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.