The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, September 26, 2008


“Georgia on my mind”: my visit before the invasion


John Ballantine and “Katia,” his former teaching assistant in Gori, Georgia. (Courtesy photo)

“Stalin was not an easy father,” I remarked to my tour guide and former Georgian teaching assistant in Gori last year. I remembered the distracted Svetlana Alliluyeva coming to Princeton, New Jersey, in 1967. The Cold War was boiling and the defection of Stalin’s only daughter was headline news. George Kennan knew her when he was ambassador to the Soviet Union, before he was unceremoniously expelled by Stalin in 1952 and later dumped by our Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles.

Forty years after Svetlana’s defection, in July 2007, I was in Gori, Georgia, her father’s birthplace, standing in Stalin’s museum. The “man of steel” helped build the Soviet Union into a superpower through the brutal reallocation of resources from the peasant farms to heavy industry, military and education. The benefits to Georgia were obvious – factories, jobs, grand buildings and prosperity, as privileged Soviet citizens enjoyed its food, wine, Black Sea beaches, poetry and culture.

But now Stalin’s museum was deserted; grass grew in the gracious square surrounding his peasant home and proud statue. Pictures in the museum showed Stalin with Roosevelt and Churchill and depicted his unholy alliance with the U.S. and Britain. Stalin’s pipes, and pictures of factories, vacations and family – Svetlana and her brother from Stalin’s second marriage – were showcased tastefully.

Last year, I saw other statues of Stalin and reminders of the Soviet era as I made my way to Gori, and later to the mountains of north Georgia, bordering South Ossetia, for a day hike. What did people think of him? Life in Georgia after the collapse of the Soviet Union was extraordinarily difficult and today it is even more so, after the Russian invasion last month.

Why Georgia?

(Map from Wikipedia)

I went to Georgia to visit “my favorite Georgian,” Katia (an alias), a vivacious Muskie Fellow who finished her MBA at Brandeis University in 2007 and was beginning work for the development bank, EBRD. I knew little of Georgian history. What better way to see a country I could barely locate on the map, a short distance from Istanbul where I was running a summer program? Little did I know.

I flew 600 miles from Istanbul to Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, on July 13, 2007 arriving at 2 a.m. From the passengers in the airport it was clear that Tbilisi is closer to the Middle East – 400 miles from Baghdad – than to Istanbul. Later, as I walked around the city on Saturday morning, the Persian and Mongol lineage was evident. Medieval forts and striking Orthodox churches sat strategically on the hills overlooking the city. Frescoes of Saint George above the church altar quietly held sway as baptisms and marriages took place.

Georgia reflects the great swaths of its history – the Mongols, the Ottomans, the Persians and the Russians. The mountains and seas define the trade patterns, and the necessity to work with one’s neighbors is obvious. The strategic interests of the larger powers – Russians, Ottomans, Persians and Western allies – are apparent, and they have been exercised over the past 1,000 years. Russian force and Georgian efforts at independence and cooperation are nothing new. In fact, over two-thirds of Georgians in a May 2008 Gallup poll were in favor of maintaining good relations with Russia.

In two days, Katia and her cousins gave me an energetic tour of Georgia. We walked the streets of Tbilisi in the morning, enjoyed coffee and mushroom pizzas in a Bohemian bistro and beer later in a garden park. The hanging balconies on the grand city boulevards were signs of earlier bourgeois leisure.

Tbilisi is a developing city. The modern airport is busy in the middle of the night, a convenient stopover for many flights. On the streets, middle-aged men stand around smoking, waiting for a job, a change and a way to make a living. Some younger men are unshaven and dress traditionally, respecting the dictums of the Patriarch – the church is important here. The Orthodox Christian rituals are part of many peoples’ lives and the Patriarch is a political and land-holding power in the country. Yet, older prostitutes are more practical, making ends meet in traditional ways. Dogs wander the streets. Subways remind one of the benefits of the Soviet era. Many wait for a better day.

The race to Gori in her cousin’s car, dodging potholes and oncoming trucks (playing chicken is apparently the way you drive) brought us to Stalin’s birthplace – a deserted town set on the rich plains and wheat fields of Georgia, seemingly unthreatening and part of a bygone era.

History and independence

A statue of Joseph Stalin stands outside his museum in Gori.

The Soviet collapse in 1991 split a newly democratized Georgia from the crumbling Soviet empire; however, car factories closed, jobs vanished and there was little money. Imports could not be paid for as exports to Russia disappeared, and the newly privatized apartments and public spaces were neglected. Georgia’s GDP plunged almost 80% and remained there through 2005 as Russia first stumbled under Yeltsin and recovered much later with escalating oil prices and Putin’s presidency. The Russian recovery brought few benefits to Georgia: an important pipeline from Caspian oil fields, some trade, promising openings with the West, yet little investment in Georgia.

The newly democratized citizens of Georgia first tried to make their way under the leadership of President Shevardnadze. Ties to the West were formed as Gorbachev and Shevardnadze made promising transitional steps with politicians and bankers. But corruption, cronyism and the weight of inefficiency was too much for Georgia, a small isolated country that was squeezed between the Black and Caspian seas, Russia, Turkey and Armenia. Russia was desperately sick in the 1990s and its neighboring satellite states caught pneumonia. There was no investment, businesses failed, and the economy fell into a severe depression.

After much hardship and the Rose Revolution of 2003 that displaced Shevardnadze, a newly elected, U.S.-educated, President Saakashvili attempted economic revival and diplomatic repositioning. His efforts have been slow in coming and are apparently tied to far-off friends like the U.S. and NATO. The alienation from Russia and the conflict with separatist provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia are now well known; yet Georgia’s path to economic health is still inextricably tied to Russia and the vitality of the region. Fledgling democracy and political alliances are less important to the everyday Georgian than money, opportunity and employment.

The road to Gori and South Ossetia

Last year the road from Tbilisi to Gori through the rolling countryside, surrounded by orchards and auburn wheat fields, was rough and treacherous if you drove at 150 kilometers per hour which most did. We saw no gas stations, median line markers or shoulders. The Russians policed this road for three weeks in August, destroying much and then eventually withdrawing.

Katia sent an email in late August telling me what was happening. Her distress and passion are evident: “To start from the beginning South Ossetia and Abkhazia are both Georgian territories settled by minorities – Osis and Abkhazs – as well as Georgians. They have always been the autonomous republics within Georgia. [South Ossetia] is now populated by 80,000 Osis after migrating in the 20th century from North Ossetia, also an autonomous republic within Russia.

“Ossetia has been a problematic region for a while. During Shevardnadze’s leadership, Georgian and Russian governments signed an agreement giving Russia, as a neutral party, a right to bring their peacemakers into the region. The actions of the past month are part of the “misunderstandings” of this agreement.

“Where the Russians went completely wrong was when they decided to enter regions outside of South Ossetia. They bombed all our military bases and airports throughout the whole of Georgia, and brought tanks into Samegrelo, Gori and Kariel.

“So if you ask me who got what out of this situation, it is the Russian government. They proved to the world that nothing can get in their way and they can do pretty much whatever they wish in the Caucasus whether it is throwing bombs or unfair interventions. Nothing can be said about building democratic values. The Georgian government got moral and financial support from the west while ignoring the number of dead Georgians and Ossis. Georgia lost claim to its territories, and now has more refugees, destroyed cities, a poor economy and more inflation than it can handle.

“This is what I really think is going on. Thank you for your hopes and prayers.”

On the border of South Ossetia

This is a far cry from the sunny Sunday I spent with Katia and her cousins last year in the Caucasus mountains, beginning with a bus ride crammed with young newlyweds, drunks, workers and farmers. After an hour we arrived in a quiet village, Pasanauri, hoping for a ride into the mountain valleys. Some older people mingled about, the concrete school could be used if there were children, but the young had left town. What do people do here? Somehow, we arranged a taxi ride up the dirt road, past many farming villages, churches dedicated to flowers, and some houses with electricity; another statue of Stalin marked a crossroad, then rolling green hills – good for sheep. We were far away from the world and the threats of neighbors seemed remote. And we were walking on the border of the revolutionary province of South Ossetia that is trying to separate from Georgia and Russia? Maybe I missed something.

Coming back that night from the mountains, I had that elusive feeling of being a part of the people, part of Katia’s family, not a tourist. Of course, I did not see my face in the subways, market, restaurants or while making my way to the hotel under the close guidance of my teaching assistant. Little did I think that Tbilisi would be the center of world attention and diplomatic maneuvers a year later. A country of fewer than four million people, scattered through hills, mountains, historic cities and ports, speaking many languages, struggling to make ends meet and caught in a classic conflict between East and West. Patterns repeat.

The challenge of diplomacy

So what do I make of the past few months? I heard some about the impetuousness of the Georgian president who was re-elected under questionable circumstances and of the need for Georgians to do business with their oil-rich and trade-oriented neighbors. I also know the opportunities of democracy that brought Katia to the U.S. to be educated and returned her to her home country as a young development banker for the Caucasus states. We all see the moves by larger world chess players motivated by pride and advantage, but not for the benefit of the people. Politicians on all sides, of course, posture about principles, strategic alliances, and self-determination.

Georgia does not have easy stepparents – Russia, Caucasus states, Iraq, Turkey, its distant NATO neighbors. Yet, without commerce and trade, there is little that can be gained from the conflict. The complexities and depth of history are evident as you walk the streets, ride the buses and eat with the people. The constraints of geography are real, and the promise, and threat, of a stronger Russia is a mixed blessing. It brings both trade flows and angry growls from an oil-rich bear. Somehow, the saber rattling must be quieted.

George Kennan in 1946 warned in his long telegram from Moscow: “We must contain and engage Stalin and the Soviet Union.” In 1995, in the final decade of his life, he cautioned us again about expanding the reach of NATO beyond its natural limits. However, our ability to see the people, their leaders and the interests and ambitions of all the countries is not encouraging. We have tremendous trouble balancing our strategic interests against the desires and capacities of countries like Georgia. This is the tension of diplomacy, where the intentions of friend and foe are hard to discern. ∆

Carlisle resident John Ballantine is professor of Economics and Finance at Brandeis University, director of the Master of Science Program at Brandeis International Business School and co-director of the World Financial Centers Program.

© 2008 The Carlisle Mosquito