Thursday, January 19, 2006

No sleep till Tbilisi

How did I come to be living in Georgia, working for the presidential administration?

I came in 2001 on a bare-bones fellowship which consisted of little more than the suggestion of going to Georgia, and cost me most of my life savings. The professor of international law who ran the fellowship had had a drink with Mikheil Saakashvili (then Georgia's Minister of Justice) six months before, and he casually agreed to take an unpaid intern for the summer.

So I showed up at the MoJ, completely unable to speak Georgian and armed with only the name "Saakashvili". The guards didn't know what to do with me. On about the third day of showing up and asking to see the minister, someone who spoke English finally came down and took me around to various offices, asking if anyone would take an intern with no facility in the language; the response was usually something like "Get the fuck out of here." Finally, we knocked on one door, and the office head excitedly agreed to take me on: he was Giorgi Arveladze, a longtime deputy of Saakashvili and now chief of staff of the Presidency.

At the time, Arveladze was running the office of prison reform, and I spent the summer touring the country's prisons with him and his staff, coming along on inspections, and learning about the various successes and failures of their efforts. I ended up writing a proposal for a prison staff training program and finding partners and money to implement it, but no sooner were the pieces lined up than Saakashvili resigned in protest against then-president Eduard Shevardnadze's refusal to punish corruption.

Two years later, Saakashvili led the Rose Revolution in response to government fraud in the November 2003 parliamentary election; Shevardnadze resigned, and Saakashvili was elected president six weeks later. Friends in Tbilisi wrote me in excitement about what was happening; some observers said it was more intense and unifying than the destruction of the Berlin Wall.

When it was over, I emailed Arveladze, who gave me a standing invitation to come back and work for the government. I spent another year and a half at my job teaching math to high school kids after school, and when the class that I started with graduated, I came to Georgia and managed to convince my girlfriend to come too.

Now I'm working for Saakashvili's administration as a consultant, helping with things like writing English versions of documents, organizing conferences, and making policy reports. It's a very exciting time, and intense questions abound: Will Saakashvili live up to the hope people placed in him in 2003? Will the next transition of power be another revolution, or the nation's first entirely electoral succession? Can Georgia finally succeed in escaping Russia's imperial grasp? Can Georgia become another Estonia and completely transform its economy?

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