On Aug. 8, a missile the size of a bus struck near a village some 50 miles north of this Eurasian country's capital city, Tbilisi. It failed to explode. In all likelihood the missile came from Russian jet fighters violating Georgian airspace, as Georgians quickly claimed -- the incident was eerily similar to one in March, when Russian attack helicopters flew at night and, without provocation, fired missiles into Georgian territory.
In both cases, Georgian authorities showed the world radar flight path data as proof. The world did nothing the first time, and will likely do nothing again. Meanwhile, unexplained incursions continue daily. This is the kind of near-lethal brinkmanship which Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili believes will only encourage more belligerence from Russia.
Mr. Saakashvili has spent his first three-and-a-half years in office impelling his country forward economically, courting NATO and EU membership, eradicating corruption and trying to woo Russian-supported secessionists back into the fold. Above all, he strives daily to keep his country, with a population of four million, on the mind of Western nations so its security and success will seem synonymous with theirs -- and keep the Russians at bay. The Russians still seem to perceive post-Soviet Georgian independence as a kind of betrayal, responding with an array of destabilizing policies, such as the imposition of embargoes on Georgian goods.
Earlier this summer, I spent some time with Georgia's president, checking on his progress. He has quite a story to tell, particularly about the economy. According to Mr. Saakashvili, Georgia's GDP was less than $3 billion five years ago. It's now $8 billion and will double in three years, and he is straightforward about his inspiration.
"I finally met Margaret Thatcher in London this year," he shouts over the noise of helicopter engines as we fly adjacent to the snow-peaked Caucasus mountains. "I always admired her, and I always thought, if I could do in Georgia a fraction of what she did in the U.K., I would be very happy. … And she said to me, 'you are doing all the things in Georgia that I wanted to do in the U.K. and more . . . '"
It's a strange place for an interview, but Mr. Saakashvili keeps a merciless schedule. On this day, after a speech in the main square of Tbilisi, he is presiding over five separate ribbon-cutting ceremonies around the country.
We begin the tour with a three-kilometer visit down a coal mine that has sat unused for 15 years, with the mining community above it going to ruin. It is now being revitalized with German money and machinery. We end the tour past midnight, at a new Turkish-built airport at the resurgent Black Sea resort of Batoumi.
Just four years ago, before the nonviolent Rose Revolution disposed of the Shevardnadze regime and soon voted in Mr. Saakashvili, Georgia was widely considered a failed state on a par with Zimbabwe -- with corruption rampant, a stagnant economy and several civil wars smoldering.
That's changing. Three years ago, Mr. Saakashvili famously fired 15,000 traffic policemen and dissolved the pervasive bribery ethos in one stroke. The country is booming: Everywhere new hotels, factories and well-lit roads proclaim the changes. Even the old Soviet tower blocks look festive and newly painted. Foreign investment flows in from every quarter: Kazakhstan to the east, Turkey to the south, Europe and the U.S., the Gulf States, even from Russia, despite all of Mr. Putin's embargoes -- and despite the shadow of two secessionist "black holes" inside Georgia backed by Russian arms and money: Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Mr. Saakashvili points out a little town in the distance, Tskhinvali, the disputed heart of South Ossetia, nothing more than a sprinkling of houses on a rise of farmland deep inside Georgian territory. "We've offered them everything they want . . . language rights, their own political structures, cross-border rights to their fellow Ossetians. … They probably would agree if they were free to do so."
I point down to the terrain beneath us and comment that if the well-regulated squares of green fields down below are any indication, Georgia's agriculture is doing well. "In Soviet times," he says, "all this was a chaotic mess. In contrast, you'd fly over Western Europe and see miles of perfectly cultivated land . . . Now Georgia is the same. It's beautiful to look at. That's the aesthetic look of the free market."
A day or two later, at a dinner for Georgian businessmen, the president delivers a speech hammering home his well-honed message of self-help. "The government is going to help you in the best way possible, by doing nothing for you, by getting out of your way. Well, I exaggerate but you understand. Of course we will provide you with infrastructure, and help by getting rid of corruption, but you have all succeeded by your own initiative and enterprise, so you should congratulate yourselves."
Mr. Saakashvili's style of leadership feels like a permanent political campaign -- which it is, in a way. He seems determined to show citizens how it's being done, visibly to demonstrate accountability, transparency and political process, so they grow accustomed to the sight of politicians answering to them -- in short, to Western political habits. All the while, he's exhorting and explaining, striving to change attitudes ingrained through decades of Soviet rule and 15 years of stagnation, strife and corruption. "I keep telling people that this is not a process like some silver-backed gorilla leading them to new pastures. They must do it themselves, and they are."
Mr. Saakashvili famously gets very little sleep, calling his aides at 2 a.m. to remind them of neglected tasks. During the day, he never stops moving.
On one occasion, a sudden onset of severe bad weather forces down both his helicopter -- and the one behind it that is full of his security -- in farmland beside a small town. No matter. His aides borrow what conveyances they can, and we end up with the president driving a 1956 Volga modeled on a postwar American Dodge. As the sleet and hail hammer down, the car lurches along and we all double up in helpless laughter because the windshield wipers don't work. Mr. Saakashvili sticks one free arm out the driver's-side window to wipe the windshield manually while he drives.
At one point I ask him if security and dealing with Russian threats are a top priority. "We have two limbs of Georgia which are currently detached," he says, careful not to sound provocative, "and we have a hostile, powerful northern neighbor, even more powerful every day with oil money. But we can't be living in a state of gloom and paranoia. . . . When the Russians imposed the embargo on our wines, we simply found new markets. Like-minded countries such as Poland and the Baltic states actively sought out our products.
"When Russia cut off gas supplies, we had to work on developing new sources. So we're developing hydro-power and coal and nuclear energy. Next year, we'll be fully supplied by Azerbaijani power. . . . Everyone said we'd never survive but our success gives confidence to everyone else."
Mr. Saakashvili notes that his country had to diversify its markets anyway. "Georgia's natural strength is its role as a crossroads both culturally and geographically. It was always a kind of bridge on the old Silk Road. So we're building up our highway system; we're completing our rail link from Batoumi to Istanbul through to Europe; we've got the new international airport there.
"Eastwards we're connecting all the way to China via a ferry across the Caspian. It will offer an alternative to the trans-Siberian railway. And of course, the same goes for pipelines such as the Baku-Ceyhan oil pipeline which goes through Georgia."
I ask him if the Russians are making a big push now with maximum pressure while they can, realizing that before long, consumer countries will develop alternate supply routes to avoid Russian strategic pressure. "No, I don't think the Russians are calculating logically or strategically," he says. "I think it's an emotional and volatile process for them. Logically, they should realize that stable relations all around will pay off for them more in the long run. Instead they're driving countries to find alternative partners . . ."
He also speaks about Russia's domestic anti-Georgian campaign. "It wasn't working very effectively until they actually went to all the schools and asked for a list of all the children with Georgian names. Suddenly, the parents realized this was serious. That and the endless corruption of the Russian system became unbearable for them -- so now we have tens of thousands of qualified Georgians . . . coming back and repatriating their money to Georgia."
There is a general sense in Georgia that the U.S. could be more supportive but badly needs Russian help over such critical areas as Iran, North Korea and the fight against terror. Does Mr. Saakashvili think that the U.S. could do more? "All we ask for is moral support," he answers. "It's all about shared values. You can see that the U.S. has a lot of moral authority here. We have a historic sympathy for the U.S. and the West. America should know how strong it still is and keep up the pressure at the highest levels. It should help enhance stability and serve as a deterrent to Russian adventurism."
Mr. Saakashvili also says that "Europe is waking up. After the French election, I was invited on a full state visit. That did not happen in the time of [former President Jacques] Chirac -- he had other priorities. Europe is becoming aware that it must engage with the 'near abroad' region between itself and Russia. Europe is ending its false pragmatism.
"In return," he continues, "we are doing our utmost to stay engaged in the international community and to fulfill our obligations. Georgia has 2,000 troops in Iraq now deploying to the Iran border . . . to interdict arms smuggling across the border and we have told them not to be passive -- [instead] to be active and get results. Before now they were in the Green Zone but now they will be acting as part of the surge, going wherever US troops can go. . . . failure in Iraq will be a disaster for everyone.
"For us it's also a matter of national pride. Georgian soldiers have always been famous for their courage but they've never fought as Georgians -- they've always fought in others' armies. We've had generals in Mameluke, Russian and Soviet armies -- even top U.S. generals. Now they will be serving in our name and for our country. In the 1920s Georgian officers fought for Polish independence to keep out the Bolsheviks (Retired U.S. Gen. John Shalikashvili's father was one.) Poland has just put up a monument to those officers (to the chagrin of Mr. Putin)."
Nearing the end of our time together, I ask Mr. Saakashvili, whose administration will surely be remembered for the number and pace of its reforms, if he feels he can let up. Is he on schedule, and what's left undone?
Mr. Saakashvili responds by stressing the importance of integrating Georgia's ethnic minorities. "There used to be areas where only Russian was spoken and the central government had no influence. Now they are all voluntarily learning Georgian. It's important that we show an example to secessionist zones, that they have nothing to fear, that in fact their identity will be better protected by us than Russia."
He also speaks about the vital importance of "ridding ourselves of corruption," of reaching "the point of irreversibility. That's why we are in a hurry. If you relax on corruption it will come back in two months."
Mr. Saakashvili notes of his own country as well as many others emerging from the shadows of communism: "These are not societies with much experience in democratic processes. In parts of Eastern Europe they keep electing useless populists who are corrupt. So far the people here have made the right choices but we must govern in a way that's instructional and symbolic so it settles in the public's consciousness, and they learn to evaluate you by achievement. Democracy means constantly outperforming yourself or you are out on your backside. That's as it should be."
As night falls, back in the sky, we fly close enough to the Abkhazia border to see the contrast between well-lit Georgia and Russian darkness over the secessionist zone. From up above, and on the ground, the symbolism is clear enough.
But to Mr. Saakashvili, the more important issue might be: Is this distinction clear to his friends in the West -- and how far will they go to stop the darkness from spilling over into Georgia?