When I first visited Georgia, on a reporting trip, in September 1991, I arrived in Tbilisi armed with four years of college Russian – and gung ho to use it!
To my dismay, the independence-minded residents of the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic had spray painted out all public signs in Russian and were jamming all Russian language radio and TV broadcasts.
Georgia’s relations with Russia went from bad to worse, culminating in the August 2008 war between Russia and Georgia. As a legacy of this war, thousands of Russian troops remain in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two breakaway Georgian provinces that add up to 20 percent of Georgia’s internationally recognized territory.
Five years later, there are no diplomatic relations between Georgia and Russia. Although Russia joined the World Trade Organization last year, it openly flouts rules by banning imports of Georgian fruits, vegetables, and, until last month, wine and mineral waters.
To loosen things up, Georgia unilaterally dropped visa requirements for Russians 18 months ago. But Georgians still have to get visas to visit Russia. They are issued from the old Russian Embassy in Tbilisi, which operates under a diplomatic fig leaf: Russian Federation Interests Section at the Embassy of Switzerland.
Despite these obstacles, the flow of Russian tourists to Georgia this year is expected to hit half a million. Russians are the fastest growing segment in Georgia’s fast growing tourism industry. From a recent position at the back of the pack, they are suddenly second only to Turks.
Operating as “charters,” the twice-a-day flights from Moscow to Tbilisi have occupancy rates this summer that range from packed to sold out.
The VOA team was lucky to get seats on the once a day flight from Moscow to Batumi, Georgia’s Black Sea port. There are now three flights a week from Moscow to Kutaisi, Georgia’s second largest city. (If you don’t know where Kutaisi is, get with the program. It now has flights to Minsk, Kharkiv in Ukraine and Katowice in Poland. Flights are being negotiated to London and Stockholm.)
On Augugst 7, Russia and Georgia agreed to restore normal car, bus and truck traffic. Road traffic between the two neighbors had been suspended by Russia in 2006.
“It is good they are not coming on tanks,” grumbled Alexander Rondeli, a Tbilisi think tank president who has sour memories on the August 2008 war, when Russian troops cut the country in half.
For Russians visiting Georgia, there is the mild thrill of ignoring continued official Russia’s frostiness about Georgia. More important, there is the pleasure of re-discovering the age old Georgian hospitality, history and cuisine that their mothers and grandmothers told them about. To steal an old Canada advertising line to Americans, Georgia for Russians is: “Friendly, familiar, foreign and near.”
In return, Georgian wine started flowing back into Russia this summer.
Earlier this year, the well-salaried wine tasters at Russia’s Consumer Protection Agency solemnly “inspected” Georgian wines. No matter that people have been enjoying Georgian wines since 5000 BCE. No matter that, after the Russian wine boycott of 2006, Georgian wines successfully entered markets in 50 countries around the world. With great ceremony, Gennadi Onishenko, Russia’s top consumer watchdog, solemnly announced that 65 Georgian winemakers had passed his test.
As I write, Moscow supermarkets happily charge $60 for a Georgian wine that retails in Tbilisi for $6. This price gouging fiesta may be short lived. By the end of this year, Russia may import as many as five million bottles of wine from Georgia.
Behind wine bottles flowing north and tourists flowing south, there is a new pragmatism.
Without saying so openly, the leaders of Russia and Georgia have agreed to disagree on the issue of the two breakaway regions controlled by Russian troops. The Russians have dug in, and show no sign of pulling out.
Faced with this reality, Georgia’s pragmatic prime minister, Bidzina Ivanishvili, has focused on deliverables – wine and tourists. In his interview with VOA last week, Ivanishvili was welcoming to Russian visitors – whether speaking in Georgian on camera, or speaking in Russian while strolling the gardens of his estate on the shores of the Black Sea.
Back in Tbilisi, where there are still no signs in Russian, an entrepreneurial Georgian friend sounded me out about his idea for a journalism venture in Moscow: a monthly travel magazine — in Russian on Georgian. The goal would be to re-introduce a new generation of Russians to Georgia.
Sounds like a winner to me.
(Top photo: view of Black Sea from the Botanical Gardens in Batumi. Photo: Arpine Grigoryan/flickr.com)