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Saakashvili's future, CU Issue 3, September 22, 2008

On September 15, EU representatives in Brussels approved a three-year package of financial assistance which will send $700 million dollars to Tbilisi to repair the country after the August war with Russia. NATO representatives were also in Georgia to express their support of the country and to inaugurate the new NATO-Georgia Commission, a new forum for dialogue between the two.

Is this enough to save President Mikheil Saakashvili? The President’s position still looks stable, a month and a half after the war, but his future is certainly not guaranteed. Whatever the truth behind the spark which began the conflict, the attack on South Ossetia and the massive Russian response were President Saakashvili’s personal responsibility, and questions will increasingly be asked within Georgia about his decision. There are a number of factors which will decide his future.

The investigation into the causes of the war - specifically, whether or not Russian armour had entered Georgia before the Georgian attack on South Ossetia, and whether Moscow encouraged South Ossetian units to provoke Georgia - will have an impact on Saakashvili’s standing, but will probably not be decisive either way, unless evidence of his recklessness becomes clear against the backdrop of wider discontent.

The role of the opposition, and of Saakashvili’s own National Movement party will be critical. Fringe parties have begun calling for his resignation, and rumours of discontent within the Defence Ministry have been circulating for some time. However, widespread political opposition to the President has yet to manifest itself. If and when it does, the stance of the ex-speaker of the parliament Nino Burjanadze will be significant. A potential challenger to Saakashvili and a moderate who could deal with Moscow, she could be a catalyst for the opposition.

President Saakashvili’s handling of US and European aid could be a way for him to defuse the emerging dissatisfaction with his rule. If the money is channelled into infrastructure, the armed forces and most importantly the resettlement of internally displaced persons (IDPs) quickly, transparently and effectively then widespread discontent may be averted. If there is no real improvement, especially in war-scarred towns like Gori, Georgia’s economic climate will grow even worse; foreign investment will plummet and unemployment will rise. The implications for Saakashvili are clear.

The issue of IDPs is not a new one in Georgia, given the prior presence of several thousand from Abkhazia and South Ossetia who were forced out in the 1990s.The new situation is significantly different. For one thing, there are many more IDPs from South Ossetia than before. For another, there is now almost no chance that any of these refugees will ever be able to return to their homes, since the provinces are essentially lost to Georgia. They are no longer a political instrument in the peace negotiations and must be resettled for the long term. If not, they are liable to become a weight around President Saakashvili’s neck.

Evidently, continued international aid will be necessary for a comprehensive solution to Georgia’s economic problems. Whether or not it is forthcoming will depend on the political willingness of Western leaders to continue supporting Saakashvili, a man described by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev as a “political corpse”. So far, they have stood by him, despite a good deal of irritation in Brussels and Washington about his behaviour. There are two key events before the end of the year that will determine the future of Western political backing - the US presidential election and the NATO summit in December.

Although there is no significant divergence in Russian policy between either of the two presidential candidates, Senator John McCain has been a stalwart supporter of Georgia, and President Saakashvili, for some time. He is also a sharp critic of Moscow, and suggested this week that the world recognise Russia’s separatist-minded republic of Chechnya as a response to its recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Senator Barack Obama has less experience of the region (although his vice-presidential candiate Joe Biden is more familiar), and may be less keen to make any dramatic displays of support than his rival. In any case, the Bush Administration will be unwilling to do anything too significant in its last few months of office, and would be unlikely to make too much noise in the event of a political campaign against Saakashvili over the winter.

The NATO summit will be far more critical. If the Alliance reiterates its support for Georgia’s membership, President Saakashvili will find a new wind in his sails at home; his gamble will have paid off, in a sense. If the council of NATO ministers puts Georgian membership out of reach, however, the fallout will be disastrous for him. He will have been seen to lose not only Abkhazia and South Ossetia, but also Tbilisi’s chances of joining an organisation which is still extremely popular in Georgia.

Finally, there is Russia itself. The Kremlin has made no secret of its desire to see Saakashvili out of office. Anti-Russian sentiment within Georgia will more or less quash the possibility that any opposition party would accept covert support from Moscow, but Russia may make it clear that unless President Saakashvili is ejected, they will continue to threaten Georgia militarily, economically, and politically.

How the President would respond to discontent - whether in the form of opposition amongst the political elite or large-scale public protests - is unclear. Last November he cracked down hard on demonstrators on the streets of the capital, but he has also tied his relationship to the West, as well as his mandate, to his reputation as an advocate of constitutional democracy. The EU and NATO may remove their support (for instance, by turning off the aid tap and suspending the NATO-Georgia Commission) if he deploys the security forces or starts hounding out opponents - the NATO Secretary General stressed this week in Tbilisi that Georgia’s future security and its relationship with the West depended on its commitment to democracy. A lack of support from the Euro-Atlantic community would leave Tbilisi at Moscow‘s mercy more than ever and shake the country‘s nascent democracy to its core. In that case, Saakashvili will have to decide what he cares about most - his presidency, or his country.

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