Tbilisi: Georgia At A Crossroads


Past armed checkpoints into outlaw lands, the author traces the
history of the Caucasus republic, a leading recipient of U.S. aid and
scene of a potential new cold war

April 2004

By Jeffrey Tayler

FROM THE SOOTY MAW of an unlit tunnel at Rikoti Pass, where the jagged
massifs of the Great Caucasus and Lesser Caucasus mountains come
together, we drove out into flurrying snow and whirling fog, heading
west. The decayed asphalt wound down toward the verdant Kolkhida
Lowland and the port of Poti, on the Black Sea. About 100 miles behind
us was Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital, and its tense roadside
checkpoints–grime-streaked booths of cracked glass and dented steel,
concrete barriers at which hulking men in black uniforms, Kalashnikovs
dangling from their shoulders, peered into car windows looking for
guns and explosives.

We soon reached the lowland and its crumbling shacks and derelict
factories–the towns of Zestaponi, Samtredia and Senaki. Bony cattle
and mud-splattered pigs poked around trash heaps; a few people wearing
threadbare coats and patched boots traipsed down slushy walkways. My
driver, a gray-bearded ethnic Armenian in his 40s named Gari
Stepanyan, saw me looking at the remains of an old cement plant. “When
independence came, people tore up these factories, ripping out all the
equipment to sell for scrap,” he said in Russian of the nation’s
emergence in 1991 from the dissolving Soviet Union. Since then,
corruption, economic chaos, civil war and rule by racketeers have
contributed to Georgia’s disintegration. I drove this same road in
1985, and had pleasant memories of it. Now, in December 2003, I
searched the ruins and recognized nothing.

Over the past 13 years, Georgia–a nation about the size of South
Carolina with some five million people–has degenerated from one of
the most prosperous Soviet republics into a faltering state that
hardly qualifies as “independent,” so heavily does it rely on Russia
for oil and gas. At times, Russia has turned off the gas, not only
because of Georgia’s unpaid utility bills but also, many authorities
speculate, to keep Georgia submissive. Since Soviet times, Georgia’s
gross domestic product has decreased by almost two-thirds, to about
$16 billion. With more than half of the population living below the
poverty line, unemployment and low wages are so common that about a
million Georgians have fled the country since 1991, mostly to
Russia. Moreover, of Georgia’s five provinces, three–Abkhazia, South
Ossetia and Ajaria–are led by strongmen with support from Russia and
have essentially seceded. The civil war of 1992-1993 cost 10,000 lives
in Abkhazia alone. Crime is widespread and violent. To put it mildly,
independence has not brought Georgians what they had hoped for.

When I flew to Tbilisi from Moscow this past December, President
Eduard Shevardnadze had just been driven from office by hundreds of
thousands of demonstrating Georgians angered by rigged parliamentary
elections and fed up with corruption and poverty. Their bloodless
uprising, led by the 36-year-old American-trained lawyer Mikhail
Saakashvili, was known to supporters as the Rose Revolution, after the
flowers that some reformers had carried to symbolize their nonviolent
intentions. Saakashvili’s opponents (including members of the fallen
regime as well as the separatist strongmen) have termed the
revolution, perhaps ominously, a coup d’etat orchestrated by the
United States. After the revolution, bomb blasts and shootings
multiplied (hence the checkpoints we encountered in Tbilisi),
allegedly carried out by henchmen of the dispossessed elite hoping to
discredit Saakashvili. But on January 4, 2004, Saakashvili, pledging
to eliminate corruption, modernize the country and restore its
territorial integrity, won the presidential election with 96 percent
of the vote.

With Saakashvili promising to pilot his country westward, but with
Russia still backing separatists and controlling Georgia’s access to
fuel, Georgia has become the arena for a replay of the Great Game, the
19th-century struggle between the great powers for territory and
influence in Asia. The stakes are high, and not just for Georgia. The
United States has given Georgia $1.5 billion in the past ten
years–more aid than to any other country besides Israel (and not
counting Iraq)–and invested heavily in pipelines that will carry oil
from deposits beneath the Caspian Sea. One pipeline (completed in
1999) crosses Georgia and ends at the Black Sea. Another (to be
completed next year) will cross Georgia and Turkey and end at the
Mediterranean. American officials say they are also concerned about
terrorism. The Pankisi Gorge, on Chechnya’s southern flank, has
sheltered both Chechen rebels and members of Al Qaeda. The
U.S. military provides antiterrorist training and equipment to
Georgian troops and has conducted reconnaissance flights along the
Georgian-Russian border–flights that have sparked fears of espionage
and American expansionism among increasingly nationalistic Russian
politicians. Russia, meanwhile, maintains two military bases in
Georgia, and reportedly plans to do so for at least another decade.

The United States may be faced with a dilemma: either abandon Georgia
to Russia’s sphere of influence or risk damaging the strategic
partnership between Moscow and Washington that has formed the basis
for international order since the end of the Cold War (and without
which the fight against terrorism may be compromised). Perhaps not
surprisingly, a State Department official I interviewed disputed that
the United States and Russia may clash over Georgia. But leading
Russian analysts have a different view. This past December Andrei
Piontkowsky, director of the Center for Strategic Studies in Moscow,
told Nezavisimaya Gazeta, a Russian newspaper, that Russians “look at
the U.S. in the northern Caucasus as a rival” and that Russian
authorities have “declared the new leadership of Georgia to be
pro-American. I’m afraid that in such conditions, one should hardly
expect relations [between Russia and Georgia] to improve.” For his
part, Georgia’s president Saakisahvili said this past February in
Washington, D.C. that “Georgia cannot be a battlefield between two
great powers.” But some experts in Georgia suggest the Great Game is
well under way “A struggle for influence is going on between Russia
and the United States in Georgia,” says Marika Lordkipanidze, a
professor of history at Tbilisi State University.

As Gari and I trundled down the rutted highway outside Poti, he said
of Saakashvili and his pro-democracy team: “The new leaders seem
honest and respectable, so things should improve–if Russia doesn’t
interfere.” Then his voice hardened. “But we told them, ‘Look, we’ll
forgive you nothing. If you make the same mistakes as Shevardnadze,
we’ll kick you out too!'” Like Saakashvili, Shevardnadze and his
forerunner, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, came to power in landslide electoral
victories. Both fled office ahead of furious mobs.

WITH AN EYE ON ITS FUTURE, I journeyed through Georgia in search of
its past, beginning on the Black Sea in Poti, where Georgia first
entered world history 2,800 years ago through contact with Greek
traders during the Hellenic age. (The Kolkhida Lowland was once the
Kingdom of Colchis, where Greek myth places the Golden Fleece sought
by Jason and the Argonauts.) From there I traced a route west to east,
the direction of Georgia’s history until the Rose Revolution. Looking
at the destroyed towns of Kolkhida and the savage mountainscape
beyond, another myth came to mind, one of the first associated with
the country. Either Hellenic or Georgian in origin, it is tellingly
bloody–that of Prometheus. According to the myth, a peak in the
Caucasus was the spot where Zeus had the Titan chained to a rock, and
doomed him to have his regenerating liver pecked out by an eagle every
day for eternity for the crime of having given humanity fire. The
myth’s notions of gory plunder reflect a basic truth: for three
millenniums Georgia has been a battleground among empires, torn apart
by invaders and internal rivalries, and betrayed by allies.

In the first century B.C., Colchis stood with Rome against Persia,
until, in A.D. 298, the Romans switched allegiance and recognized a
Persian as Georgia’s king, Chrosroid, who founded a dynasty that would
rule for two centuries. Then, in A.D. 337, Georgia’s affiliation with
the Greeks led to a fateful event: its king at the time, Mirian,
converted to Christiani–making Georgia only the second Christian
state, after Armenia. Centuries later, when Islam spread throughout
the region, Georgia remained Christian, adding to its isolation.

From Poti we traveled 70 miles south to Batumi (pop. 130,000),
capital of a Georgian territory known as the Autonomous Republic of
Ajaria. Its autonomy has tenuous legitimacy. During World War I, the
territory was seized by Turkey. In 1921, Turkish leader Kemal Atatiirk
ceded it to Russia on the condition that Vladimir Lenin accord it
autonomy, because of its partly Islamic population.

Soon after the USSR fell apart, Asian Abashidze was appointed chairman
of Ajaria’s governing council; he has ruled the territory as his
fiefdom and enforced a Stalinist cult of personality. A Russian
military base outside Batumi and strong ties to Moscow give him the
means to defy Tbilisi and withhold the tax revenues owed the federal
government. Following last year’s Rose Revolution, Russia abolished
visa requirements for Ajarians–but not other Georgians–granting de
facto recognition to Ajaria’s independence. (The United States, by
contrast, does not recognize Ajaria as a separate state.) Meanwhile,
Abashidze also declared a state of emergency and closed the
territory’s borders with the rest of Georgia. Only by paying a driver
the small fortune (for Georgia) of $70 and doling out bribes at
roadside checkpoints did I manage to reach Batumi–a city of
ramshackle one- and two-story white stucco houses, many with ornate
Ottoman-style bay windows. Mosques had green minarets that stabbed the
brilliant azure sky.

The area has been contested before, and then, too, the cause was
oil. In 1918, at the start of the three years of independence that
Georgia would enjoy after World War I cleaved it from Russia, and
before the USSR absorbed it, 15,000 British troops landed in Batumi to
protect an oil pipeline (linking the Mediterranean with the Caspian)
from Soviet and German advances. But good relations with Russia
interested the British more than did tiny Georgia or even the
pipeline, and in 1920 they withdrew their troops. The next year the
Bolsheviks invaded and transformed Georgia, along with Armenia and
Azerbaijan, into the Trans-Caucasian Federative Soviet Socialist
Republic. Georgia gained its status as a separate Soviet republic in

MY HOTEL had intermittent electricity, but, like most of Batumi,
lacked heat. My breath puffed white in my room. Frost covered the
walls. The town’s two museums, though officially “open,” were
nonetheless closed to visitors–no electricity. Ancient Russian-made
Lada automobiles beeped and rattled on sun-washed cobblestone lanes
overhung by stout palms that stood lush green against the snowy slopes
of the Lesser Caucasus. Trucks adorned with Turkish lettering reminded
one that Abashidze controls Georgia’s lucrative consumer goods trade
with Turkey, the source of much of the republic’s income. The cold and
the lack of heating and electricity told me I could only be in the
former Soviet Union, as did the local Russian-language newspaper,
Adzharia, a pathetic party-line, no-news screed. It lauded Iran and
warned of bandit attacks from Tbilisi. There is no free press in
Ajaria, which seemed never to have known perestroika or glasnost.

I soon had confirmation of this from my guide, a woman I’ll call
Katya. (To protect her anonymity, I have also changed certain
identifying characteristics.) Katya has long shimmering auburn hair
and was well turned out in a black leather jacket and boots and
designer jeans–uncommonly fine tailoring in hardscrabble Georgia. She
had formerly worked in the upper echelons of Abashidze’s government
and had enjoyed a decent salary and other privileges, As we walked
cluttered, trashy lanes toward the outlying seaside district, she
switched with ease from Russian to English to French. Black-suited men
with automatic rifles–Abashidze’s guards–stood on virtually every
corner and glowered at us. At a square near the water, we passed an
artificial New Year’s tree–a conical metallic grid 100 feet tall, up
which men were climbing to affix real leaves. Farther on, an angular
concrete monstrosity rose some 30 feet into the air from a manicured
esplanade parallel to the sea. “Our pyramid,” Katya said. “The Louvre
has one, so we do too.” Her voice sounded flat, as it she were reading
from a script. “Our president builds many things for the people.”

Facing the sea is Shota Rustaveli Batumi State University, a dreamy
white-marble complex of three-story buildings with blue gabled roofs,
apparently designed to resemble the Winter Palace in
St. Petersburg. It was closed for the day, but Katya flashed her
government pass at a guard, led me in and showed me a student theater
with decor worthy of the Bolshoi Ballet: gilt lace curtains and a huge
glittering chandelier and red plush seats. “Our president built this
theater for us,” she said flatly “He is very strong.”

“It’s better than any theater I’ve ever seen in the States,” I
replied. “Do students really need such opulence?” She did not answer,
but interrupted several more skeptical questions, saying, “Our
president is very strong. He does many things for us.” Back on the
street, away from other people, I asked if anyone in town could tell
me about politics in the republic. “Our president is very strong,”
she said. “He has put up barricades to stop bandits from entering our
republic. Our president does many things for us. Just look at the
university! And the pyramid! And the esplanade!”

We walked by the freshly washed silver Mercedes belonging to
Abashidze’s son, the mayor of Batumi. Night was falling, and more
black-suited men with Kalashnikovs were coming on patrol duty. Ahead,
the town proper was dark, without power as usual, but the president’s
office and the state residences blazed with light; the trees around
his mansion were bedecked in Christmas lights, which glittered on the
polished hood of the sole vehicle, squat and polished and black,
parked beneath them. “Our president’s Hummer,” said Katya. On the
corner, a revolving billboard showed photographs of Abashidze visiting
workers, inspecting factories, ministering to the simple man. Beyond
it, a huge array of lights covered the wall of a multistoried
building, flashing in red, white and green the nonsensical message
MILLENIUM 2004 above the dark town.

Finally, I persuaded Katya to tell me how she really felt about
politics in her republic. “We have a dictatorship here,” she said,
glancing around to make sure none of the Kalashnikov-toters was within
earshot. “We’re against our president, but he is strong. Everything
here is for our president. Nothing here is for us. Our government is
one big mafiya,” she said, using the Russian word for mob, “the
biggest in the former Soviet Union.”

The next morning, a taxi took Katya and me to the southern edge of
town, to Gonio Apsar, the ruins of a Roman fortress dating from the
first century A.D. A plaque at the gates recounted Apsar’s lengthy
history of conquest: the fortress was Roman until the fourth century;
Byzantine from the sixth; Georgian from the 14th; Ottoman till 1878,
when the Turks returned it to Russia; and Turkish again after World
War I began. It’s a story close to the consciousness of every
Georgian: armies have ravaged this land time and time again. I said it
seemed naive to believe the future would be different. Katya
agreed. “Our president wants Ajaria to join Russia,” she said. “Oh,
there will be war here, just like there was in Abkhazia! We won’t be
able to stop it. We’re all afraid of war! Oh, I just want to get out
of here!”

JUST 60 MILES northeast from Ajaria is the hill town of Kutaisi,
capital of medieval Georgia and burial place of King David IV,
considered one of the country’s founding fathers. Born in 1073, King
David took the throne after an Arab Islamic occupation that had lasted
from the seventh to the ninth centuries. He annexed the region of
Kakheti (now Georgia’s easternmost province), drove the Seljuk Turks
out of Tbilisi (which he made the capital in 1122), and turned his
country into one of the wealthiest in the region. His followers called
him the Builder. Only the reign of his granddaughter, Queen Tamar, who
enlarged Georgia’s borders to the Caspian, would shine more brightly
than his. The golden age that the Builder ushered in would not last,
however. The Mongols invaded in 1220, bubonic plague devastated the
population and, in 1386, Tamerlane’s armies tore through. After
Constantinople fell to the Turks in 1453, the Ottoman and Persian
empires fought over Georgia, killing or deporting tens of thousands.

Through Kutaisi, the pewter-hued Rioni River winds between steep stony
banks, and beyond it rise the Great Caucasus. With Marietta Bzikadze,
a 25-year-old music teacher who studies economics, I visited the
remains of Bagrat Cathedral, which dates from the early 11th century
and has had no roof since it was sacked by the Ottomon Turks in
1691. The previous day, a Sunday, I had been surprised to find the
cathedral hung with icons and bristling with bundled-up worshipers
attending morning services in the open air, despite a cold mountain
wind. “We asked the government not to rebuild the roof,” Bzikadze said
in a husky voice. “We see it as a blessing to pray in the cold, the
rain, and the snow. And we have the strength to do it. You see, 99
percent of being Georgian is being Christian.” We stood beneath the
cathedral’s walls and surveyed the monasteries and churches crowning
hilltops around town. “From here,” she said, “you can see the belfries
of Gelati Monastery and St. George Cathedral. They were built to look
out on each other. The priests used to climb them to send signals. In
times of trouble, they would sound the alarm bells to bring us
together for the fight. Always we Georgians have stood together to
face trouble bearers, be they Mongols or Turks.” She crossed herself
three times in the Orthodox manner. “May God grant us peace!”

In the spirit of the early Christian martyrs, David the Builder had
ordered his grave placed at the gates of Gelati Monastery so that his
subjects would have to walk over him on their way in–a gesture of
humility that Bzikadze and I agreed would be inconceivable today. At
least until Saakashvili, modern Georgian politicians have shown their
people little more than vanity and a lust for lucre.

FOR CENTURIES, Georgia was subjected to atomizing blows from the
north. In 1783, after Persia tried to reestablish control, Georgia
sought aid from Russia. Russia, eager to expand across the Caucasus,
signed a defense treaty but broke its word and stood by as the
Persians plundered Tbilisi in 1795. Six years later, Russia annexed
Georgia, exiled its royal family and reconfigured the country into two
gubernias (provinces). In 1811 the Russians absorbed the Georgian
Orthodox Church into the Moscow Patriarchate. Soon after,
revolutionary fervor swept Russia and dismantled the church, a pillar
of czarist rule. Even so, one of the most infamous revolutionaries of
all time came straight from the ranks of its Georgian novitiates.

Gori, some 90 miles east of Kutaisi, is a small town largely without
electricity. Residents had chopped holes in the walls of their
apartment buildings through which to run stovepipes to heat their
homes. A fragrant shroud of maple smoke hung over the deserted evening
streets, and I wandered around them, entranced. With the smoke and
dark hiding traces of decayed modernity I could have been walking
through the Gori of a century ago. Back then, I might have run into a
dashing mustachioed young poet and top-ranking seminary student named
Ioseb Dzhugashvili, the son of an illiterate peasant and a drunken
cobbler. He would adopt the surname Stalin (from Russian stal’, or
steel)and become Gori’s most famous son.

I had stopped in Gori in 1985 to visit Joseph Stalin’s home and the
museum complex devoted to his life and work. At the time, a spry,
middle-aged woman named Jujuna Khinchikashvili gave me a tour of the
museum, which resounded with his radio addresses, Soviet World War
II-era songs and the chatter of tourists (mostly Russians). Nearly two
decades later, she was still there, and still spry, but now, following
the collapse of the empire that was largely of Stalin’s making, there
was no electricity to power the recordings, the halls were dusty and I
was the sole visitor to his frigid shrine. High windows let in the
day’s dying sun–the only illumination. The museum chronicles Stalin’s
rise from seminary student to poet (he published much-admired verse in
Georgian before coming to power) to membership in Georgia’s first
Marxist party to his rise to supreme leader in the 1930s and, finally,
to his death from a stroke in 1953 at age 73. Unlike many Georgians
who speak of their dictator-compatriot with a mix of awe and unease,
Khinchikashvili enjoyed talking about Stalin, for whom she feels
measured admiration. After all, she said (paraphrasing Churchill),
Stalin took over a Russia armed with only the plow and left it with
nuclear weapons.

Among the tools that Stalin ruthlessly employed to push the Soviet
Union into the modern world were mass executions, artificial famine
and forced labor camps–all told, he sent some 18 million of his
countrymen and women to the gulags. Yet favoritism toward Georgia
never numbered among his faults; in fact, Georgians suffered more than
any other Soviet people during his rule. As Lenin’s commissar in
charge of national minorities, Stalin in 1922 drew Georgia’s borders
so that the various peoples of his native land (Georgians, Abkhaz and
Ossetians, among others) could never unite to rebel against the
Kremlin but, if unrestrained by Moscow, would fall into endless
internecine struggles. Lordkipanidze, the Tbilisi historian, described
Stalin’s autonomous entities to me as “time bombs set to detonate if
Georgia became independent.” And indeed, as soon as the Soviet Union
collapsed, civil wars erupted all over Georgia and the other Soviet

Khinchikashvili ambled down the shadowy corridors of the museum,
chatting about Stalin’s life and pointing out memorabilia. She led me
to a dark room I had not seen before, where a circle of white Roman
columns rose into the black. “Come,” she said, mounting the ramp to
the raised circle of columns and handing me a battery-powered
fluorescent lamp. “Go ahead, climb in! Look at him!” I shivered from
an eerie apprehension as well as the cold, and climbed into the
circle. My light fell on a bronze bust reclining as if lying in
state–an open-eyed death mask taken from the dictator’s face the day
after his passing. The brows were bushy, the mustache thick, the hair
rakishly abundant. It was a good likeness of him, but to me the cold
and darkness seemed a more fitting tribute.

NO LEADER in Georgia’s post-Soviet history has pledged more fervently
to undo Stalin’s legacy of oppression and poverty than Mikhail
Saakashvili. Unlike Shevardnadze, Saakashvili, who was born in
Tbilisi, received a Western education (at the International Human
Rights Institute in France and George Washington University and
Columbia University in the United States). He speaks fluent English
and French. He was working as an attorney in New York City when, in
1995, Zurab Zhvania, then the speaker of Georgia’s parliament,
persuaded him to return to Tbilisi to run in legislative elections. He
was elected, and by 2000, Shevardnadze, impressed by Saakashvili’s
energy, appointed him minister of justice. But Saakashvili grew
disenchanted by his boss’s refusal to back a proposed anti-corruption
law, and he resigned in 2001 to lead the opposition National
Movement. Shevardnadze sealed his fate by rigging the November 2003
elections to ensure his victory over his former protege’s party. On
November 22, Saakashvili led hundreds of thousands of protesters and
stormed the parliament. The next day, he helped persuade Shevardnadze,
who realized he had no better option, to resign. (Shevardnadze still
lives in Georgia and has said he plans to stay there.)

Forty-five days later, Saakashvili won the presidency on a pro-Western
platform. “We have a very confident, young group of people,” he told
the BBC at the time. “They are Western educated, extremely bright,
they speak languages, they know how the modern world functions. We
need to put these people in every level of the government.” In late
February, while in Washington, D.C. to meet with President Bush and
members of Congress, Saakashvili said at a press conference that
Georgia was “ready to meet half way with Russians on many issues as
long as Russia remembers one thing: We have our national sovereignty.”

Georgia’s new leadership aside, the nation’s future depends on rising
above a past that offers no recent precedent for success. For Georgia
to gain true independence, Russia has to renounce ambitions to
dominate the Caucasus. But that prospect seems increasingly unlikely,
given the authoritarian practices and nationalistic policies to which
the Kremlin is returning. Then there is the volatility of Georgian
voters, whose expectations of Saakashvili are astronomic; if he fails
to meet them, his electorate may assume that reform is
impossible–when was it ever successful?–and fail to weather the
transition to a stable government.

THE MAIN ROAD out of Tbilisi, the Georgian Military Highway, runs 138
miles over the Caucasus to the Russian town of Vladikavkaz. Russia
built the highway in the 19th century to ensure control over its two
new gubernias. On one of my last days in Tbilisi, I set out to travel
it as far as Kazbegi, just south of the Russian border. With Rusiko
Shonia, a refugee from Abkhazia’s civil war who now manages Tbilisi’s
historical museum, I hired a car for the three-hour ride.

As we headed north, low clouds obscured the peaks ahead. These
mountains, from ancient times to just a few years ago, held the lairs
of bandits. On various rises and ridges stood churches and their
lookout belfries. A fear of invasion seemed to haunt the ravines. The
highway led into pristine valleys where hot springs, steam-covered in
the subfreezing air, traversed snowfields. Rusiko, who is in her 40s,
has sad eyes and a lilting melancholic voice. “Ten years ago the war
in Abkhazia broke out, and we saw battles,” she said. “My grandmother
and I got lucky and managed to flee while the road was open. But
grandma died of grief after leaving Abkhazia.” The driver slipped into
four-wheel-drive mode. The drop from the icy road was sheer, and
crosses erected to those drivers who had gone over the edge heightened
my anxiety. Finally, we reached the Pass of the Cross and then
Kazbegi, with its icicled huts and snow-covered hovels. We halted
beneath Trinity Church, soaring high above us on a crag. Another world
was beginning here. Russia was only 15 miles to the north. Rusiko
looked back over her country. “In the past, everyone around us has
always wanted a part of Georgia,” she said. “We’ve always, always,
been torn to pieces.” Somewhere to the west loomed Mount Elbrus,
where, as some versions of the legend have it, Prometheus was
chained. We shuddered in the cold wind gusting clown from the slopes
to the north.

MAP: By 2005, the second of two U.S.-backed pipelines spanning
Georgia, a cash-strapped nation of 5 million about the size of South
Carolina, will have opened world energy markets to Caspian Sea oil,
said to be the world’s largest untapped fossil fuel resource.

PHOTO (COLOR): In hardscrabble Georgia (outside Tbilisi), last year’s
Rose Revolution (protesters mob parliament November 22) led to regime
change. But can the new, U.S.-educated president balance Western and
Russian interests?

PHOTO (COLOR): Georgia’s capital and the principal city of the
Caucasus since antiquity, Tbilisi (pop. 1.5 million) has been sacked
dozens of times over the past 1,500 years. “In the past,” says the
manager of a Tbilisi museum, “everyone around us has always wanted a
part of Georgia.”

PHOTO (COLOR): “I don’t believe in military solutions,” 36-year-old
President Saakashvili (with wife, Sandra Roelofs, 36, in January) said
of dealing with the breakaway provinces.

PHOTO (COLOR): A monument to the traditionally Christian nation,
Kutaisi’s 11th-century Bagrat Cathedral still functions as a house of
worship–despite having no roof since 1691.

PHOTO (COLOR): Born in Georgia in 1879, Stalin (his birth shrine in
Gori and 2003 exhibit commemorating the 50th anniversary of his death)
ruled the USSR for 29 years.




AMONG THE YOUNG reform-minded Georgians swept recently into power is
33-year-old Kakha Shengelia, vice premier of Tbilisi’s municipal
government and a friend of Saakashvili’s. Like Saakashvili, Shengelia
was educated in America (he obtained an M.B.A. from the University of
Hartford). Also like Saakashvili, he worked briefly in the United
States (as a project manager for a communications company in New York
City). He returned to Georgia in 1999, and three years later
Saakashvili, then chairman of the Tbilisi City Council, appointed
Shengelia to his current post. In an interview in the Tbilisi town
hall, he spoke of Georgia’s complex relations with the United States
and Russia and of taking a hard line against Georgia’s outlaw

“We won’t tolerate Abashidze,” Shengelia said of the leader of
breakaway Ajaria. “He either has to leave the country or go to
jail. He got his wealth stealing our budgetary funds.” I asked about
Russia’s support of Abashidze and the Russian base near Batumi. “Our
goal is to remove all the Russian bases,” Shengelia said. “If Russia
leaves, the problem is solved.” How would the government persuade
Russia to do so? He didn’t say, beyond promising peace and
security. “But we want no more relations between big and little

Yet Georgia’s promise of security, I said, hardly seems sufficient to
prompt Russia to withdraw. Wouldn’t the United States have to get
involved, perhaps pressure Moscow and act as the guarantor of Georgian
sovereignty? Shengelia agreed. Why would the United States risk
relations with the Kremlin? “To the United States we offer
geostrategic interests,” he said. “The oil pipeline from Baku to
Ceyhan [in Turkey] via Supsa, and a gas pipeline. Georgia is a country
between East and West, important in the war against terrorism.”
Shengelia spoke avidly of Georgia’s recent success in joining
international trade and political organizations and of its hope to
join the European Union and NATO. Georgia’s new direction, he said,
will be westward, away from Russia–a reversal of more than two
centuries of history.

I voiced skepticism, pointing out that Russia is a neighbor, while the
United States is distant and might lose interest if the terrorist
threat wanes. He said the reformers were not about to give up:
“Imagine living under Russian rule and surviving. Only our national
aspirations kept us going. Our language, our alphabet–this is
something given to us by God. We have a great sense of country and
love for our people, for family and roots. This is the magic force
that kept us alive during 20 centuries-our love of country.”

Jeffrey Tayler, a Moscow-based writer for the Atlantic Monthly, has
published three books, including Siberian Dawn.