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Georgia in the Time of Misha

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Photo: Martha Camarillo

On a warm night in Tbilisi, where the glossy air has bas-reliefed everything (and everyone) into a kind of celebrity pop-up, I find myself living a glamour moment among the newly minted café society of Georgia. It's a Studio 54 photograph of sorts, but taken in a country wedged roughly between Chechnya and Iran. And so the scene feels at once familiar and strange: men etched in designer poses, fine-boned models having too much fun, that feeling of being at precisely the right place at the right time—all punctuated by the blank stares of VIP's ignoring VIP's. Very Warhol. Perfectly déjà vu. We're on a veranda looking down at the tree-lined Mtkvari River winding through the capital's archaic elegance. It's the after-party of a fashion show, and the peculiar assortment of people illustrates Georgia's ancient role as a merging point of cultures along the Silk Road.

Just inside the red cordon, elbow against the wall, stands Georgian soccer star and Dolce & Gabbana model Kakha Kaladze, who plays in Italy for superclub A.C. Milan. Nearby sits Natalia Kancheli, a sometime aide to Georgia's young president, Mikheil "Misha" Saakashvili, and daughter of composer Giya Kancheli. You have seen her kind in first-class lounges en route to London, Paris, Tokyo—heartbreakers in dark sunglasses, mysterious in the world and very much of it. Two tables away sits the burly son of the late Saparmurat Niyazov, in his time the world's most bizarre leader-for-life after Kim Jong Il of North Korea. Until last year, Niyazov Sr. ruled the former Soviet republic of Turkmenistan. Largely impoverished, the country has massive natural-gas deposits, which served mostly to pay for giant banners and statues of Niyazov, including a notorious 40-foot gold-plated one that revolves to salute the sun all day. What is it like to be his son?Not too cheerful, apparently. "I visited your capital, Ashkhabad, back in the nineties," I say, "and I enjoyed it immensely." He eyes me ironically. "You were surely drunk," he says, smiling, and turns to gaze at his vodka. He probably thinks he's said too much already. Just beyond him is a slender, soft-spoken young Tbilisian with a smooth-shaved head who deploys the Georgian investments of an oil-rich Kazakh corporation, part of a flow of wealth that represents the ancient Silk Road common market coming back to life, Kazakhstan being the new oil powerhouse of Central Asia.

Money, fun, and exuberance are suddenly flowing through Tbilisi from all directions. In the few short years since January 2004, when the nonviolent Rose Revolution brought President Saakashvili to power at age 36, the country has experienced a historically unprecedented forward surge. After centuries of confinement under Persian, Ottoman, Czarist, and Soviet rulers—and a decade during which two provinces, with Russian incitement, seceded from the country—Georgia has come into its own. Little more than five years ago, citizens routinely tapped into public telephone and electricity cables for service; no one paid taxes; everyone took bribes. A million Georgians (out of a total population of 4.5 million) emigrated abroad. For a while, all over the post-Soviet geosphere the word Georgian was an adjective denoting mafia shenanigans.

It has all changed with bewildering speed. The police don't take bribes, the mafia has fled, new roads are being paved. There are more Georgians returning than leaving; new office buildings, hotels, and airports are going up; and even the vile Soviet-era concrete apartment blocks have been repainted in bright colors. If you want to know what "ef florescence" looks like, this is it. Georgia and Tbilisi are going through a bona fide "era," the Era of Misha (as Georgians call their president), which may seem fairly routine to us (after all, we have the Clinton era, the Bush era) except that Georgians couldn't have their own era until the Soviets left, and they only had chaos in the aftermath of that. In short, Georgia is poised to reclaim its own chosen destiny, after having it hijacked by one neighbor or another for more than 500 years.

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