It’s now official: Mikheil Saakashvili is the president of Georgia for the next term. In a 7 to 6 vote, the Central Election Commission of Georgia has declared Saakashvili the victor of the January 5 snap presidential election. According to the CEC, Saakashvili has received 53.5% of the vote; the most successful candidate from the opposition camp, Levan Gachechiladze, came in second with 25.7%.
The opposition now claims — and these claims sound very credible — that the poll results have been rigged to spare Saakashili from running against Gachechiladze in the second round. But even Saakashvili’s critics would be hard-pressed to deny that he’s still the most popular politician in Georgia. Having lost ground to the opposition in Tbilisi, Saakashvili keeps drawing significant support in the rural areas. This support would have invariably ensured his a win in any run-off vote.
President Bush has already congratulated Saakashvili, humiliating the opposition and making meaningless the protest rallies they’re launching in Tbilisi. It’s quite conceivable, though, that hungry-for-attention opposition leaders will keep going with the protests until at least January 20, the inauguration day, when Tbilisi will be filled with foreign luminaries.
So, why all this fuss about Misha?
Georgia’s presidential elections closely followed the pattern typical for countries in the post-Soviet space: a genuinely popular national leader — an economic liberal with an unmistakable authoritarian streak — wins presidential elections amid heavy use of the notorious "administrative resource", dominance of the state-owned TV, and lack of coherent opposition. Conceptually, Saakashvili is not very different from other successful post-Soviet leaders, such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin or Kazakhstan’s Nursultan Nazarbayev.
The fuss about Saakashvili is because he was marketed very differently in the West. In 2005, President Bush, impressed with Saakashvili’s pro-Western rhetoric, called Georgia "a beacon of liberty." Two United States Senators, Hillary Clinton (D-NY) and John McCain (R-AZ) have made fools of themselves by nominating Saakashvili for the Nobel Peace Prize. So much for the "experience" in foreign policy both claim to have in the 2008 presidential race.
The first blow to Saakashvili’s image of a perfect democrat came in November when riot police equipped with tear gas and batons were sent to disperse what was called a peaceful anti-government demonstration. The shock from Saakashvili’s actions was so severe that the Western media — unwilling as ever to look into the essence of things — has overlooked the fact that the "peaceful demonstration" was a deliberate provocation orchestrated by the opposition concerned that the street protests began losing steam.
Then came the snap election and accusations that they had been falsified.
So what? Why should the Bush administration stop its love affair with Saakashvili?
Nothing that Saakashvili has done in the distant or recent past negates his attractiveness to Washington: he’s pro-American, pro-NATO (in a referendum that was held simultaneously with the presidential election, more than 70% of voters approved plans for Georgia to join NATO), anti-Russia, and anti-Putin. Besides, he studied in the United States and speaks fluent English.
(When assessing the credentials of foreign leaders, American elites pay extraordinary, if somewhat misplaced, attention to the fact that someone got his or her degree in the United States. That explains why the late Benazir Bhutto, a Harvard graduate, was always considered more "democratic" than Nawaz Sharif, who received his law degree from the University of Punjab. That also accounts for the excitement many in Washington felt about General Kayani replacing Pervez Musharraf as a new Pakistani Army Chief: Kayani’s professional career includes repeated military training in the U.S.)
So, for as long as Saakashvili keeps being our man in Tbilisi, Georgia will continue to shine as a "beacon of liberty."
And leave to the OSCE observers — with their unmatched capability of calling white black, black white, and gray … well, it depends — the dirty job of explaining why the January 5 election "was … consistent with most international standards for democratic elections" despite "a lack of trust and pervasive allegations of violations."