Despite Russia's continuing troop presence and the destruction of key economic and military installations in Georgia, domestic support for Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili remains strong. A significant number of Georgians continue to believe Russia is pushing for regime change in Tbilisi, but Saakashvili does not appear to be going anywhere.
Some Georgians believe that a personal feud between Saakashvili and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is the driving force behind the conflict. During his 2001- 2008 presidency in Russia, Putin used his country's newfound economic muscle to pressure "near-abroad" states into following the Kremlin's political line. Saakashvili's pro-Western policies invariably rankled Putin's administration. And, frustrated with Moscow's support of the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Saakashvili repeatedly challenged Moscow by flaunting his connections in Washington.
Locally, the clash between Georgia and Russia is seen more in personal terms than within a strategic context. An August 9 statement by Putin that Russia would serve as "the guarantor of security, cooperation and progress" in the Caucasus hit many Georgians as the dropped glove in a personal duel. And in this battle -- one that summons recollections of past Russian incursions, in particular the Tsarist Empire's 1804 annexation of Georgia and the Soviet Union's 1921 invasion of a newly independent Georgia -- the sympathies of Georgians have as much to do with patriotism as they do with individual political preferences.
"When I saw Putin speak on Russian television, his eyes staring into the camera, I knew who he was talking to. It was Saakashvili," said Tamriko Tsakadze, a Tbilisi homemaker. "He will not stop until he removes Saakashvili from power."
Amid growing international consternation about Russia's actions, the Kremlin has back-pedaled, saying that Moscow has no plans to topple Georgia's democratically elected government. Putin has stepped back into the shadows, ceding the spotlight to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.
But Georgians commentators remain convinced that Putin -- not "de facto President Medvedev," as one senior Georgian government official termed him -- has orchestrated the entire Georgia campaign. Anti-Russian demonstrations still feature posters of Putin, not Medvedev.
If Moscow's aim was to topple Saakashvili, the calculation has backfired, argues Alexander Rondeli, head of the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies in Tbilisi.
"Moscow thinks that once Georgia is destroyed economically, militarily and morally all the anger will be directed against the government, but Moscow was never really able to read the Caucasus," Rondeli said.
Brushing aside their political differences, most of the country's political parties -- never a fraternal bunch -- have coalesced around Saakashvili. Even for Saakashvili critics, the president has come to symbolize their beleaguered nation.
In an August 18 letter to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the leaders of two of Georgia's most outspoken opposition parties, the New Rights and the Republican Party, called on NATO to accelerate its decision about accepting Georgia into the alliance. Their appeal, they said, was not intended "to criticize authorities" for past mistakes.
"Despite [a] number of problems, Georgia deserves freedom and [the] prospects of democratic development," the appeal read. "Georgia and its future are beyond one regime or government."
While NATO may not have responded to the Russian invasion with the troops desired by many Georgians, the alliance on August 19 has set clear indications of its terms. Terming Russia's actions the "occupation" of an independent country, NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer warned that the alliance cannot conduct "business" with Russia until Moscow acts on its signed agreement to withdraw its troops from Georgian territory. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Assistance with restoring Georgia's air traffic system and assessing its current armed forces needs are among the items on offer to Tbilisi from the alliance.
At a news conference in Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov struck back. The withdrawal from Georgia, Lavrov claimed, will take several days, but has already started. NATO's overtures to Georgia and statements in support of Saakashvili, he continued, are simply an attempt to "save the collapsed regime" in Tbilisi.
Despite official Russian assurances to the contrary, little sign of a pullout has been seen on the ground. On August 19, Russian troops took from Poti a reported six US-owned Humvees, the Georgian government said, along with several Georgian soldiers sent to defend the port against additional Russian attacks. The vehicles had been used in joint military exercises in late July.
The government also reported movement of Russian troops northwest of Gori, in the center of the country, towards the town of Sachkere. The information could not be confirmed.
A prisoner exchange at Igoeti, where both sides have checkpoints, marked the only semblance of a decrease in tensions: 15 Georgian soldiers for five Russian servicemen, according to the Georgian government.
The exchange was followed by a PR punch from the Georgian side, however. Protestors at the village later demonstrated against Russian forces, yelling "Victory to Georgia" and brandishing posters in English that called for the Russian army to take its "bloody hands" off the country.
The televised demonstration, its English-language signs obviously targeted for an international audience, was meant to reinforce the message that Georgians' anger is targeted at Russia, not President Saakashvili.
"This is not the time to criticize who did what," elaborated Natia Akhvlediani, a secretary at GTS Electronics. "Later some questions need to be answered, but not now when the entire country is under attack. He [Saakashvili] can't step back now."
Some Georgians, however, are indeed furious with Saakashvili for his handling of the South Ossetia crisis. "He brought this on us," said Nana, a downtown Tbilisi storekeeper who declined to give her last name. "What was he thinking? Couldn't he just stay quiet and stop poking Putin? He can speak about NATO all he wants, but Russian tanks are on Georgia soil now. People are dying and suffering. What did he do to avoid this? What did NATO do?"
Saakashvili, however, uses such criticism against his foes in the Kremlin. "Georgia is a democracy, unlike Russia," he said in an August 17 news conference. "There always will be Georgians that will say that [the] Georgian government did this and that, but that's a beauty of democracy."
Giorgi Lomsadze is a freelance reporter in Tbilisi.