May 24, 2004 | The Weekly Standard

Georgia on His Mind – George Soros’s Potemkin Revolution.

AT THE VOICE OF AMERICA during the Cold War some of the most troublesome employees were those who broadcast daily to the Soviet Union and its satellite states, in Russian, Azeri, Georgian, Ukrainian, Serbo-Croatian, and so on. These staffers were often émigrés–well-educated, sometimes understandably bitter men and women whose attitudes had been formed by a Communist political system in which errors in judgment or action brought disproportional punishment, while rewards could derive from deep, back-channel manipulation of appearances and an avoidance of responsibility. (“Deny everything, make counter-allegations” seemed the guideline in discussions with senior managers. “I didn't do it. He did!” the standard retort.)

Of the more than 50 VOA language services at that time, the most blustering and contentious, emanating a continuing, colorful, and aggressive hostility to management (accompanied by an ironic, bizarre willingness to grovel to tough, uncompromising leadership) was that which broadcast to the Soviet Republic of Georgia.

I was in Georgia last month, and it is still colorful and still difficult, a poor country, poorer even than Haiti, with a new president but the same culture–one that cultivates a swaggering, prideful masculinity in its leaders who, since the fall of the Soviet Union, have been lionized by the U.S. foreign policy establishment and the Western press but who just as quickly seem to morph from lion to demon.

A case in point is Eduard Shevardnadze, once the Soviet foreign minister, who was for more than a dozen years invariably described in the West as a stalwart friend of democracy and a liberal, honest fellow. Six months ago, he was ousted as the president of Georgia in a coup led by his young protégé, Mikhail Saakashvili, who is glorying in the same lavish treatment from the State Department and the media. They now paint him as honest, liberal, and democratic, while Shevardnadze is Bronx-cheered as corrupt and murderous, a brute who was forced from office by what Saakashvili (with an unerring eye for the sixties-sentimentality of the Western media) dubs “The Rose Revolution.”

Late last fall, Saakashvili led thousands of “spontaneous” demonstrators, bused in from around Tbilisi, brandishing flowers as they invaded the president's palace. This was during the freezing Georgian winter when any roses not black and brittle had to be flown or trucked in, courtesy of the same bankroll that funded the fleet of rented buses for demonstrators: that of George Soros, the Hungarian-born billionaire and egotist. A former member of the Georgian Parliament said that in the three months before the “Rose Revolution,” “from August through October, Soros spent $42 million ramping-up for the overthrow of Shevardnadze.”

Soros has publicly committed himself to funding the “democratic” presidency of Mikhail Saakashvili, just as he has publicly committed himself and his money to the destruction of the presidency of George W. Bush, whom he has compared to Yasser Arafat and Hitler. Soros and the United Nations are paying the wages of all of Saakashvili's top government officials–ministers, deputies, the road police, and others–on the grounds that this will keep them from stealing. As if bribery and corruption were simply a problem of immediate financial need, not greed.

Shevardnadze's attempt to rig the November 2003 parliamentary elections was a handy catalyst for the coup, but it was already in the works. The previous summer Soros had flown Saakashvili and his followers to a seminar he sponsored in Belgrade on how to stage your own “Velvet Revolution.” And perhaps Soros would deserve some credit–except for the undeniable fact that, ever since his anointing in a crooked election in January, Saakashvili has sounded more like a raging nationalist and authoritarian thug than a democrat strewing rose petals.

“It is democracy in a china shop,” the New York Times reported on March 28. “A growing number of critics, though, say that the new president is exploiting his popularity to cut legal corners, violate human rights and silence opposition views.” “Saakashvili's all-powerful party is getting into the habit of ignoring the law, or changing it, when it does not suit their purpose,” reported Agence France-Presse.

Saakashvili, now 36, was an only child with an absent father. He was raised by a divorced, domineering, and ambitious mother, and his tough-talking Dutch-born wife, Sandra Roelof, appears to follow in that tradition. (Saakashvili married her in lower Manhattan in 1993 while he was attending Columbia for a year on a U.S. taxpayer-funded scholarship.) In February, Roelof gave an interview to a Dutch magazine for a breathless Vanity Fair-like profile headlined “Sandra Roelof's Fairy Tale: From a Zeeuws Girl to First Lady of Georgia.” Roelof seems to have taken to Georgian politics:

Georgia has produced strong leaders. Stalin, Beria, Gamsakhurdia. Even Shevardnadze, before he got addicted to power. They looked beyond Georgia. My husband does the same; he fits in the tradition. This country needs a strong hand. It is incredibly important that respect for authority returns. That laws are less frequently broken, that people simply pay their bills for once. There is hardly a sense of responsibility here. . . . I think my husband is the right person to frighten people. That is not to say it is immediately fascism or something. Should he develop extremist traits he will be alerted to that. All eyes are looking at us now.

What a roll call! Stalin's birthplace in Gori, Georgia, close to the Saakashvilis' home in Tbilisi, is still maintained as a public museum, though the crimes of the man against his own people, particularly native Georgians, are beyond repeating, and Sandra Roelof's citation appears demented. One would think Stalin's house would have been burned down long ago, the ashes scattered to the cold Caucasus winds–and I'm not speaking just metaphorically. If Saakashvili wants to really make some democratic bones, he might drive to Gori and light the ceremonial match.

The second man to whom Sandra Roelof compares her husband is Lavrenty Beria, Stalin's secret police czar and the Georgian-born father of the Soviet Gulag. Beria, a notorious pedophile, was responsible for the deaths of millions of Soviet citizens. He was executed on Khrushchev's order after Stalin's death in 1953.

Next on Roelof's list is Zviad Gamsakhurdia, the first elected president of Georgia, a rabid nationalist completely intolerant of any opposition. He was deposed in a coup in the early '90s and later shot himself in the head (or was murdered). Two weeks ago Saakashvili announced that 2004 would be “the year of Gamsakhurdia,” whatever that is intended to mean.

The last of Roelof's major players is Shevardnadze, the mentoring father figure Saakashvili never had, who brought him into parliament, appointed him to his cabinet, and guided him along until Saakashvili turned and stabbed him. Despite the relentless encomiums from the last three U.S. administrations, Shevardnadze was brutal and corrupt. (Saakashvili, who lives around the corner from Shevardnadze in Tbilisi, has never had him arrested.)

The British Helsinki Human Rights Group recently compared Saakashvili's regime to that of Shevardnadze, noting that “Saakashvili has unleashed a wave of arrests against real and imagined opponents, and, like Shevardnadze when he first came to power, his new regime has targeted any media outlet which steps out of line.” The report said, “Since Saakashvili won the grotesque presidential election in January 2004, when he was awarded an even higher percentage of the vote than Shevardnadze granted himself in 1992, waves of arrests and media closures have hit Georgia.”

The report quotes Saakashvili engaging in neo-Stalinist bluster. “I want to tell the criminal bosses and their defenders that they will get it in the teeth,” adding that “anyone who disturbs the sleep of an ordinary citizen will be ruthlessly punished and exterminated.” They added what almost goes without saying: “This is hardly the language of a civil society, yet none of the Soros-funded Open Society or anti-death penalty NGOs have piped up to express concern.”

It was no surprise to the British Helsinki Human Rights Group when Saakashvili, upon taking office, replaced the Georgian national flag with the flag of his own National Movement party. As a result of Saakashvili's electioneering and his dominance of the Georgian media, particularly the powerful Soros-funded TV station Rustavi 2, which acts as Saakashvili's own bichon frisé, his party swept the recent legislative elections by a wide margin. This has left Georgia–and George Soros–with a one-leader, one-party government, a far cry from a noble experiment in democracy.

Richard W. Carlson is a former director of the Voice of America and former president and CEO of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. He is the vice chairman of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a counterterrorism think tank in Washington.