Georgians Question Wisdom of War With Russia

By Tara Bahrampour
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 9, 2008

TBILISI, Georgia, Sept. 8 -- As open war between Georgia and Russia has subsided into a tense standoff among world powers, Georgians inside and outside the government have begun to question the wisdom of the costly confrontation, and of the leaders who set it in motion.

They are doing so carefully, saying they don't want to be seen as supporting the Kremlin's call for the ouster of President Mikheil Saakashvili. But whispers of discontent first heard during the early days of the war have grown louder and bolder.

Opposition leaders as well as some longtime supporters of the president are calling for investigations into what they call failures in diplomacy and warfare, and some are predicting Saakashvili will be forced from office by a war they say he hoped would earn him a place in history.

In parts of Georgia, Russian troops are still dug in. But since a wartime restriction on criticism of the government was lifted Thursday, the public recriminations have begun.

David Usupashvili, leader of the opposition Republican Party, said he had serious concerns about the decision to fight the much larger Russian army. "I don't believe that the Georgian government started this military action, but I condemn my government's action to respond with a full-scale military conflict," he said. "The main fundamental question is why Saakashvili and his administration . . . did not think Russia would respond with all in its power, guns and tanks."

David Gamkrelidze, leader of the opposition New Rights party, said that while Russia had long been "punishing" Georgia for its independence, Saakashvili's "unbalanced and very aggressive politics" had helped Russia. "By his military rhetoric, and all kinds of provocations, Saakashvili tried to show that he can return these territories by the military way, that he has this capacity, he has this force."

The territories in question are two separatist regions, South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Officials present at some of the prewar discussions said that Saakashvili and a tight group of supporters seemed convinced they had the military power to win back South Ossetia -- which Georgian forces attacked on the night of Aug. 7 -- within a few hours or days and were not interested in opposing points of view.

"He has no communication with anybody except this small circle, which is a serious reason why he decided to go to South Ossetia," said a highly placed official who has worked in the government since Saakashvili took office but said he now feels let down. Speaking on the condition of anonymity, the official said Saakashvili "wants to be a hero, not a normal president who increases the taxes, et cetera."

Alexander Rondeli, president of the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies, described the group around Saakashvili as "patriots" but added: "Maybe their experience is not enough, and they are revolutionaries rather than experienced statesmen."

Georgian officials now say they never thought their army had a chance of overcoming the much larger Russian army on its own.

Saakashvili said that he had no expectation of outside military assistance but that to preserve the Georgian state he had no choice but to attack the Russian forces. "We did not expect that some ready battalions would be there from the U.S. to come help us," he said in an interview. "That would have been insane of me. And I didn't expect the Europeans to risk their skins for us."

Some sort of confrontation with Russia over South Ossetia and Abkhazia had long been brewing. Since leading the peaceful 2003 Rose Revolution, Saakashvili had made reclaiming the zones one of his main goals.

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