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Interview of President Saakashvili of Georgia
President Mikhail Saakashvili of Georgia often refers to Ukraine as his “second homeland.” He calls the years he spent in Kyiv studying at the Institute of International Relations “the best in my life.” Even the two years of his army service as a border guard in Zakarpattya (Transcarpathian region, Western Ukraine) do not mar the picture when he walks down the memory lane (in the soviet times, army service was compulsory for all males who reached the age of eighteen, with some exceptions and deferments, and it did not matter where you lived in the Soviet Union to be sent to whatever other part of the country the military authorities saw fit; that’s how Mr Saakashvili from Georgia ended up in Western Ukraine — tr.).
President Saakashvili is fluent in five languages, Ukrainian included, and in three Georgian dialects. He says he likes Ukrainian cuisine, borsch in particular, and Ukrainian horilka z pertsem (vodka with pepper) is a regular item in his bar. There are several telltale souvenirs in his office — a hetman’s mace; a statuette of Zaporizhian Cossack, and a small model of a church of fine craftsmanship (the last item, incidentally, was given to him as a present by Viktor Yushchenko). President Saakashvili was the first to congratulate Viktor Yushchenko with the final victory at the presidential election in Ukraine.
President Saakashvili was interviewed by Valeriya BONDARENKO, a freelance journalist.
Mikhail Saakashvili was born in 1967 in Tbilisi. He graduated with honours from the Department of International Law of the Institute of International Relations, Kyiv Taras Shevchenko University. He earned his Master’s Degree in Law from Columbia University, New York, where he studied as a scholar of US Congress.
In 1995–1996, he studied at the graduate courses of the Juridical Centre, Washington University. He received a diploma in Human Rights Comparative Law from the Strasbourg Human Rights International Institute, France.
He worked: at the Norway Human Rights Institute, at the Human Rights Protection State Committee of Georgia, and for a prestigious law firm in New York, New York.
In December 1995, he was elected chairman of the Georgian Parliamentary Committee on Constitution, Juridical Issues and Legacy.
In 1997, he was unanimously recognized the Man of the Year by Georgian Media and NGOs.
In August, 1998, he was elected chairman of the Union of Citizens faction in parliament.
On October 31 1999, he was elected member of parliament. In January 2000, he was made Vice-President of the European Council Parliamentary Assembly.
In October 2000, he was appointed Georgia’s Minister of Justice.
In June 2002, he was elected chairman of the Tbilisi Assembly.
The parliamentary elections held in Georgia on November 2 2003, were marked by fraud and were denounced by local and international observers as being grossly rigged. Saakashvilli claimed a landslide victory and urged Georgians to demonstrate against Shevardnadze’s government and engage in nonviolent civil disobedience against the authorities. He joined forces with other opposition groups to demand the ouster of Shevardnadze and a rerun of the election.
Massive political demonstrations, which became known as the Revolution of Roses, were held in Tbilisi on November 20–23. After an increasingly tense two weeks of demonstrations, Shevardnadze bowed to the inevitable and resigned as president on November 23, to be replaced on an interim basis by Parliamentary Speaker, Nino Burjanadze.
On January 4 2004 Mikhail Saakashvili was elected President of Georgia by a majority of votes.
Mr Saakashvili is married and has a son.
Mr President, would it be correct to say that you gave your moral support of the Orange Revolution from the moment it began? You wore an orange tie at all the social occasions connected in some way with Ukraine; you made a speech in support of democracy delivered in the Church of St George in Tbilisi, half of which you devoted to Ukraine, and in fact spoke Ukrainian when you were talking about Ukraine.
As a president, I could not express directly my preferences because it could be construed as an interference into the internal affairs of a foreign country, but on the other hand I could not completely hide my partiality on a purely human level. That is why I used the language of symbols and references which were easily understood. I could not help doing it. I understood the situation in Ukraine probably better than anybody else, simply because I went through something very similar in my country only a year ago.
But as a president, I also tried to be useful to Ukraine to the best of my ability. In all the many interviews that I gave to the European and American media I kept calling upon the west to support the Ukrainians rather than just remain impartial observers. It did not mean, of course, that I said that it was Yushchenko they should back up — it was the people of Ukraine that needed support in their striving for democracy. And to my great surprise and joy both Europe and America did adopt a very constructive attitude towards Ukraine, and to a certain extent the level of it even surpassed my expectations.
What kind of misgivings did you have?
The world community did not always take a well-defined stance on Ukraine, and I, as a president, had to explain, in a most comprehensible and simple way, that Ukraine is not Russia, is not part of Russia, that it is a sovereign state, not only in the territorial sense, but in mentality and national character of its people.
And what, in your opinion, are the most significant differences between Ukraine and Russia?
Ukraine is a European state, only for a long period of time it was wearing a thick crust of Russian imperial and soviet makeup that made it impossible to see its true face. Anybody who has lived in Ukraine at least for some time would, I think, agree with me. And this “being European” has always been part of the Ukrainian mentality, it resided at the genetic level. I fell in love with Kyiv the very first time I came there, and it was not only for its beauty, but also for the atmosphere of harmony and emotional comfort that the people of Kyiv create. Kyiv is a place where anyone, regardless of their ethnic background, feel themselves at home, and as far as I am concerned, this gemutlich and tolerant atmosphere is a sure sign of Kyiv being a thoroughly European city in its spirit. The same can be said of the whole of Ukraine. Incidentally, one cannot say the same about Russia where such a tolerant and “European” attitude to people of all nationalities is in short supply.
Your administration showed a great deal of solidarity with the Ukrainian Orange Revolution in the period preceding the rerun election — or was it just an impression we got from the broadcasts of our only (at that time) more or less independent TV station?
No, it’s true, and there’s nothing surprising in that. There are many Georgians who are one way or the other connected with Ukraine. Among my friends and companions there are people who got their education in Ukraine — the secretary of our national council, the prime-minister of Adzharia, the ambassador of Georgia to Ukraine, just to name a few. This tradition of close links with Ukraine is more than a hundred years old. In the early twentieth century, a considerable part of the Georgian intelligentsia went to Ukraine to get their education. My grandfather’s brother, the person who actually raised me, graduated from the Kharkiv University. He was an Academician, leader of the Georgian Social-Federalists.
In the soviet times, being a Georgian you had no chances to be admitted to a Moscow university to study international relations. It was, for all intents and purposes, an official policy of the Soviet Union — even at the time when Eduard Shevardnadze, a Georgian, was foreign minister! By contrast, the Kyiv Shevchenko University signed an agreement with the Tbilisi University whereby if you wanted to study international law and international economic relations, you could take the entrance examinations in Tbilisi without having to go to Kyiv. It was my ambition to study these subjects and I took the exams and was admitted.
When and where did you learn Ukrainian? Do you still have some opportunities to use it?
Naturally, I learnt the Ukrainian language in Ukraine, but it was not only because of my studies at a Ukrainian university — I wanted to be able to talk to the people I met in their own native language. But there was a hitch — when I first arrived in Kyiv, it was a mostly Russian-speaking place. Ukrainian was spoken almost exclusively by people who had recently come from the rural areas, or from Western Ukraine. And, of course, people devoted to the Ukrainian national cause. At the university, Ukrainian speaking were mostly students of the Department of Ukrainian Philology. There was a surprising discovery that I made in the years of my studies in Kyiv — it turned that many top soviet and communist party bosses talked Ukrainian at home, and Russian in public! I learnt it from my fellow students many of whom were children of top officials. When they invited me to their homes, I heard that they talked Ukrainian!
These days, I can hear Ukrainian spoken in Kyiv much more often, and I think it’s very good. It’s a pleasure for me to be talking in Ukrainian; sometimes, talking Russian I realize that I use Ukrainian rather than Russian words. When I’m on official visits to Moscow, they make it a point to let me know I used a Ukrainian word instead of a Russian one. But it happens not because I want to show off or because of some ulterior motives — it just happens. I do like the way the Ukrainian words sound — it’s such a soft and melodic language, and one feels nice and easy talking Ukrainian. These days, when Ukrainian, the language of the revolutionary political action and of political oratory, is becoming the language of the political and economic establishment of Ukraine, I’m sure I’ll have enough chances to use it. When recently Viktor Yushchenko invited my wife and me to spend several days with them at a winter resort in the Carpathians, it was Ukrainian that I spoke with Mr Yushchenko and his family. If the head of state thinks and speaks Ukrainian, then naturally enough people in the highest echelons of power will start speaking Ukrainian too.
Relations between Georgia and Ukraine have always been friendly, and 2005 was proclaimed to be the Year of Georgia in Ukraine. An agreement about this was reached between you and Leonid Kuchma when he was still president. Could you say a few words about your relations with the Ukrainian ex-president?
I will not comment his presidency as far as his internal policies are concerned, but Ukraine’s relations with Georgia during his presidency were always very good. No matter what our relations with Russia were, they never had any effect on our relations with Ukraine.
And what can you say about your relations with Russia now? Is President Putin always true to his word?
Lately, we’ve begun to find a common ground. I think Russia has entered a stage of complications in relations with many countries of the world, Georgia is just one of these countries. We, of course, would not wish to run into any complications in relations with Russia. We have our interests, our own principles, and there seems to be no easy solutions to some of the problems. I’m doing my best in trying to find more flexile solutions. But unfortunately there is a problem of a serious kind connected with Russia’s interference into the internal affairs of Georgia. No country, even the smallest, would tolerate such interference. I believe the sooner Russia understands it, the better it will be for Russia.
Now, as far as Putin’s being true to his word is concerned — yes, he is, if you have a very concrete agreement with him. That’s what I’m trying to do — to reach concrete agreements with him, but there are obstacles on the way. Unfortunately, I’ve been consistently presented as an enemy of Russia by the Russian media, and the way Russia TV stations treat me is particularly revealing. In recent months Georgia has been given a respite from attacks by the Russian media because they switched over to the Ukrainian opposition (that is, what used to be “opposition” before the election of Yushchenko to the presidency — tr.), and I’m no longer “the baddest guy” for them. Paradoxically, there’s a positive element in all the negative coverage of Georgia and Ukraine in the Russian media. When Georgia was presented in a very negative light on the Russian television, people watching it believed all those preposterous stories about us, but when practically the same began to be said about Ukraine, the number of those who were prepared to believe what they heard was significantly reduced. I know that two days before the first round of the presidential election in Ukraine (in October 2004), there was an attempt to show the Russian-made film “Misha” (Misha is a diminutive from Mikhail — tr.) in Ukraine. This film was supposed to deal a devastating blow to my image and prestige. It was shown by many Russian TV stations, and it was hoped that this film, a sort of a political “bomb,” would scare the Ukrainian public. I saw this film. It’s rather funny and na?ve, and I’m sure there’d be not much harm if it had been shown in Ukraine, but the very fact of its screening would cause a negative attitude to Georgia to develop. And it would affect our contacts not in the best of ways. But at the very last moment, the top leaders of Ukraine interfered and the film was not shown.
When did you meet Viktor Yushchenko for the first time?
In 2001, at the time when I myself joined the opposition movement. I was impressed with the way he embodied the very essence of the Ukrainian mentality – he’s a clever, honest, diplomatic and cautious person who deeply feels the needs of Ukraine and who loves his country and believes in it. When you make a political career not for the career’s sake but because you love your country, then you’ll achieve a lot. Mr Yushchenko is a deeply religious person of high spirituality, and this is a very important thing too. I have a small model of a church of fine craftsmanship in my office — it is a present from Viktor Yushchenko… Our political destinies have proved to be similar too.
Did the Revolution of Roses in Georgia give the Georgian people anything else besides hope for a better life?
We have already reorganized all the structures of our society and it is essential in organizing the work of all the officials in a better way. Our anti-corruption measures have also been to a great extent successful — it allowed us to get three times more money into the budget than we thought we could get. And the main thing — we’ve achieved stability. Pensions and wages are paid on time. That’s a very positive fact in itself. But all of these things are only the first steps — and they’ve already started to bring good results. And to a large extent, these results have been achieved thanks to our team effort, concentrated efforts of a group of like-minded people united in our team. The average age of these people is 40. We work at least twelve or fifteen hours a day.
You speak of these people, your team, very affectionately, like one usually speaks about good friends.
They are very good friends indeed. We have been tested by the revolution and by the years of working in the political opposition. I’m sure that while working together in politics you can come to know your comrades-in-arms much better in a month than, say, you can come to know a friend whom you’ve been acquainted with since your childhood, if you just see him socially once in a while. In politics, there emerge so many extreme and urgent situations that by the manner a person acts in them, you can immediately see what kind of a person he or she is. I’ve practically lost no friends since I’ve gone into politics, and it’s a very important thing for me. We, all of us together, have experienced repressions, great pressure was put on us, we were together on the barricades, to speak metaphorically. There are not many of them, of these friends of mine, but enough to fill all the key posts in our country. I do believe that one of the most important conditions of achieving a success in the development of a country is to have “a team” of determined people who have been tested by the most trying circumstances.
You are fluent in Russian, Ukrainian, French, English and Spanish, and in different interviews you said that you have no language problems when you meet foreign leaders. With whom, would you say, you have the best relations?
With President Bush of the United States whose friendship I greatly value, and with President Chirac of France. I have very good relations with the leaders of the Baltic states and with many others. I was glad to learn that President Adamkus of Lithuania offered his help as a mediator in the talks during the turbulent political events in Ukraine. I talked with President Vike-Freiberga of Latvia over the phone about the events in Ukraine several times too. She gave me several very useful pieces of advice. I’ve established very good relations with President Aliyev of Azerbaijan and with President Kocharian of Armenia. I have a great respect for President Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan whom I regard to be one of the shrewdest politicians in the countries of the former Soviet Union. I, being a young politician, have a lot to learn from them. The Georgians and the Kazakhs, for example, have very different mentalities and different political systems, but in the political issues Nazarbayev has a lot of very useful things to teach us.
Political scientists say that one of your most significant successes is a gradual settling of ethnic conflicts and struggle against separatism in your country. Do you think you’ll be remembered in history as Mikhail The Peacemaker?
No, I have no such historical ambitions. I don’t really care what they will be saying about me in a hundred-year time, I want to achieve palpable results now. History is made by the people rather than by separate individuals, and the task of a leader is to release and direct the constructive energy of the people. Now, when this energy has been released, it should be channeled in the right direction, and it should be creatively and constructively used. At the same time, you should understand that when the people have come to believe in you, it puts a great responsibility upon you. People expect something of you — even if it’s a bit too much — and you must meet these high expectations. You must be prepared to be held accountable for whatever you do, not only by the people of your own country but by the world community. You must be prepared to have your work analyzed scrupulously and very closely. That is why we should, without being distracted by anything, be working towards our goal, and once it is achieved, set a new goal and pursue this new goal so long as you have the support of the people, health and determination.
Among the countries of the former Soviet Union, we already have two presidents who have come to power through a peaceful people’s revolution. Do you think there may be a third some time soon?
I will not make any predictions but if it’s a tendency then it inspires optimism in me.