In Georgia, Watching a Young Democracy's Spirits Flag

By Tara Bahrampour
Sunday, August 31, 2008

TBILISI, Georgia At my friend Mikho's house, no one knew where the passports were. The war had started, Russian jets had just bombed the outskirts of Tbilisi, and most commercial flights had been cancelled. Frightened Georgians were pouring over the border into Armenia, and Mikho, an archaeologist in his 50s, wanted his family to join them.

In Georgia's past crises -- the civil war in the 1990s and the subsequent years, when armed thugs ruled the streets -- Mikho and his family had stayed put. But Tbilisians have wrenching memories of the last time the Russians came to town, in 1989, when Soviet troops used shovels to kill protesters. "You have this instinct, to want your descendants to survive," he told me with a haunted look as he punched numbers into his cell phone, searching for a reasonable hotel in the Armenian capital of Yerevan.

As Mikho's family scurried around, I rested on their couch in the muggy summer heat, wondering whether this city I had lived in for the past year was really about to be invaded. Like Beirut or Sarajevo before their wars, Tbilisi is a cosmopolitan blend of cultures boasting rich architecture, dance troupes and museums. The main drag, Rustaveli Avenue, is a vibrant buzz of booksellers, ice cream stands and upscale boutiques that are fast replacing the drab Soviet-era shops. Now, sitting a block away from all that, I tried to imagine this 1,600-year-old capital ceasing to exist.

I had taken a break from covering education in Virginia for The Post last fall to teach journalism in Tbilisi. I first visited Georgia nine years ago as a travel writer, and I was drawn back to this land of mad declarations and grand sacrifices, hearty wines and lavish hospitality. I hadn't been able to explain well to people at home why, on something of a whim, I had chosen to come to this jagged sliver of the Caucasus. But my Georgian friends weren't surprised. They're used to people falling in love with them.

American expats talk about the "Georgia-shaped hole" in their hearts when they leave, but the Russians felt that pang long ago. The poets Lermontov and Pushkin found inspiration here; the Soviet elite kept summer dachas here. Nestled at a crossroads of East and West, influenced by the Persians, the Byzantines and the ancient Greeks, Georgians pride themselves on their flexibility and their tolerance, qualities they say have allowed their small country to survive. (Despite the horror at the Russian invasion, I've heard of no backlash against Russians living in Georgia.)

But the Georgians have also been called the Sicilians of the Russian empire, a people who throw themselves with equal gusto into a knife fight or a love affair. The impulsiveness is seductive -- and dangerous. Georgia's young democracy is a work in progress, and cooler heads don't always prevail. And with the Russian invasion, Georgia's internal struggle between sense and sensibility could become even more unbalanced.

Most Americans, if they knew anything about Georgia before this month, knew of it as the tiny ex-Soviet state whose charismatic young American-educated president, Mikheil Saakashvili, led a "Rose Revolution" in 2003, using a rising tide of street demonstrations to sweep away the corrupt previous regime. "Misha," as he's widely called, had a boisterous personal style, but he was at home in the corridors of Washington, and his administration had ushered in a Western-style democracy, one that the Bush administration showered with financial and military support.

After I arrived here, I found that many Georgians' views were less rosy. The new leaders had improved the roads and reformed a graft-riddled police force -- but the judiciary was seen as beholden to the nation's rulers, and the media were less free than they had been under the previous leader, former Soviet foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze. While most Georgians supported Saakashvili's pro-Western stance, many felt left behind by his embrace of dog-eat-dog capitalism. A chasm had opened between haves and have-nots, based less on experience or expertise than on youth and fluency in English. Baby-faced government officials zoomed around in black SUVs, stroking their iPhones, while teachers, scientists and pensioners took on extra jobs to feed themselves.

In early November 2007, a few weeks after I arrived, the resentment spilled into the streets. The government cracked down violently on the demonstrators, shocking Georgia's Western allies -- and its own citizens.

For my students, English-speakers in their early- to mid-20s from all over Georgia, this meant abandoning their textbooks to go and report on the near-revolution. They raced up the two blocks from the school to the demonstrations, where tear gas clouded the air and masked men were beating people with truncheons. Thrilled to be putting their lessons to work, worried about the fate of their fledgling democracy, they rushed back to school to write it all up for a student newspaper that was no longer an academic exercise.

Post-communist Georgia, I was finding, is an imperfect democracy. There's still room to criticize the government, but if you do it too publicly, you may get punished. For all the talk of Western-style reform, Georgian businessmen say that Saakashvili's ruling party still leans on them for "donations." And government critics are often cast as Kremlin agents -- a hint at Georgia's tormented relationship with its massive neighbor.

Even before the war, the Russian threat had become an excuse for everything from suspending civil liberties to shooting protesters with rubber bullets. It was also good for public relations: The Museum of Soviet Occupation in downtown Tbilisi featured chiaroscuro lighting, menacing Stalin posters and a video loop of the Rose Revolution, starring a triumphant Saakashvili.

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