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Archive for August, 2012

Enjoy The Apple Tree, a 1987 short film with a rather dark Biblical (and communist) message about greed.

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This satirical cartoon was made by Bondo Shoshitaishvili and Gia Lapauri in 1989, when the USSR was on its last leg. A crumbling Georgian Orthodox church, now surrounded by modern Soviet apartments, is a source of national memory (and troublemaking). Enjoy Aliquri!

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Georgian politics can be a little confusing at best, and before I leave for Georgia in just a month (!) for what promises to be an interesting parliamentary election year, I thought I would refresh my memory of the country’s recent political history. This is just a brief overview, so I will link major events, figures, and organizations to their Wikipedia pages for further perusal:

the Red Army occupation of Tiflis, February 1921

the Red Army occupation of Tiflis, February 1921

After the Russian revolution of 1917, Menshevik Georgia was an independent republic between 1918 and 1921 (earlier in 1918 there was an attempt to unify the countries of the South Caucasus into a Transcaucasian Federation, but this was short-lived). The Bolshevik Georgian leader Grigol Ordzhonikidze put an end to Georgian independence when his Red Army 11th battalion invaded in late winter 1921.  He ultimately managed to annex the entire South Caucasus to the Soviet Union.

In 1936, at the height of Stalin’s power (a repressive period often known as the Great Purge), constitutional changes were made from Socialist Federation of Soviet Republics (SFSR) to Socialist Soviet Republics (SSR). Abkhazia’s status changed from an SSR to an autonomous SSR, thus losing the right to sovereignty. All republics of the USSR were subjected to programs of Russification. In the 1970s, Eduard Shevardnadze was First Secretary of the Communist Party in Georgia. He is remembered for defending the use of Georgian as a national language at a time when Moscow was demanding a primarily Russian education. Shevardnadze was then called to be foreign minister under Gorbachev until the dissolution of the USSR.

25th anniversary of Georgian membership in the Soviet Union

25th anniversary of Georgian membership in the Soviet Union

Gorbachev’s liberalizing policies of glasnost (“openness”) and perestroika (“restructuring”) allowed for the beginnings of civil society during the second half of the 1980s, creating a social and political space for the establishment of several NGOs–often based around environmental projects that sometimes included an alternative political agenda, such as the Rustaveli Society.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, a pro-independence movement took shape under the leadership of dissidents Merab Kostava and Zviad Gamsakhurdia. Various anti-Soviet demonstrations were held, including a peaceful gathering on April 9, 1989, when at least twenty people (mostly female students) were killed by Soviet forces. Gorbachev distanced himself from this incident and ordered the Georgian first secretary Jumber Patiashvili replaced by the head of the Georgian KGB, but this leadership reshuffling did little to contain the pro-independence movement.

Georgia claimed independence on March 31, 1991, and Zviad Gamsakhurdia was elected as Georgia’s first president in May. Due to the lack of democratic traditions regarding interest representation, the first post-Soviet parties rallied around nationalist platforms rather than actual policies–an attitude captured by Gamsakhurdia’s troubling slogan “Georgia for Georgians.” He refused to join the Russian-led Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), and when South Ossetia wanted to organize its own elections, he abolished its autonomous status and sent in a military force, leading to the first South Ossetian War (essentially resulting in a Georgian defeat).

Losing grip of the political situation (and arguably his sanity), he was overthrown by militia who invited the former first secretary, Eduard Shevardnadze (by then a retired minister of Russian foreign affairs in Moscow) back to Georgia.  Shevardnadze drew on his former nomenklatura network, and managed to consolidate his position, although his handling of conflict in Abkhazia still led to accusations of human rights violations and to dealing with approximately 240,000 ethnic Georgian IDPs. He called for help from the Russian Federation against Gamsakhurdia, who was still stirring up dissent from Chechnya and Mingrelia. Russia agreed to provide assistance in return for Georgia joining the CIS and allowing Russian military bases on Georgian territory. Gamsakhurdia was defeated, and the 1993 elections were organized with Shevardnadze as the sole candidate.

Shevardnadze remained in power for the rest of the 1990s. Although he attracted millions in foreign aid, promoted free press, and kept Georgia comparatively stable, he was often accused of presiding over an era of economic stagnation, mafia rule, and Soviet-style administrative corruption. These accusations erupted into protest at the 2003 elections, widely considered rigged. An opposition group led by the charismatic Mikheil Saakashvili incited the Rose Revolution, a surprisingly peaceful coup.

crowd at the Rose Revolution protests waving the new Georgian flag

crowd at the Rose Revolution protests waving the new Georgian flag

 

By law, the speaker of parliament Nino Burjanadze became acting president until the formal presidential elections of January 2004. Mikheil Saakashvili and his United National Movement won with flying colors. Between 2004 and 2006, Saakashvili implemented sweeping reforms intended to promote transparency (most notably by firing almost the entire country’s police force) and became well-known internationally for his Westward-oriented policies.

anti-Russian poster in Tbilisi following the 2008 conflict

anti-Russian poster in Tbilisi following the 2008 conflict

Tensions with Russia escalated after 2006, as negotiations with Georgia and Ukraine on a Membership Action Plan to join NATO moved forward. However, Georgia’s membership bid was not accepted at the 2008 NATO Bucharest summit, which the Saakashvili administration blamed on Russian pressure.  Unsurprisingly, that summer, the unresolved conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia erupted, in which Russia used disproportionate force the occupy buffer zones around the two breakaway regions. Only after the mediation of French President Sarkozy (then chair of the EU) advising retreat from these areas, did combat cease–with Russia recognizing the breakaway regions as independent states.

Although the initial reaction of many Georgians was to support their president and his decision to undertake military action, after the war, having lost both territories along with many lives, Saakashvili faces a disenchanted population and opposition forces asking for his resignation. The OSCE acknowledged that Saakashvili’s victory in the January 2008 elections had been rigged, and should have merited a “second round.” Thus far, the opposition forces (Christian Democrats, Georgian Dream) have not managed the work out a viable coalition with a clear alternative program or an alternative leader.

Sources

Companjen, Francoise. “Exploring the Caucasus in the 21st Century: Essays on Culture, History, and Politics in a Dynamic Context.” Amsterdam University Press, 2011.

Coene, Frederik. “The Caucasus: an Introduction.” Routledge, 2011.

de Waal, Thomas. “The Caucasus: an Introduction.” 2010.

 

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Enjoy this week’s cartoon, Savages!

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Enjoy this subtitled, stop-motion Saturday morning cartoon: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=14wlxi5VYrE

Komble is an old Georgian cartoon, or an animated short, produced in 1979. Komble is a short moral story about “bullies” and how good triumphs in the end. It can also be interpreted as an allegory of the “thief in law” system of the Soviet Union in which mafia figures (with underlying support from authorities) could do whatever they wanted (take Komble’s cow, for example) and get away with it.

Notes:

Kombali is a combination of a staff and a club used by shepherds in Georgia. “Komble” can be interpreted as either someone who uses Kombali or a name. (Chrela, name of Komble’s cow, means multi-colored).
The moral of the story literally means “justice has eaten bread” which is an old Georgian saying with a meaning similar to “good has triumphed”

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Yesterday, I woke up at 6:00 a.m. to take the GREs at a strip mall in an industrial suburb of Worcester. If you have not woken up at 6:00 a.m. to take a standardized test in an industrial suburb of Worcester before, I strongly advise against it. It’s a little bit like waking up at 6:00 a.m. to take a standardized test in an industrial suburb of Worcester.

The GREs (Graduate Record Examinations) are harder than the SATs (on which I under-performed), and about as amusing as getting mugged at an ATM. So when I pulled up to the testing center last week, I started to consider whether or not going to grad school was worth reliving my SAT experience. Wasn’t I done with this?, I thought. Didn’t graduating from high school and getting a degree from a decent college mean that I would no longer have to agonize over piddling stuff like standardized testing? Didn’t that mean I was…well…a grown-up? In the eyes of ETS, however, being a grown-up means spending an unreasonable amount of money to do menial mental exercises while sitting still in a chair for four hours. Which I guess isn’t too far from the truth.

Utter whatever curse you want about the GRE, or the broader rise of standardized testing. Whatever insult you can level at it, the GRE probably deserves it. Particularly nasty is the verbal section’s dependence on archaic vocabulary.  It is one thing to test for vocabulary words that people actually, you know, use—surreptitious, taciturn, gregarious—but then you get those words that even the most well-read English speaker cannot recall ever stumbling across—saturnine, esurient, peculation—and are punished for the egregious sin of not knowing something that is otherwise only recognizable to a professional English etymologist.

If you’re the sort who cares about fairness and merit in academia, you’re probably aware that this sort of test is especially unfair to students who speak English as a second language.  Imagine that: you work for years to learn English, get a good score on the TOEFL, maybe even attend college in the US.  Then you take the GRE and because you don’t know what “peripatetic” means you might has well be tossed in a volcano.

I exaggerate, of course.  But many would agree that the GRE is a bad test of academic ability; it is more of a test of your ability to jump through bureaucratic hoops and cough up $150. The reputable Princeton Review Guidebook states outright, “the GRE is not a test of your intelligence or academic ability. It is a test of how well you take the GRE.” For example, let’s take a disheartening look at the skills needed to be a successful graduate student vs. the skills needed to succeed on the GRE:

  • What you need for grad school: the ability to build and draw on your previous knowledge in order to solve problems
  • What the GRE tests: the ability to take only one source’s word for it when answering questions
  • What you need for grad school: the ability to use and cite resources in your writing
  • What the GRE tests: the ability to write essays based totally on personal thoughts and opinions, unsubstantiated by research
  • What you need for grad school: the ability to get along with committee and other department members
  • What the GRE tests: the ability to work by yourself
  • What you need for grad school: the ability to “skim”–to get through massive quantities of information and come out with the general argument
  • What the GRE tests: the ability to pick through the structural nuances of individual sentences
  • What you need for grad school: the ability to produce consistently good work over a long period of time
  • What the GRE tests: the ability to artificially inflate your score by cramming and cranking out results in one four-hour session
  • What you need for grad school: the ability to find creative solutions to problems and follow through through on a unique, self-designed research project
  • What the GRE tests: the ability to write what you think ETS wants to hear (no creative interpretations on questions, those are “off-topic”)

You could protest.  You could howl and throw a tantrum and vow to only apply to schools that don’t need a GRE score or just throw in the towel and take the GMAT or LSAT instead.  You could fill with righteous anger and protest graduate schools’ dependence on a money-making racket disguised as a standardized test to judge another human being’s “potential.”

But, at the end of it all, you will still have to take the GRE to go to grad school.

Sigh.

I recommend getting a good review book, studying with friends who have strengths in different areas, and visiting your school’s career center to see if there are affordable classes or tutors.

Now that it’s over I can swear an oath to never ever not ever take a standardized test ever again.  My wish for others is to prepare well and early, get through the GRE, and move on with their lives already.  We are all much more than a test score.

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