Like many Eurasian counties, Georgia enjoys a wide variety of regional diversity and local differences. Whilst all are patriotically Georgian, each region of the country maintains its own local customs and traditions which fascinate the curious westerner. Over the course of the past month, I have been fortunate enough to be able to visit some of these regions, to see Georgia beyond the international, cosmopolitan city of Tbilisi.
Our first excursion out of the city was to Gori, a historical center of Georgian culture and politics. It remains a politically important area today, as it is very close to the disputed border with the separatist republic of South Ossetia. As we approached the region, there was a noticeable increase in military personnel, many of whom were no doubt stationed nearby. About two weeks prior to our visit, the dispute with South Ossetia has flared up again, as the separatists had claimed additional land as part of their territory. Though only about an hour and a half’s drive from Tbilisi, the atmosphere was noticeably different due to the region’s security reality.
Our second journey outside of Tbilisi was to Batumi, about as far from the capital as is possible to go. Located on the Black Sea, Batumi has received considerable investment as a vacation destination and as a major port town. While still under development, it was easy to imagine what the city could be built into in the next decade.
What was immediately obvious to me however was the visible presence of the Russian language. While it is common to hear Russian spoken in Tbilisi, all of the street signs and advertisements are in Georgian (or bilingual Georgian-English, depending where you are). In Batumi, Russian signs were everywhere. The city is a popular tourist destination for people throughout the former Soviet space, and Russian very much remains the language of inter-ethnic communication, regardless of politics.
What was even more fascinating for me however was the deep history of Batumi. The city is the center of the Ajara region, which historically was a part of the Ottoman Empire. Many Ajarans converted to Islam and assimilated into Turkish society during this time, whilst still maintaining their local language and elements of Georgian identity. Current Turkish President Erdogan is himself descended from such Georgians, showing the continued legacy of this era.
While most Ajarans have since “re-converted” to the Georgian Orthodox Church, their historical distinctiveness continues to have political effects. The region was granted autonomous status under the Soviet Union due to its religious distinction, something which was virtually unheard of in the rest of the USSR, where religious identity was actively suppressed. This autonomous status was continued by the independent Georgian state, though many locals seemed skeptical that it may continue into the future.
Visiting the different regions in Georgia was very rewarding for me. All too often, Westerners in the former Soviet countries tend to live in “expat bubbles” in the capital cities, where English is common and the comforts of home never far away. Stepping outside of these circles allows one to see “the real Georgia,” to see another side of the country which most foreigners miss. If you have the opportunity to visit the country in the future, I highly recommend that you take the time to visit the regions. I won’t use cliches like “it will open your eyes,” but you will learn a lot and make your time in Georgia more memorable.
By: Steven Luber
Term: Summer 2015