Georgians divided on Saakashvili, united against Russia

16th August 2008, Comments 0 comments

While most Georgians support their leader’s action regarding the troublesome republics, they disagree on their leader himself.

Tbilisi -- The residents of the Georgian capital Tbilisi often loudly express widely differing opinions on President Mikhail Saakashvili and his failed gambit to invade and overpower the renegade province of South Ossetia.

But even now, at the end of a woefully unsuccessful Georgian war against their Russia, Georgians almost without exception agreed on their dislike of their large neighbor.

"They are an aggressive, militarist nation," said Nuri Khababashvili, a Tbilisi travel professional. "The Russians have always wanted to control Georgia, and Saakashvili like any Georgian wants to keep our nation together."

"Even if Misha (the Georgian president) has done some things wrong, we know in the end he is a patriot," he added.

The international community has struggled, of course, to understand the logic underpinning Saakashvili's decision to send his army to the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali and, upon encountering unexpectedly tough resistance from Ossetian militia and especially Russian peacekeeping infantry, to order a wholesale bombardment using NATO-standard howitzers and rocket launchers.

But many Georgians said they agreed with their leader and believed the war was justified: The Russian-backed Ossetians shot first in the days leading up to the war.

"Look at it from our point of view, there is this renegade Georgian territory and the bandits there shoot at our people, assault our people and rob them," said Tbilisi taxi driver Gogi Sarikadze. "What are we supposed to do, nothing? The Ossetians have always been bandits in the mountains that rob Georgians... Saakashvili did what any Georgian would do."

Damaged reputation
The Ossetia war has nonetheless damaged Saakashvili's reputation as an effective leader.

First of all, there is the defeat at the hands of the Russian army and its continued occupation of Georgia's Gori and Poti districts.

But even apart from these, practically all Georgians interviewed were sharply critical of Saakashvili's handling of the war and the American-educated politician's enthusiasm for spending billions of taxpayer dollars on a NATO-standard army.

"What kind of army do we have, when the soldiers have no orders and they don't get food for two days," asked housewife, Nino Gamkhaladze. "That's what happened to my husband. Misha (Saakashvili) just threw our army to the Russians and he had no idea what he was doing -- they were just cannon fodder."

Some Tbilisi residents went even further, castigating Saakashvili for committing a foreign policy blunder of the first order, placing the Georgian nation itself at risk and relying on the wrong allies.

"He (Saakashvili) must think we (Georgians) are idiots," said Iosif Sevidani, a student. "For years and years, he says 'only a fool would start a war with Russia, and we are not fools'. And then here he goes and challenges the Russians to their face."

"I guess he was betting the Americans would fight on our side but I think only Europe can be Georgia's friend," he added.

Looking west

Most Georgians interviewed said that Georgia's eventual membership in NATO and the European Union was the only way the tiny former Soviet republic could ever hope to have security from its giant northern neighbor. But there were exceptions.

"We have to look facts in the face -- we are next to Russia and Europe and America are far away," said truck driver Khakha Kurgalidze. "Look at Armenia, they don't want to have anything to do with NATO and they have no problems with Russia. I think this is the only course for us."

The thorny topic of Georgian internal politics and Saakashvili's future within them is the most divisive issue of all.

Tbilisi residents predicted, among others, Saakashvili's impeachment, a forced coalition government between Saakashvili and the opposition or even increased domestic political clout for Saakashvili due to widely expected massive increases in US military assistance to Georgia.

"He's going to be there (in office) for years," said Gogi Khutashvili, a travel industry specialist. "He'll survive this war like everything else."

DPA with Expatica

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