Faced with the awesome task of restoring a sense of stability to Georgia, President Mikheil Saakashvili is relying on a combination of old and new to assert his administration's authority. Saakashvili's January 25 inauguration sought to connect his incoming administration with some of the country's ancient heroes. At the same time, the president's inaugural address made it clear that the success or failure of Georgia's transformation will depend on "the new educated, energetic and patriotic generation."
The inauguration ceremonies drew heavily from Georgia's distant history. For instance, prior to the public inauguration ceremony, Saakashvili privately made what was termed a "spiritual" oath at the tomb of Georgia's national hero King David the Builder who ruled in the 12th century and is credited with building a great Georgian state that stretched from the Caspian to the Black seas. Georgia's new national flag, which features five red crosses on a white background, was also on prominent display during the ceremonies. The banner is reputed to have been used by medieval Georgian kings, and was the flag of Saakashvili's National Movement party during the 2003 parliamentary election campaign.
Political analyst Soso Tsintsadze said the elaborate events underscored Saakashvili desire to make a complete break from former president Eduard Shevardnadze's administration. In beginning the fresh chapter in the country's history, Saakashvili indicated that a new, younger generation of political leaders would bear most of the burden of engineering Georgia's turnaround. "I have faith in the new, energetic and patriotic generation that is coming in as one united team," Saakashvili said. "The time of hard and tireless toil has come."
Saakashvili struck an optimistic tone in his address, hinting that a major task for the new administration would be to harness the popular energy generated by the so-called Rose Revolution that forced Shevardnadze's resignation in November. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. "Today, as never before, the huge spark of hope, which has always been inside every Georgian, should turn into a positive energy," he said.
He vowed to make education a top priority, while at the same time making government more efficient. "The time has come for the government to listen to the people. So far, the government has insulated itself from the people," Saakashvili said.
Behind the optimistic rhetoric, some political analysts saw contradictions that may prove difficult to overcome. In the foreign policy sphere, Saakashvili spoke of steering a "steady course towards European integration" while having "very good" relations with Russia. Some observers see these twin policy goals as hard to reconcile, citing recent moves by Moscow to reassert its influence in what has traditionally been its sphere of interest. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
In his inaugural, Saakashvili repeated previous calls to improve the bilateral Georgian-Russian relationship. "Georgia does not need Russia as an enemy," he said. Russian leaders have echoed such statements, but neither side has thus far developed a concrete policy proposal to help ease years of mutual suspicion and animosity.
Analysts also see contradictions in the domestic political realm, in particular in Saakashvili's approach towards the country's separatist-minded autonomous regions of Abkhazia, Ajaria and South Ossetia. The underlying theme of Saakashvili's inaugural address was the need for unity. He left no doubt that he seeks to reestablish firm central government authority across all Georgian territory. "Georgia was strong when it was united. We must unite to become strong," he said.
At the same time, Saakashvili expressed a desire for Georgia to emerge as tolerant, multi-ethnic state. "Georgia should become, and it will become, the homeland of a free, educated and proud people," Saakashvili said. "Georgia is a home for all Georgians, as well as for each representative of all ethnic groups."
Some observers believe the new Georgian leadership is sure encounter difficulty as it tries to blend the desire for unity with the aim of multi-ethnic concord. However, recent developments involving Ajaria would seem to raise hopes that the unification process can be achieved with a minimum of confrontation.
Ajarian leader Aslan Abashidze, a political nemesis of Saakashvili's, has expressed willingness to compromise with Tbilisi. Abashidze has signaled a desire to transfer a greater share of revenue generated in the province to central government coffers. In return, Tbilisi has shown a greater desire to consider turning Batumi into a free-trade zone. Observers caution, however, that the Tbilisi-Batumi rapprochement remains in the early stage of development, adding that a variety of factors could upend early progress. Indeed, Saakashvili, prior to his inauguration, indicated that if Abashidze did not change his maverick approach towards the central government, then Tbilisi would consider adopting a more coercive approach towards Batumi.
Since November, Saakashvili has worked diligently to recast his image, transforming himself from an opposition radical bent of confrontation to that of a conciliation-minded statesman. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. For the most part, Saakashvili's inaugural speech succeeded in conveying its desired message. At a few points during the address, however, Saakashvili's fiery rhetoric was reminiscent of the language he employed during the tumultuous parliamentary election campaign. This was especially evident when the president discussed his anti-corruption drive. "We must root out corruption," Saakashvili said. "As far as I am concerned, every corrupt official is a traitor who betrays the national interest."
Saakashvili's smash-mouth political style during the election campaign prompted concern that he would prove a divisive force if he came to power. His behavior in recent months has dispelled some, but not all of those early concerns. Some political analysts remain worried that, given its overwhelming popularity at the moment, Saakashvili's administration may resort to authoritarian means in the pursuit of democratic ends.
These and similar concerns were voiced on January 25 at the meeting involving US State Secretary Colin Powell and Georgian civil society representatives. Human rights activist Nana Kakabadze, for one, called on the United States, a strong backer of the new administration, to apply the same strict human rights standards towards Saakashvili that it did towards Shevardnadze.
Jaba Devdariani is a board member of the United Nations Association of Georgia and analyst of Georgian politics, currently working in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Steve Weinberg is a freelance journalist who has traveled extensively in the Caucasus. Giga Chikhladze is an independent journalist based in Tbilisi.