Georgia’s president sees EU, NATO hopes vanish

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In a rare display of self-criticism, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili admitted strategic failure in August 2008’s brief war with Russia, saying in an interview published on 20 July that his country’s hopes of joining the EU and NATO were “almost dead”.

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Saakashvili said his country’s one-time goals of joining NATO and the EU and reuniting with its two breakaway regions – South Ossetia and Abkhazia – were unlikely to be realised any time soon. 

“It’s tragic,” he said. “It means the Russians fought for the right reasons,” Saakashvili is quoted as saying. 

Georgia’s president, who is under pressure from the opposition to leave office, indicated that he had downscaled his ambitions. He explained that his plan was to strengthen democracy and ensure a peaceful transition of power when he steps down in 2013. 

Saakashvili’s critics accuse him of increased authoritarianism, monopolising the state media for his own ends and using the police to repress protesters. 

The Wall Street Journal spoke to Saakashvili ahead of a morale-boosting visit to Georgia by US Vice-President Joe Biden. 

In a speech, parts of which were seen by the newspaper’s envoy, Saakashvili pledges to set new local elections, to promise more media space to his adversaries and to offer the opposition seats on some governmental decision-making bodies. 

But his adversaries remained sceptical. “It’s all blah, blah, blah,” said opposition leader Levan Gachechiladze, adding: “He has promised things before and there have been no results.” 

Opposition leaders described Saakashvili as “part of the problem, not the solution”. They added that they would press Biden to link US financial aid to Saakashvili’s behaviour in order to moderate it. 

But most importantly, his opponents want him to call an early election to renew his mandate. 

“He hasn’t done what any democratic leader should do after losing 20% of his country’s territory [in a war],” said opposition leader Salome Zourabachvili, insisting that the Georgian president needed to resign. 

Russia and Georgia fought a five-day war in August 2008. The conflict saw Russian troops repel an assault on the breakaway pro-Russian region of South Ossetia, which broke free from Tbilisi's rule in the early 1990s. 

Russia later recognised South Ossetia and Georgia's second breakaway region of Abkhazia as independent states. Russia has thousands of troops stationed in both regions. 

Vladimir Putin, Russia's prime minister, was quoted at the time by a French diplomat as essentially saying that he wanted Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili hanged. 

Privately, EU representatives generally recognise that Saakashvili was to blame for the August war. However, he still enjoys Western support as a symbol of the 2003 'Rose Revolution' in Georgia. 

With economic growth in Georgia slowing dramatically after the war, the EU and other international donors pledged €3.5 billion to rebuild the country and boost its ailing economy, in return for democratic reforms (EURACTIV 23/10/08). 

On 29 January, in a rare show of unity, the leaders of around a dozen opposition parties in Georgia issued a joint declaration calling on Saakashvili to quit and hold free and fair elections to the presidency and the parliament (EURACTIV 02/02/09). 

On 9 April, massive protests against Saakashvili began, with US analysts warning of a possible "revolution" to topple the Georgian president. At the same time, tensions with Russia grew over a planned NATO exercise in Georgia which the alliance said was "routine". 

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