Let’s shake off August doldrums, and play a mind stretching game.
Let’s imagine democratic, free market Georgia as . . . the Cuba of the Caucasus.
For both countries, whether in the Caribbean or in the Caucasus, threat numero uno is the Colossus of the North.
This Northern Empire has a long history of interfering in . . . take your pick: a) plucky Georgia b) Cuba heroico.
According to the official narratives, aided only by geography — the Caucasus mountain range or the Straits of Florida — nationalist leaders in both countries are struggling to maintain culture and sovereignty in face of an overbearing neighbor. Russia has 32 times the population of Georgia. The United States with 28 times the population of Cuba.
To defend the nation, a charismatic and canny leader glues his nation closely to a faraway superpower.
Arriving in Georgia, a traveler leaving Tbilisi’s international airport travels down George W. Bush highway, complete with a smiling billboard portrait of the 43rd President.
A nearby road is John Shalikashvili Avenue, named after the son of a Georgian prince who rose to become chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff. Across town, the massive new U.S. Embassy spreads across a large lot on George Balanchine Street, named after the American ballet choreographer whose father was a Georgian composer.
For a small nation, this is a U.S. Embassy on steroids, employing about 400 people – undoubtedly far more than US missions in Croatia or New Zealand, countries with populations comparable to Georgia’s 4.4 million people. Russians might see the new building as a horizontal version of the former Soviet Embassy in Havana, a 20-story high-rise that once was the tallest building in town.
In Tbilisi, a main job of the American Embassy is to oversee the distribution of American aid to Georgia. On a per capita basis, Georgia is by far the largest recipient of aid of the 15 former Soviet republics. This largesse is partly to make amends for when Washington lost control of its young ally in Tbilisi and he attacked Russian peacekeeprers on Aug. 8, 2008.
Historians may find parallels between frantic U.S. diplomatic cable traffic between Tbilisi and Washington in the opening hours of the Georgia-Russia war and Moscow-Havana cable traffic during the tense October 1962 Cuban missile crisis. It is now known that Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev struggled to restrain his bellicose Latin ally, Fidel Castro.
Generations of well-meaning Americans have tried to reach out to the Castro regime in Cuba. They seem to ignore that anti-Americanism is a key pillar supporting the Castro brothers’ rule. The day relations are ‘normal’ and McDonald’s plants its flag in Havana will likely be the beginning of the end of Castroism in Cuba.
Similarly, Russo-phobia is a pillar of President Mikheil Saakashvili’s government. In the last year, World War II monuments have been blown up or removed from Georgian cities. A new law calls for excising all Soviet symbols from public places, down to the five pointed stars on wrought iron bridges.
On Tbilisi’s showcase Rustaveli Avenue, there is a Museum of Soviet Occupation — an ideological mirror of Cuban museums devoted to imperialismo yanqui.
Georgia is closing Russian language schools “for lack of demand.” Russian language TV, Radio and public signage are severely restricted.
As a result, post-Soviet Georgians, those under 35, speak Russian poorly. When diplomatic relations are one day restored and Georgians can travel north again, they will have a hard time communicating with their estimated 500,000 ethnic cousins living in Russia.
Instead of learning the language of the neighborhood, Tbilisi has mandated that all school children learn English. A literacy corps sends young American and British English teachers to villages across this land, which is about the size of Ireland. While English is nice, Britain, the closest, major English speaking country, is 3,000 kilometers to the west.
Russian is still the lingua franca used by most of Georgia’s neighbors and tourists, with Turkey being the exception.
In a parallel linguistic anomaly, it is not hard to find people in Cuba, generally over 40, who speak good Russian and no English. Not very useful, given the neighborhood.
While Georgians (read Cubans) complain about the unfair trade embargo imposed by their heavy handed neighbor to the north, they do not seem in a hurry to do anything about it.
High atop a government office tower in Tbilisi, I asked Vera Kobalia, Georgia’s Canadian-trained Minister of Economy, about Georgia’s inability to sell its famous wines and mineral waters in Russia, historically Georgia’s primary market.
The Minister’s blue eyes glazed over. She repeated the party line that the Russian embargo has actually been good for Georgian wines, that they have improved labeling, and raised quality to European Union standards.
Actually, one big beneficiary was me. Pushing a cart through a Tbilisi supermarket, I stocked up on six bottles of excellent dry white wine for the trip back to Moscow, paying the Georgian lari equivalent $50.
Commercial quantities of Georgian wine would be very welcome in Moscow. There, supermarkets peddle bottles of third rate European wine for $20. Restaurants serve miserly glasses of the same product — for $12.
In both Cuba and Georgia, a charismatic president has used his charm and charisma to work political magic with visiting foreigners.
Where Fidel use to wow visiting Europeans and Canadians with boxes of Havana cigars, Georgia’s “Misha’ Saakashvili has been known to helicopter foreign visitors from skiing in the morning in the Caucasus to swimming in the afternoon in the Black Sea. In between, Georgia’s leader can offer some of the best food and wine east of Italy.
Speaking fluent American English honed in New York City, Misha makes visiting American congressmen or TV correspondents feel right at home. His heartfelt attacks on Russian expansionism are music to the ears of a generation of Americans who came of age during the Cold War.
In a similar note, Fidel Castro’s rants about the American-controlled enclave at Guantanamo or the failed American-supported invasion at the Bay of Pigs long struck a chord among Latin Americans who felt historically stepped on by the United States.
Where Castro’s often used his Latin charisma to out-maneuver the gringos, Saakashvili uses his Georgian brio to out-charm Russia’s Slavic leaders. In August, 2008, the Russians easily won the shooting war. But they were soundly defeated in the PR war.
Now, the north-south enmity is personal.
During the war, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said he would like to string up the Georgian President by his private parts. For his part, President Saakashvili has referred to the Russian Prime Minister as “Lilli-Putin” — a reference to the Russian leader’s short stature.
In an interview with Russian and Georgian reporters last week, President Medvedev dismissed his glad-handing Georgian counterpart as gluey, as a “barnacle.”
Saying the he would never again shake hands with President Saakashvili for starting the war, the Russian president vowed: “I will never forgive him for that, and I will not talk to him, even though he occasionally tries winking at me at various international fora.”
On the August 8 war anniversary, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov chimed in, calling the Georgian leader a “pathology and anomaly.” Then, Russia’s top diplomat cast aspersion on the Georgian’s mother, calling him “clearly a very badly brought up” person.
The school yard taunts sound familiar in the Western hemisphere.
A classic drawing by American cartoonist Jules Feiffer shows two rows of eight American presidents, starting with Dwight D. Eisenhower. Next to each president is the same caption, promising in effect: “Fidel Castro is going out on my watch.”
Instead, Fidel Castro almost outlasted Queen Elizabeth as head of state.
Since Russia is not a democracy, it is highly unlikely that it will have a variety of presidents in coming years. Many analysts believe Prime Minister Putin will return to the presidency next year, putting Russia on course for the Putin quarter century.
South of the border, President Saakashvili may take a leaf from his arch-nemesis’ book. He has engineered a constitutional change that creates a strengthened prime minister in January 2013, just when his presidential term expires. The Georgian leader may well “pull a Putin:” switch titles but keep power.
Echoing the 50-year string of American presidents who failed to get rid of Fidel Castro, we may have only seen a few chapters of what could be the long running Misha and Vlad show.
But then again, Georgia and Cuba are worlds apart. Game over.