Georgians divided on Saakashvili, but united against Russia

August 15th, 2008 - 5:47 pm ICT by IANS  

Tbilisi, Aug 15 (DPA) 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 war against Russia, Georgians almost without exception agreed on their dislike of Russia.

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

“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 peacekeeper infantry, to order a wholesale bombardment using NATO-standard howitzers and rocket launchers.

But many Georgians say they agree with their president and believed the war was justified, because 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, they assault our people, rob them, and what are we supposed to do, just do nothing?” demanded Tbilisi cabbie Gogi Sarikadze.

“The Ossetians have always been bandits in the mountains that rob Georgians… Saakashvili did what any Georgian would do,” he continued.

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

There are the naked facts of defeat at the hands of the Russian army and its continued occupation of Georgia’s Gori and Poti districts aside.

But even apart from these, practically all Georgians are sharply critical of Saakashvili’s prosecution of the war, and the US-educated politician’s enthusiasm for spending billions of taxpayers’ money 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, he had no idea what he was doing, they were just cannon fodder.”

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

“He (Saakashvili) must think we (Georgians) are idiots, 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 in their face,” argued student Iosif Devidani.

“I guess he was betting the Americans would fight on our side, but I think only Europe can be Georgia’s friend,” he said.

Devidani and almost all other 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 neighbour. 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 lorry driver Khakha Kurgalidze, in what appeared to be a minority opinion. “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, brought perhaps the widest variety of opinions.

Tbilisi residents predicted, among others, Saakashvili’s impeachment, 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, in a common response.

“He’ll survive this war like everything else.”

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