Since he became president of Georgia four years ago, Mikhail Saakashvili has steered his country aggressively on a free-market, pro-western course, dramatically reduced corruption and made Georgia one of the most dynamic countries in the former Soviet Union. But his image as the poster boy of democracy has taken a hit over the past six weeks, as he jailed top political rivals, ordered police to violently break up street protests against his government, and shut down critical television stations. The events of the past six weeks have shocked observers, who are now wondering, is Mr Saakashvili a democrat or a tyrant? The answer matters not just to the people of Georgia, a country in the southwestern corner of the former Soviet Union with less than 5 million inhabitants. Mr Saakashvili is a pioneer of democracy in a part of the world where tyranny is a much more common form of government, and the west - especially Washington - has set him up as a model of what other countries like Georgia can become. If he fails, that project will undoubtedly be set back. The 39-year-old has been closely connected with the west since his student days. He was born into an intellectual family in the capital, Tbilisi, the son of a doctor and historian. He went to law school at Columbia University and for a short time practised law in New York, before returning to Georgia in 1995 to enter politics at the invitation of then-president Eduard Shevardnadze. He entered parliament as part of Mr Shevardnadze's party and rose to be justice minister at the age of 32. But he emerged as a reform-minded thorn in the side of the increasingly sclerotic Shevardnadze government, and left the government in 2001 in protest against rampant corruption. He formed a new political party, which contested the 2003 parliamentary elections. The vote was rigged in favour of Mr Shevardnadze's party, but massive street protests in Tbilisi forced the president to step down, in what was dubbed the 'Rose Revolution'. Mr Saakashvili won presidential elections two months later with 96 per cent of the vote, and immediately set about making dramatic reforms. Under his leadership the government raised taxes but dramatically reduced corruption, significantly increasing the state budget. Free-market reforms made Georgia the World Bank's top reforming economy last year, and his pro-western foreign policy, focused on joining Nato, earned him several meetings with US President George W. Bush, including a visit by Mr Bush to Tbilisi in 2005 where the two presidents spoke in front of a crowd of 150,000. 'I am proud to stand beside a president who has shown such spirit, determination, and leadership in the cause of freedom,' Mr Bush said. But there have been indications that he has an authoritarian streak, as well. The opposition complained that they were completely shut out of the policy-making process, and there were frequent complaints about press freedom and the judicial system. The reforms caused many Georgians to lose their jobs - a wholesale reform of the corrupt highway police eliminated roadside bribery almost overnight, but also left 11,000 former policemen out of jobs. Mr Saakashvili's grandiose pronouncements quickly raised expectations, while the Georgian economy only slowly improved. 'If you listen to Saakashvili talk about Nato, you would think that Nato is going to come and cook dinner for every Georgian,' opposition politician Tinatin Khidasheli said. Ms Khidasheli said Mr Saakashvili had been able to ignore rising public discontent with his rule because he had strong international backing, and because the alliance with the US gave Georgians confidence that they had support against Russia, their northern neighbour which backs two separatist regions of Georgia and which clearly sees the pro-western reforms in Georgia as a threat to its own government. 'Unfortunately, the only leverage that still exists on my government is Washington. No one else has any leverage on them,' she said. Not all of the blame went to Mr Saakashvili, she said. 'President Bush has put too much emphasis on Georgian politics, this is the only foreign policy victory he's had,' she said. 'In every speech he makes in eastern and central Europe he talks about Georgia as a model, it's a big stake and a big responsibility for such a small country to be a model for democracy in the rest of the world.' The discontent rose, and at the end of September, former defence minister Irakli Okruashvili announced that he was forming an opposition party, and accused Mr Saakashvili of corruption and conspiring to murder another opposition figure. Two days later, Mr Okruashvili was arrested, and two weeks after that was released and mysteriously recanted his allegations against Mr Saakashvili. The opposition organised street demonstrations that started on November 2, and originally attracted 40,000 protesters - the largest rallies since the Rose Revolution - with many calling for Mr Saakashvili's departure. On November 7, when the crowd had dwindled to just a few hundred protesters, police used tear gas to break up the protests and beat many of the demonstrators. The government also shut down two pro-opposition television stations and declared a state of emergency. Mr Saakashvili accused the opposition of doing the bidding of Russia - a charge it vigorously denies. Mr Saakashvili also announced snap presidential elections. The opposition had been pressing, instead, for parliamentary elections, but accepted Mr Saakashvili's proposal as a compromise, at least temporarily halting the crisis. But the crackdown prompted international condemnation, likely set back Georgia's Nato aspirations and puzzled observers, who wondered why he would do something so out of character. 'I think it was a convergence of two issues in his mind,' said Cory Welt, a scholar at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. 'One was a belief that Georgian political culture was such that it was going to continue to reproduce this phenomenon of demanding government change from the street, and it was very important for President Saakashvili to put a stop to that. At the same time, he seems to have a fear that such protests could be taken advantage of somehow by the Russians. Not that they masterminded the entire plot, but that they would see an opening and act on it. 'So it's almost as if the audience for this was Moscow - to let them understand very clearly that despite everything that the Rose Revolution ostensibly represented, this was not a government that was going to tolerate this kind of disorder and they shouldn't be under the illusion that they could take advantage,' he said. Georgian political analyst Jaba Devdariani said the president considered himself a nation-builder and his natural inclination would be towards a democratic system. 'But things have happened throughout the past year that have, quite honestly, scared him and made it obvious to him how fragile the progress he made is. 'I think he's grown stronger and stronger in the belief that unless Georgia runs really fast, it will revert into stagnation which would eventually be deadly for its Euro-Atlantic aspirations,' Mr Devdariani said. Like many Georgians, Mr Saakashvili believed that Georgia was inclined to slip back into a more feudal sort of government, where people looked at their government as an entity which gave them things, not as something they participated in, Mr Devdariani said. Combating that tendency might require occasional extreme measures, he said. It's still too early to render a final verdict on Mr Saakashvili. Many observers wonder if his out-of-character behaviour was in fact the result of some secret information that he had to act on quickly, information which may eventually become public. He also now has the chance to redeem himself. The presidential elections are scheduled for January, and if those go off smoothly, then much of the damage would be repaired, Mr Welt said.