Mikheil Saakashvili, President of the Republic of Georgia

Taking Power Peacefully: Reflections on the Post-Communist Revolutions of 2000-2004

September 14, 2005 04:00 PM


by President Mikheil Saakashvili

Mikheil Saakashvili: Well, I want to greet you all. I am so kind of confused
because every year coming to New York it happens somehow that I come to
Columbia and every year I become older and the audience stays young. So my
envy kind of grows and of course, I mean, it's an exciting place to be. It's also a
very tough place to be and I mean frankly when I was first parachuted in the
campus here and when I had to discover that I was so totally on my own, you
know, unlike European universities they don't provide with bed sheets at the
university residence. Nobody really goes there to take care of you and you are
always on your own. It's a very different experience. But the difference is at the
(inaudible) European universities you start nicely but you stay there. It's very
hard to move forward.

While here in the United States and in New York I mean if you start to advance
you can achieve things. And that's the main thing you learn here how to
compete. And this was of course at the time when I came in nobody knew where
Georgia was or, I mean, everybody knew what Georgia was but nobody
suspected that I was--what my Georgia was. And I remember I lived for the first
month in some basement in Astoria and I would take subway for one hour or so
from there every day to Columbia campus and there was a grocery store where I
used to go. And In front of the grocery store there was a homeless that was
reading papers all the time when one day the shop owner asked, "Where are you

And I said, "Georgia." "What Georgia? Where is that, what's that all about?"
And this homeless suddenly turned his head and he said, "This is former Soviet
Union (inaudible)." So that's when the knowledge about my country started to
penetrate American minds and, you know, information. Now, the times have
changed and indeed I was talking today to dozens of world leaders about
democracy and I noticed, which is true, that Georgia was--I mean, there were lots
of revolutions that of course everything started with Dutch Revolution and of
course the most famous and the most notorious as well were the French
Revolution and the Bolshevik Revolutions. Now, we also had revolution. Now,
the main difference from French Revolution from Bolshevik Revolution from
Dutch and all the other revolutions and also the American Revolution of course
was that this was first ever-televised revolution in the world history, the one that
happened in Georgia.

We were on the last day of the revolution for five hours on CNN without
commercial break, which certainly makes the whole thing global. I mean, even
revolution has become global. And to my surprise after that I went to Davos,
which is a quiet Swiss resort where they made world economic forums, people
did recognize me and people from, you know, Middle Eastern countries,
Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, came to me and said, you know, "We were so excited, we
were so interested to see that." It was quite a surprise for me that somebody
would take such an interest. Then I heard by some accident that Robert Mugabi
used to mention us quite often, you know, of course in a very negative context.
And then even Fidel Castro of Cuba somehow (inaudible) to mention us also in
negative context as some kind of U.S. plot, but which means that the appeal is

Just a few weeks ago I heard the Ethiopian Prime Minister saying that some
people in Ethiopia want to organize Rose Revolution modeled after Georgia and I
was quite surprised because nobody contacted us from there about franchise or
any kind of know-how. But the point is that of course the message spreads and
we didn't invent anything. I mean, when the democratic process is stolen away
from the people and together with the democratic process they still (inaudible)
wealth of the country there are still chances to develop. There are still chances
to go and advance in society, people do react and we learned how to react from
Polish (inaudible) and from first wave of velvet revolutions in Europe. Georgia
started second wave. However, we also took some knowledge from Serbia.

Ukrainians immediately after Georgian Revolution, unfortunate President
(inaudible) couldn't make it today, they learned a lot from us and they never
concealed it. They were saying that they learned from us. After things changed
in Georgia and Ukraine our foreign ministers went jointly to Kyrgyzstan to
mitigate processes there where we also have these kinds of protests. So I think
the universal appeal of freedom is spreading. And I think no matter how cynical
one might get about U.S. foreign policy and emphasis on democracy, but the
reality is that the United States was the first country to support us morally during
the revolution. They were the first country when we were really desperate
together with President Yushchenko and nobody really wanted to react to events
in Ukraine. Europe was (inaudible) keeping silent except (inaudible) with some
very few exceptions like that of Poland or Lithuania.

But the rest of Europe was pretty silent. And the United States was the first one
to say that Ukrainian people need to be supported. And this is something which
is very, very important, because after all the important thing was that really fight
for freedom brings out the best that people have in themselves. In Georgia the
only casualty of the revolution was one being the window broke in the
Parliament. I don't know whether it was broken during the revolution. I noticed it
(inaudible) after the revolution but nothing else happened. People occupied all
main government buildings for several days and they didn't even steal a piece of
paper. Nothing has been taken. I mean, buildings have been deserted quite
unexpectedly. Everything was there left but nothing has been taken. Six months
after the Georgia revolution we had takeover and revolution in another region of
Georgia which was ruled by local strongmen, which was notoriously very rich,
very corrupt, had lots of wealth.

And before I managed to arrive there tens of thousands of people entered his
house. And when I came in there were still very expensive things laying on his
table. Nobody touched it because people thought that that was not possible.
And this is very different from scenes of looting we saw in some countries
immediately after upheavals because they were connected with violence. In our
case there was no violence and people felt organized and people felt that it was
the time to be honest and to come to get together and to be strong. And I think
what's really happening in countries like Georgia is a huge culture revolution
that's happening. I mean, the cultural change, the extent of culture change is
much more important than just figures in terms of budget, tax collection, just, you
know, the number of roads we are building or the number of hospitals or schools.

This is all important, but I think the cultural change is by far the most important
thing taking place. For instance, people used to hate police in Georgia. It was
not only corrupt but it was just hated by the population because they thought that
everything that came from a state was something that was totally hostile towards
the population. Now, the police that had five percent approval rating with all the
reforms we had made there has more than 90 percent. Basically it's loved by the
population. The worst thing we had in Georgia were university entry exams. I
mean, the summer from my early childhoods in Soviet times was the worst
experience you could get. I mean, people were looking for somebody to pay
bribe for. I mean, everybody who had university entry-level member of family
was quite educated and the whole system was extremely corrupt. Universities
were corrupt; entry exams were corrupt.

This year we organized exams, nobody complained about them for the first time
since, I mean, since my childhood at least and we had only 1.2 percentage of
appeals on the results. That means that people started to believe in how the
system functions. Ethnicity, you know that Soviet (inaudible), despite a
proclaimed slogan of equality between ethnic groups, exploited ethnicity in very,
very bad way. I mean, Slobodan Milosevic is typical communist basically
transported (inaudible) because that's how communists functioned all over the
world. In Georgia it was a Soviet Republic and local privileges were based on
ethnic origin of local (inaudible).

In Russia if you were Jewish it was number five and article five of the Russian
passport and if you were Jewish you had no chance to enter government service.
If you were Georgian in the last years, you had no chance to enter high-level
(inaudible) government. But locally in Georgia or in Ukraine or in Uzbekistan if
you are Uzbek, Ukrainian or Georgian your privileges were based on that fact.
We managed to destroy this. We managed to show the people that equality of
ethnic groups and affirmative action when it's absolutely necessary--and I am not
a great believer in affirmative action but in our case for some period it is really
necessary. It's something that can change a situation and we are doing it.
Miraculously, not only people are accepting it, which was deemed inconceivable
just a few years ago, but it's also a major driving force for the society.

And what we notice also is that a couple of years ago nobody in my country knew
the words of the national anthem, nobody including the president himself. I was
a member of the government. I didn't the words of our national anthem. Now,
every kid in Georgia knows the words and can sing it. Every person in Georgia
knows the words and loves it. Everybody has flag at home. Nobody ever liked
Georgian flag. I mean, it's a beautiful one. I mean, we changed it but the
previous one was despised by the people not because the colors were bad,
simply people didn't feel any affiliation with it. Society started to take ownership
of their own countries. This is happening in Georgia. This is happening in
Ukraine. Hopefully this will happen everywhere else where a democratic process
takes place. And of course, you know, nobody can stay popular eternally.

I mean, we are still quite popular as a government but it's not the most important
thing for me. I mean, any politician who would say popularity is not important for
him would lie to you. But it's not the most important. The most important in our
case is to leave behind us popular institutions, confidence of the people in the
institutions, because that's what we are creating. Once that's created then every
other politician can only think about their personal successes but now our
success is the institutional change of my country and our society. And this is the
most important thing we are trying to achieve. And I think in that respect we are
succeeding. Also I think, you know, people have been asking, "Where is the next
nonviolent protest going to take place? How do you see chances for other
places? Name the place."

Because about Ukraine, I was all the time saying that Ukraine was going to
change and I was right. So they thought that I had some special preliminary
knowledge about other geographic places and people keep asking me, "Will it
happen in Central Asia? Will it happen in Russia? Will it happen in Africa?"
Well, I don't know. One thing I know is that the appeal of freedom is so universal,
so universal. The appeal of television today in every corner of the world is so
overwhelming that there is no alternative. You know, after all, democratic
process is very similar. Every matter that applies in election campaigns here the
U.S. apply in Georgia. There is no cultural difference. I mean, you go out, you
shake hands, you smile at people and look into their eyes and you win elections.
I mean, with good platform and with moral integrity, of course.

And it works everywhere because that's the universal appeal of democracy. You
might speak different languages. You might have different life experiences, you
might have different religions but democracy has the same language everywhere
in the world. Whoever tries to tell you that it's not true just doesn't know it
because we know it and I can tell you that's how it is. It's the same in Georgia, in
China, in Australia, in every part of Africa and Latin America and everywhere
else. And I think this generation of students, when they reach my age I am sure
we will live in a world where every single country is democratic, I am 100 percent
sure. Because of everything, because of the Internet, because of globalization,
because of travel and because people became smarter.

Why do you think that wealth is growing so much? Because things get
redistributed, I mean, middle class grows all over the world. You find today five
times more millionaires in the world than just ten years ago. Why? Because it's
no longer possible to grab everything for yourself and no society, even the most
undemocratic ones (inaudible) anymore and the same thing is to access to
information, the same thing is access to education, the same thing makes gender
equality and it will be there I am sure no matter what, no matter what's the culture
and religious tradition, because that's the democratic demand and democracy will
prevail over any other religious, cultural or other kind of local traditions. So that's
the trend in the world.

Now, we still need to get there. And there are many problems. The rising price
of oil is a big problem because if you notice, I mean, the most democratic
countries are usually those that don't have oil. So they become more vulnerable.
And those who have oil in some cases are autocratic and they tend to become
more dictatorial because they feel arrogant, because they feel that that's the way
it should be. And I think this is one of the obstacles. There are many others.
But I think in the end nothing is going to stop the process. So I am open to your
suggestions and to your questions, please. Thank you.

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