Let me be perfectly clear – I have only encountered friendly people in the Caucasus….. that is if (and especially if) you want to have a drink with them.
Nevertheless, McGlobalism has not yet swept away tribal consciousness, which is a quaint and strange phenomenon to me as a “multi-cultural” creature from Canada, and moreover as a 3rd culture kid.
“Which one do you like better? Georgia or Armenia” was the first question our Armenian friends asked after we moved to teach at another international school in Tbilisi. Now, do you really expect me to answer this culturally insensitive question at a face-to-face encounter? Do you think it is a wise question to answer in a place where tribal conflict has raged, literally for millennia? Yes, according to Armenians it is necessary to discover whether you have joined another tribe, or whether your allegiance is to them. How do you think I responded?
“Well when I’m in Georgia, I like Georgia, and when I’m in Armenia, I like Armenia the best.” Silence. As minorities in Tbilisi, whose relatives were persecuted by Georgians, I think they understood why it was important for me to answer like this. Armenians were a majority in Persian ruled Tiflis – an Armenian built the town hall in Freedom Square. Like the Jews in Europe, Armenians were not farmers or craftsmen, but merchants and bankers – much more successful financially than those of similar rank. While the Ottomans became disgruntled at their success in Eastern Anatolia (which led to pogroms the late 1800s), the Georgians, mostly the Orthodox church, began claiming Armenian churches for themselves (according to the Armenians). There are still Armenian towns strewn around the southern border, along with other minorities (including German exiles and Dukhobors). Armenians used to be the traders and bankers of the Caucasus, playing a similar role that Jews did in Europe.
So, let’s discuss some stereotypes that are widely believed today in the Caucasus. The Armenians are perceived in the same way anti-semitic tropes portray the Jews – they would sell their own daughters’ virginity to gain a buck. They are also swindlers and great storytellers and not to be trusted – Armenians will claim with a strait face that they invented boats, wine, shoes, language itself, and are the fount of all civilization. They are conceited, rigid in their thinking, and geo-politically stupid despite the terrible genocide. The Baku pipeline could easily have run through Armenia and begun a process of reconciliation, and their ruling class are corrupt oligarchs dependent on Putin.
As with all stereotypes, there is a grain of truth to all this. In some cases much more than a grain. The most ancient shoe was discovered in Areni cave, along with the largest evidence (though not oldest) of viticulture. Animosity also exists due to Armenia’s continued embrace of Russia. As the Russians pushed back the Persians from Etchmiadzin (their Vatican city), the catholicos is said to have lifted up the spear relic that pierced Jesus’ side – the troops rallied and successfully defeated the Persians, and eventually Yerevan itself was liberated. The Russians were also instrumental in preventing their sliver of land from being carved up by the Ottomans after the genocide. Meanwhile, Georgians have an understandable hatred of Russia, which invaded their country in 2008. Armenians will say that Saakashvili was a stupid man for inciting the war. He was the first to engage with Russian soldiers who were already “protecting” South Ossetian villagers with their tanks. This is standard Russian propaganda watched by Armenians on most of their TV channels.
Meanwhile, Armenians perceive Georgians to be boorish, low-class, mountain dwellers who sold themselves out to the Persians. They are backward and short-sighted. There is a joke among Armenians that when Georgians make any money, they immediately spend it on partying, even if they can’t even buy clothes for their children. If you’ve lived in Georgia long enough, you’ll know that there is a grain of truth to this – many of the hosted meals are exorbitant.
You’ll also be keenly aware of Georgian’s lack of ability to plan ahead longer term. I asked Peter Nasmyth about this (founder of Prospero’s books, and journalist of arts and culture during the Soviet era 30 years ago). Is this lack of foresight and laziness due to the vicissitudes of Communism, or has it always been like this? He didn’t think it had much to do with collectivization and lack of economic incentives. Rather, its just a fact of life for a civilization only recently graduated from feudal customs and serfdom.
But were Georgians really sellouts to Persian imperialism? Armenian kings would never do this, they say. While one or two Georgian kings did convert to Islam to save their skin, there was ongoing resistance among the nobility. When King David the Builder managed to rally the nobles to fend of the Seljuq Turks in 1121 (with the help of tens of thousands of Circassian mercenaries and over a hundred Crusader knights from Jerusalem), Tbilisi once again became a Christian city in Georgia’s Golden Age.
To conclude, both countries are full of lovely welcoming people, even if they have the unsettling habit of staring at you intently as you drive by. Are they activating a subconscious survival instinct on the ancient Silk Road full of potential bandits and kidnappers, or are they really just looking to see if you want to stop for a drink?