Thursday, January 21, 2010

Grudge Match: Misha vs. Moscow

Is he the Georgian Yeltsin or Havel? In truth, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili is probably somewhere in the middle. Having launched to national prominence during the Rose Revolution, Saakashvili has not demonstrated Havel’s unwavering commitment to human rights, nor has he completely abandoned the ideals of democracy as was the case with Yeltsin and his hand-picked successor, Vladimir Putin. Indeed, Saakashvili and Putin are most definitely not birds of a feather. Saakashvili’s tense relationship with the Russian authoritarian is the subject of John Philp’s Misha vs. Moscow (trailer here), which airs this coming Monday on the Documentary Channel.

Unquestionably, M vs. M’s greatest virtue is its impressive access to the Georgian president. Through a number of interviews and considerable candid footage of Saakashvili, viewers get a good sense of the man. The portrait that emerges very definitely suggests a western-style politician, which makes sense considering he graduated from Columbia Law School and briefly worked for an American law firm.

Philp’s treatment of Saakashvili’s rise to power and his early presidential years also seems even-handed and informative. He did indeed break from then President Eduard Shevardnadze’s thoroughly corrupt party, becoming a reformer at an opportune time. As President, he took bold steps to fight corruption, literally firing the country’s entire police force. Perhaps his most significant victory came in the Georgian Autonomous Republic of Adjara, where Saakashvili peacefully finessed the Russian backed strongman out of office.

Most man-on-the-street interviews in M vs. M are also relatively positive, giving him credit for making Georgia a much more livable environment. Yet, it is always clear Philp is not impressed. Granted, even Saakashvili appears to consider his record decidedly mixed, expressing regret for moving against the opposition broadcasting network (and rightly so).

Still, most of Philp’s scorn is reserved for Saakashvili’s foreign policy, which his talking heads universally criticize as provocative. Evidently, because Georgia borders Russia, it should be more deferential to Russian foreign policy, recognizing their place within what Putin considers Russia’s rightful sphere of influence. Therefore, pursuing fast-track NATO membership is a rash and de-stabilizing course of action. Of course, by the same token, Philp ought to agree Nicaragua should subordinate its foreign policy to that of America (after all, it is in our sphere of influence, right?).

While M vs. M’s expert analysis clearly comes from a stacked deck, it offers an opportunity to hear Saakashvili speak for himself. This is not without value, particularly considering the jury is still out on how his presidency will ultimately be characterized. He has shown flashes of brilliance as well as major Yeltsinesque disappointments, but based on the antipathy he has inspired from the neo-Soviet Putin, one suspects history will be more generous than Philp. M vs. M has its world television premiere this coming Monday (1/25) at 8:00 PM (E.S.T.) on the Documentary Channel.