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Eurasia 98 Friday, 5 June, 1998, 18:10 GMT 19:10 UK
To be in Tbilisi
Darius Bazargan interviews Georgian actress Eka Andronikashvilli
Darius Bazargan interviews Georgian actress Eka Andronikashvilli
Darius Bazargan reports:

The EurAsia 98 team rendezvoused at Trabzon airport in Turkey on May 8 and crossed the border into Georgia the following day. The crossing is heavily guarded by Russian troops - despite Georgia's supposed independence, Moscow still keeps a close rein on her former satellites.

Nat Pearson with Georgian traffic cop
Nat Pearson makes friends at a Georgian police roadblock
Several things are immediately apparent about Georgia; this small, mountainous Caucasian state has some of the worst maintained roads in Europe; the local traffic police clearly lead monotonous, boring lives and enjoy nothing better than to pull vehicles over for the fun of it - in our case roughly every 10km.

They were generally friendly - in some cases drunk and heavily armed - but usually willing to let us pass for no more than a couple of Marlboro cigarettes.

But in the capital Tbilisi there is an air of optimism; new bars and shops have opened for those that can afford them, while the arts, so long the province of state control under the Soviet system, seem to be flourishing. The main Rustaveli street hosts numerous galleries full of work by Tbilisi born artists.

Where art meets greyhound racing

A year ago an underground theatre opened showing plays like Brecht's Three-penny Opera. It is run on a co-operative basis and plays to a full house every night.

Next to the theatre itself is one of the best bars in the city. It is decked out in black and white tiles and has three, full sized snooker tables. The owner, Omat Shamatava, is a rabid Anglophile who plans to beam in greyhound and horse racing from England by satellite!

Painting by Albert Dilbaryan.
Painting by Albert Dilbaryan
Georgian Street poetry, sonnets and rhymes almost rap-like in their word play and verbal trickery, are immensely popular too. We were lucky to fall in with Kote Koubanishvilli, perhaps the county's leading exponent of this form of satirical, political wordplay. Kote was the first poet I have met who is stopped on the street by swooning teenaged girls and asked for autographs - he was also our key to an embryonic underground music scene where names like Irakli Charkviani and Lado Burdelli are the ones to watch.

Kote guided us to several gallery openings and exhibitions. My personal favourite was the work of the Tbilisi born Armenia painter Albert Dilbaryan - or "Dilbo" as he was known. These simple, insightful, even rough oil works reflect a sad and nostalgic view of the world; which mirrored the tortured, alcoholic life of the painter himself.

"His work is dark because his life itself was dark," Kote told me as we admired the exhibition. Sadly Dilbaryan, who often swapped his beautiful paintings for bottles of vodka, was not around to experience the growing appreciation of his beautiful work. His recent death was typically Georgian; he got drunk, fell into a hole in the road and broke his neck.

Anyone who has experienced the whiplash inducing experience of Georgia's road network will sympathise with Dilbo's plight!

War and peace

When I got travel insurance for EurAsia 98 I was told that Georgia was viewed as a Grade 1 risk by the underwriters.

UN-Abkhazia conference Tbilisi, Georgia
UN-Abkhazia conference Tbilisi, Georgia
Serious fighting broke out in the Gali district of the breakaway region of Abkhazia towards the end of our stay - and despite a temporary cease-fire organised under the auspices of the UN, the underlying reasons for the fighting; the plight of hundreds of thousands of Georgian refugees and Abkhazia's final relationship within the Georgian state, continue to plague the country's stability.

Nevertheless, most of Georgia is peaceful and optimistic. I can't help feeling that after spending time here, the insurance underwriters are way off the mark; for the sensible traveller, Georgia is far from dangerous. But the heady mixture of Caucasian political intrigue tied into access to oil export routes and the ever present ethnic tensions in the region sadly suggest this beautiful country's long-term stability is far from guaranteed.

Words by Darius Bazargan, images by Mark Read.

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