David Mdzinarishvili / Reuters
There is an old Georgian drinking custom that catches the flavour of this small Caucasus mountain republic rather nicely. It is part of the tradition of the Georgian table known as Supra. As the glasses are filled, each participant (largely but not always men) must stand and give an extended and flowery toast. Glasses must then be drained. Not only does this lead to the expected drunkenness but also to a larger-than-life sense of this land of poets and pirates.
In the dreariest days of Soviet dictatorship everyone envied the Georgians. It wasn’t just their mild Black Sea climate where you could drive from orange orchards to ski hills in no time. But the Georgians just seemed to enjoy life more – the food was better, the rules were looser, the arts were livelier. It led to a still-lingering resentment and the Moscow stereotype of Georgians as a country of chancers and crooks who just couldn’t be trusted. Joseph Stalin was a Georgian. So was Eduard Shevardnadze, the Soviet foreign minister who helped undo the Stalinist system.
Georgia has a venerable history stretching back to before 327, when King Marian the Third established Christianity as the official state religion – one of the first countries to do so. Georgia has ever since this time regarded itself as an eastern outpost of European civilization and religion – a bulwark against insurgent Islam. In the Middle Ages the country saw a renaissance that pre-dated that in Europe – a flowering of poetry, philosophy and religious tolerance. Still, geography was no friend to Georgia, as it was continually divided between the Persian, Ottoman and Russian empires. To retain a sense of national identity in such circumstances was no small feat.
The space opened up by the Russian Revolution led to the first modern declaration of independence but this was brought to an abrupt close by the invasion of the Red Army in 1921. Georgia remained a restive part of the Soviet Union with nationalist feeling mounting, especially from the 1960s on. When the Soviet experiment started to unravel in 1989, Russian troops violently suppressed a pro-independence demonstration, killing several protesters. All the same, like the rest of the Soviet empire, Georgia moved quickly to independence, although a troubled relationship with its giant northern neighbour has continued to plague the republic.
The country has since experienced a series of ‘elected’ Presidencies – the nationalist dissident Zviad Gamsakhurdia, the aforementioned Shevardnadze and Mikheil Saakashvili, who led the popular Rose Revolution of 2003. The Rose Revolution aroused great hopes among Georgian democrats that corrupt despotic rule based on clans and notable families would be put to rest. But, despite some reforms, the George Washington University-trained Saakashvili has shown many of the same autocratic habits and intolerance for opposition that marked his predecessors. He also exposed the country to a 2008 military clash (that it could not win) with Russia, which was supporting breakaway movements in the formerly Georgian regions of Abkhazia (on the Black Sea coast) and South Ossetia (a tiny mountain enclave bordering Russia).
But, for all their political problems, Georgians maintain an attractive way of life – with an internationally renowned cuisine, over 500 kinds of wine, a rich musical and literary tradition and a climatic diversity running from sub-tropical beaches to mountain glaciers. The economy (like most post-Soviet economies) underwent a collapse after communism but has since recovered somewhat with poverty rates now dropping, although personal income is small by European standards. Georgians have much to value if they can avoid the dangers of internal despotism and superpower manipulation.
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