Kaitlyn Johnson (MSFS'20) was a student in the Master of Science in Foreign Service program at Georgetown University. Kaitlyn was the 2019 Berkley Center-Pulitzer Center international reporting fellow and spent summer 2019 reporting in the Republic of Georgia on the role of religion in communities of people displaced from conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Perched on a mountaintop, overlooking Tbilisi from Mtatsminda amusement park, Svetlana and I watched as the sun slowly set behind the city, lights flickering on one by one. June protests had already been rocking the city for three days, impacting life in the capital and creating palpable, inescapable tension on the streets, but from our lofty position nothing seemed amiss.
As the summer protests began, my Georgian friends felt it their duty to explain the reasons for the upheaval. “An Orthodox delegation came from Russia and one member addressed parliament in Russian,” Daredjan told me on the first night while we watched the storm of rubber bullets and tear gas on the local news from the safety of our living room. Distant sounds of the chaos drifted in through our open windows. “It was the chair,” Natalia said every chance she got for weeks. “He spoke in Russian while sitting in the speaker’s chair. That’s why it was so bad.”
After several days of demonstrations, Guri added his opinion. “It’s symbolic. Russia occupies our land,” he said, going on to explain that what he called “the occupation,” coupled with Moscow’s power during the Soviet period, has led to the impression of Russia as a colonial power in the country. Therefore, addressing Parliament in the language of what Guri considers the historical colonizer and present-day occupier was symbolically disrespectful of Georgian sovereignty.
From Mtatsminda on the mountain, I asked Svetlana to weigh in on the protests. “I, of course, don’t support Russia,” she explained, “but I also don’t support the demonstrations.” She went on to describe how she believed the demonstrations had been coopted by the Georgian political parties and no longer effectively addressed Russia. Instead, she told me, the ongoing protests only hurt Georgia. “They stopped sending flights from Russia. Tourism is a big part of our economy. There aren’t so many tourists from America or from China, but when the politics are better there are tons from Russia.”
Ironically, all of these conversations occurred in Russian. Despite current qualms with Russia, especially over its support of the breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Georgia is tied to the country. Economically, Georgia is dependent on Russian trade and tourism. The relationship is complex and usually tense, even when Georgians are not protesting across the capital. Living at the center of the struggle between past and future, between east and west, are citizens displaced from Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Editor's Note: This article was written as part of the Pulitzer Center International Reporting Fellowship, a partnership between Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs and the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. It was originally published on the Pulitzer Center's website.