A woman researcher in Tbilisi: post-fieldwork reflections
Centre for Russian and East European Studies
University of Birmingham
I carried out research in Tbilisi, Georgia, as a part of my PhD project on youth political activism during "colored revolutions." I conducted about twenty interviews with former Kmara activists,2 politicians, representatives of NGOs, and political analysts. However, I believe that a significant part of my knowledge was inhaled in the air of crowded cafes, restaurants, my friends' houses and trips where I discussed countless issues on a Georgian theme.
I arrived in the Republic of Georgia in the middle of September 2006, when the weather was still warm and grape season in its peak. My Georgian friend had found a little apartment for me before I arrived. It was located in the Vake district, which is regarded as a safe and quite posh area with a number of internationals living there. The UN offices were about a five-minute walk from my place. There were no mailboxes, I noticed, and none of the many letters sent to me by my friends ever reached its destination in Tbilisi. However, when there was something important I had to receive I could always use the office address of one of my friends. It always got there.
The first two weeks I decided to give myself some time to adjust to a new situation. I had days of enormous excitement and days of total depression when I could not get out of bed and face the outside world. Fortunately, after a few weeks the balance of my moods became more stable and I was ready to engage in academic work. This worked well for me, and I would advise anyone to spend the first days after arrival on walks, looking around, getting to know the city and meeting people. I could be wrong, but I think the aggressive approach of going straight to business would not be very successful. It was not only me who needed some orientation. There were also Georgians that had to get used to my presence there.
A woman's point of view
During my almost three-month-long stay I was never bothered by anyone in a rude way. Actually, for a country where a toast for women and beauty is among the first ones made at the table a young lady is treated very politely. Of course with the Georgian hot-bloodedness I couldn't escape some dating propositions, but a polite and decisive "no, thank you" was usually enough to discourage the admirer. The approach to women in Georgia, however, has many contradictions. The mother is an untouchable ideal but she usually only serves guests during parties and never joins the table. While there are many incredibly intelligent women working for government or numerous NGOs, they are often judged by their looks and not their experience and skills. While I was frequently appreciated as a krasavica (Eng. beauty) - it took me some time to prove that I take my research seriously and in fact I can think.
To oppose those prejudices or to accept them - it was my own decision as foreigner. My first spontaneous critical comments about the gender issue in Georgia were not given a warm welcome as one can imagine. Having been "gently" criticized as a feminist brainwashed by Western ideas, I decided to go with the flow and to observe rather than to oppose.
The "observer's approach" made my life much easier. I also learnt that many of my judgments were made too quickly. Despite my extensive travels I have never seen any country loved so much by its own citizens. Maybe that is why all the traditions and informal rules that constitute part of the beloved national culture are still accepted and followed, even if they discriminate against some groups in society. Everyone seems to have his or her own place in the thick web of close interpersonal and interfamilial bonds. That is the way it has been for the past thousands of years and it will probably continue as such.
Nationalism in Georgia was really striking to me from the first day I arrived there. It seemed to me that there was just one big nationalist party, and only Georgians had the right to criticize it. They are extremely proud of their historical roots reaching back to ancient Colchidia; they are proud of their outstanding food and wine; they are proud of their hospitality, traditions and picturesque landscapes. They are also proud of their stubborn resistance towards Russian imperialistic inclinations. Definitely, no pro-Russian human being would have a chance to exist in the Georgian political arena.
As a careful listener I appreciated amazing stories about Georgia and Georgians that took me inside the complicated Caucasian temperament. These mountainous people make a clear division between what is right and what is wrong. Black is black and white is white. People are either beautiful or ugly, smart or stupid. That is however only the first layer of their georgianess. The second one comprises exceptions from "the black and white rule." These include: family and friends always come first and when they are in trouble no rule applies; children and drunks are always forgiven; when it is possible to bribe someone to make things go faster, do it.
Many of these paradoxes have an application in political life. Mistakes made by handsome and charismatic politicians are easily forgiven. People often worship leaders instead of focusing on the party platform. Authoritarian decisions are perceived as features of the "strong man" and are ignored if made with a reference to "greater democracy". Certainly, this is a generalization and I have participated in many constructive political discussions with people without illusions when it comes to real politics. Moreover, the above-mentioned description could apply to many other countries besides Georgia. Nevertheless, I found it more noticeable than in other countries and many of my friends in Georgia agreed with my observations.
Due to Georgia's mixture of nationalism and tolerance I had to be very careful in making comments on ethnic minorities. The topic of civil wars seemed to be pushed back and hidden in the collective consciousness. I heard many times that Georgians are tired of being berated, especially from Western experts. Keeping in mind their national pride, I imagine it has to be difficult for them to accept their underdeveloped position in the modern world. It is remarkable how cleverly the concept of "small country" is used in Georgia, depending on the situation. In relations with Russia they portray themselves as victims of a great evil power (and I think they have right to do so). In relations with the United States they need a great power's protection. In relations with other Caucasus countries they feel superior and want to be left in peace to enjoy the lazy life of wine connoisseurs. In relations with Europe they underline their strategic geopolitical location and demand more attention.
Before I left Poland my friend told me that I should have no problems with finding ex- activists to tell me their story. He said that often protesters feel underestimated and will appreciate their voice being heard. The situation I found was quite different. A good number of ex-Kmara core-campaigners became quite influential young political players, if not the rising stars of Georgian politics. Most of them would make an appointment with me without difficulties. Some were impossible to get hold of, and I thought they were probably bored with giving interviews about the Rose Revolution. Those who joined the opposition were the most disposed to give me an interview on both their initial enthusiasm towards Saakashvili and later disappointment with current presidential decisions.
Due to the courtesy of my old friends from the Central European University in Budapest
I was given my own desk at the Liberty Institute. It is a non-governmental (or rather pro-governmental) organization that is also known as an informal but influential decision-making center of Georgian regime, "a shadow government." I could not ask for a better place to follow governmental politics. To research a broader spectrum of Tbilisites' opinions on national affairs I voluntarily joined the intensive night life of cozy cafes. Luckily, many of my friends were quite skeptical about recent turns in Georgian politics, so I could balance what I had heard during the day. However, it must be said that no one so far poses a threat to Misha's 3 dominating position in all conversations about politics. Some people love him, some take what he says with a pinch of salt, some joke about him,4 some hate him. In any case he does amazing job being on peoples' tongues all the time.
What makes it easier
There were three factors that made my research easier, more fascinating and an unforgettable experience. First, having friends in Georgia prior to arrival mattered more than in any other country I have been to. Starting with finding an apartment and ending with professional connections. Georgian friends are irreplaceable. Everyone knows everyone. Almost everyone in Tbilisi knew someone working for the government or an NGO who could help me to reach a potential interviewee. When neighbors saw me among Georgians, I somehow became safe and untouchable. I met many foreigners in Tbilisi and some of them were really lonely. Although hospitality is a Georgian trademark it is not that easy to become a part of society. Of course, there are many internationals and it is almost impossible to be left alone, but nothing can replace the impressions gathered as an "insider."
From time to time I had the impression that Georgians were watching me very carefully. Once they noticed that I really appreciated the food, the culture, the city and - most importantly - the WINE, I began to hear more in-depth confessions, and - surprisingly - some criticism of Georgia and themselves. The patience (if not the glasses of wine I had to drink) paid me back handsomely. I even had the honor of making the all-important toast a couple of times, but it was never as good as the tamada's (Eng. toastmaster).
Being from Poland also appeared to be a big plus. Our shared national histories of rebellion helped me to break the ice with many Georgians. Coincidentally, during my stay in Tbilisi both countries made news opposing the big neighbor. The Georgian "spy crisis" and the Polish "meat crisis" brought the issue of Russian economic pressure into the international arena, and Georgians treated me like a brother in arms. Although very limited, my knowledge of Russian greatly facilitated small talk with taxi drivers. They usually belong to the older generation that speaks Russian quite fluently. I was always encouraged by them to find a Georgian husband, stay in the country, visit their family, and I was never ripped off (well, maybe once or twice). Speaking of taxis, cars without windows or lights are still in use in Georgia so one should be ready for that exotic experience.
Finally, my student ID from an English institution opened many doors for me. The University of Birmingham is well known in Georgia and people really appreciate education in Western countries. Many times I had the feeling that my respectable interviewees were surprised by my age and gender. I guess the term "researcher from Great Britain" brings different associations. However, after the initial surprise they would switch into the interview routine and engage in serious conversation.
Although several times Georgians commented, "You are a foreigner, you can do whatever you want," I tried to blend into the Caucasian lifestyle as much as I could. Sometimes I met with success, sometimes with failure, but "doing whatever I want" turned out to be misguided advice. I believe everyone who visits this fascinating country will experience it very differently. However, most of the people I've met that have had a chance to live there seem to agree on one thing: it is impossible to define Georgia in one or two sentences. Behind any conclusion another one that challenges it is hidden. With all its traditionalism (and backwardness) even Georgia has not been able to escape "rush hour." The capitol is starting to resemble any other European city. The president is a Western-educated lawyer who strives to jump over all the years dividing Georgia from Central European countries. Even the passers-by stroll faster on Rustaveli Avenue according to Francis, a researcher from Amsterdam, who has been visiting Georgia for years. This, however, does not seem to worry Georgians too much. "We are a small country," they'd say. "We have been invaded by foreign forces and culture many times. We bend this or the other way but our Georgian spirit could never been taken from us." Then, they would make their last toast as always: Sakartvelos Gaumarjos!