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Russian military triumph leaves pro-West Georgia uncertain

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili's failed attempt to retake South Ossetia may cost him dearly in Georgia, one of the strongest US allies in Russia's backyard.

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United against Russia: Thousands of Georgians rallied in Tbilisi on Tuesday. But beneath the defiance against their large northern neighbor, discontent about President Mikheil Saakashvili simmered. Russia’s invasion blocked his attempt to occupy the separatist region of South Ossetia, where up to 90 percent of residents hold a Russian passport.

David Mdzinarishvili/Reuters

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There is an air of satisfaction in Moscow over what appears to be a crushing Russian victory in its muscular, five-day long intervention to preserve the quasi-independence of South Ossetia and weaken Georgia's West-leaning President Mikheil Saakashvili, whose drive to take his tiny country into NATO has deeply alarmed the Kremlin.

"The aggressor has been punished and has incurred very significant losses," said Russian President Dmitri Medvedev, who ordered an end to Russian combat operations on Tuesday just as French President Nicolas Sarkozy was arriving in Moscow to press for a cease-fire.

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But in Georgia, the mood was grim and uncertain. The country's pro-Western spirit, confirmed in a referendum earlier this year, when more than 70 percent of Georgians supported immediate NATO membership, may have been dampened by what some see as a lack of support in their hour of crisis.

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"The West's reaction was slow and inadequate," says analyst Archil Gegeshidze, with the independent Foundation for Strategic and International Studies in Tbilisi. Nonetheless, he adds, Western appeals may have been crucial in convincing Russia to halt its offensive. "If not, Russia would have continued advancing until our economy collapsed and the regime was changed."

Renewed hope for Russia's ties with West

Indeed, Mr. Medvedev's order appears to be a concession to demands from Western leaders, including a tough statement by President Bush. That has lifted hopes that Russia and the West may be able to salvage their deeply strained relationship, contrary to concerns in the past week about an imminent second cold war.

"Russia responded to Western appeals, so I think this shows that cooperation between Moscow and the West is alive and well," says Alexei Mukhin, director of the independent Center for Political Information in Moscow. "Maybe Russia went a little bit further than expected in bombing Georgian infrastructure, but that's over with now."

Georgian officials disputed that, however, saying that Russian forces were still shelling villages near South Ossetia, and there were reports of Russian planes bombing sites within Georgia proper, including Gori. An official of Georgia's other breakaway statelet, Abkhazia, said its Army would continue its offensive against Georgia in the disputed Kodori Gorge regardless of Medvedev's decision.

"We aim to eliminate the Georgian threat," said Maxim Gujia, Abkhazia's deputy foreign minister, reached by telephone in Sukhumi. "This is our operation, and it is not affected by Medvedev's words."

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Few Russians appeared in any mood to criticize their government for what seemed an efficient operation that brought big geopolitical rewards.

"If Russia had hesitated, that might have been taken as weakness of the new president," says Sergei Mikayev, deputy director of the Center for Political Technologies, a Moscow think tank. "It seems like Russia took a decision that may not have been completely irreproachable, but it looks like there was no alternative."

Though Russian and Georgian casualty claims diverge wildly, the main United Nations refugee agency weighed in Tuesday with the sobering estimate of 100,000 persons displaced by the fighting, including up to 80 percent of the population of tiny South Ossetia.

'Saakashvili is finished'

In the Georgian capital of Tbilisi Tuesday, thousands of demonstrators waved anti-Russian placards and shouted defiance against Moscow. The war, which began with a Georgian offensive aimed at retaking South Ossetia, ended with the Russian Army in control of the breakaway statelet and much of Georgia's military infrastructure in ruins after five days of intensive Russian bombing.

"I came to support my nation and show we are all still strong," said Irakli Shonia, a manager. "I supported this war. In the end, Russia showed the world its true face."

But beneath the defiance, there were suggestions that Mr. Saakashvili, who appears to have miscalculated Russia's response to the Georgian offensive, may pay a political price. In the 2003 "Rose Revolution," Georgians embraced Saakashvili, a US-educated lawyer who pledged to reunite the fractured country of 5 million and lead it into the NATO alliance.

"What we see is a total collapse of Georgia, and the responsibility is all Saakashvili's," says Kakha Kukava, an opposition parliamentarian. "It was his personal decision to use force and the results were disastrous."

Some people in the street echoed those sentiments. "[Saakashvili] is finished," says Nestan Nijaradze, a freelance writer in Tbilisi. "But now is not the moment to talk about that. We love Georgia."