Almost two centuries ago, the Scottish poet Robert Burns wrote in an oft-cited verse “And would some Power the small gift give us/To see ourselves as others see us! /It would from many a blunder free us, /And foolish notion:/What airs in dress and gait would leave us, /And even devotion!”
Few truer lines were ever penned, but Burns did not address the problem that Georgians now face: being overly concerned about how others see them rather than focused on the reasons why others may have those opinions and on how Georgians should combine the observations of others with their own more immediate sense of the situation they find themselves in and of what they should do about it.
That is especially important now given the recent outpouring of commentaries about Georgia, its past president, and its current situation that has appeared in both Russia and the West. Many of the observations offered have been acute, but some have reflected the way in which those making them approach Georgia and even their own agendas. And Georgians need to keep that in mind.
Three things about the observations of others on Georgia are particularly important to keep in mind. First, most people outside of Georgia do not pay that much attention to it except when there is a crisis. As a result, they tend to evaluate Georgia in terms of what it does in response, something that gives a premium to those who thrive on conflict or present themselves as the saviors of the situation. Once such Georgians gain that epithet, most outside observers ignore many of the nuances of their behavior that may be the most important things to Georgians themselves.
Second, outsiders tend to focus more attention on Georgia when they see or are told that the interests of their country be it Russia or the United States or Europe are directly involved. That gives an additional advantage to Georgians who talk about their country not as a country but rather as a counter in some grand game. Obviously, there is some truth in that: Georgia is a small country, and it is at the center of an intense and intensifying geopolitical conflict. But that is not the whole truth, and one might forget that if one read only what outside commentators talk about. They do have their interests, but so too do the Georgians – and it is important to remember that as parallel as they may be on occasion, they are not the same.
And third, most of the commentaries that have appeared are by the nature of commentaries limited to one issue or another, highlighting one development and thus throwing almost all the others into the shadows. That is inevitable and even on occasion useful, but it can and does distort the situation. Focusing on August 2008 or the most recent parliamentary and presidential races is useful, but a broader and longer view requires integrating judgments about those events with the complexities of Georgian life. Oversimplification makes for good briefings and good op-eds, but there is always the risk that the distortions it introduces can be dangerous.
Georgians should be very pleased that their country is important enough for others to pay attention to. But despite the old observation that all publicity is good publicity, an injunction some Georgians seem compelled to act on, not all commentaries are equally valuable or equally true or equally comprehensive. That would seem to be a commonplace, but in the febrile atmosphere of Tbilisi, it is sometimes forgotten. But forgetting it or thinking that Georgians should judge their country only on the basis of what one or another group of outside observers or countries think is a path to disaster.
This is not a call for Georgians to ignore what others say. Sometime they offer real wisdom. William Courtney, the former US Ambassador to Tbilisi, recently observed that what Georgia needs is “leaders not messiahs.” That is absolutely true. But it also needs active citizens who, while drawing on the opinions of others, will make up their own minds and act – rather than waiting for someone else to do so. If Georgia has that kind of citizens, it will survive, even flourish, despite being located in one of the worst neighborhoods in the world. If it doesn’t, no messiah inside or from the outside will be able to save it.