When Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili came to power in the "Rose Revolution" of 2003, he announced a desire to democratize the country, erase its Soviet legacy, and move Georgia into the West's orbit. Since then, he has won many friends, not least of all George W. Bush, and looks set to win NATO's nod for membership by the end of the year.
There's one small problem: the breakaway statelet of Abkhazia. From Mr. Saakashvili's perspective, the small coastal strip on the Black Sea has become the front line in a new war between Russia and the West.
"It's so obvious that it's not just about Abkhazia," said Saakashvili during an interview at his Tbilisi office this past weekend. He sees Russia's backing for the de facto rulers in the separatist region of Abkhazia as an attempt to destabilize Georgia and cut off alternative energy routes to Europe that bypass Russia. "If Georgia is sealed off, the whole region is sealed off, and there is no competition anymore to Russia's energy monopoly in Europe."
To be sure, not everyone buys Saakashvili's image as a darling of the West bringing democracy to Russia's backyard. At home, critics say his democratic rhetoric disguises his autocratic style of government. Though his party is expected to win parliamentary elections Wednesday, his popularity has taken a hit since he shut down street protests last fall with riot police and tear gas.
But there is no doubting his regime's successes in fighting corruption and his passionate desire to fend off Russian aggression by joining NATO. He compares Moscow's support for Abkhazia, an ethnically distinct region that functions as a Russian protectorate, to the Nazi occupation of Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia.
"Once Putin came in, he started to deliver passports, then they start to say they have a diaspora there, and then they say wherever there are Russians there is Russia," says Saakashvili, who says the aid – a vital lifeline for Abkhazians – is not born of humanitarian concerns, but is instead a calculated ploy to destabilize Georgia and punish it for its aspirations to join NATO and the European fold. "The Russians are basically saying, 'OK, if you want to go to NATO, we will cut off your hands and your limbs and you can go there in a wheelchair.' "
Last month, he suffered a setback when NATO denied Georgia's bid for a preaccession agreement, known as a Membership Action Plan (MAP). Though most analysts believe it was only a temporary delay, Georgia blamed Russia for blocking its westward push.
"We are being victimized by Russia," says Alex Rondeli, president of the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies in Tbilisi. "When Georgia was rejected a MAP after Russia intimidated Europe, Putin felt that he had a green light."
Since then, tensions over Abkhazia have increased. Moscow suggested opening quasi-diplomatic missions in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, another Russian-backed breakaway zone. Then, Georgia released footage purporting to show a Russian military jet downing a Georgian spy drone over Abkhazia. Then Moscow added peacekeeping troops.
Finally, the Georgians claim that footage from a spy plane they released this week shows the Russians have moved heavy weaponry into the conflict zone, in violation of their peacekeeping mandate.
The Russian side denies everything except the increase in peacekeepers, which they say is to counter Georgian aggression.
"We see them doing things that stretch the patience of the West to the limit but then they see that nothing is happening. So they go on and on and on," says Saakashvili. "We need a serious international peace conference, attended by the EU, Russia, and the United States."
Russia has shunned the idea, and a Georgian peace plan is unlikely to find much support among the Abkhazians, who are suspicious of Tbilisi's sudden goodwill.
Georgia says a war over Abkhazia would be disastrous for the country, but that they are preparing for every possibility. "There are some red lines which if Russia crosses, Georgia will be forced to respond," says Deputy Defense Minister Batu Kutelia. "We have contingency plans."