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Saakashvili gets another chance

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MOSCOW. (Alexander Karavayev for RIA Novosti) - During his second inauguration on Sunday, Mikhail Saakashvili will have every right to celebrate his victory. There will be no second round - both the West and Russia have recognized the elections as legitimate.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is going for the inauguration ceremony, and President Vladimir Putin has sent a message of greetings. The Georgian leader has been given another chance.

Credit for this largely goes to the new Georgian opposition, which also has the right to be proud of a small but meaningful victory. Resisting the powerful administrative leverage (normal for all the CIS), and government intimidation (tarnishing the assumed image of a model democracy), and overcoming lack of unity, the Georgian opposition has seized a space for itself. Georgian democracy is strong enough for Saakashvili's authoritarian power to take the opposition into account.

Maybe, Georgia has won by making its leader come to his senses. Now he is showing flexibility and learning from the crisis right on the spot. Hopefully, he understands that he can stay in power and go for the second presidential term without disgrace only by relying on democratic institutions rather than the crackdown in the style of November 7-12, 2007.

At home, Saakashvili has to review the grievances of his rivals. He has given the opposition broader access to the media. Recently, his rivals were allowed to take part in the public television council, and his chief opponent Levan Gachechiladze was shown on live television. The president also has to listen to his ombudsman telling him what Georgian intellectuals are thinking about his government.

Saakashvili's retreat to democracy is reasonable - if he continues to be moderate, it will be harder for the opposition to mobilize the masses for major actions on the eve of parliamentary elections in April.

The foreign policy change deserves a special discussion. The Georgian president has been trying to become the first democrat in the newly-emerged Baltic and Black Sea nations, particularly after a U.S.-EU reprimand. They have given him a new credit of trust but at a very high interest rate.

Saakashvili has been trying to score points with the West during preparations for the Sunday inauguration. This trend will last at least until the parliamentary elections.

Has the recent change of tune in relations with Russia been part of this trend? In an unexpected interview to the Vesti Nedeli program and the opposition Novoye Vremya, Saakasvili talked about his desire to develop relations with Russia and admitted that their aggravation was a mistake. But is this a real turn? It looks like more rhetoric. For him, Russia is a background for his populist policy of Georgia's reintegration.

Saakashvili may be shrewd enough to change his attitude towards Russia but how can he hope to succeed after all the scandals and provocations with Moscow? Most probably, the Kremlin has given up on him as a political partner.

However, he may go for warmer relations if he feels support for his rapprochement with Russia both from the opposition and the West. The Kremlin may also have a reason for reciprocity. Vladimir Putin would like to leave his post with as few unresolved CIS issues as possible. Belarus, for one, has received a $1.5 billion credit, a record for the CIS. Other similar steps may be taken as regards Georgia as a contribution to a better future.

There is a chance to start from scratch. But the Georgian political elite are stuck with the policy of unitary national development. Indicatively, Georgia is not even ready to go as far as Serbia has gone with Kosovo, albeit under pressure, when it has offered the rebel territory the broadest possible autonomy. It would seem Saakashvili could use it as a plan and precedent for the next four years and revise the political traditions of Georgian national development stemming from the patriarchs of the Ioseliani-Gamsakhurdia idea. He could recognize the priority of civil peace with the national enclaves, or at least their right to legal autonomy as a first step. But he may not be up to the task. Right now he is celebrating his victory and promoting his image of a democrat.

Alexander Karavayev works at the Center of CIS Studies at Moscow State University.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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