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Georgia's President Faces Old Challenges

Earlier this week [1/20/08], Mikhail Saakashvili was sworn in for a second term as president of Georgia. What are the challenges facing a second Saakashvili administration?

Mikhail Saakashvili was elected president of Georgia on January 5, receiving 53 percent of the votes cast. Four years ago, he won 96 percent of the vote in presidential elections following a popular movement known as the "Rose Revolution" that forced the resignation of the incumbent, Eduard Shevardnadze.

Many analysts, including Ronald Suny from the University of Chicago, say Mr. Saakashvili's drop in popularity indicates a strong disillusionment with the achievements of the "Rose Revolution".

"The 'Rose Revolution' was a moment of euphoria and enormous hope and almost romantic expectations of solving serious problems in the near future. And there had to be a comedown from that," says Suny. "It was impossible to realize the goals of that revolution: [the] end of corruption, institution of the rule of law, solving the problems of [the secessionist regions of] Abkhazia and [South] Ossetia, improving economic conditions, all the rest of it. That wasn't going to be realized in the short run. So, of course, a degree of disillusionment set in."

A Disappointing Style

Olga Oliker, with the Washington-based RAND Corporation, says disenchantment with Mr. Saakashvili is directly linked to what she calls his "authoritarian" style of governing. "Whereas Saakashvili started off with this promise of democracy and freedom and a new path, you have seen limitations on press freedom, particularly, you have seen a parliament increasingly dominated by the president's party. And you've seen this kind of general reporting that people have become more nervous about what they say in public, that various groups have reported pressure from the government. This is movement in a direction that is less democratic and is more authoritarian -- more in the direction of central control," says Oliker.

Public displeasure with Mr. Saakashvili spilled into the streets in November when thousands of demonstrators in Georgia's capital, Tbilisi, called for the president's resignation and early parliamentary elections. Police used tear gas, water cannons, baton charges and rubber bullets to disperse the crowd. Many analysts say that was the low point of Mr. Saakashvili's presidency.

The demonstrations forced Mr. Saakashvili to call an early presidential election. International observers described the January balloting as free and fair, although they say there were some irregularities. Opposition groups still contest the results.

Stubborn Challenges

As Mr. Saakashvili begins his second term in office, most analysts say he will face many of the same problems he had to address during his first four years, such as fighting corruption.

Experts such as Robert Legvold from Columbia University say what Mr. Saakashvili's government has achieved is to revive the country's economy. "It is now a dynamic country. It has very rapid growth rates and direct foreign investment. Its current account is very high. Its growth rates are above nine percent and in this last year may be 12 percent," says Legvold. "So the economy is again dynamic. And major cities, Tbilisi in particular, are sparkling and they [are beginning] to take on the appearance that you may see in a number of the other rapidly advancing post-Soviet states."

However, Legvold and other scholars say the Georgian government must now find ways to distribute the new economic wealth more evenly between the cities and the countryside.

Georgia-Russia Relations

On the foreign policy front, Mr. Saakashvili is expected to continue his attempt to move Georgia away from Russia and toward Europe. His first goal is to make Georgia a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Negotiations are already underway. Georgia's move toward the West is a very contentious issue between Mr. Saakashvili and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Columbia University's Robert Legvold says the relationship between the two men is not good.

"They've been very cold. They've been very harsh and they grew increasingly so over the first years. I've characterized the Russian-Georgian relationship as the only genuinely unalloyed [i.e., pure] hostile relationship in the post-Soviet space. It's a relationship that at a deeper level is very emotional," says Legvold. "The suspicion on both sides is very deep and it goes much beyond Saakashvili. It's widespread within the Georgian elite and similarly, in a counterpart way, within the Russian political elite. And it's a deep animosity toward each country's national leader: Saakashvili toward Putin; Putin toward Saakashvili, on a personal basis."

Olga Oliker from the RAND Corporation agrees. "Putin sees Saakashvili as somebody who is courting the West, specifically to get back at Russia, to demonstrate to Russia that Russia can't control Georgia. I think in Saakashvili's case, he saw Putin and Russia as pressuring Georgia, as trying to wield a sort of almost colonial power over Georgia, to bully Georgia. And this has led to confrontations over the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. It's been a very tense relationship," says Oliker.

However, analysts say strained relations between Tbilisi and Moscow may be eased in a second Saakashvili administration. In his inauguration speech, Mr. Saakashvili said Georgia extends the hand of friendship and cooperation to Russia. And for his part, Russia's foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, who attended the ceremony, said his presence confirms Russia's intention to normalize relations with Georgia. But most experts also point out that for tensions to ease, each side will have to make considerable compromises.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program, VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.