Able to Leap Tall Russians
Look, up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! No, it’s Mikheil Saakashvili!
In Russia, when thousands want to march against the president, their leaders don’t even make it to the meeting place. Vladimir Putin has them arrested before they ever get there, and then his stormtroopers crush the rank and file, as they did just last weekend in Vladivostok. Once, Putin went so far as to draft Oleg Kozlovsky, one of the lead organizers, into the armed forces in order to block his participation. Over and over, those who most staunchly criticize the Moscow Kremlin (from Starovoitova and Politkovskaya to Litvinenko and Markelov) have been brutally shot and killed. There is not even one such instance under Saakashviili, who has no connection to the secret police where Putin spent his entire career.
In Georgia, by contrast, they simply march, and live to tell the tale. Saakashvili’s only response is to call elections — real elections, with opposition candidates supported aggressively by Russia — and win them over and over, exposing Russian power as inherently laughable. No wonder Putin hates this heroic Georgian patriot so much.
In Russia, the economy is in freefall, shrinking at least 7% in the first quarter of this year. Georgia, by contrast, expects 3-4% economic growth this year, up from 2% growth last year under Saaksashvili’s leadership. Russia did better than Georgia in 2008 but Georgia, of course, didn’t have to overcome the obstacle of being invaded by a country ten times its size and having a huge part of its territory lopped off, as Georgia did, and Georgia doesn’t have any of the fossil fuel wealth by which Russia is blessed. What would have become of the Russian economy last year if, in addition to all the other horror, it had been invaded by China? We don’t dare imagine. In 2007, Georigan ecnomic growth was an amazing 12%. One could almost think that the Kremlin decided to attack because it was the only way it could think of to stop Saakashvili’s economic juggernaut.
When protesters marched against Saakashvili on Thursday and Friday last week, their turnout fell by more than 50% on the second day compared to the first. In other words, their fervor (promoted mostly by funding from Russia) could not be sustained. Unlike Putin, Saakashvili did not panic even though, also unlike Putin, his country has actually been invaded recently by an aggressive and much larger foreign power. Saaskashvili did not even make a show of force to reign in the protesters.
They simply marched as they liked, and Saakashivli rejected their ridiculous calls for his resignation. Polls are clear: Georgians overwhelmingly support their president, and want him to stay. Despite Russian aggression, Georgia remains a real democracy with legimitimate elections and real opposition parties. It’s democracy isn’t perfect, of course (neither is America’s), but unlike Russia the country is goverrned by a leader with no ties to the secret police who was educated in the United States and who has the confidence that real legitimacy brings.
Saakashvili made it clear: “By demonstrating peacefully — by the complete and total lack of violence, by ensuring the right to free movement and freedom of assembly — we proved the maturity of our state. There have been some who have been saying for so many months that Georgia would go to hell yesterday, that so many of you came to witness it. And you witnessed a normal country.”
Indeed, yes. “Mature” is the word. And by contrast to this great statesman, Vladimir Putin — who has never faced the sort of adversity Saakashvili brilliantly did last August — looks like a little boy. Or perhaps a better word would be “punk” or “thug” — someone who can only “win” an argument or “solve” a problem by using crude violence.
Today’s issue carries an interview with President Saakashvili from Newsweek magazine. In it, Saakashvili asks for more and better Western assistance as he wages his battle for the life of his country to avoid becoming the first in a line of falling neo-Soviet dominos. It’s time the naive and disappointing Obama adminsitration started listening. Obama’s conciliatory attitude towards Russia may well be understood as weakness by the Kremlin, even as an open invitation to move militarily against Georgia this spring. If Russia annexes Georgia on Obama’s watch, his presidency will never live it down.