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Georgia's Defiant President Finds Support in Midst of War

As Russia Condemns Saakashvili, Internal Criticism Decreases

Russian forces showed signs of withdrawal in some areas of Georgia, but announced plans to strengthen their presence in others, two weeks after conflict began on Aug. 8.
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 13, 2008; Page A09

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.

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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.


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