Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Georgia has become increasingly determined to make its own way. It wants to join NATO and the EU to secure independence and modernise its economy. Soviet President Putin’s response, however, has been to threaten to raise the price of natural gas supplied by Russia and to ban the import of Georgian wine and mineral water. How do Georgians cope?
However, there is more to worry about, according to Tamar, who is spending a year at Van Hall Larenstein on a Dutch government scholarship. There are a substantial number of Georgians living throughout Russia – in Soviet times Georgian cuisine was very popular, so a lot of restaurant owners are of Georgian origin. ‘But Georgians from all walks of life are no longer welcome, and the Russian government has started to deport them.’ Tamar finds these hostilities hard to grasp. ‘We grew up with the Russian culture – we speak the language, we read the books; like many others I have a lot of friends in Russia – we don’t want conflict.’
Georgia lies at the crossroads where Europe meets Asia. Its strategic location means it was part of the Byzantine, Mongolia, Persian and Ottoman Empires. Over the past two centuries, Russia had control over the small country. After the downfall of the USSR in the early nineties, the Georgians voted overwhelmingly for independence again.
Tamar is named after the legendary Georgian queen whose rule was characterised by a long period of peace and rich cultural life during the Middle Ages. Tamar believes that Georgia has the potential to regain that former glory, and President Mikhail Saakashvili is the right man to lead the way. ‘He may be a bit short tempered but he has banned corruption, introduced modern forms of government and made politics transparent on the whole.’
‘The Georgians are a peaceful people, we have never started a war. We just want the territory that is rightfully ours.’ Her eyes widen when she thinks back to the horrors of the civil war in the early nineties – she was about thirteen – when Russia supported the separatists in northern Abkhazia and Georgians who had lived there for centuries were kicked out. Thousands of refugees are still waiting along the border to get back to their belongings. ‘Abkhazia was a very rich region which has now deteriorated completely. The Russians should stop meddling.’
‘We would love to invite President Putin to Georgia and convince him of our wish to collaborate.’ But of course Tamar knows that this is wishful thinking; she is happy that there are plans for Saakashvili to go to Russia to resume talks. ‘Dialogue is necessary, we are tired of the wars.’
Apart from fossil fuels, Georgia has all the natural resources a country can hope for. Tamar’s eyes light up as she describes the rich biodiversity of her native land: ‘We have everything. The long Black Sea coast, fertile wetland areas with a subtropical climate, mountain ranges with rich forests, arid areas, numerous water sources and rivers. And we are famous for our hospitality: Georgia is an ideal country for tourist development.’
Tamar wants to contribute to careful development in her country. She works for the Caucasus Environmental NGO Network, which monitors all sorts of environmental problems. ‘We try to make the public and our politicians aware of the urgency. Water pollution is a big problem, as is illegal logging and over-fishing. But we are getting somewhere. Before coming to Holland I worked on an integrated coastal zone project which is showing results. We need more up-to-date skills, and that’s why I am here.’