Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Forget politics. Georgians know how to throw a party!

May 26th marks the 20th Anniversary of Georgian independence from the late Soviet Union: an important date and a great opportunity for public diplomacy. This is especially true in the U.S., particularly given the geopolitical circumstances and the recent historical context. And well, Georgians are making the most out of this opportunity.

Quite recently they started a website - "Portrait of Georgia" - providing basic information on the country, its history and culture, politics, and certainly its problem with Russia. In short, it can be described as "Georgia 101". Less than a week ago the website also started a Twitter profile, with 12 followers only at the time of this writing. Nevertheless, it's just the beginning and the mere initiative itself is commendable.*

Going back to the Anniversary... it was a great reception, held at the Portrait Gallery in downtown D.C. on Tuesday, May 24, featuring Georgian art exhibits, live performances by awesome musicians and their national ballet group, great food, and of course Georgian wine and Borjomi (the renown mineral water).

The event page reads:
"According to a Georgian legend, on the day God was allocating parts of the world to the people of the Earth, the Georgians were feasting. As a result, they arrived late and were told by God that all of the land had already been distributed. When the Georgians replied that they were late only because they had been lifting their glasses in praise of Him, God was pleased. In return, He gave the Georgians that part of Earth that He had been reserving for Himself."

The Embassy then set out to justify the "feasting"...

There were probably about 2000 people there (though that's just my own humble estimate; the number might have been much greater) and the guest list ranged from the children of Georgian diplomats to various American military representatives, some of whom were even decorated with special Georgian Medals of Honor. The evening also featured a great singer - Sophie Nizharadze (Georgia's 2010 representative at Eurovision) - who performed the Georgian and American national anthems. I should say, she was superb.

The dance performances were awesome, too. Not only did they keep it short and lively, but made sure to feature authentic folk performances. Very entertaining, and certainly impressive.

The other highlight was, of course, the great food. The menu ranged from khatchapuri (phyllo dough with cheese) to satsivi (chicken with walnut sauce and spices) to churchkhela (walnuts in thickened grape juice). The Georgian wine went very well with it all. There was more food and drink than the guests could actually handle, which in itself seemed to have impressed many of the attendees.

In short, it was indeed a great public diplomacy event - even if the definition of "public" is somewhat limited in this case - reaching an audience much larger than the American public itself (I heard a lot of Russian there; politics was obviously set aside for the evening). The objective was to impress and project an image of grandeur and confidence from a small, albeit strategically important country. And I can bet that this objective was achieved, even if for just a day.

Yet, after overhearing a conversation on the subject, the question just stuck in my mind: "How much did it all cost?" Given the economic hardship and the ongoing political crisis at home, could Georgia really afford such lavishness? (Just renting out the space - the grand hall at the National Portrait Gallery - would have cost... a lot.)

But I guess it is all the more an indication of the importance that the Georgian leadership attributes to public diplomacy, especially in the U.S. They need support, but they also wanted to make a statement. And they did.

2011 also marks the 20th Independence anniversary of almost all other former Soviet republics, who will be celebrating the occasion in their turn. Setting the standard so high, however, almost surely guarantees Georgia to stand out, yet again demonstrating its break from its past and from the region. Georgia made a point and this message certainly resonates with the public (and with the decision-makers) on this side of the Atlantic.

Now, I'm more than just curious to see what the other FSU Embassies will have to offer...

CORRECTION: Georgia's Independence Day is May 26, and not May 24 as initially suggested. The event itself, however, was held on May 24.

* All photos by Yelena Osipova.


  1. I may be wrong, but I had the impression that 26 May is Georgia's Independence Day with reference to the *1918* declaration of independence, rather than the *1991* one (which took place on 9th April - although Gamsurkhadia WAS elected as President on 26 May 1991). I wonder if you, or anyone else could clarify this, as this has confused me for some time. If so, thanks.

    Looks like a good time was had by all, anyway,..

  2. You are right and now I feel even worse :) May 26 marks the 1918 independence from the Russian Empire, while in 1991 it marked the day Gamsakhurdia was elected. I probably should've done my history reading before writing this post, but I should say that even the dignitaries present at the event spoke of the day as "Georgia's 20th birthday". Never, not even once, was 1918 mentioned either throughout the event or on the official websites I refer to above.

    Hence the confusion.

    Apologies to all Georgian readers. No harm or disrespect intended.

  3. The event was on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the restoration of the Georgian independence.

  4. Thank you very much, Zoe. I feel much better about the clarification, now :) And yet again, thanks for the opportunity to attend!