The University of Iowa

Preparing for Outliers: “Georgia's always on my, my, my mind…”

July 14th, 2021

By UI Ambassador in Residence Ron McMullen

This Fall semester I’m offering a new Comparative Politics course entitled “Outliers:  Comparing Odd Countries.”  Partly in preparation for the South Caucasus unit of the class, my wife and I traveled to the Republic of Georgia for 11 days in June to see how Georgia is faring as it aspires to shake off the legacies of its Soviet past and transition into a modern, “Western” country.  We also visited our son and daughter-in-law, who teach at an international school there.  I spoke to high school students about opportunities at the University of Iowa and how to succeed at an American university.

Georgia, with fewer than five million people, suffered almost 200,000 deaths during the “Great Patriotic War.”  Memorials to the fallen of WWII can be seen in nearly every village and town.  In comparison, the entire United States suffered just over 400,000 deaths in WWII.  Complicating the post-Soviet transition is the fact that Joseph Stalin, one of the top three mass murderers of the 20th century, was a Georgian who rallied the USSR against the invading Nazis.  While his image is still seen on some local WWII memorials and a Stalin museum exists in his hometown of Gori, I saw no evidence of interest in maintaining his overall political legacy, thank goodness.

In 2008 Russia invaded and dismembered Georgia, in part due to Western actions in Kosovo and Georgia’s hopes to join NATO.  During the war Georgians placed telephone poles on the runway of the abandoned Soviet-era Shiraki airbase.  The aim was to prevent Russian troop transports from landing there.  Today the ghostly Soviet airbase is largely intact and sits amid huge oat fields.  We took a self-guided tour and poked around former Soviet Air Force earthen-topped hangars and the skeleton of a Mig-17.

Georgia’s border with Russia is officially open; most of landlocked Armenia’s trade with Russia passes through Georgia.  Yet the Russians frequently slow cross-border traffic to a crawl to make some political or commercial point with Georgia.  As we traveled in the Caucasus mountains near the Russian border, the highway became clogged with parked trucks lined up for miles waiting to cross into Russia.  Adding to the strange scene were hundreds of free-range cattle and sheep, who seemed to think the grass was always greener on the other side the highway.

 

Despite repeated invasions and occupations over the centuries, Georgian national identity remains strong.  Georgia’s unique language and alphabet, combined with the deep roots of the Georgian Orthodox Church, form the bedrock of Georgian identity.  Many old churches were full of visitors lighting candles, praying, and receiving blessings from priests.  We visited one ancient monastery where monks had carved rooms in cliffs 1,500 years ago -- the monastery was still in use.  Unfortunately, it now straddles the disputed Georgian-Azerbaijani border, and armed border guards warned us not to stray into the disputed zone or we’d face trouble with Azeri officials.

Minority groups make up about 15% of Georgia’s population, including a 12,000 strong community of Kurdish-speaking Yazidis.  Yazidis follow a little-known religion centered around the “Peacock Angel,” akin to the rebellious, fallen archangel described in the Book of Revelation.  Yazidis believe the fallen angel has been reconciled with God and given stewardship over the earth.  In 2014 ISIS slaughtered and enslaved thousands of Yazidis in northern Iraq, claiming they were “devil worshippers” deserving of extermination.  I met with the spiritual and community leaders of the Yazidi community in Tbilisi and spent a fascinating two hours learning more about this ancient group.  For example, they avoid wearing blue, don’t eat lettuce, pray twice a day facing the sun, worship together on Wednesdays, and believe some Yazidi holy men can be reincarnated.  Yazidi temples are recognized by their characteristic pleated steeples.  My students will benefit from this first-hand encounter with a beleaguered minority community.

Politically and economically, Georgia looks to the United States and the European Union as potential allies, investors, protectors, and role models.  In front of Georgia’s parliament building, political protesters flew three flags -- that of Georgia, the EU, and the United States, perhaps hoping to evoke Western values of democracy and the rule of law.  Generational change will strengthen Georgia’s ties with the United States and the West;  nearly every young person speaks English to a degree, and written English appears alongside Georgian in many public places.  President Biden is less chummy with President Putin than was his predecessor (which may be a factor in the event of future Russian bullying) but Georgia’s strategic value as a “pipeline country” linking Caspian energy with the West has probably waned in importance, given Biden’s focus on green energy.  Growing the economy and providing opportunities for young people are the keys to Georgia’s future.  Iowa, with fewer people, has an economy eleven times larger than that of Georgia.  It is hard to be satisfied or optimistic if one must struggle every month to make ends meet, especially when a powerful few live in ostentatious luxury.

I’m excited about teaching “Outliers: Comparing Odd Countries” this fall, and hope that my students will work hard, be actively engaged, and have their international horizons broadened a bit.  

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