Billionaire businessman turned politician - Moscow's man or Georgia's defender?
GEORGIA LETTER:Georgia’s prime minister rejects charges he is a Kremlin puppet
The road north from Tbilisi crests another rise, and a burst of red, yellow and orange catches the eye of the traveller.
It is a monument to friendship between Russia and Georgia, built in 1983 when this road linked neighbouring republics of the Soviet Union across the formidable barrier of the Caucasus.
The 70m arc, covered with scenes from Georgian history and folklore, stands in surreal contrast to the austere majesty of its mountain setting above a deep valley.
Travellers stop here to enjoy the view and take a break from this challenging road. It snakes beneath 4,000m-5,000m peaks on its way from Tbilisi, the capital of now fiercely independent Georgia, and Vladikavkaz in Russia.
Much more than the multicoloured monument, this 210km road is testament to the long and troubled relationship between Georgia and Russia.
The expansionist ambition of tsarist Russia turned it from a rough path through the mountains into a paved road that gave troops and officials speedier and safer access to Georgia after it was annexed by Russia in 1801.
Russians are once more wary of travelling to Georgia, wondering how they will be received in a country whose forces were crushed by Moscow’s military in a brief 2008 war.
Russian leader Vladimir Putin says he ordered his troops into Georgia to stop an attempt by its president Mikheil Saakashvili to reclaim control of South Ossetia, which declared independence from Tbilisi in the early 1990s with Moscow’s support.
Russia now recognises South Ossetia and another breakaway Georgian province, Abkhazia, as independent states and has stationed thousands of troops in both regions.
While the war conflict represented a nadir in relations between the neighbours, ties had already been badly strained for several years.
In 2003, Saakashvili ousted Georgia’s Soviet-era old guard in the Rose Revolution and committed his country of 4.5 million to push for EU and Nato membership, breaking centuries of Russian domination.
Putin, an ex-KGB spy intent on restoring Moscow’s influence over its old empire, was never likely to warm to Saakashvili, a bold and sometimes brash US-educated lawyer.
In the years before the war, Saakashvili exposed numerous alleged Russian spies and supposed Kremlin-backed plots to destabilise Georgia.
For its part, Russia severed transport links with Georgia – even closing the Lars border crossing on the Georgian Military Highway – and deported many Georgians living in Moscow.
Russia also banned the import of wine from Georgia, claiming it was contaminated, crippling the country’s important wine industry in a display of political spite.
There has been little improvement since the war, during which Putin reportedly told then French president Nicolas Sarkozy that he intended to “hang Saakashvili by the balls”. The Lars checkpoint reopened in 2010 and flights resumed between Moscow and Tbilisi, but Putin made clear that his Russia wanted as little as possible to do with Saakashvili’s Georgia.
Now, though, a new figure has pushed himself between the sparring presidents.
Bidzina Ivanishvili made billions doing business in Russia – where he was known as Boris – before returning to his native Georgia and entering politics last year.
Ivanishvili’s new Georgian Dream coalition beat Saakashvili’s ruling party in October’s parliamentary elections and now he is prime minister.
Saakashvili says Ivanishvili is Moscow’s man, a Kremlin puppet. The tycoon rejects that, but does favour a cautious rapprochement with Russia, while retaining EU and Nato membership as priorities and demanding the return of Abkhazia and South Ossetia to Tbilisi’s control.
Russia’s leaders welcomed Ivanishvili’s election, saying it showed that Georgians were as sick of Saakashvili as they were.
Georgian and Russian officials met last Friday for their first direct talks since the war. Tbilisi’s envoy said negotiations were “the only alternative to deadlock and constant tensions”. It will be some time, however, before these feuding neighbours build any bright new monuments to friendship in the high mountains that divide them.