Over the past 16 years Tbilisi's main square has been the venue for most key events of local history. They include a brutal 1989 massacre of Georgian dissidents by KGB troops, a bloody post-Soviet civil war that devastated the ancient city's centre and, most recently, the euphoric 'Rose Revolution' that vaulted a young American-trained lawyer, Mikhail Saakashvili, into power. But Freedom Square had never witnessed anything like the epic welcoming party laid on - partly at the expense of American taxpayers - for visiting President George W. Bush last Tuesday. Nearly 250,000 people crammed into the vast circular space next to Georgia's parliament to greet Mr Bush, roaring chants of 'Bushi, Bushi' and waving thousands of American and red-and-white Georgian flags. To thunderous cheers, Mr Saakashvili introduced his American guest as 'a freedom fighter'. Mr Bush returned the compliment, hailing the Georgian president 'who has shown such spirit, determination and leadership in the cause of freedom'. At the height of the festivities someone, unseen in the crowd, tossed a Soviet army-issue hand grenade that landed within 100 metres of the two presidents. It failed to detonate, but left behind the unmistakable suggestion that all may not be well in Mr Saakashvili's Rose Kingdom. Many regional experts say the democratic revolution orchestrated by Mr Saakashvili, which overthrew the incompetent and kleptocratic regime of Eduard Shevardnadze in November 2003, was largely political smoke and mirrors. Though the telegenic, polyglot, 38-year-old Mr Saakashvili has proven adept at charming western leaders and talking up global democratic revolution, his own regime has veered towards autocracy and left the majority of Georgians mired in poverty, with unemployment rates of about 45 per cent. 'We are witnessing a triumph of public relations, which has nothing to do with the real world of Georgian politics or the actual struggle for democracy in the world,' says Alexander Iskanderyan, a Georgia expert and director of the Centre for Caucasian Studies based in Yerevan, Armenia. 'Saakashvili is a PR genius, who turns words into gold. His goal is to grab media attention and secure foreign aid. He's doing that very well,' he says. A graduate of Soviet-era Kiev University, Mr Saakashvili went on to study law in the United States at Columbia and George Washington universities, before going to work with a New York law firm in the mid-1990s. But he was soon attracted to Georgian politics, won a parliamentary seat in 1996, and quickly became a leading member of the ruling party and a protege of president Shevardnaze. Georgia, a mountainous, ethnically diverse country of 5 million, was once known as 'the fruit basket of the USSR', famous for its lush agriculture, sweet wines, thick Borzhomi mineral water and sub-tropical Black Sea tourist resorts. After the Soviet collapse Georgia dissolved in civil strife and separatist war. Two regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, won de facto independence from Tbilisi following bloody conflicts. Another province, Ajaria, largely ruled its own affairs. Chechen rebels from Russia took over another rugged mountain area, the Pankisi Gorge, and the disaffected Armenian region of Samtskhe-Javakheti threatened to break away. Mr Shevardnadze, a silver-haired former Soviet foreign minister, came to power following the bitter civil war in 1992, pledging to introduce sweeping democratic reforms and free-market economics. Though it seems largely forgotten today, during his decade in power he was considered a key regional ally by American leaders, who made Georgia the third-largest recipient of US aid after Israel and Egypt, and sent a brigade of US special forces to train the Georgian army. 'In his time Shevardnadze was treated as a democratic hero by the Americans, as Saakashvili is today,' says Sergei Mikheyev, a regional expert with the independent Centre for Political Technologies in Moscow. 'Shevardnadze tried to build democracy, but he was overwhelmed by separatism, corruption, economic paralysis - all the problems that still plague Georgia. 'At some point he became unsuitable to the Americans and Saakashvili, who is totally oriented towards the US, took his place in their hearts.' A 2000 opinion poll found Mr Saakashvili, then minister of justice, to be the second most popular politician in Georgia after Mr Shevardnadze. Many analysts identified him as Mr Shevardnadze's heir apparent, but in 2001 he resigned from the government, citing pervasive official corruption and Mr Shevardnadze's inability to deal with it. In November 2003, following a parliamentary election that most observers regarded as rigged in favour of pro-Shevardnadze parties, Mr Saakashvili and several close political allies organised three weeks of relentless - but peaceful - street demonstrations around Freedom Square that ultimately forced an exhausted Mr Shevardnadze to resign. Mr Saakashvili's tribute to his former mentor bore not a hint of revolutionary rage: 'History will judge him kindly.' The next January Mr Saakashvili was elected, in virtually uncontested polls, with a staggering 97 per cent of the popular vote. The two main separatist regions did not participate, but most experts judged the result a mostly genuine product of the euphoric hopes generated by the Rose Revolution. A few months later Mr Saakashvili staged another coup, by peacefully deposing the independence-minded leader of Ajaria and restoring the Black Sea region, and Georgia's main oil terminal, to central rule. 'Saakashvili has accomplished some notable things. He increased pensions and fired half the traffic police, which dramatically slashed corruption,' Mr Iskanderyan says. 'On the other hand, Georgia is less democratic today than it was under Shevardnadze. Censorship has grown, critical journalists are being persecuted, media outlets are being shut down.' Some worry that Mr Saakashvili's confrontational stance towards breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which were largely allowed to go their own ways under Mr Shevardnadze, could re-ignite the savage ethnic wars of the early 1990s. The two provinces are backed by Moscow, and a majority of the population in both carry Russian passports. Mr Saakashvili has also pressed the Kremlin to close down two Soviet-era Russian military bases on Georgian soil. Moscow's reticence on this issue led Mr Saakashvili to angrily boycott last week's Red Square celebration of the 60th anniversary of the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany hosted by Vladimir Putin. 'Shevardnadze was wise and realistic, but Saakashvili seems overconfident,' Mr Mikheyev says. 'If he tries to put his rhetoric into practice, there will be trouble' - including possible conflict with Russia. 'Any military attempt to force Abkhazia and South Ossetia back under Tbilisi's rule could lead to massive bloodshed.' But as last week's extravaganza on Freedom Square shows, Mr Saakashvili is a rising star in Mr Bush's global democracy crusade. In a much-quoted article in The Washington Post last week, Mr Saakashvili called for 'a new Yalta Conference' to end the cold-war division of Europe, export freedom to still-oppressed regions of the former Soviet Union such as Belarus and Moldova, and foment democratic revolts as far afield as 'Zimbabwe, Cuba and Myanmar'. 'Georgia today is a failing state, without electricity or central heating,' says Vyacheslav Nikonov, director of the independent Politika Foundation in Moscow. 'But what does that matter when Saakashvili is adored by the world media and feted by George Bush as living proof that his democracy campaign is a great success?'