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  • Writer's pictureSyed Akhtar Mahmood

Monasteries, balconies and the best red wine in the world!: A Georgian travelogue

Part I: The Bishop and the President

It is said that the Georgians were late.

God had finished allocating different parts of the earth to various nationalities when, huffing and puffing, the Georgians came - to get their share. An annoyed God told them that there was nothing he could do. He had allocated all the lands, and the Georgians, who were partying and drinking, should have kept an eye on their watches. "But we were partying and drinking in your name, God!", said the Georgians. God was impressed and decided to be generous. "Well, there is this last plot of land that I had kept for myself", he said, "but you are first people I know who party and drink in my name- so I would give it up for you!".

With Bishop Sergei

It is perhaps appropriate then, that the best red wine I ever tasted was in a beautiful Georgian monastery, up in the hills in northern Georgia not far from the border with Dargestan, Russia. I was marveling at the iconic pictures on the walls of this monastery, with the chants of the monks in a nearby room adding a haunting ambience, when Bishop Sergei broke my trance. Bishop Sergei is one of the largest human beings I have ever met and the first sight of him from our bus as we approached his monastery was forbidding. But he had one of the warmest hand-shakes I had ever experienced and the hospitality that he and his monks showed that afternoon was extraordinary!

The best red wine in the world!

Some say Georgia is the birthplace of wine. I do not know if that claim is true but Georgian wine is surely of very good quality and the monastery we visited that balmy November afternoon was located in the wine country in northern Georgia. But wine was not on my mind when I stepped into that beautiful monastery. I was looking at the paintings and admiring the ambience along with my colleagues when I saw someone extend an exquisitely beautiful glass towards me. "You must taste this wine", Bshop Sergei said, "it is one of the best you will ever have". And he was right! I only wish I had more time to enjoy the red wine that the Bishop offered. But our next meeting was with the President of Georgia - and his restless aides were hurrying us along.

* * * * * * * * * *

Mikheil Saakashvili was in his mid-twenties when the call came from home. He had just got a law degree from Columbia University in New York and, after a stint at George Washington University in Washington DC, he was working for a law firm in New York. This was 1995 and elections had just been announced for the Georgian Parliament. After the initial years of transition following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Georgia was going to take the first major step towards democracy. A friend called, asking Mikheil to return and with him, and many others of his generation, contest for a seat in the Parliament. He packed his bags, left what could have been a promising career as a lawyer in the US, and returned home. "Was this an easy decision for him, or did he agonize over it?" - my question to him that afternoon did not evoke a direct answer. The decision, nonetheless, turned out to be right one. He won and immediately got appointed as Chairman of an important Parliamentary Committee. Then, in 2000, barely in his thirties, Saakashvili became Justice Minister. He resigned a year later but was back in government in January 2004 after winning the Presidential elections that followed the Rose Revolution of 2002. Mikheil Saakashvilli was the youngest President in Europe at that time.

In his six years as President, Saakashvili and his young associates have brought about remarkable changes to the country. The most notable perhaps is the crackdown on corruption but there have been other reforms as well –on the World Bank Group’s “Doing Business” indicators that measure progress in improving the regulatory framework for business, Georgia was recently named as the country with the most progress during the past five years, surpassing the other 182 countries covered by the indicators. But all is not well. Concerns have been expressed about high-handedness and human rights violations from time to time. And the Russians are concerned about the strongly pro-western orientation of the government.

Waiting for the President to arrive

When he met us at a resort, two and a half hours drive from the capital Tbilisi, Saakashvili was initially in a relaxed mood. We were meeting him on a terrace with a spectacular view. On one side was a beautiful lake framed by the mountains on the Russian border. On the other side, we could see valleys filled with vineyards that reminded us that this is the country which some people claim is the birthplace of wine. The President’s aides told us that he will join us in a few minutes and that we should relax and enjoy the food and drinks that have been laid out for us. I was interested in taking photographs and wanted to check if the President would be ok with that. So when I noticed a handsome Georgian, in jeans and a casual sports jacket, talking to some of my colleagues, I thought of going and asking him. But before I could, he muttered something about being back in a few minutes and left the terrace. He would have been the perfect person to ask for that was none other than Mikheil Saakashvili himself! Like a good host running a few minutes late, the President had come up to apologize and check if we were doing ok.

President Saakashvili giving his speech

Ten minutes later, he was back but this time in a more formal, Presidential, mode. The podium had been set up for the TV cameras. With the presidential and national flags beside him, and the spectacular view of the lake and the mountains framing him from the back, Saakashvili spoke to us. But he spoke in his native language and the headphones which carried the translation told us that the President’s flamboyance and demagogy was aimed more at his country folks than his international guests. He did take questions which he answered partly in English and partly in Georgian. But as I mentioned before, he was less than forthcoming in his answers. It was clear who his real audience was that day. It was his fellow Georgians – but also the powers beyond the borders.

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