Georgia's Saakashvili safe for now despite losses

TBILISI Thu Aug 28, 2008 4:11am EDT

Georgia's President Mikheil Saakashvili speaks during his televised address in Tbilisi, August, 26, 2008. REUTERS/Irakli Gedenidze/Pool

Georgia's President Mikheil Saakashvili speaks during his televised address in Tbilisi, August, 26, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Irakli Gedenidze/Pool

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TBILISI (Reuters) - Despite leading Georgia into a disastrous war with Russia and losing two of the country's provinces, President Mikheil Saakashvili looks politically secure for now as Georgians unite in adversity.

The U.S.-educated lawyer projects a pro-market, media savvy image but his rough treatment of opponents last November and harsh anti-Russian rhetoric has alarmed some in the West who fear his impetuous style is unsuited for the volatile Caucasus.

Saakashvili was elected on a pledge of restoring rebel regions to central control.

Now Russian tanks and troops have turned his dream of restoring Georgia's territorial integrity into a nightmare of crushing military defeat and perhaps permanent division.

"It's a moment of national solidarity. The opposition has called a moratorium on open differences with the government because the country is occupied," said Lawrence Sheets, Caucasus programme director for the International Crisis Group.

"I think there will be a few months before people think about making political trouble for the government."

Saakashvili's August 7 attempt to retake Georgia's rebel, pro-Russian region of South Ossetia by force was routed within a few days.

Some Western officials had privately said Saakashvili shared some of the blame for triggering the initial crisis by allowing himself to be provoked by Russia.

But by backing the secession of the rebel regions of South Ossetia Abkhazia and offering them its protection, Moscow crossed a red line that prompted strong and unanimous condemnation from the United States and Europe.

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In an interview with Reuters in the early hours of Wednesday, Saakashvili appeared visibly energized by the strength of international support.

"The last thing I wanted to have here is being vindicated in this way. But the point here is at least it's high time to open your eyes and see what we are dealing with," he said.

Asked if he saw any threat to his political position, he answered quickly and confidently.

"I believe our people is consolidated as never before. On that point, Russia has grossly miscalculated. The point here is, it's not about me any more. The nation has got more mature, democracy will become more vibrant and the long-term effect will be exactly the opposite to what they intended."

In a flavor of the national mood, Georgian television repeatedly played a montage of images of civilian deaths from Russian bombing raids, accompanied by text ridiculing Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and his predecessor, Vladimir Putin.

The Georgian daily Rezonansi condemned Russia in a front-page headline as "Evil Empire Two".

"People are now outraged with Russia. It greatly strengthens (Saakashvili's) position -- internationally, no question, but domestically as well," said Sheets.

"His political situation has been shored up, inadvertently perhaps, by this Russian move."

Critical to Saakashvili's future grip on power will be whether he can get the West to deliver on promises made to Georgia, especially that of NATO membership. Many analysts believe his war with Russia has destroyed that dream.

Georgians are also looking for Western actions, not just words, to punish Russia.

"I hope the international community will not limit itself only to statements, but will shift to real action soon," opposition leader Tina Khidasheli told Reuters.

She called for "economic pressure", rejection of Russia's bid to join the World Trade Organization and a boycott of the 2014 Winter Olympics in the Russian resort of Sochi, near the Abkhazian border.

Khidasheli said the government could expect a "period of silence" from the opposition. "But the time will come when the Georgian society will start to ask them questions about what has happened to our country."

When they do, the answer to those interrogations may come in the shape of Nino Burjanadze, a raven-haired former law professor and one-time speaker of parliament.

A key figure in the 2003 "Rose Revolution" that brought Saakashvili to power, she has been critical of her former ally and dropped out of politics.

But she said last week she would set up her own party once peace was restored, and some analysts say she could emerge as a powerful rival to the president.

Privately, some Georgians are already wondering how long Saakashvili will last.

"I don't think he'll stay," said Dato, a 21-year-old artist in Tbilisi. "I think the aggression was on our side."

(Additional reporting by Matt Robinson and Margarita Antidze)

(Editing by Jon Boyle and Richard Balmforth)

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