Georgia contains strategic geography and the Indian government must become alive to it, considering PM Modi’s ensuing visit
Georgia has a rich history – from being independent for centuries to off and on under Soviet Union/Russian rule. It is a love-hate relationship: from the older generation still nostalgic about that era to the current hatred for Russia among younger people. Now, proudly Georgian and EU flags flutter together and graffiti reads “f*** Russia”. I am quite a globe-trotter and like in the old days, you could find a Sikh in any of the 193 UN-recognised countries and even notionally, on the moon. Today, Gorkhas from Nepal have assumed that distinction. But in Georgia, you can’t find a Nepali, though they are next door in Russia where they have obtained visas for education but have joined Russian Army to fight in Ukraine. There is evidence that Gorkhas have joined the Ukraine army and some have reached the frontlines and could end up fighting fellow Gorkhas in Russia. Such is their love and madness for combat and adventure.
Wine is a real symbol of Georgia, the art of wine-making going back 6000 years. One of the brands is Modi Wine reflecting how India is becoming Vishwaguru. Georgia is an Orthodox Christian country dotted with historic churches located on steep mountain tops covered with fortresses and forts. The country earned its independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The country is landlocked by Russia, Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan. It is a candidate for EU and Nato but joining either has not fructified. Russia which still calls the shots, does not want it to become a member of Nato. 3.5mn Georgians enjoy a per capita income of USD 22,000 which is the same as the Chinese. Social welfare programmes ensure pension varies from USD 170 to USD 120 and the minimum salary prescribed is USD300.
In 2008 Russia bombed and annexed Abkhazia and South Ossetia. You can meet refugees from these parts in the capital Tbilisi. In the heart of Tbilisi is Freedom Square with a statue of St George riding a horse slaying evil. Behind him on a hillock is Mother of Georgia, sword in one hand and a cup of welcome wine in the other. Old and new Tbilisi are separated by the river Mtkvari. At this time of the year, unseasonal visitors among whom are throngs of Indians mainly from Kerala, visit Georgia, some of whom come from UAE which entitles them to visa on arrival. Other interesting places are Batumi, Kazbegi and in Telavi especially Eka and Sofi’s Mala gardens.
No marks for guessing that the Chinese have made inroads through BRI. Last month Prime Minister Garibashvili met President Xi Jinping in Beijing and signed half a dozen agreements. Soon China will become Georgia’s largest trading partner. En route to Kazbegi near the ski resort town of Gudauri, the Chinese are tunnelling into the north Caucasus mountains. On this road, several open tunnels were constructed by German PsOW under Stalin’s orders. The road is the only lifeline to Russia where thousands of tankers and heavy trucks are lined up for passage impeding normal movement. Armenia, which like Georgia is an orthodox Christian country and excels in winemaking has to use this road for exports, especially wine to Russia as wine is a go in Iran which borders it.
China has also seduced Georgia into joining its Global Security Initiative which is a Chinese-style solution to governance and states that the security of one country should not come at the expense of the security of another country. Georgia signed a strategic partnership agreement with the US in 2009 but has said that the country is free to sign agreements with any country of its choice. Beijing is negotiating hard to win the contract for building a deep sea port at Ankalia in the Black Sea which will change Georgia’s fortunes. The Georgians have many balls in the air but none is Indian. The Embassy of India is located in Armenia.
Georgia hosts roughly 10,000 Indians, many of whom are medical students and many who quit Ukraine and joined studies in Tbilisi. Georgia supports Ukraine and has hosted its refugees but abstains from voting in the UN on Ukraine. While the Tbilisi government makes pro-Euro noises, it is pro-Russia. The Georgian Church is very powerful and also favours Russia. In the Caucasus, like in the Central Asian Republics, China is playing its Great Game with Russia along with the US as the third player. On 15 August, an Indian tri-colour flag hoisting ceremony was held outside Tbilisi, attracting Indian residents who are located there. Veteran Indians in Georgia date back two decades and more as many Punjabis from Jalandhar came in droves and bought up land dirt cheap which they could not register as the Georgians got wise. Still, as one Indian married to a Georgians said: “You can buy property here in all of 15 minutes”. There is no Indian investment here, except marginally in steel he added
Unless I got it wrong, India’s asset here is the fading nostalgia for Raj Kapoor and Mithun Chakraborty which too is courtesy of Georgia’s Russia connection. India’s flag has to be planted not hoisted annually outside Tbilisi, Georgia where Mama is father and madloba thank you. Georgia contains strategic geography and the Indian government must become alive to it considering PM Modi is visiting Greece the day after.
(The writer, a retired Major General, was Commander, IPKF South, Sri Lanka, and founder member of the Defence Planning Staff, currently the Integrated Defence Staff. The views expressed are personal)