Volume XVII Number 4 (July-August 2007)
Georgia Diary: A Chronicle of War and Political Chaos in the Post-Soviet Caucasus (M.E. Sharpe, 2006)
By Thomas Goltz
Reviewed by Robyn Angley
Assigned to find and interview Zviad Gamsakhurdia, post-Soviet Georgia’s first president, reporter Thomas Goltz embarked on this task in 1991, sparking an interest that continues to the present. An adventure laced with danger and often fueled by alcohol, Georgia Diary offers a whirlwind glimpse of many issues that dominate both Georgian domestic politics and the country’s interactions with its neighbors and the international community. The book is a socio-political travelogue, recording Goltz’s experiences as he attempts to cover the chaos that was Georgia in the wake of the Soviet Union.
Beginning with a failed attempt to trace a reported Gamsakhurdia sighting in Zugdidi, Goltz traveled to many of the hot spots of post-Soviet Georgia, including Mingrelia, where the Zviadists had their strongest support; Abkhazia, one of the two regions that declared itself independent of Georgia in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s dissolution; and Adjaria, where Lord Protector Aslan Abashidze stopped paying taxes to Tbilisi and, in essence, simply declared the territory his own fiefdom sans the inconvenience of a war with the center. Goltz’s wanderings brought him into contact with many of the problems that plague Georgia: separatist regions supported by regional hegemons; political struggles leading to presidential ousters, violent or otherwise; and the legacy of Eduard Shevardnadze’s thirty years on the political scene. Although certainly not oppressive in the detail provided about Georgia’s history, the author does offer enough background to bring the novitiate up-to-date.
The bulk of the narrative is set in Georgia and one of its separatist provinces, Abkhazia, from 1991-1993. Goltz captures the turmoil and instability of those years, from the overthrow of the democratically elected, dissident nationalist Zviad Gamsakhurdia by putschists to the (albeit covertly) Russian supported bid for independence by the autonomous republic of Abkhazia. Goltz paints an insightful picture of the Zviadists in their continual dance of advance and retreat as they try to reinstate Gamsakhurdia in light of the turmoil in Abkhazia, and the virtual failure of the central government to assert a monopoly of force. The prose is a tumult of sounds, sights and dangers that conveys a sense of immediacy; the reader travels with Goltz as he witnesses the battles resulting in Gamsakhurdia’s ouster, as well as the capture of the Abkhaz capital of Sukhumi by the Abkhaz militias and their various supporters.
The book, while replete with descriptions of the situations in Abkhazia and, to some extent, Adjaria, does not discuss South Ossetia, Georgia’s third problematic breakaway region. One cannot help wishing Goltz also had offered a glimpse of what happened there during this tumultuous period.
There are other books that take a more systematic, and indeed almost exhaustive, look at post-Soviet politics in Georgia. In Georgia from National Awakening to Rose Revolution: Delayed Transition in the Former Soviet Union, for example, Jonathan Wheatley provides a detailed exposition of what he sees as multi-phased transition from Georgia’s Communist past to its (potentially) democratic future, offering an invaluable look at the country’s domestic politics. However, Goltz’s foray into the world of Svans, Mingrelians, Abkhazians, Armenians, Ahiska (also known as Meskhetian) Turks and other Georgian minorities expresses a concern with individuals and cultures that is missing from most attempts to discuss the modern Georgian state. In addition to its territory, its government and international recognition, a state is defined by its people, and Goltz, even in the midst of his dangerous encounters and colorful descriptions, does not lose sight of this. Georgia is a widely diverse multi-ethnic state, and its mix of peoples constitutes a highly significant factor both in its domestic and international politics. Although Goltz’s introductory sketch of the panoply of Georgian ethnic minorities can leave the reader bewildered, his chance encounters with members of different ethnic groups paint an engaging picture of the complex composition of Georgian society.
Georgia Diary is a blend of the ridiculous and the tragic. One afternoon in war-torn Abkhazia, Goltz and another reporter, fortified by multiple shots of strong Georgian chacha, took their Avis rental car down a mined road in order to verify the existence of a Georgian army ammunition dump behind Abkhaz lines and hence confirm involvement of that army in attacks credited to Georgian militia groups. While examining the found dump, Goltz’s New York literary agent called on his cell phone. Goltz outlined the situation to his agent, closing in Russian (which his agent did not understand) because his Abkhaz escort had grown suspicious of his use of English. They soon returned to the relative safety of the Gali district, both the journalists and “Avis-mobile,” having weathered the incident just fine.
The author’s strength is that he brings a sense of humanity to what could otherwise be a fairly cynical recounting of the turbulence and trauma that engulfed Georgia in the early 1990s. Goltz does not necessarily offer answers to the many conundrums that take shape in the book’s pages. Instead, he avoids oversimplified analysis and easy answers; he provides context, then paints events and persons as he meets them and leaves readers to interpret as they will.
By its candid portrayal of the chaotic events that swept post-Soviet Georgia, Georgia Diary raises questions on many levels. One of the first is the West’s role in promoting democracy in the post-Soviet space. The ouster of Georgia’s first popularly elected president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, was largely ignored by the West, despite the disregard it demonstrated for accepted democratic practices. In fact, the international community welcomed Gamsakhurdia’s replacement by former Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze, greeting him as a stabilizing force in the region.
Georgia Diary also raises the issue of the effectiveness of United Nations peacekeeping and/or observation missions. In Goltz’s experience, the most effective “observer” in the United Nations Observer Mission in Georgia (UNOMIG) was an adventurous British warrior, who occasionally made his way up to the treacherous Kodori Gorge, spending most of his time in transit rather than in monitoring activities. Even this largely ineffective procedure was preferable to the American, which, because of dangerous conditions, was ordered to “observe” the conflict from the safety of Tbilisi. Ironically, the UN Observer Mission often neither observes violations, nor has the political clout to do anything about them when it does.
The Abkhaz separatists are supported by Russia, whose position on the Security Council, along with the presence in Abkhazia of the all-Russian CIS Peacekeeping Force render UNOMIG a toothless representative of the international community at best, and, at worst, a mockery of the concept of UN involvement in the potential peace process.
In Georgia Diary, Goltz offers an intriguing blend of travel memoir and contemporary history that serves as a welcome complement to the too-sparse existing literature about the country. The author’s obvious interest in individuals, as well as “the big story” he is sent to cover warm the book, while his sense of the ridiculous lends a light-hearted touch to otherwise weighty material. It is a book to be valued both for its insights into post-Soviet Georgia, as well as its contribution to travel literature.
Copyright ISCIP 2007
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