Friday, November 23, 2007

Giorgoba, Riga

Gilocavt Giorgobas! Today is the feast day of St. George (Giorgi), one of the most important saints for Georgians. It is also the 4th anniversary of the Rose Revolution which swept Saakashvili to power. Either way, today is a reason for all Georgians to celebrate (i.e. drink lots of wine and eat lots of food) and I will surely join them.

I returned from Riga early Monday morning (4 am--almost all flights to/from Tbilisi arrive/leave around then) exhausted yet refreshed and at the same time glad to be back in Tbilisi.

Three days in Riga seemed to be just the right amount of time to explore the old part of the city, where I stayed. The city is relatively small (~700,000) and one can walk from one end of Old Riga to the other in less than 30 minutes. But that's not to say there isn't much to see. The architecture is stunning, from the 13th century Doma Cathedral to the Art Nouveau buildings along Alberta Street. At this time of year, days are short in this city at a latitude greater than 55 degrees; night came at 4:30 and the sun never rose very high in the sky, so that for all of the daylight hours it felt like morning.

When we weren't meandering through the city, Callie (my friend from College) and I visited the Museum of the Soviet Occupation, Museum of War--two museums that detail 800 years of invasion and oppression, not so unlike Georgia--and the Market. The Market is a huge complex of several buildings (it gets to cold to have a year round outdoor market) that sell everything from freshly slaughtered meat to delicious rye bread so dense that you can't compress the bread at all (I bought a 1 kilo loaf that looked half the size of one of our one-pound loaves of bread). Riga is just minutes from the Baltic Sea and fresh caught fish are sold every morning in the market. Fresh milk is sold from large steel drums by the kilo; buyers bring their own containers to take the milk.

Compared to Tbilisi, Riga feels like Western Europe to me. And if it weren't for the large Russian population (about 50% in Riga), most would probably agree with me. It was interesting for me, coming from one former Soviet Republic to another, to see how much more successful Latvia has been in catching up with the rest of Europe in terms of economic growth. Any street in old town looked nicer than the nicest street in Tbilisi. There are malls and grocery stores; Tbilisi has neither (the closest it gets is the bazaar). A great deal of Latvia's success is due to a combination of being closer to the rest of Europe and having only been under Soviet rule for 45 years (as opposed to Georgia's 70), but one still can't help but ask why it's taking Georgia so long. Interestingly, Callie, who's been studying in Prague, felt that Riga was the Eastern European Post-Soviet city she had hoped Prague to be, but apparently isn't.

But I don't want Tbilisi to feel like another Western European city. As beautiful of a city as Riga is, I felt that it didn't have half the character of Tbilisi. True, I was only there for 3 days and could be completely wrong, but I think that along with economic prosperity comes a threat to culture. Sure, Tbilisi is poor but the people are thankful for what they have and know how to celebrate every bit of good fortune that comes there way; strong families and close friends are the result of a necessity to help each other out during difficult times.

I do realize that life is difficult in Georgia and I do hope that Georgia finds economic prosperity, but I just hope that when I return in 20 years I'll still find Old Georgia in the people.

PS All the pictures of army vehicles and soldiers are from the Military Parade, part of the celebrations for Latvian Independence Day.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Off to...

Riga, Latvia!!

I know it sounds totally random, and, well, it is. I'm going there to meet up with a friend from College who's studying abroad in Prague this semester. Since we're both in the same general region of the world, we decided to meet up. Unfortunately, Tbilisi is both expensive to fly to and to fly from. Thanks to former Soviet bloc solidarity, there are relatively cheap flights to Riga... so that's why we're meeting there. I'll only be there for 3 days, but it will be a nice change of pace.

On the political front, things have stayed quiet here. The state of emergency is still in effect, though it's scheduled to be lifted Friday evening. Things don't look good for the opposition, however, which is trying to defeat President Saakashvili in the January 5th snap elections. Imedi TV, the opposition's megaphone, did not only see its equipment destroyed when the police invaded their studio last week (damage that might keep them off the air for three months), but was told yesterday by the Tbilisi City Court that their license to broadcast had been revoked. Meanwhile, the President has had the airwaves to himself, the privilege of an extended state of emergency.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Media blackout, early elections

Continuation of previous post...

One noticeable difference in life in Georgia now is the lack of media. On the evening of November 7, the day of the violent crackdown, riot police entered the building of Imedi TV (one of the main TV stations) and pulled the plug. The same thing happened to the smaller Kavkasia TV. As it happens to turn out, both Imedi and Kavkasia sympathized with the opposition; meanwhile, pro-Government Rustavi and Mze and Government-owned Georgia Public Broadcasting continued to broadcast. Later that evening, Saakashvili placed Georgia under a State of Emergency, declaring that the only GPB would be allowed to broadcast news during the maximum 15-day State of Emergency.

And true to his word, the next day (yesterday) there was no news to be found except on GPB. In my apartment, we have cable which includes CNN and BBC, but even these two channels were removed and replaced instead with an Italian channel and Eurosport respectively. Strangely, neither Imedi nor Kavkasia have returned to the air yet; Rustavi and Mze have remained operational, but they are only broadcasting South American soap operas and reruns of Friends. To add to the information black hole, I was without internet for all of yesterday (just an isolated incident as I found out).

Last night, tensions eased when the President '"yielded"' to the oppositions demands for an early Presidential election. There has been talk that the State of Emergency might be lifted before the end of the maximum 15 days; already, CNN and BBC have returned to cable. I say "yielded" because it's easy to see that Saakashvili is using the early elections to his advantage. First of all, the elections are to be held on January 5th, a date earlier than even the opposition was hoping for, which is less than 2 months away. It's hard to imagine that the currently fragmented opposition can come together and unanimously support one opposition presidential candidate in such a short amount of time. The campaign time is even shorter once you take into account that effectively no campaigning is allowed during the State of Emergency. One can't help but feel that the January 5th election is a strategic move, especially when you realize that Georgia's constitution requires the President to resign 45 days before the election day--which just so happens to be November 22nd, the last day of the 15 day State of Emergency.

Thursday, November 8, 2007


Sorry for disappearing for a while--I didn't (and still don't) have internet access at my apartment.

The State of Emergency, by making it an arrestable offense to protest, has put a halt to all demonstrations. In an odd way, life has returned to normal and there's almost a festive atmosphere because the Ministry of Education announced that schools and universities would not resume classes until Monday. For the Georgians I've spoken to, the announcement of the State of Emergency and the restrictions it imposes is no big deal--they're used to this sort of thing happening every few years. (Remember, Georgia is a country that hasn't had a peaceful transition in government since the fall of communism.)

More later.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

If you want the latest info on Georgia...

I've just woken up to discover that the entire country of Georgia has been declared a State of Emergency after a day of riots. I don't know how this will affect my daily life for the next couple of weeks, but I'll be sure to keep y'all informed. Meanwhile, for those wishing to hear the most recent news concerning developments in Georgia, I recommend

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Political Situation

Note: If you are looking for up to date information about the current situation in Georgia, please visit my other blog where I provide translations of Russian and Georgian news items.

As many of you are already aware, the political situation here has become a little tense. Demonstrators, numbering as many as 100,000, depending on whom you ask, turned out last Friday demanding early elections as well as listing grievances committed by the President. Well, they're still protesting (this is day 5), though the numbers have dwindled significantly, but things have taken a more serious turn now that the protesters are demanding that President Saakashvili step down. I'll give a more detailed rundown of what's happened and what's still to unfold later this week. For those wondering, the demonstrations have been peaceful and I'm quite safe!

[Edit: Things are a bit more scary here after riot police used tear gas and water cannons to force the protesters from their camp outside of Parliament. They've regrouped with renewed zeal a few kilometers away.]

Synthesizing in Georgia

As I mentioned in a previous post, my chemistry professor, Mzia, invited me to come work in her laboratory at the Institute for Physical and Organic Chemistry. She had warned me that conditions there were bad: there wasn't always running water, electricity wasn't guaranteed either, heating couldn't be afforded, etc... But I wasn't put off in the least; after all, I'm living in those conditions in my apartment.

Yet when I approached the building for the first time last Friday, I realized that Mzia had made the facilities sound relatively good compared to what I was looking at. The exterior of this soviet-era building is falling apart, and it's even worse on the inside. I entered through a side door and descended a flight of stairs to a poorly lit basement that had large gaping holes in the floor where I rode a rickety elevator to the third floor. I might as well have been in a horror movie. Again, the lighting was poor, but slightly better due to the sunlight streaming through the windows. Mzia gave me a brief tour of her lab (Organic Synthesis) and the lab of her colleague, Roini (considered to be one of the best chemists in Georgia, who, in spite of the conditions, consistently gets better results than his colleagues in Moscow). Besides the overall poor condition of the fume hoods and lab equipment that one would expect from a laboratory that hadn't been upgraded since the soviet-era, I was struck by the dozens of two liter plastic beer and soda bottles. These vessels held precious water. I don't think it needs mentioning, but water is necessary for chemistry. At the institute, water only runs for 3 hours, 3 days a week--that's only 9 hours a week of water! The powers that be at the institute restrict the water supply citing costs; for the same reason, they also forbid heating the building (which is why no one takes off their coat in the lab). Last year, there weren't enough funds even for electricity, so for 5 months, research came to a halt, except in Roini's lab: he used a propane stove to perform most of his experiments and somehow managed to still get good results. As Mzia told me, If you can synthesize in Georgia, you can synthesize anywhere.

Mzia then invited me for some coffee and a chance to review some of her research (currently, synthesizing compounds with anticoagulant and antioxidant properties). I also read one of the lab's research papers still in the drafting stage. I noticed many grammatical mistakes which Mzia kindly allowed me to correct; this is probably how I can help the institute the most. That and perhaps grant writing. She also reminded me that my work would be without pay as the institute did not have funds for another salaried position. She revealed that her monthly salary, as the director of a lab mind you, is $100 (one hundred, in case you thought I left out a zero) and she comes to the institute almost everyday. Shortly, Roini arrived with a liter of Odessa wine, and within a matter of minutes, it was gone--I've almost come to expect now that I'll be drinking in the oddest of places. After what I thought was the last toast, Nino, one of Roini's research assistants, came in to announce that the water had stopped running, and also came bearing another 1.5 liters of wine, which didn't last long either. In spite of downing a liter of wine, I was still conscious enough to say that I would be back the next day to start helping out.

I did come the next day to Roini's lab, where Roini and Nino had already been working for a few hours. Roini wasn't in best form because apparently, the day before, after drinking with me, he went to a friend's birthday party where he drank 5 (!) more liters of wine and was paying for it now with a hangover. Therefore, Nino and I (to some extent) took over the experiment, which mainly involved pouring water from a plastic bottle into a funnel to feed water to the condenser. Nino knows very good English and has been kind and patient enough to explain the experiment in detail (we're synthesizing a ruthenocene derivative). When things slowed down, Nino prepared a lunch of fried potatoes, cheese, and various pickled vegetables for the three of us (yes, there is a small kitchen in the laboratory). And of course, Roini brought out another liter of wine. I think I'm going to like working here...

Ministry of Education/Bureaucracy

Although I have been attending classes at TSMU for almost 6 weeks now, I am still not officially enrolled. When I submitted my application materials to the University in mid-August, the head of Admissions informed me that all applicants must be approved by the Ministry of Education in order to be admitted. I wasn't worried at the time because I knew I was a well-qualified applicant (having already completed two years of college--most of the applicants just graduated from secondary school) and had gone through all the bureaucratic mess (or so I thought) of among other things, getting an official transcript sent to Georgia, translated, and notarized.

But when I returned to Georgia at the end of September, I discovered that my application still hadn't been approved. I was told that my application couldn't be approved until my transcript was verified. What?! The whole point of having an official transcript (one that was translated and notarized to boot) is to avoid having to verify its authenticity. I didn't take much action, thinking that this bureaucratic mess would just untangle itself; after all, many of my classmates were in the same situation and they had to be admitted sooner or later, right? Moreover, for me, being a student at TSMU is just a small part of my whole Georgia experience--no big deal if it doesn't work out for some reason. But for my classmates, this was a big deal. They had come from as far as India with the sole intent of studying medicine--not to experience Georgian culture or to learn Georgian--and yet the University, now six weeks into the semester, still has not given the word on their admission. We are in a bureaucratic limbo.

That's why last Wednesday a fellow classmate and I decided to go in person to the Ministry of Education and get some real answers. I went armed with phone and fax numbers of the Office of the Registrar at the UofC (having also sent them emails describing my situation) and another official copy of my transcript. But I hardly needed anything. A woman named Maia apparently held all the decision making power, and when I showed her my official transcript (which they already had) that I had brought, she said that I should have no problem being approved. The same went for my classmate. I almost wish there would have been more of a struggle because then I could feel as though I had accomplished something; instead, I left with an even greater distaste for bureaucracy and its inefficiency.

Friday, November 2, 2007

What you have to look forward to:

This weekend has been and will be a busier one than usual; and as a result, I don't have the time I usually do to write my weekly post in its full 1200+ word glory. I hope to find time by Tuesday to write it. Here's what you can expect:
  • Visit to the Ministry of Education
  • Visit to the Institute of Physical and Organic Chemistry, where I will be working, and my, let's just say, very warm welcome.
  • The 100,000+ demonstrators in front of Parliament on Friday
  • Trip to Sighnaghi on Sunday for Giorgi'a birthday party
  • And probably more