Profile: President Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia
- 27 September 2012
- From the section Europe
Despite military humiliation and sharp criticism of his human rights record, Mikheil Saakashvili has managed to maintain a strong grip on Georgia.
By law, he must stand down as president in 2013, having completed two consecutive terms as president of the former Soviet republic.
However, his years in office have marked Georgia for years to come.
To some he will always be the hero of the Rose Revolution, sweeping away Soviet-style corruption and courting the West.
To others, he is the leader who rashly sparked a dangerous war with Russia.
Groomed for power
Mr Saakashvili's background has all the ingredients of a successful career on the international stage and helps explain his appeal to Brussels and Washington.
Born in 1967 in the Georgian capital Tbilisi to a doctor father and a historian mother, he did his Soviet military service in Ukraine, where he went on to study international law.
Receiving a fellowship from the US state department, he attended Columbia University law school and was hired by a New York-based law firm.
In addition to his native Georgian, he speaks English, French, Ukrainian and Russian.
He and his Dutch wife, human rights specialist Sandra Elisabeth Roelofs, have two sons.
Returning to Georgia from his career abroad, he was appointed justice minister in October 2000 by the then President, Eduard Shevardnadze.
But he resigned the following year, saying he considered it immoral to remain a member of a government plagued by corruption and cronyism.
After forming an opposition party, the National Movement, he was elected head of Tbilisi city council where he built up a power base.
Discontent with Mr Shevardnadze grew steadily and when parliamentary elections in November 2003 were tainted by allegations of fraud, Mr Saakashvili organised daily protests.
The Rose Revolution culminated in the bloodless storming of the Georgian parliament and Mr Shevardnadze's resignation. In January 2004, Mr Saakashvili was elected president of his country with 96% of the vote, at the tender age of 37.
"I'm not pro-American or pro-Russian - I am pro-Georgian," the new president said in his inaugural speech.
However, it rapidly became clear that he meant to take Georgia out of Moscow's orbit, by joining Nato no less.
Relations between Georgia and its giant neighbour rapidly deteriorated, as Tbilisi pressed for the return of its breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which had allied themselves with Russia.
Meanwhile, President Saakashvili cemented his reputation as a Western ally by committing Georgian troops to the Nato-led coalitions in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Ill-feeling between Tbilisi and Moscow erupted into open war in August 2008, after Georgia made a lightning military assault on South Ossetia, where Russia kept a peacekeeping force.
Russian troops struck back rapidly, driving out President Saakashvili's soldiers and pushing into Georgia.
While they stopped short of a full invasion and eventually withdrew back into South Ossetia, the Russians had humiliated the Georgian leader.
Not only did Georgia's chances of regaining its territories look even more remote but its Nato ambitions were badly damaged, since a condition for membership of the alliance is the absence of territorial disputes.
Mr Saakashvili had already been re-elected as president before the war, although his share of the vote in January 2008 was sharply down, at 53%.
Internal political opposition to his rule has grown - a development that might be welcomed as a sign that a healthy democracy is taking root in Georgia.
However, Mr Saakashvili's opponents accuse him of exhibiting the very authoritarianism of which he has accused Kremlin leaders.
During huge street protests against alleged political corruption in 2007, his government used police to disperse demonstrators and declared a temporary state of emergency.
Protests demanding the president's resignation ended in bloodshed in 2011, and 2012 saw mass rallies in Tbilisi in protest at prison abuse, prompting Mr Saakashvili's interior minister to resign.
The prison scandal was a particularly sensitive issue for the president as he has made much of his law and order policies, eradicating much of the corruption that used to mar everyday life.
Critics also accuse Mr Saakashvili, the economic liberal, of having failed to tackle poverty. Although per capita GDP has nearly doubled since he took power it remains a fraction of that of Russia or Estonia.
Under his rule, Georgia's external debt has grown while direct foreign investment has been uneven, a recent report by the Carnegie Endowment found.
In his defence, Mikheil Saakashvili took power at a time when Georgia looked like becoming a failed state.
Perhaps the biggest test of his credentials as a statesman will be how he handles the transition to his successor as president.