Outside Georgia’s parliament building in Tbilisi a handful of protesters sit in small tents planning their next move. “We will not surrender,” reads a placard written in English nearby. Faced with what they perceive as aggression from Russia, the protesters in the Georgian capital were standing their ground – with at least one person claiming to be on hunger strike.
In previous weeks thousands had turned out on the streets for nightly demonstrations after the government allowed a Russian MP to address the Georgian parliament from the speaker’s chair. Protesters, unhappy with the decision, tried to storm the building and subsequent clashes with the police left 240 people injured. Since then there have been growing calls for the resignation of the Georgian interior minister for what was perceived as a heavy-handed response.
In the aftermath of the incident, President Putin of Russia told Russian citizens that it wasn’t safe for them to be in Georgia and cancelled flights between the two countries. The decision bemused Russian visitors in Georgia, with claims to media outlets that they didn’t feel threatened. By the time I arrived in Tbilisi the place certainly didn’t feel unsafe to me.
The recent events are a painful reminder of the strained relations that remain between the two countries that fought a brief war in 2008. Today, Russia is said to occupy about a fifth of Georgia’s territory given the support it provides to separatists in two breakaway regions – South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
Georgia officially won its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, but many say it wasn’t until the pro-Western Rose Revolution in 2003 that the country could truly claim to be on its own. The 1990s civil war had represented a difficult time, with electricity blackouts and violence on the streets.
Today, out of all the former Soviet capitals that I’ve visited Tbilisi feels one of the most modern. New buildings have sprung up in place of grey, brutalist architecture and bright shopping centres are filled with the many of the same chain stores that you find in any big western city. Craft beer bars have opened, luxury hotels abound and quality restaurants serve up tasty menus. But in the 1990s, shootings on Rustaveli Avenue – home to attractions such as the national museum and parliament building – meant it was often a dangerous place to be.
The rest of the country, outside Tbilisi, doesn’t feel as modern, but I found time and again on my recent trip that people are very welcoming to tourists. On the way to the capital from second city Kutaisi (which has direct flights to London Luton), I stopped off at Gori, where Joseph Stalin was born and joined an enjoyable free walking tour through the town centre and up to the lofty heights of a ruined fortress. Our guide had advertised the tour as a two hour walk, but she ended up spending five hours with us.
We stopped at a local Georgian restaurant for an authentic Georgian lunch, which included Khinkali (dumplings) and Khachapuri (cheese filled bread), and also discussed Georgian politics – not least the war with Russia in 2008. The conflict represented a deterioration of relations between the two countries following the 2003 Rose Revolution, which by April 2008 had reached a serious diplomatic crisis. After South Ossetian separatists, backed by Russia, began shelling Georgian villages in August 2008, Georgian troops entered South Ossetia and full-blown war broke out that month.
Gori, which lies close to South Ossetia, was one of the cities in undisputed Georgian territory that was temporarily occupied by Russia and residential districts were hit by airstrikes. Military barracks were bombed, as well as apartments (killing 60 civilians) and a school, and as you walk around the city today you can still see evidence of the attacks on buildings. Russia withdrew from most of Georgia by the end of August 2008, but the occupation of South Ossetia and Abkhazia continues.
On our Gori tour, we inevitably ended up at the Stalin museum which was built next to the Soviet leader’s childhood home. There are limited English descriptions in the exhibitions which largely consist of pictures of Stalin meeting various different people through his lifetime, but our guide kindly translated and provided us with some historical context. One room is filled with desks and other furniture, brought from the leader’s former office in Moscow, and outside you can see (and get on board) the bullet proof train that Stalin travelled on.
But the one big thing missing from the museum was criticism of the Soviet leader himself. For a man ultimately responsible for the deaths of millions of people, on this issue the displays are silent. The giant statue of Stalin may have been removed from Gori (as have similar monuments in other places in Georgia), but any critical evaluation of the dictator seems to be pushing things too far.
In the Svaneti region, we walked through beautiful mountains from near Mestia to Ushguli and stopped overnight in simple guest houses in rural villages where electricity only operates for a few hours every day. Our hosts prepared a wonderful spread of hot and cold dishes every night and then set us on our way with a generous breakfast in the morning. It’s quite surreal exploring these small villages as typically half the buildings are abandoned and it’s only thanks to tourism that local people are returning. Until the Rose Revolution in 2003 some parts of this area were considered dangerous for visitors.
Georgia has come a long way over the past 15 years, but as the events of the recent months and the ongoing occupation of two enclaves proves the tension with Russia hasn’t disappeared. To protect its independence, the country – which is on a path to joining the EU – will need all the support it can get from the west. Following the loss of air connections Russia, it has launched a social media campaign for people to ‘Spend your summer in Georgia’. This friendly country deserves your visit.