Tuesday, August 19, 2008

(The Other) Georgia on Our Minds

Not knowing anyone from Georgia or of Georgian descent, I was surprised to learn that this country of 4.4 milliion in the Caucusus has a devout fan base in the US.

Ilan Greenberg: "(I)t is hard to overstate the level of passion felt by Americans in thrall with Georgia. Love for Georgia is uncompromising and consuming. To be American and reside in Georgia is to be locked in an endless meta-conversation about being American and residing in Georgia: how Georgian culture enriches, how Georgian politics fascinate, how Georgian cuisine nourishes."

I can only imagine what these Georgia boosters felt when they saw pictures like this.

In spite of the media-heavy Olympics, images of Russian tanks in Georgia's breakaway region of South Ossetia have made big news since forces on both sides engaged on the 7th of August. There have also been clashes in another breakaway region, Abkhazia. Russia also launched attacks on other parts of Georgia. (Russia Invades Georgia While the West Watches. How Did It Come to This?)

Barely a day after the conflict began, President Bush sat a few seats away from Vladimir Putin at the Olympics opening ceremony in Beijing. But there was no outward sign of tension between the two leaders. Leaning over, Bush and the Russian prime minister engaged in the sort of chummy socializing we've seen between them since their first meeting in the summer of 2001. Back then, Bush said he had looked Vladimir Putin in the eye, gotten ``a sense of his soul'' and found the Russian leader to be ``very straightforward and trustworthy.'' That fall, Putin headed to Crawford, Texas, where the two world leaders again gave all appearances of being the best of buddies.

"The more I get to know President Putin, the more I get to see his heart and soul ...the more I know we can work together in a positive way." - Bush, 2001

But how his expression changed after a few days of continued fighting in South Ossetia.

"Bullying and intimidation are not acceptable ways to conduct foreign policy in the 21st century." - Bush, 2008

Bush is well known for standing by his bosom buddies no matter what their transgressions (Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz, for example.) Yet he was scolding his pal publicly. Is this another sign of America's abiding affection for the former Soviet republic that shares a name with the Peach State? (Why the same name?)

Here's more of Ilan Greenberg's piece in Slate.

"Georgia is something like the Italy of the former Soviet Union, where mothers are considered saints and histrionic displays of emotion are roundly approved, where traffic police refuse to write tickets to pregnant women and grown men worship fresh produce. Television viewers getting their first taste of Georgia's president, Mikheil Saakashvili (Misha to everyone in Georgia), this week are not wrong to detect a surprising emotionalism, volatility, and American-style openness from a leader of a country sandwiched between Turkey and Russia. It is not a stretch to say [President Mikhail] Saakashvili's qualities are emblematic of the nation as a whole.

"I got to know Georgia—and Saakashvili—when I profiled him for the New York Times Magazine. For almost two months I shadowed Misha. In Slovakia for a regional summit, walking next to Saakashvili along Bratislava's cordoned streets, the Georgian head of state hooked his arm on my elbow and offered to trade gossip about his senior staff. In Tbilisi, Saakashvili gave me carte blanche access, not once ordering me out of his office. In a region where governments routinely conflate tribe with nation, Saakashvili pointedly switched languages to inclusively address ethnic minorities. One evening I answered my cell phone to hear the cackling voice of the then 37-year-old president, who called to tease that his evening was more interesting than mine. I had been crank-called by the president. Stockholm Syndrome was inevitable.

"Georgia's charm doesn't end with Saakashvili. Few sights are as beguiling as barrel-chested Georgian men greeting each other on the street with the traditional cheek kisses. Georgian toasting is a triumph of rhetorical theatrics. Then there is Georgian hospitality. The mother of a friend I had visited shined my shoes while nobody was looking. Before arriving in Tbilisi, I called a Georgian friend to ask if I could stay in her three-room apartment "for maybe 10 days." I stayed three months.

"My friend's boyfriend was an important presidential adviser with a late-night pizza addiction. Receiving delivery was an ordeal: The delivery man, schooled in the pre-Rose Revolution tradition of refusing payment from high government officials, would knock on the door, drop the pies, and try to make a run for it. The adviser, dedicated to ending a culture of corruption, usually was able to head him off, money clutched in his fist.

"So there are many reasons to like Georgia. But for the Americans trafficking in Georgia-thrall, enthusiasm for the country of 4.8 million can be extreme. In Tbilisi, the picturesque Georgian capital that is now a precarious 40 miles from the Russian occupation zone, I met American expats—veterans of any number of other-country postings—who quit their jobs rather than accept a new country. Of course, at the government level, assiduous courting of Americans is all part of the plan. Saakashvili has been reaching out to American politicians, especially Republican ones, since he took office. When I spent time with the president, he was obsessive about influencing American opinion-makers in the press, and his chief of staff complained to me he was spending more time dictating responses to articles in American newspapers than governing Georgia.

"For Westerners, Georgian cultural idiosyncrasies can be intoxicating. But for Russians, Georgia is also innerving. The two peoples are badly handcuffed. Russian women falling for Georgian men is a stereotype in both countries, and ethnic Georgians populate the upper reaches of Russian pop culture as celebrated singers and actors. Long before the Russian army rolled into Gori, Russian tourists streamed into the country to enjoy its warm Black Sea coast and to hike its soaring green mountains.

The signature traits of Georgian identity—a romantic, somewhat lugubrious sense of national fate; male machismo; the Orthodox Church; even good toast-making—are claimed by Russians. The two countries rarely resist tormenting each other, and if this week has underscored the lack of equality between the two in hard power, there is an equanimity in national psyche. Both peoples find the cultural aspirations of the other to be intolerable.

American fans of Georgia, a good number of them anyway, have located a far-away dreamscape, a colorful Caucasian people kissing each other on the cheeks and speaking a strange, unique language in a fairy-tale land, where poor men will sell the shirts off their backs to buy a woman dinner. Ironically, a lot of Russians look south and see something similar. Too much love is never a good thing."

Here are more articles analyzing the situation in Georgia:

New York Times: U.S. Watched as a Squabble Turned Into a Showdown

Slate: After The Counterrevolution: Georgia is yet another country where Washington declared "mission accomplished" too soon.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed reading the Aug. 19 blog on “The Other Georgia on Our Minds.” The Russia-Georgia-South Ossetia issue is more complicated than G.W. Bush would acknowledge (or can conceive). As Mikhail Gorbachev noted in the accompanying NY Times column, Georgia was the first aggressor – but being a person of snap decisions, stubborn loyalty and a limited sense of overall global fairness, Bush is overreacting with his total condemnation of Russia. I long for a president who can see that the big world picture doesn’t always include the U.S. in the starring role.

- Chris from Wenatchee