Five years ago, tens of thousands of Georgians took to the streets to overthrow a corrupt, pro-Russian government and put a bright, young, American-educated lawyer into power. It was a heady and hopeful time—not just for Georgia, but for a swath of post-Soviet countries that had gained nominal independence but were still mired in crony capitalism and political dependence on Moscow. Georgia's new leader, Mikheil Saakashvili, was "energetic, well educated —he liked to take risks," remembers Nino Burzhanadze, one of his closest allies during the Rose Revolution. "He had 100 percent support in his country and practically 100 percent support in the West —no other president in the world has ever had the chances that President Saakashvili had."
Now Saakashvili's pro-Western project, which included joining NATO, creating an open society, weeding out corruption and reforming the economy, is coming apart. In early April thousands of demonstrators gathered again in Tbilisi, this time not to support the president but to demand his resignation. They threw rabbit food at the presidential residence and called Saakashvili a coward for losing last summer's war against Russia, and said he brought disaster on Georgia's head by arrogantly confronting its big neighbor. Popular disgust with the war has become a trap for Saakashvili, with the vast majority of Georgians saying they want better relations with Russia, and Moscow saying that won't happen while Saakashvili is still in power.
That may not be much longer. Since the war ended, Saakashvili's popularity rating has slipped from 80 percent to 30 percent, and poor relations with Russia have made the economic downturn particularly painful. Three years ago, Russia began to cut off the trade in wine and agricultural goods from Georgia, and it completely stopped cross-border trade after the war, translating into a 70 percent drop in Georgian exports. Foreign investment has also plummeted, from $525 million in the second quarter of 2008 to $188 million in the fourth quarter.
Signs of Saakashvili's struggle to make good on his economic promises are everywhere. In Kutaisi, Georgia's second-biggest city (population: 200,000), the narrow, pedestrian, cobblestoned streets of the city center resemble Tallinn, Estonia, with freshly painted buildings, boutique cafés and restored churches, but tap water runs for less than three hours every other day and the city's Soviet-era factories went bankrupt in the 1990s. "Look behind the bright façade and you will see how rotten and poor our city is," says Tsisfer Kansheli, a former factory manager.
More worryingly for Saakashvili, many are now speaking nostalgically of the days of free trade with Moscow. "My family sold fruit and vegetables to Russia for decades—we want to have the border open for trade again," says Bela Banzeladze, an unemployed exporter. At Gori State University, students worried that Saakashvili had put too much faith in the West. "Was our president wrong by choosing his strategic partners?" wonders Edgar Khasakhashvili, a law student and an ethnic-Georgian refugee from South Ossetia.
Saakashvili is feeling increasingly isolated. Georgian officials seem unnerved by the Obama administration's offer to "reset" relations with Moscow—and its perceived retreat from support for Georgia's entry into NATO. Last week Georgian officials met with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who confirmed U.S. plans to deepen cooperation with Georgia on military training. Meanwhile, the U.S. Congress is set to approve $242.5 million in aid this month, but U.S. subsidies won't substitute for full trade relations with Russia—something Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has made clear won't happen while Saakashvili is in power.
Georgia today is still more liberal and economically stronger than many of its neighbors. But for his own sake, if nothing else, Saakashvili will have to find a way to defuse the political tensions. After all, Georgians don't want a leader who sacrifices his country's prosperity and security for the sake of an infatuation with NATO and the West. They want a pragmatist who can cut deals when they're needed, and reopen trade with Russia. Saakashvili will have to work hard to convince his people that he is that man.