The fighting between Russia and Georgia this August took place on the other side of the globe, but its connections to the University include the country’s president and several Georgian emigrants studying in Foggy Bottom.
On Aug. 7, Georgia attempted to regain control of South Ossetia, a disputed pro-Russia territory that is along the Georgia’s border with Russia. Russia responded by sending troops into both South Ossetia and Abkhazia – another disputed territory – and by bombing Georgia.
Georgian president Mikhail Saakashvili, who became a major international figure during the conflict, attended GW Law School in the mid-1990s. He last spoke on campus in 2004 when he said that his experiences in Foggy Bottom shaped his ideals and values about democracy.
Saakashvili’s life in Washington was major news when the Washington Post and other papers reported that he met his friend and confidant Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) – the presumptive Republican presidential nominee – while studying at GW.
Former University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg recalled meeting Saakashvili twice, once when he was a student and again in Feb. 2004, when the recently elected president spoke at GW.
“He seemed very bright, very bold,” Trachtenberg said, adding that Saakashvili was “thrilled to be president of his home country.”
Bo Anders Knutson, a second-year graduate student, and Sophia Chumburidze, a sophomore, have closely followed the military engagements between their native Georgia and its northern neighbor.
Chumburidze worked in Philadelphia this summer and planned to return home, but she cancelled her trip once the fighting broke out.
“At one point (the Russian military) were heading toward Tbilisi, which was the most frightening thing for me because my entire family is there,” Chumburidze said.
She joined with another Georgian friend from Georgetown and organized a protest in D.C. They are also starting a student organization to advocate for Georgian NATO membership. Her Facebook group, “SEND DIPLOMATIC AID TO GEORGIA,” has more than 800 members.
Chumburidze blamed the Russian media for a lot of the problems, citing its failure to get the Georgian message across.
“Many people think that we are aggressive toward the South Ossetians,” she said. “This is not true, and it is important for the people who think that to read other forms of media, not just the Russian.”
Facebook and the Internet are also useful tools for Knutson, who lives in Avlabari – the Armenian quarter of the Georgian capital of Tbilisi. He used the networking Web site and Skype to keep in touch with family and friends during the conflict.
“My Russian friends write me saying, ‘Get out of the country, this won’t end soon!’ My Georgian friends say the same thing,” Knutson said.
He added, “(My Russian friends) seem to be unaware of how ruthless and sinister the war and (Russian Prime Minister Vladimir) Putin’s actions appear to the rest of the world.”