By Tara Bahrampour
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 13, 2008
TBILISI, Georgia, Aug. 12 -- On the first day of the war, as he spoke on television about his country's attempt to retake a breakaway territory, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili had a little smile on his face.
As the situation became more grave, so did he, and in the following days he seemed at turns stressed, tearful, defiant and solemn. In Gori, the scene of heavy Russian bombardment, he appeared in a flak jacket, trailed by camera crews, and on Monday night, when Tbilisi residents thought their turn was next, his was the demeanor of a captain going down with the ship.
Georgia has always been the most theatrical of nations, and Saakashvili -- "Misha" to his people -- is the most theatrical of presidents. He swept into power four years ago as a revolutionary, promising to stamp out corruption and bring economic stability, and in some cases he delivered. But the issue of two breakaway regions was perhaps the most emotional -- and quixotic -- of his causes. It also came with the possibility for the most serious consequences.
"Music videos and flowery speeches are one thing, but the shelling of a city that you view as one of your heartland is not done lightly," said Jonathan Kulick, director of studies at the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies in Tbilisi. "Clearly this is going to be a signal point in his legacy."
Russians accuse Saakashvili of genocide in launching his attack on South Ossetia last week. Supporters scoff at that, but as news accounts emerge of civilians killed by Georgian fire and towns ravaged, some are starting to question privately whether the president committed grave errors.
Though the frozen conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia long predated Saakashvili, he made recovery of the regions a main theme of his presidency. He created a new ministry devoted to that cause and often reminded his people that the separatist regions -- especially the seaside resort area of Abkhazia -- were part of their rightful inheritance. Russia's backing of the separatists fit well into Georgians' historical idea of themselves as a small but valiant country up against large and brutal forces.
Many of Saakashvili's cues are visual. Under his presidency, signs went up across Georgia informing motorists how many kilometers they were from Sukhumi, Abkhazia's capital. A TV spot showing a make-believe scene of happy Georgians taking cars, boats and trains back into Abkhazia was played so often on television that its accompanying song embedded itself into the nation's subconscious.
Georgia also arranged a Boney M concert in a tiny Georgian-controlled part of South Ossetia. There, Saakashvili danced and told reporters that he hoped the music would charm people into laying down their arms.
Charm, after all, was one of his best weapons, effective with U.S. leaders who liked his pro-Western stance, his fluent English and his degrees from George Washington and Columbia universities. At least initially, he had the same effect with Georgian citizens hungry for a new kind of leadership.
His emotional public image -- such as a campaign poster last year depicting a tear rolling down his cheek as he talked with a poverty-stricken citizen -- was, he said, genuine.
"I can only be myself," he said. "The people don't accept [if] I stage things."
When things were not going so well for the president, the breakaway regions proved useful. Last fall and winter, when crowds poured into the streets to protest Saakashvili's policies on the economy and rule of law, the administration branded his critics as Russian agents, and pro-government television stations showed secret tapes of opposition leaders holding conversations with Russian diplomats.
When critics pointed to shortcomings in areas such as human rights and rule of law, administration members routinely invoked Abkhazia and South Ossetia, saying these were more pressing issues. According to some of them, Georgia was already at war with Russia. Such talk fueled Georgia's ambitions to join the NATO alliance, and Georgians were sorely disappointed this spring when the country was denied a formal plan toward future membership. Without a place in NATO, they felt, the threat of war with Russia loomed larger.
Assistant Deputy Secretary of State Matthew Bryza, who arrived in Tbilisi on Monday with harsh words for Russia, said the Georgian government's rhetoric had at times in the past been worrisome. "Belligerent or fiery rhetoric is part of life in the Caucasus," he said. "It is the intention that matters, and intentions can change in the heat of a crisis and lead to bad decisions."
When war finally erupted last week, it affirmed what many in the leadership had long been saying, and brought a huge amount of international attention to the little-known conflict here. It also caused once-vocal critics to put aside their differences and rally around the president.
On Tuesday, as the Russians said they would stand down and try to negotiate peace, Saakashvili addressed a huge crowd in front of Parliament, the same spot where nine months ago people had poured into the streets against him.
This time the crowd chanted "Misha! Misha!" and cheered wildly as he compared Georgia's situation to Soviet crackdowns in Prague in 1968 and Hungary in 1956. He cited the support of former opponents, including one whom he said had called from exile to offer his services as a reservist.
People in the crowd spoke of him glowingly and several commented on how stressed he had seemed in recent days.
"I think that he is a brave man," said Maya Gokiely, 49. "Maybe not always balanced, but he is young and he is brave."
Russian demands that Saakashvili be removed from office for now are helping assure his lock on it. But with the war apparently ending, it remains to be seen how long this affection will remain. Although his regular critics say now is not the time for criticism, some say privately that they are furious at the president for Georgia's part in causing civilian deaths.
Nika Loladze, a business consultant who attended the rally, said he thought the events of this week may have given Georgia an unexpected chance to regain the disputed land, through international talks that are now supposed to begin. "It was lost anyway, but we just didn't call a spade a spade -- and now?" He smiled and shrugged.
Kulick, the director of studies, was more cautious. "Who knows what's coming down the pipeline?" he said. "I suspect that he will not be judged as wise or brave for having done this."