Some non-Georgian sources spell Saakashvili's first name via the Russian (Михаил Саакашвили) as Mikhail. In Georgia, he is commonly known as "Misha," a hypocorism for Mikheil. It is also transliterated Mixeil Saakašvili.
He is married to Sandra E. Roelofs, of Dutch origin, and has two sons, Eduard and Nikoloz. Apart from his native Georgian, he speaks fluent English, French, Russian and Ukrainian, and has some command of Ossetian and Spanish.
Saakashvili graduated from the School of International Law of the Kiev State University (Ukraine) in 1992. He briefly worked as a human rights officer for the interim State Council of Georgia following the overthrow of President Zviad Gamsakhurdia before receiving a fellowship from the United States State Department (via the Edmund S. Muskie Graduate Fellowship Program). He received an LL.M. from Columbia Law School in 1994 and took classes at The George Washington University Law School the following year. In 1995, he also received a diploma from the International Institute of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France.
After graduation, while on internship in the New York law firm of Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler in early 1995, Saakashvili was approached by Zurab Zhvania, an old friend from Georgia who was working on behalf of President Eduard Shevardnadze to enter politics. He stood in the December 1995 elections along with Zhvania, and both men won seats in parliament, standing for the Union of Citizens of Georgia, Shevardnadze's party.
Saakashvili was chairman of the parliamentary committee which was in charge of creating a new electoral system, an independent judiciary and a non-political police force. Opinion surveys recognised him to be the second most popular person in Georgia, behind Shevardnadze. He was named "man of the year" by a panel of journalists and human rights advocates in 1997. In January 2000, Saakashvili was appointed Vice-President of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.
On 12 October, 2000, Saakashvili became Minister of Justice for the government of President Shevardnadze. He initiated major reforms in the Georgian criminal justice and prisons system. This earned praise from international observers and human rights activists. But in mid-2001 he became involved in a major controversy with the Economics Minister Ivane Chkhartishvili, State Security Minister Vakhtang Kutateladze and Tbilisi police chief Ioseb Alavidze, accusing them of profiting from corrupt business deals.
Saakashvili resigned on 5 September, 2001, saying that "I consider it immoral for me to remain as a member of Shevardnadze's government." He declared that corruption had penetrated to the very center of the Georgian government and that Shevardnadze lacked the will to deal with it, warning that "current developments in Georgia will turn the country into a criminal enclave in one or two years."
Having resigned from the government and quit the Shevardnadze-run Union of Citizens of Georgia party, Saakashvili founded the United National Movement (UNM) in October 2001, a right-of-center political party with a touch of nationalism, to provide a focus for part of the Georgian reformists leaders. In June 2002, he was elected as the Chairman of the Tbilisi Assembly ("Sakrebulo") following an agreement between the United National Movement and the Georgian Labour Party. This gave him a powerful new platform from which to criticize the government.
Georgia held parliamentary elections on 2 November 2003 which were denounced by local and international observers as being grossly rigged. Saakashvilli claimed that he had won the elections (a claim supported by independent exit polls), and urged Georgians to demonstrate against Shevardnadze's government and engage in nonviolent civil disobedience against the authorities. Saakashvili's UNM and Burdjanadze-Democrats united to demand the ouster of Shevardnadze and the rerun of the elections.
Massive political demonstrations were held in Tbilisi in November, with over 100,000 people participating and listening to speeches by Saakashvili and other opposition figures. The Kmara ("Enough!") youth organization (a Georgian counterpart of the Serbian "Otpor") and several NGOs, like Liberty Institute, were active in all protest activities. After an increasingly tense two weeks of demonstrations, Shevardnadze resigned as President on 23 November, to be replaced on an interim basis by parliamentary speaker Nino Burjanadze. While the revolutionary leaders did their best to stay within the constitutional norms, many called the change of government a popular coup dubbed by Georgian media as the Rose Revolution.
Saakashvili's "storming of Georgia's parliament" in 2003 "put U.S. diplomats off guard. .... [Saakashvili] ousted a leader the U.S. had long backed, Eduard Shevardnadze." Seeking support, Saakashvili went outside the U.S. State Department. He hired Randy Scheunemann, now Sen. McCain's top foreign-policy adviser, as a lobbyist and used Daniel Kunin of USAID and the National Democatic Institute as a full-time adviser.
On 24 February 2004 the United National Movement and the United Democrats had amalgamated. The new political movement was named the National Movement - Democrats (NMD). The movement's main political priorities include raising pensions and providing social services to the poor, its main base of support; fighting corruption; and increasing state revenue.
On 4 January 2004 Mikheil Saakashvili won the presidential elections in Georgia with more than 96% of the votes cast, making him the youngest national president in Europe. Saakashvili ran on a platform of opposing corruption and improving pay and pensions. He has promised to improve relations with the outside world. Although he is strongly pro-Western and intends to seek Georgian membership of NATO and the European Union, he has also spoken of the importance of better relations with Russia. He faces major problems, however, particularly Georgia's difficult economic situation and the still unresolved question of separatism in the regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Abkhazia regards itself as independent of Georgia and did not take part in the elections, while South Ossetia favours union with its northern counterpart in Russia.
Saakashvili was sworn in as President in Tbilisi on 25 January 2004. Immediately after the ceremony he signed a decree establishing a new state flag. On 26 January, in a ceremony held at the Tbilisi Kashueti Church of Saint George, he promulgated a decree granting permission for the return of the body of the first President of Georgia, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, from Grozny (Chechen Republic) to Tbilisi and renaming a major road in the capital after Gamsakhurdia. He also released 32 Gamsakhurdia supporters (political prisoners) imprisoned by the Shevardnadze government in 1993-94.
In the first months of his presidency, Saakashvili faced a major political crisis in the southwestern Autonomous Republic of Adjara run by an authoritarian regional leader, Aslan Abashidze, who largely ignored the central Georgian government and was viewed by many as a pro-Russian politician. The crisis threatened to develop into an armed confrontation, but Saakashvili's government managed to resolve the conflict peacefully, forcing Abashidze to resign on 6 May 2004. Success in Adjara encouraged the new president to intensify his efforts towards bringing the breakaway South Ossetia back under the Georgian jurisdiction. The separatist authorities responded with intense militarization in the region, that led to armed clashes in August 2004. A stalemate ensued, and despite a new peace plan proposed by the Georgian government in 2005, the conflict remains unresolved. Recently, in late July 2006, Saakashvili's government managed to deal successfully with another major crisis, this time in Abkhazia's Kodori Gorge where Georgia's police forces disarmed a defiant militia led by a local warlord Emzar Kvitsiani.
Although the reforms initiated by President Saakashvili are considered to have mixed success, still the rate of corruption in the country has drastically reduced. According to the World Bank accounts, Georgia is named as the number one economic reformer in the world and the country ranks as 18 in term of ease of doing business, when most of the country's neighbours' are in the 100s of the World Bank's rank.
In his foreign policy, Saakashvili maintains close ties with the U.S. leadership, as well as other NATO countries, and remains one of the leaders of the GUAM organization. The Saakashvili-led Rose Revolution has been described by the White House as one of the most powerful movements in the modern history that has inspired others to seek freedom..
President Saakashvili sees membership of the NATO as a premise of stability for Georgia and offered an intensified dialogue with the de facto Abkhaz and Ossetian authorities. Until his attempted invasion of South Ossetia in August 2008 he was thought to favour a diplomatic solution to these conflicts. Saakashvili's administration doubled the number of its troops in Iraq, making Georgia one of the biggest supporters of Coalition Forces, and keeping its troops in Kosovo and Afghanistan to "contribute to what it describes as global security".
Saakashvili's government maintains solid diplomatic relations with other Caucasian states and Eastern European countries, such as Armenia, Azerbaijan, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Turkey and Ukraine. In 2004, Saakashvili visited Israel to attend the official opening of the Modern Energy Problems Research Center, and Dr. Brenda Schaffer, the director of the center, described Saakashvili as the Nelson Mandela of the 21st century. In August of the same year, Saakashvili, who holds an honorary doctorate from Haifa University travelled to Israel to attend the opening of the official Week of Georgian-Jewish Friendship, held under the auspices of the Georgian President, for which the Jewish leaders were invited as honored guests.
Relations with the United States are good, but are complicated by Saakashvili's "volatile" behavior. Former and current U.S. officials characterize the Georgian president as "difficult to manage". They criticize his "risky moves", moves that have often "caught the U.S. unprepared" while leaving it "exposed diplomatically".
Saakashvili's ties with the U.S. go back to 1991 (see #Early_life_and_career). Biographies of Thomas Jefferson and John F. Kennedy can be found in his office, next to biographies of Stalin and Ataturk and books on war. Seeking U.S. support, Saakashvili went outside the State Department and established contacts with Sen. John McCain and forces seeking NATO expansion.
Scott Horton, the lawyer at Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler who hired Saakashvili as an intern, states: "It was like the U.S. was slamming the brakes all the time. .... The U.S. was always trying to calm him down." Washington's 2004 ambassador to Georgia, Richard Miles, feared that Saakashvili would destabilize Georgia. Carlos Pascual, head of the State Department's financial-assistance team for Georgia, states that Saakashvili's "rapid push" into the breakaway republic of Adjara in March 2004 surprised not only the U.S. but also the prime minister of Georgia, Zurab Zhvania. Emboldened by the successful move into Adjara, Saakashvili, in June 2004, used military force against South Ossetia. Saakashvili surprised the U.S. again in November 2007, when he shut down opposition tv stations and used tear gas and rubber bullets against protesters (see #Criticism). In April 2008, Saakashvili campaigned for Georgia to join NATO, and in July he called for the U.S. to provide Georgia with sophisticated weapons.
Saakashvili believes that the long-term priority for the country is to advance its membership in the European Community and during a meeting with Javier Solana, he said that in contrast with new and old European states, Georgia is an Ancient European state.
Later in 2007, Georgia faced the worst crisis since the Rose Revolution. A series of anti-government demonstration were sparked, in October, by accusations of murders and corruption levelled by Irakli Okruashvili, Saakashvili's erstwhile associate and former member of his government, against the president and his allies. The protests climaxed early in November 2007, and involved several opposition groups and the influential media tycoon Badri Patarkatsishvili. Although the demonstrations rapidly went downhill, the government's decision to use police force against the remaining protesters evolved into clashes in the streets of Tbilisi on November 7. The declaration of state of emergency by the president (November 7-16) and the restriction imposed on some mass media sources led to harsh criticism of the Saakashvili government both in the country and abroad.
On 8 November 2007, President Saakashvili announced a compromise solution to hold early presidential elections for 5 January 2008. He also proposed to hold a plebiscite in parallel to snap presidential elections about when to hold parliamentary polls – in spring as pushed for by the opposition parties, or in late 2008. Several concessions in the election code were also made to the opposition.
On 23 November 2007, the ruling United National Movement party officially nominated Saakashvili as its candidate for the upcoming elections. Pursuant to the Constitution of Georgia, Saakashvili resigned on November 25 to launch his pre-election campaign for early presidential polls.
Saakashvili publicly announced about his plans of modernising the Cabinet of Georgia well before Georgian presidential elections. Shortly after being re-elected, the president formally re-appointed the Prime Minister of Georgia Lado Gurgenidze and asked him to present a renewed cabinet to the Parliament of Georgia for final approval.
Gurgenidze changed most ministers, leaving Ivane Meabishvili, controversial Minister for Home Affairs, Defence Minister David Kezerashvili and Minister of Finance Nika Gilauri on their former positions. Gia Nodia was appointed as the Minister of Education and Science. Zaza Gamcemlidze, former director of Tbilisi Botanic Garden, took over the position of the Minister of Human Resources and Nature Protection. Famous archaeologist, and already the eldest minister in the cabinet, Iulon Gagoshidze was appointed on a newly designated position of the Minister of State for Diaporas.
However, a series of clashes between Georgian and South Ossetian forces resulted to Saakashvili ordering an attack on Tskhinvali that claimed numerous victims among Russian peacekeepers and civil population. In response, the Russian army invaded South Ossetia. The two counterparts were led to a ceasefire agreement and a six points peace plan, due to the French President's mediation. On 26 August the Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev, signed a decree unilaterally recognizing Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states.
The 2004 presidential election were carried out on 4 January 2004. The election was an outcome of the bloodless Rose Revolution and a consequent resignation of President Eduard Shevardnadze. It is well-known for a very high level of electoral turnout and also for the number of votes cast for one particular presidential candidate - Mikheil Saakashvili (96%). All other candidates received less than 2% of the votes. In total, 1,763,000 eligible voters participated in the election.
In 2004 a new media law sparked controversy, with fourteen Georgian civil society leaders and Georgian experts writing an open letter to the President, published in several national newspapers, claiming "Intolerance towards people with different opinions is being planted in Georgian politics and in other spheres of social life".
On March 27 2006 the government announced that it had prevented a nation-wide prison riot plotted by criminal kingpins. The police operation ended with the deaths of 7 inmates and at least 17 injuries. While the Parliamentary opposition has cast doubts over the official version and demanded an independent investigation, the ruling party has been able to vote down such initiatives..
The conduct of the Sandro Girgvliani Murder Case has also raised eyebrows at home and abroad. Several senior Interior Ministry officials were alleged to have played active roles in the murder, yet despite a series of resignations and sackings, only four low-ranking individuals directly engaged in the case have been prosecuted. In addition to this, Georgian businessman Badri Patarkatsishvili has claimed that pressure has been exerted on his financial interests after Imedi Television broadcast several accusations against officials. On October 25, 2007, former defence minister Irakli Okruashvili accused the president of planning Patarkatsishvili's murder.. Okruashvili was detained two days later on charges of extortion, money laundering, and abuse of office. However, in a video taped confession released by the General Prosecutor's Office on 8 October 2007, in which Okruashvili pleaded guilty to large-scale bribery through extortion and negligence while serving as minister, he retracted his accusations against the president and said that he did so to gain some political benefit and that Badri Patarkatsishvili told him to do so. Okruashvili's lawyer and other opposition leaders said his retraction had been made under duress.
The BHHRG has frequently claimed that the new government immediately set out to settle scores with Shevardnadze era officials. Many former ministers, local administrators and businessmen associated with the former regime were arrested for abuse of office. Some Western organisations were concerned by the live broadcasting of these arrests and by President Saakashvili's occasional appearances on television to denounce the suspects, before any charges were laid.
On June 30 2005 riot police and special military forces carrying machine guns violently dispersed hundreds of protesters blocking a major road in Tbilisi. It started as protest against the arrest of two well-known sportsmen accused in blackmail but soon grew into a demonstration against the central authorities. 25 people were arrested including 5 members of opposition parties. In November 2007 another series of demonstrations forced Saakashvili to set the pre-scheduled presidential elections for 5 January, 2008.
The late Georgian media tycoon Badri Patarkatsishvili's opposition television station Imedi, shut down after its premises were stormed during news coverage by riot police in November of 2007, resumed broadcasts a few weeks following the incident, but "did not cover news or talk shows until after the election.
In spite of these criticisms many European and U.S. commentators have lauded the new government for taking bold measures in the fight against corruption. In addition, the U.S. State Department noted that during 2005 "the government amended several laws and increased the amount of investigations and prosecutions reducing the amount of abuse and ill-treatment in pre-trial detention facilities". The status of religious freedom also improved due to increased investigation and prosecution of those harassing followers of non-traditional faiths.