Former president of the Republic of Georgia and newly appointed Senior Statesman at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy Mikheil Saakashvili addressed members of the university community Tuesday evening as part of the Charles Francis Adams Lecture Series.
Dean of The Fletcher School Admiral James Stavridis opened the lecture, held in the ASEAN Auditorium, with an introduction of Saakashvili’s accomplishments during his two terms as president. After leading Georgia through the 2003 Rose Revolution, and improving the nation’s economy and transatlantic relations, Saakashvili left office last November, signifying the first peaceful transfer of power in Georgian history, Stavridis said.
Saakashvili began his lecture by speaking of the difficulties of being part of a small nation in his region, formerly dominated by the Soviet Union. Not wishing to be viewed as mere objects of world politics, countries like Georgia are working to anchor themselves into larger networks, such as the European Union (EU), he said.
While Russia has so far been successful in its attempts to thwart smaller nations — particularly Ukraine — from seeking entrance to the EU, one thing has taken Russia by surprise: namely, the active citizens of the Ukraine, he said.
“[There are] 46 million people — extremely well-organized, very well-motivated — going to the streets and saying, ‘To hell with Russia,’” Saakashvili said. “‘To hell with the empire. To hell with the past. To hell with corruption. To hell with bribes. We want to live in a normal country.’”
According to Saakashvili, the future of the region will be determined by a new generation devoted to making politics an everyday business of normal people.
“It’s not leaders who make politics now,” he said. “It’s not foreign powers that make politics. It’s not some undercover forces. These are nations themselves taking things into their own hands, and that’s a new reality of politics.”
Saakashvili described his past experience in the United States, where he traveled to receive his education. Only three years after beginning life in the United States — living in a basement apartment of a poor neighborhood — he received a job at a law firm and a living space in Manhattan. This type of potential for upward mobility, he said, has inspired his politics in his home country.
“[My experience] gave me the feeling that in this country anything is possible,” Saakashvili said. “No other country in the world has it, and we tried to imitate this in Georgia.”
Saakashvili listed some of the economic and political improvements spurred under his presidency. Clocking in at No. 8 in the 2014 rankings, Georgia became the first developing country to make the World Bank’s top 10 best countries to do business with. Georgia also claims one of the lowest rates of crime and corruption in its region, he said. By aligning with the EU, Saakashvili hopes to further social improvements in his country.
“The European Union provides a more just society,” he said. “Not ideal, lots of problems, but a more just society. What western measures are about is more openness, more democracy, more transparency. That’s what we try to see in all our countries.”
Saakashvili next opened the floor for questions from the audience. In response to the first question regarding his strategy for attracting foreign investors during his presidency, Saakashvili said that he worked to greatly reduce the amount of bureaucracy, firing over 100,000 people.
“In the Ukraine, every small business is all the time terrorized by different small government agencies,” he said. “That’s how they make their living ... In Georgia we fired the entire police force, we fired the entire customs ... We fired most of the rest of the entire government and replaced them with people whose age was around 28 years, and I think that’s something that worked very well.”
Another audience member asked Saakashvili about his views regarding violence in the Caucus region, as well as about the future relationship between the church and state in Georgia. Saakashvili replied that he believed much of the conflict would cease in the Caucuses once the Ukraine broke free from Russia. He also discussed violence toward minorities within his home nation, asserting that his government was pro-minority.
“I think the best remedy against intolerance is democracy,” he said. “Of course, with democracy, first intolerance blows up, but at a certain moment it always goes down.”
When asked how much influence Russia will have in future politics, Saakashvili remarked that Russia was failing to modernize in the same way that led to the fall of the Soviet Union.
“I think there is a big change coming in that sphere,” he said. “I think there will be unwilling, but still big expansion of Europe into what was Russia’s zone of influence.”
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--Reprinted from Tufts Daily