Friday, July 15, 2011

Global Chaos goes to Georgia

I mean, Georgia the country.

Although I had spent years abroad and have traveled half-way across the world from Armenia, I had never visited its closest neighbor. It's one of the only two borders I could cross from Armenia (the other being Iran, which is a different story...), but I had never had the opportunity of making that trip. And despite the realization that I can trace some of my own heritage to Tbilisi, I had never gotten an excuse to actually learn more about this amazing place.

[*Photos by Yelena Osipova. Click for a larger view.]

All this, coupled with related academic interest, curiosity, and perhaps even regret finally took me there. Here are some of the impressions of an Armenian, a global nomad, an international relations student, and a public diplomacy enthusiast. I know, there's always "a first time" and first impressions might be misleading, but since public diplomacy rarely allows for long-term and consistent efforts, the experience of a three-day tourist might be quite opinion-changing.

Armenia. Past Alaverdi, Lori Region. So pretty!

We left Yerevan early in the morning. Thanks to the very generous Armenian Ministry of Transportation, which cannot even properly maintain one of the major so-called highways connecting this tiny, landlocked country to the outside world, I spent about four hours shaking on the backseat of a cab (a Lada, of course) to make the 200km trip to the border. [Forget public diplomacy for visiting foreigners; what of the economy, after all?!] Fortunately, we were driving through some of the prettiest landscape in Armenia; that kept me and my camera occupied for a while.

The Armenian-speaking Azeri lady who sold us expensive peaches on the other side of the border. They were good, however...

Crossing the border was easier than I anticipated. Of course, my Russian-sounding name caused some suspicion and I had to answer a set of extra questions; but that was all. The newly-renovated highway beyond the Armenian border took us through some Azeri- and Armenian-inhabited villages, as well as the spot where the old granny had damaged Armenia's fibre-optic Internet cable earlier this year. A big contrast with Armenia, of course.

Information society in Marneuli, Georgia. Although the town was in the middle of nowhere and seemed to be pretty poor, most of the windows featured at least two satellite dishes.

Locating our hotel in Tbilisi, however, proved to be more than just frustrating. I could find no well-detailed maps online or hard-copy ones with the few travel agencies that I checked; while, to my surprise, there is no map of Georgia or Tbilisi on GoogleMaps at all. [By the way, that's another interesting subject to explore. The official Google explanation is irrelevant, since there are quite detailed maps of Baku and Yerevan by now; I wonder if it's anything similar to the case of Israel...?]. Yet, the most annoying fact was that there were very few signs - if at all - in Russian or English.

UNM (United National Movement) is the President's Party.

I guess that's a general observation and a very important complaint from a public diplomacy perspective: the issue of the foreign language. Yes, Georgia (rather, its current administration) has made it clear that it wants to distance itself from Russia and the other CIS countries, which includes dramatic changes in foreign policy, rewriting of history, a lot of public diplomacy [or should I say, propaganda, in this case..?] and forgetting the Russian language. And although many - even from among the older generations - have successfully internalized this latter point, forgetting (or rather, pretending to have forgotten) their Russian, they have thus far failed to learn English (or any other foreign language, for that matter).

Checking the dictionary or Googling a phrase does not require special language skills. And yet, one's got to appreciate the effort...

This applies not only to the general population at the capital or the shopkeepers who have to deal with foreigners on a daily basis, but also to most of the street signs as well as the police, who couldn't even help with directions. I respect the uniqueness of the Georgian language as well as the ambitions of the Georgian government - that's not the issue. The problem is communication, and as much as one might despise a foreign nation, if the latter's language is one of the six major and official languages in the world, forgetting it altogether is a big mistake. Georgia cannot change its geography, while if it wants successful communication with its neighbors or the outside world (no matter the issue), it needs to seriously work on its language skills. Just for the record.

The New Presidential Residence. One Tbilisi resident told me they refer to it as "the egg". It's a pretty view; especially at night.

The new bridge enjoying special lighting effects along with the TV tower and the Presidential Palace.

The town is pretty and certainly represents Georgia best: the blend of history and modern ambitions; remnants of the Soviet era alongside major Western symbols; extreme poverty next door to conspicuous wealth; beautiful green parks with ugly recent constructions; and of course diversity [unparalleled in the region] alongside extreme chauvinism.

The new Residence, the blue bridge and the bright cupola of the new cathedral are simply too bright, even if modern.

President Saakashvili has undertaken the herculean task of restoring and improving the face of his capital: renovating the Old Town and some of the historical constructions, while building several new giants (including his Residence), which, although pretty on their own, do not blend in with the cityscape at all. In a way, perhaps, this further underlines all the paradoxes and incongruousness found in modern-day Georgia.

The still Soviet building of the Academy of Sciences (please note the star on the top) with a grand McDonald's next door. It seemed to be pretty popular.

Too many houses falling apart, a couple of blocks from the Presidential Residence. Yet, there are people still living in many of them. Restoration projects will take years.

Yet, really changing perceptions abroad cannot be achieved simply by touching up the appearance of the country or its capital. Some of the people I talked to sounded more or less optimistic and expressed hope for the not-so-close future [yet, please note: there's still hope for the better, unlike the case in Armenia]; many others, however, were very sarcastic and unhappy about their "current situation", complaining of no substantial changes since the Rose Revolution and despising the seemingly endless paranoia. I guess that was expected.

Surb Norashen Armenian church that had caused some controversy in the past in downtown Tbilisi. The walls had cracks, windows were broken, and there were clear signs of fire. Right next door, in the same yard, there was a fully-restored Georgian Orthodox church.

I found certain other things just as I expected, too. Tbilisi had historically been the cultural hub and the most diverse spot in the Southern Caucasus and it still remains as such. Georgia's stubbornly pro-Western foreign policy as well as the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict have made Tbilisi the international center of the region as well, as it hosts many of the regional representations of international organizations and companies, along with various conferences, seminars, and trainings.

Georgians do have a sense of humor, don't they?

Walking in the streets I could catch conversations not just in Georgian, but also in Armenian and Azeri, as well as some hushed voices in Russian; yet, only in Tbilisi can an Armenian enjoy a marvelous evening with Georgians and Azeris at a Soviet-themed cafe called "KGB". [I guess I should make a disclaimer here, that because of my Armenian passport I cannot visit Baku to make a really regional comparison. But something tells me, that's not the case. Just as it is not in Yerevan...]

Loved being in "khatchapuri-land" [cheese in dough]!

And the food...? Oh, don't get me started on the food. I'll just limit it all to one word: amazing.

A traditional Georgian supra [meze or tapas], with copious amounts of cheese and walnut puree.

Of course, it's not all happy and pink (despite all the roses around; literally). One just needs to read the news to get the full picture: seemingly peaceful political protests were broken up in May with not a single criticism from the international (i.e. "Western) community; religious minorities could not get legal status up until very recently; despite the relatively improved "Freedom House" score, the state of political freedoms remains worse than during the pre-2003 era; while what would be criticized as oppression of "media freedoms" elsewhere, is being left to "two governments" to sort out privately. There is obviously a long way to go, before Georgia can become a real democracy. But then, everything is indeed proving to be relative and it is in this relative perspective that Georgia's strength lies.

The Narikala Fortress and Metekhi Church/Fortress/Prison. Pretty at night!

In short, I am impressed and very glad to have taken the trip. Georgia, you did a pretty good job with your hospitality, but [and here comes the ever-present complaint] you could have done a much better job for what you are and what you want to be. I might disagree with some of the politics, but when it comes to making an impression, you are learning the ways. Just remember, you don't have all the time in the world.

UPDATE [07.19.2011]: As I was going through my pictures, I realized there was another one I intended to post here.

It is a monument dedicated to the "Eternal Memory of the Heroes of the Revolution" in a park in downtown Tbilisi. It seems to be roughly done and carries the dates: 1905, 1917 and 1921 (the year Georgia actually became a member of the USSR). As you can see, the monument is in a pretty bad shape. And yet, it is still there, standing.



  1. An interesting perspective! I liked a nuanced approach. Usually it is black and white (or rather black or white).
    Georgia is indeed in many ways an amazing country.
    I am no Saakashvili fan and I can understand the ambivalence that some Georgians feel and express about him (not only about his political line but also about some unorthodox things in his private life...). However, he should be credited with bringing law and order (in general) into the country, fighting corruption, trying to bring Georgia closer to European standards. It does not mean that he is, or was, always successful.
    I think he was wrong (to put it very mildly) to start a war with South Ossetia (yes, we tend to comfortably forget that it was actually a war between them, and only later Russia intervened) and I think it is not the Georgian people as a nation but he personally should be held accountable...
    As regards the photo journalists "spy" case, it doesn't make much sense to me. What would a photo journalist know, even if he is an official photojournalist of the President?
    Come on, if there has been a security breach, the accusing finger(s) should be pointed in another direction… I mean the Office staff, security personnel, etc.
    But I would like to stress another point. If evidence is so serious that the government does not free them till the trial (it would be pathetic and ridiculous to think that they can escape), what is actually required by international human rights instruments that Georgia, as a putative democracy, pledged to abide by, then why doesn't the government bring them to court immediately? They put them behind bars for 2 months. What for? To “obtain” the required evidence? It's a long time, and sufficient to demoralize, to temper with "evidence" (if any), to "produce" "evidence", etc., in a word, to frame journalists up. And what if the charges, nevertheless, fail and the government will have to release journalists? Will they get their past lives (careers, good reputation, etc.) back? Get compensation? Will those who charged them be put in prison to “partake” of the not-so-comfortable prison life (just check what Georgian human rights activists report about prison conditions there…)?
    These are rhetorical questions, of course...
    I think the stance of some governments in Western democracies does a disservice… While he may be a “nice” and “accommodating” guy, the basic principles of democracy and plain decency should not be sacrificed … Only in that case democracy will indeed be seen as the only game in town in Georgia and in the region in general. Georgia is a good illustration that it is not enough only to do the talk, one also has to do the walk…

  2. Luv the prospect of khatchapuri as Georgian gastrodiplomacy. Huge fan of those delicious pizza boats! Maybe a khatchapuri truck in the future?

  3. I have to say I totally disagree with your comments on use of the Russian language in Georgia. While they are indeed trying to supplant it with English I have never encountered anyone OTHER than Armenians complaining about Georgians speaking (or not, actually) Russian. Indeed, on a recent visit an Azerbaijani friend used Russian CONSTANTLY with Georgians old and young alike. All responded and showed no problem with doing so. That's not to say that there will be a generational shift away from it, but the point is I think there must be something more to it than just the language i.e. it is how maybe Armenians use it when addressing Georgians. The accent is apparently the same or similar to how Azerbaijanis use it, and Armenians and Azerbaijanis are similar in looks, so I can't help but think maybe it's this which is the issue. I also know many foreigners living in Georgia who only use Russian.

    Incidentally, never seen a Russian have any problem entering Georgia, and on the past two visits there have been Russians on Russian passports in the queue. Have also been sitting at cafes and heard Russian spoken quite clearly and loudly and that's in addition to coming across a large group of Russians singing a song in Russian right in the heart of Tbilisi late at night.

    Have also accompanied a group of journalists around in Georgia with a Russian translator as well as one Russian journalist among us.

  4. I did the same trip about two weeks ago. We hired a driver with a very comfortable Japanese van. Went to Georgia through Dilijian which is also a beautiful route. That road was fine. Took the Alaverdi road back which did have some rough spots.

    We found Georgia to be very nice. A lot of money seems to be going into fixing things up. Tbilisi monuments are beautifully lit. Stayed in Havlabar. Took a sulphur bath in the hamam. And yes the food and the wine were excellent.

    However we were less than enchanted by the Georgians. We did not find them very friendly or helpful. Certainly less so than in Armenia. Quite a few beggars including some very aggressive ones at the cathedral in Mtskheta.

    We also encountered outright racism against Armenians and met local Tbilisi Armenians who are trying to leave the country.

    There seems to be a religious revival by the Georgian Orthodox Church in Georgia which is verging on fanaticism. I was very brusquely told to leave Sioni Cathedral by a priest probably for wearing bermuda shorts and carrying a camera.

    Went to Gori to see the Stalin museum. Nice highway and interesting museum if somewhat conflicted.