How Mikheil Saakashvili Miscalculated in Georgia

It would have been hard not to be charmed by Mikheil Saakashvili. Young, dynamic, Western-educated and -oriented, he was among the most intriguing characters to move onto the global stage after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Last year he invited the press to join him in the Black Sea resort town of Batumi. The program: a quick ride on Jet Skis to the Turkish border to see the latest developments along the shore—new statues, fountains, a skating rink on the beach, cafés and restaurants. Afterward, the press joined the president and his administration—among the youngest in the world—to the opening of a new amusement park, where Saakashvili took a ride on every new roller coaster (ostensibly as a safety check before children arrived) and encouraged his colleagues to join him. Watching the Georgian political elite spinning upside down, laughing, one would think they were a group of young students. Saakashvili, still shy of 40, told the journalists to call him "Misha."

The Western press adored him, and so did Georgia. When he took office in 2004, Georgia was a corrupt, broken country, with a budget of $400 million and thousands of refugees from the breakaway regions of Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Adzharia living in Soviet-style hotels. But Misha had two goals: to integrate the separatist regions back into Georgia, and align his country with the West rather than Russia. Over the years, I met with him on five occasions, on the Black Sea coast and in Tbilisi, and his message was always the same: Georgia wants to be with the West. "The more Russia pushes us out of the market … the better performance we will show the world. No matter what Russia does, we perform."

So with the threat to the north, Misha looked West. He sent 2,000 troops to Iraq—the third largest contingent after the United States and Great Britain—and reformed the Georgian military (aided by U.S. training and equipment) in preparation, he believed, for one day joining NATO. He cut taxes and reined in corruption. And when Russia pushed back— by 2006 it had expelled thousands of Georgians, stopped giving Georgians visas and banned most Georgian imports—he heaped praise on George W. Bush and argued that once Georgia was in NATO, the Russian threat would subside. I met him for the first time that year, at 1 a.m. in his Tbilisi office, in the midst of a crisis with Russia, and he looked unbreakable, insisting that joining NATO would "guarantee a stable climate."

But for all of Misha's openness and seeming sophistication, his actions betrayed a naiveté about Georgia and its relationship with the world. Yes, Georgia boomed economically, but U.S. backing was far from unconditional. With more-urgent demands in Afghanistan and Iraq, Russia's threat to Georgia remained abstract to the U.S. president. Western Europe, and NATO in particular, refused to face the Russian resurgence directly and balked at extending its hand to Georgia; NATO ultimately rejected its application for membership. One evening in June 2006, sitting at a restaurant overlooking the Black Sea, with traditional Georgian dishes and wine laid out in front of us, he said the breakaway regions would return to Georgia once they saw photos of its economic boom and the "snow-white sails of yachts leaving our marina." He later said it would be "suicidal" for Moscow to encourage the birth of a new republic in the Caucasus. Yet those predictions also turned out to be incorrect.

But for all of Misha's miscalculations, the West misunderstood the Georgian president, too. Praised for bringing relative peace and economic stability to the Caucasus, he revealed a darker side in November 2007 when he claimed antigovernment protesters sanctioned by Moscow were trying to overthrow his government. His response stunned his allies. Misha—now Saakashvili—declared martial law, sent in hundreds of armed troops to block a protest in Tbilisi and special forces to storm the offices of the Imedi TV channel, a network owned by a Moscow ally.

Russian provocations continued to rattle Saakashvili in the months to come. In March a Russian military jet shot down an unmanned Georgian drone aircraft over Abkhazia. Then, Russia deployed an additional 400 paratroopers and artillerymen to the 1,500 already in Abkhazia. Soon after, I met the president again at his newly built residence in Tbilisi. He had dark rings around his eyes and he alternated between enormous, if not misplaced confidence that his Western allies would help him, and rather childish despair about Russia's view of him personally. He said he had heard that Russian officials play billiards with the word MISHA written on the black ball, and asked the reporters assembled at his home, "What is going on in Russia? Am I hated there?" That evening he seemed traumatized by this. With his head in his hands, and pear juice and brandy running down his chin, he pleaded: "Does anybody know what Russia is up to?"

He would soon find out. Earlier this month, soon after shells began falling on the South Ossetian city of Tskhinvali, I joined a group of Western reporters in the president's office for another interview. Initially he showed resolve, speaking in his brilliant, fast-paced English, arguing he did everything he could when South Ossetians began firing artillery at Georgian villages. He said he tried making phone calls, but neither Moscow nor Tskhinvali answered them. He said when he received the reports that 150 Russian armored personnel carriers were entering the tunnel to South Ossetia, "we fired at the convoy and we fired at Tskhinvali." But Russia had a different view. Last week I traveled from Georgia on the first Kremlin-arranged tour to Tskhinvali. With burning Georgian villages and bodies of dead soldiers along the road, Tskhinvali looked like an open grave. As we walked, the details of the battle became as clear as the daylight shining through the buildings: Georgian artillery had fired massively at the city, not just the administrative and strategic buildings. The destruction covered almost all of Tskhinvali. Saakashvili, the impetuous darling of the West, had responded in force to a South Ossetian provocation. And for what?

The last time I saw him he looked heroic, wearing a bulletproof jacket, protected by his bodyguards on the streets of Gori as Russian jets passed overhead. But possibly a more lasting image emerged later, and has been put to good use by Russian propagandists. It is a clip from the BBC, of Saakashvili behind his desk, chewing on his necktie the way a baby might clutch a blanket or a pacifier for comfort. Russian tanks had made their way into Georgia. The separatist regions seemed farther than ever. And as Vladimir Putin flew from the Beijing Olympics to Vladikavkaz, just north of the fighting, Saakashvili's erstwhile ally, Bush, hammed it up with the women of the U.S. beach-volleyball team. It seemed the man who wanted to integrate Georgia into the world ended up just barely keeping it all together.