The Light of the Caucasus: Photographs by Yuri Kozyrev

2 minute read

No one has ever accused the President of the Republic of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili, of lacking energy. He walks, talks, eats and meets in a hurry, especially now that the clock is ticking on his rule (his final term is supposed to expire in 2013). And when he sees an idea he likes—no matter how outlandish or ambitious‚—the man everyone calls Misha can be tireless in making it happen for Georgia.

Misha’s latest idea? Forget supplicating NATO or the EU: he wants to work on making the Caucasus a more unified region, with Georgia as its “hub”. To see whether this idea might work, and what it means for the rest of us, TIME contract photographer Yuri Kozyrev and I spent eight days crisscrossing Georgia, sometimes with Saakashvili and his whirlwind of an entourage, sometimes with the border police and sometimes on our own.

We’ve both been to Georgia before (Kozyrev dozens of times, dating back to Soviet days), but we were pleasantly surprised this time by the optimism, however fragile, we found throughout the country. It has been three years since the disastrous five-day war with Russia, and even longer since the chaotic and corrupt days of Saakashvili’s predecessors. There is still conflict abroad and at home, but by and large people are trying to move on with their lives and create the kind of country—prosperous, peaceful and open for business—that Saakashvili says will make Georgia the light of the Caucasus.

Chechen refugees rebuilding their lives in Pankisi Gorge, border police guarding some of the most beautiful and treacherous mountains in the world, broadcasters bringing truth into a region dominated by censors: the biggest surprise of all was that the real energy in Georgia, the kind that might just save the country, didn’t come from its hyperactive president. It came from his constituents.

Yuri Kozyrev is a contract photographer for TIME and was awarded the prestigious Visa d’or News Award at Visa pour l’Image, the international festival of photojournalism in Perpignan, France, for his work from the Arab Spring. Nathan Thornburgh is a TIME contributing writer who has spent a decade reporting for the magazine from around the U.S. and overseas.

The view from a MI-8 Russian-made helicopter belonging to the Georgian Border Police. On June 1, weather conditions allowed Georgian authorities to open their summer posts deep in the heart of the Caucasus mountains, along the border with the restive Russian republics of Dagestan and Chechnya.Yuri Kozyrev—NOOR for TIME
Georgian Border Police troops look out from a Russian-made MI-8 helicopter. Though the roads are still inaccessible until late summer, the border police's fleet of MI-8 helicopters were able to make the journey.Yuri Kozyrev—NOOR for TIME
At the border post of Tebulo, on the border with Chechnya, Border Police troops move beds and bed frames into their new, more permanent location. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe used to have a observation station at Tebulo, but now it's just the Georgian authories, and only for part of the year. Yuri Kozyrev—NOOR for TIME
Col. Koba Bochoroshvili, head of the 2,700-strong Georgian Border Police, gestures to soldiers loading supplies onto a Russian-made MI-8 helicopter.Yuri Kozyrev—NOOR for TIME
Georgian Border Police troops load oil barrels onto the helicopter.Yuri Kozyrev—NOOR for TIME
The Black Sea resort of Anaklia, Republic of Georgia. Workers with the "Golden Fleece" hotel under construction in the background. The Golden Fleece is just one of the string of hotels, roads and casinos being constructed in Anaklia with a combination of government money and private investment.Yuri Kozyrev—NOOR for TIME
In the studio of Kanal PIK in Tbilisi. PIK is a Russian acronym meaning First Information of the Caucasus. Host (and the station's Head of News) Katya Kotrikadze reads the news in her nightly news broadcast. Kanal PIK is a new satellite news station funded by the Georgian government with the express purpose of bringing independent and objective journalism into a region that has little experience with either. Yuri Kozyrev—NOOR for TIME
Duisi, Pankisi Gorge, in Eastern Georgia. The Pankisi Gorge, home to a centuries-old community of Chechens called the Kist, became an infamous hideout for bandits and Chechen rebels during the two wars between Russia and Chechnya.Yuri Kozyrev—NOOR for TIME
Rosa, a Chechen refugee, at home with her teenage daughter (foreground), in Duisi, Pankisi Gorge, in Eastern Georgia. The Pankisi Gorge, home to a centuries-old community of Chechens called the Kist, became an infamous hideout for bandits and Chechen rebels during the two wars between Russia and Chechnya. These days Pankisi Gorge and its main city, Duisi, are calm.Yuri Kozyrev—NOOR for TIME
Worshippers embrace after Friday prayers outside a traditional Chechen mosque in Duisi, Pankisi Gorge, in Eastern Georgia. Back in the Chechen homeland, Sufi Islam is state-supported as a buffer against the more militant Wahhabi Islam that took hold particularly during the two bloody Chechen wars.Yuri Kozyrev—NOOR for TIME
Chechen refugee children play in front of their apartment building in Duisi, Pankisi Gorge, in Eastern Georgia.Yuri Kozyrev—NOOR for TIME
Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili tours the French Quarter of Batumi while a security agent looks for danger. Saakashvili has recently refurbished the Piazza, a neo-Italianate square featuring mosaics, frescoes, and, as usual, plenty of lighting.Yuri Kozyrev—NOOR for TIME
Republic of Georgia President Mikheil Saakashvili tours the uncompleted waterfront at Anaklia. Anaklia, which borders the Russian-occupied breakaway territory of Abkhazia, is a key part of Saakashvili's plan to breathe life into the Black Sea coast, and, by extension, to prove to Abkhazians that life in Georgia is improving rapidly.Yuri Kozyrev—NOOR for TIME
Campers on a one-week program called "Tolerance" wave at the helicopter bringing Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili to the camp, where he is about to give a nationally televised speech. The camp, in which Georgians of various ethnic groups all live together, is part of Saakashvili's attempts to push for "Caucasian unity" as a new front against his enemies, the Russians.Yuri Kozyrev—NOOR for TIME

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