While Nino Goguadze was working as an election monitor in Egypt on behalf of the Atlanta-based Carter Center in 2012, she heard about Emory University’s law school.
The Georgia citizen and city council member for Atlanta’s sister city of Tbilisi, the capital, applied for a scholarship and was accepted, resulting in what she calls “one of the best years of my life.” She graduated with a law degree and returned to Tbilisi last year.
But it wasn’t always smooth sailing for this foreign-sounding Georgian in her adopted Peach State.
“Usually, when I told people I’m from Georgia, they didn’t understand,” recalled Ms. Goguadze, one of 50 members on council. “They knew I was not American, but they didn’t know there was another Georgia. Sometimes I had to explain that my Georgia is between Russia and Turkey.”
Her experience exemplifies the challenge for her country, which is less than half as populous or as large as the U.S. state that shares its name. Georgia is trying to hold onto its unique, 3,000-year-old cultural identity and carve out an international niche for itself in the shadow of its much larger neighbor and former occupier, Russia, which still looms large in its security situation 25 years after independence from the Soviet Union.
It was only eight years ago when Georgia fought a brief but bloody war with Russia, losing control over two disputed territories in the process: Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Violence also recently flared anew between two of Georgia’s neighbors — Armenia and Azerbaijan — threatening the stability of the entire Caucasus region.
And Russia still occupies Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which together make up 20 percent of Georgia’s territory. Moscow continues a barrage of propaganda against its tiny neighbor, raising alarms that history might at some point repeat itself. As Russia remains a headline issue at the NATO alliance summit this week, Georgia finds itself on the outside looking in. Like Ukraine, it’s one of many former Soviet republics in Eastern Europe and Central Asia that is looking West but held back by both its history and current diplomatic situation.
“This is a painful issue to me. I was one of the first students at American universities who wrote about Russian aggression in Ukraine, which indirectly relates to our case,” says Goguadze. “The idea that NATO membership for Georgia would provoke Russia is a part of Russian propaganda. I don’t expect they will attack Georgia, but we have no choice. We have only one way to go: to the West.”
Georgia seeks not only for membership in NATO but also massive foreign investment to shore up its troubled economy. Even though Georgia saw its GDP grow by 3.5 percent last year, the drop in oil prices draining Russia’s once-booming economy has hurt Georgia as well. The national currency, the lari, has lost 30 percent of its value relative to the dollar since November 2014.
“Right now it’s really an important time in Georgia,” Sarah Williamson, president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Georgia and a native Texan, told Global Atlanta. “The government is very pro-democracy and very pro-business. They want to get this right. They don’t want to do things quickly that don’t end up right.”
Ms. Williamson’s AmCham currently has 200 members, nearly half of them U.S. companies. These include Atlanta-based Coca-Cola Co. along with GMT Group, which owns several local Marriott hotels; Bechtel, which is helping BP extend a gas pipeline from Azerbaijan to Turkey via Georgia, and New Jersey-based Conti International LLC, which along with its local partner plans a $2.5 billion container terminal at Anaklia, on Georgia’s Black Sea coast.
Anaklia is located only five kilometers south of the so-called border that separates Georgia from the breakaway republic of Abkhazia, which has been under Russian military occupation since the 2008 war.
A similar “border” north of Tbilisi divides Georgia from South Ossetia — a breakaway province that, along with Abkhazia, declared independence from Georgia in the wake of that conflict. But aside from Russia itself, only three nations recognize the “independence” of these two enclaves: Nicaragua, Venezuela and the Pacific island microstate of Nauru (itself only eight square miles).
On our first day of a five-day press tour in Georgia, a military escort transported our four-member team of journalists to Tskhinvali, about 70 kilometers from Tbilisi and only five kilometers from the main highway. As modern buildings gave way to villages and then crumbling huts, the dirt road on which we were traveling ended abruptly, and before us stood an expanse of barbed wire stretching 51 kilometers into the distance.
This was the de facto “border” thrown up by Russian troops in 2011, explained Tamta Goguadze, a spokeswoman for Georgia’s State Security Service, as she cautioned us not to point our cameras in the direction of Russian soldiers on the other side — or to venture too close to the bilingual sign declaring this to be a “border” in the first place.
Legal or not, the barbed wire has virtually isolated pensioner David Vanishvili.
“I cannot even buy bread,” the 83-year-old farmer shouted from the other side, as our guide translated the old man’s pleas into English and a golden retriever rolled in the grass nearby. “I’m hungry. I don’t have Russian money from over there, or Georgian money from here. Kind people who know my situation pass me food through the fence.”
Not far away, Gocha Makishvili explains how he was collecting firewood in the fall of 2012 when he was suddenly detained by a Russian soldier in his own backyard.
“They told me I had crossed the border illegally,” said Mr. Makishvili, who looks far older than his 31 years would suggest. The Russians forced him into a car and took him to an FSB prison in Ghduleti, less than one kilometer away. They kept him there for three days, roughed him up and freed him only after his family paid 2,000 rubles (about $30).
“Unfortunately, we cannot do anything,” said Ms. Goguadze, the state security spokeswoman. Pointing to a map of the region, she explained that in 2013 and 2014, the Russian troops detained 142 Georgians in their own country. In 2015, that number had risen to 163, and so far this year, 71 Georgians have been detained.
Ketevan Bochorishvili, Georgia’s vice-minister of economy and sustainable development, said that as grave as the problem is, Russia’s occupation of one-fifth of Georgian territory has not been a serious impediment to foreign investment.
“All these international companies who are here did due diligence, they studied the situation and decided to invest in our country anyway. The Georgian government has pledged that we will not get involved in an armed conflict. There is no way we’ll win,” she says. “What we are looking for is to develop economically so that the people living in the occupied territories will want to go back to Georgia.”
She adds: “Investment is very important to us. It’s not only an economic issue, it’s a security issue. More Western investment means more security for our country.”
Among other things, Georgia has boosted its wine sales dramatically. In the first quarter of 2016, wine exports generated $19 million, up from $10 million in the year-ago period. The country is also trying to jumpstart its moribund tea industry; during Soviet times, it supplied 95 percent of the tea consumed by the entire USSR).
“Georgian traditional winemaking is very unique. Two years ago, it won protection from UNESCO as a non-tangible asset,” Ms. Bochorishvili says. “We have red, white and rosé, and we’re adding amber. Officially, we drink 50 liters per person annually, but I think it’s much higher because everyone has a vineyard.”
One especially bright spot is tourism. With its ancient Orthodox monasteries, quaint cities and majestic snow-capped mountains, Georgia is a favored tourist attraction for both Russians and Israelis. In fact, at nearly every hotel we stayed at, Russian and Hebrew seemed to drown out all other languages — including Georgian.
Last year, Ms. Bochorishvili said, Georgia saw a 17 percent rise in foreign visitors and a 24 percent jump in the number of foreigners who overnighted in Tbilisi. All told, nearly 5.9 million people came to Georgia last year, generating $2 billion — or 6.7 percent of Georgia’s GDP. Back in 2005, the country received only 300,000 foreigners.
Ms. Bochorishvili said she’s negotiating with airlines to offer direct flights to Tbilisi from Amsterdam, Berlin, Brussels and Milan. Georgia is already being heavily promoted in nearby markets such as Armenia, Azerbaijan, Hungary, Ukraine and the Baltic states.
Her goal: to reach 11 million international visitors by 2025, which means increasing the number of people employed in the tourist sector from 180,000 to 330,000.
No direct flights currently exist between U.S. and Georgian cities, and American tourists are a relatively rare sight; last year only 30,000 ventured here. But that might rise following a TV segment on Georgian cuisine and drink by Anthony Bourdain, host of CNN’s Parts Unknown, that aired only a week before our arrival. And on a recent trip to Atlanta, representatives from Tbilisi’s City Hall were excited to learn about the new Turkish Airlines flight between Atlanta and Istanbul. From the Atatürk International Airport, Turkish offers three flights a day to Tbilisi and two daily flights to Batumi — a two-hour trip to either destination.
One of Georgia’s biggest boosters in the United States is John Hall, the country’s honorary consul in Atlanta and chairman of the Atlanta-Tbilisi Sister City Committee.
Last month, he was among some 800 diplomats, lawmakers, lobbyists and other VIPs crammed onto the rooftop terrace of a Washington office building to sip Georgian wine, sample khachapuri cheese bread, listen to speeches and hear a polyphonic choir sing traditional Georgian folk songs as the sun set over the nearby U.S. Capitol.
The occasion was the 25th anniversary of the regaining of independence by Georgia, which has its own unique alphabet and boasts more than a dozen climatic zones.
At the event, Mr. Hall said the unusual pairing of sister cities started with former President Jimmy Carter, who sent 250 Atlantans to the then-Soviet republic back in 1977. Ten years later, on May 4, 1987, the Atlanta City Council approved a resolution establishing a sister-city relationship “regardless of the ideological differences that exist between our two countries.”
At one point, well over 2,000 Georgians were living in the Peach State, though since the 2008 war that number has declined to around 1,500. That’s according to Nina Tickaradze, marketing director at the Atlanta law firm of Hall Booth Smith P.C. and founder of the Georgia to Georgia (GA2GE) Foundation, a nonprofit group that assists humanitarian efforts, promotes education and funds sustainable agriculture in Georgia.
“The CDC and Emory attract a lot of Georgians to Atlanta, and when they finish their fellowships or programs, they usually go back home,” said Ms. Tickaradze, who has lived in the state since 1990. Besides Atlanta, smaller numbers of Georgians also live in Savannah and Macon.
Meanwhile, said Hall, the federal Overseas Private Investment Corp. has helped many U.S. companies do business in Georgia, including local companies that export pork and poultry products to the former Soviet republic.
“And when Georgians are looking for business opportunities in this country, we’ll introduce them to U.S. companies. We also raise money to send to orphanages there, through the Georgia business community,” Hall said, adding that Atlanta will host a big celebration in June 2017 to mark the 30th anniversary of the sister-city relationship — founded back when Georgia was one of 15 republics that formed the USSR.
Tbilisi chef Tekuna Gachechiladze, owner of the upscale Littora restaurant in Tbilisi, says Georgians have no desire to look back.
“During Soviet times, you couldn’t enjoy anything — not music, literature or cuisine. You had to follow certain standards, and you could be imprisoned even for bottling your own wine,” she said as she joined our table. “There was no thinking outside the box. We had sex, but there was no pleasure in it. The same with food; cuisine did not have to give pleasure. Yet we still kept our language and traditions, like winemaking.” The average price for dinner at Littora, which is housed in an elegant mansion, is 60-80 lari (about $35-40) — in a nation where the average salary is 1,800 lari per month.
While Ms. Gachechiladze clearly doesn’t miss the Soviet era, she fears that her small country will get swept away by the standardization and globalization sweeping the world.
“It won’t not kill me, because I’m at a different level, but it will kill the local, small tavernas,” she warned. “When Dunkin’ Donuts opened here two years ago, there was a queue for four days. In the U.S., McDonald’s is low-class but here it’s a status symbol. If you’re taking your kids to McDonald’s, it’s a family event. Even my daughter wants to have her birthday celebration at Wendy’s. I told her I’d rather kill myself.”
More Georgia photos by Larry Luxner: