A European Union report has blamed Georgia for last year's conflict with Russia, drawing international attention back to this small Caucasus country, writes David Tresilian in the capital Tbilisi
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This couple lost their home in the ethnic-Georgian village of Avnevi in South Ossetia, one of many according to Human Rights Watch (photo: AFP)
The small Caucasus country of Georgia, wrote the authors of an article that appeared in the French newspaper Le Monde on 23 September, is in danger of becoming "a new Munich". As the world remembers "the shame of the pact between Germany and the Soviet Union and the Munich agreements [that allowed Nazi Germany to dismember Czechoslovakia in 1938] and celebrates the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, have we," the authors asked, "learned the lessons of history?"
Among them some well-known names, such as the former Czech president Vaclav Havel, former Lithuanian president Valdus Adamkus, former Estonian prime minister Mart Laar, and the commentator Timothy Garton Ash who made his name writing on the collapse of the Soviet satellites in eastern Europe in 1989, for the authors of this article entitled "The Georgian Test: a New Munich?" the answer may well be no.
"The absence of any clear reaction from the western democracies in the face of the aggression against and the dismembering of a friendly nation, however small, could have very grave consequences for the world as a whole. The European Union was founded in reaction to the spirit of surrender represented by Munich and the fall of the Iron Curtain [across the continent]. It would be a catastrophe if today it swallowed the return of the policies that plunged Europe into the wars and divisions of the last century."
Whether or not the movement of Russian troops into the Georgian break- away territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in the summer of 2008 truly represents the kind of test case for the international community that the authors of the Le Monde article say it does, a European Union report on the causes of the conflict made public on 30 September certainly sees things in less black-and- white terms.
According to the report, it was Georgia that opened hostilities, there having been "no offensive on the part of Russia before the beginning of the Georgian operations." According to the EU investigators, it was therefore not true to claim, as had Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili, that the movement of Georgian troops into the two break- away territories came only in response to a prior Russian invasion.
Both sides, the report said, "bear responsibility for the conflict" and added that "the political context for a solution became more difficult following the recognition by Russia of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states." The "risk of a new confrontation remains serious."
As international reactions to last year's Georgian-Russian conflict make clear, geopolitical considerations have given this small Caucasus country, tucked away between Turkey and Russia and having southern borders with Armenia and Azerbaijan, an importance out of all proportion to its physical size.
Georgia's position as the pioneer of the series of "colour revolutions", which, from the Georgian Rose Revolution in 2003 to the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004 and the Tulip Revolution in the Central Asian country of Kyrgyzstan in 2005, removed an older generation of politicians associated with Soviet rule from power and installed generally more pro-Western regimes, has also given it particular importance for those eager to see a further ebbing of Russian influence in areas, like the Caucasus, previously regarded as the Soviet Union's backyard.
Georgia's status as a candidate country for membership of both the European Union and NATO, bringing the reach of those organisations up to Russia's southern borders, has also signalled where the country's political affiliations lie. And Georgia's geographical location between the Caspian and Black Seas has meant that the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, a 1,768km oil pipeline from fields in the Caspian Sea to the Turkish Mediterranean port of Ceyhan, runs through Georgia, giving it further geopolitical importance.
This pipeline, one third owned by BP, has focussed international attention on Georgia and has given Western countries, eager to ensure their energy security, an added interest in Georgia's stability. As one Georgian journalist put it in a conversation recently, "we are caught between Russia and the United States. Of course, we talk about nothing but geopolitics."
Yet, geopolitics aside, under the leadership of Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili efforts have been made in recent years to attract greater foreign investment to Georgia, to develop the country's tourism industry, and generally to spruce up the country. "Georgia," the same journalist adds, "is not only about geopolitics."
Visitors to the capital Tbilisi are not yet able to visit the restored National Museum on Rustaveli Avenue, which, starting in Freedom Square, is lined with late 19th-century public buildings built in a kind of imperial Russian style. These include the opera house and national theatre, as well as, built in a historicising Soviet style in the 1940s and rather crumbling behind a still- magnificent façade, the Georgian Academy of Sciences.
However, they will be able to do so once renovation work is complete next year, and when this happens one of Georgia's most important treasures will again be on display in the shape of the gold and other items found at sites in the west of the country associated with ancient Colchis. Readers of ancient Greek myths, or viewers of Hollywood films, will recall how Jason, leader of the Argonauts, once sailed across the Black Sea to Colchis in search of the Golden Fleece, subsequently bringing it home with him to Greece.
Presently on display at the Getty Museum in California after an international tour, gold items found in Georgia seem to bear out Greek tales of the wealth of Colchis. For those attracted by this style of argument, such items, testifying to Hellenistic Greek settlement in the country from at least the third century BCE, may bear out, too, arguments that the country has always been "a part of Europe" and is thus a natural candidate for EU expansion.
In addition to the country's ancient heritage, visitors to modern Georgia may well be fascinated by Georgia's exceptionally long Christian heritage, a core part of the country's present identity.
Taking the main road west out of Tbilisi, past the sprawling Soviet-period housing developments and towards the city of Gori that bore much of the brunt of the 2008 conflict, rows of temporary dwellings housing refugees from last year's fighting in South Ossetia are clearly visible round Gori.
These testify to the present breakdown in relations between Georgia and Russia, but scarcely more reassuring are the roadside signs bearing witness to the period between 1921 and 1991 when Georgia was a constitutive republic of the USSR.
"J. Stalin home country," the signs read, referring to the Soviet dictator, real name Iosif Dzhugashvili, who was born a cobbler's son in Gori in 1878 and studied at a seminary in the city before cutting his teeth in politics as a Bolshevik Party organiser in Tbilisi. There is a small J. Stalin Museum in Gori, but ask tourist information about visiting the youthful haunts of the great dictator, and one is met only with uncomprehending stares.
Ending in the Black Sea port of Poti, the Gori road takes visitors interested in Georgian history through the towns of Vani, where much of the material now on display in California was excavated, Kutaisi, overshadowed by the ruined Bagrati Cathedral built in the 11th century CE, and Gelati, a Georgian Orthodox church and monastery built in the 12th century and in more or less continuous use since.
The Georgian Church was founded in the fourth century, and though to untutored eyes it bears a family resemblance to Russian Orthodoxy, it is fiercely distinguished from the latter by the Georgians themselves.
Visiting Gelati gives an opportunity not only to see one of the most important examples of the mediaeval architecture of the Caucasus, but also to witness the hauntingly beautiful singing performed at Georgian religious services.