You get some idea about how people in Georgia are when you travel the country. But is it the same idea Georgians have? How do they perceive themselves and what does it mean for them to be Georgian, two years after a war with Russia broke out? Questions like those can’t be answered in a weeks time but you have to start somewhere. A search for identity.
„Happiness“, he said with a firm voice. The man was very serious about his answer even though he had a wide smile on his face. „What does it mean to be Georgian?“, he’s been asked on a random day on a random street in Zugdidi, a city in north-west Georgia. A city most people probably never heard of. The majority of Zugdidi’s inhabitants are Internal Displaces People (IDP), that means they are refugees within their own country. They had to leave their homes in Abkhazia, when a civil war broke out in 1991 and then again in 2008.
That year, 2008, people in Western Europe became actually aware of Georgia. „When I was abroad before the war everyone thought I’m from the state Georgia in the USA“, Nino Zhizhilashvili a Georgian journalist says. However, even after the war, what do we know about this country and the people living in it? It’s at the Black Sea would be a common answer and that there are conflicts with South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Russia. But this can’t be all the Georgian identity consists of. What it means to be Georgian is not an easy question. Everyone asked was irritated at first and had to ponder for a while.
Identity is not a static thing
One’s own identity is an abstract thing. It’s a complex term and very hard to grasp and it seems to vanish every time one tries to explain it.
You begin to develop a sense of identity as a child influenced by your surroundings, the people you interact with, the time you grow up in. Every person has a unique identity which is never static. That’s why stereotypes don’t work in the end. No two individuals from any culture are exactly alike and depending on how they progress in life their identity can change. On top of this, each of us has a cultural identity that makes us a member of a certain society or social group. Even people from multiple ethnic backgrounds may identify as belonging to the same culture. That means they share the same values, beliefs and ideas, e.g. about appropriate behavior or socially constructed truths. Our cultural identity is the context within which we operate and make sense of the world.
“We are proud of our country”
Armenians, Azeris, Kurds, Russians, Ossetians, Abkhazians and Georgians of course who build the majority – Georgia, with its population of 4.5 million, is a country in which various ethnic groups are living. People themselves though don’t separate each other into different regions and groups when you talk to them on the street. They all are Georgian.
Located between Asia and Europe, Georgia always had an important geopolitical position and the country has been under occupation for a long time. One after another there were the Greeks, Arabs, Mongols, Turks and Persians. From 1801 on until its full independence in 1991, Russia held control over Georgia with a short period of autonomy from 1918 till 1921. But for Tamar, a student from Tbilisi, being under foreign rule for such a long time didn’t extinguish Georgian’s identity. “Due to all this fighting over centuries, there is a strong inner cohesion and nationalism. We are proud of our country. Without nationalism Georgia wouldn’t exist anymore”, she says.“There never was assimilation. With that our identity would have gotten lost.” An important part of being Georgian therefore is a strong feeling of nationhood.
Georgians have faith
For Nino though Georgia lost part of its identity under Soviet rule because people didn’t want to relate to it. Especially since one of the most important things for Georgians was restricted and repressed: their religion. Many churches were changed into secular buildings or destroyed altogether. After the fall of the Soviet Union this made religion even stronger and nowadays not only the elderly but also the youth have faith. The Georgian Orthodox Church is state religion, people go to church regularly and try to follow its rules. “This Christian culture adds to Georgians feeling European”, Nino explains. They want to be part of Europe, the European Union, the NATO. That way the country would be safe from Russia they think. “It means not to be pro-Russian”, Nino replies when asked what being European means. Most people on the streets still speak Russian though and there is no hatred on a personal level. Some say, being Georgian means to get Abkhazia back. Besides that, war or rather the conflict with this region is not a topic when it comes to identity. It’s a part of their life, yes, but not a core piece of their identity. Religion, on the other hand, is.
With all its different regions Georgia has a whole lot of traditions that to this day are ever-present. With every glass of wine comes a toast for instance and friendship is a high good. Georgians would do anything for their friends and they are amazingly helpful. That applies to their guests as well. “We believe that god sent us the guests and that way we treat them”, remarks Tamar. The man on the street in Zugdidi comments: “Everyone in Georgia is Georgian.”
For Tamar it’s religion and tradition that holds the nation together and builds her folk’s identity. For a foreigner in a short time such as only a week Georgian identity is hard to grasp and it seems to vanish every time you try to. To Georgians, however, it is very important. “Without identity there wouldn’t be a unified Georgia”, Tamar says.
When you talk to Georgians you hear pride in their voices and most of the time there is a smile on their face. They are friendly, like to dance and are pretty good at bringing out a toast.
Tamar’s answer to what it means being Georgian is straightforward: “It means to be honest, tolerant and simple, to be a friend lover and a peace lover.” The man on the street in Zugdidi would probably agree with that for these characteristics might lead to happiness.