Across Continents

Ken's Blog

European question

May 9th, 2010

Not just a potential stumbling block for Nick Clegg and David Cameron, but my own curiosity. Was Azerbaijan Europe or Asia? Back in neighbouring Georgia the responses had been mixed. Early days, but here people seem to have less polarised views, suggesting instead that they have much in common with Europe, but with a strong Asian influence. What the question does is expose historically shifting borders, migrating ethnic groups, a never ending state of flux. Georgia had the breakaway region of South Ossetia to contend with, Azerbaijan has Nagorno-Karabach.

Back in the saddle, the linguistic implications of all this is very much a mixed bag. Azeri shares the same origins as Turkish, remaining sufficiently close for them to be mutually intelligible. Or so I’m told. I’ve tried Turkish here. Just get blank looks. But to be fair, it was often the same in Turkey. Russian is widely spoken, to the extent that I find myself widening my albeit limited vocabulary by blending it with Azeri in the same conversation. Seems to work.

My mastery of languages remains a definite case of enthusiasm over ability. And I’ve a long, long way to go to even equal that of Silvana and Johan and their children. I’d met them in the Azerbaijan town of Sheki, enjoying a short break from their home in the country’s Capital Baku. Between them, fluent Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, English, Russian and, I’m sure, a pretty good grasp of Azeri.

I take some comfort from the fact that whilst English is not a numerically superior first language, geographically it is widely spread across the world. And the fact that I can readily explain where I come from by mentioning the words ’Manchester United’. Usually elicits an enthusiastic response. I’m guessing this Ronaldo chap is some sort of footballer? My turn to look blank.

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Under occupation

May 1st, 2010

"Georgia is one of the most invaded nations on earth" advises the Department of Tourism and Resorts. Most recently by Russian Federation forces in August 2008. The war was swift – just five days – before a ceasefire was agreed. Whilst the conflict no doubt helped make people more aware of Georgia, what is often not appreciated is that it remains an occupied nation, in part at least.

Russian forces control a swathe of land in central Georgia, north of the M27 east-west arterial road that links the Capital Tbilisi with Turkey and eastern Europe. South Ossetia. Travelling from Gori eastwards to the Capital, there are few clues as to the occupation, and of the recent conflict. No obvious fortifications on either side, no bomb damaged buildings, no menacing tanks. Just a European Union Monitoring Mission field office in Gori, part of the ceasefire arrangements.

Whatever the merits of the recent conflict, there is an inevitable human cost. Getting some measure of the impact on families – presumably some are split between the occupied and unoccupied territories – is difficult, my Georgian very limited at best. But what is certain is that there are quite a few people displaced by the war, obliged to live in newly built communities.

I’d found one of these settlements on the outskirts of Gori, and spotted others on my way towards Tbilisi. Hard to recognise as such, these are not tented encampments but neatly built single storey houses. Admittedly quite small, but, ironically, appearing far better than many of the other houses I’d seen.

Do I feel threatened, concerned the conflict may re-ignite, suddenly finding myself trapped? Not at all, the situation feels very stable, indeed, you have to look very carefully for clues as to the occupation. It’s certainly not a reason to not visit Georgia, and I wouldn’t hesitate to return. Far from it, plan to come back when my venture is complete.

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