The Azeri-Georgian border “cocktail party”
Azerbaijan, Georgia, Politics and SocietyOne Comment
Editor’s note: British student Danny Gordon has been cycling across the world to raise money for UNICEF and Sports Relief, and not long ago, he passed through the southern arc of the former Soviet Union. NewEurasia managed to catch up with him to ask his impressions about crossing borders here…
As I pedaled away from the last security check in the crossing from Georgia to Azerbaijan, I, admittedly oddly, found myself likening the dynamic between these two countries to that which might be found at an awkward cocktail party.
I had fully expected the crossing to be somewhat uncomfortable, as a result of potential tensions arising from the huge cultural and religious differences between Orthodox Christian Georgia and Muslim Azerbaijan. Churches of Georgian cross-dome style that framed beautiful frescoes and murals were abruptly replaced by Azeri mosques dripping in colourful, rhythmic arabesque. The change was so stark; the personalities of the states’ so different, that I wouldn’t have been surprised if, when they met at the border-post, it had been a less than cordial affair. As it happened, I was pleasantly surprised.
The atmosphere was official but relaxed as I handed my passport out every 100m or so at each blockade. At one such stop, a rotund guard even jovially suggested that I marry his female colleague, flicking his head towards a pretty woman standing behind him, because Azeri women were “more beautiful than the Georgians”. While doing my best to look hurt that my imaginary girlfriend wouldn’t allow this, it struck me that the guard was actually echoing a sentiment expressed by the Azeri consulate in the Black Sea town of Batumi a few days earlier. On both occasions however, it seemed to me that this was just light-hearted one-uping, rather than indicative of any genuine friction between the nations.
But while there seemed to be a genuine respect between the countries, strengthened, I learned, in no small part by their mutual interest in something known as the “GUAM Organization for Democracy and Economic Development”, their friendship also appeared to be one of necessity. That is because the other guests at my imaginary cocktail party were Russia and Armenia.
There was an explicit dislike for all things Russian possessed by many of the Georgians I had spoken to, some of which had even fought in the conflict with Russian forces in 2008 involving South Ossetia and Abkhazia. As for relations between Azerbaijan and Armenia, the comment from a Qazax student, “don’t talk about Armenia”, was telling. That seemed to be the natural stance of most Azeri people in light of the on-going Nagorno-Karabakh region dispute with Armenia.
Reluctant to speak to their respective current enemies, the border crossing suggested that the Georgians and Azeri simply preferred to share a tumbler of vodka in the company of each other; not with the Russians or Armenians lurking in the background.
Author’s note: The buildings in the photos are not actually border crossings; the captions are metaphorical. I tried to pick roughly equivalent photos from each place to demonstrate the cultural difference as embodied in religious architecture.