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Saakashvili: symbol of Georgia’s hopes and disappointments

Tbilisi — From the moment five years ago when he stormed into parliament with a red rose in hand, Mikheil Saakashvili has embodied the hopes, and the disappointments, of Georgia’s "Rose Revolution".

To supporters he’s a passionate advocate of his small nation, to critics an unpredictable and dangerous demagogue, but there can be no denying that Saakashvili has done more than anyone to shape Georgia’s recent history.

On Thursday, tens of thousands of opposition supporters rallied in the capital Tbilisi to demand his resignation, the latest chapter in a story that has seen Saakashvili’s political fortunes rise and fall.

Educated in the United States and France, fluent in five languages and supremely ambitious, Saakashvili was a natural leader for the protest movement that drove former president Eduard Shevardnadze from power in November 2003.

Lured by Shevardnadze away from a New York law firm to return to Georgia, Saakashvili then turned on his mentor and resigned as justice minister in 2001 to join the opposition.

His talent for rabble-rousing and dramatic gestures were on full display during the Rose Revolution, when thousands of opposition supporters took to the streets to denounce a fraudulent election.

Brandishing a single red rose, Saakashvili led the charge into parliament that marked the end of Shevardnadze’s regime.

Thousands chanted Saakashvili’s nickname "Misha" as he announced news of Shevardnadze’s resignation 24 hours later.

He won the subsequent presidential race with a whopping 96 percent of the vote, becoming, at 36, the youngest head of state in Europe.

Once in office, he focused on reforming Georgia, announcing sweeping free-market reforms and courting Western investors. He charmed guests as he indulged his legendary appetite at sumptuous Georgian feasts.

He was lauded from abroad as he pushed for NATO membership and closer ties with Europe, incurring the wrath of former imperial master Russia.

During a 2005 visit to Tbilisi, US President George W. Bush hailed Georgia as "a beacon of democracy".

But from the earliest days some worried that Saakashvili was concentrating too much power among his chosen friends and moving too quickly with free-market reforms.

Opponents accused him of becoming arrogant and allowing his ego to run out of control.

Having promised voters he would never move out of his modest Tbilisi apartment, Saakashvili drew ridicule for launching construction on a massive presidential building in the historic heart of the capital.

Discontent erupted in November 2007 when thousands took the streets in anti-government protests. The government’s response — a police crackdown and the imposition of emergency rule — shocked Saakashvili’s supporters.

His subsequent win of a snap presidential election did little to silence his critics.

Saakashvili has faced even stronger criticism for his handling of the war with Russia in August over Georgia’s rebel region of South Ossetia.

Opponents have accused him of impulsively launching a military offensive without regard for the consequences.

Russian forces poured into Georgia following a Georgian attempt to retake South Ossetia from Moscow-backed separatists, occupying swathes of territory and bombing targets across the country.

Saakashvili was at the forefront of Georgia’s media campaign during the war, appearing repeatedly on international news channels and holding conference calls for foreign media.

The move in some cases backfired — as when an international news channel showed him nervously chewing on his tie before an interview — and Saakashvili’s star has been falling in the West.

But despite opposition calls for early elections, Saakashvili’s supporters say he retains widespread popular support.

In a survey of 1,500 Georgians conducted last month for the International Republican Institute, only 28 percent agreed with opposition leaders that Saakashvili should resign. Fifty-one percent instead agreed with a statement that Georgia needed "unity and patience" in the face of serious challenges.