TOPICS > Politics

Georgian Leader Defiant in Face of Russia Conflict

August 15, 2008 at 6:10 PM EST
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Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili signed a cease-fire deal with Russia Friday, while asserting that Georgia would "never, ever surrender" to Moscow. Experts discuss Saakashvili's role in the regional conflict.
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MARGARET WARNER: Secretary of State Rice was in Georgia today with two missions: to throw U.S. support behind the small nation and to get its president, Mikheil Saakashvili, to sign a cease-fire agreement. They spoke to reporters at a news conference.

CONDOLEEZZA RICE, U.S. Secretary of State: Georgia has been attacked. Russian forces need to leave Georgia at once. The world needs to help Georgia maintain its sovereignty, its territorial integrity, and its independence.

MARGARET WARNER: Saakashvili said, in signing the agreement, he wasn’t making any concession about the future status of the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

MIKHEIL SAAKASHVILI, President of Georgia: Never, ever we will surrender. Never, ever will we give our freedom and independence. Never, ever will we give any piece of our territory.

And freedom will go to every part of Georgia, to every ethnic group, to every community in Georgia, and we will definitely get rid of these invaders for good.

Unfortunately, today we are looking evil directly in the eye. And today, this evil is very strong, very nasty, and very dangerous, for everybody, not only for us.

MARGARET WARNER: Rice said the cease-fire would require Russian and Georgian troops to return to the positions they held before the conflict broke out and that the status of the disputed regions would be settled later.

CONDOLEEZZA RICE: I want to emphasize what the president said. This is a cease-fire agreement. This is not about the future of these conflict regions. This is a cease-fire agreement.

MARGARET WARNER: Saakashvili hotly rebutted suggestions that he had precipitated the crisis by sending troops into South Ossetia last Thursday.

MIKHEIL SAAKASHVILI: So who invited the trouble here? Who invited this arrogance here? Who invited these innocent deaths here? Who is — not only those people who perpetrate them are responsible, but also those people who failed to stop that.

And who is trying now to look for every excuse saying, “Oh, you know, Georgians might have started it.” Excuse me, 1,200 tanks came into Georgia within a few hours. There is no way you can mobilize those tanks in such a fast period unless you are ready.

MARGARET WARNER: The American-educated Saakashvili has put Georgia on a pro-Western path after leading the bloodless Rose Revolution in November 2003. He won the presidency two months later with 96 percent of the vote and was re-elected this January in a much more hotly contested election.

He’s pushed to join NATO and the European Union. And today he repeated his distrust and loathing of Russia.

JOURNALIST: President Saakashvili, are you satisfied that this agreement fully protects Georgian interests?

MIKHEIL SAAKASHVILI: I think I’m not satisfied with one fact, that all of this could have been prevented. We were screaming, shouting to the world that Russia was going to do this. I told to a number of European leaders Russia was going to do this.

And they usually told me that I was overplaying the threat, overestimating it, that Russians were not capable of doing such things. These are 21st-century barbarians.

Now you are dealing with extremely arrogant and a euphoric force that thinks that they are back — they are back again and they’re — they can do things.

And you know what? This is not a done deal yet. We need to do our utmost to deter such behavior in the future, to, first of all, stop what’s happening, to deter it in the future, because we know exactly the truth.

And we know that we are dealing with people who tried their best to mislead the world, to cheat, to lie, to deceive, and to repeat this over and over again, maybe also in other places.

MARGARET WARNER: The press conference came hours after Russian President Medvedev said South Ossetia and Abkhazia are unlikely to live together with Georgia after this.

Saakashvili's role in the crisis

Scott Horton
Human Rights Lawyer
He was presented with this as something that he had to take. In fact, it's very, very clear Condoleezza Rice was telling him he had no options. Sign it.

MARGARET WARNER: And for more on the 40-year-old Georgian leader and his current predicament, we turn to Scott Horton, who taught Mikheil Saakashvili at Columbia University and then hired him to work at his law firm. Horton has long been involved in human rights law, including helping Soviet-era dissidents.

And Paul Saunders, executive director of the Nixon Center, a foreign policy think-tank that has hosted several appearances by Saakashvili, he served in the State Department from 2003 to 2005.

Welcome, gentlemen.

Mr. Horton...

SCOTT HORTON, Human Rights Lawyer: Good to be with you.

MARGARET WARNER: ... Mr. Saakashvili, President Saakashvili didn't look terribly happy today about signing this deal. Did he have a choice?

SCOTT HORTON: Oh, I don't think he really did. You know, he's under immense pressure, in fact. And he was presented with this as something that he had to take. In fact, it's very, very clear Condoleezza Rice was telling him he had no options. Sign it.

MARGARET WARNER: No options?

PAUL SAUNDERS, Nixon Center: I certainly agree. The Russians have created a new reality on the ground. The United States and major European powers are not really willing to do anything to change that. Mr. Saakashvili has no choice.

MARGARET WARNER: And he knew that?

PAUL SAUNDERS: And he knew it.

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Horton, you've known him now for, what, 20 years, Saakashvili. What's he like personally?

SCOTT HORTON: Well, he's very charming, very engaging. He has a passionate interest in democracy and market economics. He's very deeply politically engaged.

He's committed to Georgian independence and sovereignty, to bringing democracy to Georgia, and to establishing a market economy there. And I think you heard the passion in his voice as he just spoke. I think he's mortally wounded by what's happened, but he's determined to see Georgia through this.

MARGARET WARNER: What would you say about his personal qualities?

PAUL SAUNDERS: Well, I certainly don't know Mr. Saakashvili personally, although I've interacted with him a few times in groups. I have to say his actions in ruling Georgia really belie the rhetorical commitment that he's expressed to democracy.

If you look at his record after coming into office, he very sharply strengthened the presidency at the expense of the parliament. There's been harassment of opposition figures.

There's been harassment of opposition media businesspeople who try to fund the opposition, to the extent that the State Department's own human rights report has raised very serious questions, troubling questions about how Georgia is ruled.

MARGARET WARNER: Do agree with that, Mr. Horton? And if so, what explains it?

SCOTT HORTON: I think his attitudes about democracy are very much like those you would hear expressed on any given day at the American Enterprise Institute, which is to say he believes in a robust, strong executive, but he also believes that the ultimate decision lies with the voters.

And when he was challenged very strongly by oligarchs in his country, oligarchs who have a crushing position in control of the media and the economy in Georgia, he turned to the polls.

He allowed them to stand in free, fair, and open elections, and he bested them, although, as you point out in your lead-in, his margin was reduced quite substantially in the second round. Nonetheless, he commanded a strong majority of the Georgian voters.

Echoes of Putin's leadership style

Paul Saunders
The Nixon Center
Last fall, there was a very major crisis in Georgia that Mr. Saakashvili, I think, handled quite poorly, imposing martial law, breaking up demonstrations, putting a lot of pressure on domestic media that were reporting it.

MARGARET WARNER: But, Mr. Horton, you were quoted recently as having actually compared him to Vladimir Putin in certain ways. What did you mean by that?

SCOTT HORTON: Yes, absolutely. In fact, if you -- one thing I know that Saakashvili did before he became president was he looked very closely at how Vladimir Putin dealt with the chaos in Russia that he inherited his first 1,000 days, how he dealt with the centrifugal forces in Russia, with the fact that the Russian treasury was in the state of collapse, the fact that oligarchs were running the country, all problems that Georgia faced.

He studied very carefully the solutions that Putin put forward, including the aggregation of power in the hands of the presidency and dealing with breakaway regions. And I think, to a substantial extent, if you look at his first year in office, you see the echoes of things that Putin did.

But there's one major difference between Putin and Saakashvili, and that is a commitment to democracy and democratic institutions. I think, in the case of Saakashvili, that was sincere and real from the beginning. And in the case of Putin, we have the appearance of democracy without much substance.

MARGARET WARNER: Echoes of Putin? That's certainly ironic, given the venom that now Saakashvili expresses towards Russia and its leaders.

PAUL SAUNDERS: There is a great deal of venom back and forth, but I would just return to the previous point and add one thing, because I think I would disagree a little bit with Mr. Horton about the situation inside Georgia.

Last fall, there was a very major crisis in Georgia that Mr. Saakashvili, I think, handled quite poorly, imposing martial law, breaking up demonstrations, putting a lot of pressure on domestic media that were reporting it. So I have some real questions on the commitment to democracy.

MARGARET WARNER: Let's go on to how he got in this fix. How did he get in this fix? I'll start with you.

PAUL SAUNDERS: Absolutely. He got into this fix last week. There was periodic or sporadic skirmishing back and forth, shelling back and forth in South Ossetia last week, started to escalate on Thursday.

At a certain point on Thursday, Mr. Saakashvili declared a cease-fire. And then, two or three hours later, he ordered Georgian troops to move into South Ossetia. They seized several villages, and they moved to take the Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia, which they could not do without taking on Russian military forces that were defending the area.

Saakashvili's last shot

Scott Horton
Human rights lawyer
I think they understood this was a last shot, that if Georgia didn't assert its control over this territory, it was going to be lost forever. And I think the tragedy here is that it probably was already lost and there was little they could do.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, Scott Horton, we heard him defend himself against that charge by saying the Russians had been massing around these areas, the Russians had been basically attacking and making forays, that he had absolutely no choice.

But the administration says -- well, let me just ask you. Why do you think, though, he went ahead and took this move when Russia is so clearly the superior military power?

SCOTT HORTON: I think you've got to pull back a little bit and look at the South Ossetian conflict in broader terms. I think a lot of what's gone on here relates directly to things that have happened in Europe in the course of the last year, specifically, the Ahtisaari plan that was implemented with respect to Kosovo, giving it de facto autonomy, prying it away from Serbia.

At that time, senior advisers to President Putin with whom I spoke said that, if the West goes ahead with this measure with respect to Kosovo, we will respond. And South Ossetia and Abkhazia offer the perfect means for a tit-for-tat response. And I think what we saw...

MARGARET WARNER: Could I interrupt you, though -- yes, could I interrupt you, though, to particularly focus this on Saakashvili. I mean, why would he take what looks like quite a risk? What is it in him that would have lead him to do that?

SCOTT HORTON: I think, in this case, there was a strong sense in the Georgian government that this was the last shot, that, in fact, South Ossetia and Abkhazia were in the process of being fully incorporated and integrated into the Russian Federation.

There was a long complex program in place under which the Russians had been issuing passports to local Abkhaz. In fact, Tskhinvali was covered with posters that said, "Putin, our president." So it was de facto being incorporated into the Russian Federation.

And I think they understood this was a last shot, that if Georgia didn't assert its control over this territory, it was going to be lost forever. And I think the tragedy here is that it probably was already lost and there was little they could do. Certainly, without the support of the United States and Europe, they were not going to be able to wrest this back from Russia.

MARGARET WARNER: Would you say, Mr. Saunders, that the gamble didn't pay off for him?

PAUL SAUNDERS: Well, I think it clearly didn't pay off. He has now a much different situation on the ground, many more Russian troops in both South Ossetia and Abkhazia, very major damage to Georgia's infrastructure, as well.

The United States' mixed messages

Paul Saunders
The Nixon Center
The administration absolutely was telling him not to provoke the Russians and to resolve the dispute peacefully. The problem is that Mr. Saakashvili was also getting a number of other mixed messages from the administration.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, why would you -- why do you think he would have done it -- I just have to ask you this question -- when the administration at least has said they were telling him in private, "Don't provoke the Russians"?

PAUL SAUNDERS: Well, the administration absolutely was telling him not to provoke the Russians and to resolve the dispute peacefully. The problem is that Mr. Saakashvili was also getting a number of other mixed messages from the administration.

The administration was making it very clear that they were willing to take on the European opposition to bring Georgia into NATO. There was considerable support for the Georgian military, a variety of other steps.

And then, just a month ago, you had Secretary Rice in Tbilisi standing next to Saakashvili saying, in response to a question from him, "Mr. President, we always fight for our friends."

And it's clear that she had something else in mind. She was talking about the dispute with our allies over joining NATO. But this very open-ended statement on her part, I think, cannot but have created some opportunities for misunderstanding, let me put it that way.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Scott Horton, what do you think his political future is now?

SCOTT HORTON: Well, I want to go back to the question about American -- the American voice here. I think he's absolutely right. America wasn't speaking with a single, clear voice.

We had lower-level State Department officials giving a correct message, but it was confused and it was overridden by a louder voice from Washington that came particularly from the neocon community. I think we see tragic consequences from that.

But right now, Misha Saakashvili personally and his government are Russia's target. Russia's first object here is to take two pieces of Georgian territory. Its second objective is to remove Misha Saakashvili and his government. And I think he's got the fight of his life before him.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, Scott Horton and Paul Saunders, thank you both.

SCOTT HORTON: Thank you.

PAUL SAUNDERS: Thank you.