Out of the hazy Black Sea emerged the president of Georgia as armed guards watched from a rocky beach. Mikheil Saakashvili slipped on a white terry-cloth robe and strolled to the columned veranda of a villa, where he poured a glass of Georgian red wine. "Aslan's wine," he grinned.
Thirty-six hours earlier, the villa had been off limits, the private retreat of warlord Aslan Abashidze. But now Saakashvili, a Washington-trained lawyer, had taken possession of it and was celebrating his second peaceful revolution in six months, this time the removal of the feudal-style ruler of a renegade region his family had run for centuries.
At age 36, Europe's youngest president now faces the more daunting task of channeling the power of discontent in the streets of this ruined former Soviet republic into a sustainable democracy in a part of the world where that has yet to take root.
Saakashvili's Georgia is becoming a case study in the American export of democracy. A winner of one of the Edmund Muskie fellowships, which are awarded to outstanding citizens of the former Soviet states, Saakashvili studied law at Columbia University and human rights at George Washington University. He is part of a generation of foreigners groomed by the United States in hopes they would go back and refashion their homelands with a Western playbook.
Several days spent with him and his team over the last month, including hours of interviews with Saakashvili in his office, over a sushi dinner with his wife and here in Ajaria, open a window into the making of a president. Brash and impulsive, he loves the theater of it all, jumping onto a bulldozer to knock down road barriers to Ajaria or taking his cabinet for a walk to shake hands in the street.
But he has already alienated a few close friends who feel he has gone too far in accumulating power. "The government that came from a democratic revolution is taking a step back from democracy," said Koba Davitashvili, who quit as head of Saakashvili's party and turned down a cabinet post in protest of constitutional changes that the president pushed through to bolster his authority. "I was so angry at him."
Saakashvili acknowledges that he may be "pushy" at times and perhaps overreached in engineering the constitutional changes so fast. It is, he said, a learning process.
"It's much more complex than just a fight between evil and good," he mused over Abashidze's wine earlier this month. "It's hard to distinguish what is the right thing sometimes. It's all the time striking the right balance. That's what governing is all about."
Yet for all that, Saakashvili has built the former Soviet Union's first generation of leaders outside the historically Western-oriented Baltic republics, a team whose members look like him -- in their thirties, Western-educated, untainted by the old system.
They may have little background in running a country, he said, but "absence of experience is an asset in itself. Because what kind of experience was it? Experience at being corrupt. Experience at being part of the old system that didn't work."
A Dysfunctional Country
"Nothing works," groused Natalie Kancheli. "It takes 45 minutes just to print a piece of paper."
Kancheli was sitting in her new office, just weeks into the job as Saakashvili's chief of staff. When she arrived, she found 10 ancient telephones on her desk and no computer. The phones didn't actually connect her with anyone she wanted to talk to, so she stuck to her cell phone. With no computer network and few copiers, she discovered that important memos had to be walked from office to office.
The street revolt that brought her boss to office now seems easy by comparison. As leader of the opposition in this country of 5 million people in the Caucasus Mountains, Saakashvili mobilized tens of thousands of disgruntled Georgians into the streets last November to protest what they viewed as a stolen parliamentary election. After Saakashvili burst into Parliament with a long-stemmed rose, the tired and aging president, Eduard Shevardnadze, finally called it quits. Saakashvili was elected to succeed him two months later with 96 percent of the vote.
The country he inherited was dysfunctional at best. Electricity is sporadic, pensions and salaries often unpaid, bribery epidemic. So many buildings remain shattered by civil wars of the 1990s that foreign diplomats on road trips pass the time counting LAOs, or Large Abandoned Objects.
The presidential office wasn't much better when Saakashvili arrived. He discovered that his predecessor kept cats around to chase the rats. Moving into a suite furnished with old wooden chairs and tables, Saakashvili ordered it all removed. "It was so Soviet," he said. In its place, he brought in beige leather couches, glass coffee tables, a polished black oak desk and conference table and a large flat-screen television.
His team has a similarly contemporary and international feel. He met Kancheli, 31, at a forum at Davos, Switzerland, in January and persuaded her to quit her job at a London art foundation to come back to Georgia after 16 years abroad. Defense Minister Gela Bezhuashvili, 37, who studied at GWU with Saakashvili, broke off studies at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government when his friend asked him to join the cabinet in February. Three other Muskie fellows hold top cabinet posts.
At 52, Foreign Minister Salome Zourabichvili is the oldest member of the cabinet, but she, too, is untainted by the old system. She was not even a Georgian citizen until recently. The Paris-born granddaughter of Georgians who fled the Bolsheviks, Zourabichvili was the French ambassador here until Saakashvili recruited her and got her dual citizenship.
She was eager for the chance to join Saakashvili's experiment. "I personally think it's a kind of last chance for Georgia," she said.
One day the president summoned an old friend, Koba Davitashvili, to his office. Davitashvili was among the democracy activists who rallied behind what became known as the Rose Revolution. But Davitashvili was steaming that day over Saakashvili's plan to amend the constitution to grant himself the right to dismiss Parliament in certain circumstances.
Davitashvili recalls opening the talk by assailing the president's plan. Saakashvili erupted. "He started shouting," Davitashvili said. "He said, 'I didn't call you for that; I called you to offer the post of defense minister.' " Davitashvili turned it down. "How could he imagine the defense minister to be in opposition to the government?"
In his zeal for national reconstruction, Saakashvili has been accused of moving too far too fast. His government rounded up figures from the corrupt former government, including Shevardnadze's son-in-law, generating some public discomfort over the televised images of masked gunmen bursting into offices.
He sent police officers to break into a church where a popular priest blamed for attacks on Jehovah's Witnesses had barricaded himself. He launched a military operation against guerrillas holed up in the forests for a decade, then cut a deal to win their surrender.
"He's very passionate and very eager to have quick results. He's in a hurry," said David Gamkrelidze, leader of the New Rights party, the only opposition to make it into Parliament in March elections. But "this young government rules the country . . . by their subjective views and not by laws."
A raid on an Ajaria company accused of cigarette smuggling looked to some like punishment of the firm's television station. "If we mean a person who considers himself to be the law," said Luba Eliashvili, news director at Iberia television, which opposed last fall's overthrow of the government, "then I would call him a dictator."
Still, Georgia retains lively, pluralistic news media. Saakashvili allies call some of the early moves merely the mistakes of learning on the job. "We all of us were not prepared to run the country," said Parliament Speaker Nino Burdzhanadze. While uncomfortable with the constitutional changes, she said she plans to stick by Saakashvili for now. "I personally will try to keep unity as long as possible, but, of course, I won't keep unity at the expense of principle," she said.
Both critics and supporters agree Saakashvili has produced results. He improved tax collection and used the proceeds to start paying pensions and salaries on time for the first time in years. He bumped up pensions and dramatically increased pay for traffic police, customs officials, tax inspectors and other key jobs in hopes of mitigating pressure to extract bribes.
And for all his theatrical flair, Saakashvili has shown a pragmatic streak. Shevardnadze's son-in-law, Georgi Dzhokhtaberidze, a cellular telephone businessman accused of corruption, was arrested at the airport as he tried to leave the country, but authorities freed him last month in exchange for paying $15 million to the government treasury.
"I would rather have him outside prison without money," Saakashvili said, "than inside prison with money."
Getting Rid of a Rival
The end of Saakashvili's most irksome domestic rival came not with gunfire but with a phone call to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Aslan Abashidze, whose family had ruled the Ajaria region for so long that town squares feature statues of his grandfather, had blown up bridges connecting his region with the rest of the country, sparking mass street demonstrations. Saakashvili seized the moment to rid himself of the local autocrat.
"I called Putin, and I thanked him for keeping neutrality and asked if eventually he would take him," Saakashvili recalled.
Putin agreed and hung up.
Ten minutes later, according to Saakashvili, Putin called back.
"You have to promise me that you won't ask for him back," he recalled Putin saying.
"Fine," Saakashvili said he answered. "I can promise that."
Putin's national security adviser was in the Ajarian capital of Batumi at the time and huddled with Abashidze as demonstrations continued. With Putin's agreement, Abashidze was shuffled aboard a plane for Moscow in the middle of the night and Saakashvili flew into Batumi as a conquering hero. Crowds of people fed up with Abashidze's rule greeted the president with jubilation.
Saakashvili had orchestrated Abashidze's ouster with a blend of bluster and cunning. Instead of sending in troops, Saakashvili sent the foot soldiers of his previous revolution. His people smuggled street activists in and out of Ajaria through mountain passes or in cargo train cars to teach the locals how to stage protests.
He also secretly recruited Abashidze's own palace guard to defect, winning by his count 200 of 600 men. "You can't even imagine how many of us refused" to defend Abashidze, said Irakli Surmanidze, 30, a police officer. "Except for the closest people around Abashidze, everybody else wouldn't fight for him."
For weeks, even some Saakashvili friends fretted that he might provoke civil war. "The way he handled the early days of the crisis was not very impressive," said Jan Bonde Nielsen, chairman of Batumi's oil terminal company. But then, he said, Saakashvili seemed to mature and figured out the right moment to act to bring it to a peaceful end. "He really smelled the situation."
The day after Abashidze's departure, Saakashvili invited Georgian reporters to the Black Sea villa. In the hours before they arrived, he emerged on the balcony repeatedly to issue instructions about how to stage the pending news conference. Summon a navy boat to be in the background, he told the defense minister. Set up a Georgian flag next to his chair, he told an aide.
He was pleased with the image afterward. Punching numbers on his mobile phone, he called someone to see how it came off. "Did you see the ship behind me on TV?" he asked. "How was it on TV?"
By the next day, though, Saakashvili seemed to realize that permanent upheaval wouldn't rebuild his economy. That afternoon, he toured the Batumi oil terminal with Bonde Nielsen as guide and pledged new stability.
"Revolution is nice," he told Bonde Nielsen. "Once, or maybe twice, in a life is enough. Now boredom should start."