The Economist‘s report on the end of Saakashvili’s tenure is typical in its inability to fully acknowledge the flaws of his government:
He [Ivanishvili] came to office with a pledge to undo the reformist machine run by Mr Saakashvili that, in the vigour and stubbornness of its later years, began to tilt towards autocracy [bold mine-DL].
This description understates things quite a bit. Saakashvili’s rule didn’t begin to “tilt” towards authoritarianism in its later years, but was defined by these traits virtually from the beginning. Part of what made Saakashvili so appealing to many of his Western admirers–his pursuit of modernizing reforms–was bound up with a heavy-handed and authoritarian style that led to the abuses that ultimately discredited him. The article doesn’t mention the abuses of power under Saakashvili that paved the way for the massive repudiation of his party in last year’s parliamentary vote. Georgia’s transformation into a “functioning” democracy happened in spite of what Saakashvili and his then-ruling party wanted and expected. As Lincoln Mitchell explained earlier this year:
Before Ivanishvili became a political force, the election, which Saakashvili’s representatives in the West claimed was about the fate of Georgian democracy, was actually positioned to be largely about regime consolidation. A vote that delivered a resounding victory for the United National Movement and a seal of approval from the West in an increasingly authoritarian political environment with low- to mid-level election fraud would have solidified Georgia as a regime differing from most of its post-Soviet neighbors in appearance and degree, but not kind—an Azerbaijan with better English and better food.
Thomas de Waal’s summary of what took place under Saakashvili’s rule is worth citing again:
But the Americans seemed to be unbothered by the fact that Saakashvili’s style of leadership was much more authoritarian than his liberal rhetoric. His government’s modernization efforts were imposed top-down, with increasing brutality and disregard for large parts of the population. Saakashvili’s interior minister, Vano Merabishvili, served as the president’s enforcer-in-chief. Merabishvili rightly earned praise for a crackdown on Georgia’s powerful organized-crime lords. But the machine he built turned Georgia into a police state. Heavy surveillance became routine. The law enforcement agencies’ net was cast so wide that Georgia’s prison population per capita became the largest in Europe — and those statistics concealed thousands of people living in limbo due to a corrupt plea bargaining system that threatened to result in their imprisonment at any moment, even absent a trial. Inside the country’s prisons, the government practiced institutionalized torture, including the rape of inmates by prison guards.
This is the “vigour and stubbornness” the Economist article was referring to, which I’m reasonably sure is not how they would describe similar behavior if it had happened under a different government. It is the part of Saakashvili’s legacy that many in the West still can’t or won’t recognize.