Despite Large Protest Against Georgian President, Job Seems Secure
The Associated Press
By Matt Siegel 

TBILISI, Georgia, Nov. 7 — Thousands of flag-waving protesters brought traffic in Georgia’s capital to a standstill Friday in the first major protest against President Mikheil Saakashvili since the country’s war with Russia in August.

Widespread skepticism is undermining Saakashvili’s assertions about the war, emboldening former allies who are angry about the botched conflict and alienated by what they call his authoritarian style.

But a fractured opposition, fear of renewed hostilities with Russia and lingering support suggest that the gathering political storm is unlikely to topple the pro-Western president soon.

“There’s no sign in the last week that the wheels are coming off the bus,” said Jonathan Kulick, an analyst at the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies. “You have an administration with somewhat less appeal to its foreign friends and benefactors, but I just don’t see that he’s on the way out.”

Anger over Georgia’s losses in the war has compounded dissatisfaction among Saakashvili’s opponents but appears to have gained little traction among the general population.

On Friday, the United Opposition coalition brought more than 10,000 protesters onto the streets of Tbilisi, one year after riot police used tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannons to disperse peaceful demonstrators calling for Saakashvili’s ouster.

The crowd was far smaller than the throngs whose protests culminated in the crackdown last year — a disappointing signal for an opposition racked by infighting and lacking broad popular support.

A September poll conducted by the U.S.-based, government-funded International Republican Institute indicated that support for Saakashvili and his government was higher than it was before the war. A majority of those polled — 52 percent — said that they would vote for Saakashvili if elections were held the following Sunday. That figure was up from 34 percent in February.

Ana Jelenkovic, an analyst at the Eurasia Group, said the numbers probably point less to Saakashvili’s popularity than to the opposition’s failure to present a coherent, attractive message.

“There’s ample room for a political opposition, but that political space simply hasn’t been filled,” she said.

The poll showed that most Georgians support Saakashvili’s main defense of the war: that Russia started it.

According to the survey, 84 percent of Georgians said they believe that “Georgia reacted to Russian military aggression in South Ossetia,” while 9 percent said Georgia started the war.


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