Georgia at a Crossroads
Past armed checkpoints into outlaw lands, the author traces the history of the Caucasus republic, the leading recipient of U.S. aid after Israel and scene of a potential new cold war
- By Jeffrey Tayler
- Smithsonian magazine, April 2004, Subscribe
(Page 6 of 6)
Editor’s Note, August 12, 2008: With tensions between Georgia and Russia having reached the point of armed conflict in recent days, we call your attention to a 2004 Smithsonian article by Jeffrey Tayler explaining how the republic’s troubled history sets the stage for future discord and a possible new Cold War.
From the sooty maw of an unlit tunnel at RikotiPass, 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’état 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. “Astruggle for influence is going on between Russia and the United States in Georgia,” says Marika Lordkipanidze, a professor of history at TbilisiStateUniversity.
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 Christianity, 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 Atatürk 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, Aslan 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 Ottomanstyl 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 1936.
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. Blacksuited 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 if 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 WinterPalace 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 décor 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 RioniRiver 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 topranking 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 re sounded 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 republics.
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 GeorgeWashingtonUniversity and ColumbiaUniversity 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 protégé’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 TrinityChurch, 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 down from the slopes to the north.
"BETWEEN EAST AND WEST"
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 provinces.
“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 brother.”
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.”
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