TBILISI, Georgia — During Russian bombing raids on Georgia's troops and villages earlier this month, Kremlin officials seemed to have another target in their sights: Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, a man they openly despise.
But the fighting, subsequent occupation and this week's de facto annexation of two large chunks of Georgian territory into Russian control have so far only strengthened Saakashvili's domestic political support. Some analysts, though, see a long struggle ahead between Russia and the U.S.-backed government in Georgia.
For now, even among political foes of Saakashvili there is broad solidarity with their president in the face of what they see as a Russian aggression that threatens to topple his administration.
Officials in Moscow say it's a ludicrous charge, and that their invasion of the breakaway region of South Ossetia was necessary to stop Georgian "genocide" when Saakashvili — whom they consider a reckless upstart — sent his troops to seize the area on Aug. 7. The Russian claims of genocide, some 2,100 killed in a few days, have proven to be wildly inflated.
Russia appears to have miscalculated badly when it pushed out of South Ossetia — after stopping the Georgian offensive — and marched its troops forward to positions within 25 miles of the capital of Tbilisi, according to George Targamadze, a key opposition leader in Georgia's parliament.
At that point, any internal disagreements about Saakashvili's efforts to take control of the region turned into shock that tanks from the Kremlin, Georgia's former Soviet overseer, were just down the road, Targamadze said.
"If Russia wants to change Saakashvili, and that was its aim here, then its steps here were absolutely stupid," Targamadze said. "When we have a threat to our internal safety, a military occupation, then all Georgians, despite our political views or differences between us, we must unite."
It's also failed to gain any international support. At a meeting on Thursday with China and four former Soviet Central Asian states comprising the Shanghai Cooperation Council, Russia found no support for its armed intervention. Instead, China expressed concern about the "latest changes" in South Ossetia and its fellow rebel enclave, Abkhazia.
Russia has contested the status of the two territories since Georgia declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 and attempted to seize them by force. After meeting strong resistance in the early 1990s, Tbilisi effectively handed over local autonomy to both regions. Russia stepped in with subsidies for the two regions and more recently began issuing passports to residents there — and intervened earlier this month to protect Russian subjects. This week Russia recognized the sovereignty of both.
By prompting South Ossetia and Abkhazia to break away, Russia all but guaranteed that no viable opposition party will stand against Saakashvili, said Levan Tarkhnishvili, chairman of Georgia's central election commission.
"Even the radical opposition that says all of this was the result of the failure of Saakashvili does not question the territorial integrity of Georgia," Tarkhnishvili said. "If they found someone who could replace Saakashvili, he would have to explain why Russia's invasion was good."
And trying to do that, Tarkhnishvili said, would create a public uproar.
With the Russians frustrated by Saakashvili's resilience, Georgia could be in for a long winter, said Vladimir Socor, an analyst with the Jamestown Foundation and a frequent critic of Russian policy.
Russia's military has put itself in the position to affect almost all of Georgia's trade by establishing positions just outside the Black Sea port of Poti, setting up outposts near the country's main east-west highway, taking over a major hydroelectric plant in Abkhazia that supplies much of the country's power and allegedly blowing up a bridge on a crucial railway line.
"They can tighten (control over trade) in the winter, they can engineer shortages to provoke popular discontent," said Socor, who was in Tbilisi this week.
While Russian officials have publicly denied that they invaded Georgia to remove Saakashvili, they have consistently tried to isolate him as the key reason for the five-day war, implying to the Georgian public that if he were out of office then much of the recent trouble would go away.
In an interview with Al-Jazeera this week, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said that his government was not trying to push Saakashvili out of the way. He did note, though, "as for Saakashvili and his regime, it is true that we do not like him."
A former Washington attorney, Saakashvili has riled Russian leadership with his efforts to join NATO and the European Union. Those plans tapped into deep Russian anger about western influence on its borders, epitomized by a planned U.S. missile shield in Poland and the Czech Republic, according to some Russian observers. In particular, analysts point to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who was president for eight years prior, as designing plans to reassert Russia's role on the world stage.
Russia's foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, was asked this Tuesday whether Georgia could remain a viable state after Moscow said that South Ossetia and Abkhazia were separate nations.
"This is a question that should not be addressed to me but to the Georgian government, and maybe more accurately to the Georgian people and of course those who have been supporting Mr. Saakashvili," said Lavrov, whose ministry earlier this month released a statement saying it did not consider Saakashvili a negotiating partner.
Socor said the Russians are pursuing "salami tactics" reminiscent of Soviet efforts to divide and conquer surrounding nations in which one leader after the next would be cut away until Kremlin-backed parties were completely in charges.
"The Russians are trying to say the whole problem is Saakashvili, and if only not for Saakashvili, they could normalize relations," Socor said. "First they are blaming everything on (Saakashvili) and if someone will sacrifice (Saakashvili) . . . they will slice the next one."
In a working-class neighborhood in western Tbilisi on Wednesday, Alexandre Saarian who runs a small newsstand in an underground shopping arcade, told a reporter that Saakashvili is an American stooge who has heaped trouble on Georgia. He was the first person in the area to say so during a round of interviews. Shortly after, a group of people gathered and said that their president is the nation's only hope. "Saakashvili is trying to return our territories to us," said Bela Iluridze. "He has more support now than ever."
That day, the crowd agreed with Iluridze.
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