TBILISI, Georgia -- For the Russians he is a scary figure. A cunning eastern despot whose main purpose is to humiliate and to outsmart them. They have disliked Mikheil Saakashvili, young president of Georgia, since he grabbed power following the famous Rose Revolution in November 2003.
To the Kremlin he was an instant threat, calling for the restoration of Georgia's integrity by the return of the breakaway separatist regions of Adjaria, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The Russians could not accept his NATO and European Union aspirations. The Kremlin's controlled media spared no effort in painting him as a ruthless dictator unconcerned about the well-being of his subjects. They stressed his macho ego and lack of respect for anybody but himself. Nationalist Russian politicians called him fascist.Now senior diplomats in Moscow, including the Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, are declaring that the time has come to unseat him.
Georgian opposition politicians have been only slightly less critical. To Giorgi Khaindrava, one of the leading Georgian opposition figures, Saakashvili was an "idiot," a chess player utterly incapable of thinking more than a single move ahead. Even Russian democrats were skeptical about Misha Saakashvili. They cannot forgive his clampdown on the independent Imedia TV station last year during the massive opposition riots in Tbilisi.
Tensions in Georgia were already on the rise last Wednesday when we rushed to the capital Tbilisi for an interview with Saakashvili. We had spent the day in the upper part of Kodori Valley, a controversial borderlands in the Caucasus mountains that provides the easiest access from Georgia to the separatist republic of Abkhazia. Georgia had moved its troops to the upper part of the valley in 2006; since then the separatist government of Abkhazia and Russia have continuously demanded their withdrawal.
Our ride lasted more than 11 hours. The first half took us to west Georgian town of Zugdidi, on bumpy mountain roads, in a Toyota military pick-up driven by the heavily armed Georgian Interior Ministry paratroopers. We then changed to a Toyota Camry driven by an official from the Georgian Ministry of Internal Affairs. This was Shota Utiashvili, a 30-year-old former journalist. It was Shota who helped book the interview with Saakashvili. On the long ride back to Tbilisi he kept reassuring us -- "Don't worry if we arrive late," he said, "here in Georgia interviewing the president even at 11 pm is standard. We do not come to the office early, we do not return home until late." He covered the 200-plus miles from Zugdidi to Tbilisi in a mad dash, continuously over the speed limit and overtaking countless cars along the way. It didn't help. We got to the president's office at least 20 minutes late.
When his secretary brings us to his office he reacts to our late arrival without the usual official's pride. "You are late? Or I am late?" he says, surprising us with his friendly questions and manners.
But as for the interview itself, Saakashvili is in command from start to finish, pausing barely long enough to acknowledge the questions we ask. He delivers instead well-rehearsed long monologues - to the effect that Georgia has chosen the West and NATO and that we do not want to follow Russia's political and economic patterns. We build a society based on democratic freedoms and the rule of law, he says, the values that he says he learned during his studies in the United States [at Columbia University's law school]. Georgia is a showcase for democracy in this part of the world, he goes on, an experiment that the United States should be eager to support.
Saakashvili insists that if Georgia succeeds on the path it has chosen, other countries in the region will follow. Russian leaders think Georgia is part of a conspiracy targeted against them, he concedes - "They do not believe we act on our own, making our own free choice." In this conversation, with fullscale war just 2 hours away, the Georgian president insists that his country does not seek conflict with Russia. He appears to understand the stakes involved, acknowledging that Russia's population is 30 times larger than Georgia's and that any Georgian attempt to reclaim one of the separatist regions would mean opening a war against Russia itself.
But at the same time, in this interview, Saakashvili is openly contemptuous of his counterparts in Russia. "You know them and their corruption," he says; "you can imagine what horrible consequences there would be if we followed their political and economic model." He says he cannot imagine the West not coming to Georgia's aid. It would be like the betrayal of Hungary in 1956 or the then Czechoslovakia in 1968, when the Soviet Union's aggressive repression of restive satellites was met with silence from the West.
This conversation take place late on Wednesday evening, as August 6 turns to August 7. On the following night, Aug. 7-8, Georgian troops launched their offensive against Tshkinvali, the capital of South Ossetia. With casualties estimated to be in the hundreds, the Russians have the "casus belli" they need, a rationale for responding with the full weight of the far superior Russian military.
In the days since, again and again I heard Georgian officials saying "we were provoked" - that their sudden attack on Tshkinvali was but a single episode in a long history of confrontation with Russia and the allegedly puppet governments they had installed in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. I suggested that perhaps their rhetoric had been too reckless, too aggressive. In the interview with Saakashvili I put the question directly to him, reminding him of what one of his own ministers had said - that Russia was like a hungry, provoked crocodile, ready to swallow Georgia and its people whole.
One of Saakashvili's closest associates conceded that yes, mistakes had been made. He recalled that "Misha" - the nickname for Saakashvili used by those in his inner circle - had once called Vladimir Putin "Liliputin" - a reference to the little people of Swift's Gulliver's Travels. "He should not have said this," this associate said, acknowledging at least implicitly that in the confrontation with Russia it was very much Georgia in the Lilliputian role.
When we shook hands with Saakashvili at the presidential residence, I wondered if this childish-looking man might become a real statesman after all, someone with the capacity to cope with Russia's existential challenge. Might it be possible at some point to compare him with one of those great figures of the 20th century, the likes of French President Charles de Gaulle or Turkish leader Kemal Ataturk or Spain's King Juan Carlos -- men who successfully dealt with their countries' most difficult crisis situations and paved the way for stable prosperity?
Before leaving his office I look at him once again. It suddenly pops into my head that yes, he could be a great president. He is bright and educated, speaks perfect English. One can feel his charisma. The problem comes down to this -- that his country should not be neighbors with Russia. My doubt comes down to this: my uncertainty as to whether Saakashvili is a leader who knows how to handle hungry crocodiles.This article was commissioned by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting