Almond argues that the Western media has tried to portray Georgia’s president Mikheil Saakashvili as a modernising democrat.
“When Saakashvili came to power in 2004 he promised to improve the desperately poor economic conditions in Georgia,” he says.
“He fought the corruption of people he didn’t like, only to install a cronyism of his own involving a younger generation of politicians.
“There’s a huge gulf between the president who was a populist, but now lives in a huge palace, and the people. He is cut off from them – and increasingly from reality.”
Georgia has an official economic growth rate of 11 percent, but this statistic hides the fact that life for ordinary people has not improved.
Many areas of the country still have no reliable electricity supplies or running water. Around 100,000 people are estimated to have left the country in recent years to find work in nearby Russia or Turkey.
Saakashvili has had a programme to recover the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia for some time. “In 2004 he backed away, recognising the danger,” says Mark. “But since then he’s tried to appeal to Georgian chauvinism and foster it, setting up a paramilitary force.”
The latest war with Russia over South Ossetia shows that Saakashvili has overestimated his army’s capacities and “brought immense tragedy on ordinary people. In the short term I expect people in Georgia will rally to support Saakashvili. But the war is a personal blow to him.
“So we cannot rule out another ‘palace revolution’. There’s a very good chance that a new US administration might suddenly ‘discover’ that Saakashvili is demagogic and corrupt.”
Mark notes that this is exactly what happened to Saakashvili’s predecessor, the previous Georgian president Eduard Shevardnadze. He had the strong support of the US until he was deposed in the “Rose Revolution” of late 2003. While there is opposition to Saakashvili’s rule in Georgia, Mark is sceptical of its prospects of turning into a genuine mass movement that can fight against corruption and war.
“The main problem is that the membership of opposition parties could fit in a few buses,” he says. “They’re based around personalities, usually set up and led by previous members of the regime that have fallen out with the leadership.
“Georgia has a lot of poor people and you would think that at least some sort of social democratic party might appear – but that hasn’t happened so far.
“Last year demonstrations against Saakashvili were smashed up by the police, who are well paid by Georgian standards. Of course the police and army may not be so loyal in future.”