Expats’ Relationship with Georgia and the Georgian Relationship with Russia

The day I arrived in Tbilisi, I dropped my bags where I was staying and went out to walk around aimlessly. Soon I was approached by a man who asked me if I wanted to have a drink with him and his friend because “I looked alone.”

After asking whether they were creepy and receiving the necessary assurances that they were not, I sat down. The two turned out to be from Cyprus; one worked in Georgia, and the other was vacationing. Later, two 18-year-old German girls who were doing a social-service gap year in Tbilisi joined us. I, sandwiched between three expats and one other vacationer, did my best to gauge what Georgia was all about.

Fortunately for me, conversation soon turned to life in Georgia, specifically what was backwards about it. As the conversation continued, the sense of incongruity that had followed me since I arrived in Georgia became more and more disorienting.

Cypriot: “It’s so bad that people don’t recycle here! Even when I was living in Turkey, they recycled.”

(Note: I have never seen anybody recycle in Turkey, and I’ve been to almost every major Turkish city except Antalya. Dear Turkish friends, please enlighten me as to how I’ve managed to miss the thriving Turkish recycling scene.)

German girl: Oh yes. It’s SO bad! In Germany we have a place for paper, glass, plastic, and metal. Here they are not even separating their GLASS!

Cypriot: There is not even a company for them to give their recyclables to! Back in Turkey ten years ago we were separating our recycling.

German Girl 2: I even saw a German product here that had a sticker on it that said that you would have gotten money back for it in Germany!

Ah yes. Quite terrible.

The next topic was pharmacies.

Cypriot: It is so terrible that you can just buy things here without a prescription! It’s very dangerous to take drugs without having them prescribed by a doctor.

(Note: This is the same Cypriot who lived in Turkey, where you can also buy drugs without a prescription.)

German girl: Yes, this is very dangerous! They should make going to the doctor necessary before you get a prescription.

Me: Uh, but maybe it’s better for the pharmacists to do the counselling for some more usual drugs. Like I don’t know that it should be necessary to have to go to the doctor to get a birth control subscription.

Cypriot: Yes, but this is very dangerous. They should really change this.

I don’t disagree with them. At home I’m an avid recycler and I generally support the prescription before purchase system. Still, having had no time to engage Georgia, something about the conversation rubbed me the wrong way. It was as if we had collectively decreed that Georgia should be exactly like us without understanding why Georgia wasn’t exactly like us.

Later that night, I my host in Tbilisi invited me to a Couchsurfing meeting. He ended up not showing up for two hours after he said he would be there, so seated myself next to two Georgian men. The first was small and full of intensity, the second other taller and calmer.

Guy 1 spotted a gay couple being openly affectionate.

Guy 1: Oh, they shouldn’t be doing that! They’ll get beat up. You can’t be different in this country. Can’t be openly gay here! No way.

Guy 2: There’s lots of openly gay people in Tbilisi…

Guy 1: Nope, sucks to live in Georgia. People earn no money. Unemployment is 80 percent.

Guy 2: Unemployment’s only about 40 percent

Guy 1: And the borders aren’t open. Russians can come here, but Georgians have a huge amount of difficulty going anywhere.

Guy 2: Things are getting better

Me: If Georgians could emigrate, do you thing they would?

Guy 1: If you told Georgians right that they could go to Europe, that they could go to Germany or Switzerland, Tbilisi would be ghost town tomorrow.

Guy 2: Makes small, almost imperceptible noise of protest, then shuts up.

Guy 1: Russia just keeps fucking with Georgia. Russia is like an evil child with a bag of toys. Instead of distributing the toys, Russia just can’t let go of the handle of the bag, which is Georgia. And the government supports them.

Guy 1 started to talk to somebody else, so I asked Guy 2 what he thought. His evaluation of the situation painted a rosier picture, although I’m not sure if I would have found it rosy if I had not first listened to Guy 1.

“Well, there are a lot of difficult things in Georgia, it’s true. Peoples salaries are low, for example. And the most recent government is very pro-Russian. But in general things are getting better. When I was growing up in the 90s, it was during the war. And it was just people in the streets with guns killing each other. And everybody was poor. My parents were academics and we were as poor as everybody else. Now, things have gotten a lot better. We’re not at war with each other any longer. In 2011, the unemployment rate was only 21%. Now that we have this pro-Russian government it has gone up to 40%, but I am hopeful that the next elections will give us something better. But the biggest problem we have to solve in Georgia now is lack of education. People really aren’t educated and so they don’t know how to solve their problems.”

Finally, my Couchsurfing host showed up with a Dutch girl who was a prolific traveller and somewhat familiar with Georgia.

Dutch Girl: It’s true that people make very low salaries – not so much in Tbilisi, but definitely in the country. Day to day it’s fine, as people typically grow or farm their own food. But if you have to go to the doctor, you’re screwed.

Aha! Perhaps it is better for Georgian pharmacies to offer drugs without prescriptions, at least for now.

I still had one burning question though. What does it mean that the unemployment rate is 40% or 80%? Is that percentage of the population that is not working, or is it the percentage of people who want to be working who are not working?

Later that evening, in conversation with my Couchsurfing host, Russia came up again.

CS Host: Oh, Russia is a very big shit. They think they own Georgia and all the post-Soviet countries. They have this imperialist attitude. Like, all people who come from those great imperialist countries have it. France, the U.K. It is all a big shit. But I am mostly hosting girls from Russia.

Wait-what-why? Why would you do that if you hate them so much?

Me: Why do you host people you don’t like?

CS Host: I must understand their psychology!

Me: And what have you learned?

CS Host: They are talking like parts of Georgia are part of Russia! Like Abkhazia is part of Russia! And they are talking about Sochi and they are not even KNOWING that Sochi was normally part of Georgia! Or they are unwilling to say that all of these places are part of Georgia – like they don’t say it’s part of Russia either, but they won’t say that it’s part of GEORGIA!

You may be surprised to learn that writing this blog doesn’t pay the bills, so I spend a lot of time teaching English lessons on Skype. My greatest student-base comes from post-Soviet countries. And while I don’t think any of my students would advocate any kind of return to the Soviet era, many of them display a certain nostalgia for the Soviet period, especially in the area of education, which was apparently not bad and free.

Not so in Georgia! So far I have uncovered no trace of nostalgia.

Intrigued by these conversations (and their intensity), the next day I decided to go to the museum of Soviet Occupation.

The museum of Soviet occupation is composed of pictures of martyrs in the struggle to free Georgia from Soviet occupation. Wall text is in Georgian and English, not in Russian, even though most tourists to Georgia are Russian speaking. A short video juxtaposes clips of protesting Georgians with clips of Russian bombers during the 2008 war and compares them to Hungarian protestors of 1956. That is pretty much all there is. I didn’t even see any discussion of collaborators.

I can’t blame Georgians for their feelings about Russia. But coming from Canada, where one of the cultural features is a certain non-intensity, these conversations were at once intriguing and uncomfortable. The idea of hosting people you dislike in order to understand their psychology seems distinctly unethical, and the intensity of the feeling towards Russia is alien to all my cultural identifications. On the other hand, I still really don’t understand this country. The pieces of the puzzle have not all fallen into place, and my erstwhile sense of incongruity and disorientation remains.

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  1. Paul says:

    Sounds a LOT like Poland! I mean this wholesale embracing of the victimist identity by locals and not so much the supremacist stance adopted by visitors (this has changed over the years, thank goodness). But it took generations of people moving abroad and building bridges before the country stopped looking primitive and started looking exotic.

    Returning to those left behind, this feeling of being owed a debt by wrongdoers leaves them in a state of particularly injured — but still very proud — nationalism. This is a hotbed for all sorts of potential problems, but let’s focus on pessimism. It reminds me of what someone once said of Chomsky: he’s great at pointing out all that is wrong but horrible at providing solutions. In running various organizations over the years I’ve found a large subset of people like this, even here in Canada. These spectres of doom quickly fade to shades when asked for something constructive or, worse yet, to actively take part in its construction. I don’t know Georgia at all but my guess is give it a few days, hang out with Guy 2 a bit more, get to know his crowd, his world. That’s the view of Georgia you probably want. I secretly hope he takes you here: youtube.com/watch?v=EuPfXQEhomo.

    As an interesting aside, the word “expat” is increasingly offensive to me. It’s loaded with a superiority that further bolsters that neocolonialist white privilege, which is bad enough without further support. A good, quick read on this topic: http://www.theguardian.com/global-development-professionals-network/2015/mar/13/white-people-expats-immigrants-migration. When you get down to the core, we’re all immigrants : ).

    Reply
    • Kate says:

      Heya Paul,

      I think you’re completely right about the victimist identity, which is not to say that I think the Soviet period was totally rosy or that I agree with the policies of the Russian government. It’s something I witness on a day to day basis living in Quebec as well – oh no, our government is corrupt, etc etc. In the words of one of my friends “You can do everything about this problem, so if you really care, stop whinging!” It’s a huge waste of energy and time and super frustrating to listen to as well. It’s also a super easy trap to fall into, (and I can speak from my personal experience here!), but ultimately I don’t think it’s a good thing.

      On the other hand, as somebody who just arrived here two weeks ago, it goes back to the post I wrote about my own culturally imperialistic attitudes. Having been here for two weeks, how much right to I really have to an opinion on the matter? Nobody forced me to come here, after all.

      In Georgia’s defense (and I will probably write a post about this soon), they have really made an effort to make Georgia an inviting country to visit. They have WAAAAY better tourism infrastructure than most cities in Canada – cheap affordable public transportation that is usually compatible with google maps, free wifi hotspots, great signage (always in English as well as Georgian) and generally helpful people. Also, the whole country is totally gorgeous. While I always find myself laughing at people who tell me that Turkey is a contender to join the EU (bet you a hundred bucks this will not happen within the next 10 years), a lot of Georgians have been telling me the same and I could actually see it happening. I don’t know who is behind these initiatives, but they are doing a good job.

      As for expats, thanks for the link to the article. I read it like, “uh-huh, uh-huh uh-wait a second.” While I totally agree with the basic premise that ‘ex-pat’ is a term set apart for certain types of people, I think there are greater connotations of choice and economics than there are of ‘whiteness.’ So for example, I think of expats as wealthy people who don’t make much of an effort to integrate into the country where they are living, not as white people per say. (The two Cypriots, for example, were not white at all; I met a Nigerian and a black guy from London later that night that I thought of as ex-pats in my head; and I’ve never heard of anybody who described themselves as an ex-pat in Canada, white or no.) For me the word ex-pat implies a certain economic/value-based condescension, and while there is certainly supremacy involved in the use of the term, I’m not entirely sure that it’s “white” supremacy.

      Also, I am wary of language wars such as this one, as when words become politically incorrect we lose shades of meaning that may remain (in politically corrected ways) present in societal attitudes. For example, white people in the States may claim not to be racist because they never use the n-word, but you don’t see a lot of them devoting their time to promoting economic equality between white people and black people. (Not that I advocate use of that word, of course, but I think that language is generally one of the less effective ways to promote equality.) So it’s great to unpack the word ‘ex-pat,’ but better to use it like it’s a negative thing than to stop using it altogether and end up with something like “all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”

      As it is, I think the term ‘ex-pat’ fits well into this post, as the people I was talking to maintained a fairly condescending attitude to Georgia. Not that I can blame them a lot – god knows I struggled (and still struggle) with similar feelings when I moved to Turkey.

      What do you think?

      Cheers,
      K

      Reply
  2. Paul says:

    Ah, as a sarcastic derision, I can see this word working. Its definition (demarcating socioeconomic status, race, country of origin v. country of residence) seems to differ a lot based on where it’s used. Still, the trend is Westerners traveling along the gradient towards the Global South are expats, and those doing the reverse are immigrants. The bottom line is it’s used mostly by rich, professional anglophones to distinguish themselves from poorer, worse-off immigrants who have just experienced intense hardship, and that’s not cool.

    Some personal experiences: I recently went to an ex-pat Meetup in Nuremberg and there were many people who didn’t fit the stereotypical mould (Greeks, Germans who wanted to practice their English, South Americans). Even so, there was already a vibe that they felt somewhat better than others, you could almost smell it. I think this is why I don’t like that word so much: it lends itself to the creation of these kinds of climates (this compared to something like a CouchSurfing meeting, where people tended to be much more open and curious and humble).

    Reply

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