Georgia at a Crossroads

From our archives: How the republic’s troubled history set the stage for future discord and a possible new Cold War

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. (Mike Reagan)
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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.




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.


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