Can Tbilisi neighbours remain good friends?

August 22, 2008

georgia1.jpg    They are 21st century barbarians, thugs, thieves, fascist hordes bent on killing, sacking Georgian cities, burning treasured forests, humiliating and crushing a proud people. “I see,” said President Mikheil Saakashvili, “evil in their eyes.”

    Such is the picture of Russians painted by Georgia’s leaders over the last two weeks of war and uneasy ceasefire. Russia, of course, has been far from courteous about Georgia. You have to wonder, though, what effect this deluge of vitriol might have on historically good relations between ‘ordinary’ Georgians and Russians living in Tbilisi. In the southern Caucasus, a volatile patchwork of ethnic groups, the Georgian capital has been a relatively harmonious place through two centuries of imperial Russian rule, Soviet mastery and then the turbulent years since independence. Georgians, Russians, Azeris, Jews, Armenians all called Tbilisi home, their common tongue Russian.

    How soon can fury vented on a state level turn the minds of neighbours?

   There is an almost unreal calm these summer evenings on the tree-lined Rustaveli Avenue, elegantly restored from the blackened ruins I saw here after a civil war in 1992. Old people, young couples sit on lines of benches facing each other, reading books, chatting, flirting.

    The promenaders of Rustaveli may not have been touched directly by the bitterness of war, like fellow citizens around the town of Gori, but most are angry about “Putin’s invasion”.

    “Yes, I was shocked when we heard bombs, even here in Tbilisi. I have so many Russian friends, even Russian relatives. We’ve talked about it,” says David, a young man in black tee-shirt and jeans. “They feel as bad about it as we do. It’s awkward for them. Should I hold it against them? Of course not.”

    Lali Moroshkina, a Russian and head of an NGO that works on ethnic minority problems, says about 50 Russians came today to her office to sign a protest letter over the invasion. “Ethnic Russians haven’t had any major problems so far, maybe some minor problems and only in the town of Gori.”

   David and Lali seem to reflect majority opinion here, but there are others. Sveta, a Georgian with a Russian first name, seems more distraught about how things could develop than seized of any real resentment of her Russian neighbours; but she

    “I am afraid that after all this time, all these years, Russia could have spoiled things for us,” she says. “My friends all are angry about the Russians. No Georgian will go up to a Russian and insult him or abuse him. We’re not like that. But there is this feeling. Give it time and it will go away, I hope.”

    Russians were by far the largest minority population in Georgia during Soviet rule. Any resentment felt by Georgians against Moscow was directed largely against the central ‘apparat’, the Communist Party. Even that was laced with a certain irony. Many Georgians took leading positions in the Party; not least, of course, Josef Vissarionovich Stalin. Former Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze is a more recent example. One popular Georgian joke has Georgians lamenting the collapse of the Soviet Union.

    “Georgia has lost a useful colony.”

    The old Soviet communist slogan of “Druzhba Narodov” — friendship of the peoples — may have rung falsely in many areas of the old Union, attended as it was by forced transportations and persecutions of ethnic groups; but it was more or less reality in Tbilisi.

    Many Russians left Georgia during the 1990s, to escape civil war, deprivation and stirrings of nationalist militancy under first president Zviad Gamsakhurdia. But many remain, married to Georgians or simply preferring Georgia’s lighter, sunnier
climes. The official figure of a 3 percent share of the population doesn’t reflect the true influence of Russian culture here.

    “I grew up in Soviet times. I went to Moscow so often. I loved the girls,” says Gyul, a schoolteacher. “Russia is part of me. How can that change?”

    The prevailing feeling seems one of shock that precludes any real, balanced conclusions yet about what has befallen Georgia.

    “The town’s half-empty now, So many people are away at their country houses, on holiday,” says Gyul.  “When everyone gets back in September, then is the time for taking stock. Then I’ll be talking about it with my Russian friends. We will be looking
into each other’s souls.”



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When i see what georgian army has done first to south ossetia.. U realize they attack civilians at 23h30!!when i see real comments of little children,mother who lost their children,grand mother who lost all family in ossetia, i cant breath. I even feel angry against sakaschvili, a nazy. I feel shame to occident TV, even french TV who blame russian troops, they even show nothing about south ossetian citizen who have lost all.. how its possible that NATO support war,how they can support georgian murder?whats a shame.

Posted by david | Report as abusive

after what went in serbia, bombing, killings and creation of new countries like croatia and kosovo by force, one wonder how west can criticize Russia and its recognition of breakaway provinces,Most funny thing is Great Britain, nothing great about it, acting like it is a great Military power power to recon with ( in reality a third rate power and third rate economy, and both Milbend and Prime Minister talking in bravdo like they are still in British Raj.

Posted by Chauhan | Report as abusive

A wonderful article! I am half-Georgian/half-Russian and must say that you have hit the nail on the head!

Posted by Kate | Report as abusive

South Ossetians, backed up by Russian “peacekeepers” were the ones to have tried for long to “arrange” this conflict. Don’t be so naive, they knew it will be war, and they were preparing for it. Kokoity gave interviews in the first days of August titled “Ossetians ready to attack georgian towns”. Civilians, including children, have been evacuated from Ossetia, and that was in the August newspapers too. The figure of 2,000 murdered civilians that was on Russian TV never proved to be true -they are now talking about only 133 deaths. The western media is right when picturing Russia as an agressor.

Posted by Angela | Report as abusive

You are 21st century barbarians, thugs, thieves, fascist hordes bent on killing, sacking Serbian, Iraq, Afgan cities, burning treasured forests, humiliating and crushing a proud people.

Posted by Vladimir | Report as abusive

There is no more popular governement in any part of the world, they are commanding but citizens, (people, . . . ) are fighting from both (all) sides in all kind of wars.
War is avoidable and heads of states are responsible to avoid it.

Posted by Archie | Report as abusive

The curse of KosovO hovers above the West…and is approaching at warp speed.

Posted by CAUCASIAN | Report as abusive

One question – What do americans do in Iraq-where more than 250000 civilians died after their invasion? Why did NATO bombed Serbia killing hundreds of civilians ? Is it abour democracy? No, it is about oil and american imperialistic hegemony! Georgians psycotic Sakaschvili was always behaving like an an american poodle and for his adventurism-people are paying with their lives. It was Georgian army which attacked Ossetia & Ossetia and Abhasia were Never part of Georgia after its independance. This is the begining of the end of American empire. Russia did a good thing to support Osetia.

Posted by monotavr | Report as abusive

Yeah! After the Ossets have attained independence, you wonder who’s next – Chechnya, Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkaria or maybe Dagestan?

Posted by kaarel | Report as abusive

As a Canadian, I am happy with our media showing, I hope, both sides of the story. From what I have read I am on Russia’s side this time. The US has gotten fully carried away on its bent demand that they will control the world and all its people. Again its about energy, the US seems determined to control the majority of the energy flows in the World. Unfortunately they could care less about Russians or Georgians or anyone else that gets in their way. I hope that a new President in November will change things in the World stage, the American people, I know, are not always in favor of what their central government is up to. In our Country we get as much American news and Canadian and most people of the world would be shocked at the different twists of the same stories.

Posted by Greg | Report as abusive

In the international policy only worths the military and economic power. Russia imposes its law by force. Western countries can´t do anything. USA won´t dare act military against Russia. Saakashvilli trusted in the liar Condoleezza Rice words. He played his cards and lost the game.

Posted by Luis Rodolfo Cabrera Juárez | Report as abusive

i am fully agree with the article, because i live in Belarus (so-cold best frend of russia) and i know the real rissians.

Posted by alex | Report as abusive

The NATO management deforms the validity in the purposes, deceiving the people to justify escalating of arms.

Posted by Vladimir | Report as abusive

Having the Caucuses as a boundary for Russia seems far from ideal for their national security, which is perhaps why the Russian empire used to extend well beyond. However in an accident of history the boundary of Russia has ended up being the Caucuses, while Russia so far has failed to explain whether that’s a problem for them and why.

Also it would be best if Russia has a point to make to the US public about their national security, that the President of Russia appear on US national television. However Russia trying to present their side to the corrupt Congress or Bush administration is virtually pointless, as both Bush and Congress often seem more concerned with Israeli public opinion than that of the US. Therefore hopefully if Russia is frank with the American people, perhaps on national television, we can develop a better relation between our peoples.

Posted by Chris Baker (US) | Report as abusive

the problem is that the american public opinion is fed by the american media – which took the one sided position in the georgian conflict. The coverage by CNN , Fox was pro georgian. Americans were not told the truth about the conflict. Nobody reported from Zhinvali(ossetien) – the city ruined by the georgian bombs and artellery. People were informed about the conflict based on the georgian point of view. I suspect that US policy makers and Pentagon played their own game in the Caucasus. They tried to get the answer – how far
NATO(which lost its
sense of existance) can go. The US with the help of NATO
has been trying to advance everywhere in Europe, to surround Russia. Russian answer was consequent. That is about American effort to determine the way people leave
far away from their own borders.

Posted by monotavr | Report as abusive

The Vice-premier of the government of South Ossetia Boris Chochiev has declared that the Georgian military men have intruded in village Mosabruni in Leningorsky area in the southeast of unrecognized republic, informs “Interfax”.

Posted by Vladimir | Report as abusive

Georgian Conflict Background:
Why Russia’s involvement; can Georgia be a Viable Nation ?

The background of what is now called the Republic of Georgia goes back to 4000 BC, with the Kura-Araxes metal working culture, arguably the earliest, much older than Halstatt metal culture. Over the millennia, the southern Caucasus, a land of deep gorges going up into the Caucasus mountain range, never really divulged itself of the peoples who settled there over time. In flatter terrain, a people moved in and migrated out, or, as invaders, would push out the originals inhabitants, and be pushed out themselves later in time. But in extremely mountainous areas, a single tribe doesn’t get pushed OUT, as much as UP. When strong enough they take the fertile lowlands, but when a stronger people come by, they retreat into the mountain terrain that most invaders do not covet, and then they remain there for thousands of years. This is the history of the Caucuses, where four dozen peoples and tribes, or their remnants, still retain separate tribal identities, with no concept of being part of a larger nation with their former competitors. In its entire history, it has been a separate nation or kingdom for only a handful of years, usually when its neighbors were fighting somewhere else.

The Causasian range not only has peoples, but many distinct languages. The eastern province of Dagestan has almost forty different languages, some with as few as 200 speakers (the Ginukh), each one of which was originally a small nation that took refuge in barren and unwanted mountain valleys that were easily defended. Such peoples did not prosper, instead they put all their “national identity” into survival. This is not just a broad description, it is a stubborn and unique cultural adaptation, because it precludes becoming attached to any long-term vision of national progress. Put simply, both the small and large national populations of the area have been invaded and kept at the survival level of national aspirations for so many centuries, even millennia (e.g. the Ossetes and Abkhazians) that there is no national concept, identity, or vision of anything surviving (e.g. capitals, cities, or even buildings) except survival itself. This is why, when left alone beyond central control, each tiny area reverts to what in western culture would be considered a smuggling empire of mafia warlords, looking after their own small identity group, and competing with and exploiting the others, as a farmer does his fields.

The capital of Georgia, Tbilisi, is a good illustration. In ancient times a Persian fortress over-looking a hot spring area on the Kura River and below the pass used by the northern silk route, the city was first built by an early “Georgian” king around 476 AD (the Persian fortress was much older). The invasions it experienced are countless, but the actually destruction of the city itself occurred seven times before this century. The territory of Georgia has been the battlefield for the surrounding empires, and for 2000 years before that the invasions by Eurasian nomad hordes. The earliest recorded was the Cimmerians around 900-800 BC, and later included the Roman Pompey, Tamerlane, and the Byzantines, Turks, Russians, and many Mongol, Persian, and Parthian invasions


Modern Georgia, the ancient Colchis of Jason and the Argonauts and the golden fleece, had the unfortunate geographical position of being at the intersection of three areas of successive empires: the Russian steppe, the Anatolian highlands (now Turkey), and Mesopotamian/Persian. As a result, it was always on a civilizational fault line, a place for the three empires to have their battles, and where they created a buffer zone between empires in times of “peace”. Tbilisi itself is directly south of the only major pass through the Caucasus, which marks the boundary between South Ossetia and North Ossetia {the latter now called Alania). Throughout this area’s history, whatever kingdoms built there did not and could not last. Instead, the mountains became a microcosm of the last fragments of ancient invading peoples.

Remember the high school history about the invasions that felled the Roman empire, the peoples who came out of the Asian steppe, and allegedly disappeared from history? Or the even more ancient invasions of the fertile crescent, by the Meskhetians, and the Cimmerians (Conan the Barbarian), and the Scythians/Sarmatians, and later the Avars, and Tartars? We were taught that these disappeared from history; but they did not. They are alive and surviving in the Caucasus, still spread in pockets through Georgia and adjacent borders, each with a history of defeat and destruction of national dreams and values, save their genetic history and their shrunken languages.

It is this national memory and experience of defeat and isolation, reinforced by hundreds and often thousands of years of achieving no identity but survival of language and of memory, that complicates the Western “goal” of nation-building. Because in places like Georgia, similar to the Balkans but with a much longer repeating history and much greater sub-national diversity, there is no history of heterogeneity or dream of a national future. These peoples have survived for hundreds of years, not by the economic growth through national unity, but through forms of almost secret tribal trade, which in the west we would call corruption and smuggling. Just a few weeks ago the economy of south Ossetia was based on selling smuggled, untaxed fuel and western goods to Georgians on day trips to muddy lots south of Tskhinvali, the Ossetian capital, to avoid the higher import duties in the rest of Georgia and Tbilisi.

The Western concept of law has little root or validity here, indeed it is a concept not taken seriously; instead it is tribal support and identity and the show of strength that define potential “membership” in a larger entity. The thought of banding into a single nation all the groups of people who have been oppressed by every historical political entity is laughable at the grass roots level. To be bound to other peoples that were butchering their ancestors for a thousand years (only Imperial Russia was involved for less than a thousand years; the Turks, Persians and Eurasian “hordes” began much earlier), is impossible to embrace without successful experience to reinforce it.


So we come to the quandary: can a nation be built from a collection of tribes whose history is three to four times as old as the British nation, and which had the same experience over and over, century after century: that the tribal identity is the only thing that lasts, and that survival is all that can be expected for national life? Hmmmm.

Today, what is called “Georgia” is a tribal truce of sorts, between the Kartvelians and the Mengrelians, the two largest “tribes”, to the exclusion of all others. Contrary to what you read in western press, groups such as the Ossetians and Abkhazians have been being “ethnically-cleansed” by the Mingrelians and Kartvelians as recently as this year. A third breakaway province, Ajaria, around the ancient port of Batumi near the Turkish Black Sea border, was suppressed in 2003-2005.

Other ethnic groups have been leaving Georgia since 1991, because they had the wherewithal to leave. This included Greeks (some left over from the time of Homer), Armenian traders and their descendants, various Slav groups like Ukrainians and Russians, Azeris, non-Muslin Yezedi Kurds, Old Order Russian Molokans (a kind of Orthodox Amish), and some Turkmen from across the Caspian. Many of these came hundreds of years ago when the M and K tribes abandoned the western coastal strip to avoid Turkish raids for slaves, and these outside groups settled the depopulated areas or built new ports many centuries ago. But since 1991, the ethnic pressure by the Mingrelians and Kartvelians drove them to migrate, if they had the wealth to do it, or to change/disguise their names to appear something more Georgian if they could not emigrate. Those who had no place to go, like the Abkhaz (77,000 today, but 250,000 two centuries ago), are ready to fight to be excluded from a Georgia that was systematically redistributing their land to M & K settlers during the Soviet period. Note that Stalin and Beria were Mingrelians, so you can get an idea of the historical precedents for these repressions of tiny national groups.

For Ossetia, the willingness to side with the Russians is not a loyalty as much as a lesser of two evils. The south Ossetians only came into the Georgian territory in the last two hundred years, emigrating over the only viable pass to the south, to escape the Czar and another land grab by Slav settlers in north Ossetia in the late 1700’s and 1800’s.
During WW II, when Stalin deported the north and east Caucasian tribes such as the Chechnyans, the Ingush, and the Dagestanis (mostly Avars, but including speakers of 40 other languages) to keep them from allying with the Nazis, the Ossetes, remnants of the ancient Persian-speaking Alans who fought the Huns, were allowed to stay behind, and took the lands of the former. This “support” by Soviet Russia is their singular experience of being part of greater national identity, and actually GAINING something from it. In essence, they are not pro-Russian, as much as pro-survival, since they have experienced only repression from the dominant Georgian “tribes” that cleansed them anytime they tried to move to lands more desirable than the mountain gorges.


So what do the Russians have to do with this? Why are they making a priority out of the Georgian issue?

Again, it is a repetition of their history. To the extent that the Russians are just a larger tribe, it is the expansion of their “tribal” identity and survival values. Since long before the time of Peter the Great, the Russians have had to deal with the same three ancient empires, one of which, the Eurasian steppe nomads, they destroyed. The Ottoman and eastern Turks, the Byzantines, and the Persians (now Iranians, a third of them Azeris) have been the historical competitors who fought over the Caucasus, each trying to gain a buffer zone for their nation-empires. Just as American policy has a subtle principle of fighting any wars on someone else’s territory, these three centers of expansion seek controllable buffer nations between their adversaries, much as the British of India sought a controllable Afghanistan as a buffer to the empire of the Russian Czars.

The Caucasus mountains are the minimal boundary for an ex-Soviet Russia. The steppe lands north of the Caucasus have no natural defenses, and the numbers of invasions that crossed over the steppe from at least 900 BC are a deep part of the Russian memory. The Russians especially remember the nomad Mongol khanates, that treated the early Russian people as if they were crops, to harvest every year with an autumn invasion. So the minimum a viable Russia wants (and needs) to remain a nation is to control these mountains as a frontier boundary, and to set up a controllable buffer zone on its south.

Unfortunately, a unified, Western-oriented, and non-satellite Georgian “nation” would defeat this utterly. While an outright Russian occupation of Georgia might produce a war with the West; the constant destabilization and destruction of any attempt for a unified Georgian nation would give the Russians a buffer beyond their natural boundary. Georgia’s collection of peoples, with no common dream beyond survival-as-tribes, and thousands of years of historical distrust toward each other, is not yet a viable nation. Russia seeks to make Georgia another historical Afghanistan, with separate tribal parts that can never accumulate enough power, or even identity, to challenge Russia, or to provide an ally for its adversaries. And it may well succeed.

Posted by Dan Kablack | Report as abusive

“Georgia has lost a useful colony.” – this a joke with real background. Actually, georgians were among the privileged minorities in the USSR, they succeeded in their industry and agriculture. Many russians has georgian friends and many georgians has russian friends. They helped each other as much as possible. So this is true history.
Please, don’t mix the politician’s and other civilian’s opinion on the conflict. First is supported by politicians, second know nothing exept distorted news. Great chaos in heads. But every thinking person reads among the strings (especially those that know the USSR newspaper lie). The great provocation to make friends to become enemies occurs.
Both political sides are responsible for the conflict, but the side that led to massive death of its own civilians (under heavy military fire) is real murderer that must be under the court. This is a principal of law.

Posted by Andrey | Report as abusive