in public.”

A handsome, slightly heavyset man with black hair, Saakashvili can look like a corporate executive when wearing a suit, though a leather jacket and more casual clothes allow him to fit smoothly on Georgia’s sometimes tough streets.

His primarily Orthodox Christian land is still a macho, traditional world in many ways -- a place where emotion sometimes matters as much as logic, and where a touch of mysticism evokes feelings for the nation’s many centuries of rich history.

Saakashvili’s ability to move effortlessly between the worlds of Western elites and the disenfranchised of his homeland accounts for much of his success.

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He earned a law degree at Columbia University on a U.S. scholarship program created for citizens of the former Soviet Union, studied human rights law at George Washington University and worked briefly at a New York law firm. He lived in an apartment near Central Park, regularly attending Knicks games and performances of the Metropolitan Opera.

In 1995, he was recruited by a key associate of Shevardnadze to return to Georgia as part of a group of young reformers with no roots in the old Communist elite. In parliamentary elections later that year, the ruling party gave him a choice slot on its candidates list, which in Georgia’s system guaranteed him a seat. In parliament, he set about revising the country’s judicial and police systems.

Saakashvili was “a kind of meteor” who “came into Georgian politics as a person willing to conduct very serious reforms,” said Elene Tevdoradze, a member of parliament from the party led by interim President Nino Burjanadze, who helped lead the November protests.

Shevardnadze appointed Saakashvili justice minister in 2000. The defining moment of his career came the next year, when Saakashvili created a sensation at a Cabinet meeting by accusing some of his colleagues of blatant corruption for building palatial homes they could not possibly afford on their modest government salaries. The security minister and Tbilisi police chief were among those he targeted by brandishing photos of the new construction.

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That speech “really made him famous,” said Akaki Gogichaishvili, a reporter with Tbilisi’s independent Rustavi 2 television.

“It had tremendous reverberations in Georgian society,” Rondeli said. “No one before in Georgia saw a government minister telling the others, ‘You are a bunch of thieves.’ ” For a few more weeks, Saakashvili carried on with a high-profile anti-corruption campaign. Yet his relations were poisoned not only with those he accused but also with Shevardnadze. Saakashvili resigned as justice minister, bitterly accusing his former mentor of failing to tackle corruption.

“This is the moment in time when Mikheil Saakashvili must have finally realized that the niche of political opposition in Georgia was virtually vacant, and that it would be more convenient and expedient for his political future to occupy that niche,” Nodia said.

Then, in 2002, Saakashvili won election as chairman of the Tbilisi City Council, a post similar to mayor, which positioned him to carry out popular policies such as repairing the city’s crumbling infrastructure.

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“He raised pensions to Tbilisi pensioners,” Nodia recalled. “He would also participate in actions that really did look dubious from the point of view of the law: He would take a bulldozer and raze to the ground an illegally built gas station, or something like that. And all this he would do in front of TV cameras. That raised his popularity and made sure that people’s eyes stayed riveted on him.”

Yet Nodia views Saakashvili’s credentials as solid.

“First and foremost, he managed to take up the opposition niche that had been vacant,” he said. “Second, he proved to be a determined fighter against corruption. And third, he is a well-educated, intelligent and presentable politician.”

Many people are convinced of Saakashvili’s sincerity and bravery.

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“He’s very young. He’s very strong and energetic. This type of person is needed in Georgia today,” said Giorgi Gigoshvili, 22, a university student in Tbilisi who participated in the November protests. “Corruption in Georgia will only be solved by Saakashvili, because he’s a fighter. He’s proved this by his actions. Everything he’s done in the politics of Georgia has been for the good of the country.”

The anti-Shevardnadze protests reached their climax when Saakashvili led a takeover of parliament. By a lucky coincidence, from Saakashvili’s point of view, the storming of parliament fell on St. Michael’s Day, when people named Mikheil celebrate their patron saint’s day. The next day, St. George’s Day, Shevardnadze resigned. St. George is the country’s patron saint.

Exactly what Saakashvili may believe about such portents is not clear, but he welcomed the timing. “Lately he has displayed a special liking for some mystical allusions, prophetic signs and coincidences,” Nodia said. “He, or his advisors, realize that this is exactly what the public needs.”

Saakashvili strode into parliament wearing jeans and a black jacket, carrying a single long-stemmed rose instead of a gun and leading crowds that chased Shevardnadze out of the building in mid-speech. Throughout the protests, he showed “personal courage and fortitude, which is an extremely valuable asset in Georgia,” Nodia said.

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“Mikheil Saakashvili can be called emotional in that he really is a spitfire and an explosive man,” Nodia added. “But he calms down and forgets grievances quickly, too. And he is capable of cooperating and working with people who criticized him severely in the past.... In private, he is quite a normal, amicable and civilized person who is quite ready to listen and discuss things.”

Saakashvili also benefits from the popularity of his Dutch wife, Sandra Roelofs, whom he met while studying in France before going to the United States. The two have a young son.

“She has undoubtedly been a great asset to her husband in his political struggle and campaigning,” said Gogichaishvili, the TV reporter. “First of all, she is a very charismatic lady. She is very nice-looking and charming. But probably the most important thing is that despite having lived in Georgia for not very long, she has managed to get a perfect command of the Georgian language, which is a great asset.

“She speaks perfect Georgian, she knows Georgian traditions and customs, and this has won the hearts of the Georgian people.”

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Vakhtang Khmaladze, a member of parliament from the opposition New Rights party, said he feared that Saakashvili may be better at winning support than getting things done.

“He’s very impulsive, a person whose policy is created on a populist basis more than logic and objectivity,” Khmaladze said. “His strength would be that he has this charisma that allows him to get the support of the people. The main weakness will be that populism has never brought any constructive achievements.”

In addition to wrestling with corruption, Saakashvili has pledged to try to bring the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia back into the Georgian fold. They have exercised de facto independence since fighting secessionist wars in the early 1990s, and no one thinks Georgian unity can easily be restored.

Rondeli said that the key to success for Saakashvili will be to build a capable team. “I don’t think his personal charm and personal capabilities will be enough.”

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From his years in the U.S., Saakashvili “is acquainted with the Western system of values, which he shares,” Rondeli said. “He believes in democracy and democratic change, and if not we’ll see it very soon. If he becomes authoritarian, we’ll see that he was lying to us.

“Theoretically, there is the risk -- 80% or 90% of politicians start as heroes and end as criminals or miserable people. So let’s hope he’s among the 10% who are successful.”

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Alexei V. Kuznetsov of The Times’ Moscow Bureau contributed to this report.

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