Saakashvili has been appointed today to a senior role at an advisory body on reforms chaired by President Zelenskiy. Misha will head an executive committee at the National Reform Council. Saakashvili’s appointment is a bold step on behalf of the Z team. No doubt, Ukraine needs radical, if not transformative reforms as soon as possible, and whether one likes Misha or not, he has a track record on reforms. However, his experience was on a much smaller scale in which he centralized and used draconian powers to execute those changes at any cost.
The religious dimension of his presidency shows the unknown angle of Saakashvili’s hybrid reformist rule yet. In his treatment of the Georgian Orthodox Church: Saakashvili’s government initiated the Law on Education (2005) a year after his presidential inauguration. As I showed elsewhere, the law had a laïcist inertia where the state (1) guaranteed independence of public schools from religious unions (Article 3); (2) established principles of neutrality and nondiscrimination and prohibited the use of public schools for religious indoctrination, proselytism, or forced assimilation (Article 13); (3) assured that religious symbolism would be used in high schools only for academic purposes and not for the purpose of propaganda or indoctrination (Article 18); and (4) moved the study of religion in high schools from the compulsory to a nonacademic noncompulsory subject (Article 13.2 of the Georgian Law on General Education).
With the amendments to this law, the state attempted to eliminate an ingrained connection between the education system and a religious institution(3) assured that religious symbolism would be used in high schools only for academic purposes and not for the purpose of propaganda or indoctrination (Article 18);and (4) moved the study of religion in high schools from the compulsory to a nonacademic noncompulsory subject (Article 13.2 of the Georgian Law on General Education). But this was Misha 1G before November 2007. Then he confronted the first oligarch (Badri Patarkatsishvili), and reformist Misha 1G turned into Misha 2G.
There are various sources on how things unfolded in November 2007. With regard to religion, the research of Transparency International summarizes the funding practices of religious organizations under Saakashvili. In a nutshell, there was mainly one church that got disproportional amounts of funding, real estate property, lands, forests, luxurious cars, and expensive presents. All from the government of Saakashvili. While other religious organizations either got minimal or no state funding at all, the Georgian Orthodox Church became a state within a state. Was a dramatic increase in the financing and property transfer of the Georgian Orthodox Church, which coincided with most major political crises acts of a reformer? Erm…Probably not. However, was the registration of Religious Organizations as Legal Entities of Public Law of 2011 under his government a reformist move? Indeed, so! These were just two episodes. There were several other dichotomies in his hybrid reformist rule:
1) between his liberal and inclusive political rhetoric (where one could be Georgian, no matter their ethnic origins) and ethnocentric symbolism (the selection of national flag, inauguration on the grave of David the Builder, and regular attendance of exclusively Orthodox Christian celebrations);
2) on the level of the legal framework (Law on Education) and practice of law. As reports by the Georgian Public Defender’s Office suggested, the highest officials of the GOC established practices of direct communication with the schools, training teachers, and preaching to students, which led to numerous forms of discrimination, indoctrination, and proselytism toward minority groups in different regions of Georgia. The critical perpetrators of discrimination were teachers who, at times, organized public prayers, brought Orthodox priests to schools, forced students to join in group prayer, and marginalized religious minorities. This was not a trend typical of a specific region or religious denomination but constituted a broader nationwide pattern (see Ghvinianidze, Barkaia 2014 in EMC’s reports for a more nuanced account). The Saakashvili team did practically nothing to stop this. Why? Because it was probably politically costly.
So Misha, before 2007 and by the end of his presidency 2013, were two completely different politicians, and that’s the tricky thing about his hybridity as a reformer. Misha 1G was a daring reformist statesman who changed Georgia for the better. Misha 2G was a power-obsessed politician hunting down real and imagined enemies and agents (e.g., two opposition leaders at the time Levan Berdzenishvili and Shalva Natelashvili were charged with ‘collaborating with the enemy’ in November 2007. Later, the government dropped charges). To the credit of Saakashvili’s political instincts, Misha 2G conceded defeat in 2012 elections, which was not a common thing in a region of various ruthless autocrats and megalomaniac sultans.
One has to consider a crucial structural distinction in this eclectic conversation, which puts Georgian reforms as modus operandi for Ukraine. The scale and scope of the oligarchic system in Georgia and Ukraine are basically incomparable. Georgia, under Saakashvili’s rule, had a couple of oligarchs. Ukraine has many. In Georgia, the one which Misha and co politically defeated was Badri Patarkatsishvili, a mastermind behind 2007 events. The other billionaire-turned oligarch is Bidzina Ivanishvili - who beat Misha and co in 2012 Parliamentary Elections. Thus, the question one shall bear in mind is not only what record Misha as a reformer has (I would argue his reformist track record counts three and not nine years as his staunch supporters advocate), but what record he has against oligarchs (so far - 50% success rate).
Will Misha have enough political force behind him in the fight against corruption? This leads me to the final issue regarding the Saakashvili appointment: how much time will Misha last as one among many in the Ukrainian ruling class? Will he confront yet another president who gave him yet another chance of a political resurrection? Eduard Shevardnadze and Petro Poroshenko did not think he will. But Misha did. Because he could, can he now? The most crucial step for the Z team and Ukrainian state is to activate and operationalize Misha 1G and fire him upon the first symptoms of Misha 2G to occur.
Ghvinianidze, L. Barkaia, M. (2014) “Religion in public schools An analysis of educational policy from the perspective of religious freedom,” Human Rights Education and Monitoring Center (EMC), Tbilisi, Georgia.
Metreveli. T. (2016) An undisclosed story of roses: church, state, and nation in contemporary Georgia, Nationalities Papers, 44:5, 694-712, DOI: 10.1080/00905992.2016.1200021, available at