Article for The Tablet
By David Alton
One of the most impressive figures in the last days of the Soviet empire was its Foreign Minister, Eduard Shevardnadze. His was a restraining hand as he and Mikhail Gorbachev decided whether to use the Russian army to repress Polish Solidarity and other reform movements in Eastern Europe. Since 1992, and now aged 74, Shevardnadze has been President of one of the former Soviet Union’s forgotten outposts, the Republic of Georgia. He was re-elected in April 2000 with 80% of the vote.
During a recent visit I talked to him about the post-Communist challenges facing his country. He opened our conversation with a play on the old Confucian saying about being blessed to “live in interesting times.”
Interesting for Shevardnadze has meant assassination attempts, in 1995 and 1998, covert Russian attempts to destabilise the country, the transition from a collapsing socialist economy to a market-led economy, and the quelling of Mafia-style forces. Georgia’s instability was recently underlined by the captivity of British businessman, Peter Shore.
The country has been dogged by civil war, hostage taking and ambushes of businessmen and journalists, followed by attempts of the provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia to secede from the Republic. But to falsely caricature Georgia as a country in open revolt and dominated by lawless anarchy would be about as fair as the caricature so often used to describe Northern Ireland.
Like Ulster, if left in peace, Georgia will be a primary destination for development, investment and tourism. Students and staff at two of Tibilisi’s universities were emphatic that the country has a great future. One student said to me “ten years, since the collapse of communism and civil war is a short time to build new institutions.”
Shevardnadze argues that his main objective has been to give the country “a distinctive image and a point to its existence. We still have problems with our great neighbour in the north but we do not regard the situation as dramatic”. He adds that the construction of a new pipe-line from Azerbaijan to Europe, via Georgia, will help to regenerate the economy and help his country to become “the bridge” between east and west. The Baku-Tibilisi Ceyhan and Baku-Tibilisi Erzerum pipe lines will be the core of an economic corridor that will revive the “silk road” that once linked Europe and the Orient.
The pipeline venture is being co-ordinated on behalf of Shevardnadze by Giorgi Chanturia, the President of the Georgian International Oil Corporation, who has the drive and vision to make the project a reality. Impressively, he insists that any economic gains must have collateral benefit for the ordinary citizens. Astutely, he understands that a huge investment ( of up to £16 billion, including a 36% stake by British Petroleum) will be dissipated unless strenuous efforts are made to build a civil society.
Shevardnadze underlines the need to make Georgia a secure, safe and attractive place in which to invest. Nino Burjanadze, who chairs the Georgian Parliament, supports him. She told me that Europe needs to become “more proactive in the resolution of the challenges which we face.” Georgia is already a member of the Council of Europe, aspires to membership of the European Union and during the recent NATO summit in Prague signalled their desire to join the military alliance. They see international institutions as the best bulwark against nationalism.
Shevardnadze believes that failure to resolve root causes of ethnic conflict and nationalism “gives impetus to terrorism and provides nourishment for continuing conflict. It scares me to think how small areas of conflict may explode into conflict for the whole world.” He may have been thinking about the diverse sub groups that comprise Georgia’s population as he said this. According to the British Foreign Office, Georgians (including subgroups like the Svanetians and Mingrelians), comprise 71% of the population, Armenians 7.7%, Azeris 6%, Russians 6.5%, ossete 3% and Abkhaz 1.8%.
In common with their neighbours in the Balkand and Eastern Europe the reconcilining of ethnic interests with those of the minorities remains a major challenge.
Shevardnadze says that the major task for the Security council should be conflict resolution, and that the war on terror should be accompanied by a war on the root causes of terror: “This is achievable is we use half the vigour we use in pursuing terrorism.” He also ruefully muses that the UN and the Security Council “have got used to these conflicts,”; that a greater sense of urgency is needed in promoting economic development – such as the Georgian energy corridor – in facilitating the resolution of conflict. Reflecting on the continuing war in Chechnya, and its pernicious effect on Georgian stability, Shevardnadze calls for a “dialogue of cultures.”
Georgia is a small country – with a population about the size of Ireland. It knows that it has to create a regional identity for the three countries of Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia, and that they will either live together or hang together. The unresolved war between Armenia and Azerbaijan continues to bedevil the region while two major territorial disputes inside Georgia are crying out for international mediation and resolution.
The Georgians point to their long and admirable tradition of co-existence between the great faiths, and the once persecuted Church is playing a crucial role in guiding the nation. 65% of Georgians belong to the Georgian Orthodox Church.
The Georgian Orthodox Patriarch, Ilia II, who presides over an ancient church established by a Palestinian woman, St.Nino, in the fourth century, has worked hard to give Georgia focus. It is supportive of Shevardnadze’s attempts to build a healthy civil society. He also points out that the Jews describe Georgia as “one European country where there is no history of anti-Semitism.”
The Patriarch says that when Pope John Paul II visited the country he placed a map of the region on the table and told the Patriarch that “the geographical location of Georgia has placed it in a most difficult position and it has always had to show courage in defending its beliefs, culture and heritage.” The country’s geography will always leave it vulnerable but paradoxically this vulnerability can also imbue its people with creativity and ingenuity.
The Church is in the enviable position of enjoying widespread respect and support. According to the Georgian Opinion Research Business Initiative (GORBI), compared with the Parliament’s 10% approval rating, more than 70% consider the Church to be Georgia’s most trustworthy institution. Overwhelmingly the public also identifies corruption and unemployment as the two most important challenges.
The Patriarch told me that Georgia would like to emulate the western churches in developing social and educational institutions. He recalls the Chinese proverb that rather than giving a man a fish it is better to teach a man how to fish.
Ilia also wants to see spiritual renewal and says that young people – many of whom are to be seen in its churches – are its great hope: “these days the children are teaching their parents.” One of the more distressing aspects of post-communist society have been the predators – economic and cultural – who have set out to take whatever pickings they can grab. Instead of sheep stealing young Orthodox believers western Christian pastors should be giving the Church practical help and support to fulfil its mission.
The next generation of Georgians, like Mamuka Dolidze, of the European House is impressive and formidable. Their impact is significant enough for the electricity to have been cut from the part of the building where we were launching an initiative to draw Georgia into associate membership of the European Union.
Such maladroit and blatant tactics only puts more fire into the belly of men like Dolidze who remind me of the visionary zeal of the Catholic pioneers of the early European Community. The common European house is a room of many mansions and we should ease the way for this little country on Europe’s eastern periphery to take up early residence.
At the end of World War Two the altruism of the American-led Marshall Aid Programme enabled strong and secure democracies to emerge in Western Europe. Something equally ambitious is needed in the southern Caucases.
We have a great deal in common with the Georgians – including a patron saint. I left the country on November 23rd, when the Georgian Orthodox celebrate the feast day of St. George. As they set about slaying their contemporary dragons the Georgians will need all the strength he can give them.