When Georgian President and former GW student Mikhail Saakashvili received an award from University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg Sunday night, he recalled the last time the two had met.
“The last time I saw you in 1995, you gave me a T-shirt,” said Saakashvilli upon receiving the President’s Medal in front of 450 people in the Marvin Center Continental Ballroom.
Saakashvili, who attended the GW Law School during the 1995-1996 school year, continued to joke as he received the award for his efforts to foster democracy in Georgia, which borders Turkey and Russia.
“When I saw Secretary of State (Colin) Powell at my inauguration, I said, ‘you had better grades at GW than I did,'” recalled Saakashvili, referring to another famous GW alumnus. “Then I said, ‘You are secretary of state of a great nation, and I am president of a small nation. But remember – I’m still president.'”
Saakashvili came to power after leading November’s “Rose Revolution,” a successful campaign to force former Georgian President Edward Shevardnadze to resign. He cradled a bouquet of roses in his lap as he sat on stage before his speech.
Saakashvili emphasized that the lessons he learned at GW about democracy will always be important to him. He also said that globalization can help expose the world to new ideas.
“It gave me exposure to the great values and ideas that guide me today,” he said of his time in Foggy Bottom. “Those two semesters will stay as one of the most important moments in my life.”
In addition to attending school in the United States, Saakashvili worked at a law firm before being asked to return to Georgia and enter the political arena. Because he has close ties to the West, many predict he will help forge an even stronger relationship between his country and the United States.
“He’s worked closely with the U.S. government and non-governmental organizations that work on democracy development abroad,” said Georgetown University professor Charles King in a telephone interview Friday. “He’s also traveled to the U.S. a lot over the last two or three years.”
Levan Mikeladzealso, Georgian Ambassador to the U.S., Canada and Mexico, expressed similar sentiments, explaining that Georgians’ values are similar to Western ideals.
“Georgians are some of the most pro-American people,” he said in an interview following Saakashvili’s 20-minute speech. “Hopefully our relations with the U.S. will grow more intense and closer.”
During Saakashvili’s meeting with President Bush Wednesday, the Georgian leader plans to discuss the United States’ role in helping expand reform, security, the economy and humanitarian projects in Georgia, Mikeladzealso said.
With the specter of European Union and NATO membership for Georgia, Saakashvili will face the challenge of maintaining close ties to Russia, which traditionally views Western organizations as a threat.
“He’s trying to balance the relationship between Russia, the Europe, and the U.S.,” said GW professor James Goldgeier. “Georgia is very close to Russia, but it wants ties to the West.”
Saakashvili, 36, is now Europe’s youngest head of state, but he has many years of political experience under his belt. Goldgeier said his youth should be seen as a positive.
“Part of the advantage of being young is that he is not tied to the pre-independence regime,” Goldgeier said. “This is a guy for whom his professional life has been spent since Georgia was independent.”
Saakashvili said that because so many participants in Georgian politics are young, they will not have had as much exposure to government corruption.
“I’m only 36 and I’m a veteran of Georgian politics,” Saakashvili said. “Others are in their 20s. Their absence of experience is an asset because it is an absence of another type of experience.”
Georgia gained its independence in 1991 with the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Every president of Georgia has been ousted in a coup since the country became independent.
Despite the new hopes many seem to have for Saakashvili, he is expected to face many challenges during his presidency.
“Domestically, the big challenge is setting Georgia on a course that is more democratic and more stable than it has been,” Goldgeier said. “The trend with the previous regime was away from democracy. There’s a lot of hope now with the transfer of power that we will see a more democratic regime emerge.”
For most of the 1990s, Shevardnadze, the last Soviet foreign minister, governed the country with an iron fist. Originally, Shevardnadze was seen as a savior for the country and as a result got more than $1 billion in assistance from the U.S. since the 1990s. But gradually, Georgia’s government became more undemocratic.
“People won rigged elections, there was corruption in the government, and the economy went down the tubes,” King said. “By 2001, the view in Washington began to change and there was a great deal of assistance to opposition groups.”
Saakashvili left Shevardnadze’s party and created an opposition group, the United National Movement. In fall of 2003, parliamentary elections were held, which President Shevardnadze manipulated in favor of his party.
“The opposition in Georgia used this as a rallying point,” King said. “Saakashvili, with the assistance of opposition groups, began mass protests of the rigged elections.”
More than 100,000 people supported Saakashvili and opposition groups following the rigged elections, and Shevardnadze resigned as president.
Elections were held for a new president in January, and Saakashvili won with 96 percent of the votes. He was sworn Jan. 25 in Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, as helicopters dropped red rose petals, the symbol of the bloodless Rose Revolution.
“If people come together, nothing can stop them,” Saakashvili said Sunday night. “If you are willing to stand up, you have a chance.”