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The Russell C. Leffingwell Lecture with Mikhail Saakashvili

Speaker: Mikhail Saakashvili, president, Republic of Georgia
Presider: David Remnick, editor, New Yorker Magazine
February 26, 2004
Council on Foreign Relations


Council on Foreign Relations
New York, New York

DAVID REMNICK: I'm David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker magazine, and welcome to the Russell Leffingwell Lecture. Don't let that word "lecture" fool you though. We'll have time for conversation.

Mikhail Saakashvili is president of the Georgian Republic. He is surely the only leader of a post-Soviet nation who is intimately familiar with the bicycle paths around Dupont Circle [in Washington, D.C.] and Morningside Heights [in Manhattan]. It is very hard to imagine [Russian Federation President] Vladimir Putin on a Schwinn. [Laughter.]

Mr. Saakashvili studied at George Washington University and at Columbia Law School, as well as in Kiev, Florence, and Strasbourg. He returned to Georgia in 1995, initially as a protégé of [former Georgian President] Eduard Shevardnadze. There is a touch of Shakespeare's history plays in his biography. After serving in parliament and as justice minister—a thankless task in a land of state corruption—he left the government in 2002 and formed the opposition, the National Movement, and then last November led the rebellion [against the government of Shevardnadze]. Then in the name of democracy, [he] unseated Shevardnadze after a highly dubious election.

As leader of Georgia, he faces the challenge of instituting democracy born in the crucible of popular rebellion, of combating rife corruption, the challenge of maintaining sovereignty in the shadow of a complicated Russian neighbor, building institutions hampered by a persistent and not always completely honest elite, and of maintaining the attention and favors of the United States. In other words, he has a harder job than anyone else in this room—and I say that as a man who selects talking-dog cartoons for a living. [Laughter.]

The president will begin with 10 or 15 minutes of remarks. Then he and I will talk for a few minutes. Then the floor will be opened to your questions. Please welcome President Mikhail Saakashvili. [Applause.]

PRESIDENT SAAKASHVILI: Thank you very much, David. I am so pleased to be here. And basically I want to thank you for your generosity. I have had many appearances over the last three, four days, and this is basically the first one where they allowed me to finish my dessert. [Laughter.] So I will try to be concise and brief—and thanks to the Council. Thanks to the distinguished audience.

The Council on Foreign Relations is truly one of the most distinguished venues of foreign policy debate, creation, and discussion. And I'm certainly honored that I was asked to speak here today. I was also glad to see so many people here—some of the people who I know personally, some of the people who I've seen or of whom I've heard on television, people who I respect. Indeed, speaking about bicycles, I have [Columbia University] Professor Lori Damrosch sitting here who told the story about me biking and waving a hand at her to a Russian television audience. I watched it together with President Putin [on] four or five different Georgian television channels. So, I mean, you didn't have to agree with it further in front of television cameras. I want people to take me seriously. And Georgia has mountainous terrain, and despite my wife's Scotch origin, I mean we—bicycling is not so popular in our family with us because of that.

But also your presence here is an expression of interest in my country, and also in the hope that the new Georgia represents.

I arrived in New York yesterday after three extremely busy days in Washington. And I cannot deny that I am always thrilled to enter New York, the city where I fell in love with America. I believe we had a very good visit to D.C., meeting with most of [President George W. Bush's] Cabinet, including Secretary [of State Colin] Powell, Director [of Central Intelligence George J.] Tenet, Director [of the Federal Bureau of Investigation Robert S.] Mueller, [Attorney General John] Ashcroft, and, of course, President Bush and his national security team. I think our visit was so warmly received because Georgia has suddenly become an exciting place. You know, we were walking through the corridors of Congress yesterday and the day before yesterday. And I know I want to—I don't want to not look modest, but if Britney Spears had been walking there at that moment, she would have attracted less attention than we got from otherwise sometimes bored senators and House members—because Georgia is interesting. Georgia captures the imagination of many people. The events in Georgia have developed in a very exciting way.

Not that we were not important before. But this revolution [in Georgia culminating in the resignation of Shevardnadze in November 2003] really touched a very sensitive chord of those values for which the West is always ready to stand up. And the whole notion that democracy and stability can work and succeed in our part of the world is again revisited by events in Georgia.

I do not want to speak at length today. However, I would like to share with you some thoughts on what I think the revolution meant, and what I think we need to do in order to restructure and rebuild my country. Everyone in this room knows just how many challenges we face, and I want to be realistic about that. I think you also know what the stakes are, and are aware of the basic fact that success in Georgia means success for Europe, the U.S., and especially for this region where you have more than 400 million inhabitants.

Three months have passed since our revolution took place. What have we learned? I think we have learned pretty important lessons, lessons that only now are becoming clear as my government and I see about the tasks of rebuilding Georgia. The first lesson is that we could not—could survive the success and challenge—what is arguably the single greatest challenge to any transition nation, and in particular those in the states of the former Soviet Union. Many members of our neighborhood seem to have trouble with this issue, with presidents not knowing when to leave or having no desire whatsoever to leave, and political opposition unable to unite or imagine a better future outside the concept of inside you are making some dirty deals with the government and sometimes resorting to force.

In Georgia we proved that succession can be peaceful. It can occur, if dramatically, within the framework of the constitution. It can occur under the banner of the united opposition. And, more importantly, it can occur with the strong and genuine support of the people.

Passing the succession test, we have shown at home and abroad that Georgia has matured as a state while enduring the previous era. A new era nonetheless exists. For anyone who ever thought or hoped that Georgia was a failed state, our revolution and our people proved that forever wrong. Emerging from a glorious revolution, Georgia is stronger than ever, more united than ever, and more resolute in its commitments to build a stable and prosperous state than ever.

The second lesson of the road to revolution is that Georgians are very much members of Europe and the European family of nations. In reflecting on this point, I am not simply looking to geography, but rather to national identity. What we saw in November was a population mobilized in defense of the principles of liberal democracy. What we saw was a population that refused to have their voice, their choice, and their future stolen from them by a corrupt and incompetent government. Their revolution was not a protest against low wages or electricity shortages or the lack of basic security guarantees. Nor was it about people coming out to support me. Rather, our revolution was about people fighting for their freedom and their desire to live in a democratic society, a society that respects human rights, freedom of speech, the rule of law, and the belief that citizens, and citizens alone, have the right to choose their leaders and their destiny.

What the former government never understood, never grasped, and never believed in was that democracy, in order to succeed and be genuine, must be derived from the people and responsible to the people.

You know what I always think of: this story that Shevardnadze's closest associate told me. You know, [former Secretary of State] James Baker [III] came; many other people came—[founder of the Open Society Institute] George Soros came out, urging not to rig elections. Baker urged him—and he was the envoy of President Bush—not to rig elections. And he [Shevardnadze] promised. He said that would be—this would be the cleanest elections in Georgian history—a role model for holding elections. But he never took his commitment seriously, because he never understood the core of the values that the Western community has for itself. You know, one of his closest associates was telling me two days after the elections—he approached Shevardnadze with documents produced by OSCE [Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe], basically saying that the elections were flawed and there were serious, gross violations. And Shevardnadze told him—laughed at him and said, "Don't you know how these Westerners are? They will make noise for two or three days, maximum for two or three weeks, and they will forget about it, and life will go on. So calm down, and continue business as usual." And that's, I think, a very sad thing for a person who spent many years of dealing with the West. [He] simply didn't understand that this is not a ritual. This is not just smiling at somebody and trying to deceive them, your partners. It's about [the] internal essence of your acts, activities.

And I'm extremely proud that my people were much more mature than that. And I'm extremely proud of my people today and deeply honored to be their president, because I am the president of a democracy, whose national identity and destiny is rooted in Europe and [that is] a full contributing member to Euro-Atlantic institutions, to regional security and economic development.

The third lesson of the revolution is that Georgia has a special relationship with the U.S., the United States of America. I made this claim, this evaluation, based on realizations that Georgians and Americans share common sets of values, that we share common beliefs and common aspirations to make our societies more free and more prosperous, that we believe in government working to serve the people, that we believe in the sacred principles that the power of the state derives from its citizens, and that no man is above the law. These values, which were at the very core of the revolution, have served to reinforce the bonds that unite our countries and our people.

To those who believe our revolution was somehow cowardly supported by special American interests, I can only say that they fail to understand our culture and our values. The values of freedom and democracy are not established through grants or loans—even from grants of such honorable gentlemen as George Soros, or the World Bank, or whoever else. They are instrumental, but it's not the thing that does that. They are—[inaudible]—of assistance to progress and negotiations. While the assistance was absolutely crucial, those programs were very, very important. This assistance was crucial in building our skills and capacities, and was used extremely well.

It was our values which are a reflection of our culture and our identity that have allowed us to succeed. That we share common values is why I believe programs like, for instance, Georgia's Train and Equip program [a U.S. Department of Defense program to train Georgian troops in counter-terrorism capabilities] have been so incredibly successful. Georgia has contributed from day one to the war on terrorism in Afghanistan and Iraq, and is ready to contribute even more. It is because we share a common belief in freedom.

And when I spoke yesterday with President Bush, we spoke about everything—we spoke about pipelines; we spoke about transportation; we spoke about neighbors, about security, about Iraq, about combating terrorism. And these all are very important. But I think what was the warmest part of our conversation and what really made the whole chemistry of our meeting yesterday was our conversation about shared values. And that's what got most of the attention of the president, and that is why I was so impressed by this meeting—because that's exactly what I believe in. It's not—it's not the thing for Americans to depend upon some local strongman who feels one day good about America, next day something goes wrong or he doesn't like an article in The Washington Post and he turns his back, or he doesn't get enough assistance and becomes alienated. No. It's—American interests should not depend upon this kind of attitude.

Geopolitics now is mainly about the way the governments function, about the way people relate to their governments' functioning. And if these governments function in a proper way, that's exactly—and in a democratic way, and there is freedom of expression, there is the free, vibrant, independent civil society—these are different countries and part of a different geopolitical kind of environment. And these kinds of countries will be long-term allies of the U.S.—not just countries that are just allies because they have very concrete interests—to get another 100 million [dollars] this year or to get additional money for training their troops.

Looking at Georgia today, it is easy to see that we are located on the front lines of the most pressing challenges facing Europe and our increasingly interconnected world. We live in a neighborhood that contains numerous geopolitical and geostrategic threats. We live in a country where reconstruction and reform is a national security imperative. We also stand on the edge of enormous opportunities—opportunities to help the world fight global terrorists, increase its energy security, and open untapped markets.

Under my leadership, during my presidency, I intend to realize these opportunities, to take advantage of those opportunities so that Georgia will regain its rightful place in the democratic community of nations.

Georgia nevertheless faces some very specific challenges, and these challenges are: governance reform, security reform, and economic reform. This trio of sectors represents the principal avenues that we intend to address and focus our reform efforts on.

The first step is governance support, setting the example for Georgia and the region. We must eliminate corruption [and create] visible institutional reforms. We must make government more efficient and responsive. But how? By reducing bureaucracy and red tape, by downsizing government and increasing professionalism and transparency, by reforming our civil service, and by providing real salaries, establishing new standards, and enforcing the rule of law. All of these tasks will require courage and strong political will.

We are starting to crack down on corruption. We started already—a number of very high officials have been arrested. But that's not enough. If the system doesn't change, new bad guys will take the place of the old ones, and that will be this whole vicious circle.

So there was this initiative first advanced by George Soros and then grasped by UNDP [United Nations Development Program] and the others to create special funds to pay higher salaries to the Georgian civil servants—not to all of them, but especially to those that are in direct contact with the population, that have direct relevance for raising state revenues, so that we could pull up ourselves from the mud, pulling our own hair from there, together with the body. And I think we are moving in the right direction.

And I know that the whole region is watching us. Some hope we will fail, but I know that the vast majority hopes we will succeed. If Georgia succeeds in strengthening its governance, in establishing a model of good governance, we have the ability to bring positive change to an entire region. Not for exporting revolutions, because revolutions don't work that way, but rather by providing an example that democracy and stability, prosperity, and the respect for human dignity are possible in our region in the world—in that interconnected space linking Europe with the greater Middle East.

The second step is security reform—what keeps Georgia strong and stable. Internally we plan to introduce civilian control of all our ministries. Indeed, our new minister of interior—he left. [Laughter.] That's a good thing. You know, I go around with all these ministers—they—I am doing all the work. They are eating and they are leaving just like this—[laughter]—and enjoying their lives. But of course it's not as bad as that. I mean, he has—our minister of the interior [Giorgi Baramidze]is a Georgetown [University] graduate. Our new minister of defense [Gela Bezhuashvili] who is the first civilian, really civilian defense minister in the CIS [Commonwealth of Independent States], is a graduate of the law school in Texas and of Harvard JFK School of Government. And there are other people, like Dakha [Alexander] Lomaia, who was head of the Open Society Institute in Tbilisi and also head of the local Eurasia Foundation that were instrumental in bringing in the whole generation of well-educated Georgian elites. And that's really important, because we've got such a government, and this government has all the chances to succeed.

We plan to create and fund the capability to defend against all threats to Georgia. To bring lasting stability we must and we will restore Georgia's full territorial integrity using peaceful means. I think that the revolution proves that we can create great change without violence. That means taking the necessary steps and creating the right conditions to the peaceful return of [the separatist region of] Abkhazia. The returning of Abkhazia and confirming Georgia's territorial integrity will take—[inaudible]—and great effort. My government and I view this effort as one of our top priorities. We must make Georgia a country to all citizens who will want to be a part and live in it.

Here I want to emphasize how important it is for Georgia to restore good relations with our neighbors, and particularly Russia. Russia is a special case, due to our historic ties and the last decade of rather lousy relations. Russia is a special case because of its vast markets and the role that Russia can play promoting or reducing regional stability. It has been successful in the second part lately, but I think it can also contribute to increasing regional stability.

After my trip to Moscow, I have hope that a new year in relations is commencing—one that is based on pragmatics and the mutual recognition of shared common interests. While I have no illusions that our relationship will be transformed overnight, I do see that the door is open for new and more positive relations. Georgia is ready to cooperate with Russia and ready to meet the Russians halfway on many issues. Georgia has legitimate interests and Russia has legitimate interests in the region, like border security, fighting terrorism, and economic growth.

And as long as Russia remembers and respects our national sovereignty, as long as Russia abides by its international commitment to remove its bases, as long as Russia realizes that we cannot and we will not become a battlefield between two great superpowers, I am ready for a new era. I believe Putin understands this and is prepared to continue the good start that we began a few weeks ago in Moscow. I intend to continue down the path of these new and improved relations with Russia.

And, of course, at the same time, when we are talking about conflicts we have with Russia—about these differences, we want to strengthen those bilateral relations. But also it is very important to—I mean to a first date especially, to take a friend with you when you go there. [Laughter.] And U.S. assistance is in this case extremely helpful.

You know, my—when I went to Moscow a few days ago, I was very open, and I generally have very warm, big sympathy for the Russian people, like many of you in this hall, and I tried to be open, speak openly, frankly, but you know, I found this very weird reaction—many people in Moscow really do consider me as some kind of a CIA operative—[laughter]—because, me—me, am I different? We are different from other CIS presidents, that's true. I feel at home at the Oval Office, I feel comfortable there, but, I don't know, I still didn't meet yet president [Saparmurat Niyazov] of Turkmenistan, and I hope that meeting will also go well. But, of course, we are very much different, but—[inaudible]—that we cannot have relations.

So, I was quite frustrated that they had these attitudes. [Inaudible]—after my meetings in Moscow, I started to understand, to realize—I thought to myself, maybe it's not bad that they think that I am from CIA as well, because—because sometimes they do regard CIA persons more highly than presidents of neighboring countries. [Laughter.] And it's always—it's better to have multilateral contexts with them.

I think President Putin is still—I was telling my—sharing my views with my friends: he is a very smart man, and he is a very talented one. And he—we shouldn't underestimate him. I think there is lots of bad coverage about him now, and I had very big fears and doubts about him, and, of course, there are still some problems, but I found him as a very engaged and smart and insightful interlocutor. And [he is] a person that—he can keep his words. We made some few commitments and he already started to move in that direction, and that's good.

Going back to our internal policies, our next step is economic reform and what will rebuild Georgia. We need to strengthen and improve our investment climate through tax liberalization, elimination of corruption and harassment by state officials. I've been a member of parliament and I have been working on those issues many years, and I know how horrible it feels when you are a small business and police officials come and harass you.

And it's like, you know, my dream is that we should cut some of those police officers and a police officer should be allowed to quit [his] job and open a grocery store, have possibility towards opening a grocery store across the street or over the street corner. Right now, [in] the system we have, we've got active police officers that have opened their shops and don't allow anybody else to open them. So, we should reverse this kind of economy where these kind of corrupt bureaucrats control everything.

We have to provide provisions for greater personal security for investments and businesses. We'll create one shop—one-stop-shop for foreign investors. My predecessor also tried to create something like one-stop-shop, but instead it was the last-stop-shop—[laughter]—because nobody else had wished to go further than that.

We need to develop our natural and comparative advantages. We need to ensure access to regional markets and find new sources of finances for entrepreneurs, and we need to strengthen our infrastructure. In particular, we need to do all we can to build the energy corridor, of which Georgia is such an important participant. This means fulfilling our obligations for the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline [from Azerbaijan to Turkey, via Georgia] and for all our energy projects. Energy projects are not just about economics. They are all about stability, human development, regional integration, and lasting peace. And Georgia is proud, and I am proud, to contribute to this process.

It is clear to me that the investments we make in Georgia's economic development are actually investments in Georgia's future. It will improve Georgia's governance. It will give real and powerful reasons for separatists in Abkhazia to seek a joint future inside Georgia. Improvements in governance will in turn send us toward stability and lasting security. This is an interconnected and interdependent cycle. We see and recognize these critical relationships and plan to take advantage of that.

I have always believed that actions can speak louder than words, that deeds and results are the only way to judge the—[inaudible]—process. So far, after only 100 days, we have succeeded in delivering some impressive results, defying the skeptics. We have increased tax revenues, arrested some of the most corrupt officials, introduced visible crackdown on smuggling, renewed relations with the IMF [International Monetary Fund], and created this promising and aspiring government.

We also know that expectations are very high and perhaps are reasonably so. In fact, I got 96 percent[age] points—96.6 percent at the elections, and thank God that there were thousands of foreign observers in place. Nobody would have taken this result seriously otherwise. But that's a very tragic result for any politician, because that means that you cannot go any further, and you can only decline. [Laughter.] And my main political agenda for personal—for my own political career, is to make this decline as gradual as possible, and not to get—collapse. And so far, we are—we have some, you know, good results in that.

What is important is to respect and maintaining—the main thing, there are of course great expectations, and exaggerated expectations. That's the worst thing. And we need to manage those expectations. But the main program is to keep pace of change. And it's hard because the government has not been paying for months and years salaries and pensions. We are paying them now on time, and suddenly already after one month of paying them on time, people are starting to ask why those pensions and salaries are so low. [Laughter.]

But what do—I think we believe we have succeeded in showing strength in the face of enormous challenges and in regenerating hope, and that's the main thing.

Today there is a special window of opportunity for Georgia. This is a unique time. While this special window of opportunity is open, we will need to rely on the collective efforts of all of us—and here I mean the international community in general, and America in particular—in order to succeed. Let none of us in this room underestimate us, how much we can achieve when we work together when we continue to deepen and expand our cooperation.

Georgia has benefited greatly for our partnership with the United States, but I'm sure also this cooperation transformed Georgia into a net contributor to the international stability and peace. By setting [an] example, by serving as a role model to the region, by sending our troops to Kosovo and Iraq, where they served very well, by providing cooperation in [the] crackdown on terrorism and eliminating al Qaeda network that emerged in Georgia a few years ago, we showed that Georgia is not only a country that wants to take something from the international community but is willing to contribute to the European security and to the world security and stability. I am sure that our cooperation in the future will be even more robust, and even closer, and even more fruitful for the very same reasons.

We have a very good team working with us also from the U.S. side. We have great friends at the White House. This friendship extends the bilateral—bipartisan—bipartisan spectrum. In fact, I met lots of Democrats on the Hill side over the last two or three days, and they—they are equally enthusiastic.

You know, a few years ago, I was telling this to students, we would walk through [the] corridors of Congress when I was—came here as a young parliamentarian in 1996. That was immediately after—[inaudible]— the U.S. It was very hard to get attention of senators and House members. If we finally did get hold of one of them, it was a hard job. We had a map with us. And we would put this map—extend this map on the table and tell, "Look, this is south Caucasus, this is Russia, this, the Middle East. Here we are. [Laughter.] You can—there is oil there that can possibly be transported. We are not a bad people. Look at us. Of course, we are different from the state of Georgia. We are the Republic of Georgia. [Laughter.] And can you please help us and pay some attention to us." And we would go through this diligent work. We've got some good friends there. And those friends really weren't so much impressed by this map issue but by the language we used, and by the pledges we made, and every year we came back and we achieved something, in terms of reforms, in terms of some progress. And that was very—followed with great sympathy.

I think now this is [a] totally different epoch. We don't have to explain where we are. I think CNN did [a] very good job. And the main issue is now to capitalize on the fact that we are players. We are not, of course, not the most important players, but we are players in the world arena. So, we count on the United States, and by working together honestly and openly, for Georgia, for Europe and for the entire region, we can build a brighter, safer and more prosperous future.

Thank you very much for your attention. David, I am at your disposal. [Applause.]

REMNICK: Thank you, Mr. President. Let's talk about your predecessor for one second, because I think Americans have a tendency to look at the politics or the destiny of not all nations, maybe just—maybe smaller nations, through the destiny of one political figure that they've known for a long time. Eduard Shevardnadze is a politician greatly known to the people who follow foreign policy as someone of democratic impulses who came to [former Soviet President Mikhail] Gorbachev's attention partly because of his anti-corruption impulses, hard as it is to perhaps believe at this point. In 1990, he stepped down, warning of dictatorship in the Soviet Union, which proved to be prescient when the August coup came around. And, on his way out the door in Georgia, you said, "History will look kindly upon him." This is shortly after you unseated him at the head of crowds in the tens of thousands. Where did Shevardnadze go deeply wrong? And why will history look kindly upon him?

SAAKASHVILI: I think the history will look kind up on him because he still stepped down, although he didn't have much choice. And although it's not true that he did resist, he gave all the orders to shoot people, to use force, to eliminate opposition,—[inaudible]—because he didn't want to—[inaudible.] But finally he had enough common sense to understand that the game was over, and that, not every leader can understand that totally or fully.

REMNICK: So, were you just being gracious, or—

SAAKASHVILI: I think—still, though, he was always kind of short of make—what he did was short of making major disaster and committing a major crime. But still, I appreciated his common sense, and I think that history will also do that.

However, frankly, you know, after I said those words, I realized that things were so messy when I came to the government that, I mean, if we had been a little bit late, that country would have collapsed totally. I mean, it was almost disintegrated, every level of state apparatus, and he was directly responsible for that. And even the level of corruption of which we have been talking was much worse than I expected. And, of course he had [a] role to play in it. But I think that he personally had no interest in money or wealth. I don't know what you would call personal interest, because him maybe not, but his family—I mean, his daughter, his son, their son-in-law, daughter-in-law—they are the wealthiest families in Georgia. And they became wealthy, it appeared, when everybody got impoverished. And it's not—there's nothing wrong with being rich unless you are rich members of [the family of a] president of a country that became extremely poor for the years when you became rich, right? And that's what happened in Georgia.

And I think until 1997, 1998, he wanted to implement reforms. That's why I was there. I wasn't there for—because I loved Shevardnadze. I never—I always had reservations about him. I never had—I mean, when I went to become openly [the] opposition leader of a big party, they looked desperately for any footage that would show me praising Shevardnadze, to show it like, "Look how this guy changed." And they couldn't find any. And they were astonished.

REMNICK: Where did he go wrong?

SAAKASHVILI: And I think because we—when I went with him, he really went and started to do reforms. It was until 1998—I think immediately after 1998, with [the] economic crisis in Russia that hit Georgia very hard. And because of [the February 1998] assassination attempt on him, which gave him this feeling of tremendous insecurity, he became very dependent on a very corrupt leadership law enforcement, and he became very dependent upon his family. And the story goes that his family told him, "Look, if you had been killed, we would have been left hungry." So, that's a popular—I don't know whether it's true, but that's what people are telling each other. So, we needed to get some money. Or at least from that moment on, it became very open and corruption became—I mean, very cynical. It wasn't as though it—you know—

REMNICK: How would you describe that corruption? What are the day-to-day—

SAAKASHVILI: Look, corruption is not only about you going to the government and asking for some favor, and the government soliciting bribes from you. It's all about the government coming to you and extorting money from you. That was the level of corruption in Georgia. In order to send your kid to a better school, you have to pay a bribe. In order to get good grades at that school, you had to pay bribes. In order to get any document, any license, any permit, you had to pay bribes. Or you just could drive out, take your car out of the garage and drive in the city and pull it—and policemen would stop you after every mile and extort bribes in the city or outside the city. So that's not—it's all about opportunities. Just one group had all the opportunities and everybody else was denied opportunities. You would open a small business, and immediately would be attacked by a fire inspection, you know, sanitary inspection, tax office service, local policemen—all of them coming to tell you that they should get [a] share of your business, which even hasn't been started yet.

So, basically, this was all about absolute denial of access to opportunities. You know, it's all about however talented you are, however good you are, you would never get a chance. I studied in the U.S. because I get—got money from U.S. Congress, but my parents could never afford that. And if you are just a regular person or if you—I mean, of course, there are people like the U.S. Congress. There are people like George or somebody who would provide money to study and scholarships, but otherwise there were no opportunities inside the country. And this [is] still so not only in Georgia, [but] in many, many countries.

You know, when we are talking about that we want to be part—we are part of Europe. We are Europeans and we ought to be a formal part of Europe, at least of the wide European initiative of the European Union [EU] that outlines the possible borders of the EU. And we are also part of the greater Middle East in many ways.

REMNICK: But how do you attack this on a systemic basis? We look at a system in Russia, for example. Nineteen ninety-one came along with fantastic promise, talk of anti-corruption campaigns, as well. The giveaway of property occurred as well. The elites never went anywhere. The elites are right in the same chairs they were. There is shuffling of governments; there are new presidents. You have some people at the top who went to fine universities in the West and have good intentions and espoused the values. Some of them left the room—[laughter]—but most of them are with you. You have to do far more than put a few people in at the top. I assume things haven't changed as far as traffic cops and contracts are concerned in Tbilisi and beyond. How do you go about beginning this enormous societal change, whether it has to do with corruption or property or proper business—

SAAKASHVILI: Well, it's all about changing—[inaudible.] First of all, the whole fact that the government will be corruption-free is a good start. And there will be—I mean—I don't underestimate—I mean—the factors of idealism, education, exposure to Western world. These are the things that count, that matter. I mean, we are dealing with Russia, with a bunch of old communist bureaucrats. Although in former Soviet Union there were attempts in Russia to bring more Western-educated, moderate individuals. They were thrown out, as you remember, very soon by the same oligarchs. And one of the things—well, one of the lessons we learned from Russia and from other places is that reformers should not make any compromise. That window of opportunity will not last forever, and unless you are decisive enough, resolute enough, and radical enough, it will be shut down and you will not succeed. And it's not only [the] example of Russia. Look at what's happened in Iran, though it's a totally different context. Or what happened in Serbia, where there were some good reforms but still reformers were, like, all the time hesitating and all the time making compromises, bowing to the nationalists, bowing to the left wing, to the right, and, in the end, they collapsed, and there is no authority left in that country, right? I have great sympathy for the Serb people, but I really want to avoid repetition of the same mistakes. So the lesson is: we must not compromise; be tough till the end. For instance, we have to—

REMNICK: Will you prosecute the Shevardnadze family, if necessary?

SAAKASHVILI: Well, Shevardnadze's son-in-law was arrested four days ago for involvement in mass scale corruption, and other things like tax evasion, et cetera. He was not only owner of the biggest telecom—cell phone company in the country, but he was a kind of racketeer for the business. He would go around and extort money for, like, monthly due payments—[inaudible]—the family would go for him. Now—[inaudible]—and ministers that have been arrested as well, they all say, "It's not our fault. Shevardnadze was—gave us this task." But it's not good to—my personal view is, to prosecute that old man sitting in his house and, I mean, having no authority—but that's not the only thing. The thing is that I am not—there are also international implications to that. Some people from other countries are telling us, and this is also—[inaudible]—for us—"Please, leave him alone because there are other presidents that will never quit if they see that you are dealing tough with President Shevardnadze," and then—let me finish—but I am not above the law. And I said I don't want him prosecuted. If the prosecutor's office gets to him, then I said that I am not above the law. I can never tell them "Stop," but I will submit law to the Parliament guaranteeing—granting him immunity. That is something else. And let legislature take responsibility for that. And I think that's—we made some polls on that. I was interested, because we tried to convince people, and most of the people support our approach, even if they don't like Shevardnadze at all. But there is this kind of feeling that we shouldn't be revengeful.

REMNICK: Mr. President, I'm going to ask only one more question, and then we'll throw it out to here. You have a founding myth problem, which is that there was a great popular rebellion led by you and others, which obviously had enormous popular support, and the way it was described in your speech and elsewhere was marvelous in many ways. On the other hand, it wasn't an election, and there is going to come a time when your term is up, and if you make the judgment that your opponent is in some way corrupt, criminal, insufficient for the country in some way—what will you do? Will you let him come to the office? Will you suspend elections?

SAAKASHVILI: I think by that time—

REMNICK: The most important election is your second.

SAAKASHVILI: By that time, society will make sure enough, I hope. You know, it's not only about me and me wanting to do something. Georgia has—Georgia is, unfortunately, the only country of the CIS that has genuine mass media, and you've got 10 or 15 big national television channels—three or four of them are very popular—and you have got something like 25 to 30 regional channels. It's a very small country with less than 5 million people in the population. Georgians love this stuff of televisions, newspapers, radio stations, to debate, to argue, but that's a good thing. And I was brought to power by that—by these television stations, by—among others, with the people, of course—but they played a major role. So, for me, they are—[inaudible]—and, frankly, if I don't do so well—there is some promise [for] me because the whole infrastructure is there and nobody else knows better than me at this moment how to operate within that infrastructure. Somebody else will emerge in two, three years' time to do it better. That's fine, but what I hope [is] that those corrupt, nasty people whom you are mentioning will not learn how to operate the structure well. That there will be some[one a] little better than me that will learn it better, that's fine. So it's the whole civil society control mechanisms that should not enable these kind of people to emerge. That's what counts here.

REMNICK: Would you describe [the upcoming] Russian [presidential] election as a democratic election—Russian election?

SAAKASHVILI: [Laughs.] Well, I mean, I am very open about Georgia, but I don't want to really comment too much about Russian elections, because I am just starting to re-establish my good relations with President Putin. [Laughter.]

REMNICK: I'll take that as a no.

SAAKASHVILI: I'll tell you one more thing—I think that with Putin consolidating power, there are also lots of positive aspects to that. And the positive aspect is that before we never knew—countries like Georgia—with whom are we dealing? Are we dealing with some local major from [the] Russian regiment who could make some local—[inaudible]—locally or are we dealing with the Kremlin? Now we more and more know where the power lays—lies and what the rules of the game are with the person that holds that power. And I am telling you, in many ways that makes interaction with Russia easier, and I don't know. And I know many people question the way the whole thing is conducted. But, on the other hand, we should understand that there are also positive aspects for many countries in terms of consolidation of power there because of very special status of Russia as a superpower. So I think there are multiple assets to that.

REMNICK: Do you have a microphone here?

QUESTIONER: First, thank you very much for coming. I'm Minky Worden from Human Rights Watch. Among the many challenges that you've inherited are Georgia's extremely poor human rights record, including police violence, torture, and detention. And as David pointed out, many of these people are still in office. What is your plan for building human rights protections into your reform agenda?

SAAKASHVILI: Well, it's—you know, by my training, I'm a human rights lawyer. And that doesn't necessarily mean anything, because, you know, I've seen people that have been dissidents fighting with the old regime and turn into some kind of authoritarian rulers very rapidly because they believed that they were the only ones that had right opinions.

But I do believe that if people feel suppressed, the country will not develop. This whole revolution, why it was good [is that] it liberated tremendous internal energy. Freedom brings energy, and energy builds the countries. And we need this energy. We don't have much of oil. We have some oil, but not enough. We have some other—[inaudible]—not enough. The only major resource for us is popular energy able to produce optimism and some kind of palpable results. And I believe that this can only be done in society which is tolerant.

We had problems with tolerance in the past. I have to acknowledge that. But we are going to deal with these problems. But, you know, once you become—once a country—I am the president that never hesitates to use force when this force is adequate. It is important to hold a state together. But it's also very risky business, because the very moment that force becomes inadequate or excessive, you get the kind of responses that again undermines the state from the other side. And that's the main thing, to strike [a] balance very carefully.

And I am very grateful to Human Rights Watch for what they've done in Georgia, but also to local NGOs [non-governmental organizations] that are there and are very vigilant to control us properly so that we don't overstep the limits, because that's something that is also useful for us. I deeply believe in that.


QUESTIONER: Thank you. I'm Kimberly Marten from Barnard College at Columbia [University]. Could you say a few words about the current instability in Adjaria [in western Georgia] and whether you see that Russia is having a role in that?

SAAKASHVILI: I wouldn't call it instability—just people taking to the streets just before the parliamentary elections and expressing their opinions. And it's some local thugs supported by local governments that deny that they're supporting that, beating up people from time to time. And it's some people being detained on false charges, but every time the prosecutor's office would take over and let them out.

It's a normal process. It's a normal process. It's democracy's place. [In] a small country, democracy will spread everywhere where people believe in it. And in that place, people also believe in it. And, I mean, there has been this thing, you know, like there is conflict between Adjaria and [the] central government. It's a very small place to be conflictual about, and certainly—I mean, I got 90 percent of the vote of local people.

Now, it's a matter of people wanting to choose their own government, including the local government. That's what it is all about. And I'm here to especially provide guarantees for that. And I think it will go very smoothly, even with some ugly pictures like the—you know, there was recently a big demonstration in Adjaria. Secretary General of the Council of Europe [Walter Schwimmer] was there, and [I] was telling George Soros that the government there—the local government organized big rally against—well, a big rally. I mean, all their government employees were compelled to be there. [Laughter.] And it was not big: 1,500 people. But they had a big, huge poster on the main square [that read]: "Soros, leave us alone." [Laughter.]

But the point is that Soros had nothing to do with the situation there. He has to do with many situations. But it's just local people wanting to be free, right? And you cannot blame anybody. You cannot blame me. You cannot blame George. You cannot blame anybody else. It's just natural instinct of everybody to express their opinion and be free.

REMNICK: This gentleman all the way in the back.

QUESTIONER: [Off mike.]

REMNICK: Just shout. It's okay.

QUESTIONER: John Brademas from New York University, but before, a member of Congress. Twenty-five years ago, Mr. President—and I congratulate you on your splendid speech—I led a delegation of 18 members of the House of Representatives to the then-Soviet Union, and we began in Tbilisi. We were the first American politicians to meet Shevardnadze. And what I most remember about our exchange was this statement. Shevardnadze said, "You cannot trust the Chinese. They will do you in. They will do us in. You cannot trust the Chinese." You've not talked about your international relations to any extent in your splendid speech. But I wonder, is your relationship with China still a major preoccupation, or are you much more concerned with Russia or some other country?

SAAKASHVILI: Here is the story I told students the other day about China. I was in Davos [Switzerland, for the World Economic Forum in January 2004], and Georgia was a very big, hot issue in Davos this year, because we were just fresh [from] this revolution. And I was going around and I was followed everywhere by different television cameras. And, you know, like Lebanese television would come to me and say, "Well, we"—this anchor person to say, "We really envy you, and why did it not happen to us? And we would love to be in your place," and the same thing with the Syrians. The Syrian, one guy was talking in very secret terms because he was looking around that nobody else would hear that. But they were often in my interviews.

And also I was giving interviews to CNN and NBC and Russian Television. And Chinese Television followed me everywhere, and I was always trying to escape from them. And it was like, in the end, this guy caught me in a dark corner of a conference call somewhere, and he told me, "Look, Mr. Saakashvili, you don't understand. By giving interviews to all these local—to all these small television channels, you are wasting your time. We have 790 million viewers in the world." [Laughter.] And the other day—and they filmed my interview, and it was—they have 13 channels. But it was shown on all 13 channels simultaneously, including the English translation on their English channel. [Laughter.]

But the point is that—and the other day, Chinese ambassador in Tbilisi came to see me. He's a very amiable guy. And he told us, you know, "I have two messages from [the] Chinese president to you. First is on continued economic assistance and programs." They are building up some hydropower stations in Tbilisi and near Tbilisi. "And second one is that president of China is asking, you know, in your speeches, you all the time mention United States, Russia, Turkey. Why you never mention China, and why don't you speak about the role of China in the world?" [Laughter.] And I was like—it really went a long way if the president of China is looking for my press in order to enhance their reputation and prestige. [Laughs.]

REMNICK: Right here.

QUESTIONER: David Phillips with the Council on Foreign Relations. My question is a little bit closer to home. You talk about the frozen conflict in Abkhazia and South Ossetia and how they undermine governance, fuel corruption, and, given the location of these areas on transit routes, how they undermine economic development. Given the impasse, what measures do you envision to build confidence, to get political talks started? Can the U.N. play a more proactive and effective role? And what about constitutional reforms, defining a relationship between the entities?

SAAKASHVILI: Regarding with the Abkhazia issue, I spoke today frankly to the U.N. And frankly, I always have [the] impression when I go to U.N. that the whole talk falls on deaf ears, because nobody wants to hear about another frozen conflict. However, there are no frozen conflicts. This kind of conflict will degenerate into one day an uglier, bad conflict, I mean, a really bloody one. So what we need to do [is] we need to move. And we are told, working with the Russians, "In Abkhazia, we're ready to provide the widest possible autonomy, short of independence. But just [like] anything else, just let them recognize that they're part of this country. Let us restart the infrastructure, bring investment, bring tourists." It's the most beautiful area of the Black Sea and one of the most beautiful resort areas in the world. Maybe some of them have been—some of you have been there before the war erupted. Or at least, I mean, I've been to many places, and I've been there; I can compare it. It's one of the most beautiful and picturesque places in the world. It's a beautiful sea there and very clean, very nice beaches. And you can—in summer, you can travel up, like, for 50 minutes and you can ski. There are very nice potential ski resorts there and beautiful valleys and lakes, et cetera.

But in order to do that, we have to recognize that this is a peaceful place. Everybody has a right to live there, including those people that were thrown out. Not the whole pre-war population will go back, but they should get back. They have now less than 10 percent of pre-war population there. And this is a totally devastated place with minefields, with Russian troops. And, you know, of course, Russian generals love to be there because they spend their—and also not only generals, but lower-ranked Russian military and some other Russians, because they are using these dilapidated old sanitoriums and they have rest there in the summer for just $3 a day. And it's, of course, much cheaper than anything else in the region. But it cannot last forever like this. You need to change that.

Also, because of the closed railway [from the fighting in Abkhazia], Armenia is totally blocked because Armenia is getting products from Georgia, and that railway is actually essential for Armenia's functioning. Georgia is also suffering, of course.

REMNICK: Mr. President, I want to thank you on behalf of the Council.

SAAKASHVILI: Thank you. [Applause.]




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A Conversation With Giorgi Margvelashvili

Presider: Thomas Graham
Speaker: Giorgi Margvelashvili

Giorgi Margvelashvili discusses tensions with Russia as well as Georgia’s relationship with NATO, the European Union, and the United States.