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What you need to know about Georgian president turned Brooklyn hipster Mikheil Saakashvili

A protestor holds an image of Mikheil Saakashvili in Tbilisi, Georgia.
A protestor holds an image of Mikheil Saakashvili in Tbilisi, Georgia.
Vano Shlamov/AFP/Getty Images)

Newspapers are often criticized for running profiles of female leaders in the style section rather than the business or politics sections. If a recent profile of former Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili's adventures in Williamsburg is anything to go on, the New York Times has heard those critiques, and decided to address the issue by giving all leaders the full "style section" treatment.

Although the article, by political feature writer Jason Horowitz, is ostensibly about Saakashvili's plans to return to Georgian politics, it ends up devoting most of its coverage to the ex-president's views on New York nightlife.

As a result, there's not much insight into the future of Georgia, a troubled nation that has suffered from conflicts with Putin's Russia. But the article does suggest that someone should get Saakashvili a reality show, stat.

If the profile left you better informed about the current state of Saakashvili's waistline ("considerably plumper than when he was in power"), but confused about his controversial political record, don't worry — here's what you need to know.

Who wants to be a democratic reformer? (Not Saakashvili, it turns out)

Saakashvili outgoing speech

Saakashvili addresses protestors in Ukraine in December 2013. (Onur Coban/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Mr. Saakashvili is in self-imposed exile on North Seventh Street — plotting a triumphant return, even as his steep fall from grace serves as a cautionary tale to the many American government officials who had hoped he would be a model exporter of democracy to former Soviet republics.

As the Times article hints, there turned out to be some problems with that democracy-export strategy. Namely, there was insufficient democracy in Georgia to export.

Saakashvili's administration has been described as an example of "competitive authoritarianism" by political scientists Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way. Although Saakashvili took office following Georgia's nonviolent "Rose Revolution," his government was not especially democratic. Rather, Saakashvili packed the judiciary with his allies, and arrested his critics (some of whom were charged with treason). His government also harassed the independent media, and eventually pressured opposition-friendly television stations off the air. Saakashvili's reelection campaign in 2008, according to Levitsky and Way, was "marred by abuse of state resources, media bias, harassment and intimidation of opposition supporters."

Lifestyles of the rich and famous (who are bearing the consequences of an ill-advised confrontation with Russia)

Saakashvili soldier grave

Saakashvili visits a mass grave of unidentified soldiers killed in the 2008 war. (Irakli Gedenidze/AFP/Getty Images)

Since leaving office last November, this George W. Bush favorite — whose confrontation with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia led to a disastrous war in 2008 — has commandeered his uncle's apartment in a tower on the Williamsburg waterfront, where he luxuriates in the neighborhood's time-honored tradition of mysteriously sourced wealth. When not lingering in cafes, riding his bike across the bridge or spending stag evenings with friends on the Wythe Hotel rooftop, Mr. Saakashvili seizes on the Ukrainian conflict and his experience with Mr. Putin's wrath as a lifeline back to political relevance.

Saakashvili is perhaps not the ideal candidate to advise the Ukraine on how to convince Russia to respect one's boundaries.

In 2008, his efforts to retake the breakaway Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia went very poorly, leading to a brief war with Russia that killed hundreds of people, and displaced thousands more. The conflict didn't turn out well for Georgia: both Abkhazia and South Ossetia are still occupied (or "protected," according to Russia) by Russian troops.

Real Housewives of Tbilisi (take to the streets)

Tblisi protest

Thousands of protestors on the streets of Tbilisi in November 2007. (Vano Shlamov/AFP/Getty Images)

In August, Georgian prosecutors charged Mr. Saakasvhili with using public money to pay for, among other things, hotel expenses for a personal stylist, hotel and travel for two fashion models, Botox injections and hair removal, the rental of a yacht in Italy and the purchase of artwork by the London artist Meredith Ostrom, who makes imprints on canvases with her naked, painted body. They have also charged him in a violent crackdown on a rally of political protesters in 2007. If convicted, Mr. Saakashvili could serve up to 11 years in prison.

A more-political profile might have wasted precious paragraphs explaining that the "rally of political protestors" was a period in which tens of thousands of people took to the streets over the course of several months — and that the "crackdown" in question involved not only violently breaking up the protests themselves, but also declaring a state of emergency that shut down all privately-owned television stations, among other restrictions.

It might even have quoted Human Rights Watch's report, which condemned the Georgian government for breaking up the protests with violence, and for suppressing political dissent.

Instead, the article delves into Saakashvili's Frank-Zappa-worshipping therapist who specializes in something called "bite massage."

Mr. Saakashvili is also accused of using public money to fly his massage therapist, Dorothy Stein, into Georgia in 2009. Mr. Saakashvili said he received a massage from Ms. Stein on "one occasion only," but Ms. Stein said she received 2,000 euros to massage him multiple times, including delivering her trademark "bite massage."

"He gave me a bunch of presents," said Ms. Stein, who splits her time between Berlin and Hoboken. "He said, ‘Oh, my wife won't mind.' He gave me a gold necklace with some kind of religious pendant, which obviously I'm not going to wear because my God is Frank Zappa."

America's next top holder of a temporary university sinecure

Saakashvili Trump

Maybe he should give Celebrity Apprentice a try? (Seiran Baroyan/AFP/Getty Images)

Even exiles have to eat, and smorgasburg coconuts don't come cheap. But finding a job has proven to be a struggle for Saakashvili, who has found that American employers are unreasonably sensitive about minor personnel issues like "being indicted for corruption."

Mr. Saakashvili said he expected a renewal of his own tenure as "senior statesmen" at Tufts, but the university said the relationship ended in May. In addition, Mr. Saakashvili said he had not pursued a position at his alma mater, Columbia, but a former professor said people close to Mr. Saakashvili had inquired about a job for him at the law school. Lincoln Mitchell, a critic of Mr. Saakashvili who was an associate professor at Columbia, said leaders of the law school had concerns. "Was he going to be indicted by an international tribunal?" Mr. Mitchell recalled their asking. "And concerns about his personal behavior."

Although it is not particularly likely that Saakashvili will be tried by an international tribunal, Mitchell's concern was not unfounded. In 2008, the International Criminal Court began a review of the conflict in South Ossetia and Abkhazia to investigate allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Since then, the ICC's Office of the Prosecutor has made two investigatory visits to Georgia, but the matter has not yet progressed beyond that preliminary stage.

Keeping up with the Saakashvilis

Prison rape protestors

Protestors at a 2012 demonstration against torture and rape in Georgia's prisons. (Vano Shlamov/AFP/Getty Images)

Mr. Saakashvili is frequently noticed by his countrymen, whose opinions of him vary. "He's creating rifts in the diaspora," said Vakhtang Gomelauri, a critic of Mr. Saakashvili who organized a 2012 protest of him at the United Nations after the revelation of rampant rapes of prisoners in Georgian prisons. But a group of Georgian students was eager to pose with him on the Bedford Street subway platform. "It went viral," Mr. Saakashvili said.

During Saakashvili's time as president, prison officials were caught on video "torturing, taunting, and sexually assaulting prisoner after prisoner, sodomizing them with broom handles." Although human rights organizations had been sounding the alarm about abuses in Georgia's prisons for years, they were largely ignored until excerpts of the rape footage were shown on Georgian television, prompting massive outrage.

The available evidence suggests that responsibility for the horrifying abuse reached high levels of government. As Charles Fairbanks pointed out in the Atlantic after the scandal broke, the deputy chief of the prison system was one of the people actually filmed assaulting prisoners.

If that's not a governance record you want popping up on your Instagram feed, then it's probably best to skip that selfie.

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