If Russian diplomacy was one of the toasts of the United Nations this week as Security Council members agreed to Vladimir Putin’s proposal to avert strikes on Syria, Georgia’s president was the lone voice booming from the back of the room warning that the West had struck a deal with the devil.
President Vladimir Putin’s foreign policy, Mikheil Saakashvili told the General Assembly, is “fueled by intolerance” and “led by old KGB structures.” Putin himself would soon “vanish” and be remembered only “as a ghost from the old times…of corruption and oppression.”
The Russian delegation eventually stormed out. Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s ambassador the U.N., later called Saakashvili’s remarks “crazy fabrications” and “anti-Christian” and suggested the Georgian president get psychological help.
Georgia’s president has never been one to shy from a fight with his country’s old master. He has long warned of the dangers of Russian influence — a call that grew louder after the two countries fought a brief war in August 2008. Now, Saakashvili’s concern is to ensure Georgia stays out of Moscow’s grasp after he leaves office once his term ends next month.
It “really sounds like one composer just sat down and came up with this simple tune to divert people from other nice European music,” Saakashvili told BuzzFeed in an interview. He was referring to the Kremlin’s promotion of traditionalism and Orthodoxy, seen most drastically in its adoption of a law banning the promotion of so-called “gay propaganda” in June.
Saakashvili is concerned that a wave of anti-gay pressure inspired by Russia’s law may spread to Georgia: Moldova has already adopted a similar law, and Armenia came close to doing so last month. In May, 50 LGBT activists who attempted to hold a pride parade in the capital, Tbilisi, had to flee after thousands of Georgians – led by Orthodox priests – chased them through the streets, roughing up anyone they suspected of being gay. In the aftermath, anti-gay Georgians told media that they were angry that tolerance was being forced upon them by the West.
Saakashvili says the Kremlin’s embrace of anti-gay policies is Putin’s last desperate attempt to rein in his old empire. “He had nothing to offer to his former zone of influence. He has no soft power. He has no economic benefits to offer them,” Saakashvili says. “So what he’s telling them: ‘OK, Europe is promising you much more, it’s a better market, they might give you subsidies, they might give you lots of new opportunities and openings. But what you should know is Europe is all about gay rights. If you go to Europe, your family values will be undermined, your traditions will be destroyed. So we as Orthodox unity, we should stick together.’”
Surely, the spectacle of bearded, cassocked priests hurling smoke bombs and swearing at terrified gay activists is a sign that Georgia has a long way to go before coming to terms with what being a Western country entails? But Saakashvili doesn’t see it as much more than growing pains. “It’s all about way of life, it’s not about gay pride or whether your son will become gay because you are in Europe or Russia,” he said. “This is all about whether political opponents are held in prison, whether there is freedom of speech, free elections, meritocracy or nepotism, criminal authorities directing everything. It’s really fundamental issues that are at stake.”
Tall, burly, and impeccably dressed in a pinstripe suit with a Georgian flag lapel pin, Saakashvili is one of the most remarkable, conflicted, and enigmatic figures to emerge from Moscow’s orbit since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. In a region mostly ruled by iron-fisted bureaucrats with inertia and intolerance for dissent, his bravura has long stood out.
After sweeping to power aged just 35 in 2003, he turned his small Caucasus country from a backwater mired in corruption into a fully fledged Western ally with eyes firmly set on European Union and NATO membership.
Saakashvili is astoundingly dynamic. He gave his U.N. speech in English without notes, effortlessly rolling off swipes at the Kremlin until long after the Russians stormed out. He sat down with BuzzFeed after delivering breathless 15-minute remarks off the cuff at a reception for the Concordia Summit, a public-private partnership conference, at the New York Stock Exchange. His aides had to drag him away for our interview before he started taking questions from the audience; he cracked jokes and shook hands with nearly everyone he walked past.
The same unflappable fecklessness that saw him do so much, however, is what helped cost him his grip on power last October, when a coalition led by eccentric billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili swept Saakashvili’s United National Movement from government, asserting that the Georgian president had put his own political interests over his citizens’ wellbeing. President and prime minister openly despise each other. Saakashvili says he only so much as speaks to Ivanishvili once a month, and did not mention him by name throughout our twenty-minute conversation. Ivanishvili’s government has arrested several of Saakashvili closest allies on corruption charges that many Western observers worry are born of retributive justice: Georgia’s foreign minister told Foreign Policy they were being jailed because they were “criminals and guilty.” He laughs off corruption charges Ivanishvili has repeatedly hinted at bringing against him as “ridiculous” and insists that “Vladimir Putin is directing them” in exchange for better relations.
Saakashvili’s standoff with the Russians is personal. “The whole thing is getting under their skin,” he said. “If Georgia could make it from being one of the criminalized mafia regions, one of the desperate, destitute countries” to a “success in terms of uprooting corruption and criminality and basically building good infrastructure and just having better government, that created a major headache for Putin.”