zaterdag 31 mei 2014

crazy constructions pt. 2

As a rule, I don't use photos of others, but I felt a strong urgency to use the following ones, which I stole from the Facebook page of former President Mikheil Saakashvili (thanks, Els). Just because they're so awesome. 

In 2004, just after the Rose Revolution, which ended a decade of chaos in Georgia, the new President peacefully retook Ajaria for Tbilisi. Ajaria is the region in the South-west, on the border with Turkey. An ambitious renovation project was started in its capital, Batumi. The city of 200.000 gets the lion's share of its income from tourism.

It's obvious that Saakashvili deems his work not finished yet. This is the current skyline of Batumi:


I think it's still quite impressive. Considering that when I visited Batumi first in 2009, the Sheraton Hotel was the highest building, with its fourteen storeys. And it wasn't even finished yet! 


It is said that the hotel was inspired by the Alexandria Light House. I think it looks rather similar to the 'Stalin towers' found all-over Easter Europe. Anyway, by now, five years further, the hotel looks almost pathetic, and at least out of place, in between Batumi's new acquisitions: 


And I don't even know what this yellow submarine contender is supposed to be. A university building, really?

I don't know either why the Mestia airport building (Svaneti) wins all these international architectural prizes. It's supposed to represent a Georgian drinking horn (famous, because you can drink it only all at once). But well, I post the Saakashvili picture (he's great with Paint, by the way) because of the McDonalds building on the left. Imagine: McDonalds as World's Best Commercial Building!


This is the Alphabet tower, glorifying the Georgian alphabet, which is of course worthwhile glorifying: 

I would say the Public Service Hall in Batumi is relatively civilized, if you compare it with its mushroom-equivalent in Tbilisi: 


To conclude, some random impressions from Batumi. I think you got the idea.


Only in Batumi.

zondag 25 mei 2014

why these […] elections matter to me.

Last week (7-12 May) India voted for their federal parliament. Today the majority of European Union members vote for the European Parliament. (The elections started on the 22nd. The Netherlands voted on Thursday already, because of our world famous Christian conservatism. For a review of the results over there in English, read this article. Maybe read this one as well).

I don’t have to convince anybody that American elections matter for the entire world population. I would like to advocate here that the Indian and European elections are as important. Not because either the Indian or the European army (please don’t start laughing) even come close to substitute America’s role as global policeman. No. The elections in Europe and India are important, because they shape the future of democracies, worldwide. 

One of the best books I read in the last years was Empire, by Dominic Lieven. As you might know, I studied both social science and history, with a comparative master degree in international relations. Lieven brings it all together. Historians often dislike both comparison and theory, and social scientist tend to forget about history. Moreover, many histories are written from a national perspective. In Empire, Lieven – who is a historian specialized in the Russian Empire - compares the British, Ottoman, Habsburg, and Soviet Empires with the Russian one. As such, he can make some bold statements about the very notion of ‘empire’ – a controversial concept. He convinced me, and after reading his book, I do not think empires are necessarily a bad thing. 

Lieven states that empires are still present. If you define ‘empire’ as a multinational, extremely large state, we might call the USA, the Russian Federation, Indonesia, India and – probably – the European Union as the empires of today. Don’t lose me here: in this definition empires don’t have to be necessarily autocratic, authoritarian and oppressive. Moreover, not every empire needs a dominant nation. Most modern states are, or claim to be, nation states, however.

And what’s my point then? My point is that many people in Europe, and probably more and more, believe that there is a need to go back to a Europe of nation states. I think this is fruitless nostalgia. It is true that many nations were able to emancipate due to the creation of national states in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, for example in Central Europe and the former Soviet Union. Moreover, the creation of parliamentary democracies might have been impossible without a direct bond between the people and their representatives - created by both shared language and proximity. 

However, today both the challenges and the reality are global – or at least on a supranational scale. India and the EU show: global financial, environmental, security, and immigrant challenges ask for more than national answers. And as states are unable to solve these problems within their national limits, only a more democratic multinational platform can end the paralysis and progress we currently face. This is my firm conviction, even if I’m not telling you which way, ideology, or party is the right one. 

As Lieven shows us, one of the challenges of a multinational state is to prevent the rise of a dominant nation, such as the Russians in both Imperial Russia and the Soviet Union, or the Britons in the British Empire. America became more democratic, and arguably more successful, when it abandoned the idea that the country should be ruled by WASPs. Along the same lines, Indonesia shouldn’t be dominated by Javanese, China not by Han, and Europe not by Germans, to maintain or reach a bigger assent. 

(Would the Soviet Union have succeeded if not Russian, but Esperanto would have been chosen as its lingua franca? Read The Affirmative Action Empire by Terry Martin). 

On a more personal note, I would like to say something about the region I’ve been studying and living in; Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and the former Soviet space. Nation states emancipated many nations in this part of the world, but as many minorities were oppressed. In the multinational empires of the past Christians thrived in the Middle East, Armenians lived in both Baku and Kars, Minsk was a Jewish city, Prague a German one, and Lviv was a Polish centre. Tbilisi was a Armenian city, and centre of the South Caucasus. National independence ended this, often in a rather violent way. It would be great to see people here living together once again, mixed and intermingled – in the democratic, multinational states they aspire to be.

maandag 19 mei 2014

football is war.

In the recent developments in Eastern Ukraine something struck me: the support for a united Ukraine from football supporters from Charkiv, Donetsk, Luhansk, and Dnipropetrovsk. The Ukrainian competition is postponed since the outbreak of the protests, but this didn’t make the supporters less active. Usually the hooligans of Dinamo and Metalist Kyev fight each other, but since the trouble started, they joined hands on Euromaidan. They were used to fight the police anyway, but in January they started battling against pro-government supporters as well. 

When the Yanukovich regime fell, they continued to fight the opponents of a united Ukraine. Hooligans went on the streets to organize ‘counter-demonstrations’ against the ‘separatists’ who took government buildings in the Donbas. The massacre in Odessa at the beginning of this month started when a pro-government rally of the fans of Metalist Charkiv and Chornomorets Odesa clashed with anti-government groups. 

The core of football supporters is associated with the far-right (such as the Svoboda party) and the infamous Pravyi Sektor – which are awkwardly allied with the provisional government. The links between the far-right and football ultras is not new and not unique. Organized groups of violent thugs often presume upon national pride. Hooliganism and criminality can be legitimized by patriotism. The fans of the Glasgow Rangers and Celtic often cast their rivalry in sectarian (Protestant or Catholic) terms, for example. Famous is the so-called ‘Soccer War’ between El Salvador and Honduras in 1969. Hooligans are as a rule familiar with organized violence. Therefore, they were often involved in violent uprisings and civil wars. It makes a hell of a difference when opportunist politicians arm these thugs. Ritual violence turns real, and that’s what happened in the former Yugoslavia. 

It is said that the war between ‘Yugoslavia’ (by then, read: Serbia) and Croatia started with the riots surrounding a match between Dinamo Zagreb and Red Star Belgrade in 1990. The ultras of Red Star were led by the infamous ‘Arkan’. In the subsequent civil war, Arkan became the leader of the feared Serbian paramilitary ‘Tigers’. The Tigers were largely recruited from Red Star hooligans. During the nineties the Red Star ultras continued to be very influential. The core of Red Star is still powerful, for example in the Serbian stance towards Kosovo. In 2011 hooligans prevented the first Serbian gay pride. It’s not different in Serbia’s neighbours. A civil war in Macedonia was prevented in 2001, but both guerrilla and hooligan leaders make careers into politics. 

vrijdag 16 mei 2014

culture and nostalgia pt. 1

This is a map of Russian military bases in countries of the former Soviet Union. It might be fair to note that the Russians don't restrict themselves to 'tank tourism' (dixit Alexander Rondeli) though. When I was in Batumi and Kazbegi last week (therefore no post), I met mainly Russians, and maybe one or two lost Ukrainians.  And a Pole.

Moreover, I saw more Russian cars than Georgian ones. On the road from Stepantsminda to the Russian border, which was only thirty kilometres away, I saw probably two Georgian cars. There were more vehicles from Armenia and Ukraine, and just lots from the Russian Federation.

Russia introduced a visa regime for Georgia in 2000, citing security reasons (probably the Second Chechen War). Since the Georgian-Russian August War of 2008, Georgia basically only allowed family visits to its Northern neighbour.

With Georgian tourism rapidly expanding and tension decreasing, the amount of Russians visiting 'Gruziya' rose as well, nevertheless. In 2012 the Georgian government unilaterally removed the visa requirements for Russian citizens, and in the following year the number of Russian tourists reached the 200.000. A year later, these numbers were more than doubled to 500.000. This is more than ten percent of the foreign visitors Georgia welcomed that year. Only the number of Turkish tourists was higher. Georgia is not there yet, however. In Soviet times, the Georgian SSR welcomed three million Russian tourists annually.


Many inhabitants of the former Soviet Union, whether they are from Russia or another former constituent republic (the Russian Socialist Federal Soviet Republic just happened to be the biggest), still cherish the memory of state-funded holidays to the Black Sea coast. They went to Yalta (on the Crimean peninsula), Sochi (now Russia), Sokhumi (in Abkhazia), or Batumi, here shown.


There's a lot of wild nature in Russia, including mountains, but the Caucasus still stands out as the highest mountain range of Europe. The highest European mountain (Elbrus, 5642m) lies in North Ossetia, in the Russian Federation, but Mount Kazbek in Georgia, is with 5047 meter a good sixth (and third in Georgia). And a awful lot prettier. 

Moreover, the Russians lost almost all of their relevant (warm water) coastline with the collapse of the USSR. Around the Baltic Sea, Saint Petersburg was left alone when Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania left the Union. More significant, for the commoners as much as for the military, was the loss of Ukraine. The Russian Federation negotiated an agreement to keep their naval base at the Crimean peninsula, and they continued to enjoy their holidays there. They got company of the Ukrainian fleet, however. Some Georgians are convinced that many Ukrainians will visit Georgia instead of Crimea this year. The Tourism Agency is more sceptic. Obviously, this entry is to be continued.


During increasing tensions in 2006, Russia started to boycott Georgian wine and mineral waters. The embargo was an obvious attempt to punish the new Georgian government for its pro-western course. President Saakashvili called Russia's tactic 'economic blackmail'. Georgia lost 80% of its wine exports overnight. The (in)famous Borjomi mineral water lost 70% of its customers. Georgia was forced to diversify its exports and started for the first time to export to Europe seriously. Because of the higher quality standards there, the Georgians were eventually able to make more money with less export.

Eventually, the import ban of Russia was lifted in 2013. Georgian wine exports are still recovering, but at this very moment 70% of Georgian wine goes to Russia already. The main wine markets continue to be Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Poland, and Latvia. For Georgian mineral water this list is quite similar: Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Lithuania, Belarus, and Azerbaijan - all Post-Soviet or Post-Communist countries, indeed.


Vineyard in Kakheti

donderdag 1 mei 2014


Some of them are called David, Zurab, Levan, Aleksandre ('Sandro') or Irakli (men) or Tamar, Mariam, Maia, Nana or Ketevan (women), according to the Georgian Public Service Hall. Actually man could be happy that the habit of calling children 'North' (son of Kanye West, really) or 'Storm' hasn't settled here, yet. In the Netherlands the most popular names for newborns are at the moment Lucas, Levi, Bram, Finn, and Sem for boys, and Sophie, Emma, Julia, Isa and Mila for girls. Also quite some Biblical references, but not quite the Jan, Piet, Hendrik, Grietje, Janneke and Maartje anymore. This is the Public Service Hall, by the way:

It is said that Saint Nino christened the Georgians in the fourth century. She was a relative of Saint George. The story of Saint Georgia and the dragon is first mentioned in eleventh century Georgia. It's therefore no big surprise that many Georgians are called Nino or Giorgi (although few Dutchmen are called Bonifatius, as far as I'm aware). The origins of the name Nino are unclear, but in one theory it's traced back to Nineveh, via Greece from the feminine Nina to the masculine Ninos to feminine Nino again. Other common Georgian first names as Irakli (Heracles), Ilia (Elijah), Koba (Jacob), Levan (Leon), Merab (Mehrab), Sopio (Sophia), and Zurab (Sohrab) refer to the Bible and Christian Saints. The origins of Maia are unknown, but the name emerges in classical mythology as well. Tamar means 'palm tree' in Hebrew, but most Georgian Tamaras are probably called after Queen Tamar, who ruled in the 'Golden Age' of Georgia in the late twelfth century. She did this probably quite good, because Georgians sometimes call her 'King Tamar' - as a compliment. Ketevan/Keti (Katayun) has Persian origins and could mean both queen and house-wife. Khatuna is somewhat related and means 'woman'. Vahtang is also Persian and means 'wolf-bodied'. Zviad, like the first President of newly independent Georgia in the nineties, Gamsakhurdia, has purely Georgian origins, and means 'arrogant'. 

Georgian surnames doesn't seem that diverse as well. Although it might be difficult after ages of migration and intermarriage, all the ilis, nadzes and ias can be traced back to certain geographical origins. Therefore, some pictures of the regions of Georgia! 

This is near Alaverdi in Kakheti. In the East of Georgia many surnames end in 'shvili' - think about former President Mikheil  Saakashvili. 'Shvili' means 'child'. 

This is Mukhrani estate, where the royal Bagrationis resided. Many names in the West end in 'dze', however, which means 'son'. 

This is actually Adjara, but quite close to Turkey. In Lazika (Northeast Turkey) 'shi' is heard. An interesting mix is 'Abashidze' - the last name of the former ruler of Adjara. Adjara is the region inhabited by ethnic Georgian Muslims adjacent to Turkish Lazika. Many Adjarians have Muslim given names and a Georgian surname. Abashidze would mean something as 'the son of Abas', obviously. Here's the capital of Adjara, Batumi: 


This is Kutaisi. In Samegrelo (Mingrelia, in the Southwest) 'ia' is a common ending. 

In Svaneti you might meet quit some 'ani's. This is Ushguli.

Moreover, Somkhishvili means 'son of an Armenian'. Berdzenishvili means 'son of a Greek' and Prangishvili means 'son of a Frenchmen'. Especially in cities, coastal regions and border areas you will meet quite some minorities.

By the way, Bidzina Ivanishvili - the richest man of Georgia and former Prime Minister - would translate as 'Uncle child of Ivan'. Just that you know.