GEORGIA ON MY MIND
On this day sixty years ago, - 14th November 1960, ‘Georgia on my mind’ by the legendary Ray Charles, went to the number one spot in the US charts. The great soul music pioneer was, of course, singing about his native Georgia in America, a state which has played a pivotal role in recent days in the election of Joe Biden. But the anniversary of Ray Charles’ hit is a timely reminder that we should also remember the other Georgia, the former Soviet State that sits right on the crossroads that separates Europe from Asia.
Georgians went to the polls on 31st October to elect a new parliament, with the ruling Georgian Dream party winning a resounding victory (48%), over the largest opposition party, the United National Movement (UNM) (27%). Several other opposition parties managed to clear the 1% threshold for membership in parliament. Inevitably the UNM claimed that the elections were rigged and promised to hold protests until a new election is called. Despite opposition complaints, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) said on Sunday that the election had been competitive and fundamental freedoms had generally been respected.
The ruling party - founded by Georgia’s richest man, the philanthropist Bidzina Ivanishvili - said it had received enough votes in the heavily contested election to form a single-party government in the Eastern European country. But Georgia has been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic, with their economy set to shrink by 4% this year. Critics of Ivanishvili claim that he uses his vast wealth to run the country of 3.7 million from behind the scenes, as he holds no formal position in government. Although pro-Western and keen to join the EU, Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream party also wishes to improve relations with Russia.
The main opposition, the UNM, was originally founded by Mikheil Saakashvili, the enfant terrible of Georgian politics. Saakashvili, a former president of Georgia, was stripped of his Georgian citizenship by his arch nemesis, Ivanishvili. Saakashvili fled to Ukraine and in 2018 was sentenced to 3 years imprisonment in absentia by Tbilisi City Court, for crimes which he claims are bogus and politically motivated. Saakashvili has called for a "massive mobilisation" of the Georgian opposition parties, urging supporters to take to the streets to protest the election results. It is highly unlikely that Saakashvili will manage to provoke a new ‘rose revolution,’ like the one he led in November 2003, which ousted the former Soviet leader Eduard Shevardnadze and ultimately installed Saakashvili in his place.
Political upheaval is nothing new to Georgia. It is a country steeped in history. For centuries it has been a battleground, as invaders from some of the world’s greatest empires, Roman, Mongol, Byzantine, Persian, Ottoman and Russian, have vied to subjugate the Georgian people. Even Jason and the Argonauts travelled there in 2,000 BC in search of the legendary Golden Fleece. It is a miracle that Georgians have not only survived, but have retained their own unique identity and ancient cultural heritage, famed for their hospitality and cuisine.
Since emerging from the collapsing Soviet Union in 1991, Georgia has increasingly looked westwards for its future, exacerbating tensions with its biggest neighbour, Russia, which strongly opposes Georgian aspirations to join the EU and NATO and fears increased US economic and political influence in the country. Georgia’s current crop of politicians are ready to face this challenge from their aggressive neighbour. They are predominantly young, highly educated, competent, articulate and multi-lingual. From all sides of the political spectrum there is a prevailing sense of optimism; a feeling that Georgia has a great future and that they are determined to make it happen.
With Saakashvili in permanent exile, there is now huge support for a new direction in the shape of EU integration. Opinion polls repeatedly show public backing of over 80% and Georgia is considered to be the ‘front-runner’ in the long list of Balkan and Trans-Caucasian countries vying to join the EU and NATO. The EU has reciprocated by spending a generous €120 million annually in Georgia. Nevertheless, 50% of the Georgian economy still relies of agriculture and there is a huge disparity between the per capita GDP of £15,000 per year in the capital Tbilisi, and the paltry £1,500 in most rural areas. Serious efforts have been made to tackle poverty and corruption and there is a clear understanding among all of the political parties that rural, agricultural poverty will have to be confronted.
Determined, as always, to throw a spanner in the works, Vladimir Putin, the modern-day Tsar, has effectively annexed more than 20% of Georgian territory, which is now illegally occupied under the tutelage of Russia. The regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, both scenes of violent separatist conflicts which left thousands dead and tens of thousands homeless in August 2008, are virtual no-go areas. Putin allows limited visits to Abkhazia by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), but South Ossetia has become a Russian military camp and the ill-defined demarcation lines established by the Russians are blockaded with tangled razor wire, guarded by military watchtowers. This illegal ‘border’ slices through villages, fields and gardens. Georgians attempting to cross the wire to visit friends and family or even to attend weddings and funerals, are regularly arrested, taken to court and fined. The UK Foreign Office warns British travelers not to go near Abkhazia or South Ossetia. Hundreds of thousands were forced to flee during the 2008 war. Abkhazia formerly had a population of 560,000. It has shrunk to 160,000.
The re-elected Georgia Dream party will have a major challenge on its hands to resolve its conflict with Russia and negotiate a successful bid to join the EU and NATO. For those who venture out of Tbilisi, the deep green valleys, towering mountains, sprawling vineyards, ancient churches and watchtowers perched precariously on the edge of cliffs, make this country a dream destination, as the governing party’s name suggests. Georgia's countryside is covered with age-old towered fortifications, monasteries and UNESCO World Heritage Sites, which have survived through the ages and through great adversities. For a small country with a population of under 4 million, Georgia looks well placed to fill the EU vacancy left by Britain.