[DEBATE] : Georgians Question Wisdom of War With Russia: President's Future At Stake, Some Say
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Wed Sep 10 02:13:55 BST 2008
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; A12
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 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
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
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
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
With his typical confidence, Saakashvili recently answered
"absolutely" when asked whether he expects to survive the crisis
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
Rondeli said he thinks Saakashvili's chances of staying in power are
"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
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
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
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