Georgia: Small Country, Big Problems. That’s one of the first things a person said to me when I entered Georgia from Azerbaijan some days ago.
The roots of the current crisis there go back centuries, and nobody really knows the whole truth, but basically, as I understand it, Abkhazians and Ossetians are both distinct ethnic groups with a long history of tense relations with Georgians. Both groups claim that they were folded into the Soviet Republic of Georgia against their will by Stalin (himself an ethnic Georgian), who also ordered Georgian settlers to flood into their territories. Abkhazia and Ossetia argue that their citizens were Soviet citizens, never Georgians, and therefore they had a right to declare independence as the Soviet Union was collapsing. Tbilisi’s reaction was to suppress both rebellions with military force.
When the USSR broke up in 1991, Georgia won its independence and was admitted to the United Nations as a sovereign state within its Soviet-era borders. Under international law, therefore, the breakaway territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia belong to Georgia. Tbilisi alleges, with considerable evidence, that Russian meddling during the bitter civil wars that followed helped the two statelets win their de facto independence and that Moscow’s support has been crucial to keeping them going ever since.
In 2003, the pro-democracy “Rose Revolution” brought Saakashvili to power on pledges to reunite the country and join NATO. Georgia claims that Russia backed the Ossetian and Abkhazian rebels in order to keep Georgia weak and dependent upon Moscow.
After Saakashvili was elected, Russia began upgrading its relations with the two rebel statelets and issued Russian passports to the majority of its citizens – in preparation, Tbilisi says, for a showdown. It contends that this year, as NATO considered Georgia’s application for entry, the Russian Army – which roared into South Ossetia to blunt the Georgian assault – massed provocatively near Georgia’s border.
Whatever the reason, the current conflict began with a massive military assault, launched overnight by Georgia on Aug. 7-8, aimed at retaking South Ossetia and protecting the ethnic Georgians there. In the process, according to Moscow, 15 Russian peacekeeping troops were killed.
Many Russians bristle defensively in the face of Western accusations of “aggression” against Georgia, maintaining that the Kremlin was left with few choices when the Georgians began bombarding Tskhinvali – the capital of South Ossetia, where 9 in 10 residents carry a Russian passport.
The UN refugee agency says more than 150,000 have been displaced by fighting in Georgia, including 30,000 in South Ossetia.
So, this is yet another depressing story of people killing each other, with no end in sight. Perhaps my cousin Ben Kilpela is right when he says wars are inevitable. I suppose as long as humans fail to work out their differences we will have groups of people fighting each other. But as usual, its the poor civilians who bear the brunt of it. The politicians and military leaders who start the wars rarely suffer.
Let’s move on to something more uplifting, like some photos.
Georgians have a reputation for hospitality, which I soon discovered. I was in the country barely two hours when I stopped in a small town for a quick lunch in a cafe. At the next table there was a group of men eating and drinking. In no time one appeared at my table with some food and a glass of cognac. There was toasting all around and in short order I was invited to their table where we ate and drank for about two hours. They kept refilling my glass with cognac and making toasts to family, friends, world peace, football, and a number of other topics. I finally managed to escape and ride away, more than a little tipsy. Welcome to Georgia.
Here are the guys, toasting yet again with a glass of cognac.
My first stop was the hillside town of Sighnaghi, in Georgia’s wine making region. They make some excellent wines in Georgia. Here are a few shots from that town.
On the way to the capital Tbilisi I passed many people like this woman selling fruits, nuts and vegetables by the side of the road.
Narrowly avoiding getting squashed by trucks and buses, I fought my way into Tbilisi. I stayed in a guesthouse rather than a hotel in order to save some cash. Hotels are relatively expensive in Tbilisi–over $100 per night. My guesthouse room was only about $20 per night. It was also a great place to meet other travellers.
There are many old orthodox Christian churches in Georgia. I stopped in one and there was a wedding ceremony going on. But you could wander around and do your own thing; there are no chairs or benches in the church. Here is the wedding party.
A woman lighting a candle.
The church from the outside.
Kids playing in the old part of town.
Typical Georgian women. Women frequently walk arm in arm like this, or holding hands. It is not uncommon to see men arm in arm also.
The river that runs through Tbilisi. It is an attractive place, but clogged with traffic.
Another fine church in Tbilisi
An interesting staute. I also liked the colors of the balconies behind it.
A street vendor selling knives and wine glasses made from animal horns.
I got lost on the metro (the signs are only in Georgian, which has its own unique alphabet). This young girl spoke fluent German and English and she helped me find my way. I took the photo without a flash on a moving subway car which is why it’s a little blurry, but I like the effect.