When most students hear about Georgia, what usually comes to mind is a hot, southern state in the U.S., not a republic in the Eastern Hemisphere. Daniel Kunin ’92, a student at Tufts’ Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, came to Williams last week to share his knowledge of the continually evolving political and social atmosphere in the Republic of Georgia. The structure of Kunin’s lecture came as a result of his own studies and observations of the area, where he lived and worked. Kunin also sought the opinions and experiences of present Williams students who spent Winter Study in Georgia.
Kunin had originally planned, as a junior at Williams, to study away in Egypt during the fall of 1990; however, Middle East crises prevented him doing so. Instead, he spent Winter Study of 1991 and the following spring semester in Georgia. After graduating from Williams and beginning a consulting career, he was sought as a Georgian financial consultant mostly because of his familiarity with the budding area and its issues. He lived and worked in Georgia from 1994 until 1996, becoming fluent in Georgian and marrying a Georgian woman, before returning to America to continue his graduate studies.
Kunin spent much of his lecture discussing the history of the Republic of Georgia, noting that it was unified as a nation in the 12th century. Even before the U.S.S.R. formally disbanded, Georgia had declared its statehood. As early as 1918, Georgia had a written Declaration of Independence, which would end up helping the nation, years later, to write a Constitution.
The government has experienced relative stability for five years now, with democratic elections under Georgia’s respective belt, and a three-branch system of governance that mirrors American systems in some ways. However, the structure is founded on the basis of consensus, which, according to Kunin, increases the country’s legitimacy and credibility within the international community, as well as on the homefront. Georgia’s current period of instability has led leaders, and overwhelmingly the top leaders, to make strong promises which they are not fully capable of keeping. This, too, has eroded public confidence in the government.
The Parliamentary and Judicial branches, however provide checks and balances; most of the power rests in the Parliament. Kunin notes that the Parliament is seen as the “jewel in the crown, the shining star” of the changing nation; they have reportedly been set on questioning the lack of implementation of laws by police forces. There have been three sets of Parliamentary elections; a Presidential election will take place in 2000, and Kunin hopes that this will show the rest of the world that Georgia can enter the new millennium as an increasingly stable nation.
Another one of the problems in Georgia, claims Kunin, is the “particular brand of corruption” that permeates. Although elections have been popular, a revolving-door policy exists for ministers, and money laundering is not a foreign concept. Street police are notorious for accepting and demanding bribes. Kunin claims that a Soviet legacy is part of the reason that these problems persist. In addition, he claims that external affairs – such as relations with Russia – have made corruption even harder to squelch.
Kunin maintained that throughout his time in Tbilisi, the capital city of Georgia, where Williams students also spent Winter Study, he “never felt a personal threat…Tbilisi is not as wild as its reputation suggests.” He also stressed that Georgia has been free to develop on its own for a very short time, and that although problems seem daunting now, with work and faith, they will improve.
Kunin did note Georgia’s comprehensive civil, commercial, and criminal law, and also mentioned that Georgia was accepted as member of the council of Europe. He also mentioned that Georgia is a member of the Partnership for Peace. Although Georgia has had a history of human rights abuses, the government has shown a commitment to improvement.
Central to daily Georgian life, according to Kunin and students who visited Georgia in January, is family. Part of the pride of Georgia originates from the strong family structure, which Kunin claims is mimicked through society. A “clan structure” prevails, though a guest is considered a gift to most families, an opportunity to demonstrate their hospitality.
Ethnic mixing is also an asset to Georgia, claims Kunin, since a richness results from the best of each culture being brought into the next. Kunin thinks that the middle of Tbilisi represents visually the community: within a few blocks of each other stand a mosque, a synagogue, an Armenian church, and a Georgian church.
Williams students who visited Georgia commented on the warmth of those with whom they stayed, noting that they were given the best that the family had. Students interned, giving aid to homeless children and displaced families, among others. One student worked in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, learning about Georgia’s relationships with Russia and Turkey.
Four previous exchange students from Williams have taken up residence in Georgia, having “fallen in love with the place,” according to Professor of Russian Darra Goldstein, who has headed the exchange program from Williams since its inception. The program was started in 1987 and continued for five years, with Kunin being on the last exchange program before civil war caused problems in Western Georgia and the program was discontinued. This Winter Study was the first exchange program since 1991.
Kunin explained that often, college has so many options from which to choose that a student can feel overwhelmed. Kunin encouraged students to look around, but added, “This program is a real gem, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”