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Georgia president’s gamble may end NATO aspirations

Bodyguards escort President Mikhail Saakashvili in Gori, Georgia, on Monday.  (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
Bodyguards escort President Mikhail Saakashvili in Gori, Georgia, on Monday. (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, a U.S-trained attorney regarded by Washington as a pro-democracy Wunderkind, has made a political career of brinkmanship with neighboring Russia. This time, he may have over-played his hand.

Saakashvili helped oust former Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze in the “Rose Revolution” in 2003 and became Europe’s youngest president the following January at age 36. He has been jousting with Moscow ever since over control of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two pro-Russian regions of his country.

A lover of Georgian wine and Western culture, Saakashvili is described as supremely confident to autocratic. Last week, he moved troops into disputed South Ossetia as a new Russian president presided in Moscow, Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin and President Bush visited Bejing, and much of the world’s attention was focused on the 2008 Summer Olympics.

Georgian forces came under overwhelming air and ground attack and were quickly repelled.

Saakashvili says his forces were provoked into action in South Ossetia; Russia accuses him of launching an offensive move against his nemesis. Either way, he has ended up in a more precarious position.

“It was a calculated gamble and he miscalculated,” said Stephen Larrabee, Corporate Chair in European Security at the Rand Corp. in Washington. “He has been forced to withdraw. It’s a military blunder. It caused an international incident.”

While Georgians are likely to rally behind Saakashvili as long as they feel under threat from Russia, in the long run he may face a backlash for launching military action that failed and may make it impossible to bring a breakaway region back into the fold.

The move may also have jeopardized Saakashvili’s larger goal for Georgia to join NATO, political observers said. Saakashvili’s pursuit of NATO membership has been making the Russian government nervous and more aggressive, and NATO is unlikely to want a new risk-taker in the family.

Saakashvili has been the Bush administration’s poster child for pro-Western movements. He keeps an autographed photograph of himself with President Bush in his office and is one of the closest U.S. allies in the region. The United States supplied him with military aid to build his army and he, in turn, sent Georgian troops to Iraq to support the U.S. mission there.

Analysts credit Saakashvili and a small circle of young advisers with cleaning up corruption in Georgia and revitalizing the economy. However, they say he is impatient, both with internal political dissent and secessionist movements.

As recently as July, the U.S. government publicly cautioned Saakashvili to pursue diplomacy in Georgia’s dispute with Russia over the provinces. At a joint appearance with Saakashvili last month in front of Tbilisi’s new glass-domed presidential palace, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice promised to fight for Georgian membership in NATO.

But she also said pointedly that “violence should not be carried out by any party.”

Now Saakashvili is complaining that the West has failed to come to his side.

“We are receiving only moral and humanitarian help from the international community, but we need more than that,” he said in a televised address Monday evening.

He claimed that Russia plans to oust him and take control of Georgia.


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