Georgia’s upcoming local elections would be quite local, indeed, were it not for candidates like Joseph Alexander Smith, the first-ever expat-turned-Georgian-citizen to run for office in the country. His bid for a seat in Tbilisi’s City Council will test Georgian voters on a longstanding sensitive point – the extent to which a non-ethnic-Georgian can be accepted as an actual Georgian.
The right to safe movement, right to clean air and right to green space are the triune principle which Smith, a 32-year-old British-Georgian freelance journalist, environmental activist and cycling enthusiast, wants to bring to his adoptive home city, where cars and construction increasingly have the right of way.
Featuring grey, fast growing high-rises and a chronic traffic jam, Smith’s district, Saburtalo, epitomizes many of Tbilisi’s problems. Still, Smith and his eco-ideas got a mixed reception when he announced his candidacy over Facebook.
“Likes” and encouraging comments rained down from friends and acquaintances, but, elsewhere, there were frowns, too. Some declared it presumptuous for a “foreigner” to step into Georgian politics, which they regard as a strictly Georgian affair.
No matter that Smith was naturalized earlier this year. In this ethnicity-conscious country, many still apply the tag utskhoeli (“ foreigner”) to him. Smith, in fact, stepped into the very heart of a Georgian dichotomy – a tendency to be both culturally introverted and protective of Georgia’s ethno-cultural borders, but also open to new people and new ideas.
It did not take much time before nationalism-peddling tabloids began screaming about a British spy’s attempt to sneak into Georgian politics, prompting jokes about Her Majesty’s supposedly keen interest in the goings-on in Saburtalo.
Nonetheless, there seems to be sizeable excitement that a British-born man would run for office in Georgia. There is also a sense that an utskhoeli, unburdened by Georgia’s intricate family and social connections and traditional viewpoints, could succeed where “locals” have failed, and bring a bit of European vision to how Tbilisi is run.
But it was run-of-the-mill Georgian politics that prompted Smith’s decision to jump into the race for the 37-seat City Council.
Smith’s friend, fellow environmental activist Aleko Elisashvili, is broadly perceived as the top challenger to the favorite for mayor, former Energy Minister Kakha Kaladze, in the October 21 election. The men’s rivalry is largely cast as yet another battle between Georgia’s political-corporate establishment and eco-cultural-heritage advocates.
Part of the reason Smith is running for the City Council is to make sure Elisashvili has a likeminded ally in the assembly, which has the power to approve mayoral initiatives. “I also want to help make sure that there are independent candidates in the city council. That it is not seen as a second-rate institution, something reserved for minor party officials. People who are there should be representing their constituencies’ interests, rather than party interests.”
As for his own interests, Smith asks voters to focus on his ideas and experience as a green-city activist, rather than on his non-Georgian, British roots.
Born in rural England (Cirencester, Gloucestershire, to be exact), he has had, in his own words, an “interesting and strange relationship” with Georgia ever since he randomly Googled the country in 2005. Living in Egypt and studying Arabic at the time, he was looking for a lesser known European country which he could pretend was his own and spare himself reproaches about Britain’s support for the Iraq war.
Prophetically, he chose Georgia.
But Azerbaijan was his next destination. While working as a part-time librarian back in the UK, he read “Azerbaijan Diary” by Thomas Goltz, an American author who has written extensively about the Caucasus, and, enchanted by its cultural diversity, opted to move to the country in 2006 for a conflict-resolution NGO. Again by chance, he ended up travelling next door, to Georgia, and fell for it.
“At that stage of life, I got somehow interested in religion and wine. Georgia obviously has both, strongly embedded in its self-identity,” said Smith, who eventually converted to Georgian Orthodoxy and acquired a good command of Georgian.
He finally settled in Georgia in 2012, a year of big changes for the country, when the President Mikheil Saakashvili era ended, and a new political force, the Georgian Dream, came to power.
The Georgian Dream party’s candidates represent Smith’s main challenge in the race for City Council. As representatives of the ruling party, they have money and resources on their side.
Yet, though he runs a shoestring, DIY campaign, and is considered an outsider by many, Smith thinks he has a real chance of winning. “That I am a new face, have a very different background is actually my advantage.”