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Bye Georgia

Tomorrow we bid our final farewell to Georgia, crossing into Russia for the big haul eastwards. Georgia has been a blast- not a single rainy night, the only train we encountered was Stalin’s and that wasn’t at midnight, but the country will long remain on my mind as being on a bold journey to break the shackles with Russia.

To understand the forces that shape this Eurasia boundary, the modern history of Georgia provides a fine case study. Its history with Russia is long – as an area often over-run by foreign hordes be it Mongols, Ottomans or Persians, the association with Russia began during the Tsar times – continued as a Soviet vassal from Stalin right up until the collapse during Gorbachev’s reign. So it’s a long history including fighting in the world wars on the Russian side. Once the wealthiest and most privileged of USSR republics, a kind of Soviet Riviera, Georgia went into an economic and political freefall before the collapse of the Soviet Union. It started on 9 April 1989, when a peaceful pro-independence demonstration was forcefully broken by the Soviet army. What followed was utter chaos: civil conflict and ethnic strife, mafia wars, crime, corruption and an almost complete collapse of public infrastructure and services.

In 1991 Georgia declared independence from Russia quickly followed by South Ossetia and Abkhazia declaring independence from Georgia. The result were the 1990’s wars involving insurgents and Russia which resulted in Georgia ending up somewhat humbled. In 2008 separatists in South Ossetia were shelling Georgian villages, the Georgian army responded and then Russia intervened as did Abkhazia separatists. A ceasefire was reached but the Russians stayed on a while in Georgia (for instance occupying the village of Gori, Stalin’s birthplace and where we spent last night). Russia withdrew but has annexed South Ossetia and Abkhazia – so Georgia has lost about 20% of its territory.

Nowadays there are still no formal diplomatic relations between Georgia and Russia, the peace isn’t easy as Georgia continues to strive to align to the West. Russia has offered to resume relations if Georgia acknowledges the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia but Georgia has refused. Despite that diplomatic impasse, economic trade between the two continues to grow in leaps and bounds. And Georgia’s overtures to the West and China (Belt and Road) continue apace. For example, Kiwis can stay here for 12 months without a visa (not their motorbikes though !), capital inflows are encouraged and tourism from the West is booming.

It’s a lovely country, very green but without any obvious dominant source of income. The population loss since independence has been significant (down to 3.9m from 5.4m) and only now are there signs of it stabilising. Work in progress.

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