Georgia is a land between political cultures.
I’m not really sure if it’s a part of Asia or Europe, and I suppose the arbitrariness of such distinctions shows itself in the answer of the hour.
If you ask Russia, its leaders will tell you that quite clearly it is a part of Asia; if you ask the United States, its leaders will tell you that it quite clearly it is a part of Europe. If you ask the Georgians, the answer you’ll get will depend on who’s in charge at the time. A thousand years ago, its leaders would have explained simply that it is west of Turkey and the Black Sea, and so it is a part of Asia. A hundred years ago, Georgians would have likely said the same. But as of ten years ago, and continuing today, the Georgian people would declare to you quite firmly that Georgia is a part of Europe and European culture. Their turn toward Europe or away from it depends not only upon who is in charge inside Georgia itself, but their stance is contingent upon what outside power is ascendant in the region. I’ve heard this attitude toward self-identity described as that of a sunflower, following the Sun’s rays and protection from being left in the cold. A hundred years ago, Russia in its role as chief among supposed equals in a union of socialist republics (the USSR) was the powerhouse in this part of the world, and so Georgia followed its commands and leadership. Russia is at present however a flailing and demoralized state in the midst of economic collapse, and NATO and the European Union are the power holders. So Georgia pushes for NATO membership, removes all Russian-language signage and cultural icons – these replaced with Georgian and English stand-ins – and turns toward Europe for support.
When the USSR collapsed, Georgia (re)declared its independence (in 1991). The Soviet Union had dominated the country since taking power in 1921, which itself was an act correcting for Georgia’s Declaration of Independence from the Russian Empire at the time of the proletariat revolution of 1918. (Many ethnic minorities – Georgians among them – declared independence from Russia at the time of that revolution, seizing an opportunity provided by the Bolshevist lip service to freedom from imperial power and rights to self-determination.) At the time of its rebirth from the ashes of the local soviet, fighting in the streets of Tbilisi (the national capital) was one of the consequences of a civil war to determine the course of Georgian independence. A European-leaning government took power, and since that time the country of Georgia has quite consciously adapted and adopted European standards and practices including those of government structure, building architecture, and fashion. And to say this – that it has adapted and adopted European habits and ideals – is to shortchange what has happened in Georgia since it began to lean once more to the West. It is a changed world, to anyone who knew Georgia before the fall of the USSR. It is still between cultures, but it is drastically altered just the same.
So Georgia began leaning to the West – leaning hard, in fact, pushing to join NATO and gain its protection from its neighbor to the north. This was brought to a temporary halt in 2008. Russia taught Georgia a lesson with a swift and decisive invasion during the distracting summer Olympic Games. Americans generally have no awareness of this invasion or its consequences, apart from those in government. The result of the five-day war, if it can be called a war rather than a straightforward seizure of territory and people, was the occupation and holding of two regions in the north of Georgia: Abkhazia and Tskhinvali (called by the Russians “South Ossetia,” as “North Ossetia” is in Russia proper). (Interestingly, in 2014, Russia invaded the Ukraine beginning with unrest initiated the day after the conclusion of the Sochi Winter Olympic Games.) These two regions are, like western Ukraine and the Crimea north of the Black Sea, not officially held by Russia – the troops who entered Georgia in 2008 bore no markings on their uniforms, but they rode in Russian tanks and flew in Russian attack planes, and they crossed the border from Russia into Georgia as they did Russia to Ukraine in 2014. Speak to a Russian representative and s/he (more likely a “he” than a “she”) will tell you that these are breakaway autonomous regions that no longer wished to remain a part of their parent state. Russia, of course, supports the independence of people who don’t wish to remain under the thumb of oppressive governments – and that’s the story with Georgia as it is with Ukraine. The invasion halted with (though perhaps not entirely due to) the arrival of a U.S. destroyer in the eastern Black Sea.
An interesting aspect of this war is that it did not teach the lesson that Russia would have preferred Georgia to learn. Westernization in the country has not been halted, though Georgia’s bid for NATO membership stalled – and perhaps that was enough for Russia. The country coordinates government reforms with EU and NATO member states, has a close relationship with Germany and the United States in particular, and was not drawn under the protective wing of Mother Russia, whatever the fates of Abkhazia and Tskhinvali. (Curiously to an outside observer – and unfortunate for farmers brought into the fold against their knowledge at times – the borders of these two so-called breakaway regions seem at nighttime to move, expanding meter-by-meter deeper into Georgian territory.)
What the future holds for Georgia remains to be seen – though they are likely to remain caught between the two worlds that have cost them so dearly in the last hundred-and-fifty years.
This article is a part of my summer 2017 travel series – visit the directory page here and follow my adventure in learning!
Note: I am by no means an expert on Georgian history, and this article is the product of person-to-person interviews of people who do know the history, personal observation of events via Western and Russian propaganda outlets (i.e. I watch news programs of both varieties and remember the invasion fairly vividly), the film Russian Lessons as debuted at Sundance some seven years ago, some cursory web searches, and my visit to the assuredly anti-Russian museum of Georgian history’s “Soviet Occupation” exhibit in Tbilisi. The purpose of the article I’ve written this morning is to inform those who don’t know anything about Georgia and its recent political history. If you find I’ve made a mistake, please do alert me to the error – I’ll happily credit anyone who sets me on the correct course. The map above is from a University of Texas website – http://www.lib.utexas.edu/maps/georgia_republic.html .