Beleaguered president: Gambler who risked his country and links with West

By Shaun Walker
Saturday 22 October 2011 23:48

Wearing his trademark dark suit and red tie, Mikheil Saakashvili emerged on to the terrace of his new Presidential Palace into a humid Tbilisi afternoon yesterday to face the world's media. He spoke passionately about the need for the international community to respond to Russia's "invasion" of his country, but for a media-hungry man renowned for his charm and charisma, he looked fatigued and strained.

In many ways, his behaviour in the past week has been true to form. Mr Saakashvili has long been a political enigma. When he swept to power in the bloodless "rose revolution" of 2003, the West treated him like a messiah destined to bring freedom and democracy to his small Caucasus nation and spread it across the region.

Just as swiftly, he became enemy number one in the Kremlin, where he was hated as much as he was admired in the White House. While the West was delighted at the chain reaction of "coloured revolutions" that his coming to power triggered in the former Soviet space, the Russians were terrified. Regime change in Tbilisi has been on Vladimir Putin's to-do list since the day that Mr Saakashvili was sworn into office.

Mr Saakashvili, only 40 himself, employed a team of ministers whose age sometimes bordered on the ridiculous. Many key ministers have been in their 20s throughout his time in office. The young team made mistakes, but went about their job with a vigour and idealism unprecedented in the region.

But while Washington and Brussels were delighted to have a leader who wanted to open up to the West and spoke their language, doubts always remained that he may at times be a loose cannon. His language towards Russia has often been provocative, and he has a ruthless and impulsive streak revealed during the crushing of street protests last year.

Mr Saakashvili in recent days has looked like a man who bit off more than he could chew. It's still unclear who started this messy little war, with each side pointing accusing fingers at the other. Russia has clearlybeen spoiling for a fight, but it seems hard not to conclude that the vital hand in a very risky card game was played by Mr Saakashvili himself when he ordered a full-on assault of South Ossetia last Thursday night. He called Mr Putin's bluff, and Mr Putin, with some trademark harsh words, laid down a full house – not just repelling the Georgian assault on South Ossetia but launching attacks all over Georgia.

At yesterday's press conference, the President broke into a strangely inappropriate smile when asked about a "security incident" in Gori involving himself and the French Foreign Minister, Bernard Kouchner, in which the two politicians were rushed back to their cars and driven away. One foreign diplomat has described him as "looking lost" recently.

Given the severity of Russia's assault on his country, it's not surprising. But he clearly made a huge miscalculation as to the level of Western support that would be forthcoming in the event of war. As world leaders visited Tbilisi over the past three years, he wooed one after another with his lofty ideals and persuasive charm. But it is clear that he is desperately disappointed that the international community's response has been limited to lukewarm verbal support.

Quite what he expects is unclear; the prospect of American or European troops heading into Tskhinvali to take on the Russians is unthinkable. But his calls for a robust international response to the Russians had a note of fear in them; and his exhortations have become desperate pleas to the people he thought were his friends and allies to help him out.

"Please wake up everybody," said the US-educated lawyer, in his fluent, lightly accented English. "And please make your position and speak with one united voice."

When he received The Independent at the same venue just 10 weeks ago, he made a similar call for the West to stand up against Russia. "The next step will be Russian jets bombing Tbilisi," he said. It was difficult not to smirk, given the outrageousness of the prospect. Over the last few days, however he has been proved right, though how much his own brinkmanship made this a self-fulfilling prophecy is hard to say.

Mr Saakashvili, who has been described by one of his advisers as a "media junkie", also made it clear yesterday how much he values Western opinion about his regime and his country, and how closely he follows the Western press.

"That's the last thing on my mind," he said, when I asked him how the situation was affecting him psychologically and politically. And then, as though he couldn't resist: "I like your articles. But The Independent had a footnote the other day saying that Stalin divided North and South Ossetia. It's not true. South Ossetia has always been Georgian."

He then went on to explain that Georgia wanted the return of all displaced persons to their homes in South Ossetia, and looked forward to their living together. But while his rhetoric on civil rights and the Georgian economy has been consistently impressive, Mr Saakashvili has historically been least convincing on his plans for the reintegration of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. His attempt to take back South Ossetia militarily, which he has ruled out on numerous occasions before, was a tacit admission that attempts to win the territory back by negotiations are futile.

For now, in a time of war, the Georgian people are swept up by patriotic fervour and standing behind their leader. But with military defeat in South Ossetia, and a Russian response that will scare away foreign investors for some time to come, when the dust settles, its first political victim could be Mr Saakashvili himself.

Profile of a president

Born: Tbilisi, Georgia, in December 1967. His father, Nikoloz, is a physician who still practises medicine in Tbilisi. His mother, Giuli Alasania, is a history lecturer at Tbilisi State University.

Educated: Studied in France and Ukraine, then completed a law degree at Columbia University before working for a New York law firm. As well as his native Georgian, he speaks fluent French, Ukranian, Russian and English.

Family: Married his Dutch wife, Sandra Roelofs, in Manhattan in 1993.

Path to power: Appointed justice minister by the then-president of Georgia, Eduard Shevardnadze, in 2000 but quit in protest at corruption and formed a new party. After elections in 2003, he led daily protests against the government which resulted in Shevardnadze's resignation and Georgia's parliament being stormed, culminating in the "rose revolution". In the 2004 presidential election, Mr Saakashvili won more than 96 per cent of the votes to become Europe's youngest president. He modelled himself on a medieval king, David the Builder, and pledged to restore Georgia's territorial integrity.

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