Georgia in a Nutshell
Log in if you are already registered
Georgia is a country of 69,700 km2 for 3,723,500 inhabitants located in the South Caucasus on the shore of the Black Sea. The Georgian land is undeniably prosperous due to the favorable location to produce wine, black tea, and other various agricultural products. The temperatures going from a cold minus in Tbilisi to a canicular temperature in Batumi are an undeniable asset and the land is suited to grow mandarines and tea in the Western part, grapes, and hops on the whole territory. The same weather offers to locals and foreigners the possibility to enjoy sunny vacations on the border of the sea or skiing activities in the Eastern part of the country during the cold winters.
The prosperity of Georgia is desired by its neighboring countries with interest in resources and the benevolent connection between Eurasia and Middle-East. Victim of its success, Georgia has been invaded, divided, and occupied by many other civilizations such as Ancient Greece - Georgia being the land of Jason and the Argonauts - the Ottoman Empire, Nazi Germany, and more recently by the Soviet Union.
The long history of invasions is the key to understand Georgian identity and geopolitics, while some native Georgian decided to embrace the language and culture of the invaders, some others rejected the foreign influence and managed to survive. In such specific conditions, the Georgian citizens have developed a strong attachment to the Orthodox religion, Georgian language, and culture so to speak national cuisine.
The tormented past and the understandable apprehension of being divided by foreigners explains the complex relation to regionalism - by contrast to states like Switzerland - and while Georgia is having a large variety of regional identities, the country is experiencing some difficulties to embrace the idea of a Confederate system.
The Georgian pride has been an advantage and a weakness according to the historical circumstances. Great powers have often used national pride to either seduce or provoke the Georgian leaders. In French philosophy, Lafontaine would argue “tout flatteur vit aux dépens de celui qui l’écoute.” In Sun-Tzu Art of War, the leaders in Tbilisi would be considered to be impulsive, leading to a lack of pragmatism regarding the strengths and weaknesses in a complex geopolitical environment.
Most publications related to Georgia are either adopting a pro-Georgian (United-States / European Union) or pro-Russian approach, ending up in a dead-end debate regarding the future of the country and the Black Sea region. Pro-Russian would argue Abkhazia and South-Ossetia should be recognized as independent states - underlining the position of Western states in Kosovo - while pro-Georgian would argue Abkhazia and South-Ossetia are more of two outposts of the Russian Federation in the Caucasus than independent states.
Georgia has been through many wars in the past 27 centuries. In this article, I wish to provide an original perspective regarding the events currently going on. Moreover, I hope the readers will be able to make their own opinion based on Empirical shreds of evidence and escape from the prism of post-Soviet analysis.
Prometheus and the Yuan Dynasty of China in Georgia
Political science is fascinating, debatable, and moreover often inaccurate to predict the future. Historians are well aware that political experts should push forward identity because it is one of the main drivers of geopolitics and geoeconomics outcomes, so to speak of what is happening on the ground. A country and its citizens are driven by emotions, otherwise, the People would simply tend to adopt a religion and a language according to the (geo)political interests of the moment, instead of jumping into armful conflicts to defend their values. In that sense, nations have much to learn from Kant’s philosophy to ensure stability, while they are often living in a Nietzschean world.
The Georgian people are no exception to the rule and the state is based on strong cultural roots, the Orthodox church, Georgian cuisine, enology, and surviving for millenniums to foreign occupants, are major components of the national identity. Paradoxically, all aspects from contemporary Georgian identity are, nonetheless, debatable.
Christianity and language in contemporary Georgia
To begin with, it would have been difficult for native Georgian people to agree on the idea that Orthodox religion is a major component of the identity because Christianity exists for two millenniums while the Georgian nation has been fighting against invaders for 27 centuries.
Religion in Georgia is visualized by Alphonse Mucha in the Slav Epic and the Homeland of the Slavs. In the first millennium of its existence, the Georgian nation practiced paganism and according to Orthodox tradition, Christianity was first preached in Georgia by the Apostles Simon and Andrew in the 1st century. It became the state religion of Kartli (Iberia) in 337. The Georgian Orthodox Church - originally the Church of Antioch - gained its autocephaly and developed its doctrinal specificity progressively between the 5th and 10th centuries. The Bible was also translated into Georgian in the 5th century, as the Georgian alphabet was developed for that purpose.
Georgian language - distinct from other Kartvelian languages - has emerged in the first millennium BC, in the Kingdom of Iberia, mentioned for the first time by Marcus Cornelius Fronto. The language evolved from Old Georgian to Middle Georgian - the literal language of the medieval Kingdom of Georgia - in the 11th century, giving birth to the modern Georgian language around 1629. Like French and German languages, Georgian as part of the state identity, goes back to a few centuries ago.
These two core aspects of identity - region and language - worth being mentioned because it shows Georgian identity has evolved due to the outside influence with imported Christianity and from the inside with its language free from a large scale foreign influence.
Regarding the History of Georgia and the outside world, the Greek Empire influenced political and economic life in the western part of the country (ancient Colchis) until the 7th century BC. The Greek people implemented new concepts such as Democracy and a different kind of polytheism with Greek mythology. Enology, wildly appreciated and considered to be a component of contemporary identity, is going back to that time when the Greek merchants were buying large quantities of wine. The first globalization of the Georgian culture goes back to the time of the Greek Empire and wine became an essential component of identity because of the outside demand from Greek people. Greek merchants provided new philosophical concepts - Democracy and Freedom - while embracing the culture of wine themselves.
The Greek influence remained until nowadays and Georgian wine is still one of the most sold products in the European Union while the Eastern Partnership program is providing financial help to implement a new set of values, quite similar to what the Greek explorers have done in the past.
Jason and the Argonauts have been to Colchis, and the Mount Elbrus - home of the Titan Prometheus chained by Zeus - are shared histories among all Europeans. The Greek people who settled in Georgia, as much as the Georgian themselves, have been converted to Christianity afterward and the only remains of this specific time - which accounts for no less than a quarter of the Georgian history - almost disappeared.
Georgian outside influence is not limited to the Greek past, Chinese explorers have also influenced the country for centuries. The Yuan She, the official history of the Yuan Dynasty of China, records the fate of Georgia in 1252. In that year the Mongol Khagan Mongke grated the Kingdom of Georgia. Mongke divided the Georgians into six Tumen to organize his army.
Often put aside, the Chinese culture is at the epicenter of Georgian social structure and food in contemporary times. The Chinese exported the dough used in many Georgian specialties - similar to the Italian cuisine with pasta - and the concept of sharing different plates is usual in Asian societies.
With the Silk Road, the Georgia economy entered a time of prosperity and became the epicenter for Euro-Asian trade. The New Silk Road currently supported by the People’s Republic of China is betting on this success based on the experience of the prosperous past. Chinese people build a part of the country and some artifacts can be found in Georgia while descendants of the Chinese businessmen have mixed with native Georgians.
The origin of the Georgian tea is also connected to China. The story remains, however, complicated, and while the tea ceremony and traditions are coming from China they have been implemented by the Russian and the General-Governor Prince Michael Vorontsov in 1833. By contrast to the enology originally coming from Georgia and exported worldwide, the Georgian tea has been imported and developed more recently. Like in most culture, the Georgian cuisine in modern times would be surprising to the native and Middle-Age Georgians who have had no tomatoes, watermelon, Apple, Oranges, Mandarins, respectively coming from South America, West Africa, Central Asia, Spain, and Vietnam. Georgian cuisine is a strong factor of identity and, however, one of the most recent.
The two examples - Antic Greek and China - among many others such as the Ottoman and Russian Empires, are underlining the origins of the Georgian culture which is more international than foreigners and the Georgian themselves are picturing it. Both Greek and Chinese philosophies are arguing for the repetition of the past. Looking at the History of Georgia, we could argue both Europe and China will play a relevant part in the future of the country, Europe for values and China for trade.
The Swabians in Georgia: An homage
Less than a century ago, it would have been difficult to speak about Georgia without the Swabian people, an ethnic minority coming from Southern Germany. The Swabian descendants have been for almost all of them deported after the tragic events of the Second World War and have, nonetheless, contributed to the prosperity of Georgia and the whole Caucasus. The Swabian people or Volksdeutsche (German people living outside Germany without a German passport) contributed to the local communities and started a business - pharmacy, shoes, beer production based on a traditional Bavarian process - even having a local newspaper the Kaukasische Post.
At the beginning of the 18th century, the Russian government of the Tsar Alexander I - at that time directly connected to the Kingdom of Württembourg - decided to send the German settlers to the Caucasus. The choice to send some Swabian people was wise because the poverty in this part of Southern Germany pushed the inhabitants to seek opportunities abroad. Like the Irish people fleeing massively to the United-States, the Swabian people left for the Caucasus and Eastern Europe in general.
In September 1818, the first German settlement arrived around Tbilisi and the second one in Asureti on the border of the river. In total, more than five colonies settled in the area and three more in the West in Abkhazia afterward and later on in the North Caucasus. The Germans adapted themselves pretty well to the local culture and started to learn the local language. However, they decided to remain Lutheran instead of converting to Orthodoxy.
With the Germans of the Caucasus, started a new renaissance in the whole area with an economic boom. Georgia became a land influenced by Russian political and military rules and connected to Germany for economic purposes.
The Georgian and German peoples mixed, and while some German learned about wine and settled some ventures, the Georgians also got interested in beer and German traditions. Until the end of the Second World War, Georgia was, de facto, more of a multi-linguistic and multi-religious society compared to nowadays.
According to Charles King, “rows of trees lined the main streets" of the German colonies near Tiflis. Schools and churches, conducting their business in German, offered education and spiritual edification. Beer gardens provided the main entertainment.”
One example of the friendship between the two people is when Georgians and Germans of the Caucasus teamed up to defend Christianity during the Russo-Persian War of 1826-1829. The Swabian history in Georgia ended up with the Sovietization and only 50,000 Germans are currently living in the Caucasus when almost all business ventures have been destroyed but the Kaukasische Post.
Why are the Germans of the Caucasus so important? Because they can be considered to be, with the Greeks, the most direct influence of European culture - if we consider Russia to be Eurasian - in the Georgian lands. If Georgia has been a non-Christian land for almost a millennium, it also became a melting pot society for almost 150 years with the Swabians. The deportation of the German settlers ended the cohabitation of wine and beer cultures and suddenly cut Georgia from Central Europe.
Future and Past of Georgian geopolitics
Georgia is a pride country struggling in a difficult geo-economic environment. Located between two Great powers - the Soviet Union/Russia and the Ottoman/Turkey - the Georgians have also been occupied by the Far eastern leaders such as the Mongol Khagan Mongke. The invaders took from the Georgians and gave them something in return, making the Georgian lands an in between Asia, Europe, Eurasia, and the Middle-East. The country is relevant to understand Greek history - shared both by Russia and Western Europe - with the Odysseus and Jason. Georgia has been the meeting point between Asia and Europe with the Silk Road and will probably become the next one in the upcoming decade with the New Silk Road financed by the People’s Republic of China.
Based on the previous experiences, it seems difficult to assume Georgia will manage to become as autonomous looking at current geopolitical parameters. The future of Georgia seems to balance between the West (EU/United-States) for Democracy and culture and expectations regarding a potential Eurasian (Russia/China) economic cooperation. It would be naïve to assume the majority of Georgian citizens are looking exclusively to the West, as the reality on the ground is much more contrasted with attractiveness and apprehension regarding the future relationship with Moscow and Beijing.
The Greek diaspora (საბერძნეთი) in Colchis at the 7th century BC has been a threat to the Achaemenid Empire and the Early Slavs tribes settling in the Northern Caucasus. To increase its political and cultural influence in the Caucasus and to invade the Slavic lands, it would have been necessary for the Achaemenid leaders to weaken the Greek in Colchis because of the direct access to the lands of the Early Slavs which goes through Georgia.
The Early Georgian fought against the Achaemenid which gave time to the Early Slavs to increase their military strengths. Afterward, the Slavic tribes expelled the previous invaders from the Caucasus and the same story repeated itself from Ancient times till nowadays.
Occasionally, some people from the West came to Georgia, invited either by the descendants of the Early Slavs or the Achaemenid. The mask of Napoleon at the Zugdidi historical museum and the Georgische Legion (ართული ლეგიონი) exist to remind us how fascinating and strategic Georgia is to Western leaders and the failure of the Western culture to implement in the Georgian lands.
What can we assume of the future of Georgia looking at its tormented past? According to Thucydides in the Peloponnesian wars, “History likes to repeat itself,” while Karl Marx more than two millennia afterward mentioned, “History repeats itself, first as a tragedy, second as farce.” Nonetheless, some Historians would argue the 20th and 21st centuries have been surprising with specific cases such as the re-birth of Israel after several millennia. In such a context, it seems difficult to argue on an empirical basis regarding the future of Georgia.
Ph.D. in History of Europe & International Relations, Sorbonne University - INSEAD Business School, (Geo)political scientist working on Sino-European/Russian relations and soft power in the 21st century
Blog: Michael Lambert's blog