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Entries in Georgia (14)


Azerbaijani border guards

Crossing the border from Georgia to Azerbaijan at Lagodekhi can be quite an ordeal. Georgia and Azerbaijan have very good relationships, but after seeing Armenian stamps in our passports we came in for extra scrutiny. Relations between Azerbaijan and Armenia are frosty, to say the least, with 20% of Azerbaijan’s territory under occupation by Armenia (the region of Nagorno-Karabakh). Azerbaijan has responded by not only closing the border with Armenia, but banning the import of anything Armenian into the country. The Lonely Planet even has a warning in it that the book tends to get confiscated at the border. They say they don’t understand why, but it seems pretty obvious to me, they give Nagorno-Karabakh an independent section in the guide book, rather than listing it under Azerbaijan (for some inconsistency they list Abkhazia and South Ossetia under the Georgian chapter). Ahead of us a baggage search found some Georgian postcards, which resulted in an extensive conversation between the border guards as to whether the church depicted on the postcard was Georgian (acceptable) or Armenia (contraband). Looking back at my photos I’d be stretched to tell the difference. We inadvertently found a way to smuggle past the border guards – on opening a bag the border guard looked with mystification at a box of tampons, opening them up and trying to work out what they are. When the translator said a few quick words in Azerbaijani, the guard quickly shoved them back and waved the whole bag along without a thorough search.


Georgian wine

Our final day in Georgia was spent visiting the wineries of the Kakheti region. We visited both a small scale home-brew place, where they had been making wine in their cellar for 300 years, in large vats buried into the group, and a commercial export venture, which had operated for 500 years and made the semi-sweet red wine that was Stalin’s favourite. For all that Georgian wine is famous, I found the home-brew stuff hideous, and even the commercial export was decidedly average, but then I’m a beer person rather than a wine person.


A loyal friend in Sighnaghi

Our highlight today was visiting the walled town of Sighnaghi. The 18th century walled town has been completely restored, giving it the shiny new look of a faux-medieval village in a theme park. Just after we arrived a small chocolate brown puppy found us, and escorted us all around the town, faithfully following us and waiting outside when we went into shops. To reward our little friend we feed her a salami, which she consumed with great joy, before heading off to Telavi.


The torture of Prometheus

Last night we drove up the Georgian military highway, the long winding road through spectacular mountain scenery that links Georgia to Russia (at least, it used to, until the border was closed). Working our way up into the Greater Caucasus the mountains were first covered in a blanket of dark green coniferous forest. Higher up we reached the alpine meadows, with a rolling plateau of grass populated by sparse herds of sheep and cattle. Above us further still loom craggy stone peaks of the highest mountains in Europe.

Today we drove up to Gergeti Trinity Church, party way up Mt Kazbegi. We had the choice of hiking up or taking a LADA 4WD, and made the best choice ever in the 4WD. We got up to the plateau while the weather was picture perfect and had an opportunity to walk around on the plateau and picnic in the sun looking out into the spectacular mountains. We decided to head back when the weather turned and a storm started to roll in – just as the hikers were arriving up. 

Mt Kazbegi is the scene of one of the most dramatic scenes in classical mythology, the torture of Prometheus (or Amirani, in the local variation). Prometheus was a Titan, the elder gods of the world, who chose to side with the Olympians during the Titanomachy and helped Zeus defeat the Titans. After securing victory for Zeus, Prometheus played a minor trick on him, placing two sacrificial offerings before him and allowing him to chose. Zeus chose bull bones wrapped in glistening fat over a side of beer hidden inside an ox's stomach, a foolish choice allowing humans to thereafter keep the meat for themselves after sacrifice to the gods. Enraged over his own superficial choice, Zeus punished humanity by taking from them the secret of fire. Prometheus, always the supporter of humans against the gods, giving humanity writing, mathematics, agriculture, medicine and science, stole back fire from Zeus. Zeus, seemingly never one for proportionate retaliation, punished men by creating Pandora, the first woman (seriously, what is the issue with religions always seeing women as a torment for men?), and punished Prometheus by chaining him to a rock on Mt Kazbegi. Prometheus was to be tortured for eternity by having an eagle eat his liver every day, to be regenerated every night, but fortunately Hercules killed the eagle and freed Prometheus.

As an interesting aside, Prometheus, the bringer of all gifts of civilization, also brought humanity sexual ambiguity, according to Aesop. "The answer lies once again with Prometheus, the original creator of our common clay. All day long, Prometheus had been separately shaping those natural members which modesty conceals beneath our clothes, and when he was about to apply these private parts to the appropriate bodies Liber [Dionysos] unexpectedly invited him to dinner. Prometheus came home late, unsteady on his feet and with a good deal of heavenly nectar flowing through his veins. With his wits half asleep in a drunken haze he stuck the female genitalia on male bodies and male members on the ladies. This is why modern lust revels in perverted pleasures." - Aesop's Fables #517. Somehow this story doesn't seem to be as popular as the Tortoise and the Hare, and so forth.


What now for Georgia?

Since the South Ossetian War, only a handful of countries have recognised the independence of South Ossetia. The blockade against recognition makes practical sense, in that most states uphold the grounds of territorial integrity, where only the state has the right to allow division rather than the right of self-determination existing for each people. Morocco doesn't want Western Sahara to be allowed to declare unilateral independence, Spain doesn't want Catalan to be allowed to declare unilateral independence, China doesn't want Tibet to be allowed to declare unilateral independence - and these countries consistently apply the same principle to other nations. Less understandable are those countries that treat Kosovo and South Ossetia as somehow different circumstances. The parallels between the two could hardly be more striking, both were once integrated into a larger multi-ethnic country, both ended up being a minority in a heavily nationalistic state after post-USSR statehood used defunct borders to define nations, and both have overwhelming majorities with a distinct culture and language that want independence. It is hard to find any principle of self-determination theory that would allow a country to support Kosovo but not South Ossetia, or vice versa. Yet of the 65 countries that have recognised Kosovo, only one has recognised South Ossetia. Likewise of the 4 countries that have recognised South Ossetia, only one has recognised Kosovo. So kudos to Nauru for being the only country to consistently apply self-determination theory.

As I have been thinking about self-determination theory today, there is one strongly detrimental theory that jumps out to me. Self-determination promotes the fragmentation of countries into every smaller packages of humanity, divided by ethnicity, language and religion. Obviously the case can (and, I think, should) be made that this is the right of a community, but having a right does not always mean that using that right is a positive move. One of the striking features of large multi-ethnic countries is the high rate of interactions, internal migrations and intermarriages. When you look at countries such as the USSR, the Ottoman Empire, Yugoslavia, the Indian Empire and so forth, one notable feature is the relatively high rates of interactions and intermarriages across language and ethnic barriers. Whatever flaws these countries may have had, they did facilitate heterogeneity. And in each case, when the country was broken up into more homogenous nationalist blocks, ethnic tensions rose up into violence. As part of the USSR, South Ossetia was only 2/3rds Ossetian, but in the violence following the independence of Georgia ethnic Ossetians across Georgia migrated into South Ossetia, and Georgians in South Ossetia migrated into Georgia, leaving both regions far more homogenous than before. During the violence of the Partition of India, 15 million Hindus and Muslims migrated from mixed communities to generate more homogenous countries. At the breakup of the Ottoman Empire the Great Powers forced ethnic Turks and ethnic Greeks to migrate from to Turkey and Greece to create homogenous states. The theory was that heterogeneous states have internal tension. That may be so, but internal tension is not always a bad thing. Being in a diverse state challenges the population to recognise that there are multiple ways to live, that acceptance of diversity works both ways. Besides, internal tension is clearly better than external tension. Muslims and Hindus may not have had a perfect relationship within the Indian Empire, but who would argue that the partitioned situation is better, with nuclear-armed Pakistan and India facing off across a border? What happened to Europe when the rise of ethnic nationalism created relatively homogenous
states, where the State could command loyalty from the people and the coincidence of political, language, ethnic and religious boundaries made it so much easier to identify "us" and "them"?

Today there are 192 members of the United Nations. Of these, 109 countries became sovereign only within the last 50 years, by splitting off from larger entities. In the same period there have been only a handful of unifications - Germany, Yemen, Vietnam, Tanzania and the UAE. A large part of my admiration for the European Union comes from the solution it poses to the conflict between self-determination and diversity. By reducing the isolating impact of national borders, the EU encourages migration, diversity and interaction, while at the same time allowing political self-determination. If Flanders split off from Belgium or Catalonia split off from Spain within the umbrella of the EU, it would not really be such a big deal in practical terms. Self-determination would not necessarily result in homogenisation. The EU allows individuals to have multiple non-overlapping identities, making the "us" vs "them" dichotomy difficult to maintain.


The occupation of Gori

We caught the train down from Bakuriani to Gori, to visit the Stalin Museum. As the birthplace of Stalin, the city abounds with Stalin’s presence – the main street is Stalin Street, the Stalin Museum is almost the only tourist site and until 24 hours before we arrived a giant statue of Stalin stood in front of the town hall. This statue, one of the few giant Stalin statues that survived Krushchev’s de-Stalinsation program, was taken down in secret in the early hours of the morning, to prevent the outcry that occurred when the newly independent Georgia tried to pull it down in 1991. The Stalin Museum is really one of memorabilia, rather than an objective look at the man who turned rural poverty-stricken Russia into an industrial powerhouse and murdered millions of people in designed famines and the Gulags. The museum was built just outside the house where Stalin was born, which now stands beneath what could best be described as a shrine. Next to the museum stands Stalin’s personal plate-armoured train carriage, his sole form transport (as he refused to fly).

Gori is not only famous for producing one of the largest mass-murderers of all time, paranoid Stalin, but also as an epicentre of the recent South Ossetian War between Georgia and Russia. Despite the reflexively anti-Russian assumptions of the Western media, the situation in South Ossetia does not paint Georgia in a good light. Before the break-up of the USSR, South Ossetia operated as the South Ossetian Autonomous Oblast, an autonomous region within the Georgian SSR. Despite different ethnicities, cultures and languages, Georgians and Ossetians lived rather peacefully side-by-side during Soviet times, with a high rate of interactions and intermarriages (interestingly, the same can be said of most large empires, where a shared nationality blurs the boundaries of ethnicity). Unfortunately, when the USSR dissolved, ethnic tensions throughout the Caucuses flared, as smaller ethnic groups wanted to take the opportunity to gain independence, and resisted being incorporated as minority regions within the newly formed states. Within months of Georgia declaring itself independent in 1991, South Ossetia declared itself an independent identity. With a much closer relationship with Russia (especially with the North Ossetians living just over the Russian border), ex-Soviet military units aided the South Ossetian separatists, allowing the region to become de-facto independent, although officially still a part of Georgia. A large exchange of population made both Georgia and South Ossetian more ethnically homogenous, entrenching positions and reducing any chance for future reintegration.

This situation was maintained for the best part of twenty years. In 2006, South Ossetians had a referendum on independence, where 99% of voters supported full independence from Georgia. More than 85% of South Ossetians acquired Russian citizenship, allowing closer ties with North Ossetia in Russia, and Russian became the predominant second language of the region, far ahead of Georgian.

Everything changed on the night of the 7th of August 2008, when Georgia launched a large-scale military attack against South Ossetia. It still isn’t clear why President Saakashvili decided to try to reclaim territory long-lost, but perhaps he was emboldened by his success in facing down the President of the Autonomous Republic of Adjara, when Russia did not intervene. For whatever reason, Saakashvili not only authorised Georgian troops to attack the position of the combined South Ossetian militia and Russian troops, but he personally commanded troops in battle, despite having no military experience.

Predictably, the Georgian military were outclassed, and the Russian troops defeated the attack and countered on the 8th of August, occupying Gori and destroyed a substantial proportion of the Georgian military’s offensive hardware. Just as predictably, the response of Western media and government was superficial. Saakashvili, skilled at media manipulation, presented himself as David battling Goliath, even though he was the aggressor in the war and anti-democratic at home – during Saakashvili’s rule, Freedom House downgraded Georgia’s democracy ranking. George W. Bush even toyed with the idea of starting WWIII, considering launching air strikes on the Russian military, before settling on issuing a laughably ironic statement: “Bullying and intimidation are not acceptable ways to conduct foreign policy in the 21st century.” A year later, the independent report commissioned by the Council of the European Union (prepared by a group of 30 military, legal and history experts), analysed all the evidence and found that the Georgian strike into South Ossetia “was not justified by international law” and that there was no evidence for the Georgian claim that Russia struck first. To be fair, the report also found that the Russian reaction to the Georgian attack was disproportionate. Unfortunately, the report did not also assess the hysterical response of Western media and governments, who happily parroted Georgian misinformation at the time.

The effect of that ill-advised venture can be seen across Georgia today. On the road between Tbilisi and Kutaisi we passed the refugee village from Georgians who fled Gori and the border region. Row upon row of identical small houses laid out on a grid pattern, covering a vast area. No roads, shops or employment opportunities, not a real city, just a holding area for displaced people. And yet, while many Georgian people can see the stupidity of Saakashvili in attacking South Ossetia, they do not see a resolution of the war, insisting that South Ossetia should be part of Georgia. I really can’t stand to see historical claims to be used as justification for war. Yes, for a period of time a few hundred years ago, people in Georgia ruled over people in South Ossetia. Why should this give the President of Georgia today the right to cause death and mayhem in order to control South Ossetia today?


Soviet legacy


The cave town of Vardzia

Today we visited the cave town of Vardzia and Khertvisi Fortress. The cave town of Vardzia is said to date from 1185, when Queen Tamar of Georgia was riding through the valley with her Uncle. She wandered off to explore some caves, and when her uncle called out for her she shouted out “Vardzia” (“Here I am Uncle”). The caves were developed into a city, with 3000 caves over 19 levels. Most of these were destroyed by an earthquake in 1456, with only 550 caves remaining.


Khertvisi fortress is one of the oldest fortresses in Georgia, founded ~200 BCE. The fortress is old enough that it was destroyed by Alexander the Great on his campaign to the east. The present walls are much younger, built in 1354, but today the only inhabitants were a cluster of four cows, who for some reason had climbed up into the fortress and had taken up residence in one of the towers. As has been the case across rural Georgia, the cluster of houses around the fortress was teeming with farm life, with a pace of donkeys, a rafter of turkey chicks and three adorable puppies who really liked to have their bellies scratched.


From Kutaisi to Bakuriani 


We are staying in the town of Bakuriani, once the training ground of Winter Olympians for the USSR and now a ski resort. The town recently came to the popular attention after the death of one of its residents, luger Nodar Kumaritashvili, on the first day of the Vancouver Winter Olympics.

After starting the day in Kutaisi we visited three Georgian churches. The first was Bagrati Cathedral, built in 1003 CE and now undergoing extensive repairs. The second was Motsameta, a small church on a cliff side celebrating the bad decision of two Christian brothers to face death by torture rather than convert to Islam (presumably it didn’t occur to them that they could just lie). The third was the complex of Gelati, founded in 1106 by King David (called “the Builder”) and full of 12th century faded frescos over the walls and ceiling.

On the drive to Bakuriani we stopped off at a small village that specialised in pottery. In a small house surrounded by cows and dozens of small chicks running around we watched a local potter craft piggy banks and vases, before unsuccessfully attempting the same.


The Autonomous Republic of Adjara

For such a small country, Georgia has a lot of autonomous regions (actually, Georgia is twice the size of Belgium, but much of the land is uninhabitable, so the population is half that of Belgium. There are three autonomous republics within Georgia. Abkhazia and South Ossetia have gone so far as to declare independence, and with the Russian military behind them and a sealed border with Georgia they are off our itinerary. The third region, the Autonomous Republic of Adjara, is, however, still within the loose control of Georgia, after a failed attempt at independence in 2004.


Under President Saakashvili, Georgia has been very keen to reduce the autonomy of these republics. Saakashvili succeeded in a show-down with President Abashidze of Adjara in 2004, forcing Abashidze to back-down and leave the country. Since then the autonomy of Adjara has been reduced. This success perhaps went to the head of Saakashvili, resulting in the disastrous policy he ran with Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Coming off a bit desperate?

The history of Adjara is a good example of the autonomy of the region. For nearly 400 years, Adjara had a different history to the rest of Georgia, being controlled by the Ottomans in 1614, the Russians in 1878 and the British in 1919. Until Georgian independence in 1991, there was in fact only a period of 8 months in 400 years in which Adjara was a part of an independent Georgia (from the 20th of July, 1920 to the 11th of March, 1921). The long period of Ottoman rule, in particular, left its imprint, with conversion of the population from Christianity to Islam and a shift in the language. The claim of Georgia over the autonomous regions in fact dates back to the Middle Ages, when the territory of Georgia not only covered modern Georgia and the autonomous regions, but also parts of Azerbaijan, Armenia, Turkey, Iran and Russia.

We spent our day in Adjara at Gonio fortress (a Roman-Ottoman fortress, first referred to by Pliny the Elder, in the 1st century CE) and wandering the sea-side cafes of Batumi – a charming tourist resort and cultural/economic powerhouse within Georgia.