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Georgia in the Time of Misha

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Photo: Martha Camarillo

Abashidze allowed all the roads to crumble, except one—the one his son would drive on to give his 10 Ferraris a periodic workout. The province had one export, Jeep-mounted machine guns, and earned much of its revenue from the Russian military base and the oil terminal that serviced Black Sea tankers. Batumi achieved renown as a seaside jewel beginning in 1900, when oil began to flow from the Baku oilfields in Azerbaijan and went out to the world by ship. The Rothschilds and Nobels who made millions from the pre-Communist Baku bubble chose nearby Batumi as their elegant fun-in-the-sun way station.

I'm not told how we will get to Batumi, which is a seven-hour drive away. The chauffeur steers between potholes on a road leading to a seedy military facility on the outskirts of Tbilisi. I'm rushed to a large, bug-eyed helicopter of Soviet vintage, the kind with spidery, drooping rotor blades. Then the president charges in, followed by his numerous bodyguards. We soar up past the Tbilisi Sea, the reservoir where Tbilisians go to shake off the summer heat. We're escorted by an identical chopper, two shadows flashing on hills below. Within 15 minutes we see the serried white caps of the Great Caucasus mountain range. That way lies Chechnya. Georgia of ancient memory undulates below, wild and myth-strewn from Prometheus to the Amazons. Suddenly, we're over a beach, landing near an Oriental-roofed dacha patrolled by guards. I've barely settled in the semi-complete local governor's residence when I hear a shout: "Hurry up, they're waiting for you." I run out and down to the beach where Saakashvili is standing dripping next to two Jet Skis. "Go ahead," he says, "try it out." Off we go along the coast, choppers and launches trailing, little dots of people waving from the beaches.

Saakashvili, in his idiosyncratic Georgian way, is serious about fun. He builds amusement park rides, colorful fountain shows, and the like all over the country: "I want to brighten things up," he says. "Georgia was the main tourist destination for the entire Soviet sphere. People are coming back and bringing others. They know that more democracy and private enterprise equals more hope and affluence and, yes, more fun."

Like Tbilisi, Batumi is a place awakening from the spell of history. Brutish Soviet apartment blocks crumble around exquisite Belle Époque quartiers. Subtropical in climate, the shoreline rises at times into cliffs topped by swaying bamboo forests and tea and nutmeg farms. The Turks ruled here until the mid 19th century; Neoclassical mini-palaces line the waterfront. During the day, the governor walks us through the Old Town—still being rebuilt after Abashidze. Saakashvili takes me on a drive along the coast: "Those are all new hotels," he says. "Here is the new Chinese restaurant and the new Dutch restaurant." He points to a multicolored pagoda and a large white windmill nearby. Later, on a lovely Black Sea evening, we all dine atop a faux wooden galleon in dry dock. A crimson sun melts away, and the water turns steely soft. The table groans with dishes, very Georgian both in amount and content. I spot the two standards of the national cuisine: khinkali and khachapuri, big meat dumplings and a kind of pizza, comfort foods nonpareil, surrounded by a spread of tomatoes, cheese, spring onions, and radishes.

In Tbilisi, on my last night, I am invited to dinner at the house of the minister for privatization, Kakha Bendukhidze. We eat at a long wooden table, with his beautiful wife, Natasha, on their flagstoned back porch. Natasha found a painting in town that day entitled Bendukhidze at Table, showing our host—a large man—tucking into a table-length fish. President Saakashvili suddenly appears with an Italian restaurateur in tow. He just flew to St. Petersburg today to meet Putin for a specially arranged rapprochement. Instead, it turned into one more sour incident in an ongoing saga of hostility. Putin kept Saakashvili waiting for four hours, then met him for a mere 15 minutes. Gifts were exchanged. They barely said hello. So, in disgust, Saakashvili and his retinue went to the best restaurant in town. "It was so good that I realized we had to have one just like it here," he says. The restaurateur, chuckling, says, "He told me I had to see Tbilisi—he hijacked me on his jet."

Saakashvili asks about my stay. I find myself, in one of those surreal, comic moments that Georgia inspires, describing the wolf- and bearskins I saw at the flea market but had failed to purchase. "I have a Siberian bearskin," Saakashvili says. "Would you like it?" Well...I say, and so it is that an enormous Russian bearskin appears in my hotel room—a gift originally given to Saakashvili (I'm told by an aide) by the Kremlin, and emblematic of Russian power. I understand why Saakashvili might not want it. As for me, I can hardly refuse this mad, outsize, Georgian gesture of affection—to be explained across multiple security barriers in myriad time zones, "You see, the president of Georgia gave it to me...." Don't tell Mr. Putin I have his bear.

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