Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has gone from a leader praised for giving Moscow a bloody nose to a man seen as a liability responsible for his country's problems. Now his critics want him removed from office.
Saakashvili is accused of mismanaging the war with Russia and resisting democratic reforms
Georgia became the focus of the world's concerns in August 2008 when its president, Mikheil Saakashvili, launched a large-scale military attack against neighboring South Ossetia in an attempt to regain control of the breakaway state.
Saakashvili's assault backfired when Russia retaliated to the attack on a region allied to Moscow by forcing Georgian troops out of South Ossetia and pursuing them far into Georgian territory. After heavy fighting and fears that Russia would attempt to overthrow Saakashvili by taking the capital Tbilisi, an EU-brokered peace plan brought the war to a close.
The international fall-out was widespread. The EU and the United States in particular condemned the Russian aggression, scaling back relations with Moscow over its perceived disproportionate response. In turn, the Russians accused the United States of fomenting the unrest which led to the Georgian attack on South Ossetia and supporting Saakashvili's government during the war. The EU, US and NATO all downgraded their diplomatic ties with Russia and while talk of a new Cold War was a little overdramatic, there was definitely a deep chill.
Since then, both the West and Russia have mended some, but not all, of the fences damaged during the war. Relations have thawed and ties have been re-established. A new president in the White House has reached out to his counterpart at the Kremlin and while no-one is organizing sleep-overs, names have been put back on Christmas card lists.
Thousands of protestors heeded the opposition's call
But what of Georgia? After the war, the world's attention briefly lingered on the destruction wrought by the advancing Russian forces and international experts mused about the future of the Caucasus region but as other topics came to the fore -- namely the US presidential election and a certain Barack Obama -- Georgia slipped from the headlines.
Now events in Tbilisi are making news again. After enjoying a surge of support for his war with Russia, carefully spun as a heroic rebuff to the great aggressor, Saakashvili has come under increasing pressure from opposition leaders who are now calling for him to resign.
Opposition has been growing with many, including some top former allies, accusing Saakashvili of mishandling the conflict and betraying the values of the 2003 Rose Revolution that swept him to power by persecuting critics, stifling the media and concentrating power in his own hands. Observers say that the opposition has a lot of ammunition in their campaign to remove Saakashvili.
President faces list of grievances
"First of all the economic situation in Georgia is not improving," Alexander Rahr, the director of the Russian/Eurasia Program at the German Council on Foreign Relations, told Deutsche Welle. "It had improved in the first two years after the Rose Revolution but since then there is very little improvement because there is very little investment in Georgia. Secondly, there is still the understanding in the opposition that Saakashvili is using authoritarian means to silence them, to prevent them from speaking up and there is still some censorship in Georgia. So all the promises Saakashvili made to build a democratic state in Georgia have not been fulfilled.
Despite the devastation of the war, Saakashvili was lauded
"Thirdly there are the problems of the war in South Ossetia and the loss of territory," Rahr added. "After some weeks and months of close solidarity with Saakashvili in the aftermath of the war, now the position of people in Georgia is to blame him for the war and a situation which could have been avoided."
The president has attempted to turn the tables on the opposition by claiming to have averted an attempted violent coup and painting the opposition as the stooges in a Moscow-backed campaign to overthrow him. To support this, several opposition supporters were arrested this week on weapons charges as government officials made allegations of plots for attacks.
But claims that the opposition is working with Moscow to unseat a man the Kremlin sees as a regional irritant loses credibility when one looks deeper at those involved in the campaign against Saakashvili.
Opposition leaders look to the West
"The opposition forces that are on the streets are more pro-Western orientated than Saakashvili himself," said Alexander Rahr. "The new leader of the Georgian protest movement, Irakli Alasania, is a former ambassador to the UN, he has absolutely no connections with Russia and some people say that he is the new American candidate for Georgia.
The opposition are even more aligned with the West
"Nino Burjanadze of the Democratic Movement - United Georgia party has some diplomatic ties to Moscow but she is free of any suspicion of cooperating with Russia," he added. "Davit Gamkrelidze, the new co-chairman of the Alliance Party, is a businessman who fronts the opposition is very connected to the West and not in Russia so I think the protests are genuine and they are coming from the position that Saakashvili is not a democrat."
"The protestors are being led by people who want more democracy and prosperity for the country and who are being more supported by the West than by Russia," he said.
However, Rahr claims that support for Saakashvili is dwindling dramatically in the United States and Europe and this is why the opposition believes that he has to go. They claim he is a danger to the stability and success of Georgia on the international scene.
Saakashvili's young, mainly Western-educated team came to power blessed by former US President George W. Bush as a "beacon of liberty", but the light has faded and diplomats say Barack Obama's administration will be less forgiving.
Critics cast doubt on opposition's ability to govern
If Georgia is to recover from the war, boost its economy and regain credibility on the world stage, the opposition says, Saakashvili has to go. But what happens if and when Saakashvili is replaced?
Could Irakli Alasania and his fellow opponents form a stable coalition government?
"First of all, Saakashvili will not step down so quickly," Rahr said. "He has survived many of these opposition protests and organized demonstrations against him so let's see if the opposition is even strong enough to force him into some compromises. If he topples, if he has to go, the questions arises as to how the various opposition forces can form a coalition government as they are only united, as is often the case in these situations, against the leader, the acting president. They want him out but this may be the only goal that unites them."
The problem with the opposition forces, Rahr said, is that they are often perceived as being very naïve.
"They have a lot of slogans; 'let's have democracy', 'let's build prosperity', 'let's fight corruption', 'let's make the press free'…but these were the same slogans with which Saakashvili came to power in 2003," he said."So how are these forces going to fight corruption, where are they going to get money to rebuild Georgia? If this opposition comes to power they will have to answer these questions and find a way to restore relations with Russia, an economy which is still important to Georgia. They have to normalize relations with other states around Georgia and would have to provide a new perspective on Georgia's path towards Europe and the United States. This will all take time so the conclusion to these protests is far from clear."
Author: Nick Amies
Editor: Rob Mudge