July 01, 2011

Conflict in the Caucasus

Conflict in the Caucasus

EVERY SATURDAY MORNING at the Dry Bridge Market by the Mtkvari River in Tbilisi, people gather to buy and sell goods at a long-established open air market. The nearby park is devoted to work by local artists, with garishly colored paintings that depict typically Georgian scenes, like skyrocket church domes and bacchanalian wine gatherings, but it is the flea market at the roadside that is the greatest draw for locals.

The goods on sale are painstakingly spread out on tablecloths in the shade of trees, and the combined effect seems more like an outdoor museum of the Georgian twentieth century than a commercial enterprise. There are all manner of Soviet-era cameras, magazines, medals and lapel badges. There are stamp collections, coins and records, and statuettes of Marx, Lenin and other members of the Soviet elite who failed to become household names. This being Georgia, it is inevitable to see likenesses of the most famous Georgian of all time: Ioseb Besarionis dze Jughashvili, better known to the rest of the world as Joseph Stalin.

Strolling the market, one notices that, rather than guttural Georgian, the lingua franca here is Russian. This may be Tbilisi, but many of those gathered here do not speak Georgian — they are members of the capital’s Russian minority and their life is difficult enough without having to cope with the tongue-twisting consonants and mind-bending grammar that fluency in Georgian requires.

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