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"Georgia Really Matters"

25th Georgian Studies Day. 
University of Westminster, London.





The 25th Annual Georgian Studies Day, with the theme of ‘Georgia Really Matters’ was held on 2 November at the University of Westminster.  As usual, the programme was varied, with a wide range of topics from the political to the cultural.

After opening remarks from Dr. Tamara Dragadze, the first keynote speaker was the Georgian Ambassador to the UK, H.E. Ambassador Giorgi Badridze.  First on a personal note he recorded that when he had entered university in 1985 there was no sense of the USSR releasing its grip, but by 1992 Georgia was independent.  While it was a young democracy, it was in fact an ancient state.

He gave an overview of his past year’s activities, at times mentioning general world background events such as the Arab Spring and action from the Eurozone.  (All this was a backdrop to Georgia resolving WTO issues with Russia).  He spoke warmly of support given by the UK to Georgia, citing David Cameron’s commitment in June that the improvement of relations with Russia would not be subject to ignoring Georgia’s interests.

On the business side, after being for over a decade an importer of electricity, Georgia was now an exporter, offering a cheaper and environmentally friendly way of production.  There is foreign investment in electricity, for example from Turkey.

Bilateral relations between the United Kingdom and Georgia continued active with numerous visits.  For example:

 the Deputy Prime Minister visited to present how bridges are being established to win hearts and minds of those areas which have become part of Russia;

 the Patriarch of the Georgian Church visited the UK for 2 weeks on the invitation of Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and while here consecrated the new Georgian Orthodox church;

 an agreement had been signed with the British Museum on important manuscripts;

 a visit by the Foreign Minister is planned for December.

Cultural events included a performance in Colchester by the Rustaveli Theatre (returning next year) and two wine tasting events held in the Palace of Westminster (with more planned for next year. 

The “Teach and Learn with Georgia” project demonstrated the realisation that, as English is now the language of the globalising world; Georgia needs to attract native English speakers to assist in teaching.

The Ambassador summed up by saying that it had been a privilege to be Ambassador during this interesting year.

Mr Tornike Gordadze, the Deputy Foreign Minister of Georgia, emphasised Georgia’s geographical location as a reason why it mattered.  It had achieved the establishment of western-style democracy after the break-up of the USSR and despite anarchy elsewhere.  Not only this, while seven to eight years ago it could have been regarded as a failed state, the crime rate was much reduced, as was corruption.    Delegates from Egypt and Tunisia had already visited to see how this had been done.  A new united police force had been established.

With Western Allies grateful for the participation of Georgia in the ISAF mission to Afghanistan, talks will soon start on re-introducing peace monitor in South Ossetia.

Most partners in southern and central Europe acknowledge Georgia as part of Western Europe and her right to be part of the European Union.

In answer to questions, he confirmed that much more concern was now taken for architecture.  Previously while renovations had been taken without permission, this was not the case.  Matters were taken seriously and permission was needed.
On the business side, there was much western assistance, with 20% of British investment into Georgia.

The Right Honourable Bruce George, for 36 years an MP, in a forthright speech described his long experience of Georgia and pride in his association with the country – by far the most democratic in the region in his opinion.   There were warnings for Georgia as well as praise. Since the Rose Revolution Russia’s hostility has been manifest, yet hostility to Georgia’s aims of joining NATO and the European Union also exists in both those bodies.  For example, the European Union report on the war found Georgia equally guilty with Russia.  There was much to be done by Georgia to fulfil NATO entry requirements before the NATO summit meeting in Chicago in 2012.  The process of reform had slowed down especially after the war.  When Sarkashvili was elected as President for the second time he made a landmark speech listing reforms to come, such as penalties for interference in judicial cases, but the list had to be delivered.

After these political overviews the next speakers dealt with education and culture.  In education, Professors Peter Lydyard and Nino Porakishvili described developments in e-learning in the field of biomedicine.  The wider objective now builds on a previous TEMPUS project building links between universities in the South Caucasus, including Georgia. It is to establish a joint venture under which the University of Westminster’s MSc course in Medical Molecular Biology is available through virtual learning to students at these universities.

The project will be the subject of a TEMPUS project to be submitted in 2012, the aim of which is to equip e-learning units in Tbilisi State University and universities in the South Caucasus, and to train staff to create virtual laboratories.   The course is intended to be over 5 years with the first 2 years a study of basic medical science with the following years on clinical science and practice.  One important aspect of the teaching will be the creation of a “problem-based” medical curriculum, where there is a computer simulation of a patient and symptoms, where students must make a choice of matters such as diagnosis and treatment.  This is intended to make the course much meaningful for students.

Professor David Park gave a talk on conservation of wall paintings on Georgia. The Courtauld Institute has been involved with conservation of wall paintings since 1997 and takes students on projects around the world but had not undertaken anything previously in Georgia. 

His talk was illustrated with some wonderful pictures, notably of the paintings at Vardzia near the Turkish border.  He described these, which date from about 1200, as the most important mediaeval wall paintings in the world.  Vardzia was a monastic centre with rock-cut chambers and the church of Domitian.  The paintings there were done in a mixture of techniques and study of them should gain a much better insight into Georgian techniques.  It was hoped to establish a project between the Courtauld Institute, Tbilisi State University, the State Academy for Conservation, and the Georgian equivalent of English Heritage to give long-term training.

There can be no denying the popularity of the exciting Georgian dances for all types of audiences.  Maka Bakradze and Natia Mamatsashvili described the origins of the Georgia National Ballet (the first professional dance company in Georgia) and the importance of the dancer Vakhtang Chabukiani in combining traditional ballet with Georgian men’s dances to give the special element in Georgian ballet.

Michael Bloom, after outlining the background of the Mtiebi and Mapinzeli choirs, gave some reasons for the popularity of Georgian music in the UK, with musical extracts which very aptly illustrated his theme.  Anyone in an audience for this music will be drawn to it for their own reasons but Michael cited these:

 the ancient tuning systems plus the chords used have a spiritual quality and so resonate with listeners at a deeper level;

 knowing on what occasions the songs are used introduces Georgian culture; there are many genres of songs, such as wedding songs;

 the strong tradition of women’s singing, for example in healing songs.


Peter Nasmyth took ‘Tourism’ as his theme.   In reporting that tourism had risen by 30-40% in Georgia this year, he described the promotion of tourism in Svaneti where a new ski resort had been established in Mestia.  As always, his slides to accompany his talk showed the many glorious aspects of Georgia, rural and urban, and would have tempted anyone to visit for the first time.

The Work in Progress section allowed only a brief time for each speaker but did perhaps show activities of individual groups.  George Guest gave an update on the work with street children of the Mural charity, which gives to the children shelter, legal protection and training in skills.  As St. Gregory’s church, which supports the charity, had an unexpected legacy this year it led to Mkurnali obtaining premises.  The charity moved there in September.

Pauline Thomas, Treasurer of the Bristol Tbilisi Association, described with appropriate slides the very enjoyable group visit just ended of members to Tbilisi.  For a number of members this was their first trip and all had been impressed by the beauty of the country and the welcome given.

Sonia Fisher, as Chair of the Newport Kutaisi Twinning Association, commented that it had been a busy year since the 2010 Georgian Studies Day, and outlined the Association’s activities during the year.  The most notable included attendance in January 2011 accompanied by the Mayor of Newport at a supra organised by the Bristol Tbilisi Association where the Bristol Georgian Choir had given musical background.  In June there was a visit to a concert by the Bristol Georgian Choir Peter Nasmyth had in March given a talk entitled “Georgia: Emotion in the Land” to members and friends in the new University building in Newport.  In June came the visit of Giorgi Chinchinadze, librarian from Kutaisi State University, for training in library systems at the University of Wales Newport, which would be followed by a visit in November by the UWN librarian to oversee the implementation of these systems in KSU. Sonia would be travelling with him and undertaking a programme of meetings on Association matters.  Derek Butler had been made an Honorary Citizen of Kutaisi with a certificate presented to him by the Mayor of Kutaisi.  An exciting initiative was the project initiated by a young member, Katy Rock, to run workshops in primary schools to introduce children to aspects of Georgia such as culture and food.  A visit to Kew was planned for April to hear a talk on the Flora and Fauna of the Caucasus.

Jason Osborn from the British Georgian Society listed most of the events promoted by the Society during the year.  While most were in London, the Society does give information of events held elsewhere by other organisations, which could be of interest to members.

The Georgian Oxford Society has been recently formed and Nino Sharashidze described its aim of bringing information on Georgia to foreign students.  The society holds visiting lectures and film nights but also includes other aspects of Georgian culture through wine-tasting sessions and culinary nights.

Finally in the Work in Progress section Keti Kalandadze described the work of the GAP project (Georgians Abroad Project) and activities undertaken to support Georgians in London.  Reference was also made here to a recently written book on Georgian legends.

The day ended with the now customary wine reception, a chance for participants to meet each other again and discuss the day’s events and plans for future actions.  The various speakers certainly showed throughout why Georgia really matters, not just to itself, but to the wider world as well.

Vera Brown