Places I Want to Be: Georgia (Republic of)
Not the Georgia that Grows Peaches
Until the news of conflict broke out in 2008, I had no idea the Republic of Georgia even existed. Perhaps it was a result of my American world view, but from what I first learned of it, I must admit that I saw Georgia as another tired, used-up chunk of dirt that got the poor end of the the bitter divorce with the Soviet Union, and most likely a puppet of modern, “democratic” Moscow. However, now that I've done some more reading up on the subject, Georgia has become one of the countries at the top of my list to one day visit.
A strip of land along the Caucasus Mountains, bordering Russia in the north as well as Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan to the south, Georgia has been in a sort of crossroads for the length of its history, fought over by the Persian, Ottoman, Russian, and Mongolian empires during their respective eras. Though the country has been developing an industrial base since the Soviet era, Georgia is primarily agricultural, producing coveted wines, teas, and citrus fruits as exports. Rich soil and its strategic location along the Black sea, as well as being the gatekeeper to routes through the Caucasus, seem to be the lure for invaders throughout history.
Ethnic clashes have been a thorn in the country's side in recent times, with small but persistent minorities representing each of its neighbors; a holdout of the countless military struggles pockmarking Georgian cultural history. According to the World Factbook, as of 2002 Georgians made up a near 84% majority, Azeri and Armenian ethnic groups another 13% combined, and Russians at a mere 1.5%. With such a small Russian population, it seems odd that two regions of Georgian territory, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, would be able to break away as they did back in 2008. Thanks to Russian military intervention, both regions are now mostly independent and recognized by the Russian Federation as states in their own right, though their status is still debated outside of the Russian sphere of influence.
However contested the regional powers may be, Georgians are still the majority, and have an interesting and independent cultural background that makes them stand apart from the other groups in their midst. The official language and the lingua franca is Georgian, a fairly solitary language with little relation to other families. It even has it's own written form, Mkhedruli, which has apparently survived through the Soviet era when it was typical to replace the local writing system with a modified version of Cyrillic.
Food is apparently a side of Georgian culture that stands out in the area. According to Wikitravel, food is both cheap and appetizing due to the productive soils and chiefly agricultural economy. Local flavors lean on meat-and-potatoes fare seasoned with dill, garlic, and coriander, which balances perfectly the Georgian consumption and enjoyment of alcohol. Georgian wine is prized well beyond its borders, and Georgia is credited with being the first to discover wine-making, adding a degree of cultural pride to the drink.
Georgian spirituality is primarily Christian, and has been since the first century. Strongly Orthodox, there is a tiny percentage of Catholic followers. Roughly a tenth of the population is Muslim, making Islam the second most popular religion in the country. Surprisingly in contrast to what most Americans view as a part of the world rife with religious intolerance, a report by the U.S. Department of State found that relations between different faiths were good, save for the occasional mistreatment of “unconventional” religions such as Jehova's witnesses. Ethnic tensions in the country seem to be just that; based on ethic background rather than religious preference, and even then, most of the disputes seem to revolve around the aforementioned Russian influence four years ago.
Georgians consider themselves more a part of Europe than Asia, the landmass the map-makers so arbitrarily put them on. Despite a long history of being loyal to Russia or the Soviet Union, Georgia is increasingly looking towards Europe and the United States on the international stage. While a member of the Warsaw Pact during its time as an S.S.R, Georgia is currently negotiating membership into NATO, and has engaged in troop-training exercises with the United States. Georgia is also a member of the Council of Europe, and withdrew from the Commonwealth of Independent States in 1993, putting more distance between itself and its former Soviet master.
European in mindset, gastronomically enlightened, and religiously tolerant, Georgian culture seems both inviting and open to travelers looking for an experience. Though there have been tensions, and the region Georgians find themselves in is one of constant political shuffle, it would seem a waste to let such a land go unexplored. Particularly for Americans, who have a vested interest in the Georgian people through NATO and other political obligations, yet seem so disinterested in world affairs, now is the time to hop on a flight; maybe we might learn something, and if we are lucky, there may be new friends to be made in Tbilisi.
CIA World Factbook, Georgia
International Religious Freedom Report 2005