National Geographic : 2010 Aug
Conditions have improved since Mikheil Saakashvili assumed the Georgian presidency--- people in Akhalkalaki will admit that. Under Eduard Shevardnadze, they had electricity only ve hours a day---while they slept---long enough for bread to bake in time for morning. It was subsistence living: no TV, poor roads, little inter- action with Tbilisi, and a rationing of the wood that fueled the house stoves that kept people from freezing in their beds. Now there are a few good roads and electricity all day, if not running water in every home. It is o en cold in Akhalka- laki, even indoors, and the abiding stress makes the people wander these streets weakly, nothing like the powerful Narts, the fabled giants that inhabited the Caucasus before humans arrived and that inspired them to carve mountains into kingdoms and then into nations. Just 19 years old as a nation, Georgia is strug- gling through its adolescence. Seven years ago the Rose Revolution engendered all manner of youthful aspiration. Membership in NATO. Inclusion in the European Union. Bringing the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia under rm federal control. Reworking relations with Russia. Saakashvili wanted it all, wanted it quickly. If not for Georgia's northerly neighbor, he might have gotten it all. e Russians have long felt a sense of entitle- ment toward Georgia, for they were the ones who folded Georgian nobility into their ranks dur- ing the 19th century, forming many principali- ties into a single governable entity, a Christian forti cation in a region otherwise allied with the Ottomans or Persians. Russia also feels a deep emotional attachment to a land romanticized by Aleksandr Pushkin and Leo Tolstoy. But benevolence is a matter of perspective. Soon a er Alexander I attempted to adopt Georgia in 1801, the widowed Georgian queen greeted the tsar's envoy with a dagger in the side, killing him. More recently tensions spiked as Russia, fed up with Georgia's Western desires, closed the border between the two countries in 2006. Russia worries that if Georgia gains entry to the West- ern institutions it so esteems, this could inspire similar freethinking in the northern Caucasus--- including the Russian regions of Dagestan, In- gushetiya, and Chechnya---which continues to shudder with explosions and assassinations that threaten Moscow's territorial hold. e long-running tensions between Russia and Georgia escalated into war in the summer of 2008. Russia moved to assert control over the breakaway regions. Its troops routed Georgia's army, and Russia recognized South Ossetia and Abkhazia as new nations. It was a reminder that a small skirmish in these borderlands could spark a global showdown. Yet the EU and the U.S. were notably indisposed to intervene. Since the war, Georgia's pro-Western policy has stalled. ough the border between the two countries reopened last March, tensions are still high. Like Prometheus, whom the gods chained to the Caucasus as punishment for giving human- ity the power of re, Georgia cannot escape its coordinates. Yet its position on the map may be its strongest asset. For NATO, the southern Caucasus is now viewed as a needed route for supplying the war in Afghanistan, ever since ter- rorist attacks in November 2008 began threaten- ing the supply route through Pakistan's Khyber Pass. For Turkey, an important trade partner, Georgia is the gate to Central Asia. Armenia and Russia cannot trade with each other with- out going through Georgia. And Azerbaijani oil cannot reach the Mediterranean without pass- ing through Georgia, earning the country $65 million in annual transit fees. Georgia is a small player at the table, le to stack small chips. Indeed, the most signi cant impact of the Iron Silk Road on Georgia may prove to be the dismay it will create in the Black Sea ports of Batumi and Poti, the country's most dynamic economic centers, once freight can be diverted to Turkey instead. Still, Georgia can hope that if there's another con ict with Russia, European countries will cry foul if their trade through the southern Caucasus is disrupted. In Akhalkalaki, Grigoriy Lazarev packs up his scale and its rusted one- and ve-kilogram weights, and slowly walks away from the bazaar. He passes a funeral procession running along the main thoroughfare, a photo of the deceased opposed its construction, citing the unfairness of bypassing Armenia.