The New York Times

August 17, 2004

Georgia's New Leader Baffles U.S.

and Russia Alike


From the moment he took office in January, Mikhail Saakashvili, the New York-trained lawyer turned president of Georgia, has rushed his nation along an agenda of ambitious design.

Drawing on public support after chasing his predecessor, Eduard A. Shevardnadze, from power, Mr. Saakashvili has moved against corruption, pledged to revive Georgia's economy, steered his government closer to the West and vowed to unify the fractured country.

Georgians have found his energy and momentum compelling. His popularity remains high.

But in recent weeks his populist ride has hit bumps on the central question of the Georgian state: reunification with two breakaway regions, South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Mr. Saakashvili, 36, has pressed forcefully for reunification, increasing tensions in both regions. After a Georgian Coast Guard vessel fired on a ship approaching the Abkhazian coast, he announced that he had ordered the sinking of unauthorized shipping. He then darkly suggested that Russian tourists would do well to stay away.

Critics immediately said the president was showing his inexperience and flirting with war. ''I think it's no longer a question of 'Will he blunder?''' said Dr. Christopher Waters, a Georgia specialist at the Center of Euro-Asian Studies at the University of Reading in England. ''He already has blundered.''

The path to reunification is potentially perilous. Russia and the United States have competing interests in the Caucasus, a strategic intersection of Asia and Europe, and Russia has openly supported the separatists. One Russian newspaper compared Mr. Saakashvili to Fidel Castro -- a leader of a tiny nation who has been giving larger powers sleepless nights.

Why Mr. Saakashvili risked inflaming tensions with references to violence remains an open question. But now that he has everyone paying attention, a simple question surrounds him. What will he do next?

Mr. Saakashvili, for his part, speaks with the air of destiny. In a meeting with journalists and analysts at his residence on Aug. 10, he said it was inevitable that the two regions would return to Georgia.

Because both are contained within Georgia's internationally recognized borders, he said, no other outcome can be acceptable. ''It's not only about Georgia,'' he said. ''It's about world order.''

Aware of the high tensions, he has repeatedly said that he will not push his country to war and that he intends to move in stages. But he has also said Georgia's military units, even if they become engaged in combat, can show restraint -- a sign that he accepts that a certain amount of violence is probable.

''It's not like they will shoot at us, we will shoot back and the war will start,'' he said. ''We know how to control ourselves.''

Mr. Saakashvili inherited three renegade republics when he took office. He met swift success when one of them, Ajaria, ended its secession in May.

The president said he would now concentrate on South Ossetia, then move to the more difficult matter of Abkhazia, a larger and more heavily armed region whose leadership is unequivocally against unification.

In South Ossetia, Mr. Saakashvili's government is pursuing a mix of political enticements and hardening of the borders to curtail smuggling, which keeps the region alive.

He has given its landlocked families vacations in a resort on the Black Sea and offered to repair schools, pay teachers' salaries and provide computers for classrooms for the approaching school year.

Faced with both firmness and offers of civility, the Ossetians will have difficulty holding out through the winter, he said. But precisely what might come afterward is not clear. Abkhazia would still await a solution, and its leaders have taken an uncompromising stance. ''We are ready for war,'' said Nugzar Ashuba, speaker of Abkhazia's Parliament.

When asked his plan for Abkhazia, Mr. Saakashvili essentially said he was stumped. ''Frankly, I don't have a direct answer,'' he said.

Fresh dangers flash almost daily.

Political delegations from Russia and Georgia alike claim to have come under small-arms fire while traveling near South Ossetia in the last two weeks, and the Georgians have complained that Russian warplanes have intruded on Georgian airspace above the Caucasus ridge.

On Aug. 11, three people were killed in South Ossetia in what appears to have been an artillery attack. In Abkhazia, the leadership held a call-up exercise for reservists in July and said last week that if provoked further it might sink Georgia's coast guard vessels.

[There was some relief on Saturday, when Georgia and South Ossetia agreed to a cease-fire. But on Sunday both sides claimed to have been fired on anew, and on Monday two Georgian soldiers were killed, apparently in a mortar attack.]

Whatever its risks, Mr. Saakashvili's course has been part of a political calculus, some analysts say. ''For him it is was very important to show that he is the man who will change Georgia, change the status quo,'' said Dr. Alexander Rondeli, president of the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies.

Dr. Martha Brill Olcott, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, said the push against the separatists was necessary to lend him authority to tackle other problems, including reviving the economy.

''As he goes from sort of the nine-day wonder to a president, he has to make himself a credible figure,'' Dr. Olcott said. ''That leaves aside the issue of whether he could have handled it better. I think he could have.''

Others are less sanguine, saying the risks may be less carefully considered than what might be expected from a head of state. Dr. Waters noted that the president, an inveterate talker who warms to any audience, is prone to thinking out loud, a trait he called ''politics by stream of consciousness.''

Russia, the backer of the separatists and their potential protector in war, has been presenting an array of mixed signals for Mr. Saakashvili to interpret, meeting warmly with the Georgians at the top level while members of the Russian Parliament and military officers have made inflammatory remarks.

Mr. Saakashvili said that Russia's position would be critical to finding the way toward reunifying the country, but that efforts at substantive dialogue had been met with delay. He said he had asked the Russians to provide a list of their concerns but had received no response.

''I don't even know with what we are dealing,'' he said. ''What are the issues?''

Richard M. Miles, the American ambassador to Georgia, said in an interview last week that the United States had urged the potential combatants to disengage militarily and work toward negotiations. Washington has been Georgia's patron, funneling it $1.2 billion in aid in the past decade. With the possibility of conflict, the players here have been trying to judge Washington's stance.

The Abkhazian government's hardened language speaks of the official calculation to date: Washington will back the young Georgian president only so far. ''I don't think American soldiers would fight for Georgia's unity,'' said Mr. Ashuba, the Abkhazian legislator.

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company