Saturday 24 February 2018

How 'great white hope' lost the plot

Georgia's patience with its one-time hero finally ran out when he faked an invasion and his own death, says Nicky Larkin

ON A Saturday night, the bars of Tbilisi are packed with US Marines. A strategic outpost in a friendly country, it's a handy location for the Yanks to keep an eye on those pesky Persians and scary Soviets next door.

The marines drink diet Cokes, smoke endless Marlboros, and cavort with the local girls, until someone in charge rounds them all up and brings them back to base.

They stand out a mile, with arms the size of tree trunks and generic flat-top haircuts.

I moved to Tbilisi in 2010, about 18 months after the Russia-Georgia war. At this point the locals were growing tired of their young president, Mikheil Saakashvili. They felt he was to blame for this unnecessary war with their scary neighbours.

I felt this discontent most in Tserovani refugee camp, where thousands of displaced Georgians were living in prefabricated huts, in the most primitive of conditions. They were all from the same town, Gori; birthplace of Stalin. The Russians had strategically targeted Gori in their retaliation -- it was one of Georgia's most affluent and middle-class towns.

So the Beamers and Mercs composed a strange juxtaposition parked outside the tiny structures their owners now called home. While they wouldn't hear a bad word said against Stalin, their local-boy-done-good, the displaced Gorians didn't extend the same respect for their current leader. Many of the refugees wouldn't accept the measly government stipend, in protest against a president they felt cost them their homes and destroyed their lives with an unnecessary and egocentric attempt at war.

But this same president had once been their great white hope; astonishingly young when he seized control in 2004 after leading the peaceful Rose Revolution of 2003. American educated, hugely pro-Western and with a Dutch wife, one of Mikheil's first dramatic acts as president was to fire the entire police force, replacing them with academy recruits as a means to stamp out the endemic corruption.

Mikheil made friends in the White House, named a street after George Bush, bought a rake of EU flags, and gave John McCain the Freedom of Tbilisi. The Russians weren't impressed.

But then Mikheil went starting schoolyard scraps with the big boys. Thinking his friends in Washington would have his back, he started his war with Russia in 2008. When you look at tiny little Georgia on the map beside Russia, you realise it's as ludicrous as Michael D Higgins calling in the FCA and declaring war on America.

Naturally, the Americans politely declined Mikheil's invite to dance with the Ruskis. The Ruskis promptly hit Georgia back hard, singling out Gori, and the result was refugee camps full of Beamers.

But the madness of Mikheil didn't stop there. Obviously not content with the news that Andy Garcia was to play him in the Hollywood film about his scrap with the Ruskis, Saakashvili pulled his most outrageous stroke yet.

Using stock footage from his recent war, in March 2010 he commissioned a fake news report detailing a new Russian invasion, including his own assassination. It was broadcast on the national nine o'clock news on a Saturday night. First we stared in shock at the TV screens as they showed tanks with Russian flags rolling along the Georgian roads, apparently only miles from entering Tbilisi. Then the bars quickly emptied as ex-pats ran for their passports and frantically rung embassies. The Marines began to look excited.

Four elderly Georgians had stress-induced heart attacks. There was no disclaimer, nothing in the television broadcast to indicate this was a hoax.

The next day when asked his motives by a furious public, mental Mikheil said he did it to show people what could potentially happen. The public lost their patience with their one-time hero.

This month things have come full circle for Mikheil Saakashvili. Less than a decade after his Rose Revolution, he's been democratically ousted by the people who once regarded him as their saviour. Replaced by a billionaire tycoon with a French passport, the Georgians have come to realise that at least Stalin could pick a fight.

Sunday Independent

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