Remarks of President Mikheil Saakashvili “From Popular Revolutions to Effective Reforms: The Georgian Experience” Brookings Institution

 I am delighted by the honor of speaking again at The Brookings Institution-which, under our good friend Strobe Talbott, has been such a major player in this town and also a very good friend and wiser to us- Georgia.


Allow me to thank first Martin Indyk for his generous introduction, and Fiona Hill for organizing and moderating today's discussion.


Engaging with the audience at Brookings is always a pleasure and an intellectual challenge, and I am looking forward to debating with you.


To set the backdrop of our discussion, I wanted to share a few thoughts about the extraordinary developments in North Africa and the Middle East, in the perspective of our own experience of revolutionary transformation in Georgia.


Ladies and gentlemen,

Great events in history almost always take us by surprise.

They arise unplanned and even their protagonists-let alone those of us who observe these events from far-rarely understand the scope of what is transpiring.

Such eruptions in the world politics require from us all this capacity of radical      "astonishment" that Aristotle was putting at the beginning of philosophy - an ability to abandon our usual schemes.

Nobody predicted or planned the revolutions that swept across Eastern and Central Europe in 1989, or, a bit further on the East, the colored revolutions that came 15 years later.

Now again, as the wave of popular uprisings unfold in the Middle East, politicians, analysts, and editorial writers all have been utterly surprised.

The Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions inspired among all of us a sense of awe and wonder and we still look at them without a clear understanding of what really happened and - most of all - of what will follow.

Revolutions have this amazing ability not only to transform the countries in which they take place, but also to force us all to rethink and reshape our vision of the world.

I did not come here, of course, with ready answers to the questions raised by these events. I do not have these answers and I imagine no one does.

I came here to explore these questions with you and to share some of the lessons I have drawn from Georgia's recent revolutionary transformation, hoping to feed the debate.


What in the experience of Georgia can be relevant to our understanding of the Arab spring?

What can be comparable between a mostly Muslim country of 80 million people and a predominantly Christian Republic of less than 5 million people?

And what can we glean from the successes and failures of colored revolutions that will allow us to craft a smarter, more effective approach to North Africa and the Middle East?


As most of you know, less than seven years ago, the revolution tool place  six years and three months ago, Georgia was a classical failed state.


An entrenched bureaucracy was killing any initiative in the society. There was crippling poverty, cynicism-inadequate infrastructure-an economy shackled by corruption.

As you know as well, a peaceful, popular revolution brought to power a young team of reformists that I happened to lead.

The situation in Georgia was so catastrophic that we had to build our state almost from scratch.

Yet, in many ways, this was rather blessing than a curse.

We knew that half-steps and overly cautious measures would be mere drops in the ocean-an ocean in which Georgia was sinking quickly.

We opted in consequence for a radical course that would transform our old nation but young independent state into a regional laboratory for reforms.

Who were "we" at that time?

Nothing more than a group of young men and women from student organizations, opposition parties, and civil society groups.

From one day to the next we were in charge of a fragile country-in a hostile geopolitical environment, with an increasingly revisionist Russian Federation at our door. And by the way inside Georgia as well.

Slogans, roses, flags, and policy papers-the tools we used as opposition and civil society leaders-would no longer suffice.

What could we do? Were we just going to replace the old generation with a new one to basically do the same things over and over again?

Or were we going to stay true to our dreams and to the dreams of all our people who bravely came into the streets to overthrow the previous regime?

We took the risk of launching a quick, radical, and comprehensive reform process.

What we lacked in experience, we made up for in spades in conviction and in a willingness to rigorously entertain new ideas.

We were not constrained by dogma or the deadweight of bureaucracies and powerful interest groups.

Of course we did not succeed in everything-we had significant shortcomings and we made some mistakes.

But, as the father of European cosmopolitism-Emmanuel Kant-wrote more than 200 years ago about the French Revolution: "You cannot be ready to be free until you are free."

What Kant meant is that there is no book to teach you in advance how to operate in freedom, that you can only learn this from your own successes and failures, from trying to govern or behave in a free environment.

He also meant that the pursuit of freedom brings uncertainty and risk-but that such a risk should be seized if you want to be an actor in your own life and in your nation's destiny.

Kant was certainly right. In Georgia, we found no handbook to guide us. And there will be no operating manual for our Arab friends, either.

But there were experiences, successes, and failures that we could study and that we did study.

Before becoming, in turn, a case study as well.

Today, regional policy or opinion makers-including Russians, as surprising as that might sound-come to Georgia in search of ideas on new ways to address old problems.

Most people who visit Georgia for the first time are surprised by the age of our ministers and senior government officials. We are, in fact, a nation run by 30-year-olds. Sometimes even young parliamentarians of 20-year-olds.

This is both the result and the main driver of what The Economist recently characterized as Georgia's "mental revolution."

Georgians have stopped thinking of their country as a post-Soviet state.

This mental revolution goes far beyond the leaders and parties that led the Rose Revolution-far beyond any leadership.

It is something that nobody owns and nobody can suppress, neither us nor anybody else.


I am speaking here about a change of paradigms, and again I want to underline about a mental revolution.


Our first comprehensive reform was the complete transformation of our law enforcement bodies. We started by firing our entire traffic police force. And, later almost all existing customs and tax officials.

Georgians lived for three months without traffic police-and amazingly, during this very period, when we had not traffic police and only 1/10 of police was left, crime rates went down by 70%. Why?

Not only because police was responsible for most of the crimes, but also because people felt that they were part of a common adventure, that they had a stake that they were living this very specific moment of our nation's history, when everything seems possible, when values become the basis of politics, when you have the feeling of inventing your own future.

Keeping this feeling alive is a difficult - but essential task - for the leader of a country in post-revolutionary transformation. Institutions are still not strong enough to resist to a wave of disappointment and cynicism in the public.

We knew that we needed - and still need - more than just a passive acceptation from the people, we needed and we still need them to be an active part of the transition process. And here is the key, in the smart leadership for technocratic- minded, very well educated there is no way that they can make a change, if the society is not participating.

Thanks to this radical changes in our police and in all our other bureaucratic structures-and thanks to this widespread feeling among people that they owned these transformations-we have made greater progress on Transparency International's Corruption Index since 2003 than any other state in the world.

We have built a highly favorable investment climate based on three key principles: minimal regulation, low taxes, and, as I just mentioned, strong anti-corruption enforcement.

Georgia is a small nation, remote from commercial centers and financial capitals, located in a shaky geopolitical environment-to put it mildly.

Our only chance of attracting investors was to become a regional haven.

We are now ranked as one of the easiest places in the world to do business, according to the World Bank: No other country has progressed since  these rates had been documented in the world as Georgia did it. Actually we are the easiest place for doing business in Central and Eastern Europe.

Before the invasion of 2008 and the world crisis, we had consistent double-digit growth. And a testament to the depth and soundness of our economic reforms is that, despite a contraction in 2009, our FDI-driven economy has proved resilient in the face of both an invasion and the global economic crisis. FDI-driven economy is a double nightmare for world crisis. We still had only 3.8 contraction in 2009 and we are back with 6.7 % growth last year and this year in January -February we had almost 9%.

There is still a lot to be done, obviously, and we are more committed than ever to pursuing our path of reforms, to keep building a democracy at gunpoint.

Constructing sustainable civic institutions, building an effective civic education system, and nurturing competent citizens is a challenge that takes more than 7 years.

As you know, two Georgian regions, about 20% of our territory, two fronts of our sea-coast -the most beautiful parts of Georgia is currently occupied by Russia. There has been extensive coverage of this fact since 2008. We have a country of less than 5 million people, 500 000 IDPs.

But it is worth noting, in the aftermath of the Soviet Union's collapse, there were once three regions in Georgia that were artificially separated from the rest of the nation.

One of them was peacefully liberated and, today, while South-Ossetia and Abkhazia are isolated from the world, Adjara, the third region, has become a centerpiece of the new Georgian economy, new Singapore, Dubai with democracy in the world.

Over the last several years, Adjara's capital, the seaside resort of Batumi has received $4 billion in private investment for a population of less than 200 000. They have hotels, I just name some of them - Campinski, Sheraton, more buildings than the city of Moscow.

I am sure that all regions of Georgia, including the currently occupied ones, will someday benefit from such torrid development.


People in our region might have believed for a long time that their only choice was between Yeltsin-style democratic chaos or Putin-style authoritarianism.

Georgia, Ladies and gentlemen, has shown that another path is possible. It has created another model for this region.

We have two trends: "On the one hand, that is describing Georgia as absolutely evil, remain friendly to existence of the great nation of Russia. Those people who believe in Russian propaganda are all around, dominating all the aspects of life. On the other hand, there is more and more active opposition media that describes Georgia as absolute ideal - as I used to think while looking the photo of Ronald Reagan. Absolute paradise, no criticism was accepted.

But we live in a country that is far from ideal but that tells the story that basically, these are two extremes, but Georgia is much bigger that A country, the country where 20% is occupied.

 The President of Kyrgyzstan Roza Otunbayeva was speaking at Atlanta Foundation that she is learning much from Georgia's reforms. We, basically have new professionals at our Ministries', professional ministerial tourist guides. That is to say, that the ministers of Ukraine, Moldova, Armenia, and Russia - not ministers but some people are coming for learning the reforms and we are trying our officials to teach them. They are saying that they are learning from Georgian experience. As well as, we are learning from great nation of Estonia, which is very interesting to learn from.  We had just sent our group of ministers to Singapore in order to see their fashion models. We are not going to outlaw the chewing gums. Certainly, our stability is based on popular concern. We are in the 21st century, but still interested in learning from their as well.

I do not pretend that this model is perfect-it is clearly not and we still have a long way to go before achieving our objectives.

Nor is our model necessarily transferable to other countries.

But I would like to believe that this kind of transformation reveals some universal truths.

And I will finish with them.

The recent revolutions have shown us that the universal strife for freedom of people across the globe is the true motor of History.

And that the only realistic policy on the long term is a policy that supports this strife, that promotes these values that America embodies better than any other country in the world.

I would like to end here, by referring to this great figure of American history, my very good friend Richard Holbrooke, perhaps the best friend I have ever had in this town.

Dick was as pragmatic as one can get and at the same time deeply idealistic. He was a true believer and a great diplomat.

The recent events validate his vision of the world, this vision that he shared so many times with me and that is now so much needed: a profound love for freedom and an absolute awareness of the risks it implies.

I think real politics if they are smart, they get it. If they clean the politics from all these idealist craps, the country is getting from idealism without understanding that through this demise America was empowered. Being real politican you must outsmart. No America's economic leverage or military power would be enough to have America strong, unless we understand that it is just 20% of America's power. The rest of 80 % is based on perceptions of idealism. Perception that is out there in this prettiest world town - Washington that shares the same ideas and values. I think that Richard Holbrooke understand that as nobody else.

I think that it is profound love for freedom and the national awareness for the risk, that implies ultimately everything.

Thank you so much.



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