Meyer: Icebergs in the Caucasus – World Policy Journal – World Policy Institute


CODA: Volume XVIII, No2, Summer 2001

Icebergs in the Caucasus
Karl E. Meyer

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Like many Americans, I owe my first visual impression of Georgia–the republic, not the U.S. state–to the 1970s’ commercials featuring smiling geezers in the Caucasus who claimed to be 137 years old or thereabouts, thanks, a voice deftly hinted, to a regular diet of yogurt. It later turned out that many Georgian highlanders had routinely faked their birthdates, adding decades to their age to evade conscription in Russian armies. Hence the twinkling eyes and wonderful grins among oldsters who were unexpectedly reaping a windfall from the global consumer culture.

I recalled the yogurt story during a visit to Georgia late this spring. It seemed to epitomize the disorders afflicting a newborn nation where confounding authority is a fine and righteous art. Call it “iceberg nationalism.” On the surface are the outward attributes of statehood: flags, passports, anthems, Olympic teams, and so forth. Lurking hugely below, less visible, are compacted attitudes about government and taxes (to be ignored), political compromise (besmirches honor), the role of religion (the savior of identity), responses to adversity (fatalism), and clan loyalties (never to be betrayed) that combine to bankrupt the economy, sow conflict, and defy exorcism. Thus the very strategies that nurture nationalism tend to subvert its realization in democratic, market-oriented states. This is not just a Georgian phenomenon. With variations, the same reflexes, exalted in rites and legends with their encoded themes about honor and confounding overlords, can be felt in many long-repressed nations, notably Armenia and Greece, Ireland and Scotland, Israel and Palestine, Poland and the Baltic states.

Georgia seems an archetypal case. That it even exists is cause for wonder. Its four to five million inhabitants speak an ancient language of enigmatic origin, using a script resembling macaronic shorthand that has endured with little change for eleven centuries. Following the conversion of King Mirian III in A.D. 337, Georgia became the world’s second Christian state, Armenia being the first. Georgians preserved their distinctive culture despite conquest and colonization by Greeks, Romans, Mongols, Byzantines, Persians, Arabs, Turks, and Russians. These earlier subjugations culminated, after a brief interlude of independence from 1918 to 1921, in Georgia’s forcible absorption into the Soviet Union, an operation supervised by its fiercest son, Joseph Stalin.

It is a history imprinted on the face of Tbilisi, the Georgian capital since the twelfth century. On encircling hills rise ancient cone-roofed churches: squat stone structures that look like and indeed served as forts. On the main avenue, named after the national poet, Shota Rustaveli, an ugly Soviet-era hotel houses Georgians displaced in unresolved civil conflicts, their laundry flapping on the balconies. Down the street in the history museum, amazing golden artifacts of pre-Christian cultures gleam in the crypt (this was the land of the Golden Fleece), but the museum’s other galleries are dark for want of funds. In the art museum, an impressive cache of Persian Qajar portraits is a memento of dominion by the Peacock Throne. Nearby is a blank spot on the wall where a now-missing plaque recalled that Stalin studied theology in the same building, formerly a seminary. Passing heroic statues of medieval rulers, including the formidable Queen Tamar, a visitor wanders through a cramped old city filled with crumbling wooden houses; incongruously followed by two McDonalds, a Sheraton Hotel, agencies supplying cellular phones, internet cafes, and Prospero’s, a popular English-language bookstore. The city is a palimpsest; its epochs and influences piled on top of each other.

Georgia’s survival owes much to the High Caucasus, the lofty barrier that forms the country’s northern spine, a link in a massive mountain system stretching southward to Turkey and northward into Chechnya. The name Caucasus derives from the Arabic for “Mountain of Languages.” Perhaps nowhere in the world do so many different languages flourish in so little space. Georgia’s 26,911 square miles make it less than half the size of its American namesake, smaller than Ireland or Austria. Yet historians relate that when the tsar’s armies burst into the Caucasus in the nineteenth century, his commanders needed a hundred interpreters. The ethnic mix persists; among the major groups indigenous to the Caucasus are Georgians and their Mingrelian cousins, North and South Ossetians, Abkhazians, Chechens, and Ingush, plus an entire medley in Daghestan.

In Soviet and tsarist times, Georgians held pride of place. Russians treated them almost as cultural equals, prized their cuisine, and filled their holiday resorts. Tbilisi grew to 1.5 million inhabitants, becoming the cosmopolitan hub of the Caucasus, renowned for its theaters and orchestras, its song and dance. The modern era’s greatest choreographer, George Balanchine, was among Georgia’s human exports. A succession of visitors expressed their delight. In 1932, while still a Communist, Arthur Koestler arrived as a literary pilgrim, having traveled the celebrated Georgian Military Highway, built by the tsars the better to subdue Caucasians. “I loved Tiflis [Tbilisi’s Russian name] more than any other town in the Soviet Union,” Koestler recalls in The Invisible Writing (1954), finding the city neither European nor Asiatic but a happy blend: “It has a carefree and leisurely rhythm of life which is Bohemian rather than Oriental; but its fastidious architecture and the courteous poise of its citizens make one constantly aware that it is the product of one of the oldest Christian civilizations”–sentiments that a host of visitors have endlessly echoed.

Yet Russian affection for Georgia was not reciprocated. Costlier everywhere encountered the silent hope that one day Russian rule would end. Discontent was not always passive. After a 1924 rebellion, Stalin vowed that “all of Georgia must be plowed under,” and in the great purges of 1935-38, he liquidated nearly the entire party leadership, his executioner being the Mingrelian Lavrenti Beria, later head of the secret police. Costlier sensed the potential for a bloodletting when he took part in a Bolshevik ceremony at the National Opera House. He noticed that all the participants shunned Russian, and spoke only in Georgian. When the visitor apologized to his neighbor, an elderly poet, for speaking in Russian, the poet whispered back, “Your Russian is so awful they’ll like it.”

Given this history, this thirst for independence, many felt Georgia would flower on attaining that prize in 1991. It was blessed with agricultural bounty and hydroelectric potential; with a network of roads and rail, a pivotal location, and an educated citizenry: Georgian institutes for mathematics and physics were deemed world class. Unhappily, these advantages all but evaporated as South Ossetians, with Russian connivance, rebelled for separate statehood, followed by a similar eruption among Abkhazians, displacing hundreds of thousands. Yet Moscow was not responsible for the eccentric extremism of Georgia’s first elected president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, a messianic nationalist who jailed his critics, proposed a blood test for Georgian citizenship, and claimed the long lost Holy Grail lay hidden in Tbilisi’s cathedral. He likened the Kremlin to Satan and faulted the West as spineless while failing to condemn the abortive August 1991 coup against Mikhail Gorbachev. Eight months into his presidency, his army collapsing as street fighting paralyzed his capital, Gamsakhurdia fled Tbilisi and died in disputed circumstances.

Hence the relief in 1992 when Eduard Shevardnadze returned to Georgia and became chairman of the State Council. Liked and respected in the West as the soft-spoken foreign minister who negotiated the peaceful Soviet withdrawal from Central and Eastern Europe, Shevardnadze had formerly served as Georgia’s party chief; he knew the local terrain, and its ravines. He brokered cease-fires, sought to mollify Moscow while he wooed the West, and struck deals with Tbilisi’s warlords. He was elected president in 1995, and reelected last year. Yet for all his intelligence and courage–he has survived two assassination attempts–Shevardnadze presides over “a failing state” in the empathetic judgment of Anatol Lieven, an astute analyst of the post-Soviet world.


Looking Down the Highway
Take the simple matter of statistics. A visitor discovers that nobody knows for sure Georgia’s population (estimates range from 3 to 5.3 million), since no census has been taken since Soviet times, nor can anyone say with authority how many Georgians work abroad and send remittances home. As nebulous is the size of Georgia’s vast black or underground economy, which enables some Georgians to buy Mercedes sedans in a country where pensioners subsist on $15 a month. Apparent to all is an energy crisis that resulted in dark and freezing homes during an unseasonably cold winter, the result of managerial incompetence and Russia’s cutoff of natural gas to punish Georgia for an unpaid bill of $179 million. Symptoms of distress are everywhere apparent, in tales of householders who lament rising street crime, in taxi drivers who were formerly physicists and agronomists, in Tbilisi’s unkempt houses and canyon-sized potholes, and in highway police who brazenly flag down motorists to exact fines for spurious infractions. More ominous was a brief mutiny in June by an army unit garrisoned near the capital as Georgia began observances marking ten years of independence. They reportedly had not been paid in 14 months.

All this has happened despite roughly $1 billion in U.S. economic aid during the last decade, making Georgia the third or fourth highest per capita recipient (depending on how one calculates) behind Israel, Egypt, and Armenia. Corruption is pandemic. “We live in a country without receipts,” says a onetime scientist now working for an American non-governmental organization. “That’s half true,” comments an AID official, “you can get receipts, phony ones, for any amount you specify.” Graft comes in all sizes. This American passenger on a bus originating in Turkey had to pay three U.S. dollars as a ©computer feeª at a frontier post lacking a visible computer.

It is a commonplace that corruption has cultural roots. As remarked by David Usupashili, a U.S. educated lawyer who chaired Georgia’s anti-corruption commission: “People were utterly cynical about Communist laws and rules, but unfortunately that fed a nihilistic mentality in which under independence they still do not respect any laws or rules at all…. Corruption is a way of life. People don’t believe that the state will ever provide services or enforce the law, so they don’t pay taxes. There are only two ways to survive here. To become financially strong yourself, or to place yourself under the protection of someone who is stronger. But there is no way to be a citizen, there is only a kind of feudalism: in politics, government, and business.” Or in the graphic words of a U.S. official: “In the old days, Georgians became experts at stealing silver. But now, guess what? Georgians own the silverware, and the stealing continues.” Skeptics question the seriousness of the government’s ongoing anti-corruption drive since the president himself sets a dubious example by awarding plum jobs to relatives. Moreover, in investigating corruption, the investigators themselves gather evidence they can use to obtain favors. Cynics note that two hundred law schools have sprung up in Georgia, part of their attraction being possible training in circumventing the law.

Seen from a wider perspective, the struggle for independence turned contempt for authority into a secular religion in the Caucasus. In Azerbaijan, another reborn country groping with post-Communist realities, the traditional mentality is traced to the eleventh century by the Azeri scholar Hikmet Hadjy-Zadeh. Here is his paraphrase of the code implicit in a national epic, The Book of My Grandfather Korkut: “Winner takes all, valor over profit; defeat is worse than death; request of help is disgracing; thrift is stinginess and prudence is cowardice.” These are not traits the World Bank tries to encourage, or reward.

In Georgia, the young Josif Djugashvili took a passionate interest in romantic tales of the resistance to Russia by mountain clans, especially a novel called The Patricide by Alexander Kazbegi, about a Caucasian Robin Hood named Koba who defended the poor, scorned Cossacks, and slaughtered traitors. Thenceforth, until young Josif struck upon the name Stalin 20 years later, he insisted on being called Koba. “Koba had become his god,” recalled a fellow seminarian. When reinforced by religious zealotry associated with Eastern Orthodoxy (as described elsewhere in this journal by Whit Mason), one better understands the deviousness and absolutism that subsequently enabled Stalin to acquire supreme power, outwitting his better educated and more worldly Bolshevik rivals.

The absolutism persists. In early May, adherents of Georgia’s Orthodox Church, armed with nail-studded clubs, broke up a meeting of Jehovah’s Witnesses, while police, according to human rights groups, looked the other way. This was one of scores of raids, some inspired by a defrocked Georgian Orthodox priest, Basil Mkalavishvili, who in March with his supporters halted a truck carrying Baptist literature. All books were burned in full view of police, according to press reports. To believers, the Georgian church is synonymous with nationhood, making all other religions subversive and alien intrusions.

Still, it needs stressing that these codes have lost their grip among many in a postcommunist generation, now poised for a bid for leadership. “If we can hang on for another ten or fifteen years,” says Zaza Gachechiladze, a magazine and newspaper publisher, “the old guys, bred on the Soviet system, will finally give way to a new generation.” What is heartening and remarkable is that all the gloomy news recounted above is freely ventilated in the Georgian press. A recent issue of Profile, Gachechiladze’s English-language bimonthly, features “Who Comes After Him?” by Ghia Nodia, offering five scenarios of succession for the post-Shevardnadze era, ranging from the disorderly and dynastic to democratic. There is hardly a more taboo subject than succession in authoritarian states, and it is a sign of health that Georgians animatedly talk about what should and could happen when the 73-year old president steps aside (his term ends in four years).

The Western help given to promote civil society has born fruit in fearless self-scrutiny and vigorous debate, the precondition for democratic change. Long term, given Georgia’s impressive human resources, it is a good bet that this tough and likable people can overcome the malign legacy of imperialism past. Continued economic aid, and stringent bookkeeping, can be reasonably justified. Certainly there are worse bets, and bigger icebergs, in the postcommunist world.l

Karl E. Meyer


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