'Together we will win': demonstration of defiance on streets of Tbilisi

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They flocked to Rustaveli Street in their thousands, waving Georgian flags, chanting and straining their necks to get a view of the politicians on stage, whose words were boomed across central Tbilisi via loudspeakers. There was a party atmosphere as helpers handed out free ice creams, and the speakers milked the crowd like rock stars.

There have been many surreal sights in this short, nasty war, but none quite so puzzling as that which unfolded on the main street of the Georgian capital yesterday. Little more than 12 hours after the country's army had quite literally run away from the key strategic city of Gori without so much as firing a shot, the Georgian President, Mikheil Saakashvili, and his ministers held a rally that bore all the hallmarks of a victory celebration.

The proceedings began shortly after Russia's President, Dmitry Medvedev, claimed that military operations were over, but many in the 150,000-strong crowd still seemed to believe the misinformation spread on Monday by the Georgians that the Russian army had captured Gori and were preparing an assault on Tbilisi, 45 miles away.

They were in defiant mood, as a Georgian minister shouted out to the crowd: "All nationalities together in Georgia – the Armenians, the Azeris, the Georgians and the Ossetians! We will be together! We will win! Together we will win!" Shouts of approval went up in the crowd.

One after another, top government officials gave speeches in the same vein. "We will never surrender and we will tell this to the enemy thousands and thousands of times," said Georgia's Deputy Foreign Minister, Giga Bokeria, one of Mr Saakashvili's closest allies.

"We will never allow the Russians to do this!" said Gia Loria, 53, who was in the crowd with his friends. "We are a nation of warriors, and we will fight until the end. We will destroy the Russians and retake Gori; we'll drive them out of South Ossetia and we'll take back Abkhazia as well! Onwards!"

Sukhumi and Tskhinvali, the respective capitals of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, were "the same as Jerusalem is for Israel", he said, and the Georgians would fight until the last to regain them. It was brave talk, but totally at odds with the reality of a population fleeing westwards from the Russian army. Gori had been abandoned without a fight, and people in Tbilisi reported a mass flight of residents to the region of Kakheti, so terrified were people that the Russians were advancing on the capital.

Moscow has made it clear that it wants the pro-Western Mr Saakashvilli, who was educated at Columbia, out of office. But for now at least, the mood in Tbilisi suggests that the six-day war has made him more popular among Georgians. Among the Georgian flags in the crowd, there were banners proclaiming "I love you Misha", the diminutive form of the President's first name. When speakers praised his leadership during the conflict, the crowd roared its support.

The last time crowds of this magnitude massed on Rustaveli Street was last November, when opposition parties demanded Mr Saakashvili step down and many Georgians took to the street in protest against his government before being brutally dispersed. Over the past year there has been pressure from opposition figures who challenged the Georgian leader over his democratic credentials and demanded he step down.

But this time it was the President himself doing the talking. In defiant, finger-wagging mode, he said he was pulling Georgia out of the Commonwealth of Independent States, and declared Russian peacekeepers in Abkhazia and South Ossetia "occupying forces". The crowd lapped up his words, and even those who had wanted him out just a week ago had been converted to his biggest fans.

"I, and a lot of my friends, used to be against him," said Niko Durchashvili, 57. "But he's our president, we elected him, and if we don't like him, we'll remove him ourselves, without Russia. This war has made Georgia united."

Opposition leaders have been conspicuous by their absence. As the conflict erupted last Friday, an opposition leader announced a "moratorium on confrontation" with the authorities.

"The situation is very difficult in the country. I think that there is no time for internal political disputes," Davit Gamkrelidze, head of the opposition New Rights Party, said at the time. "Under such conditions – it is an unwritten law – internal political confrontations and disputes should be stopped."

But for all his defiance yesterday, the hot-headed Georgian President's days may be numbered. He came to power pledging that Abkhazia and South Ossetia would soon be part of a united Georgia, and if people on Rustaveli Street seemed still to believe that yesterday, it surely won't be long before they realise that this military defeat has made the prospect almost unimaginable.

That is when Mr Saakashvili's reputation, already badly weakened on the international stage, may start to falter at home.

"Most of Georgia is unified behind the President now," said Alexander Rondeli, a senior political analyst. "But there are certain rascals who are waiting for the moment to start to talk about his mistakes during this crisis."