Opting to speak without notes rather than to deliver the speech he had prepared, Saakashvili fondly recalled the time he spent at Columbia University, lauding the United States for what he saw as the “sense that everything is possible” for immigrants. “Ultimately for us,” he continued, “America is…an inspiration to the people.”
However, Saakashvili painted a grim picture of his own country under and immediately following Soviet rule: afflicted with poverty, crumbling infrastructure, and widespread corruption, he declared that Georgia was at that time “the classical definition of a failed state.”
In 2003, Saakashvili led a protest movement against fraudulent parliamentary elections, eventually culminating in the Rose Revolution. Overwhelmingly elected to the presidency a few months later, Saakashvili and a team of fresh, idealistic Georgian politicians set out on a quest to eradicate corruption in their country, in his telling.
Their bold reforms saw dramatic results. Saakashvili boasted that Georgia, once the nation with the highest crime rate in its area, now vies with Iceland for the title of the safest country in Europe. Georgia’s reliance on Russia for energy has declined, and according to Saakashvili, Georgia’s bureaucracy is the second-most efficient in the world.
In his visit this week with the Georgian president, President Obama praised Georgia as “a model for reforms.” President Saakashvili asserted that his only mistakes have been in compromising and postponing his plans for reform.
A short panel discussion, featuring Center for Eurasian, Russian, and Eastern European Studies Director Angela Stent, School of Foreign Service Dean Carol Lancaster, and BMW Center for German and European Studies Director Jeffrey Anderson, followed President Saakashvili’s talk. The panelists raised questions regarding Georgia’s status as a candidate for European Union membership and its relationship with Russia. Saakashvili dryly referenced Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s teasing and taunting but took a tone of indignation in reference to Russia’s occupation of twenty percent of Georgian soil.
“We are looking forward to the time when the occupants leave forever,” Saakashvili said.
One of Saakashvili’s final anecdotes was particularly representative of his country’s rapid advancement. His predecessor, he recounted, paid a visit to the World Bank and was lambasted for his country’s failures; ten years later, Saakashvili got a standing ovation at the same body.
“[Some people] thought the corruption was cultural,” he said, “but they underestimated my country.”
Photo: Lucia He