The Caucasus’ most legendary love-hate relationship careened heavily toward hate recently amid claims of alleged Armenian encroachments on what Georgians hold most sacred. This time it is not about land disputes, as the Caucasus’s worst disputes tend to be. At stake are song and dance.
Within a span of just a couple of weeks, two YouTube videos left Georgia gasping with anger at its southern neighbor. First came a song video. It was a melody called “Hayastan” (Armenia) by a little-known, young Armenian composer that bore similarities to a Georgian hit song from the ‘50s, “The Country of Flowers.”
Then came a dance video. It featured an Armenian dance company performing kartuli, an iconic Georgian dance number one choreographer deems Georgia’s “calling card.” Performed to the music of Georgian composer Zakaria Paliashvili’s 1921 opera Daisi, the video described the routine as an Armenian wedding dance.
Elsewhere, these videos could have been a regular copyright dispute, but in Georgia they revived a deep-seated stereotype about Armenians allegedly calling dibs on any regional achievement in history or culture. The anger that resulted has prompted some Georgians to argue that this is a stereotype that needs to end.
Before caring to check the facts, Georgian television exploded in alarmist reports about cultural heist, a highly explosive subject in the Caucasus where song and dance are not taken lightly. Georgian tabloids added fuel to the fire with claims that the Hayastan song was Armenia’s bid for Eurovision, the annual pop-music contest obsessively watched throughout the region.
Adding to the tensions, Georgia’s State Diaspora Ministry shared the Gevorkian dance video on its Facebook page.
Most of Armenia, however, hardly knew about these videos and did not even realize that their neighbor was boiling over. Armenia’s bid for Eurovision is a completely different song, while the company performing the Georgian dance is based in California.
In a letter carried by Georgian media, the company’s director, Vartan Gevorkian, said that his Gevorkian Dance Academy had no association with the YouTube user who mislabeled the dance video. On the collective’s YouTube channels and Facebook page, the dance was indeed described as Georgian.
The composer of the "Hayastan" song also apologized, claiming he was not aware of the Georgian song.
The drama, though, left a bitter aftertaste. It brought to the fore the persisting air of mistrust between the two culturally close-knit countries that for centuries shared a common fate of being the region’s only two small Christian nations up against major Islamic invaders, and then spent centuries struggling to preserve their national identity under first Tsarist and then Soviet rule.
Georgian Public TV shamed audiences for the anti-Armenian hysteria, while the rights-group Multinational Georgia remonstrated Georgian news outlets for airing one-sided reports that sparked ethnic tension.
The Diaspora Ministry expressed regret for posting the dance video before Gevorkian had made his explanation.
In a blog for RFE/RL’s Georgian service, philosopher Giorgi Maisuradze attributed the acrimony to “19th century nationalism” and a small-country reaction to “colonial rule.”
“Such countries increasingly glorified the past to compensate for the bleak present. And that’s exactly the environment in which Georgians and Armenians began fighting for extricating their histories and this dispute continues to this day.”
To move beyond the tensions, Maisuradze advised both countries reviewing their historic narratives.
The nature of the Armenian-Georgian relationship, though, has inspired many jokes and is perhaps best captured in the 1977 Soviet film “Mimino.” The film’s Georgian protagonist gets angry with his Armenian friend who declares that the best water in the world is in California and the second-best in Armenia; thereby snubbing Georgia’s bid to aqua fame, Borjomi.
But incidents like those with the videos leave Georgia’s ethnic Armenian minority feeling offended and marginalized. “I am not responsible for the actions of people whose last name ends in ‘-ian,’” angrily complained journalist Yana Israelyan on Facebook.
Calls have been made for Georgia to embrace rather than to fear the similarities with Armenia, but that change, some liberal-minded Georgians fear, could be a long time in coming.