There is indeed a civilizational cleavage between “Europe” and the South Caucasus. To encapsulate this cleavage in a single metaphor, one could say it is the difference between youth and age: the European sense of time seems youthful, with the certainty that the best is yet to come, despite all odds; the Georgian sense of time is pessimistic, as if everything must happen today, because tomorrow is uncertain.
As one jumps on a plane to travel from Tbilisi to Brussels, it feels like travelling in time: from a civilization where the present appears transient, the past is overwhelming and the future uncertain, to a fifteen-seconds-attention-span civilization, when “gradualism” is the essence of politics and the leap from the past to the future is often imperceptible. In Tbilisi, every political project seems like a revocable castle-on-sand, which must be completed before the sea hits the shore; in Brussels, every political project seems like a brick onto an ever greater construct, founded on solid rock.
History matters to all. For Georgians, history inspires some degree of fear. Peace and security, uninterrupted for over two generations in Europe, have never been enjoyed in the South Caucasus. Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanians share our humility, but not our fear: they have “returned to Europe,” that is, on rock-solid ground. Georgians are still building on sand. The political process is still dominated by individual initiative rather than institutional inertia. In this sense, from the margins of the European Neighborhood, “Europe” appears to be a “first come, first served” community. Alas, we appear to be, once again, latecomers.
Georgia, the same way as many other small states, has never quite held its destiny in its own hands. Even our past dwells abroad. It is mind-blowing that the entire archives of the First Democratic Republic of Georgia (1918-1921) were kept for decades in the premises of Harvard University. In 1999, a little fragment of that part of Georgian history made its way to my Embassy library, when I served as the Ambassador of the newly independent Republic of Georgia in Washington. DC and which I later transferred to the Georgian National Archives It was a letter. The author was the Foreign Minister of Democratic Republic of Georgia (1921-1921), Akaki Chkhenkeli, addressing the Interior Minister, Noe Ramishvili. At the time, both Chkhenkeli and Ramishvili were in exile, as the Bolsheviks were winning the day in Tbilisi; but Chkhenkeli at least appears confident that this was a “temporary situation.” This was wrong of course. There was to be no independent Georgian government or state for the next 70 years. In a sense, this is the history of migration and émigrés around the world: people leave their country “temporarily,” get “temporary jobs” and built “temporary homes” with children who are encouraged to think of their life “abroad” as transient. It is the proverbial toast “next year in Jerusalem,” to which all Diaspora nations can relate to.
The letter was dated 1921. The content was not of extreme historical significance. The “treasure” was its language, the underlying assumptions, the fears and objectives.
The letter could have been written yesterday in some respects: the endless quest for a foreign patron, as if a state can be built on the basis of a recipe; the fear that state-building is not proceeding as smoothly as it should, that Georgia will be assessed as a “modern partner” and found wanting: proverbially, there is a fear that foreign investors will find in Georgia a less-than-dependable business climate. All these are recurring themes.
There are of course elements unique to the historical context. The author, Akaki Chkhenkelii, longs for a community that transcends social class cleavages to emerge as “a nation.” Today, we spent less time on concepts such as “society” or “class.” Still, Georgians are still eager to complete the project of emerging as “a people,” with a single political destiny of their own, which they may own. To this end, Akaki Chkhenkeli urged for reforms, reforms, and reforms. This spirit is echoed today, as Georgia spared no cost – institutional, social, economic – to transform the state, to become “modern,” to join Europe, to be assessed and found “top of the class.”
Therefore, the language is marked by its historical context, but the main themes are the same. The common thread between then and now is the confidence that this modernizing evolution will be linear and that it is, ultimately, inevitable.
It is as if history and Europe were obliged to settle their scores with Georgia in the name of justice. Yet justice has little to do with what happened. The West would not fight what seemed to be a lost battle; not for Tbilisi, not for Baku, not for Yerevan and, later on, neither for Riga, Tallinn, Vilnius, or indeed Warsaw. And Georgians would survive, as best as they could, to try again to create a political community 70 years down the line. Still, there was nothing linear about their destiny. As one follows the 1921, underpinned by confidence for the resumption of “business as usual,” one cannot help recalling John Lennon’s famous quote: “life is what happens when you’ re busy making plans.” One could add, insecurity is what happens whilst one is looking for patrons. We need a state, for diplomacy is about securing allies and mentors, but hardly ever patrons. Indeed, miles away, another couple of Georgians, Jugashvili (turned into Stalin) and Beria, had a few thoughts of their own regarding the future of their native land.
History is made in eye’s blinking moments; today and only today can author tomorrow. And our decisions not only matter but, once made, they are irrevocable. This certainty shapes the mindset of a Georgian, not unlike people nearing the end of their life who are becoming aware of their mortality. Shevardnadze played the role he did in the 1980s, not because he had no consciousness of what was at stake, or was unaware of the dangers ahead, but because he knew that a decision not made is history shaped. There is no second chance. History in the Caucasus is unkind to those who do not seize the day, whilst not being particularly generous to those who do. We know that everything that we can build, we must build. We are a young nation with an old man’s sense of time. Still, we have yet to learn that the prime task ahead of us is building out state, not merely being “on the right side of history.”
One hopes we acquire youthful European confidence, that we shall become a nation of open horizons, when we shall produce only the history we can consume. For that, we know only too well, we must acquire European security, which means first and foremost a European State.