Georgians Question Wisdom of War With Russia
President's Future At Stake, Some Say

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.

Saakashvili's Western-oriented government has been hailed as a "beacon of democracy" by President Bush. But many here say that long before the war, the government used tensions over the breakaway regions to flout basic democratic principles, change the constitution to strengthen the ruling party, ignore judiciary problems and suppress the media.

Such complaints helped spark massive protests here last November, which the government crushed with tear gas and masked troops wielding batons, staining Georgia's international image. Saakashvili ended the crisis by calling a snap presidential election; he won a second term, though with less support than in the previous election and with allegations of vote-rigging.

With an ineffectual opposition, Saakashvili and his ruling majority had seemed securely ensconced for another five years. But now there is serious pressure: A popular opposition member of Parliament has called for an investigative commission, 80 organizations and individuals have signed a petition calling for a "broad debate," and most opposition leaders refused to sign a government pledge of unity, according to a local online newspaper.

Critics also accuse the government of dishonesty in its characterization of the war's outcome. Several have blasted the government for staging celebrations during and after the war, and for claiming the conflict was an international public relations victory while blaming others for its failures.

"What we are hearing is that everyone is guilty in this but the government itself," Usupashvili said. "They started talking that the events of last year were something which stopped the government from improving the army, or that there are lots of [Russian] agents within the opposition. But they are not looking in their own back yard to see who misled the president by saying the Russians wouldn't respond."

Some people here say the war has delegitimized the president. "He no more has the moral or political right to be commander in chief, and he must resign," said Gamkrelidze, who ran against Saakashvili in January and is calling for new elections.

One politician seen as a possible alternative is Nino Burjanadze, who helped usher in the Rose Revolution and resigned as speaker of the Parliament in the spring. Burjanadze, who recently visited the United States, said she was not yet ready to criticize Saakashvili publicly but said that for years she had warned him that Russia would attack if Georgia sent troops into the breakaway regions. "I always said this, and I said this at the last meeting," shortly before the war, she said.

With his typical confidence, Saakashvili recently answered "absolutely" when asked whether he expects to survive the crisis politically.

For all his troubles, his is a familiar face to Georgian voters as well as Western allies, and some people here predict he will finish his term, though perhaps in a weakened position that forces him into power-sharing.

Rondeli said he thinks Saakashvili's chances of staying in power are "quite high."

"I think there will be political forces that will try to seize the moment and get rid of him, but I think his position is not as weak as it looks for some," Rondeli said.

Several critics said they worried that speaking out too soon could undermine their chances of changing the leadership. "A lot of people are afraid that they could be arrested for treason," said a government official who recounted discussing with others in the government ways to challenge the administration. Sitting near an outdoor cafe called KGB: Still Watching You, he pushed his cellphone to the other side of the table, noting, "Now, everybody is quite silent, and moving away from cellphones."

The official said he did not expect Saakashvili to last the year but fears what might follow.

"If he is forced out by force, I fear that everything that he achieved -- roads, police reform, Euro-Atlantic cooperation -- could be gone. That's why we really need to change it very, very delicately and in a very quiet way." Otherwise, he said, a more authoritarian government could replace the current one.

Critics say they are not looking for another revolution. Some envision a scenario in which Saakashvili stays on with diminished power. Several, however, expressed fear that rather than feeling chastened by the war, the ruling party will interpret the $1 billion in aid pledged by the United States last week as a green light to continue its policies.

To offer the aid without conditions was "a mistake," Gamkrelidze said, adding that assistance should be tied to judicial, legislative, constitutional and media reforms. "He almost got us into a new cold war, or a third world war. It must be in the interest of the U.S. and European allies to make this country more democratic and more accountable."

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