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Saakashvili's Syria claims

By Lincoln Mitchell
Thursday, January 22
Since coming to power in October of 2012, the Georgian Dream (GD) government has been accused by critics of being backward looking and more concerned with settling scores with former President Mikheil Saakashvili and his United National Movement (UNM) government than with addressing real problems and with moving Georgia forward. Because several top officials from the previous government, most notably former Prime Minister Vano Merabishvili, have been arrested, and others, including Saakashvili himself have had charges filed against them, it is not possible to easily dismiss these accusations. According to this view, harassment by the GD has hampered the UNM’s ability to take its place as a responsible and powerful political opposition.

Since its defeat, the UNM has indeed emerged as Georgia’s leading opposition party, but that is not the extent of their ongoing role in Georgian political life. The UNM has also continued the international side of their political work, seeking to influence perceptions of the GD government, and of Georgia itself, in Washington and various European capitals. Much of this activity is, of course legitimate and legal, but it is also strong evidence that the GD are not the only people who continue to rehash the political debates of 2011-12. A central theme of the UNM’s international efforts is that the GD is in cahoots with Moscow seeking to move Georgia away from the west and back into Georgia’s orbit. This message has gotten little traction outside of the UNM’s traditional right wing base in the European People’s Party (EPP) and the US Republican Party, but it is an important reflection of the obsessions and opinions of the UNM more than two full years after leaving power.

Most public statements and writings by UNM officials since leaving office have focused either on domestic Georgian politics or Russia-Georgia relations. While this may be tiresome for those who would like to see Georgia evolve beyond this dynamic, and evidence the Georgian Dream is not the only Georgian political force that can be accused of being backwards looking, the impact of this is relatively limited.

The former President himself has maintained a very high profile in the west since leaving office. This is partially due to the Russian invasion of Crimea and other parts of Ukraine that has allowed Saakashvili to become a visible figure in the western media offering his insight into Russian aggression and sharing his experience of being leader of a country that was also invaded by Russia. Saakashvili’s media savvy has always been one of his biggest strengths and it is served him well in his post-presidential life.

While this has been good for the former President’s international profile, it has been less valuable for Georgia. During the UNM’s time in office a climate existed where political actors not supportive of Saakashvili were portrayed as therefore with Putin. This was destructive to Georgian political development, made political debate almost impossible and provided a rationale for cracking down on opposition and limiting democratic freedoms. It is odd that Saakashvili hascontinued this approach despite no longer being in power.

The former President’s desire to remain in the media spotlight has served him well at times as he has parlayed his image as an anti-Russia crusader into a fair amount of media attention making it easier for him to remain relevant, particularly in the eyes of his important constituency in western capitals, but it has also, on occasion, seemed almost craven. How else can being photographed like this in The New York Times be explained.

Sometimes, however, Saakashvili strays into topics that have bearing beyond Georgia and the shopworn political debates of that country. Last week, for example, Saakashvili’s made a graver accusation against the current Georgian government, asserting that,

“(S)everal hundred Georgian citizens have been sent to Syria. The Georgian government, which pulls a face about the fact that Georgians are voluntarily fighting in Ukraine, calling them provocateurs, mercenaries and agents of the National Movement, does not say a word about the fact that Georgians, with the help of a variety of tricks, are being dragged to fight in Syria.”

This is a very serious claim, one that would almost make the Georgian government an accessory to horrific acts of violence and that, at the very least, would jeopardize Georgia’s cooperation with the west on a range of security and other issues. Fortunately, for Georgia, the number of Georgians Saakashvili believes to be fighting in Syria appears to be significantly larger than most other estimates. According to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, a source that can hardly be described as pro-Russia or sympathetic to the current Georgian government, estimates of the number of Georgians fighting with ISIS range from 10-100, and “there is no evidence to suggest that the numbers are anything like as large as Saakashvili says.”

It is possible, although not likely, that Saakashvili has access to better intelligence and knows something about Georgians fighting in Syria that the Georgian government and its western allies do not. If that is the case, the former President, should share that information with, if not the Georgian government, than certainly with western governments. By making this irresponsible claim through the media, Saakashvili undermines the credibility of the statement, but also shifts the focus of the discussion away from stopping Islamist fighters in Syria and elsewhere and back to the allegedly pro-Russia bent of the current government. Saakashvili made this clear when he suggested the current Georgian government is complicit in sending fighters to Syria, but opposes the idea of Georgians fighting in Ukraine, where Georgians have fought against Russian aggression.

Since leaving office, Saakashvili has remained a thorn in the side of the GD government, but has also frequently let his need for attention become all too obvious. That is an important subtext of Saakashvili’s most recent comments. The former President seems much more comfortable making a factually suspect assertion that draws media attention than receiving no media coverage at all. That instinct can be very good for a politician, and served Saakashvili well throughout his political career, but at times like this, it is a little unseemly, or perhaps just petulant.

Saakashvili and the GD leadership are, politically, both substantially stuck in 2012. Thus, a good chunk of Georgia’s political elite is constantly, albeit in different forms and through different media, reliving an election that occurred more than two years ago, and that was decisively won by one side. This is not healthy for the Georgia, but it also underscores the need for new political directions there.

There is a difference between lobbing the same old accusations at the GD government-that they are undemocratic and pro-Russia, and making concrete and unverified assertions about very important matters of Georgian, and western, security. Saakashvili is free to do both these things, but in exercising that freedom, he demonstrates the same lack of judgement and impetuousness that even his supporters found frustrating during the nearly a decade he served as Georgia’s President.

Saakashvili’s desire for attention, and the likelihood that he would like to return to power someday are clearly frustrating for the current Georgian government. These factors may have contributed to the decisions to charge the former leader with various criminal acts. Saakashvili knows how to get the current government’s dander up and almost certainly enjoys doing that. The GD government, for their part, has not yet figured out that the worst thing for Saakashvili is not prosecution, bad press or even the embarrassment associated with making outlandish and unprovable claims. For Saakashvili, being ignored is much worse than any of those things. Saakashvili is good at making himself very hard to ignore; and claims that Georgia is somehow allowing hundreds of citizens to fight alongside extremists in Syria cannot be dismissed by the Georgian government.

The relationship between Saakashvili and the GD is, in some respects, oddly co-dependent, and has been for quite a while. The GD needs Saakashvili to remain in the minds of Georgian citizens as a reminder of the past, alleviating some of the pressure on the current government. Saakashvili, for his part, needs to point at the GD government and yell about Russia to keep his political base, both domestically and internationally, supportive. This dynamic can last for a long time, but will never be good for Georgia.