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Kakha Bendukidze - End of an Epoch?

November 17, 2014

The FINANCIAL -- The post-communist world lost one of its greatest sons last week – a freedom fighter who devoted his life to the daunting task of cleansing Eastern Europe and Eurasia from the shackles of Soviet thinking and bureaucracy. Like Che Guevara before him, Big Kakha’s legacy transcends national borders. His crusade for liberty and human dignity took him in 2004 from Russia to Georgia, and – in the last year of his life – from Georgia to Ukraine. He was eager to help revolutionaries and reformers all over the world, not sparing his time, money and effort to instill liberal ideas and incubate liberal institutions. He did so in many different ways: through education and public advocacy, advising reform-minded presidents and opposition leaders, and – when given the opportunity to do so in his native Georgia – designing and implementing one of the most ambitious reform programs in recent history.

Kakha served as a symbol of the post-communist ‘transition’, a painful and tortuous process whereby almost thirty Eastern European and Eurasian nations attempted to exercise their unalienable rights to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”, to use a quote from the US Declaration of Independence. Rather than ushering instant happiness, however, anti-communist and nationalist revolutions had in many instances unleashed Star Wars-style ‘Dark Forces’ of destruction, bringing about chaos, civil wars, economic collapse and misery. Such was the fate of Georgia and many of its sister (former USSR) republics. Waves of chaos receded by the second half of 1990s, giving birth to a series of naked kleptocracies – a sad caricature of the democratic and capitalist ideals cherished by transition visionaries and ideologues, such as Bendukidze.

As a result, many early reformers have lost their fervor, retiring from politics or emigrating to enjoy private life. This was never an option for Bendukidze, who continued to preach free markets and anarchism, knowingly bloody well that a second chance will soon arrive. And it did, when in the span of two years (2003-2005) popular discontent with incompetent and corrupt regimes fed into a wave of ‘Color Revolutions’ in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan.

Kakha came into the Georgian politics never bothering to become a politician. He did not worry about his popularity or his chances to be elected to public office. He had no patience for idiots and intellectual slaves lacking in critical thinking and originality (of which he had plenty). He was not afraid to question dogma and ruthlessly destroy institutions and regulations which he saw as obsolete, unnecessary, and harmful – institutions which only survived because nobody bothered to question their existence. He pushed with all his weight for what he thought was needed for the country and not for what could score him political points.

During his tenure in government, Bendukidze dominated the policy debate as few had the guts and knowledge to challenge him. With the UNM losing power in 2012, he went into intellectual opposition, a place which probably best suited his temperament. He owned facts, theories and numbers and continued to influence the public discourse, loyal as ever to his views and principles. He was a scary opponent, but an opponent one wants to have to in order to avoid mistakes. With him gone, the country has lost so much more than the few unpleasantries he may have harked at you in a moment of irritation.

After inevitably leaving politics, Kakha made his mission to educate the next generation of Georgian leaders. The Free University has become the embodiment of his Free Will, promoting the love of freedom, learning and critical thinking. He started with one university and then added another. Four vocational colleges and a school were soon included in the portfolio. He rebuilt and refurbished dilapidated infrastructure, brought back professors who left Georgia in the dark 1990s, and turned these institutions into a brand that the young and brightest Georgians had a hard time to resist.

Kakha was quite critical of mainstream economics and mainstream economists, many of whom he would brand as ‘socialists’. Yet, despite that, he appreciated the quality of research and education provided by ISET and became a friend. His ultimate desire was to make ISET a part of the Free University, but he knew it would take years to make this plan a reality.

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Time has not yet come for the Owl of Minerva to spread its wings. In other words, it is too early to pass judgment on Kakha’s life enterprise – the unmaking of Soviet empire. Freedom loving Georgia and Ukraine – Kakha’s darling in his last hours - are yet to crack the hard nut of squaring individual liberties (of which Kakha was the staunchest protector) with the necessity to reach collective compromises concerning social justice (e.g. equal opportunity in education, permissible wealth and income gaps). Likewise, these countries are yet to resolve the tensions between traditional values, embedded in their cultures and religions, and liberal ideals originating in the West.

Moreover, transition – in its movement-towards-freedom-and-democracy sense – is yet to begin for many other Eurasian nations.

Kakha’s untimely and unfortunate death will undoubtedly spark a renewed debate about his personal legacy in Georgia. Radical deregulation and anti-corruption reforms he championed created a civilized environment in which businesses could potentially thrive and people could live a dignified and secure life. Yet, these reforms have failed to relieve the misery of the great mass of Georgian peasants and urban poor. Free trade and low taxes benefited some but hurt others – e.g. smallholder farmers, feeding into divergent perceptions and political preferences.

While contradictory assessments are likely to persist in the short-run, one thing is crystal clear. Kakha’s bigger-than-life personality will be forever remembered for his free spirit, for what he managed to achieve in his lifetime, and for his moral and intellectual bequest to posterity.

Rest in peace, dear Kakha!

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