Western Promises

On the streets of Tbilisi, the walls speak to you. Through graffiti written in mostly English, one topic dominates the conversation, and if it reflects public sentiment, the verdict is unanimous. Georgians have an unwavering solidarity with their ex-Soviet brothers and sisters in war-torn Ukraine. Or, to put it another way, there, by the whims of Putin, go them and not us, this time.

But, these are not views voiced by the Georgian political leadership. Outwardly, they're on the fence, applying what they call “strategic patience” to all things Russia-related. Given recent history, who can blame them? In the thirty years since the fall of the USSR, five wars have been fought on Georgian soil, leaving two regions under Russian occupation. So, with Putin's troops parked 45km up the road and other hybrid warfare tactics at play, expressing anti-Russian outrage too strongly risks retaliation.

Some might say this is the restraining effect of the warmonger's veto. After centuries sandwiched between Russia and its empires to the north and Turkey and its empires to the south, Georgia is accustomed to external threats. Long periods of foreign rule pushed the country to the edge of extinction, and all the destruction and rebuilding shaped the psyche of its people. Georgians are resilient and instinctively know the value of peaceful times.

Georgia's precarious position has bred a strong sense of independence, and a mural in the Saburtalo neighbourhood highlights this sentiment. With five pens held by five women, it depicts the signing of the Independence Act of Georgia in 1918. A short-lived sovereignty, as it turned out, because, in 1921, Georgia was forced to join the Soviet Union - and waited seven decades to get it back. But down those generations, the independent mindset did not diminish.

Despite the return of independence in 1991, the Soviet era of leadership only really ended in 2003. The population, discontent with years of civil war, bread queues and blackouts, deposed the pro-Russia Edouard Schevardnadze with the Rose Revolution. The new president, Mikheil Saakashvili, and subsequent leaders have looked westward. Tapping into a nascent European and democratic consciousness, English has begun to replace Russian as a second language, and many see joining the European community as a way to improve economic and social conditions. EU flags and pro-NATO slogans are common. Political overtures supporting the joining of these alliances suggest that Georgia is willing to give up a slice of her independence to strengthen security and democracy.

This pro-western political orientation is something else that Georgia and Ukraine can bond over. The mural of Olechka illustrates their already strong relationship. Olechka was a 12-year-old Ukrainian girl who, after losing her parents, survived the horrors of the Holodomor famine and World War II. She came to live in Tbilisi close to where her granddaughter has now painted a wall in her honour. The mural is highly symbolic. With a golden sun in her hands, she evokes new life. The wheat in the wreath signifies hope, and the acorn in her hair represents survival. The golden wreath and blue sky are for Ukraine, and her red braids and white dress are for Georgia.

The Russian invasions of Ukraine echo Georgia's own struggles and have complicated the picture. Ukrainian refugees are welcomed and supported by Georgian generosity and humanitarian aid. But there has also been a steady migration of Russians looking to avoid conscription in this trendy and liberal alternative to their homeland. Ordinarily, Georgians accept anyone with their heart in the right place. But their kinship with Ukraine and resentment towards Russia divides opinion.

Some shops, bars and restaurants have put politics above profits, only permitting entry to Russians who denounce Putin as a war criminal while allowing Ukrainians to eat for free. But it’s not an easy distinction to make. Russians and Ukrainians are from the same genetic stock. Some share the same first language and have parents and in-laws from both countries. So, where do you draw the line?

It cuts both ways. While the Russian influx boosts the hospitality industry, the downside has been soaring living costs. Some Georgians protest with their feet, avoiding venues and neighbourhoods with a strong Russian presence. And say they should return home and fight for rights and freedoms in their own country. Other locals are more pragmatic, sensing that Russians who choose to build a new life in Georgia are inherently good and do so because they are peaceful and disagree with their government. With the heritage and identity of both countries so interconnected and economic dependence still a factor, co-existence is the name of the game.

Through all this, it seems Georgia is attempting to reinvent herself as a European country and move away from her Soviet past. A busy highway was renamed after George W. Bush in gratitude to the USA for the much-needed strategic partnership and timely economic assistance. The once corrupt police force was fired and rehoused in police stations made of glass to evoke transparency and trust. Modern architecture like the Public Service building, the Rike Concert Hall and the Bridge of Peace impress foreign visitors and attract further investment. And real estate developers breathe new life into old buildings. The once Soviet sewing factory is now a multi-functional urban space called Fabrika that brings creatives, co-workers, and digital nomads together in a social setting.

All this modernity is balanced out by the highly traditional Georgian Orthodox Church. Formed in the 1st century, it is one of the oldest churches in the world and was responsible for preserving the ancient Georgian alphabet. This highly trusted institution is a central part of Georgian society, wielding significant influence over political decision-making and the foreign policy agenda - despite the constitutional separation of church and state.

On the subject of politics,this country is the birthplace of Josef Stalin, or Uncle Joe as he is known,and his legacy is another topic that divides opinion. Some take reflectivepride in his strong leadership and say he defeated Hitler. Others cite thehuman cost of his policies and say he was just as bad. The Stalin Museum in thenearby town of Gori does not acknowledge the latter. Maybe it should do ifGeorgia is to pull off this reinvention.

That said, visitors arestruck by the warmth and hospitality thrown in their direction. When eating inlocal restaurants, it is common for diners at a neighbouring table to offernewcomers shots of chacha. Often accompanied by the customary clinking of glassesand toasts to peace, liberty, and whatever springs to mind. Evidence perhaps ofthe Georgian expression, "Guests are from God", and the intrinsicgood they see in visitors to their country.

Boozy welcomes are part ofthe furniture. Winemaking here goes back 8,000 years. And its by-product,chacha, is the toastmaster's drink of choice. With both, the homemade stuff ispreferred and poured from reused plastic bottles. But be prepared. Negotiatingyour way out of a heavy session will take some skill. Even the "Mother ofGeorgia" is egging you on. With a cup of wine in one hand and a sword inthe other, the 20-metre-tall aluminium statue standing on a hill overlookingTbilisi represents the national character, hospitality, and the love of freedom- for that sword will get used should anybody try to infringe upon it.

Maybe this yearning for liberty and independence has been best expressed in artistic and literary forms. With a national inclination towards romanticism, writers, lyrical poets, and playwrights have created memorable works and enriched the cultural landscape. None more so than Shota Rustaveli, a man whose name appears on street signs, hotels and Metro stations around the Georgian capital. The long literary history continues to inspire. Writers like Aka Morchiladze have picked up the baton and kept the abundance of second-hand booksellers on the streets of Tbilisi in business.

Visual art, too, has been encouraged and appreciated down the years. Georgians know a masterpiece when they see one and have little time for the merely good or mediocre. The Niko movement gives artists a voice and is responsible for many of the murals around Tbilisi. The name refers to the legendary Georgian artist Niko Pirosmani - a man, the founder believes, was Georgia's first real street artist. The self-taught Pirosmani lived for art, but the art world only paid attention to his talent after his death in 1918. The price, perhaps, of being from a small, remote country on the fringes of Europe, international recognition is hard to come by. But that is changing. In 2019, Tbilisi-based hip-hop duo KayaKata were nominated for the European Independent Album of the Year award - a significant achievement for a band that only raps in their native Georgian. Their experimental sound points to a flourishing young rap scene and a hopeful generation innovating their way to a new future.

In December 2023, Europe’s political elite made a similar endorsement by awarding Georgia European Union membership candidate status – a notable step on the road to full membership of the EU and perhaps NATO, too. And another sign the cycle of reinvention that has been Georgia's passport to survival over the centuries is set to continue. Because it is in the knowledge that something must end or be lost for a new beginning to take shape, Georgia will emerge from the shadow of yesterday and be ready for what's next.

Georgia; Tbilisi, Gori, Mtskheta, Sighnaghi, Uplistsikhe (Aug-Nov 2023)

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