Miliband visit puts pressure on Georgian leader

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The Independent Online

The first British government minister to visit Georgia since the Russian invasion made a point of meeting opposition leaders as public discontent over Mikheil Saakashvili’s role in the disaster that has befallen the country began to grow.

Foreign Secretary David Miliband held breakfast with the main opposition leaders lasting more than an hour during a flying visit to Tbilisi over the crisis in a move which is bound to add pressure on the beleaguered Georgian leader.



The meeting follows talks between Western diplomats in Georgia and Mr Saakashvili’s rivals in recent days and is seen by observers as the West opening up channels to those who might wrest power in the future.



Although the governments in the US and Western Europe have made a public showing of backing Mr Saakashvili, there has been increasing questioning of his tactics which had allowed the Russians to score a major strategic victory over Nato. There is also unease at the Georgian leader’s increasingly erratic behaviour in public at press conferences alongside, among others, Condoleezza Rice and Angela Merkel.



Mr Miliband, who arrived straight from a Nato foreign ministers’ meeting in Brussels, stressed that the international community will not yield to Russian intimidation, and visited a camp for internal refugees displaced by the conflict. He also stressed that Europe, as the buyers of Russian energy supplies, had considerable leverage in the bargaining process with Moscow.



A Western diplomat said: "The opposition are keeping quiet now because they are terrified of doing Moscow's work," said one Western diplomat in Tbilisi. "But as soon as the Russians are out of the country, Saakashvili is finished.”



Although Russian invasion has led to an outpouring of patriotic fervour all the signs are that rallies of support for the President could turn into rallies of protest.



One senior opposition figure present at the meeting with the British foreign secretary said that internal politics was one of the topics covered and “Mr Miliband said it was a wise decision of the opposition not to raise problems during the occupation. But he also said that he understood that it would soon be time for normal political life to return.”



Republican Party Chairman David Usupashvili said that opposition figures had been quiet up to now because they didn't want to play into the Kremlin's hands. But he blamed Saakashvili's "militaristic approach" for provoking the crisis with Russia."We have spent more than a quarter of the state budget on military spending over the past few years," said Mr Usupashvili. "Saakashvili bears part of the responsibility for this war. Russia was trying to provoke us but we should have avoided direct military confrontation."



He said he explained to Mr Miliband the issues the opposition had with the Saakashvili government prior to the conflict - lack of media freedom, independent courts, and a reality that does not fit with the Georgian president's democratic rhetoric. "Mr Miliband didn't seem surprised to hear these things," said Mr Usupashvili.



One of the few people with considerable standing both among Georgians and the international community is Nino Burjanadze, former speaker of the Georgian parliament and one of the triumvirate that led Mr Saakashvili's Rose Revolution in 2003.



She split with Mr Saakashvili earlier this year, unhappy with his fading democratic credentials, and has taken time out from politics. Many analysts see her as a potential challenger to the president in future. While carefully avoiding direct criticism of Mr Saakashvili, she made it clear that she would be returning to politics in opposition. "I'm afraid it will not be very easy for the government to answer all the questions," she said earlier this week, adding that the country had "nothing to celebrate" – a thinly veiled attack at a series of patriotic rallies held by Mr Saakashvili.



Republican Party Chairman David Usupashvili said that opposition figures had been quiet up to now because they didn't want to play into the Kremlin's hands. But he blamed Saakashvili's "militaristic approach" for provoking the crisis with Russia."We have spent more than a quarter of the state budget on military spending over the past few years," said Mr Usupashvili.



"Saakashvili bears part of the responsibility for this war. Russia was trying to provoke us but we should have avoided direct military confrontation." He says he explained to Mr Miliband the issues the oppostion had with the Saakashvili government prior to the conflict - lack of media freedom, independent courts, and a reality that does not fit with the Georgian president's democratic rhetoric. "Mr Miliband didn't seem surprised to hear these things," said Mr Usupashvili.

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