Saturday, November 3, 2007

PART II – Geopolitics. Or: It’s a Russian World; We’re Vladimir-ly Living In It. Or: The Title Which Sacked The First Title Has Now Itself Been Sacked

IMPORTANT – PERHAPS UTTERLY AND UNEQUIVOCALLY CRITICAL – ANNOUNCEMENT: The views expressed in this blog entry, while created to be a completely impartial third-person historical and current account, may occasionally by accident or by joke stray into the realm of conjecture, opinion, or bias. This is unintentional and not to be taken as proof of any personal or official stance taken by me or by the United States Peace Corps. By the time you finish reading this important announcement, I may already have been fired for even WRITING about politics. So. There you have it.

This is an absolutely fascinating story that you know absolutely nothing about.(1) This is a story about a part of the world that has been fought over for thousands of years, but which is not even able to stake a claim to being part of one specific continent. This is a story about a proud people caught in exactly the wrong place(2) at exactly the wrong time.(3) This is a story about a vast geopolitical struggle, about oil, about a bridge between two continents, and about a mythical – and metaphorical – golden fleece. This is also a story about which I have done very little research. So, you know, keep that part in mind. I didn’t want to get away from myself.

This story is not only fascinating but important. Even to Americans, and even to Americans who don’t happen to live here. There’s a reason that there was a recent Newsweek cover story that was substantially about this country. There’s a reason that this country receives one of the highest amounts of per-capita aid in the world from the American government. And there’s a reason that Russia dropped a bomb on this country less than twenty miles from where I was, at the time, living.(4) And the reason is that, all pick-a-continent joking aside, Georgia bestrides TWO continents, and does so in a strategically integral place.(5) Even the Silk Road went through Georgia.

And back at least as far as the Silk Road we must go, to understand this place. Georgia has been continuously inhabited for thousands of years – since the Stone Age. The ancient Greeks knew of the people here, and had names for the kingdoms in the east and west of what is now Georgia. In the Greek myth of Jason and the Argonauts, the Golden Fleece was located in Georgia.(6) And, almost as long as it has been inhabited, it has been coveted by others. Some esimate that the capital city of Tbilisi has been destroyed 29 times in its history.(7) Welcome back. The Romans, Persians, Byzantines, and Arabs all conquered parts of Georgia before the end of the first millennium AD. After a brief period of peace spanning the 11th and 12th centuries, during which time the Georgian people experienced a cultural renaissance that included grand cathedrals, great literature, and epic poetry, they were sacked again, this time by the Mongols. For the next 700 years, Georgia would again suffer repeated and constant invasion by the Persians and the Turks, until they eventually signed a protection agreement with the Russian Empire in 1783. In 1795, the Russians were busy(8), so they did nothing as the Persians sacked Tbilisi again. Five years later, finished in Turkmenistan, the Russians decided to get them some of that hot action, and annexed Georgia into their empire. Just over 100 years after that, Georgia took the opportunity of the Russian Civil War to declare independence, only to be re-sacked by the Red Army in 1921 and consolidated into the Soviet Union, whence it remained until 1991.(9)

Why all the fuss? Well, not only is Georgia situated between two big areas that are perpetually embroiled in some sort of conflict (Russia to the north, the Middle East to the south), but it’s also situated betwixt two big, important bodies of water (the Black and Caspian Seas). Taking into account the large, difficult-to-traverse mountain ranges to the north and south, Georgia can be seen as quite an attractive land highway.(10) And this is why Georgia is such a metaphorical golden fleece today, geopolitically. Let me list for you a list of countries in a list that Georgia is quite close to. Iran. Russia. Iraq. Russia. Syria. Russia. Turkey. Russia. Russia. Russia. And that’s not even mentioning Armenia, which as we all know was a founding member of the Axis of Wait Where Is That.

Obviously, for Georgians, the most important neighbor – culturally, linguistically, economically, politically, and any other –ly that you could think of – is Russia. Most adults in this country either speak or understand Russian, even though Georgia was somewhat of a Favored Socialist Republic during Soviet times and got to retain Georgian as its national language.(11) And, until last year, Russia was by far the largest importer of Georgian goods. I say “until last year” because Russia has closed its borders to Georgian wine, fruits, vegetables, and mineral water.(12) See, now we’re getting to the good stuff. This current conflict might be too big to grasp fully, so let’s put it in more personal relationship terms, so you can relate to it better:

Vladimir Putin: “What are you doing?”
Mikhael Saakashvili: “Nothing.”
Vladimir: “Who was that who you were just talking to on the phone?”
Mikhael: “Nobody.”
Vladimir: “It was America, wasn’t it? Wasn’t it?!?! [stream of expletives]”
Mikhael: “No…It wasn’t.”
Vladimir: “Who was it then?”
Mikhael: “[long pause] NATO.”
Vladimir: “How many [expletive] times do I have to tell you that I don’t want you [expletive] talking to [expletive] NATO?”
Vladimir breaks a plate with his fist, just to show that he can.
Mikhael: “What’s the big deal? America and NATO make me feel good about myself. They give me money for my military and they tell me I can be a big, beautiful democracy.”
Vladimir: “Why do you need a military? I have a military! I have 11,000 nuclear weapons! We used to be such a team! I’m the big dog! I’m the big [expletive] dog!”
Mikhael: “Look, all I have to do is be a part of the Coalition of the Willing and also build an oil pipeline through my country from Azerbaijan that will help Europe lessen the power you wield over it due to your vast energy resources. I don’t see what the big deal is.”
Vladimir: “You’re building a mother[expletive] pipeline? You’re building a mother[expletive] pipeline?! You’re either with me, or with him! That’s it! I’m the big dog now! I don’t have to deal with this! I will no longer import your wine! Take that, [expletive]! Also, I will wrap the fist of my natural gas and oil supply around the balls of your energy dependence!(13) Also, I didn’t want to tell you this way, but I’ve been seeing Turkmenistan on the side! There! So now that’s on the table! Are you happy now?”
Vladimir throws a heavy flower pot at Mikhael, but it fails to do any damage.(14)

So. Russia is positioning itself, if Putin’s current rhetoric is to be taken at face value, as a new (old?) foil to the Western world. As the recent Newsweek cover article described in detail (it was from late June or July, I think, if you’re interested), much of the old Soviet Bloc is now finding itself being pressured from several directions to pick a side. Some countries are aligning with Russia, and some – like Georgia and fellow “color revolution” nation Ukraine – are picking the West. Georgia’s greatest international ambition, at the moment, is to join NATO. It’s several years from doing this, but it is taking the necessary steps.(15) President Saakashvili welcomed George W. Bush here in 2003.(16) A couple of weeks ago, Saakashvili addressed the United Nations and vowed not to be bullied by Russia. So Georgia is pretty in bed with the West.(17) Russia, in turn, has turned the screws on an economic embargo, has inflamed tensions in the two breakaway regions of Georgia(18), and has dropped a literal bomb in South Ossetia, one of the aforementioned breakaway regions.

The issue is not likely to be resolved anytime soon. Russia and the west are gearing up for God Knows What, and Georgia is smack in the middle not only of the basic Cold War Redux posturing, but also of the in-progress oil pipeline from Azerbaijan that will allow the West to dramatically reduce its dependence on Russian energy supplies. Not to mention the fact that Georgia is dramatically close to the Middle East, and thus an important ally for the West if the plan is to systematically invade every country therein.(19) Not to mention, everyone here makes their own wine and will give it to foreigners for free.

So it’s a pretty desirable location, and a pretty important place, and it has been for thousands of years. The most impressive thing about it all is that, through all the sackings and the takeovers and the “no, it’s mine” “no, it’s mine”s, the Georgian people have remained remarkably stable. They know what is going on, just like their forefathers knew what was going on in their time, and yet they keep on harvesting their fruits, and they keep on making their wine, and they keep on dancing their dances(20), and they keep on inviting foreigners in for a drink, even though those foreigners have a nasty habit of sacking them, and somehow over the millennia this culture has remained something of its own, and not a mash-up of Turkish and Persian and Russian sensibilities. This is its own place, and the people here are very proud of that. And you have to respect them even more because of it. They’ll be watching just as closely as you will(21), to see whether the East or the West blinks first.

(1)That is, unless you are way smarter than I am. Which I sort of doubt. I mean, look at you.
(2)Or, depending I suppose on your perspective, exactly the right place.
(3)That time being most of the last millennium as well as this one.
(4)Not like dropped an F-bomb or made a shocking announcement or had a really disgusting bowel movement – a Russian jet dropped a literal bomb literally miles from where I was. Although in Russia’s defense, they said, “Nu-uh, we didn’t do it, we were in Turkmenistan last Wednesday. Ask anyone.” But they are lying. Nevertheless, you probably heard nothing about this, since it was only in the sidebar of for about a day, and Georgia was only identified as a “former Soviet republic.” The bomb did not, technically, explode or do any damage, unless someone happened to be standing under it. And I remain unclear as to what the intended purpose of this ordnance was, past mere muscle-flexing. If it was indeed mere muscle-flexing, there are probably better ways to announce your re-emergence on the international scene than by dropping a bomb that doesn’t work.
(5)Seriously, though, pick a continent.
(6)I am wearing what you might call a semi-golden fleece right now, and I can see why they wanted one. It’s quite comfy. Roomy in all the right places. Doesn’t chafe. Quite pleasant to wear.
(7)I got that fact from the Peace Corps Georgia podcast, which I have linked to in the sidebar. Go subscribe to it now, in iTunes. I’ll wait right here. Well, not right here. I’ll wait back up in the story.
(8)Probably in Turkmenistan.
(9)The history of Georgia is like a fat kid on roller skates, if gravity is the inexorable march of time and the floor is the Turks, Ottoman, Persians, Byzantines, Arabs, Russians, and Soviets. Juuuust when you think you’ve got your balance, you skate towards “Sunset Riders” to give your friend a high five and whoa whoa whoaaaaa dammit. Not that I’m comparing this fine nation to a fat kid, or to roller skates, or to things that shouldn’t be funny but are.
(10)The sort of highway where you can stop anywhere and ten people will ask you where you’re from and whether you wouldn’t like to join them at a big supra they’re headed to. Then you sack them.
(11)Also, did you know that Stalin was from here? I originally intended that question to have a mocking connotation, thinking that you must be some sort of grade A idiot if you didn’t, but then I just realized that perhaps you actually didn’t, because I really can’t remember if I’ve told you, and I have provided no context for my “Stalin Museum” photo album, which you can access from the sidebar. So, if you did not know this, a quick summary: Stalin spent his boyhood in Gori, the Georgian town where I trained for two months, before becoming a bit of a revolutionary and running off with the Bolsheviks. Gori is, thus, the only place on earth still proud of Stalin – “He was such a strong leader,” they say – and in case you don’t believe them when they say this, they built four or 37 statues of him around town. Also, there’s a museum, in front of which is a monument built around the home he spent his first four years in. Also, the park in which this museum lies is called “Stalin Park.” Also, the street alongside Stalin Park is called “Stalin Street.” Also, you can buy Stalin t-shirts in the gift shop. So I have, in fact, touched the bed Stalin slept on as a small boy, and I have been inside one of his personal Soviet train cars. But I did not buy a t-shirt.
(12)And then it closed its literal borders, as well. You are no longer allowed to enter Russia from Georgia. I have heard that airplanes get around this by flying to Armenia, Azerbaijan, or Ukraine, touch down for mere seconds, and then lift off again towards Russia, having satisfied the requirement that they not come "from" Tbilisi.
(13)What seems to be the biggest “petrol” company in Georgia – Lukoil – is, I believe, a Russian state-owned-or-close-to-it company. I don’t really know why, given everything else, they haven’t just increased the price of gas to one skrillion Georgian lari per liter.
(14)Later, asked about it, Vladimir claims to have been in Turkmenistan the whole time.
(15)These steps include beefing up your military. A lot. There are uniformed men all over this country. They’re building a huge new military base outside of Gori. And, naturally, when you are building an army and you’re trying to make nice with the West, you send that army to Iraq, where, I have heard but not confirmed, Georgia has deployed the largest per capita force in the Coalition. I have also heard but not confirmed that, once in Iraq, Georgian soldiers are used as minesweepers. I hope, for their sakes, that this is not true. Also, I don’t think I’ve noticed one piece of Iraq news on television or in a newspaper since I’ve been here. I might just not be noticing them, or they might not actually be very frequent. I will not speculate on a single reason why news reports of the war are less frequent than I’d think they would be, because if I did that I might as well just start packing my luggage now. I am probably just completely wrong about this.
(16)The road from the airport into Tbilisi is now called, and I am absolutely not making this up, “George W. Bush Avenue.”
(17)Or it would be, if that sort of thing happened in this country, which of course it doesn’t andIcan’tbelieveyou’deventhinksuchathing. Wonderfully, however, the adjective used to describe that-thing-nobody-does in Georgian is “tsisperi,” which means, “color of the sky.” At least, in Georgia, it’s only one color, and not the entire freaking rainbow.
(18)This issue will be addressed in a future Better Know A Georgia segment.
(19)Of course, because I work for the United States Government and must be apolitical, I cannot allow you to know whether I find this to be bad or good foreign policy. If you think you know, you’re wrong. So there. Just try to figure me out. Or, wait, don’t.
(20)Shame on you if you are not going to see the Georgian National Dance Troupe during its American tour, by the way. My parents did. Don’t you want to be able to say you love me just as much as my parents do?
(21)Although don’t kid yourself – you probably still won’t be watching very closely.


Anonymous said...

The Director's visit got a big response. The podcast seems to be doing well. Georgians want a coup now, but who would be for this; we like the leader?

Calgary said...

You are a regular american ignorant cowboy. You only share one side of the story. In 20 years that georgia has been independent they started 7 bloody wars. And of course you guys are going to support georgia your logo should be "Retarded We Stand". Hillbillies