Sunday, June 30, 2013

30 June 2013: The Church and the State are good friends in Georgia

The following account DEMANDS that you go to my facebook page and look at the photos of Khazbegi.  I will do my best to describe my adventures but pictures will complement them.

You will see from my photos that Khazbegi is a gorgeous little town ringed by medium-sized brilliant green mountains that are crowned by Khazbegi and its snow-capped peak.  We were told that most of Khazbegi is covered in snow from October to May but today it was HOT.  In the company of our guide Genri, we began to hike up to the Trinity Church up atop one of those medium-sized mountains.  Legend has it that in the 13th century the residents of these mountains gave the haunch of a calf to an eagle and then spread out in order to see where the eagle would land and devour its prize.  Where the eagle landed is where they began to build the church--a project that lasted nearly one hundred years.  Today it still stands nobly above Khazbegi town and attracts both Georgian and foreign tourists in droves during the summer.  We were not alone as we struggled up the mountain; there is a road upon which cars may (and do) traverse but it is extremely rough.  A surprising number of "mature" folks hiked along side us up to the church while pickups full of young tourists labored over the ruts and craters in the road.

The interior of the church was much like any other Georgian Orthodox church.  What is interesting to note is that many of the icons (pictures of Christ, Mary, and other saints) were defaced by the Soviets and remain damaged today.  The chief icon in this church featured a faceless Mary and Jesus.

While hiking the nearly 10 miles up and back down I had plenty of opportunities to chat with Genri with the aid of our translator Katie.  Genri, it turned out, is the caretaker of the church and hikes up that mountain three times a week!  Genri also owns a local restaurant (where we subsequently ate lunch) and, apparently, is a medical doctor.  Georgians are not lazy people.

Genri told me that church attendance has been on the rise, particularly among young people.  This phenomenon is reflective of the rising Georgian nationalist sentiment that has accompanied the rise of Ivanishivili and the Georgian Dream Coalition.  In contrast to Sakaashiili, Ivanishvili has encouraged the role of the Church in government and the Georgian national identity.  The growing anti-Russian sentiment in Georgia may be tied to this increase in Georgian nationalism and may also be fueled by Ivanishivili.  The latter is unclear; Ivanishivili is an local Georgian who made billions in Russia and it entirely unknown to Georgians.  As you may recall, many speculate that he only won the recent elections because of the release of videos depicting horrible human rights abuses of prisoners that turned public opinion away from Sakaashvili.  Is Sakaashvili directly responsible for the abuse in prions?  Likely not, but his increasing arrogance and refusal to negotiate with the opposition was really starting to anger Georgians, particularly the Church.  After the release of the lurid videos the Church patriarch and priests began to preach Ivanishvili from their pulpits.  Sermons are highly politicized and Genri and his fellow attenders claim to embrace the message.  Do Georgians actually vote as they are told to?  We will find out this October during the presidential election.

I also had some time to muse on my thesis for this class.  My professor, Dr. Christensen, suggested that I look into how Georgia has remained neutral in the on-going tension between Iran (its neighbor) and the U.S. (possibly its patron).  Georgia has much to gain by retaining good relations with both nations and may be an example to other countries in neutrality.  Is it possible to remain outside or neutral from power politics?  I may look further into this.  I am also still interested in locating the supposed Egyptian Coptic refugee community here in Georgia.  If I can find enough academic sources on the phenomenon and can conduct my own primary (anecdotal) research than I might like to head in that direction instead.  The former topic seems more IR and macro to me, while the latter has opportunities for micro analysis.  Maybe.  Maybe I am also exhausted from my wonderful hike up the mountain.

The rest of my day was like this:
-Lunch at Genri's restaurant--bread, cheese, salad, khinkali (meat dumplings), and kabob.  No kabob for me today.  Kristin and I skipped breakfast in favor of a lie-in so we were ready for lunch when we finally 3pm!!!  Don't worry; we drank lots of water and ate a Lara Bar Kristin had packed in case of emergencies.  Yay Kristin!  I love her.
-Quick (2.5 hr) drive back to Tbilisi and return to Thea's house.  We picked up hot puri (bread) and cherries for dinner on our way back.  Thea was impressed (well, she was nice to pretend) with the Georgian I picked up while away.  I know can say: "This is my friend.  I have a bag.  You do not have hot bread."  I know--you are impressed.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

29 June 2013: Into the Caucasus

29 June 2013

When our professor told us that we would take a hiking excursion during our two-week trip to Georgia I will confess that I thought to myself: "Hiking?  I can go hiking any time in Virginia.  What I CAN'T do in Virginia is be on the streets of Tbilisi talking to and learning about Georgians."  Being the daughter of a tour conductor I would never complain but was a little skeptical.  I was even less enthusiastic as we pulled out in our buses at 8am from Tbilisi--not an unreasonable hour but having only had five hours of sleep the night before I was just REALLY uncomfortable on the bus.  No recline, twisty roads--you get the picture.

I changed my tune by the time we reached a picturesque church clinging to the edge of a cliff that dropped down into a green lake.  We had reached the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains and the whole scene was ringed by fairly large green mountains.  As we ascended into the range the mountains ("mta" in Georgian) grew taller and the views increasingly spectacular.  It took at least three hours to reach our destination--Khazbegi--but each hairpin turn (taken at full speed while passing other vehicles!) revealed yet another gorgeous vista.  I will post pictures on Facebook.

Khazbegi is a quaint town at the foot of a giant mountain.  No one has yet been able to tell me the elevation but it appears to be the height of Mt Hood or Mt Timpanogous.  I'll look into it further and give more accurate info later.  Only pictures can do the town and its surrounding grandeur any justice so I urge you to look on Facebook for the photos.  Suffice it to say that it is almost the most beautiful mountain scenery I have ever eyewitnessed.  In my mind, it is only second to the tropical mountains of Hawaii.

We arrived starving and so went as a group to lunch.  I have to admit I find large group lunches a bit tiresome so I decided to head back to the kitchen.  There I met the cooks hard a work making everything from scratch--and I mean scratch.  They were literally grinding the meat for the kofta kebab and rolling out the dough for the khacha puri (cheese bread).  These ladies nicely let me film their operation and and attempt to chat with them.

My next stop was the table reserved for the three drivers.  These gents also had no English but were equally as wiling to let me try to converse with them throughout lunch.  I wish I could take one day of crash course Georgian.  I could GET this language if I just had the chance.

Our afternoon excursion was to a church at the border of Georgia and Russia.    The road from the border disappeared through a narrow pass connecting the South and North Caucasus through which Catherine the Great once marched.  The church (in which a service was being held), the border, and the various conversations we had while looking out over the view (mostly about Russian literature--me mostly listening since I know practically nothing about the topic) were all enjoyable.  

We had dinner at the home of our professor's friends.  They slaughtered and cooked a sheep for us!  Quite the spread.  We dined outside in the shadow of steep slopes and towering peaks.  Great company, food, and hospitality.

Looking forward to a lie-in!  We've been up early each day this week and have stayed up too late.  Time to catch up on a little sleep.  Us old ladies are calling it a night at 11:52pm.  The rest of the group just headed out to a "club" (but in this town I'd be surprised if they find one!).

Friday, June 28, 2013

28 June 2013: Street Days

If you have ever considered what life was like for heroin addicts in Tbilisi in the 1990s, you must watch "Street Days," directed by Levan Koguashvili.  We watched this movie today during our morning lecture.  Sad and yet funny.  The Georgian police threaten the main character "Checkie"--a lovable addict--with arrest unless he will set up the son of a government minister.  Get him high, plant some drugs on him, and the cops would take over from there.  The son is no innocent; he initially came to Checkie and asked him to hook him and his other high school buddies up with some "junk" but Checkie refused.  After all, the boy is just a kid AND the son of his former classmate.  The police have him in a tight spot, however, and finally Checkie is forced to either corrupt and/or disgrace the son of his friend OR, as it turns out, kill himself.  I am sure you can guess which he chose (although it took me by surprise when he did it).  The film was depressing but VERY well made.  I highly recommend it.

Our second lecture was about public opinion in the Caucasus and featured the data (and a website with which to manipulate it) of several years' worth of research and polling in the three south Caucasus countries--Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan.  A valuable tool and one that I am sure I will use as I do research for my thesis for this course.  I spent some time briefly discussing my possible topic--Georgian/Iranian relations--with our lecturer today.  I will reflect on the topic here more when I have a bit more time.

A funny side note: I expected Georgians to be dressed very formally when out and about, much like I observed years ago in Ukraine.  In fact, Georgian men and women dress very casually--jeans, tank tops, flats, etc.  Very few stiletto heels, mini skirts, and fishnet stockings worn by Ukrainian women.  So I asked Thea if I could pass as a Georgian.  She immediately said no--neither Kristin nor I could pass.  I asked her: is it my hair, my skin, my clothes?  She said no...and then, through the help of Eka, she said that `'You do not look like you have lived under a Soviet occupation.  You look too happy."  Wow! For the record, I do NOT think that Georgians look unhappy.  On the contrary, they appear (and are) very pleasant.  And yet there IS a sadness here which was reflected in "Street Days."  Humor in the face of despair--that is how the Georgians must have survived the occupation.

And now, the events of my day:
-Morning jog--in one inch of mud since it rained buckets yesterday.
-Left a tad too late for the marshrutka (mini bus) this morning so, sigh, had to take a cab!
-Had a shawarma with Kristin and a couple of the guys from our group.  We are the 29 and older club. :-)
-Walked much around Old Tbilisi, visited the Sioni church, and enjoyed a light dinner at a cute cafe.
-Attended Tbilisi's very on marionnette theatre this evening as a group.  Very creative.
-It is late and I am tired.  We leave tomorrow morning at 8am for a two-day trip to the mountains where I will likely NOT have wireless so  I may lag behind on my blog.  Not to worry! I will return.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

27 June 2013: The Georgian Mafia

We had the extreme pleasure of meeting more of Thea's friends this evening.  Zaza the aging bohemian intellectual, Thea's best friend Eka, Nino the fluent English translator and her boyfriend Georgi.  And of course Thea and the best behaved child in Georgia--Liza.  Have I mentioned that I love Liza?  I just want to squeeze on her but am waiting for her permission.  So far she only whispers to her mother in our presence (as if we could understand her Georgian anyway) and blushingly hides her face when we speak to her...but she is too adorable and well-mannered for us to give up.  We shall win her over yet.

I digress.  Our little salon this evening was in Zaza's flat in Tbilisi.  His wife is an artist and he is an intellectual so their place is covered with paintings, pottery, and books.  It looks more like a funky art studio than a dwelling.  Zaza's wife was out of town but Zaza himself treated us to hospitality and ice cream.  Nino is an English translator with a passion for music.  Her name, by the way, is one of the most common Georgian names for girls.  She brought her boyfriend Georgi.  I believe Georgi lives and works in Russia but comes to visit her periodically.  Georgi does not speak English but dearly wanted to participate in our conversation, fairly bursting with the desire to answer our questions about Georgian politics and foreign affairs.  Nino obliged by translating and between the six adults we had a lively conversation (I am counting Thea out because I believe she is not interested in politics.  And really, like her, I prefer art and books to politics but how can I resist talking to a bunch of passionately gesticulating Georgians about a topic they live for?!).

Of all we discussed (and it was a great deal, I assure you!) I will summarizing a few puzzling statements they made about Georgia-Iran relations--a topic I am exploring for my paper in this class.  I initially asked if they felt the power shift from West-leaning Sakaashivili to Russia-leaning Ivanishivili would affect Georgia's relationship with Iran in any way.  Their response: no one in Georgia can speculate on Ivanishvili's policies because he has been completely silent on the topic.  They wonder: is he incompetent or is this a brilliant strategy?  The Georgian tycoon (who, they told me, made all his money illicitly in Russia) is a complete unknown, an X-factor.  

This lead, however, to another question: does Georgia's relationship with Iran, for better or worse, have significance outside of the region?  Nino, Georgi, and Eka discussed this rather intensively for a few minutes but their their answer to me, in English, was anticlimactic and, quite frankly, disappointing: no.  No, they said, the only significant aspect of Georgia's relationship with Iran is if the former allows the citizens of the latter to enter its borders and enjoy illicit Georgian pleasures, i.e. wine, women, and song.  The diplomatic, political, and commercial aspects of the relationship are neither of concern nor in any jeopardy despite Georgia's relationship with the Great Satan America and nominal support of the even worse state of Israel.  

I  am not satisfied with their answer.  Does Georgia really feel that secure next to a volatile nuclear power that despises its western patron?  I will research further and get back to you all.

Our sole lecture today was on Georgia's mafia and anti-mafia.  Fascinating lecture.  The term for mafioso in Georgian is best translated as thief-in-law, referring not to your spouse's wayward brother in Sing Sing but to the code of honor that these men enter into.  Thieves-in-law formed and were organized in their particular effective way thanks to the repressive soviet political environment.  Of undeniable importance in this process was the "gulag"--the Russian prison labor camps from which men were periodically transported to and from, leading to the development of networks and hierarchies amongst criminals.  Possibly my favorite bit about this lecture was learning about the Georgian mafia brand; these men enjoy a near-cult status in Georgia (especially, sadly, among children) and to protect that image as well as cut down on production costs, they simply keep their "brand" image as honorable but absolutely serious/dangerous as untainted as possible.  In so doing, they enjoy popular support and get results while minimizing violence.  Georgians  simply believe/believe IN them.  I wonder what this says about Georgians?  Is it a coincidence that nearly 1/3rd of the Russian mafia is staffed by Georgians?

Finally, the events of my day:
-Early morning jog after six hours of sleep. Ugh.
-Washed my hair for the first time in five days--this will not surprise anyone who knows me well.
-Arrived to the lecture on time--almost a first!
-Lecture on the Georgian mafia.  
-A mediocre lunch but good company.
-Afternoon trip to the Georgian National Museum.  My favorite exhibit was the Russian occupation exhibit where they--amazingly--mentioned Stalin's crimes against the people of Georgia.  Someone should send a memo to the folks in Gori (his hometown).
-Returned home, hung up our laundry, looked at photos with Thea and Liza.
-Light, delicious dinner.  I love Georgian food but I am thrilled Thea does not cook.  I couldn't handle a feast every night.  Lavash, salad, boiled egg: perfect.
-Our "salon" at Zaza's.  Fun!  But totally tired--and that was hours ago by now!  Time to get to sleep.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

26 June 2013: Georgian hospitality

I was startled when the woman in the black dress and tight chignon began to berate the punk-style couple sitting directly to my left on the bus.  That same couple had just nicely answered my question regarding the correct stop for the Georgian Parliament building and were now being subject to a scolding.  Kristin made a guess at the cause and she turned out to be right:  the elderly Georgian woman was chastising the couple for sitting too closely and being too free with their affections.  

The babushka is not the only Georgian concerned with change in this country.  Many citizens did not like how the western-leaning Saakashvili 's pluralist policies that limit the influence of the Orthodox Church, are tolerant of homosexuals, and diminish the importance of ethnic differences within the Gerogia.  So they voted his party out of parliament.  Still others, my host Thea and her friends included, are wary of the changes that Ivanishivili's Georgian Dream Coalition have brought and may bring to pass, namely a relaxation in public law enforcement, increased power to the Orthodox Church, and increasing linkages with Russia that hint of a reunification with the eastern giant.

Regrading that last point, I must make a correction.  In my last post I referred to a civil war within the last five years here in Georgia.  Both my lectures today (at the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies) and Thea's friend Eka's husband Rati brought to my attention my misunderstanding.  Knowing that the Ossetians and Abkhazians WANT to be independent of Georgia, I identified the 2008 conflict as a civil war.  Georgians, however, do not see it that way.  They view it solely as a war with Russia.  The Ossetians and Abkhazians wanted to secede, Georgia did not agree, and Russia invaded Georgia.  While there was fighting between the rebels (Ossetians and Abkhazians) and the Georgian army, the real threat was from the interfering Russians who, Georgians feel, were not stepping in out of sympathy with the rebels but in order to take advantage of the opportunity to re-annex Georgia.  Okay, so maybe you all knew that but I had been fuzzy on it.  I've been set straight.

Our lecturer at the institute today was a real character.  My favorite two quotes: 1) "Show me one country in the world who's foreign policy is value-based.  At least America claims values--other countries don't even bother."  2) "US intellectuals are Marxist but they wouldn't be if they'd grown up in the USSR."  The second made me laugh because several of my GMU professors have been self-professed Marxists (not to be confused with Marxians :-) ).

Within the same lecture I learned a bit more about Georgia's delicate relationship with Iran--a possible thesis topic for this class.  Georgia is compelled to follow the sanctions declared b the US on Iran but must (and does) get around them to maintain positive relations with its powerful neighbor.  A follow-up question is: does Georgia have a stance on the Israel-Palestine issue and if so, how does it affect its relationship with Iran?

Finally, a brief summary of the events of my day:

-Morning jog.  Hot this morning!
-Breakfast with our lovely hosts.  We love them!
-Direct bus to the front of the parliament building, whereupon we met with the group and walked to the NGO.
-Lecture at the NGO.
-Bus to a delicious restaurant where I ate much delicious food.  Too much!
-Bus to Gori, Stalin's birth place and home to the Stalin museum.  Wow!  Now that was a piece of work.  Absolutely no mention of Stalin's nefarious deeds, only glory to his name.  Amazing!  Rati told us that many Georgians simply view his actions as the necessary course to eliminate enemies of the state.  I honestly can't imagine that many Georgians view him in this glorified light but the matrons at the Stalin museum certainly do.  The whole museum was a cultural experience in itself. 
-Trip up to Gori's medieval castle.  I always love a castle.
-Ride back to Tbilisi.
-Meet up with Thea, Liza, Eka and Rati.  We traveled to Georgia's original capital--Mskheta.  Yes, it is as difficult to say as it looks.  GORGEOUS town, however, notable for its 11th century cathedral (which we toured) and its darling monetary up atop a neighboring hill (which we did not tour).  We were in GREAT company.  As an English teacher and former tour guide, Rati was able to explain many things to us in impeccable English.  They treated us to a delicious dinner in an outdoor restaurant.  Lovely!!
-1:03am--finishing and going to bed!

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

25 June 2013: All you ever wanted to know about Stalin

Which of the following about Joseph Stalin is true:

1)   He was Georgian.
2) He was a poet.
3) He was handsome as a young man.
4) I almost met his grandson today.
5) All of the above.

If you guessed number were right!  While on the bus retuning from the American Councils, where we take our lectures, we met a sweet young Georgian girl who attends a music conservatory high school.  One of her classmates is--you guessed it--Bubba Stalin who is studying to become an orchestral conductor! 

Okay, I may be a bit unclear about his first name but the rest is all true.  Can you imagine knowing...let alone admitting to actually being...the son of a dictator who murdered millions?  For some reason I have a hard time bending my mind around this one.  But than again, this is Georgia, and its history as a nation is being formed as we speak.  I do not mean that it is a new nation but one in flux.  It has gone from a failed state to a flourishing one in less than two decades.  It's most recent civil war was only five years ago.  It has undergone only one democratic electoral transition.

Contemporary Georgian politics 101 in a nutshell: the current government is run by a mysterious billionaire with Russian roots named Ivanishvili.  He is head of the new Georgian Dream Coalition which, according to my host Thea, only exists to criticize the current--and widely loathed--President Saakashvili.  It would seem that Saakashvili's greatest crime was to clean up Georgia's corrupt law enforcement mechanism and put the mafia behind bars.  After admittedly horrible videos of the prisoners' human rights abuses in said prisons were leaked Saakashvili, whose star had been falling, lost much of the public support.  Thea is emphatic:  he may not be perfect but prior to Saakashvilli and his Rose Revolution, the city's infrastructure was crumbling and its services were nil.  Constant gas, electricity, and water were only fond but distant memories for Tbilisians.  

This bit of Georgia's recent history, the languages of the Caucasus, and much much more were the topics of my lectures today.  I also sat down with the director of the American Councils and asked him to guide my research for the final paper in this class.  Considering my interests and area focus, he suggested I look into 1) the lack of conflict between Georgian and the largely (?) Muslim Georgian territory of Ajaria; 2) ethnic Georgians stuck in Turkey when that country annexed part of Georgia; 3) Egyptian Coptic Arab Spring/Syrian refugees in Georgia; and 4) geopolitical and economic relations between Georgia and Iran.  More on all or some of these later as I begin some initial research.  We are meant to have dinner tomorrow with Thea's best friend Eka's professor husband who is likely to be a good source of information.

Finally, a list of other activities/events of this day:
-Much hilarity with Kristin; she is the perfect roommate and travel companion.
-Early morning jogging in the hippodrome with the neighbor old men club and their dogs.
-Navigation to/from American Councils without guidance.
-A mediocre lunch but fine company.
-A wonderful evening with Thea abd Liza driving to Lake Ku on the outskirts of Tbilisi where Tbilisians go to play.  Unlike any of the residents of Arab countries I've studied closely, Georgians appear to really appreciate nature.  I see people out walking for pleasure often and very little trash.  Why is it that some people care for their surroundings and others do not?
-Another 500 lbs of cheese bread for dinner.  They are going to have to ROLL me off the plane!
-An hour of herbal tea, picture viewing and music sharing with Kristin, Thea, and Liza.  Thea does not speak much English but she is putting in a noble effort.  

Monday, June 24, 2013

24 June: Nastya has returned

Dear friends!  I invite you once again to join me on a journey.  This travelogue will be reflective, per the requirement for my course, but will certainly be less emotional than my record of our adventures last summer in Amman. 

I am tasked with looking into the actual and possible affects of globalization on Georgia.  I spoke a little about this today with two young Georgians who accompanied us on our tour today.  Katie (surely she has a Georgian name but this is how she introduced herself to me) assured me that many Georgians fear globalization, primarily the degradation of Georgia's unique culture.  The country is small--and getting smaller (if Abkhazia has its way)--and Georgians view their culture almost as an endangered species.  In answer to my question, she listed various traditions that seem threatened by the influence of the outside world, namely those having to do with the roles of and freedoms for women.  

One aspect of Georgian culture that appears to be alive and well is the Georgian National Ballet which we were extremely blessed to see in rehearsal today.  Seeing these amazing dancers perform in their "natural" element (i.e. workout attire) strengthened for me the connection between "regular" Georgians and their strong sense of culture.  Each dance number was performed directly after each other with the non-dancers of any given number standing/stretching/practicing along the sides and joining in seamlessly when  it became their turn.  

The performance was astonishing!  I have never seen anything quite like it and certainly never so close.  We were sitting against the wall with our backs to the mirror where the audience normally would be (only many feet back in the concert hall).  The dancers came within inches of us, as did their knives which they flung about and into the very floor of the studio.  The performance moved me to tears and I hope I will discover a way to insert a clip into this account.

Finally, in list format, these are the other events of my first official day in the George Mason University GLOA 710 course:
-Jogging with my roommate and dear friend Kristin this morning along the nearby overgrown Hippodrome at 7:30am after a 12 (!!) hr sleep.
-Breakfast of Muesli, bread and cheese with my dear host family Thea and seven-year-old Liza.
-Public transport to the site of our course lectures (at the American Councils).
-Time consuming visits to the bank and cell phone shops so as to accommodate everyone's various money changing and cell phone needs.  I bought a local phone.
-Lunch (tasty but overpriced) with our group to include: kabobs, dumplings, cheesy bread.
-A lengthy but interesting tour of Old Tbilisi's architecture.  Our guide literally took us into the clothing line-strewn courtyards of quaint buildings where Georgians live!  Despite the quaintness of their city, Tbilisians look more Western than Oriental.  While I have not been to Ukraine in over 10 years I would judge Tbilisi to be far more Western than Zhitomr, Ukraine.  The people may live in shabby soviet-era buildings but appear European in every other respect.  I look forward to digging deeper and learning more about them as a people.
-Dinner at the home of our professor.
-Public transport back to our host's apartment without a local escort.  We did it!