In my recent visit to Georgia, I learned a local folktale: After God has distributed the entire earth to various nations and tribes, the Georgians, waking up late after nocturnal drinking, supplicated God for their portion of the earth. Having nothing left to give, God bestowed on the Georgians a piece of land God has reserved for Himself. Gorgeous Georgia, a land of over two thousand rivers, straddles between the upper and lower Caucasus mountain ranges. Tbilisi, Georgia's capital, sat on the historic silk route, called the "internet of antiquity," connecting Asia to Europe. Practicing Orthodox Christianity, Georgia is located in the Muslim neighborhood. The cities that encircle Georgia are Grozny, Baku, Tehran, Baghdad, Damascus, and Ankara (inviting Georgian storytellers to improvise why God chose to live among Muslims). Though physically situated in the Muslim neighborhood, many Georgians seek communion with Western Europe, particularly Germany. This seeking is frustrating because the Black Sea, Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine, and other nations are blocking the view and the way. Pre-owned German cars and the German Civil Code furnish mobility and legality in Georgia, but Munich, Frankfurt, Berlin, and Hamburg are still far away, physically and culturally. For now, the Germans seem to have little interest in Georgia except for some German tourists interested in philosophizing over the ruins of Tbilisi.
By all counts, Georgia is a wounded nation. Over the centuries, the Georgians have been invaded, occupied, looted, and killed by the Arabs, Persians, Mongols, and Russians. At present, however, memories of the Russian hegemony are the most hurtful. Wary of Muslim invasions, Georgia sought Russian patronage in the eighteenth century. Seeking protection turned into an unending nightmare because the Russians occupied Georgia as a natural buffer for its own benefit against the Turks and Persians. Later, the Soviet Union brought Godlessness, vodka, paranoia, political repression, and ugly buildings, to assault Georgian sensibilities. Stalin, born and raised in Georgia, was so thoroughly polluted in his soul that the Georgians can no longer own him proudly. Ironically, the Russian intellectuals blame the Georgian culture and its customary male roughness for producing demonic Stalin.
In 2008, Georgia suffered the most intolerable wound when Russia cut and separated two regions, Abkhazia (the most beautiful land in the Georgian folklore) and South Ossetia, from the historic Georgian mainland. The Georgians wail over geographical amputation and desperately seek the lost lands, something Russia will not allow. Worse, Abkhazia and South Ossetia are gaining international recognition as independent states. Many Georgians still hope that America can magically bring back the lost lands to Georgia. Then, as a bargain, Georgia can offer a strategic geopolitical spot for the U.S. to watch over both Russia and the Middle East.
In 2005, President George Bush visited Georgia to celebrate Georgia's emerging democracy and its quest for West. The 2008 Russo-Georgian conflict over Abkhazia and South Ossetia tested Bush's commitment to Georgia. However, the Bush administration, bogged down in the fruitless invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, was unable to offer any concrete assistance to help Georgia against Russia. In addition to comforting rhetoric, the Bush administration allocated some monies (with strings attached) as a token of support. The USAID employed some funds to modernize Georgian business and legal education.
Very few American companies, however, have shown interest in Georgia. Wars with Russia, small population, and domestic political wrangling frighten American companies from investing in Georgia. The Obama administration has almost abandoned Georgia, primarily to "reset" U.S. relations with Russia. In 2011, the Obama administration coerced Georgia to vote for Russia's membership in the World Trade Organization, where a unanimous vote is required for enrolling a new member. The Georgian government was holding out to pressure Russia to return Abkhazia and South Ossetia to Georgia. (For various reasons, the Georgians prefer Republicans over Democrats and have already named a Tbilisi highway after George W. Bush.) Many Americans, only if they knew the story, would like to help the little nation against the Goliath in the neighborhood but right now Georgia is not on their mind.
Even though the Georgian soul yearns to be part of Western Europe, Georgia is physically located in the Muslim neighborhood. Muslims are the largest minority even within Georgia. Unlike Armenia, Georgia enjoys peaceful and prosperous relations with Azerbaijan in the East, and Turkey and Iran in the South. The Georgians need visas (which may be denied) to visit Western Europe but can freely come and go to Muslim countries in the neighborhood. The economies of Azerbaijan and Georgia are interlocked. Georgia gets cheap oil directly from Azerbaijan and indirectly from Iran. The Muslim population in Eastern Georgia provides natural contiguity to the Muslim population across the border in Azerbaijan; the population of Western Georgia can find common economic and even cultural ties with Muslim communities across the border in Turkey.
Turkey is the largest trading partner of Georgia. In the West, the Batumi airport is jointly operated by Georgia and Turkey. The crude oil and natural gas pipelines originating from Azerbaijan and leading to Turkey pass through Georgia, benefitting all three states. A new railroad link will join Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey. Fortunately, the European Union and the United States support the trilateral cooperation. Though miffed, Russia tolerates the deepening Georgian ties with its Muslim neighbors. Such is the irony of history that the Georgians submitted to Russia to take refuge from the invading Muslims and now they are trading with the Muslims to forge a better life.
Author in the Tbilisi mosque
Of all the neighbors, Georgia's most intriguing relationship is with Iran. No longer do the Arabs have any major interest in modern Georgia even though they ruled Tbilisi for more than three hundred years soon after the Prophet's death. Iran, on the other hand, continues to exercise the most indelible impact on the Georgian culture, architecture, and language. Though written in a unique script, many Georgian words are phonetically derived from Persian and other silk route languages. Long before Christianity, Persia brought Zoroastrianism to Georgia, a religion that influenced the Georgian Orthodox Church. The educated Georgians have a soft spot for the Iranian culture (and carpets) even though they have no use for the Iranian political theocracy. Recently, the Georgian legislature passed a law to allow the Iranians to visit Georgia without a visa but had to revoke the law under the U.S. pressure. Georgia, a nation of poets, is naturally drawn to Iran, a nation of poets as well.
Shota Rustaveli (d. 1216), who wrote the Georgian national epic The Knight in the Panther's Skin, recognized the value of nations in the Georgian neighborhood. He sets the epic not in Georgia, Russia, or Western Europe but in fictionalized Arabia, Persia, and India. (I have been pressing Georgians to explain why Georgian laws let cows freely roam on the roads compromising traffic safety but they see no connection with a similar custom in India.) Rustaveli freely borrowed from Persian poetry, a fact that many Georgians may not know. He himself boasted composing his epic in the Persian style. It is no coincidence that the famous Iranian poet, Ferdowsi (d. 1020), in his epic Shahnameh, presents a powerful knight "proudly garbed in leopard's skin." Rustaveli was not plagiarizing the style or substance of a Persian classic but simply making a poetic effort at finding durable connections with the silk route pilgrims, nomads, and traders bringing silk, spices, stories, poems, jokes, ideas, know-how, mysticism, and knowledge to Tbilisi.
The Georgians wish to be part of Western Europe and dream of joining the European Union. But they must never forget that Georgia lies next to Russia and is located primarily in the Muslim neighborhood. With a brutal history of invasions and occupations, the Georgians rightfully seek freedom and national independence. They courted Russia to escape from the Muslims and now they are courting Western Europe and the U.S. to escape from the Russians. Escaping may not work. Distant courtships can be romantic but good relations with (even boring and dangerous) people in close proximity can be highly beneficial. Georgia cannot afford antagonism with Russia and hopes in vain the U.S. would countervail Russia. The U.S. can certainly help Georgia in learning the skills of economic development. But for all nations, including Georgia, the neighborhood is the first reality. This is true even in a shrinking world. While the Georgians dream of a beautiful tomorrow, they might practice waking up a bit earlier without a hangover to fully benefit from daylight savings in God's enclave.