By Michael Mainville (AFP) – Oct 1, 2009
TBILISI — Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili's standing in Western capitals has been dealt a major blow by a European report blaming his government for starting a war with Russia, analysts said Thursday.
A rising star in the West only a few years ago, the US-educated and multilingual Saakashvili has seen his reputation eroded by allegations he launched a reckless attack on Georgia's rebel South Ossetia region and has cracked down on domestic dissent.
Analysts said the report hit him with another punch by discounting Saakashvili's oft-repeated claim that Georgia was facing a large-scale Russian invasion when it began the assault on South Ossetia.
"The days when he was the golden boy are long over and it will be quite difficult for him now to really improve his standing," said Amanda Akcakoca, a Caucasus expert at the Brussels-based European Policy Centre.
The European Union-ordered report said Tbilisi had triggered the war by launching an unjustified assault on South Ossetia and that there was no evidence to back Georgian claims of a Russian invasion before the attack.
It also accused Moscow of taking actions that helped provoke the conflict, of violating international law and of reacting disproportionately by invading and bombing swathes of Georgian territory.
Saakashvili on Thursday hailed the report as a "great diplomatic victory for Georgia" and said Tbilisi's version of events had been "defended and acknowledged."
But despite efforts in Tbilisi to spin the report's findings in its favour, analysts said the main point that will be retained is that Georgia fired the first shot, regardless of events leading up to the conflict.
"Saakashvili has been quite seriously discredited in the West, because at the end of the day, no matter what provocations there were, it was his decision to launch rockets on South Ossetia," said James Nixey, a Caucasus analyst at London's Chatham House.
Saakashvili's star was already falling before the war, after his government cracked down on anti-government protesters in central Tbilisi and shut down a pro-opposition television channel in November 2007.
Since the conflict, Saakashvili has seen invitations to Western European capitals dry up.
However he continues to enjoy crucial support from Washington and also some Eastern European leaders.
Tellingly, the US State Department reacted cautiously to the report, saying Washington wanted to "focus on the future" rather than assign blame over last year's brief war.
Saakashvili "is already being treated somewhat as a pariah" in Western Europe and the report will only reinforce opinions against him there, said Ana Jelenkovic, a London-based Caucasus expert with the Eurasia Group.
Analysts said Western European leaders are keen to develop ties with Georgia but are wary of Saakashvili himself.
In the year since the war, the EU launched the Eastern Partnership initiative that aims to strengthen ties with countries including Georgia and concluded a deal with Tbilisi to ease visa restrictions for Georgians.
"As long as Saakashvili is around the relationship may not improve on a political level, but there is a lot of progress on the institutional level," Jelenkovic said.
Despite the damage to his reputation abroad, Saakashvili appears safe from domestic opposition, analysts said.
Weeks of protests earlier this year aimed at forcing his resignation fizzled amid divisions within Georgia's opposition and it is unlikely Saakashvili will leave office before his second term ends in 2013.
Analysts said Saakashvili will never relive the glory days early in his presidency -- when he was warmly welcomed in Europe's capitals and former US president George W. Bush hailed Georgia as a "beacon of democracy."
"It depends on to what extent Saakashvili fulfils his promises on democratic reforms," Nixey said.
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