Ashley Sytsma, Rick's publicist, is a guest writer this week. She's reporting on her travels to Georgia (the one over by Russia).
Across the river from Tbilisi's Old Town sits Georgia's new Presidential Palace. Blending classical columns with a modern glass dome, it's a graceful addition to the city's many other charms. Intrigued, my husband and I decided to get a closer look. Maybe there'd be a tour!
We started our short trek to the palace in below-freezing, windy conditions. Walking arm-in-arm, scarves cinched tight and faces pointed down, we were so focused on staying warm that we didn't notice it at first. But we were being watched...closely.
It's become a habit of mine to make eye contact and give a courteous smile and nod to police officers. No matter the country, I tend to get a smile back. There was no reason to suspect that this time would be different.
We passed a particularly surly-looking officer. I smiled and nodded. He frowned and gave me a thorough look up and down. I thought, "Strange. What's his problem?"
Within seconds, another officer appeared. Same response.
Moments later, I was startled by an officer standing in a concealed doorway. Same response.
A man in a black leather jacket brushed past us before zipping over to an officer. They whispered and pointed in our direction. We were the only pedestrians. There were no cars. We were alone.
My husband grumbled, "Keep your head down. Don't take your hands out of your pockets, and keep moving." He, too, was uncomfortable with our friends.
As we approached the palace, more police seemed to spring out of nowhere, one startling us every few yards or so. They smoked cigarettes, rested their hands on their guns, and silently watched us walk down the street. The security cameras turned in our direction.
As we approached the front gate, the officers seemed to take two steps toward us. I made eye contact with the closest one. I pointed at myself and at the gate. With one slow affirmative nod, he allowed us to approach.
Trying to keep it light, we said things like, "How pretty it is! What a nice view!"-- all the while thinking: "I wonder if our embassy would know if we disappeared?"
Obviously, they did not give tours.
Later that day, I was troubled. Our experience just didn't jibe with the extremely warm reception we'd received everywhere else in Georgia -- police included. To gain a bit of perspective, I recounted the experience to our Harvard-educated Georgian friend, Levan.
"Gosh, Levan. Are you living in a totalitarian state or something?"
He shrugged, "It's the president." He then proceeded to give me some context:
In 1992, shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union, Georgia declared its independence despite being more than a little unprepared. Under communist rule, the state had owned everything. When the Soviets left, a power vacuum mixed with tons of unclaimed resources to create one huge mess. "Owners" become whoever had the meanest gang and carried the biggest shotgun. And the biggest, best-armed gang of them all was...the police. A decade of civil war, banditry, and a collapse of civil society followed. As Levan solemnly told us, "It was bad. Really, really bad."
Police station made of glass
Happily, those dark days are behind Georgia. For example, every policy station -- even tiny, rural outposts -- has glass walls. My husband and I made a game out of waving at the workers and betting on how many would wave back. Levan explained that after all the years of corruption, the glass represented a new, open, and honest force.
Many attribute this and other positive changes to Georgia's democratically elected president, Mikheil Saakashvili. In 2003, he led thousands of citizens to the Parliament -- all of them carrying roses -- to demand the resignation of a particularly corrupt president. It worked, and this peaceful movement is now lovingly called The Rose Revolution.
Georgia's Parliament Building: Home to the Rose Revolution
Saakashvili is, as one friend called it, "radically Western-focused." Despite sitting at the easternmost fringe of Europe, Saakashvili's Georgia is, by decree, purely and completely European. Billboards throughout the city proclaim (in English), "Our foreign policy priority is the integration into NATO." Although the country is not a card-carrying EU member, the European Union flag flies as high as the Georgian flag at the Parliament Building.
These policies have won the president many friends...and many enemies. Now add in the complication of a recent violent crackdown on protesters and rumors of high-end corruption. Assassination is a real threat, Levan explained. Perhaps the police around the Presidential Palace are necessary.
I heard myself utter what has become my favorite travel phrase: "Huh. I never thought of it that way."
Georgia's "radical" foreign policy
I still don't know what to think about our less-than-friendly reception at the Presidential Palace. Was it a bullying show of intimidation to a couple of innocent tourists? Or was it a necessary evil for a government trying to build a country out of a very dark past? Was it national security or a police state? I don't know. I'm just glad that Levan was there to give me some perspective. These are complex issues, and it doesn't help anyone for me to pass judgment based on fear.