Stop taking notes, – my boss told me. She could tell her guest was scared, because, even here, on the seventh floor of America’s State Department, she had reason to fear that – through me – Misha was still listening.
Just before I was appointed to help turn out the lights at State during the end of the second term of the George W. Bush administration, I had been an advisor to Georgia’s United National Movement, led by then-president Mikheil “Misha” Saakashavili. When Russia invaded in August 2008, the most I could do from Washington DC was volunteer for overnights at State’s op center and pray that Russian tanks would not reach Tbilisi.
Now, so much has changed: my boss’ guest from 2008, Salome Zurabashvili, is now Georgia’s president – even if she is about to be impeached for visiting Europe. Misha sits in prison in Georgia, in what appears to be a life-threatening state of ill-health. And I am a convict in America, having pled guilty to failing to register as a foreign agent for a Ukrainian politician in 2018. So the worm turns.
Georgia is the first country where I “switched sides” and, in effect, became a political mercenary. The idea first struck me when I was seated across the table from another Georgian politician during my stint at Freedom House – the democracy and human rights watchdog – when something he said made me bring up the story of Giorgi Saakadze who, as every Georgian knows, paid a terrible cost for switching sides, even if it was to his homeland’s benefit.
As I relate in my action memoir Dangerous Company: The Misadventures of a “Foreign Agent,” I accepted a job offer a couple years after the war from Irakli Alasania and his Free Democrats party to help them prepare for the 2012 election. After several months, billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili folded the Free Democrats into his Georgian Dream coalition. For better or for worse, I was present at its creation.
Possessing insights, and friends, on both sides of what was then Georgia’s political divide was not easy for me. In fact, it was quite searing. Had I betrayed Misha-world? Yes, but with reason. Opposition politicians had come to fear the Saakashvili government that the West so adored, and the genesis of the war lay in part with Misha’s temperament.
But having switched sides, I came to question whether I was able to impact the direction and agenda of the Georgian Dream. At informal ‘politburo’ meetings, I was always outnumbered and sometimes accused of being Misha’s spy. As a consultant, one does bear some responsibility for the outcome, and if I could not assure myself this new government would truly fix the problems that brought its supporters to the polls, then I wasn’t really improving anything.
It turned out my instincts were correct. Just as the UNM’s reform agenda gave way to increasing authoritarianism, so too did the Georgian Dream’s monopolistic grasp on power. After years of intensive support, opposition parties still struggle, as those in government now don’t seem to appreciate the irony of the shoe being on the other foot.
My good friend from Iraq, Paul Bell – a rugged South African who has seen a thing or two over his years helping guide difficult transitions around the world, and who, unlike me, is sitting in Tbilisi today, sees today’s predicament in Georgia as three-fold. First, there is state capture, then there is distrust in institutions, and, finally, there is the yin-and-yang pull between Europe and Russia, exacerbated in no small part by the fact the latter has gone on to invade yet another independent country.
No longer paid for my advice, I’ll give it away for free. From the peanut gallery a continent and an ocean away, I’d suggest three things Georgia should and should not do if it wants to be seen as the kind of country that solves problems rather than contributing to them:
Don’t let Misha die in prison. In addition to being inhumane, this would be counterproductive on several levels. No, it would not amount to poetic justice; rather, it would be a depressing reminder of how little has been learned.
Don’t impeach the president. Any Georgian would be justified in telling me to take my own advice here. To impeach a president for visiting allies without parliament’s permission is absurd. Unless, of course, the Europeans aren’t allies and, if this is the case, the Georgian Dream should say so clearly and unequivocally.
Finally, relax the government’s grip on institutions. Encourage the growth of a healthy opposition, because having worthy competitors always ups your own game. Let Georgia live out the freedom that runs in its spirit and to be, as it was once called, “a beacon of liberty.”
Not being afraid to switch sides allows one to see their options more clearly and divine a greater purpose. It is in those moments that history happens.
Sam Patten’s Dangerous Company: The Misadventures of a “Foreign Agent” will be released on Amazon on October 3. Preorders are already shipping.
Blog by Sam Patten*
*Sam Patten has advised both Saakashvili’s UNM and Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream, among other parties.