Georgia’s day of prayer: who can save country now?
“Stop Russia,” says the first. The second is a quotation from British World War Two leader Winston Churchill: “Never, never, never give up.”
Together, they sum up a national mood of grim defiance in Georgia after a short, disastrous war with Russia, followed by the loss of two provinces that have been outside Tbilisi’s control since the early 1990s but have now cemented their split by getting Moscow to recognise them as independent states under its protection.
Sitting in front of a row of Georgian and European Union flags, Saakashvili projects remarkable energy for a man under intense strain, three weeks into a national crisis. “The first couple of days he didn’t sleep, we were all worried about him,” says a staffer in the presidential building.
For several nights this week he held late-night sessions with Western reporters, sometimes finishing as late as 3 a.m., as he sought to gain the upper hand in the media war that has run parallel to the conflict on the ground with Russia.
“Russia clearly intended this as a blatant challenge to world order. It’s now up to all of us to roll Russian aggression back,” he told Reuters in an interview that started at 20 minutes after midnight.
Saakashvili has lost weight, says a Western observer who knows him well, but his face shows barely a trace of the sleepless nights.
He seems energised by a loud chorus of Western support for Georgia after Russia’s recognition of breakaway South Ossetia and Abkhazia — a contrast with the start of the conflict, when some Western officials privately suggested his own hot-headedness was at least partly to blame for triggering Russia’s invasion.
Longer-term, the prospects are less certain. Saakashvili is pinning his hopes on Georgian entry to NATO, which would commit the alliance to come to its defence if it were attacked. But many analysts believe NATO, after this crisis, is not ready to make that promise and risk being drawn into its own war with Russia.
The opposition has in effect called a moratorium on criticising the leadership. “But the time will come when the Georgian society will start to ask them questions about what has happened to our country,” said an opposition leader, Tina Khidasheli.
Privately some Georgians blame Saakashvili for leading them into their current debacle, and the public mood is subdued and tired. “Everyone is depressed, no one feels like working,” says a young man, Alex. A dancer at Tbilisi’s Nabadi folk theatre, Tako Svanidze, says no one is turning up to performances: “No one has time for singing and dancing…People aren’t in the mood.”
On Thursday Georgians
flocked to their Orthodox churches to pray for the country on a major religious festival, the Assumption of the Virgin Mary.
“We believe the mother of Christ will save the whole of Georgia,” said Nino Dzigua, a young woman in an orange headscarf.
Did she think that Western support could rescue the country?
“Only God,” she replied.