Shaun Walker: The sad demise of Saakashvili and his bold new vision

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The Independent Online

Two hours after the scheduled start of the press conference, and five hours after beginning talks, Condoleezza Rice and Mikheil Saakashvili walked on to the terrace of the presidential palace in Tbilisi yesterday, looking stony-faced and exhausted.

The Georgian President made the first statement and it soon became apparent that this was a man on the edge. At times, it was too painful to watch. His powerful, raw emotion was laid out bare for all to see but, after a week of immense political pressure, sleep deprivation and finally being forced into signing a ceasefire agreement when he had nothing left to bargain with, he was unable to direct his emotions into a coherent speech. He floundered over words, made long and incoherent pauses and at times looked as if he might either burst into tears or pass out.

Ms Rice, who on previous visits has provided lots of smiles and warm words for the Georgian leader – George Bush's pet project in the Caucasus – was hardly a bastion of moral support. Here was Mr Saakashvili in his hour of greatest need, with his greatest ally – the envoy of the US President who stood in Tbilisi's main square three years ago and promised he would stand by Georgia in any eventuality – offering nothing more than a bit of humanitarian aid and a humiliating ceasefire deal. It was hard not to focus on Mr Saakashvili's all-too-obvious flaws when he was charming the White House and the world with his textbook language about democracy and freedom. But it is hard not to pity him now. He looks like a broken man; his dreams, country and political career shattered in the space of a week. Mr Saakashvili is a man who demonstrably loves his country and who, despite all his flaws, had a persuasive and engaging vision to transform Georgia into a modern state.

He used the word "barbarians" to describe Russians at least half a dozen times, and said that "today, we are looking evil directly in the eye".Ms Rice, on the other hand, remained unflappable, standing sour-faced throughout Mr Saakashvili's tirades and managing only the mildest condemnation of Russia.

By the end, he had veered completely off course, attacking the West in the most absurd terms for blaming Georgia for starting the aggression. "Can you say that the victim of rape is to be blamed because she wore a short skirt?" he asked.

Ms Rice appeared to suppress a grimace. It was the sort of language one might expect from Vladimir Putin, but whereas the Russian President would spit the words out with an arrogant sneer, Mr Saakashvili stammered through his lines like a man on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

The press conference to be held on the terrace of his still unfinished presidential palace today could well be nothing less than the end of the Saakashvili era in Georgia. It will surely be impossible for him to bounce back now, as the Georgian people, never ones to shy away from a protest, begin to find their oppositionist voice and criticise his handling of the war.

It might be the end not only for Mr Saakashvili but for the "Georgian dream" he represented. And even for those who had their reservations about that dream, it was a fairly sad sight to watch.

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