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What's Next For Saakashvili?


Now more on the Georgian president, Mikhail Saakashvili. He's young, 40 years old, educated in the West, with law degrees from George Washington University and Columbia. He worked for a New York law firm in the '90s before going back to Georgia to enter politics.

Saakashvili is multilingual, with a Dutch wife, and his model for Georgia is that of a Western-style democracy. He has said he's proud of his American values.


Stephen Sestanovich at the Council on Foreign Relations has met with President Saakashvili frequently over the last decade, and what are your most recent impressions from the last meeting, say, that you had with him?

Mr. STEPHEN SESTANOVICH (Council on Foreign Relations): Well, the last time he was in Washington, he was here to talk about a number of foreign-policy preoccupations, interested in advancing Georgia toward membership in NATO and concerned about the escalating confrontation that he faced - which has now spun totally out of control - with the Russians over the secessionist regions of Georgia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

He, you know, was seeking to develop an understanding with the American government on those issues, get reassurance of support and explain his own approach.

BLOCK: Do you think that Saakashvili overplayed his hand with these separatist areas? Was he overconfident, maybe, in his support from the West, and did he underestimate what Russia's response would be?

Mr. SESTANOVICH: I think the message that he got in all of his consultations with American and European officials has been, don't provoke the Russians, and no reason to think that there would be American or Western military assistance to back him up in a jam.


In fact, he probably got more caution than anything else in trying to delegitimize the Russian peacekeeping presence in these secessionist regions.

I don't think he thought he was going to have anything but trouble in dealing with the Russians, but he also believed that there was a growing military threat anyway.

BLOCK: What can you tell us about the level of animosity leading up to this point between Saakashvili and Vladimir Putin?

Mr. SESTANOVICH: Well, when Saakashvili first became president of Georgia, he indicated that he wanted to have friendly relations with Russia. From the beginning, though, the personal relations between Putin and Saakashvili were very bad.

Russian officials at every level have sort of pinned the Georgians' ears back on one occasion after another, saying, you know, you can't expect any kind of good relationship with us as long as you're trying to be part of NATO, trying to be part of the West, trying to oust us from these regions where we think we're just keeping the peace. And I don't think it's just a question of bad personal chemistry. The policies just conflicted.

BLOCK: And by an account told by the U.N. ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, the Russian foreign minister has told Condoleezza Rice privately: Saakashvili must go.

Mr. SESTANOVICH: Well, they've made no secret of their dislike of him, but it is, I think, wrong to overpersonalize this. Saakashvili is a very, kind of flamboyant character, the leading politician in Georgia in a country that is dominated by personality politics.

However, there's very strong unity in Georgia on most of the issues that the Russians find extremely difficult to deal with. So it's not that there's this leader who came in and pursued his own nutty ideas and the Russians will have a completely different relationship with somebody who took his place, unless that government, a new government were installed that was a kind of puppet of the Russians. But they have no prospect of more sympathy from other Georgian politicians, and Georgian opposition has expressed very strong hostility to what the Russians are doing and support for their own government.

BLOCK: Well, Stephen Sestanovich, thanks very much.

Mr. SESTANOVICH: Thank you.

BLOCK: Stephen Sestanovich is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He was also special adviser to the secretary of state from 1997 to 2001, responsible for relations with the former Soviet Union. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.