Estonia is apparently the place with the most Georgia experts per square metre. The tourism season starts early and every time I open Facebook I am greeted by images of an acquaintance seated at a table set in the middle of a mountain village with the best food and a carafe of homemade wine.
You will hardly find an Estonian who cannot tell you which basement bar in Kutaisi, Tbilisi or Batumi offers the most delicious khinkalis or shish kebabs in the world. This is accompanied by an account of how close the patron is to the owner, who rushes to get his best things as soon as he sees the former before departing with lavish hospitality. And then there is Chacha. Estonians are virtual chacha experts, with the “well-kept secret” of where the best stuff is sold considered an inseparable part of a thorough knowledge of Georgia. For example, you go to the market in Batumi, take the third entrance, and in the middle of the second row stands an old man with a hooked nose. Approach him and tell him that Priit is sending his regards from Keava. And the old man will sell you the best chacha in the world.
However, apart from know-how about food and drink, the people of Estonia know relatively little about Georgia. That’s why the country keeps surprising us. For example, when the Estonian newspaper started reporting on protests against the so-called Russia Law in Tbilisi and Batumi.
Georgian society is very diverse and multifaceted, full of controversies. When Mikhail Saakashvili was elected President in 2004, he initiated a process to transform Georgia into a European and Western country. But by the end of his tenure, Saakashvili’s methods were controversial and downright dictatorial (a paradox in which an autocratic ruler used totalitarian means to build democracy).
Saakashvili, or Misha as he is known in Georgia, westernized the country’s universities, sent students to the United States and Europe, and brought Western tourists to Georgia. At the same time, he reorganized the Georgian economy by relatively brutal means, and his policies toward the country’s numerous ethnic minorities were discriminatory and assimilationist. All this has contributed to the division of society. In addition to non-ethnic Georgians, those for whom being European clashed with traditional values also felt offended.
An interesting divide exists in attitudes towards Russia. Saakashvili tried to expel Georgia from Russia. But, paradoxically, part of Georgian society is very positive about the latter. Many Georgians go to Russia to work, which means a lot in a country suffering from chronic unemployment. And so, for many in Georgia, Russia is the embodiment of El Dorado, a place with good wages and a market where all Georgian exports can be bought. Which it is by the way. Russia is also considered a stronghold of traditional non-European values. And finally – Georgia is steeped in Soviet nostalgia and longs for a time when everyone had a job and a decent income. This group sees the 2008 war not as between Russia and Georgia, but as a disagreement between Saakashvili and Putin, of which the latter is often accused.
Georgia and especially cities like Tbilisi or Batumi have developed strongly in recent years. Georgia is an attractive start-up location and has an active network of Western NGOs. The modern art scene teems alongside cool electronic music clubs. Environmental protection is on the rise. But there are also many people for whom these Western impulses represent an erosion of traditional Georgian values. Tolerance and rights of sexual minorities clash with the patriarchal and conservative nature of Georgian society. Add to that the economic ties — the lion’s share of Georgia’s business elite have accumulated their wealth in Russia, every Russian boycott of Georgian wines and mineral water has hit the country hard, Russian tourists are a major source of income, and Russians have been actively buying property in Georgia for years . What we are left with is a society where one part admires Russia while the other part has a very negative attitude.
For some reason, Estonians are valued in Georgia. I have never understood why, although I have personally experienced the so-called Estonian Bonus on numerous occasions. Cases where I was offered a discount or help after learning I was from Estonia. In exchange and as a mark of courtesy, it would be polite to know a little more about Georgia than which basement bar in Tbilisi sells the best khinkalis in the world.
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