At the height of the Gorbachev era in the Soviet Union, one of the most intense, and partly successful, campaigns was the fight against alcoholism. But unlike the northern parts of the empire, where vodka prevails, in the southern regions of the Caucasus, especially Armenia and Georgia, there are proud wine traditions. The Gorbachev solution to this was to bomb the vineyards.
The Georgian people are fond of their wine and they don't tend to forget, so this incident came to mind when the former Soviet foreign minister, Eduard Shevardnadze, arrived on the scene in 1991 after the ousting of President Zviad Gamzaghurdia. In fact, Georgia's relations with Russia have always been tense. From time to time, it has been tempting to seek support from the bear up north, but just as often the Russians have decided in the end to either abandon or occupy Georgia. Catherine the Great alone managed this trick no less than three times during her reign.
When Georgia broke loose from the deteriorating union, Gamzaghurdia became president in an almost unanimous ballot. Dissident hero and intellectual, he epitomized the reawakening Georgian nationalism. But rival forces, and a popular belief that good times were too slow in coming, led to his ousting in December 1991, followed by subsequent civil war (during which, interestingly enough, the Zviadists, as Gamzaghurdias followers are referred to, sometimes fought alongside the official regime against different separatist groups) and his ultimate death two years later, surrounded by regime troops (the cause of death is still not established).
In December 1991, Gamzaghurdia's followers blamed Moscow for the riots and following putsch, something that was vehemently denied by the opposition, stationed across the street from the parliament in the Hotel Tblisi (which for some peculiar reason they decided to blow up before moving). Nevertheless, it did not take long before Shevardnadze came down and took power. Shevardnadze might be Georgian, just as Stalin and Beria for that matter, but he certainly did not represent the born-again Georgian spirit. The new commander settled diplomatically into his role, fought the separatists and the Zviadists alike, and even announced himself a Christian. After a few years he accepted Russian help and membership in the Commonwealth of Independent States.
This was applauded not only in Moscow, but also in Brussels and Washington, where Shevardnadze paid a state visit in 1994. Georgia is strategically paramount, boarding on Russia - including the rebellious autonomous republics - NATO and Iran. More often mentioned is the vital Baku oil pipeline, which runs through the country. Shevardnadze was an old Cold Warrior with whom Washington could communicate.
Accordingly, Shevardnadze and Georgia were welcomed everywhere. Countries started deploying diplomats to Tblisi, most often commuting from Moscow to a country where the Russian language is almost as loathed as Russia itself.
Western media (of course also reporting from Moscow) described the country either as a newborn democracy, or as a - still too - tribal society. The second of course is partly true. Most of Shevardnadze's first coalition partners had private armies, and one of the most prominent of them, Iaba Ioseliani, financed his politics as a professional bank robber, something which must have been hard work at that time as banks were scarce and currency unclear. The first is fair, as the country's elections have been somewhat spotty.
But more importantly, the concept of democracy is much more diffuse and in general means being better off and kicking the old guy out the old way when you are tired of him. If there is such a thing as a Georgian soul, or at least way of life, and most Georgians will tell you that indeed there is, it's based on some fundamentals.
First of all, Georgians claim to be the oldest Christian people in the world, something that is only partly true. This is manifested in an abundance of art, literature, folk tales and music, describing the heroic crusades against the barbarians from Persia, Turkey and above all Russia. Any Georgian, educated or not, can tell his country's glorious story with a tear in his eye.
Secondly, regardless of the unfairness of Gorbachev, Georgia was the hardest drinking republic in all of the Soviet Union.
Thirdly, gun control is unheard of. For good or for ill, people are armed and at drinking and singing sessions after fabulous dinners, it's not unusual to get a firearm against your thigh.
In other words, the average Georgian is a heavily armed, constantly tipsy romantic who - while being overwhelmingly hospitable - gazes into the long-lost, glorious past while singing patriotic hymns. The average Georgian doesn't spend a day at a low-key seminar with a bottle of mineral water discussing the fallacies of progressive taxation.
Enter George Soros, the Hungarian born, enormously rich, philanthropist and Popperian. Soros has used a substantial part of his vast fortune to influence thinking and politics in the former Eastern bloc, by way of his Open Society Institutes, often at the same time betting against the local currencies. In Georgia, he seems to have found an entire nation small enough for his experiments. Whether he managed, with a most impressive presence in Georgia, to change any basic attitudes is not really clear, but he took a young man under his wing. The young man was invited to the United States, got a law degree and some financial support.
His name was Mikheil Saakashvili, and when he took over for Shevardnadze in November 2003, it was not in a general election but, as is customary, in the so-called Revolution of the Roses, preceded by a fraudulent election. On March 22 this year, he was elected president in a majority vote intriguingly similar to that of Gamzaghurdia and Shevardnadze before him. Shevardnadze handed over power without much of a fight and even congratulated the young man. Soon after the election, the media discovered huge financial backing behind the Rose forces, naturally from Soros. But no one seems to mind. The new young president has become a pet for the west, if not for Moscow.
So far, Saakashvili has shown good judgment, especially in dealing with the still-active separatists, but he has a somewhat poorer record when it comes to civil rights. Let's wish him good luck, but I can't help missing Zviad. I gave him von Mises' Human Action just before he left the parliament, and if he has some time to read in his exile, well, maybe! What seems clear however is that the latest chapter in the history of Georgia is not only about human action, but also of human design.
Einar Du Rietz is a communications consultant and a freelance writer, specialized on east-central Europe and the Caucasus. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org