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.