Conflict in the Caucasus: The Troubled Russian-Georgian Relationship

Article excerpt

Every Saturday morning at the Dry Bridge Market by the Mtkvari River in Tbilisi, people gather to buy and sell goods at a long-established open air market. The nearby park is devoted to work by local artists, with garishly colored paintings that depict typically Georgian scenes, like skyrocket church domes and bacchanalian wine gatherings, but it is the flea market at the roadside that is the greatest draw for locals.

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The goods on sale are painstakingly spread out on tablecloths in the shade of trees, and the combined effect seems more like an outdoor museum of the Georgian twentieth century than a commercial enterprise. There are all manner of Soviet-era cameras, magazines, medals and lapel badges. There are stamp collections, coins and records, and statuettes of Marx, Lenin and other members of the Soviet elite who failed to become household names. This being Georgia, it is inevitable to see likenesses of the most famous Georgian of all time: Ioseb Besarionis dze Jughashvili, better known to the rest of the world as Joseph Stalin.

Strolling the market, one notices that, rather than guttural Georgian, the lingua franca here is Russian. This may be Tbilisi, but many of those gathered here do not speak Georgian--they are members of the capital's Russian minority and their life is difficult enough without having to cope with the tongue-twisting consonants and mind-bending grammar that fluency in Georgian requires.

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Cross the river and head west to the Marjanishvili quarter of the city. Here, among street markets, Turkish restaurants and backpacker hostels, stands the blue-domed Russian Orthodox Church of Alexander Nevsky, built in 1863-4 and one of the earliest Russian churches in the city. It is still busy on Sunday mornings, when Russian voices ring out to compete with the roar of passing marsbrutki. In fact, on any day of the week there are usually a few worshippers inside and a beggar or two at the gate.

Russians have been present in Georgia for the best part of two centuries and remain a sizeable minority, although their numbers have dwindled in recent years. According to the 1959 census, there were 408,000 Russians in Georgia, or just over ten percent of the total population. By 1989 these numbers had fallen to 341,000 and 6.3 percent; by 2002 there was further shrinkage, to 68,000 and just 1.5 percent. Today, nearly a decade on, the numbers are unknown but certainly considerably lower. Based on Tbilisi's Dry Bridge Market, it would seem that those Russians who have remained get along well enough with their Georgian neighbors. Nevertheless, the last few years have been very trying times.

AUGUST 2011 MARKS THE THIRD anniversary of the bloody Russian-Georgian conflict over South Ossetia--a painful memory for all involved. It was a "conflict" that lasted just over a week, but which had serious consequences for both countries; to this day the precise sovereignty of South Ossetia is undetermined. While at the time it seemed to many inevitable that Russia and Georgia would clash over South Ossetia, even the most cursory examination suggests that the two nations have long had a very complex relationship.

Although Georgia's history has long been linked with that of Russia, in many ways the two nations could not be more different. Georgia's unique position at the edge of both Europe and the Middle East has had considerable impact on its culture, which, although very distinctive, is hard to define. Compared to its vast, northern neighbor, Georgia is tiny, self-contained, and almost Mediterranean in its climate, food and traditions, and, most tellingly, in the outlook of its people. Despite a fully-entrenched Christian Orthodox religion, the second oldest in the world, numerous invasions have given Georgia a culture that shows a refinement that is almost Persian. It abounds in ancient legend, and tends to think of itself as a proud, long-forged nation that is as old as Time. …