Category: Archive

Tbilisi insists on going its own way

February 17, 2011

By Staff Reporter

A perfect scenario really is both the driver and the front-seat passenger smoking with their seat belts idle. This is why visitors, and I was one in Tbilisi for six days in May, upset the equilibrium. They jump in the front seat of a taxi and if born, say, sometime after World War II, instinctively reach for the belt, at which point the cab driver will say “no,” or simply reach over and shove it back to its proper position.
The guidebooks warn you about Georgian driving and I saw a crash, a not terribly serious one, on my first day. I was there to write about soccer (the Republic of Ireland will play in Tbilisi on Sept. 6) and was aware that one if the nation’s great football heroes David Kipiani was killed in a Tbilisi traffic accident in 2001, days before his 50th birthday.
“Tbilisi then was chaotic, ramshackle and delightfully wayward after the stifling torpor of Brezhnev’s Soviet Russia,” said BBC diplomatic correspondent Bridget Kendall recalling her first visit 30 years ago.
If it was still a little of all of those things in 2008, there seemed to be great ongoing efforts to make that beautiful and fascinating city less ramshackle.
But don’t let the frenetic activity and dust fool you, one foreigner who worked there told me. “The Georgians are great at taking things apart, but not so good at putting them back together again,” he said.
My small hotel had a driver, though, who was terrific at his job — and a non-smoker. He picked me up at the airport, of course, but on some days, if he had time, he also ferried me around the city. No extra remuneration was expected, indeed was refused. Georgians believe that guests come from God. So, after the briefest of acquaintanceships, you’ll be brought home to meet the family. And then maybe you’ll bring gifts with you.
Levan, the driver, delighted at pointing at the Soviet-era Ladas on the roads. Once, one passed him on the highway, packed with six adults. He smiled broadly, shaking his head. “It’s more than 20 years old,” he said with a certain pride.
On another occasion, a rare SUV drew up beside us at a stoplight. He gave a snort of disapproval and shook his head, this time in disgust.
Levan, however, was no traditionalist and in common with almost all Georgians was happy with his nation’s disengagement with Moscow and St. Petersburg after almost two centuries.
“[T]he bulk of Georgian history and cultural identity has more to do with the shifting power struggles of the Middle East,” writes Roger Rosen a specialist on the country. Even the English name for the country has nothing to do with St. George, coincidentally the national saint, and is believed to derive from an Arabic term. (The locals themselves call their nation Sakartvelo.)
Over the past two decades, though, Georgia has looked West. It has cultivated, as everyone knows by now, its ties with the U.S. But at an institutional level, the society’s international aspirations are expressed by the blue and gold-stars flag of the European Union, which adorns almost all public buildings, including police stations. With the cold war with Russia heating up in May, those flags seemed like crosses to ward off Dracula.
The integration of a small nation, one with few marketable natural resources, into the global economy has been painful. In the old days, the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic had a good standard of living compared to most other Soviet republics. Food was plentiful and cheap, while paying the rent was never a problem. One can understand the lingering nostalgia for those times when seeing elderly people begging in the streets. “The begging was much worse five years ago,” a woman called Nana told me.
One couldn’t avoid the comparisons with Ireland, simply because the two countries have a similar population and area size. There’s an intimacy there, the same sense of two or three degrees of separation instead of the usual six.
Nana said she could get me an interview with the president. “I know his wife,” she told me. “It wouldn’t be a problem.”
Except for the time constraint, I’m sure it wouldn’t have been. She was very impressive in getting me people from the soccer world to interview.
Nana added that she didn’t like Mikhail Saakashvili that much, and hoped that he wouldn’t follow up his January reelection with victory in the parliamentary elections being held that month.
All sorts of people were happy to express to this New York-based reporter (who could’ve been anyone) their views on politics, at least when asked. Nevertheless, despite this openness, nobody could say that Georgia had become a fully signed-up Western country. Saakashvili’s misadventure in South Ossetia is not the sort of behavior you’d expect from a stable democracy, and even before the war EU membership was at least five years away.
Still, Russia’s naked aggression was hugely disproportionate as Western critics have said. Indeed the very notion of a “Russian-Georgian War” is unreal.
In population terms, it’s like Angela Merkel and Nicholas Sarkozy’s armies attacking Ireland, dismantling the nation’s defense forces and occupying Waterford for more than a week (which after the No vote on the Lisbon treaty, they may well have felt like doing).
Ordinary people in the West sympathize with the Georgians, but what’s troubling is how many writers think there wasn’t anything particularly wrong with what Russia did.
Former Moscow correspondent Michael Binyon, writing in the Times of London, suggested that the notion of “spheres of influence” was still okay. The fact that most Ukrainians and virtually all Georgians don’t want any kind of special relationship with Moscow doesn’t appear to enter into his equation.
Binyon said that the U.S. wasn’t really in a position to complain given that it invoked the Monroe Doctrine in the Americas for so long. That’s true as far it goes. However, the application of the Monroe Doctrine has been a moral disaster for the U.S.
America bullied other countries elsewhere, too. Its meddling in Italy, for instance, seriously undermined democratic institutions there in the 1970s and was a contributory factor in the growth of terrorism both from the far left and the far right.
Do Russia and America need to go back to a broken model? The “not in my backyard” mentality doesn’t work any more.
Both Moscow and Washington would be better off figuring out just how “old Europe” created an empire, the EU, which has gobbled up much of the former USSR and its satellites in the process, without deploying a single tank.

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