The Georgian-Turkish border: the memory of Great Leaders
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, eventually through Georgia and into Central Asia’s erstwhile cousins in Turkey. Here are his impressions about the two nations’ efforts to Westernize, but do his words reveal more about the Westerner passing through?
The modern, sculpted border crossing between Turkey and Georgia would not have been out of place on the European continent, given the ease with which I passed through. It was so easy, I might even have had a stupid grin plastered to my face on completion. In fact, it seemed in many ways as though Turkey and Georgia were striving to become more like the constituent EU members, and achieve real change. I had found that the defining characteristic of Western-style democracies in Europe was a freedom of thought among the people, and felt that it was towards that at which Turkey and Georgia should aim if their aspirations were serious.
There is such patriotism amongst the Turks, and the innumerable Atatürk-related posters, tributes and Facebook profile pictures served as an indicator at just where that pride was directed. The more I talked with friendly shop attendants, bike mechanics and even the occasional policeman, the more it became apparent that Atatürk was the symbol of Turkey. As Ataturk ushered in a new era for Turkey without the sultanate, he brought in reforms with the intention of secularizing and industrializing the country; in short, Westernizing it.
I was told by more politically-minded Turkish friends that easier migration, the potential for economic assistance, and international recognition were solid reasons for Turkey to join the EU. But for all the particulars, among many of my not-so-politically-minded Turkish friends, the ground-level driving force of the movement towards the West seemed to be a furthering of the ideals pushed by the highly revered Atatürk.
The difficulty I had in Turkey, was that I didn’t actually see any of this Westward-striving in motion. There were modern structures and classy roads on which the occasional dolmus could run me down, and everyone over the age of 18 could vote, but to me, Western democracy is about more than infrastructure or the right to vote. This right was established for women in Turkey in 1933, but female students who had emerged from Ankara’s posh, modern university buildings dressed as though they were locals in London, refused to talk to me when I asked for directions because I was a guy.
And, if you want downright irony, many Turks were afraid of bad-mouthing Atatürk, the very man who started Turkey’s liberation in the first place. [Ed.: Cf. a >1951 Turkish statute + a comparison between Atatürk and Kazakhstan's Nazarbayev for more background.] A legal make-over might have hinted at move towards Western acceptance, but the transformation was incomplete.
Just over the border in Georgia, a number of reforms had been made under President Saakashvili, leading the country towards a European democracy, after his ascent to power as a result of the Rose revolution in 2003. But, regardless of Saakashvili’s goals, given the historically strained relations with Russia, the eagerness of the Georgian people to push towards Western-style democracy seemed to be, rather, repulsion from anything Russian.
While in Gori, the birthplace of Josef Stalin, I noticed a distinct emptiness filling the square in front of the otherwise impressive town hall. That was because, as I found out from a butch cafe owner, a mere two years earlier a large Stalin statue had been removed from that very spot, presumably as part of Georgia’s de-Sovietisation process. The man looked a touch too smug as he told me, and I figured that this was either because he supported de-Sovietisation, or was now the proud owner of a 25-foot Stalin garden gnome. And this anti-Soviet effort went further than just the abolition of certain constructions.
The contrast between Georgia and Turkey was striking, and not only because the one had torn down the Great Leader while the other continued to revere him. Open, chatty women and evidence of gay communities hinted that a more fundamental, more surgical change was underway in Georgia. It was difficult to miss the huge influx of English teachers that were being sent all over the country. Except, according to the staff of two separate hostels, the primary intention wasn’t for them to teach; it was to Westernise. This was an abolition of Soviet thought, and what better way to do that than with notions of democracy directly from the West.
I exited Georgia with the opinion that the adaption of laws and institutions does not, nor should not or even be able to, bring about a change in attitude; attitude should be dealt with separately, and that was the difference between the efforts of Turkey and Georgia in becoming more like a Western-style democracy. In surgical terms, Georgia’s metamorphosis was radical; Turkey’s merely cosmetic. The former wanted to change, the latter wanted to please.