Georgia Wants Strategic Alliances in Russia's Backyard

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Photograph by Yuri Kozyrev for TIME

If they build it, will we go? Workers near the unfinished Golden Fleece Hotel, one of many construction projects designed to revitalize the Black Sea town of Anaklia

Three years after a war that was essentially a failure of friendship — his far-off allies in Washington had not warred alongside him against Russia and they had not prevented the loss of huge amounts of Georgian territory — President Mikheil Saakashvili wants to show off some new friends.

Here they are: a convivial ring of summer campers in Anaklia on the Black Sea, some still dripping wet from the pool, gathered around a bonfire. Saakashvili sits among them and gives a speech, but he's not just talking to them. He's talking to the cameras recording the speech for national broadcast. He's talking to me, certainly, and therefore to you. He wants us all to know about the kids in this camp, how they are a group of teenagers made up of ethnic Georgians, ethnic Armenians and ethnic Azeris. The camp is called Tolerance. They play volleyball there and learn one another's songs and wave the Georgian flag. The idea is that they want peace, not like the Russian troops who patrol the border of breakaway Abkhazia just 5 km away. "What you see here is an answer to the occupation," Saakashvili says. "We are making history."

Making history has always come easily to Saakashvili. First elected in 2004, he arrived as a democrat in a region of despots. While everyone else knelt before the Kremlin, he taunted Russia's then President, Vladimir Putin. He took Western political stagecraft with him: in Anaklia, his personal film crew is shooting his speech in HD as his official photographer, a slim man with an improbably long camera lens, clicks away. More important than American-style image control, though, Saakashvili took American interests into the heart of a country that had been contested by closer powers — Persians, Turks, Russians — since the time of Herodotus. But these days, now that membership in NATO and the European Union is a distant dream, his prospects rely on the good graces of his non-Russian neighbors. He needs them to trade with Georgia, to be tourists in Georgia, and should war break out again, to at least not take Russia's side. With his final term ending in 2013, and tensions again rising between Georgia and Russia, the survival of Saakashvili's legacy, and perhaps his country, may well depend on it.

A Charm Offensive
Georgia is separated from the majority of its neighbors by the Caucasus, home to some of the highest mountains in Europe. In early summer, the Georgian Border Police, 2,700 troops who guard the mountaintops, took me and photographer Yuri Kozyrev on its troop-rotation flights: stalwart Russian-made MI-8 helicopters flying from peak to peak, sometimes half-blind through clouds, landing on narrow outcrops next to outposts that seemed to be policing the roof of the world. It's a humbling landscape, but the remoteness and isolation of those mountains also gave rise to a huge diversity of clashing tribes, ethnic groups and interests. The Chechens are suspicious of the Ingush, the Georgians mock the Avars, the Armenians and Azeris share a rich mutual hatred. Saakashvili now wants to be friends with them all.

The Russians, however, are experts at playing these groups off one another. The Russian republic of Chechnya in the North Caucasus fought two unsuccessful wars of secession against Russia, but the Chechen people also warred over the centuries with Georgia, which had its own imperious moments. Now, especially after Kremlin-backed strongman Ramzan Kadyrov took over in 2007, Chechnya is a potential menace to Georgia again. When the Russian military poured into South Ossetia during the five-day war of 2008, for example, the most feared units came from a war-hardened Chechen battalion.

So Saakashvili has launched his own charm offensive to win over the people of Chechnya and neighboring republics. Since last October, residents of the Russian North Caucasus can pass through a northern border crossing with Georgia without a visa — a unilateral move that infuriated Moscow. Some 48,000 visitors have gone this way already. Over tea in the Black Sea resort of Batumi, Saakashvili tells me that if Chechens arriving in Georgia see "everyone smiling at them," it's good for national security. "For us, it's a protection," he says. "They can say, 'We've been there, and we don't want next time to come to rampage and pillage.' "

Security through tourism: it's an idea aimed not only at the North Caucasus, but at regional powers Azerbaijan and Armenia as well. Those landlocked countries are very much the target market for Georgia's Black Sea resort boom. Anaklia, which was little more than a village with a pleasant beach when I visited two years ago, is being transformed at a dizzying rate. It seems half-finished already; when complete it will have a water park, casino, open-air disco, yacht rental, a strand with 5,000 imported palms and, confusingly, a Chinatown located just a rifle shot away from the disputed Abkhazian border. Saakashvili calls close trade and tourism with Azerbaijan and Armenia "absolutely crucial" to Georgia's development as a focal point of a more unified Caucasus.

A Finger in Moscow's Eye
Georgia's Pankisi gorge — a string of muddy villages that was an infamous Chechen rebel hideout before Saakashvili regained control there in 2004 — shows signs of regional bonds Saakashvili can build on. After accusations of being hostile to Chechen refugees early in his career, Saakashvili seems to have won many over by giving them citizenship and equal rights under Georgian law. Acet, who didn't want her full name used because it might endanger relatives still living in Chechnya, is one of some 800 civilian refugees from the Chechen war still living in Pankisi; she arrived after being denied citizenship in Turkey. "I'm so glad our brothers took us in," she says. "We are free here." Even the revered Alla Dudayeva, whose husband General Dzhokhar Dudayev proclaimed himself the first President of "free" Chechnya before the Russians killed him, has moved to Georgia after long exile in Europe. "Anywhere in the mountains, you are with your people," Dudayeva tells me at her home in Tbilisi. "Georgians and Chechens are one."

That's the message of Kanal PIK, an ambitious government-funded effort to start a Caucasus version of al-Jazeera. The programming is all Russian-language and beamed into homes throughout the region from Tbilisi, including into the Russian republics of the North Caucasus. The idea is to do for the Caucasus what al-Jazeera did for the Middle East: provide an independent source of news to break through the regional censorship. "There's a big problem with an information vacuum in the region," says Katya Kotrikadze, PIK's head of news. Coming soon, for example: a series of documentaries called The Truth About Chechnya, billed as showing war footage "prohibited on Russian channels."

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