Georgian history is fascinating. For much of that history the country didn’t exist as an independent nation, yet against the odds has managed to maintain its unique language, culture and a fierce sense of national identity. Ever since the collapse of the Kingdom of Georgia in the 1460s, there have been only brief interludes of independence when not absorbed into the Persian Empire, the Ottoman Empire and the Russian Empire. It even found itself under British ‘protection’ after the First World War.
That didn’t last long either. In 1921 the Bolshevik Red Army marched into Georgia and didn’t leave until the fall of the USSR in 1991. There are still Russian troops stationed on Georgian soil thanks to a disastrous war fought against Russia in 2008. Georgia, it seems, has been unlucky in its neighbours. Its independence in 1991 was shattered by a series of bitter conflicts before, bizarrely, the former Soviet Foreign Minister, Eduard Shevardnadze, was elected president in 1995 with a promise of peace and stability.
Mired in poverty and corruption, the Shevardnadze government was deposed during the Rose Revolution in 2003, a series of popular protests that ended when protesters stormed the Tbilisi Parliament building with red roses in their hands. It re-established democracy and ushered in a period of progress. Although if my Georgian colleague at work is right, it hasn’t solved rampant corruption, a dependence on political strong men, or the fact that an oligarch now runs the country through a puppet Prime Minster.
Tbilisi is the stage upon which these frictions occasionally boil over into protest. The week after I left, mass demonstrations were greeted with a violent police response. There is some way to go before the young people I met in Tbilisi, who have rejected Russian for English, and look to the West and the European Union as the future of the country, see the type of progress they want for Georgia. This is a city with one foot in the past and an eye firmly fixed on the future. It’s a beguiling mix.
Not unlike its occasionally riotous politics and turbulent history, Tbilisi is a disorderly city of contradictions. The bohemian and traditional, the grotesque and beautiful all rub shoulders. The traffic is a nightmare, whether you’re driving in it (from experience, an ill-advised pastime) or just trying to cross the road. It’s a miracle that fatalities aren’t much higher. Yet, in response to an estimated 50,000 stray dogs and a rabies problem, all the dogs have been vaccinated for rabies and have tags in their ears to prove it.
Then there is the discordant mix of old and new, which somehow manages to be both picturesque and a bit depressing. Many of the neighbourhoods I wandered through felt utterly dilapidated, with many houses seemingly defying neglect and gravity. Contrast this with Rike Park, a vanity project of former president Mikheil Saakashvili. Slap-bang in the heart of the city, with a series of architectural statement pieces that redefine the phrase, ‘white elephant’.
Its crowning ‘glory’, The Peace Bridge, is likened to a disused sanitary pad by locals disgruntled by the massive cost and utterly unsympathetic way it doesn’t blend into its historic surroundings. Nearby sit the two metal tubes of the Concert and Exhibition Hall, which weren’t even completed before being abandoned. It’s an object lesson in what can go wrong when a corrupt oligarch with poor architectural taste gets hold of the reins of power.
This all contrasts sharply with the medieval splendours of Tbilisi’s old town across the river and overshadowed by the Narikala Fortress. I spent my first three days in the city exploring on foot, hot work in the Georgian summer in a town with too many hills, and I loved it. For all the discordance, it’s a vibrant and exciting place, with neighbourhoods like Rustaveli that are filled with trendy galleries, cafes, bars and restaurants. I enjoyed my time so much, I squeezed in an extra day at the end of the trip – it’s that sort of city.