Georgia and Iran, Georgians and Iranians
28 July, 2014
Iran and Georgia have a long relationship but for two hundred years there was no contact. This gave plenty of time for each side to create mythology about the other. Under the National Movement, due to visa free travel and an open economy, relations with Iran became quite personal for the first time since Erekle II. The National Movement policy was typical of that period, smart, motivated by principal and badly implemented. They wanted to open Georgia up and make
it a hub particularly for international investment, so they declared visa free travel at a time when Iran's economy was wrecked by corruption and sanctions. And people came. 99% were quite educated, western looking, wealthy people who just wanted to have an option near but our of Iran. But 1% were money launderers or worse. In any case, the system worked and there were many Iranians beginning to rebuild ties. The Otsneba policy is of obscure motivation and not so well motivated. The Americans were telling the new Government that they needed to prevent the money laundering and they the Americans were focused only on that. The Europeans, who mattered more (because of the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement was being negotiated at the time) were worried about Iranians using Georgia as a back door to Europe connected to Schengen visa arrangements. Georgians had their own worries, based on nobody having contact for two hundred years and historical interpretation. Many Georgians are happy to have Europeans come live and invest in Georgia, as long as they have light skin and are Christian. But darker foreigners and Muslims worry some people. Interestingly, few Europeans or Americans learn Georgian or put their children in Georgian schools, but many Iranians had started to do both. But still the understanding of Georgia's history by many Georgians was such that Iranians in Georgia worried many people. So the new government combined the anxiety of many Georgians, and the not-so-clearly expressed wishes of Brussels and Washington and made most Iranians leave. Keep in mind we are talking about families who had moved, had children in schools, and had started to build lives in a country that they saw as more European and more international than Iran. But then that country turned on them. The new government also copied a western European law that presumed that people were coming into the country to work and get higher wages, but this doesn't happen in Georgia. Most of the Iranians weren't so worried about working, they just wanted to buy an apartment and get their kids in schools, they had plenty of money that they hoped to invest, they were more interested in spending money than making it. Georgia had become a good base for them. Now things have changed. There are few Iranians around. The money launderers are still around of course, they always find their way around the rules. But the families who had bought apartments have mostly left, some back to Iran but most on to Dubai or Turkey, or Europe or North America if they can get there. And things are changing in Iran. The nuclear negotiations are progressing, not quickly, but they are moving forward. There is a reasonable chance that there will be a deal within a year that will end the US sanctions. If that happens, Iran will begin to open up and that will have bigger consequences for Georgia than any international event for many years. The quality of Georgia's friendship with Iran and its reputation with Iranians will become much more important for Georgia's future. As Russia slowly weakens and isolates itself, it is likely that Iran will become much more powerful in the region. Will Georgia be ready? Will Georgia notice in time to use that to its advantage? Or will it be too busy looking inward or northward to understand the transformation that is happening in its old neighbor? Those who care about Georgia should think about its relationship with Iran, or more importantly for now, the relationship between Georgians and Iranians.