Credit: Corey Flintoff, Alice Kreit/NPR
Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili's leadership in the war with Russia has sparked both praise and scorn.
His supporters describe his actions as courageous while detractors say he used catastrophically bad judgment. The American-trained lawyer has enjoyed strong U.S. support but may have ignored Bush administration warnings when he tried to recapture the separatist enclave of South Ossetia.
Saakashvili, now 40, won the presidency of Georgia in 2004 on a platform that stressed regaining control of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, two regions that have been under the control of ethnic separatists since the early 1990s. The separatists had the support of Russia, which has provided them with aid and troops who were part of a peacekeeping mission.
Rice Provided Warnings
Saakashvili had American support, reinforced by a visit to Tbilisi in July from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. The visit came at a time of rising tension between Georgia and Russia, and Rice took a tough stand, saying Russia had to be part of resolving the problem "and not contributing to it." Bush administration officials recently told The Washington Post that Rice privately counseled Saakashvili not to use force in his efforts to regain the separatist areas.
Georgia was already working with the U.S. military in Iraq, providing a contingent of 2,000 troops under a United Nations mandate. In return, the U.S. provided Georgia with military aid, training and support for Saakashvili's eventual hope of joining the NATO alliance. During the Georgian leader's visit to the White House in 2006, President Bush called him a "key ally" and "a valued partner in the war on terror."
Saakashvili's American Education
Saakashvili's connection to the United States goes back to 1992, when he won a State Department fellowship that paid his way to graduate study at Columbia Law School. He went on to earn a law degree from George Washington University in Washington, D.C., in 1995.
That same year, Saakashvili also earned a diploma from the International Institute of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, where he met his future wife, Dutch human rights activist Sandra Roelofs.
An Opponent Of Corruption
Saakashvili worked briefly for a New York law firm before he was recruited to enter politics in Georgia with the party of then-President Eduard Shevardnadze. He was elected to parliament, where he became known for his work on electoral and court reform.
In 2000, Saakashvili became Shevardnadze's minister of justice, but he quickly broke with the administration by accusing the trade and security ministers of corruption. Saakashvili resigned from the government and formed a new center-left political party.
He was elected chairman of the city assembly in Tbilisi, Georgia's capital, in 2002, holding that post until Shevardnadze's government collapsed during the Rose Revolution of late 2003.
After his election as president in 2004, Saakashvili concentrated on economic reform, winning praise from the World Bank for improving business conditions and making a slight dent in Georgia's endemic corruption. His policy toward the two separatist enclaves has ranged from offers of aid to threats of violence.