Q&A: Georgia's President Mihheil

Georgia's image as a poster child for Western-style democracy in the former Soviet Union suffered a near fatal blow as baton-swinging riot police dispersed demonstrators in downtown Tbilisi last month. Nearly four hundred were hospitalized and the government closed all opposition television stations and imposed a state of emergency. Mikheil Saakashvili, Georgia's U.S.-educated president, ordered the crackdown and later suggested that Russia was behind the protests as an attempt to destabilize his regime. That didn't save the Georgian leader from stinging criticism from his erstwhile allies in the United States and Europe. In an attempt to re-establish his democratic credentials and refresh his popular mandate, Saakashvili called new presidential elections for January. He talked to Leonid Parfenov, editor of Russian NEWSWEEK. It was Saakashvili's first interview with a foreign media outlet since the crackdown. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: Are you planning to stand again for president?
Mikheil Saakashvili:
I have formally resigned my post. Parliamentary Speaker Nino Burdzhanadze is now the acting president of Georgia and I am a presidential candidate. I am going to tour the country for 40 days, talk to the people and clarify the many misunderstandings that have grown up between us. Election campaigns have always been the best periods of my life. They mobilize me. Regular election campaigns improve the political health of society, too.

Was this election campaign forced by the November crisis?
I do not think that the events in [Tbilisi] should be considered a crisis. Rather, it was an attempt to undermine the state's institutions and an attempt to destroy the election process. When the opposition forces realized they could not come to power through the expression of the free will of the people, they tried to come to power by creating chaos. After my government cleared up the chaos, we had a choice either to tighten the screws--and in the process cast doubt on our own values of liberal democracy--or to call new elections and give liberal democracy a fresh breath of life. We chose elections ... Georgians know that by staging a civil war in one city block they can overthrow a legally elected government--that is what happened when they overthrew [former president Zviad] Gamsakhurdia in 1992. I am happy we have destroyed that dangerous stereotype. We should step over our prejudices and learn how to bring about orderly change. Georgian law-enforcement services use only the same methods used in Europe.

You first dispersed the opposition rally that was calling for an early election, and then you declared elections, which were exactly the opposition's chief demand. Why didn't you declare early elections and save having to disperse the protests?
To declare an early election under the pressure of blackmail was not our choice. First we brought an end to public disorder. When we saw that people still had questions, we decided to declare early presidential elections so that people could have a political discussion, express their opinion about the November events and decide whom they trusted--me or the opposition.

How come key figures of your cabinet like former foreign minister Salome Zurabishvili, defense minister Irakli Okruashvili and Minister for Conflict Resolution Georgy Khaindrava, are now with the opposition?
This is not one but three separate stories. Khaindrava was not our team, we invited him and he could not handle his actually very difficult brief. Zurabishvili is from expatriate Georgian heritage and a former French ambassador in Georgia--but he did not manage to establish good relationships with Europe. Okruashvili actually turned out to be our greatest disappointment. I did not listened carefully enough to advice I was given when I appointed him. Okruashvili was a staffing mistake we made, and I asked Georgia to forgive me that mistake on TV.

You said that Moscow was behind the November events, but Levan Gachechiladze, the united opposition candidate for president, denies all accusations that he is cooperating with the Russian government.
God forgive me, but I do not suffer from paranoia, and I never thought that Moscow stood behind the backs of all those people protesting. I never claimed that our Big Neighbor played any role in the events. [Laughing.] As far as I can judge, the Russian press itself extensively covered the relationships between [the] Georgian opposition and [the] Russian Embassy in Tbilisi. The publications of details of those contacts in Georgia was not meant to be anti-Russian. But it was evidence of just how two-faced our radicals were, when they used anti- Russian slogans publicly.

Russia considers it a myth that [Georgian businessman] Badri Patarkatsishvili has contacts with the Kremlin. Could it be that the closest friend of [exiled anti-Putin Russian oligarch] Boris Berezovsky is working as an agent of Moscow?
We never called him Kremlin's agent. It is obvious, though, that president Saakashvili is a big problem for many people in Moscow and that Patarkatsishvili could be used against Saakashvili, as a destructive agent. I could suppose that Moscow promised him something in return. Moscow sent a formal request to extradite Patarkatsishvili, but they did not insist much. But as soon as Berezovsky flew over here, Moscow made a lot of noise. We are not too interested in Moscow's relationships with these two men, but we did note that the contrast in Russia's behavior was obvious.

Why did you send special-forces soldiers to storm the offices of Patarkatsishvili's Imedi TV channel and shut it down?
Nobody would ever have ordered that if the channel had not called for illegal actions on live TV. Any government knows beforehand what an unpopular act it is to shut down a TV channel by force.

Why did special forces have to break into Imedi, why could not they just turn off the broadcasting?
I do not know how they made a decision about how to stop the broadcasting. They explained to me that the switch was in the TV company's facility, which is why they had to enter the building. Of course it looks horrible--police at a television studio. But by then that television was not involved in real journalism. Not just because they criticized me--nobody will ever forbid criticism in Georgia ... But when a TV channel tells lies to a hyperemotional crowd that special forcers are moving to storm the cathedral church--that sounds like a threat of civil war and destruction of the state.

Russia used to have TV channels owned by oligarchs. What kind of post-oligarchy television could be acceptable for Georgia?
Absolutely not the Russian model. We have invited a company from the European Union, so they could help us to work out mechanisms of social control over mass media. So that nobody in power or opposition could violate the law. One of the main lessons we learned during the November events was to make mass media an independent social institution.

In that case when are you going to re-open Imedi?
We are interested in making it happen as soon as possible.

Before Jan. 5, the presidential election?
Yes, that would be better for the election.

How are you going to solve the ownership issues with [Imedi part owner] News Corp.?
Our government is negotiating with News Corp. As far as I understand, Americans do not have a clear picture of their rights and obligations yet. With them as owners, the situation would become much more stable of course, although ownership is not the principal issue. I wish only that they simply broadcast without any provocative material.

Is Jan. 5 a good date for an election? It falls between New Year and Orthodox Christmas.
I do not see any problems. Georgians drink a lot, of course, but do not get too drunk.

It looks like independence of Kosovo will soon be inevitable. What will you do if, as Russia promises, it recognizes the breakaway Georgian republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia?
Kosovo independence is unavoidable, that is true. The so-called independence of Abkhazia will mean that Russia will make Abkhazia and its 230 kilometers of attractive seacoast Russian territory. To encourage the birth of a separatist republic in the North Caucasus sounds pretty suicidal for a country in Russia's position. I do not believe that Moscow would ever let that happen.

Q&A: Georgia's President Mihheil | News