Page last updated at 13:58 GMT, Thursday, 12 February 2009

Challenge facing Georgia's president

Many opposition figures in Georgia are blaming the president, Mikhail Saakashvili, for the country's troubles and are calling on him to resign. Ray Furlong joined him on a whirlwind tour of the country, and found a man defiantly optimistic.

Mikhail Saakashvili
Mikhail Saakashvili has pursued pro-Western, liberalising policies

There is nothing quite like blasting through a succession of red lights, whisked on by the glare of wailing police sirens while all around you traffic is powerlessly brought to a standstill.

I was riding the streets of Tbilisi in President Saakashvili's motorcade. On the few occasions we slowed down, the wry smiles on the faces of passers-by gave nothing away. Did they feel loathing, or admiration?

There was no time to ask. We had already visited two construction projects, and were soon screaming through the VIP entrance to the airport - straight onto the tarmac and the presidential jet.

We flew west to Batumi before taking a helicopter to the town of Kutaisi, in central Georgia, where an Indian investor is rebuilding a derelict Soviet-era cement works.


As the president strode across the industrial wasteland, I and my cameraman had to sprint to keep up - constantly badgered by his bodyguards to get a move on.

Mikhail Saakashvili in Zugdidi
Saakashvili was greeted by large crowds during his visit to Zugdidi

This was a classic photo-op, and the message was clear - despite the war, Georgia was still attracting foreign investors and creating jobs.

The reality is that many investors have taken flight. Unemployment, now at 13%, is the highest in the Caucasus region.

The next stop was just as choreographed. We touched down in Zugdidi, near the breakaway region of Abkhazia.

Our minders, with cropped hair and black leather jackets, shepherded us anxiously into a train of black 4x4s with tinted windows.

There was a warm welcome. Local children chanted "Misha, Misha," his nickname, as he visited a new school, rebuilt after being destroyed in the war.

On a nearby beach he showed me the charred remains of a children's playground.

"The Russians made a detour here just to destroy this," he told me, and we paused amid the twisted wreckage of swings, slides and merry-go-rounds for the first time after hours of manic travelling.

"Can Georgia cope with all this reconstruction and the global economic downturn?" I asked.

"Of course," he said. "We are not Gaza or Kosovo."


We continued our chat in the short helicopter hop back to Batumi. I asked him about the opposition. They have called on him to resign.

They say he is incapable of pulling Georgia out of crisis, and that he is an autocrat who denies them fair access to the media.

Mikhail Saakashvili on board the aeroplane
Following his tour of Georgia, Saakashvili flew to Germany

Similar concerns about media freedom have also been raised by Western diplomats.

"There are lots of opposition channels," he said. "They say really nasty things about me. My mum gets very upset. But I like to watch them and laugh."

When I asked which programmes he was thinking of, he named a new reality TV show that is the talk of Tbilisi: a famous singer has incarcerated himself in a mock prison cell, saying he will not come out until there are new elections.

"Have you watched it recently?" I asked.

"No, why?"

"Because I was on it this week."

This was quite a bombshell to drop, and it threatened to really spoil the mood. I had visited the singer to interview him in his cell and they had then broadcast our interview in its entirety that evening. It was a kind of fame I really had not come to Georgia to acquire.

Luckily, Misha saw the funny side and we were soon sprinting around another construction site - this time a new Hilton Hotel in Batumi, overlooking the Black Sea.

Later, over lunch, President Saakashvili gushed over artist's pictures of various local building projects.

"It'll be a bit like Dubai," he said, reaching with a free hand for a chunk of fried black bread.

The table was piled with dishes: deep fried fish, aubergine, pomegranate and ruby red Georgian wine.

Misha was a busy eater and gregarious lunch partner, recalling how as a student in Kiev back in Soviet days he had treated his friends to cold burgers he had brought from the first McDonalds in Moscow.

It is this folksy, common touch that helped make him so popular. But that is now being tested sorely.

Hard times

In my week in Georgia, nearly everyone I spoke to had no reliable source of income. At the market in Gori, which saw heavy fighting in August, pensioners were selling bowls of seeds.

Refugees in Tbilisi have been living without heating
Refugees in Tbilisi have been living in a freezing squat with no heating

A younger woman told me her husband had never had a job.

"People are tense and nervous," she said. "Nobody has the will to do anything."

In the surrounding villages, we passed groups of people just standing around. For many, the war ruined their harvest.

And in Tbilisi, I found refugees living in a freezing squat with no gas or electricity. Some of them have been homeless since the first war, in 1993.

When pressed on this, the president admitted that some Georgians were being hit by hard times. But it was followed by another burst of radiant optimism.

"We're such a small economy," he said. "It doesn't take much to get us going. A few million here and there, it makes a big difference."

As he spoke, his hands arced expansively over the fish bones.

Then he was gone - flying off to Germany, and leaving me to a bumpy two-hour helicopter ride to Tbilisi. Time to reflect on a leader who has survived last summer's war but who now faces a growing challenge at home.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Thursday, 12 February, 2009 at 1100 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

Georgia PM resigns over illness
30 Jan 09 |  Europe
Country profile: Georgia
12 Feb 09 |  Country profiles
Timeline: Georgia
12 Feb 09 |  Country profiles

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