Saakashvili Shows Staying Power on Anniversary Of War With Russia


A EurasiaNet Photo Story: Molly Corso and Temo Bardzimashvili 8/07/09

War, political instability and economic crisis. Despite it all,
Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has endured in office. And a
year after Georgia’s devastating war with Russia, Saakashvili’s
staying power is an image the Georgian government is eager to convey.

In an August 6 interview with Imedi television, Saakashvili stressed
that only individuals who are "absolutely marginalized" blame his
government for the war last August, a conflict that led to huge loss
of territory, created tens of thousands of displaced persons, and made
possible the establishment of Russian checkpoints
just an hour’s drive from Tbilisi.

Critics and some analysts say that Saakashvili has banked on Moscow’s
aggression — and his domestic opponents’ weaknesses — to hold on to
power and to strengthen international support for his administration,
even though there are lingering questions about his role in the 2008
war with Russia.

The government counters that he has prevailed because he possesses an
attribute that appears throughout the entire history of Georgia’s
torturous ties with Russia — staying power. On August 6, the
government detailed its findings on the war’s origins in a new,
40-page report that played on that message. Using military records and
other documents, the report argues the August war was the direct
consequence of two decades of Russian aggression against Georgia.

That message also echoes throughout the official August 7-8
commemoration of the 2008 war, most of which is taking place in Gori,
the Georgian town occupied by Russian forces for nine days last

Rock concerts, photo exhibits on Russia’s "200-year occupation" of
Georgia and on the collapse of the Berlin Wall — along with youth-led
protests against the Russian military presence in breakaway South
Ossetia and Abkhazia — took top billing on August 7. And at 3pm,
Georgians commemorated soldiers killed in the war with a minute of

Occasionally bizarre elements of street theater also entered the
mix. On the morning of August 7, two store mannequins dressed up as
male soldiers stood guard at a pseudo border post on Tbilisi’s central
Rustaveli Avenue. The post marked the start of an outdoor exhibit that
featured the lists of Georgians arrested during the early days of
Soviet rule and photo overviews from Georgia’s wars in the early 1990s
with breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia and, most recently, Russia.

At parliament, another pair of soldier-mannequins — of unclear
citizenship — were placed moving up the front steps; a lone
mannequin, adorned with an ink-drawn moustache, stood next to one of
two armoured personnel carriers placed outside.

But a serious message stands behind the theater. It is a message that
Saakashvili has repeated over the past year, and successfully used to
deflect public outrage and weaken domestic opposition, according to
analyst Tina Gogheliani. "[He] managed to redirect the aggression that
was toward him — from the opposition and from other groups of society
— toward Russia," she said.

In a televised August 6 meeting with opposition leaders, Saakashvili
stated that the government and its opponents "are united by one thing:
love for the homeland . . . in the face of the enemy."

Opposition leader Davit Usupashvili holds that one of Saakashvili’s
main victories has been his ability to turn the conflict with Russia
to his advantage in the international community. Usupashvili, leader
of the Republican Party, maintains that Saakashvili "blackmails" the
international community into supporting him regardless of his
democratic track record. "Saakashvili is very effective at
blackmailing those governments and leaders and he achieved the
situation when leaders of democratic governments and international
organizations are weighing their words . . . in order to avoid
strengthening Russia’s position," he said.

Gogheliani, a political analyst with the International Center on
Conflict and Negotiation, believes that Saakashvili’s policy of unite
and conquer has worked so well that he has not had to make any real
sacrifices to stay in power.

After months of political protests, he has not fired any major member
of his government, given up control over any ministry or agreed to
early elections. Rather, it has been the government that has called
for dialogue and compromise — moves the opposition terms PR
gestures. In addition, the country’s economy suffered multiple blows
following the war, including the global financial crisis and extended
protests in the capital. Tens of thousands of Georgians displaced by
the war have flooded into Tbilisi and other parts of the country.

Over $4.5 billion in international aid, secured at a donor conference,
has helped soften the economic blows, but the Georgian economy is
still expected to contract as much as 1.5 percent this year, according
to Prime Minister Nika Gilauri. Unemployment is now a
concern. Economist Davit Narmania maintains that roughly 2.5 percent
of Georgia’s official working-age population of roughly 1.9 million
lost their jobs after the war. [For background see the Eurasia Insight

Alexander Rondeli, the head of the government-friendly Georgian
Foundation for Strategic and International Studies, says that
Saakashvili’s ability to negotiate all these political landmines is a
testament to his skill as a politician. "There is a fundamental
mistake in the assessment of Saakashvili," Rondeli said, referring to
the widely held opinion that the 41-year-old leader is "unstable and
very impulsive."
"[H]e is a very cold-blooded politician, cold bloodedly calculating
everything," said Rondeli. "He is not taking decisions in just one

Rondeli maintains that Saakashvili has developed into a more mature
leader during the course of the last, turbulent year. Usupashvili,
however, argues that whatever lessons Saakashvili has learned have
been "wrong."
"He is learning lessons [about] how to do his dirty political job in a
less painful way for him," he noted dryly.

Shalva Pichkhadze, an analyst and outspoken Saakashvili critic, cites
the opposition’s "ineffectiveness" following the 2008 war — not the
president’s political acumen — as the reason why he now has "no
competitors. Said Pichkhadze: "I don’t think anything will hinder him
[from remaining in power until 2013]."

Editor’s Note: Molly Corso is a freelance reporter based in
Tbilisi. Temo Bardzimashvili is a freelance photojournalist also based
in Tbilisi. EurasiaNet’s Caucasus news editor, Elizabeth Owen, added
reporting to this story.