In its cautious, arduous attempts to make up with Russia, Georgia brought to the negotiation table its key natural resources: wine, mineral water and folk dancing. But the ongoing cultural and business rapprochement, which Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili hopes will usher in a diplomatic reconciliation, is pitting pragmatic Georgians against patriotic Georgians in an increasingly bitter fight.
After nearly seven years of abstinence from Georgian alcohol, Russia on March 6 essentially allowed wine and mineral water from its southern neighbor back on its national dinner table. The decision came after Russia’s federal wine-tasters spent many hours in Georgia, scrupulously sampling the wine to make sure the NATO-aspiring country’s alcohol didn’t taste anti-Russian.
Concurrently, one prominent Georgian cultural act took place in Russia. But the performers face stone-pelting at home for what some call selling-out to the oppressor, as many Georgians are not buying the art-and-business-are-above-politics argument.
A series of Moscow performances by the Erisioni ensemble may be a success in Russia, but is a flop in Georgia. The collective of folk dancers, musicians and singers has become the target of vitriolic attacks online and in the media.
“So long as [the Russian] occupation continues, performing Georgian dance on a Moscow stage amounts to dancing on the graves of Georgians, who died in the August war,” commented former Deputy Foreign Minister Nikoloz Vashakidze. Some critics took matters further and created a hate page on Facebook, where Erisioni is dubbed as “Kremlin-sioni." “Don’t dance for them; tell them to leave,” the slogan goes.
By contrast, Erisioni's more celebrated counterparts, the state-financed Georgian National Ballet-Sukhishvilebi, have not performed in Russia since the 2008 war.
The debate, which is unfolding on various levels and in various forums in Georgia, is mainly tied to the 2008 war and the ongoing presence of Russian troops in breakaway South Ossetia and Abkhazia, but dates back for centuries. Some Georgians mainly see Russia as one big economic opportunity, a cultural and religious soul mate, while others see it as an invader and tormentor.
Which view will prevail in this conflict-weary country is a toss-up. Even with the deeply anti-Kremlin camp of President Mikheil Saakashvili dislodged, Georgia's business and cultural circles will still find themselves parrying attacks from countrymen at home, no matter how confident their overtures toward Russia may be.