I was surprised the moment he came to pick us up in the western Georgian town of Zugdidi. I had thought he would be young, like most of Mikheil Saakashvili's youthful administration. Shota Utiashvili was a senior government official, and I had expected him to be dressed in something more formal than shorts, trainers and a striped polo shirt. The Department Director at the Ministry of Interior Affairs looked as if he was on his way to a picnic, rather than accompanying foreign journalists in a high-risk conflict zone.
That zone was the Kodori Gorge in the separatist region of Abkhazia. This precipitous valley had been under Georgian government control for two years, and was no place for a picnic. Instead of an ice-box full of cold beers, we were accompanied by paratroopers from the Zugdidi garrison, whose camouflage and Kalashnikovs fitted the occasion more than Shota's outfit.
We had been driving the bumpy, muddy roads of Kodori for two days, touring the stunning Caucasian scenery in a couple of modern green military pick-ups. Shota's own official ministry Toyota waited for our return in the garrison parking lot. As we switched vehicles from military to civilian, one of the units in the garrison was preparing for the daily roll call. Despite the security, the soldiers marched around the barracks with a laziness that gave no suggestion of any impending conflict.
The sense of urgency was ours. We had an important appointment to keep: an interview with Misha, as Shota called President Saakashvili. The meeting was scheduled for ten in the evening, the length of the country away from Zugdidi. ‘Don't worry', Shota assured us. ‘Misha often stays in his office until late'. Georgia, he said, is different from most other places. Shota himself often had to brief the president or receive instructions in the middle of the night. And anyway, he continued, the interview had to be on this day, as Misha was leaving the next morning for China, to lead the Georgian Olympic team to sporting glory in Beijing.
Shota Utiashvili soon demonstrated some sporting talent of his own: that of a Formula One driver on the main highway to Tbilisi. The start of our drive passed through the lowland region of Mingrelia, a place where entire herds of cows apparently prefer lounging smack in the middle of highways to grazing in their pastures. This clipped Shota's wings for a while, but once we passed the town of Kutaisi, he began demonstrating a formidable range of driving skills.
The speedometer rarely dropped below 100 miles per hour, as the Toyota slalomed along the road, scattering any cars and trucks that strayed into our path. Shota also gave a fine demonstration of driving on the wrong side of the road while fielding a succession of calls on his cell phone.
‘No, all is quiet in South Ossetia.' ‘I don't know who is spreading this news about an increase in tension.' ‘We will not open fire.' ‘Yes, Misha is flying tomorrow to China. Yes. For the Olympics.'
The calls came in English, Georgian and Russian, and again and again the subject moved in the same direction. ‘No, I don't think there'll be a war. Why? Well, we don't intend to start one... We would rather seek a peaceful solution. And today we're fully observing the ceasefire agreement.'
Georgian soldiers at the Vasiani base near Tbilisi practise evacuating wounded colleagues under the supervision of their American instructors
Peaceful solution? I could hardly believe Utiashvili's words. Only a few days before I had heard Georgia's Minister for Reintegration Temur Yakobashvili comparing Russia to a hungry crocodile which has to be contained. Now noisy, angry grumbling from the Kremlin was a sign that the Russian bear was indeed irritated, hungry and ready to move out of its lair.
I listened to Shota's conversation from the passenger seat, constantly expecting every mile of road to be my last. In the middle of one call to the president's office, at breakneck speed on the wrong side of the road, I closed my eyes in resignation as a behemoth of a truck bore down on us. When the expected collision failed to take place, I opened them again, with Shota still barreling along, still glued to the cell phone conversation and oblivious to any danger. I wiped more sweat from my forehead with the increasingly damp sleeve of my jacket.
‘We'll be late', Shota told the president's secretary. ‘The traffic is bad.' He then turned to us and reassured us that the president would wait for us. ‘This is the Caucasus, guys. It's a different place to America and Europe.' He smiled and that heavy right foot pressed the gas pedal to the floor with renewed venom.
Shota's driving stayed just on the right side of disaster long enough for us to arrive in Tbilisi, shaken but alive. We were let in through the back entrance of the newly modernized presidential residence in the old Tbilisi neighbourhood of Avlabari. In the past the building had been the headquarters of the traffic police. I smiled wryly, wondering how those traffic cops would have viewed Shota's driving.
I had hoped that we would arrive in Tbilisi in plenty of time to reach the hotel for a quick change into the jacket and tie that an interview with a head of state demanded. Instead, as we checked bags of TV equipment, lights, cameras and tripods through the X-ray machine, I felt more like a backpacker.
After the security check in the brightly lit lobby, the president's secretary came down to pick us up. The interview, we were told, was to take place in the presidential conference room. It was furnished with Scandinavian utilitarian economy, and did not promise an engaging backdrop for the television pictures. Instead, Saakashvili himself suggested that we decamp to his own office, showing an awareness of the importance of presentation in this difficult modern media world.
Saakashvili is a tall man, but struck me as older and more mature than I had expected, given the youthfulness so associated with his administration. In my mind I still had the pictures of his days as a young government minister under President Eduard Shevardnadze.
While we waited for the television lights to be set up, I let my eyes wander over the shelves of his office and its antechamber. A photo book about John Kennedy, "Remembering Jack", was displayed in such a way that it was the first one anybody would notice. There was a book on the architect of the modern Turkish state, Kemal Ataturk, and Strobe Talbott's "The Great Experiment". I was not surprised to see Simon Sebag Montefiore's history of "Young Stalin" there too. A few months previously I had heard from a film director friend in Oxford that Misha would be prepared to support him in shooting a feature film based on the book about the Soviet dictator's early years in Georgia.
As I had expected, a number of photos taken in front of the White House were also prominently displayed. One amusing picture showed President Saakashvili bending down to pet Barney and Miss Beazley, George and Laura Bush's dogs. I was slightly more surprised by the president's bathroom, where the Villeroy & Bosch toilet suite suggested the expensive tastes of an ex-Soviet oligarch.
The interview was a peculiar one. Misha paid very little attention to any questions that we threw his way, using them instead as punctuation: a break or a pause that allowed us to feel that we were playing a role in the interview too. For the Georgian president, the interview was no question and answer session, but a platform for delivering a message, with the journalists present purely to convey it to the outside world.
He spoke with the remorseless speed of machine-gun fire of his scorn and criticism for Georgia's giant northern neighbour. Russia, in his eyes, was a corrupt and aggressive dictatorship that was trying to impose its rules upon the rest of the world. In the Russian game, Abkhazia and South Ossetia were mere toys, controlled by the Kremlin's puppet masters.
Georgia, in comparison, was making tremendous progress in reforming its economy, and Misha underlined his satisfaction at seeing a rash of new hotels and resorts, Radissons and Marriotts, spreading across Tbilisi and the Black Sea resort of Batumi.
As for the recent escalation of tensions in South Ossetia, no, Misha didn't want any war. It was all provocation by Moscow, and any large-scale military confrontation would anyway mean fighting against Russia, not just the South Ossetian separatists. And, as Misha said he understood well, against the Russians the Georgians had no chance of victory.
His message delivered, the Georgian president amiably shook hands while discussing the possibilities of watching some Georgian Olympic glory in Beijing.
Georgian soldiers in Gori, on their way to the Ossetian front
A car was arranged to take us to the hotel, this time without the maniac driving of Shota Utiashvili, who was nowhere to be seen. Outside it was quiet and empty. The roads of Tbilisi at two o'clock in the morning were largely free of traffic, and as we bumped down the narrow, cobbled streets to our beds there was a feeling of order and calm. But I was seriously doubtful that our schedule would go ahead as planned, that President Misha would fly off to East Asia to lend his support to the athletes of this proud country, and that the world would continue much as before in the Caucasus. Too much tension could be felt on both sides of the divide. There had been too many hostile words and statements. The war machine had already lumbered into gear and would be unstoppable. Radicals in Moscow and Tbilisi were already on a collision course and no appeals to common sense would stop them.
After more than 10 days in Tbilisi, Zugdidi and Abkhazia, I could not really believe the peaceful assurances of president Misha and his Interior Ministry official Shota Utiashvili. One question bothered me while I was falling asleep: when the first bullets and missiles would be fired and who would be the first, Russians or Georgians to pull the trigger.
This was less than twenty hours before Georgian soldiers and tanks attacked Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia, setting off the short and vicious August war that would shake the world.
Zygmunt Dzieciolowski's travel to Georgia and Abkhazia last year was supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting (http://www.pulitzercenter.org/)
Also by Zygmunt Dzieciolowski:
Sukhumi: Cafe Lika on the brink of war http://www.opendemocracy.net/article/email/sukhumi-cafe-lika-on-the-brink-of-war
Zugdidi: Will I ever go back? http://www.opendemocracy.net/article/email/zugdidi-will-i-ever-go-back