Is this Georgia’s answer to Hugo Chavez?
Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili is back. In a marathon Q&A session on Georgian television on Friday he said he himself was in great shape, but that the parliament speaker’s heart had recently stopped beating after suffering an allergic reaction to medication.
“As a result his heart stopped, he was in collapse,” Saakashvili said, tanned and relaxed. “But then they managed to save him.” He pulled his mobile phone from his pocket and read out text messages from his poorly colleague.
As for the prime minister, he’s working too hard. “I was calling him at 3 a.m. and he was in the office. I come to work at 11, sometimes 11.15. He’s in the office from 8 a.m. I told him he won’t last like that.”
Saakashvili’s relaxed banter dominated the 4-hour show, leaving the impression of a man firmly in control of his government, if not perhaps his train of thought.
The format was familiar. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has made a tradition of his annual televised phone-in with Russians, but their styles could hardly be more different. Think more Venezuela’s fast-talking Hugo Chavez.
“I’m not planning to die, nor to step down,” 41-year-old Saakashvili said.
There was a period recently when it looked as though Saakashvili had dug his own political grave, having attacked breakaway South Ossetia in August last year and, according to his critics and even some of his allies, effectively walked into war with neighbouring Russia.
He was on the back foot, defending his fateful decision of Aug. 7 and facing renewed criticism of his record on democracy and freedom of speech since coming to power on the back of the 2003 “Rose Revolution”.
His late-night briefings and eccentric behaviour — he chewed his tie on camera before a television interview — became legendary. His appetite and energy are famous.
But the opposition looks divided. An opposition rally called for Sunday, Jan 25 was cancelled as leaders bickered over their aims. Saakashvili has quipped that he would have toppled the Georgian government within five months had he been in opposition during such a devastating period. Observers who counted him out
would do well to think again.
“One day (Grigol) Mgaloblishvili won’t be prime minister, and one day Saakashvili won’t be president, but I’m telling you that as long as I’m in such good shape, no serious collapse threatens our government,” he said on Friday.
A mixture of pre-recorded and live studio questions were dominated by social issues, concerns about the economy and the plight of Georgian villagers displaced by the fighting.
But there was little scrutiny of Saakashvili’s decision to attack South Ossetia. Many Georgians appear to have accepted his argument that his hand was forced, that the separatists had stepped up shelling of Georgian villages and Russia was sending in armour to help them.
The question of whether the president was to blame rarely reaches Georgian homes. On Friday, Saakashvili steered the debate. Russia is in crisis, he said. “Its economy is standing on fragile glass legs.” Georgia, on the other hand, is keeping the global financial crisis at bay.