A Georgian Reborn, Still Straddling Two Cultures
By Nora Boustany
Friday, June 4, 2004; Page A20
S alome Zourabichvili, born in Paris to an immigrant family that fled Georgia in 1921, was the French ambassador to the former Soviet republic until March.
That was when Zourabichvili, 52, was handpicked to be foreign minister in the new Georgian government.
For Zourabichvili and her family, Georgia was a paradise lost, a place lovingly revived on weekends during mealtime, when a dish called chicken satsivi, made with walnuts and spices, was served along with cheese tarts and pomegranate. The feast was made complete by poetry and song. "Everything happens at the table in a Georgian household," she said.
In the years before the Iron Curtain fell, there was no contact with Georgia -- no letters, no newspapers, no visits. "For us it was a mythical country, which only existed in books," she said.
Zourabichvili was 8 years old before she met a real visitor from Georgia, when a Georgian ballet troupe performed in Paris. "We had to meet in secret," she said, adding that such visits were brief, tense and fraught with danger. "There were tearful reunions between mothers and daughters, sisters and brothers," Zourabichvili said. "There was so much emotion, it made that country more distant, more attractive, more mysterious and unattainable."
She said she has always felt comfortable straddling the two cultures. She attended French schools and had French friends and teachers, but spoke Georgian at home and went to the Greek Orthodox church, with its ancient rituals and melodious chants.
"I never felt divided or torn between two loyalties," she said. "My family was already Francophone. French culture came very naturally."
She attended some of the finest French schools, such as the prestigious Institute of Political Sciences in Paris, and began a master's program at Columbia University in New York in the academic year of 1972-73, taking courses with Zbigniew Brzezinski, later the national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter.
She abandoned her studies and joined the French foreign service, becoming a career diplomat with jobs in Rome, the United Nations, Brussels, Washington and elsewhere.
The first time she visited Georgia was in 1986. It was during a break from her job at the French Embassy in Washington, where she worked from 1984 to 1988 in the political and military section, focusing on U.S.-Russian affairs. She took her mother on the trip.
"It was very moving and yet bizarre. In a way it was the end of the Soviet regime, but the mindset was still there in people's heads," she said. She and her mother were surrounded, almost overwhelmed, by old friends, friends of friends and surviving acquaintances of her grandparents. "It was such a warm environment. That is what seduced me and made me want to go back," she said.
When she chose a career in diplomacy, she harbored hopes of one day being instrumental in helping Georgia, and last November, the French Foreign Ministry assigned her to serve as ambassador there. She said she would never have dared ask for such a posting, but her attachment to her ethnic roots was well known.
Days after she arrived that month in Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, the "rose revolution" ousted President Eduard Shevardnadze. Weeks later, Mikheil Saakashvili, a U.S.-trained lawyer, won a landslide election to replace him.
Zourabichvili's extraordinary appointment, followed a week later with Georgian citizenship by decree, came to light after a tete-a-tete between Saakashvili and his French counterpart, Jacques Chirac. Only hours before Saakashvili was to meet Chirac in March did the new Georgian president spring his bombshell on the French ambassador accompanying him to Paris.
"I was surprised. But without thinking I said yes, on condition that President Chirac agreed. He not only liked the idea, but was enthusiastic about trying it out," she said. "This was not a defection, it was the marriage of both my parts, not a divorce."
Saakashvili formed a cabinet of men and women mostly under 35, who had studied in Europe and were never connected to the old regime. "I am on a kind of sabbatical in principle," Zourabichvili said, "and if this formula means anything, it is a very well-defined task to help in the rebuilding of the county by reforming the Foreign Ministry and developing a diplomatic corps and coming to that country's assistance at the most difficult phase of its history."
Among Georgia's priorities, she said, are reconciling with Russia, reasserting its European identity and solidly developing its partnership and security strategy with the United States.
Zourabichvili now has two passports. "To the French, I am French. To the Georgians, I am Georgian. I have not changed. What has happened to me is strange and different," she said.
"I don't dare predict my future anymore. I will always be in and between both worlds."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company