On October 31, Georgians will go to the polls in the country of Georgia. Georgia will be holding elections for its 150-seat Parliament. I have been involved in Georgia in many ways since my first trip in the Fall of 1991. This includes as its first lobbyist, Parliament advisor, entrepreneur and now investment advisor. I was decorated by President Eduard Shevardnadze “Oder of Honor” for my efforts in support of Georgia’s integration with the Western democracies. I still read the news in Georgia every morning.
Georgia is always fascinating and vibrant country that has led the way in Western orientation, democratic reform in the foreign Soviet space. It is an unabashed aspirant nation for full EU and NATO membership. This election will mark a new phase that will end the political life of one of Georgia’s most recognized politicians who appears to have once again overplayed his political hand. This election will likely seal his future fate.
The role of Mikheil (Misha) Saakashvili, who was both a two-term President of Georgia and also Governor of Ukraine’s Odessa Oblast, is worth exploring. Georgia is a close an important ally of the US and NATO countries in a critical part of the world.
Misha Saakashvili has always been an outsized character. Charismatic and a human fireball of energy he was always talking fast and overbrimming with ideas. Whether it is his incredible appetites and numerous proclivities or his proclamations and predictions as a god from Olympus, ready to descend and save his people, his latest recklessness may be a record setter. Some would say he is like a hurricane, but I prefer Typhoon, its more destructive. Against the recommendations of health and governmental authorities, “Typhoon Misha” unleashed the dogs of COVID with a 5,000-plus-person rally in Batumi, the vacation spot on the Black Sea that was already in the midst of an infection spike following the summer holiday season.
The October rally by his United National Movement (UNM) party will tragically expose many to the virus. Zaal Udumashvili, one of the leaders of UNM, noted that there were too many people in Batumi, creating logistical problems (without social distancing) and that many of the UNM supporters were not wearing masks. But according to Typhoon Misha, the unprecedented new wave of COVID in Georgia is being caused by the government’s irresponsibility, corruption, double standards, and lies! In fact, the Georgian government’s disciplined approach to the pandemic has produced one of the world’s lowest infection rates, but with the Typhoon, it is always the other guys who are to blame, not him. The government is corrupt, the sky is falling and only he can save the nation. It’s getting very old.
After the rally, Saakashvili proclaimed in Leninist fashion that, “the National Movement is ready for mass mobilization… yesterday’s meeting of the United National Movement and the United Opposition - Power in Unity in Batumi was a very big, very exciting demonstration of the unity of people!”
Recklessness has always been the hallmark of the “Typhoon” and now it’s again on full display, when a bit of humility should be in order.
It is not often in political life that a major figure is provided with a serious political opportunity to redeem himself from humiliating defeat. Facing term limits in 2012, he decided to change the Georgian constitution in order to remain in power – potentially for life. His gambit failed. A humiliating defeat in the parliamentary elections led him to flee the country to avoid prosecution for abuses of power.
He was provided safe harbor in Ukraine. Ukrainian President Poroshenko offered him Ukrainian citizenship to protect him from extradition to Georgia and a government appointment to implement reforms and an anti-corruption program in the Odessa region on the Black Sea. This was a Typhoon Misha go-to favorite. When in doubt, proclaim your purity and attack those who disagree with you as corrupt. With little support or understanding of the situation, he tried methods he had used in Georgia and brought to Odessa Georgians who had served in his government. His public relations campaign, including one video that showed an overweight and not-too-nimble former President of Georgia attempting to demonstrate police methods on local TV, made him a laughingstock and his efforts crumbled. But it appears he obtained a lavish penthouse of considerable value in Odessa. When quest5ioned were raise how the anti corrupotion fighter could afford an expensive penthouse, one response was that his mother bought it for him. Oh well, moving on….
But being rescued from Georgian legal action was not enough. Typhoon Misha decided to start a political party in Ukraine to challenge President Poroshenko, the man who had saved him from prosecution in Georgia form abuse of power. Not just any political party, but one to fight the corruption at the top of the country! Needless to say, he soon became a stateless former president without his Ukrainian passport. Now its reinstated by President Zelensky.
But Misha still has Georgia on his mind. He has made more videos and more corruption accusations, pledging to save Georgia once again by returning before the election. He did not. He proclaimed he do not want any position, but soon changed his mind and suggested he would only serve two years as Prime Minister. This of course was not coordinated with anyone in his coalition or the united coalition. No one wants to hear this. He announced he will “play nice” with the united opposition, and his UNM will cooperate with the other opposition parties in a “united front” to liberate Georgia from “the oppressors” (Georgian Dream). Please hold the laughter. But as soon as he saw the poll numbers not moving toward the “united front,” he jumped ship and betrayed the agreement that had been facilitated by the Western diplomatic community in Tbilisi, to go it alone with the UNM at the expense of the other opposition party candidates. The Typhoon is at work again. Trying to grab as many UNM controlled seats as possible.
Misha declared, “I will not put up with the illegality and rigging of elections.” This is the man who famously declared on national TV immediately after the voting booths closed during the 2012 parliamentary elections that the United National Movement had won. Oops, the vote had not even been counted and, in fact, the Georgian Dream coalition won in a huge rejection of him and his party (UNM).
Unfortunately for the countries where Typhoon Misha lands, he creates such disturbance and instability that outside forces can take advantage of his experimental approaches by inexperienced cadres – as Russia did in 2008. There was a time that Misha had a partner who kept some guardrails around him to moderate the windstorm. Progress was achieved. But Zurab Zhvania tragically died under mysterious circumstances, after which the authoritarian and messianic instincts took hold that ultimately produced the Misha we see today.
The Misha who recently lectured the American Secretary of State saying, “I am generally seen as the most prominent, consistently pro-American voice in this entire region... It is therefore an absolute waste of time for the U.S. Secretary of State to engage Gakharia (Prime Minister of Georgia) in a conversation about democracy.”
Profiled in the New York Times as another former president in New York exile, the article noted that he “has commandeered his uncle’s apartment (former Soviet UN official-authors note) in a tower of the Williamsburg waterfront, where he luxuriates in the neighborhood’s time-honored tradition of mysteriously sourced wealth.” Add to this the question of how the out-of-power UNM supports a lobby effort in Washington, DC for $500,000 a year with well-known Republican activists involved.
As the Georgian parliamentary elections approach, 2020 should mark the end of Typhoon Misha as a viable political force. His moment did indeed deliver a more mature democracy in Georgia, though largely in reaction to and not because of him – witness his precipitous fall from grace in 2012. His early days as President should be legacy enough for even the most self-centered messiah, but it is not, and he continues to work the forces of “divide and conquer.”
This year’s elections around the world will be determined in some measure by a simple question: How did your government handle the pandemic? The Republic of Georgia handled it in an exemplary manner. Typhoon Misha’s blame of the current Georgian government, as well as his promise to build the Trump Tower in Batumi, are just more reckless claims and promises. When it comes to Misha, as Ralph Nader said of the Chevy Corvair automobile, “unsafe at any speed.”
Paul M. Joyal is a security analyst and media commentator on political and security matters concerning Russia and former Soviet countries. He was a staff member for the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. His most recent Op-ed: “Russians are masters of disinformation. Don’t fall for their lies on social media “ appeared Oct. 9th, 2020 in the Miami Herald. https://www.miamiherald.com/opinion/op-ed/article246096855.html