Sunday, June 7, 2009

Whirlwind Tour: Tbilisi and Almaty

After returning home for a few days, Erik was back on the road. He regularly helps OSI in its professional development program for faculty from the South Caucasus, Central Asia, and Mongolia, and this trip was dedicated to interviewing potential participants. The task is challenging: the semi-finalists are talented, and rarely are the interviews a complete disaster. The interviewers must take the semi-finalists and cut the number in half. So, difficult choices must be made.

This year's interview trip took him to Tbilisi, Georgia (pictured above) and Almaty, Kazakhstan. Both are mountain cities, but diverge in their topography as well as the political, social, and economic climates. Tbilisi is an old city, with undulating hills traversed by labyrinthine cobblestone roads. The Kura river cuts through the valley, and the city rises up around it. Houses and churches sit high above the riverside on a sheer rock face wall. While Erik loves this part of the city, he only saw it from the car. He did not have enough time to fully explore Tbilisi since the visit was so short.

Erik's hotel was toward the top of a large hill where the TV tower is stationed. TV towers are a standard landmark, especially in republican capitals of the former Soviet Union. A ten-fifteen minute walk down the hill led to Rustaveli Street, Tbilisi's "main drag." The OSI office was close by, with parliament and Freedom Square perhaps a twenty minute walk way.

Tbilisi is currently experiencing ongoing protest activities, mobilized by the opposition to the current president. After leading the "Rose Revolution" in 2003, President Saakashvili has been a disappointment to an increasingly large proportion of the population. They have good reason to be dissatisfied. Saakashvili came to power promising democracy. But, he will be better remembered for his failure to live up to these standards, exemplified by his violent crackdown on the opposition in 2007, closure of an opposition TV station (which later reopened), and erratic behavior manifested in the August 2008 war with Russia and its aftermath.

The protesters built an encampment on Rustaveli, blocking all traffic. While taxi drivers recently became so frustrated that they staged a counter-protest, it seems that most people have adjusted to this disruption. The opposition has built "cells" and has a small permanent presence in front of parliament. The atmosphere contrasts starkly to the scene Erik encountered on Independence Square in Kyiv during the 2004 Orange Revolution. He visited the protest site several times during his stay, but it was quiet and seemed to be populated by young to middle-aged men in small numbers. The opposition has mobilized large numbers of protesters; around 60,000 attended a protest in the stadium recently. But, inertia to oust Saakashvili seems to be absent.

Erik spoke with opposition supporters, including some of the professionals he was working with on the OSI project. Erik argued that ousting Saakashvili in this way would set a bad precedent. His abuses, while anti-democratic, were not at the same level as the president Saakashvili ousted. Moreover, while some fraud may have occurred in the last elections, it is unlikely that opposition forces had victory "stolen" away by government forces. The main problem is that if Georgians choose this path to oust unpopular leaders, then how and when will it end? He noted that many Americans strongly opposed President Bush and would accuse him of similar policies that chipped away at democratic rights in the US. But, his opponents used the electoral process to send a message and change course.

While all of the goings-on in Tbilisi were interesting, the true highlight was Erik's two visits with Jani, Phil, and Thomas. Our friends from L'viv relocated to Tbilisi just before we returned to the US. They still live in Georgia, and Erik spent two lovely evenings with them. Although he was exhausted from travels, it was such a joy to see them that he used all means necessary to stay up (generally tea and willpower). The conversation started up as though no time had passed since they last spoke, and they talked about everything from politics to food. It was so wonderful to see how good friendships can last even with long separations. Erik was only disappointed that Lea and Carter could not be there. But, we will try to arrange a rendezvous somewhere in the world!

Erik's itinerary took him from Tbilisi to Istanbul, then Almaty. Erik was told that after the August war with Russia, direct flights between Georgia and Kazakhstan ended. The flight to Istanbul was quite comfortable. But, the Istanbul-Almaty flight was an endurance test on many levels. We described what it was like to ride on the rails in platzkart during our blogging from Ukraine. The Istanbul-Almaty flight was platzkart in the sky, with the notable absence of copious amounts of vodka and the consumption of whole, pungent fish. Not only were the plane's occupants boisterous, but Erik was in a non-reclining row sharing the seats with a family accompanied by a lap child. To be fair, the family did their best not to inconvenience him, but there was only so much they could do on a 5+ hour ride overnight on a 737.

Almaty differs in many ways from Tbilisi. Green mountains surround Tbilisi, and the city sits in a valley. Almaty rises up to the majestic, snow-capped Tien Shan mountains. Rather than the twists and turns of Tbilisi's streets, Almaty is arranged on a simple grid. Erik's hotel was in a higher part of town; on his first day in-country he strolled down the modest slope to the "Arbat" below (a pedestrian area with some shops). Almaty's architecture is new, as almost all of its older buildings were destroyed in earthquakes over the town's history. The notable exception is Zenkov Cathedral which has survived over a century in this active seismic zone. Almaty is now Kazakhstan's commercial capital; President Nazarbayev transferred the political administration to Astana in 1997.

All of the interviews and meetings were held in the hotel, a former guest house for the Communist Party that has been renovated. While he spent alot of time working, he also had a bit of an opportunity to stroll around. His exploration was limited by the amount of time in the city, but he traveled the length of Furmanov Street a couple of times. He caught the early morning sunlight shining off of the Tien Shan mountains from Republic Square, and also explored the Green Bazaar.

As Erik noted in his posts from Lithuania, markets are a favorite destination as they showcase daily life. In addition to the lovely earth tones of the nut and dried fruit aisle, he snapped a few photos of the meat and vegetable counters (including the horse stall and nearby salad and sushi aisle). Next to the market, Erik stopped in the Rakhat factory store - a candy and chocolate manufacturer - to pick up some treats for Lea and Carter.

While his trip was only eight days, Erik spent three days in transit, including several stops in the Istanbul airport. Despite the tough schedule, the trip was worth it, especially because he had the chance to visit friends.

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