ON May 17 of last year I completed a thousand-mile journey by train, bus, and taxi across Turkey from west to east, and crossed the border into the newly independent ex-Soviet Republic of Georgia. The first structure I saw was a customs building with a tall wire fence, guarded by a Russian soldier with a Communist hammer-and-sickle on his cap. Though Georgia is a sovereign nation, Russian soldiers controlled the frontier with Turkey, because of political pressure from Moscow. The soldier screamed at me and thrust a machine gun toward my stomach. He wore cheap sunglasses and was sucking a lollipop. He looked at my passport, found the Georgian visa, and marched me to a kiosk with mirrored glass. A slit opened in the kiosk, and I saw the bright-red hairdo of a Russian woman, who examined my passport and stamped it. She directed me inside the building, into a steel cage, and several Russian soldiers, also with lollipops, examined my possessions. Then they opened the cage, and I walked toward another kiosk, this one without mirrored glass, where a group of friendly Georgians glanced casually at my passport and welcomed me to Georgia. They directed me to yet another caged enclosure, where a heavy-set Georgian woman gave me a customs form to fill out. I lied on it, of course. Because there are no cash machines in the southern part of the former Soviet Union, I was carrying $3,500 in $20 bills in a pouch hidden under my trousers. Fearful of being robbed on the spot, I declared only $400. The woman directed me to another booth, the last, where a group of Georgian security police—in tight shirts, with muscular forearms and calculating expressions—looked over my passport and customs declaration.
"Give me twenty dollars," one of them said, in a mixture of Georgian and broken English. I played dumb and shrugged. He smashed his forearm on the table and repeated the demand. I shrugged. We stared at each other for a few seconds, and then he let me through the gate.
I had entered Adjara, a small region of Georgia where a Georgian dialect is spoken and the population is mainly Muslim. Using religion to divide and conquer, Lenin created Adjara in July of 1921, splitting it off from the main body of Georgia and its Christian population. But such differences from central Georgia in language and religion have little to do with Adjara's current autonomy. Adjara is a fairly benign criminal warlordship run by one Aslan Abashidze, whose power over Aslanistan, as it is locally known, is made possible by the customs duties he extracts on legal and illegal goods entering by sea or over this land border with Turkey. People pay bribes to get jobs at the border posts, particularly at the port of Batumi, where they shake down others to earn back their investment and much more. It's like buying a taxi medallion and making the money back through fares.