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Electricity is hope

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ww 9 Oct 2006 ‘Electricity is hope’

Bizarre events continue to unfold in the Caucasus as Russia punishes her southern neighbour of Georgia for arresting Russian officers accused of spying over a week ago.

The officers have since been released but Russia continues with drastic measures. Georgians are being deported in cargo planes. Georgian businesses in Russia have been closed down. All postal and banking transactions between the nations has been stopped. Western pleas for reasonableness are met by statements that the sanctions have only just begun.

Since arriving here over the weekend, driving through the mountains from Armenia, I have been asking Georgians how they feel about Russia’s counter-accusations of ‘state terrorism’ and ‘hostage-taking’.

Most are puzzled by the reaction, shrug their shoulders and say they have nothing against the Russians themselves. Life seems to continue normally here in Tbilisi, despite the picture given in the Russian media of Georgia as a wild, criminal state where Russians are in grave danger.

Anya and Zhenya, the young Russian couple teaching last week in the Discipleship Training School here in Tbilisi flew in on the last plane before all flights were cancelled. Their families pleaded with them not to make this ‘dangerous’ trip against government warnings. Once here they found the Georgians friendly and hospitable and life proceeding as usual. They themselves had to travel back home via Armenia due to the closed borders.

Georgians realise they will always have to live with their giant northern neighbour. But a quick look around the capital reveals how much they are at once affirming their own identity and courting the West. Giant EU flags adorn university buildings and even supermarkets in tandem with the new national flag. The red and white cross of St George fluttering over stadiums, plazas and buildings is one of the most visible changes since my last visit, well before the 2003 revolution which ousted the old president, Eduard Shevardnadze. Signs are predominantly in Georgian and English, with Russian a distant third.

President Mikhail Saakashvili, who lived in America for eight years and has a Dutch wife, aspires to bring Georgia into NATO and eventually the EU. Which helps to explain the present Russian reaction. Vladimir Putin wants Georgians to know their place within his sphere of influence. He also wants the West to respect the status quo, despite the much celebrated visit from that other ‘Saint George’, President Bush, in 2004.

My friends tell me that some things have definitely changed for the better. Many of the older police, prone to corruption, have been retired or promoted sideways, while younger new officers, trained in western ways, drive around in new Volkswagen Passats, a gift from the United States.

Whatever the outcome of the present tensions, Georgians have have seen it all before – and most have lived to tell the tale. In the early nineties civil war saw tanks and armoured vehicles in the streets of Tbilisi with street-by-street fighting between military and warlord-mafia gangs.

I was introduced here to a 2003 documentary called ‘Power Trip’, winner of numerous international film festival awards including Berlin, Toronto and Florida. (See www.powertripthemovie.com). Subtitled ‘Electricity is hope’, the film depicts an absurd and comical drama around the frustrated attempt by an American energy company, AES, to transform the dysfunctional electricity supply in Tbilisi. Corruption, assassination and street riots are the backdrop to the story which pits old communist cynicism against free-market enterprise.

Two personal links to the story line quickly emerged. One was my unexpected recognition of the CEO of AES, Dennis Bakke. I had heard about him from his brother Ray, president of Bakke Graduate University in Seattle, with whom I travelled through Italy this summer. The CEO’s Christian motivation was evident in the firm’s values which were quoted as ‘integrity, fairness, social responsibility… and fun’.

The other link was Nino, one of the film’s key characters, who came from an Orthodox background mixed with New Age to attend this DTS, the first in Georgia. A former dancer with a Georgian national folk company, Nino narrates some of the story from behind the wheel as she drives through the capital’s streets.

My task this week is to introduce to Nino and her fellow students the concept of ‘worldview’, and to show that all of life flows out of our basic beliefs about reality. As I have begun to explain that the basic options are limited to the three alternatives of animism, theism and atheism, they are beginning to grasp that ideas really do have consequences. The kind of government, police force and even electricity supply we have stems from the nation’s choice of basic beliefs.

And that’s not just true for Georgia, but for Europe’s future too.

Till next week,

Jeff Fountain

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