At halftime of the Sénégal-Poland match, I decided to tell the bartender of the Black Dog Bar -what had quickly become my favorite FIFA 2018 hangout in Tbilisi (Republic of Georgia)- that I’ll be needing a taxi to the rail station after the game to catch my sleeper train to Yerevan. I added that I wanted the Y****x company since I had good previous experience with it. The answer I got was: “Sir, that company is Russian. We do not work with Russian companies. I despise those ghrusis” (a Georgian slur for Russians). Left with no alternative, I told him to select what he thought was a ‘good’ company. My main concern was to not miss my train. I got a vodka made of peach, on the house, maybe for my kind understanding, and continued watching Sénégal beat Poland on a Russian channel.
I understood where the barkeep was coming from. The Republic of Georgia always had a very complicated relationship with Russia, the Soviet Union (1921-1991) and now the Russian Federation. Georgia, the second official Christian country in the world had to endure a lot from the Soviet commission on destruction of places of worship. Georgia wasn’t the hardest hit Soviet Republic however, since the Soviet Secretary General, Joseph Stalin, a Georgian native, spared his home state from massive destruction of churches in the 40s. After the break-up of the Soviet Union, Georgia as an independent country decided to challenge Soviet Russian intervention. After a very brief war between them in 2008, two large Georgian areas, Abkhazia and South Ossetia became Russian-occupied territories and are now independent countries although only recognized by a handful of official countries among others Russia, Syria, Venezuela and Nicaragua. Diplomatic relation between these neighbors have not been normalized.
We saw the same type of situation take place in Ukraine regarding Crimea. A few officials from ex Soviet Republics I have spoken to during my recent visits to the region said to have gotten Putin’s message loud and clear. And that is, if you mess with Russia, you are going to pay dearly. That is why many ex-Soviet republics and Balkan states do not dare criticize Putin’s Russia.
Putin has been very successful at creating a federation in which only he controls the message, and portrays himself the sole protector of his people, threatened by a hostile world. Putin is not only making Russia great again, but is making Russia feared once more. It is clear that Trump who appeared startled like a wet fawn in Helsinki beside Putin in a press conference cannot challenge the Russian president. The world, especially our region, cannot afford a Russian hegemony. We need a balance of power. For now we will have to maybe look to embattled Angela Merkel or wait for the outcome of presidential elections in the U.S. in 2020.
Later on that night, crossing the border a little after midnight into Armenia, I was once again reminded of the turbulent relations in that part of the world. Looking at my passport, the Armenian border agent insisted that I looked Iranian and suggested I think long and hard about my Iranian ethnicity. Then, he questioned the Turkish visa in my passport. Armenia hates Turkey, its neighbor to the left. He wasn’t done however. He wanted to make sure that after my visit to Armenia I wasn’t planning to go to Azerbaijan, its neighbor to the right, perhaps its most despised foe of all. I guess the biblical saying: “better a neighbor nearby than a brother far away” needs to become more popular over there.
*Picture: an anti-Russia sticker downtown Tbilisi, 2018 by Alex Rosaria