Page last updated at 16:21 GMT, Friday, 15 August 2008 17:21 UK

Georgians rally behind 'unpopular' leader

By Daria Vaisman
Caucasus expert

Mikheil Saakashvili
President Saakashvili remains Georgia's strongest politician

Thousands of Georgians gathered in front of parliament to celebrate the news of the ceasefire this week.

They joyfully waved the national flag while cheering for Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili.

Less than a year earlier, many had flocked to the same spot to call for his resignation.

It cannot be ruled out that opinion will turn against him again, but now is not the time to question his leadership, many Georgians say.

With few exceptions, most have rallied fiercely behind him as a show of unity against common enemy Russia.

This marks a huge change in Georgian public opinion.

Mr Saakashvili, who was swept into power during the 2004 Rose Revolution, has become increasingly unpopular in his country over the past two years.

Georgians have accused him of concentrating power in a few hands while pursuing unpopular domestic policies and attacking civil liberties.

A violent crackdown during a peaceful rally in November further tarnished his reputation at home and abroad.

Mr Saakashvili announced his resignation soon after the protest, calling snap presidential elections this January. With a newly formed opposition coalition running against him, he squeaked home with 52.8% of the vote.

But in the last few days, even his biggest detractors have been standing behind him.

Only a few opposition leaders have publicly criticised Mr Saakashvili. No-one has called for his resignation, nor have there been any indications of government defections.

I hope he has some backdoor deals going, otherwise he's led us into a suicide mission

Maka Saladze
Georgian citizen in New York

The Georgian media, often at odds with Mr Saakashvili over the past year, has spent its time excoriating Russia instead.

So has the Georgian Parliament, which gave unanimous support to the proposal for Georgia to leave the Russian-backed Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).

Perhaps the most astonishing sign of Georgian unity is the reconciliation, by telephone, between Mr Saakashvili and Irakli Okruashvili, Georgia's former minister of defence.

Mr Okruashvili, responsible for a disastrous attempt to regain South Ossetia militarily in 2004, was Mr Saakashvili's closest ally before resigning in 2006, after a series of bellicose statements that frightened the country's Western backers.

The two men soon became mortal enemies, with Mr Okruashvili fleeing to Europe after publicly accusing Mr Saakashvili on television of a series of spectacular crimes.

Blame game

Yet there are already signs that once the dust has settled, Georgians could blame Mr Saakashvili for provoking Russia.

One top Georgian official, speaking confidentially, said Mr Saakashvili had committed "grave crimes" against the country.

Opposition leader Levan Gachechiladze was quoted calling for new presidential elections, possibly within the next two months, though he later said his words had been distorted.

Georgians cheer their president, 12 August 2008
Georgians are united with their leader against 'common enemy' Russia

Meanwhile, Maka Saladze, a Georgian citizen at a rally outside the UN in New York, also blamed Mr Saakashvili for the situation.

"I hope he has some backdoor deals going, otherwise he's led us into a suicide mission," she told the BBC.

There are a number of factors that will influence Mr Saakashvili's political fortunes in the weeks and months ahead.

One is whether he is seen to have started the conflict.

While some Georgians hold the view that the Georgian military planned the attack in advance, most say the South Ossetians made it inevitable, by staging a series of provocations in the week before the attack.

"People are turning quite nationalistic, and many think that the president's decision was a justified response to Ossetian shootings," said Vladimir Shioshvili, a 29-year-old computer programmer in Tbilisi.

Another key factor will be whether, once the Russian forces have pulled back, the separatist regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, are closer to or further away from reunification with the rest of Georgia.

Mr Saakashvili has staked his presidency on reuniting them with the rest of Georgia.

'The strongman'

But on Thursday, Russia pledged to support the territories, with Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov saying that Georgia "can forget about" its territorial integrity.

A third factor is the economic fallout of the war, which is likely to be disastrous.

Massive amounts of infrastructure will need to be rebuilt. Prices have already gone up significantly over the past two years, and inflation will likely increase as a result of the war.

A man stands near his destroyed home in Gori, Georgia
The economic fallout of the war could affect Mr Saakashvili's future

Much of the foreign direct investment that single-handedly fed the economy could disappear as well.

Yet regardless of how Georgians will come to see Mr Saakashvili in the coming weeks, many realise that there are no viable alternatives.

Mr Saakashvili remains, by far, Georgia's strongest politician, and there are no obvious candidates who could replace him.

"Even if his political career as the president of Georgia is fatally damaged, the alternatives are very limited," said Mr Shioshvili. "Personally, I see none."

And Russia's apparent hopes of toppling Mr Saakashvili give him a major boost, at least in the short term.

Georgians are incensed that Russia's prime minister and president have called for Mr Saakashvili's resignation.

"It is up to us to decide when he stays or goes," said the Georgian official, summing up the views, probably, of the whole country.

Daria Vaisman is a journalist who lived in Georgia for several years, and worked briefly for the Georgian Government. She is currently writing a book on US foreign policy in the former Soviet Union.

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