Saakashvili visited Gori in late August, following a siege by Russian forces. He said he ordered Georgian troops to withdraw from the city early in the fighting to save it from "obliteration."
TBILISI -- The Georgian capital is a late-night town. During the day, the city maintains a laid-back, leisurely feel. But with evening, cafes and bars light up, and tables overflow with people, wine, food -- and intense conversation.
Not surprisingly, the constant topic these days -- whether on the streets, in the pubs, or at the office -- is last month's war with Russia. As the postconflict chill from Moscow sets in, questions still linger in Tbilisi about how the war began, and if it was avoidable.
"Our society is always engaged in some kind of debate," says Artyom Oganezov, a 28-year-old linguist making his way down Rustaveli Avenue, the capital's main drag. But as prone as the Georgians are to questioning the wisdom of their leadership, he says, now is not the time to break ranks.
"As long as we're facing this big problem, any discussion should focus on solving the problem, not on criticizing the government," Oganezov says. "When everything calms down and becomes stable, the mistakes that were made will become more clear."
That may be exactly what Mikheil Saakashvili is afraid of.
'Questions Will Be Asked'
With Russia's announcement on September 8 that it will soon begin a systematic pullback of troops from buffer zones and military checkpoints on Georgian territory, the clock has begun ticking on Saakashvili's free pass out of public scrutiny.
Once the initial relief of the Russian withdrawal has faded -- and the attendant tensions between Moscow and the West alleviated, however slightly -- observers say there is every chance that dissatisfied public and political critics will step in to fill the void.
"The stronger the confrontation between the West and Russia, the stronger Saakashvili feels here," says Archil Gegeshidze, a senior fellow with the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies. "It's in Saakashvili's interests that the Russians keep occupying Georgia. As soon as they leave, questions will be asked."
Or sooner, as the case may be.
Saakashvili with French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner in Tbilisi on August 11
The respected Georgian daily "Rezonansi" on September 4 published an open letter signed by dozens of civic organizations and members of the country's social and cultural elite. The letter criticizes what it qualifies as the government's "mistakes" in the August conflict, and calls for a broad public discussion of the conduct of Saakashvili and his administration during the early days of the war.
Even more significantly, the political opposition has signaled that the time for national allegiance is over. Their star on the rise following a season of antigovernment protests and early elections, Georgian oppositionists had nonetheless agreed to stifle any dissent in a show of unity during the war.
That changed on September 9, when New Rightists head David Gamkrelidze -- who in the early days of the conflict declared a moratorium on confrontation with the government and interparty conflicts -- announced in stark terms that all bets are off.
"Despite many warnings, Saakashvili unilaterally took the irresponsible and, I would say, criminal decision to attack and bomb Tskhinvali," Gamkrelidze said in a briefing. "This move had catastrophic consequences for the country. Mikheil Saakashvili has no right, either politically or morally, to be Georgia's president and the commander in chief of its armed forces. He must resign."
Others have chimed in, too. Former parliament speaker Nino Burjanadze, a former Saakashvili ally and possible successor, has called for an investigation into the war and said the results of such a probe will help her decide whether to back early elections.
"I consider it very important to hold a serious investigation into what led to those events," Burjanadze told reporters on September 12. "The time to ask questions has come."
Who Did What When?
Since the start of fighting between Georgian and Russian troops on the night of August 7-8, questions have persisted about the caliber of Saakashvili's decision-making.
The Georgian leader used international media appearances to regularly upbraid both Moscow for its aggression and the West for its inertia. But his position was weak. Georgia, by nearly all indications, had acted first. Saakashvili had personally ordered troops into South Ossetia, granting Russian forces stationed just outside the Russia-Georgia border the pretext they needed to enter the country and start shooting back.
In April, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that Moscow would strengthen its ties to South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which Saakashvili had vowed to return to Georgian control.
To be sure, Tbilisi had endured a long season of Kremlin taunts, beginning in April with then-President Vladimir Putin's call to strengthen diplomatic and trade ties with South Ossetia and Abkhazia -- breakaway territories that Saakashvili had vowed to return to Georgian control.
As unauthorized Russian troops and railway crews flowed into the territories, Tbilisi was forced into a tricky game of brinkmanship, knowing even a single armed incident on the disputed territories might ultimately open it to full-scale Russian aggression or scupper its good standing with the West and NATO.
The events of August 7-8, therefore, proved a massive liability. Why had Saakashvili acted with such apparent recklessness?
The answer coming from loyal authorities in Tbilisi is: He didn't. Officials like Reintegration Minister Temur Iakobashvili, who claims he was with Saakashvili when the order was given to enter South Ossetia, says Georgia acted only after days of separatist attacks on Georgian-controlled villages, and with the belief that Russian forces had already entered the Roki Tunnel connecting North Ossetia in Russia with South Ossetia in Georgia.
"We didn't start this war, and we didn't enter South Ossetia to liberate it. That was not the order the president gave," Iakobashvili has said. "He gave the order right in front of me. The order was to shut down only those places where the South Ossetians were firing from. And to stop the military column that was entering Georgia. That's it."
The fog of information surrounding the moment at which Russia's 58th Army -- fresh from military exercises in the North Caucasus, and equipped with tanks and heavy artillery -- entered Georgian territory remains the linchpin of Saakashvili's defense. In the early days of the conflict, authorities in Tbilisi claimed to possess three independent intelligence sources confirming that Russian, not Georgian, troops had moved first.
Saakashvili has repeatedly dangled the "three-source" defense before skeptics, but has yet to produce the proof. In his September 8 meeting with French President Sarkozy and other top European officials, the Georgian leader said he had passed the information to his visitors and that the case would be put to the international community "with time."
"I gave today, I think, very strong proof proving that Georgians responded to a large-scale Russian invasion that took place before the hostilities emerged. We have this. We can prove this. It's very solid proof," Saakashvili said. "From this moment on, I don't think there will be any more speculation that 'Georgia started it. Georgia went for the trap.' We didn't go for the trap. We didn't start it. They started it. They invaded us."
From this moment on, I don't think there will be any more speculation that 'Georgia started it. Georgia went for the trap.'
Shelling by Ossetian separatists against Georgian villages began as early as August 1, drawing a sporadic response from Georgian peacekeepers and other fighters already in the region. On August 7, Iakobashvili traveled to Tskhinvali to try to defuse tensions, but was spurned by both separatist officials and Russia's special envoy to the region, who canceled a scheduled meeting, citing a flat tire.
At 7 p.m. on the evening of August 7, Saakashvili declared a unilateral cease-fire. Undaunted, South Ossetian separatist forces continued to attack Georgian villages into the night. A Georgian peacekeeper was killed, marking the fighting's first casualty, and attacks expanded to include Tamarasheni, the territory's largest Georgian town and the site of a tacit no-go agreement between the two sides.
Those developments -- and claims that Cossack and other irregular fighters from the North Caucasus had begun joining separatist units in South Ossetia -- might have been enough to justify Tbilisi's decision to send in troops.
But the Georgian government says the clincher came at 11:30 p.m., when it claims to have received the "multiple human intelligence" reports indicating that close to 150 armored vehicles and trucks had entered the Roki Tunnel.
David Bakradze, the speaker of the Georgian parliament, on September 10 offered the U.S. Helsinki Commission evidence -- which has yet to be made public -- that Tbilisi had "radio interceptions" confirming Russian troops had entered Georgian territory in the evening of August 7.
Bakradze called that "the turning point" where the Georgian government had to make the decision to defend its territory and respond.
"If we hadn't moved our forces, the war might not have started on the 7th," Interior Ministry spokesman Shota Utiashvili says. "It might have started on the 8th or 9th instead. But my assessment is that it was impossible to avoid."
"We saw that our villages were being devastated, and we saw that a Russian occupation army was entering Georgia," Iakobashvili says. "We had to react."
Time For Reckoning?
Even if Saakashvili and his circle are ultimately successful at selling their defense to audiences at home and abroad, the point may be lost as Georgia begins the slow, and possibly undignified, process of picking up the pieces.
The government will eventually have to answer for breakaway territory that has potentially been lost forever. It will also have to recoup billions of dollars in destroyed infrastructure and manage a fresh humanitarian crisis with more than 120,000 people internally displaced by the war.
I tend to believe that the Georgian government was provoked, but the mistake was that it overreacted.
It already finds itself in the uncomfortable position of responding to allegations of disproportionate force against South Ossetian civilians, as well as its use of cluster bombs and multiple-launch Grad missiles. (Human Rights Watch cites Georgia's Defense Ministry as acknowledging cluster rockets were used against Russian military formations outside the Roki Tunnel, but denying their use against civilian targets. HRW has also documented Russia's use of cluster bombs in the fighting.)
"The government has to prove this trap was unavoidable," says Gegeshidze of the Foundation for Strategic and International Studies. "I tend to believe that the Georgian government was provoked, but the mistake was that it overreacted."
"Any government is responsible for its own actions," says Levan Berdzenishvili of the opposition Republican Party. "There must be an investigation. And if the conclusion is that mistakes have been made, and crimes committed, of course they should pay for this."
Medvedev called Saakashvili a "political corpse.
Moscow is clearly hoping the fallout from the war will lead to Saakashvili's downfall. Kremlin officials have refused any contact with him. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has gone so far as to publicly refer to the Georgian leader as a "political corpse" and his administration as "bankrupt."
Not all Georgians agree that a Moscow-driven ouster is under way. Kakha Kukava, the co-leader of Georgia's opposition Conservative Party, says Russia is not seeking regime change and uses its angry rhetoric knowing it only strengthens Saakashvili's standing at home.
Still, speculation is rife that Saakashvili may be forced to step down in favor of a candidate less noxious to Russia, like Burjanadze or Georgia's ambassador to the United Nations, Irakli Alasania. Alternately, some observers suggest he may use the crisis to further consolidate his own power -- much as he did in November by imposing a state of emergency in response to massive opposition protests.
Regardless of the outcome, it may be enough to fade, once and for all, the luster of Georgia's 2003 Rose Revolution. With Saakashvili or without him, Tbilisi's courtship of the West and democratic experiment at home are likely to undergo a dramatic transformation. (U.S. envoy Matt Bryza, in the Helsinki Commission hearing, stressed that Washington will support "any democratically elected government of Georgia" and does not harbor a particular allegiance to Saakashvili.)
For now, officials are putting on a brave face.
"Of course people are going to have a lot of questions, and that's their right," says Iakobashvili. "We're not the Russian Federation. We're going to stand up and answer the questions of the population, the opposition, the media, or whomever. We are obliged to give a full report to our people, and we will."
Anna Tvauri and Marina Vashakmadze of RFE/RL's Georgian Service contributed to this report
Malign And Conquer?
In a September 2 interview with the Italian RAI television channel, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said, "President Mikheil Sakashvili does not exist for us; he is a political corpse." As for Georgian authorities, he added, "the current regime is bankrupt."
Russian officials have made no secret of their wish to see Saakashvili ousted, and have racheted up their rhetoric accordingly. Here are some of the comments:
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin: "The actions of the Georgian government in South Ossetia, of course, were a crime, and primarily a crime against its own people."
Federation Council speaker Sergei Mironov: "Saakashvili also committed crimes against humanity, opening fire on civilians, murdering an enormous number of completely innocent women and children. Such crimes cannot be forgiven and criminals must be punished.... Saakashvili's place is in the dock. Sooner or later, this will happen, and the Georgian people will give its opinion of this pathetic politician."
Duma Deputy Speaker Lyubov Sliska: "He is the same as Hitler, who invaded a sleeping Russia."
Liberal Democratic Party of Russia leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky: "We have a Georgian Pinochet.... He will do anything to [preserve his power], commit any crime, spill blood, and, if necessary, destroy Georgia." On other occasions, Zhirinovsky has called Saakashvili "a criminal against his oath," "a foreign spot on the body of the Georgian people," and "a puppet of the agonized United States." He said, "Saakashvili -- you are finished, rotten."
Channel One commentator Mikhail Leontyev: "A ranting Georgian fuehrer."
Leader of the St. Petersburg branch of A Just Russia Oleg Nilov:
"The United States is defending Georgia like a mad dog with iron fangs who has bit some children. The master is going to say the children teased the dog instead of getting down on their knees in front of it. But this master trained that dog precisely to attack children. Russia doesn't need to trouble itself with talks with the United States. But as regards the dog, our actions must be completely above reproach -- we need to take a scalpel and cut off his steel fangs and its brain so that it stops biting innocent children."
-- compiled by Irina Lagunina and Victor Yasmann
For RFE/RL's full coverage of the conflict that began in Georgia's breakway region of South Ossetia, click here