Georgia’s common-sense woman president

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President Salome Zurabishvili.
Comrade Owei Lakemfa.

By Owei Lakemfa
The world this Monday marked the 2021 International Women’s Day with the traditional elite emphasis on women getting more leadership positions and not necessarily what they do in power or with power. A case which deserves attention is Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili who transformed from being the French Ambassador in Georgia to President of her host country.

She came from a big, rich country to manage the affairs of a small troubled state. Where France is a super power with nuclear weapons, a landmass of 643,801 square kilometres and a population of 67.06 million, her new country with a 69,700-square-kilometre territory and a tiny population of 3.716 million, cannot militarily defend itself. However, her Presidency tells a story of fate, the strength to tell the electorate the truth even where it conflicts with what they strongly believe and the common sense neither to rely on calculating allies nor act like the drunken monkey which believes it can take on the lion.

She was born French in 1952 by parents who in the 1920s migrated from Georgia. After graduating from the Institute of Political studies, Paris, she did a 1972 post graduate at Columbia University, School of International and Public Affairs, New York, United States and joined the French Foreign Ministry. After serving in countries like Italy, the United States and Chad and with French Missions in the United Nations, North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, NATO, and the European Union, she was, in 2003, appointed ambassador to Georgia.

Zurabishvili arrived Tbilisi when Georgia was boiling. It was one of the 15 countries that emerged from the 1991 disintegration of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, USSR. After independence, it was led by Zviad Gamsakhurdia who was overthrown in a 1992 violent coup. This led to the emergence as President, of the last Soviet Foreign Minister, Eduard Shevardnadze, who had the distinction of helping to reunite East and West Germany.

The year Zurabishvili assumed office as ambassador, witnessed the Rose Revolution which in November 2003, forced Shevardnadze out of power and in his place emerged Mikheil Saakashvili. This change in Georgia was also to change her from French to Georgian; from France Ambassador to Georgia, to Georgian Foreign Minister; diplomat to partisan politician. She explained how the transformation took place: “In fact, it happened without me. And it happened with two persons: one was President Saakashvili, who was a newly elected President of Georgia in 2004, and the second one was President Chirac … they met for the official visit of President Saakashvili in Paris, and they decided it would be a good idea for me to become the Foreign Minister. I was the last to know. I was three months French ambassador to Georgia when that was decided.”

The Georgian parliament met and conferred Georgian citizenship on her. She tried to carry out fundamental reforms in the Ministry, but met with stiff resistance, including by the country’s diplomats who could not understand or accept a supposed imposition of foreigner on them. She also built an alliance with some former Soviet states.

It turned out she could not work with President Saakashvili. So, the following year, she was sacked. But rather than return to France, she decided to stay in Georgia and fight for a reformed country. On March 11, 2006, she founded the political party “The Way of Georgia” and became a major opposition figure. She led massive protests against an eclectic Saakashvili and his attempt to turn Georgia into a police state.

A major event happened in 2008 which shot up the President in national and international politics, and eventually led to his fall. As was inevitable in such cases, there were issues of minorities who were part of the new state of Georgia when it emerged in 1991. The regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia had been made part of Georgia in 1921 when the country was fully integrated into the USSR. At that time, the most famous Georgian in history, Josef Stalin was part of the Soviet leadership of Vladmir Illiych Lenin.

When Georgia emerged from the ashes of the USSR, it claimed both regions, but some of the inhabitants resisted and insisted on being independent entities. These led to clashes and eventually quite bloody civil wars. Russia played a neutral game as all sides which were just a few months before, part of its larger territory, fought with its weapons.

Saakashvili who thought he had the full support of the West and that NATO would come to Georgia’s defence, decided to end the deadlock by pouring in troops to take over the two regions. In the process, the Georgian troops encountered Russian peace keepers on the ground and decided to capture them as Prisoners of War. The humiliated Russian troops were paraded before being eventually released.

The Russians threw away their peace keeping garments and took on the Georgian troops. Within days, they were at the gates of Tblisi and only quick peace talks and a ceasefire stopped the Russians from overrunning Georgia. Georgia dragged Russia to the International Court of Justice and many countries accused Russia of seizing the Georgian territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The issue drags on.

As leader of opposition, Zurabishvili led massive protests in Tbilisi in 2009 and then left the country to take a UN job. In 2016, she was elected to Parliament as an independent and two years later, ran for the presidency winning the rerun elections with 60 per-cent of the votes. One thing that stood her out, even at the risk of losing the polls, was her courage to tell her fellow citizens that far from being the victims of the 2008 war against Russia, they were actually the aggressors. She said the President should have been held responsible for launching “the military aggression”.

She clarified: “If you would like me to give you an assessment of what happened in 2008, let’s put the question this way – how can we describe the fact that the military operation was started when Georgia had absolutely no advantages, when it was warned by all of its partners not to pursue military steps, when it was warned that there would be no assistance [from partners]?”

This January, she was in Brussels to meet the NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg about the future of Georgia-EU-NATO relations. But all she noticed was foot dragging by NATO and the EU who do not seem in any hurry to bring in Georgia. She has enough common sense not to put her hopes on such allies and not to provoke Russia.

Although her term will be up in 2024, I do not see her serving it out. Her balancing act may not hold for long.

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