Saakashvili: georgia now a “model” country


February 11, 2005

Declaring Georgia “a proper state,” President Mikheil Saakashvili
delivered his annual state of the nation speech to parliament on
February 10. The upbeat speech was the Georgian leader’s first
detailed public statement on government policy since the death of
Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania, a leading architect of the country’s
reform program.

Saakashvili asserted that the 2003 Rose Revolution that brought his
administration to power had begun to accomplish its goals. “Georgia
was a failed state, disintegrated, demoralized and humiliated. It was
a country that had lost all attributes of statehood,” Saakashvili
said in condemning the administration of his predecessor, Eduard
Shevardnadze. In contrast, Saakashvili continued, Georgia in 2005 “is
a model country where every program is working in a model way.”

The president cited improved tax revenue collection and a new tax
code, an enlarged state budget, regular payment of government
salaries and pensions, and a crackdown on corruption as among his
administration’s successes in 2004. Increased tax flow and the timely
payment of state salaries and pensions – “the one area in which we
can claim success” — prompted the president to nominate Finance
Minister Zurab Noghaideli for prime minister, he said. “When a person
works so well, he should be promoted,” commented Saakashvili. The
president officially presented Noghaideli as his candidate for prime
minister on February 11. A special session of parliament is expected
to convene on either February 17 or February 18 to vote on Noghaideli
and other proposed cabinet changes, according to Speaker Nino
Burjanadze. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

The February 1 explosion in Gori and the February 3 death of Zhvania
have shown “that we can deal with any unexpected changes, tragedies
and terrorist acts and remain strong, so that we still stand firm on
our own two feet,” Saakashvili said. [For background see the Eurasia
Insight archive]. “We are a country that has to reclaim the most
attractive part of its territory and which faces the strongest and
most aggressive – perhaps not the strongest but certainly the most
aggressive – forces in the world.”

Those “forces” were not named, but political observers believe
Saakashvili was referring to Russia, which has had a prickly
relationship with Georgia since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet
Union. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. In contrast
to Russia, Saakashvili characterized Georgia’s relations with
neighbors Armenia, Azerbaijan and Turkey as “idyllic.”

Saakashvili stated that he is ready to pay an official visit to
Moscow to “once again extend the hand of friendship to [Russian
President] Vladimir Putin, which . . . has been left hanging in the
air,” but added that Russia must be prepared to compromise on issues
that divide the two states.

Georgian Deputy Foreign Minister Merab Antadze announced on February
10 that talks in Tbilisi on a framework agreement with Russia have
not been successful, with Russian insistence that Georgia promise to
ban foreign military bases from its territory proving a key stumbling
block. Separate talks are continuing in Tbilisi about the removal of
two Russian military bases from outside the Georgian towns of
Akhalkalaki and Batumi. [For background see the Eurasia Insight

On the domestic front, electoral changes could soon be in the offing.
Georgia’s next parliament, due for election in 2008, could be a
smaller, two-chamber body with 150 members. Deputies would still be
elected according to a combination of single-mandate constituencies
and party lists, but “first past the post” seats would be decreased
from 75 to 50. Failing to make this change, the president said, would
“be humiliating” for voters who voted for the legislative overhaul in
a 2003 referendum. At the same time, Georgia’s cities could also see
their mayors elected, rather than appointed by the president.
Candidate cities for such a changeover were not named, but the
president stated that he expects the reform to happen within the
year. No timeline was set for Parliament’s makeover.

Saakashvili also announced his intention to overhaul the country’s
corruption-ridden, poorly financed education system, but provided no
details. The president emphasized that the judicial system, another
area where change has come slowly, should acquire “independent
courts,” but cautioned that “a dry place cannot exist in the middle
of a swamp.” Saakashvili placed heavy emphasis on the need for
political unity. He named the country’s European orientation, its
willingness to cooperate with international organizations and its
refusal to allow foreign bases on Georgian soil or tolerate foreign
interference in its internal affairs as among the tenets that all
political parties should accept. “No political party or person should
overstep this mark,” the president said, adding that those parties
that fail to support these principles should “automatically be
declared outside the law.”

David Gamkrelidze, leader of the opposition New Rights-Industrialists
coalition, termed the president’s remarks “a well-performed show.”
Gamkrelidze charged that Saakashvili had overlooked such problems as
price increases, unemployment, human rights violations, illegal
arrests and the August 2004 “military campaign fiasco” in South
Ossetia. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

The comments by Gamkrelidze, who also called on parliament to create
an independent commission to investigate Zhvania’s death, drew a
swift response from the president. “The only purpose of this
statement was to make people remember that it was Gamkrelidze who
made the most noise today,” Saakashvili said.