If there's something all Russians can agree on it's their love for the southern Caucasus and Georgia -- they see it as their Arcadia, their paradise. Pushkin and Lermontov waxed lyrical about the region's extraordinary landscapes and relaxed way of life. During the Soviet era, hundreds of thousands of workers were permitted to escape the harsh working world of the north each year to lie under palm trees on Black Sea beaches or stroll through the region's vineyards.
They came as conquering tourists, but also as occupiers. Georgia was subjected to intensive Russification over the years -- smothered by the affections of the czars and, later, Russia's communist rulers -- before the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and its southern tip became independent.
Only the Crimean Peninsula, with its subtropical southern coast, has triggered a similar level of delight and desire among Russians, who refer to it as "our pearl." In March, President Vladimir Putin, flaunting international law, brought that most important jewel on the Black Sea back into the Russian fold.
But Georgia has also attracted Russian attention in recent years. Since the 2008 Caucasus war, Russia has essentially occupied one-fifth of Georgian territory and recognized the regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent countries, installing puppet regimes there. It also continues to provoke the Georgians along the border. In Tbilisi, Georgian Foreign Minister Maia Panjikidze says: "The truth is that we have never stopped fearing the Russians." A conflict like the one raging in Ukraine could repeat itself in Georgia, Germany's Friedrich Ebert Foundation warns.
At a ceremony in Brussels on June 27 -- a date that had been hastily moved forward -- the European Union signed association agreements with Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova. And at the next NATO summit in September, to be held in Wales, the government in Tbilisi is hoping for a timeframe for its accession to the defense alliance as the fulfillment of a past promise.
But if NATO expands towards Western Asia, will Europeans truly want to accept the Caucasus country -- a land the size of Bavaria with a population of 4.5 million -- into the European Union? And, are Georgian politicians hoping to force NATO intervention by triggering a bloody fight?
Two men have played prominent roles in Georgia's recent history. Former President Mikheil Saakashvili, 46, is a lawyer from an upper-class family who attended top universities and quickly became the darling of the West, earning the nickname "the Kennedy of the Caucasus." Bidzina Ivanishvili, 58, is a self-made man from a desperately poor farming family who, through his business dealings in Russia, became a multi-billionaire and Georgia's prime minister from 2012 to 2013. His nickname is "the secretive one."
Although the current prime minister, Irakli Garibashvili, at least theoretically took over the reins of power in 2013, these two men embody the broader trends in Georgia's recent past, as well as the two possible avenues for its future which, as has often been the case, is divided between East and West, the EU and Russia, democracy and authoritarianism -- conflicts on stark display on any trip through contemporary Georgia.
Take, for example, Batumi, the most important Black Sea port, a major tourist center and a boomtown. Europe made its mark on Batumi long before the EU came into being. The city, whose name is derived from the Greek phrase "deep harbor," was once a Greek colony and later became a Roman trading center. But traces of Ottoman rule are also evident in the city's historic district. Balconies are painted in bright colors and the new square in the city center, complete with a bell tower, was designed to resemble Venice. Everything feels like a mixture of Disneyland and Hollywood; the place is the epitome of kitsch, which seems to appeal to its many visitors.
Batumi is a magnet for tourists from nearby Turkey, but also from Israel and Iran, with frequent charter and scheduled flights traveling back and forth between the city and both Tel Aviv and Tehran. Sheraton and Radisson have built hotels here and Hilton and Kempinski are in the process of building new hotels of their own. The cornerstone of a New York-style Trump Tower has already been laid. The city's main attractions, aside from the manicured gardens and beaches, are its many casinos.
If you ask locals to whom Batumi owes this boom, many will answer identically: Misha, says the man at the front desk of the Intourist Hotel; Misha, says a waiter on the Italian piazza; Misha, in good times and bad, because his government collected millions in bribes for the construction contracts, says a local politician in an Irish pub, who prefers to remain anonymous.
Misha is Mikheil Saakashvili, one of the key leaders of the 2003 "Rose Revolution," which swept away the old guard surrounding then President Eduard Shevardnadze, a former Communist Party official with a fondness for Germany. The new leader soon became the darling of his fellow Georgians and the Western media alike: a suave, charismatic figure educated at Columbia Law School and the International Institute of Human Rights in Strasbourg.
Reform and Authoritarianism
Saakashvili won a landslide victory in free elections in 2004 with his United National Movement party. The new president brought American advisors and investors into the country, and hundreds of millions were spent on Georgia's infrastructure. The new government's modus operandi was to either beautify or bulldoze, and it made an effort to combat petty crime.
But the darling of the West was reluctant to tackle the real corruption underlying big business, and it soon became increasingly evident that he too had an unfortunate penchant for authoritarianism. The prisons began filling up, but this didn't seem to trouble Saakashvili's friend, then US President George W. Bush, who continued to gush with praise for his new ally. Emboldened by Washington's support, the Georgian president became reckless.
When provocations by separatists in South Ossetia, supported militarily by Russia, began to increase in the summer of 2008, Saakashvili ordered a foolhardy military operation: He had his tanks advance on the region, which until then had been under the joint control of Russian and South Ossetian security forces. The Russians struck back with massive military force, forcing Georgian forces to retreat until they were only 50 kilometers (31 miles) from Tbilisi.
An EU investigative commission later found that both sides shared some of the blame, but that Saakashvili had escalated the conflict with military force. The Kremlin never fully abided by a peace plan brokered by the European Council to de-escalate the conflict, and many Georgians fled or were driven from South Ossetia. The conflict continues to smolder today.
Although Saakashvili supposedly advocated for "Western values," by the fall of 2012, it had become clear that Saakashvili's approach had more in common with Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib than the Bill of Rights. Videos of prison torture triggered angry demonstrations and led to a crushing defeat for Saakashvili and his party in the next parliamentary election.
Saakashvili has been a guest professor at Tufts University outside Boston for the last few months. But he is also trying to keep his political prospects alive. "This is where the Russian empire is being buried," he told Ukrainians in an appearance on Maidan Square in Kiev. He has also been a thorn in the side of his successor at home with his unwanted advice. The "Kennedy of the Caucasus" apparently hasn't given up hope of staging a comeback.
'I Was Full of Enthusiasm'
Traveling eastward, into the Georgian interior, one arrives in Tbilisi, the picturesque capital draping the hills on both sides of the Kura River. When seen from a distance lit up at night, the city, with its churches, mosques and synagogues, its overlapping roofs and ornate wooden balconies covered with grape vines, looks like an idyllic place -- part Sarajevo and part French Riviera. Only upon closer inspection does the garish, haphazard and excessive restoration of the city and its rampant construction boom become apparent. So far, both factors have prevented the city's historic section from being added to the list of World Cultural Heritage sites.
The foreign ministry is housed in one of the more attractive older buildings, at the end of a steep, cobblestone street. Foreign Minister Panjikidze, 53, studied in the German city of Jena. She was her country's ambassador to Berlin and, when she fell out of political favor, taught German at the university in Tbilisi. The daughter of a writer, she served as a career diplomat under Shevardnadze, Saakashvili and finally under Bidzina Ivanishvili, the st rongman who was prime minister from October 2012 until November 2013.
What were the differences between the three men? "I was full of enthusiasm for the Rose Revolution and I believed in Saakashvili. Only gradually did I begin to harbor doubts because of his authoritarian leadership style and because of the many arbitrary arrests. But I loyally represented my country as its ambassador until the end -- until I was fired as a result of an intrigue. In fact, it was because of my family connections. My brother-in-law, the current defense minister, had joined the opposition, as I also did later on."
What makes Ivanishvili's "Georgian Dream" coalition different?
"We now have a free, critical press and an independent judiciary. International observers have just confirmed that our local elections were held in exemplary fashion, and we recently passed an anti-discrimination law that protects minorities. We have passed all tests of democracy." For Panjikidze, the path to Europe is a "return to a family to which we belong, and whose values we share."
The foreign minister believes that Georgia is also good for the EU. "It needs allies, especially in this region," says Panjikidze. She is also hoping for a concrete timeframe for admission to NATO and highlights some of her country's qualifying contributions. For instance, Georgia deployed the largest contingent from a non-NATO country to Afghanistan and Georgian troops were also posted in the Central African Republic during the recent EU-led peacekeeping mission.
But officials in Brussels have recently said that NATO won't accept the country into its ranks for the time being -- despite a commitment to Georgian membership made in 2008. It instead intends to offer the country a package of opportunities for closer cooperation. But this may be too little for Georgia.
"There are expectations here in Tbilisi. People want everything at once," Panjikidze says with a sigh.
Russia's potential to do damage is "substantial," she says. Although the country is not as dependent on Russian gas deliveries as Ukraine or neighboring Armenia, Moscow can ignite tensions in the separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia at will -- as it recently did by continuing to install border fences and violating Georgian air space with its fighter jets. So far Russia's activities have been little more than pinpricks, but more could be on the way. "We hope not," says Panjikidze, "but we're not ruling anything out."
In front of the parliament building in Tbilisi, priests with the Georgian Orthodox Church are handing out flyers that read: "Europe is corrupting us and promotes gay marriage!" The flyers are quickly snapped up. Last year, thousands demonstrated against the West's alleged diabolical debasement of Georgian customs.
These displays of anti-Western conservatism raise questions as to whether Georgia's political elite may be more progressive than its people -- and about Ivanishvili. He became a billionaire in Russia, maintains strong ties to the Kremlin leadership and, in the opinion of anyone familiar with Georgian politics, still pulls all the strings. He established the Georgian Dream coalition that defeated Saakashvili in the October 2012 parliamentary election and then served as prime minister. After only 13 months as premier, the secretive one resigned in late 2013 and now controls Georgian politics by making sure his fellow party members are placed in key positions. But what exactly does Ivanishvili want?
Only an hour's drive from Tbilisi and its anti-Moscow "Museum of the Soviet Occupation (1921-1991)" lies Gori, a small city not far from South Ossetia that was the birthplace of Stalin. Here, there is a memorial of an entirely different sort: the Joseph Stalin Museum, complete with a statue as well as busts and images glorifying the former Soviet leader.
Visitors pay €2 to enter the Spartan house of the Jugashvilis and the former Soviet ruler's personal railway carriage. The two-story museum contains documents and photos from Stalin's youth, photos of world leaders and his death mask. But there is no mention of the millions of victims of his policies. The museum makes it seem as if the dictator, one of the worst mass murderers of the last century, had not yet faded into history.
Ivanishvili reportedly wanted to close the scandalous museum. The large statue of Stalin on the city's main square was removed and placed in storage, but only minimal changes were made to a 1957 memorial. Stalin enjoys greater popularity in Georgia than in Russia, with 45 percent of Georgians having a favorable opinion of the former dictator. Many are proud of their fellow Georgian -- or at least they are prouder of his accomplishments than they are disgusted by his atrocities.
Some, though, might argue that this Stalin worship is part of many Georgians' secret nostalgia for the Soviet Union and a yearning for a strong leader. The men on the market square have no reservations about their city's native son, even though the Russians bombed Gori in the 2008 war. They rave about Stalin -- and Ivanishvili, who they call a "doer," someone who may be authoritarian but also happens to be effective.
Ivanishvili, the fifth child of a small farmer, born in the village of Chorvila west of Gori, studied in Tbilisi and then went to Moscow to study economics. During the turbulent perestroika years, he traded in computers, founded a bank and invested in metallurgy. He had the Midas touch. There was never any proof that he was involved in anything illicit, but at the time, it was impossible to become a billionaire without special connections -- and a certain lack of scruples.
The self-made man, who had a weakness for art, once paid $95 million (€70 million) for a Picasso. He has also been known to move his corporate earnings to completely legal offshore tax havens like the British Virgin Islands.
Straddling the Divide
Ivanishvili held Russian citizenship for a period of time, but he renounced it again when he opposed Saakashvili with his Georgian Dream movement. He wants to maintain Georgia's relationship with the West, while also cultivating good relations with Moscow -- though, Ivanishvili has no guarantee that strategy will work.
After a longstanding boycott, Georgia can now once again export wine to Russia, and Putin has been tight-lipped about Tbilisi's EU ambitions -- although he could also have something unexpected up his sleeve. His actions, after all, are as unclear Ivanishvili's. No one knows how close Ivanishvili's relationship is with the Russian president -- and whether he is wheeling and dealing with Putin or intends to drag NATO into an eventual conflict with Moscow.
The West isn't playing fairly with Georgia. At the moment, NATO accession is just as unrealistic for the country as full EU membership. And Georgia is being entirely fair to the West, either. In reality, the country is still far away from satisfying Brussels' criteria. Younger Georgians are boldly turning toward Europe, while many in the older generation yearn for the reliability of Soviet stagnation. No one says it out loud, but most people know it.
The decision on what happens next will be made primarily in Moscow -- where they still love Georgia to death.