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Georgia Asks Friends To Stop Calling It 'Gruzia'

  • Jimsher Rekhviashvili

A woman walks past a wall decorated with Georgia's national flags in the center of Tbilisi.

A woman walks past a wall decorated with Georgia's national flags in the center of Tbilisi.

The country known in the West as Georgia in fact has many names -- "Sakartvelo" in Georgian, "Gurjistan" in Turkish, and "Vrastan" in Armenian, to name just a few.

But one of those names has begun to strike a nerve: "Gruzia," which is used by all Slavic-speaking countries -- including, most problematically, Russia.

"This name is associated with Georgia's being part of the Russian Empire for 200 years," said lawmaker Nugzar Tsiklauri, who heads the parliament committee on relations with Georgians abroad. "The use of the word 'Gruzia' was spread by Russia into those countries."

Georgia's notoriously rocky relations with Russia have had grave consequences, notably the August 2008 war that led to Tbilisi's de facto loss of breakaway territories Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

But the bad blood has also prompted more capricious gestures, including Georgia's withdrawal from the Commonwealth of Independent States and its move to pass a genocide resolution against Russia for its role in the 19th-century slaughter of ethnic Circassians.

What's In A Name?

Georgian lawmaker Nugzar Tsiklauri (file photo)
Now the Georgian government is extending its battle to the world of nomenclature. The Foreign Ministry is asking "friendly nations" in the post-Soviet bloc and beyond to give up "Gruzia" in favor of "Georgia."

More than a dozen countries currently use the "Gruzia" denomination, including Bulgaria, Belarus, China, Slovenia, Hungary, and the Baltic states.

So far, however, only one country, South Korea, has reportedly agreed to make the switch. A second East Asian state, Japan -- which apparently sparked the entire debate with an ill-timed "Gruzia" reference during a visit last year by Georgian Foreign Minister Grigol Vashakdze -- has declined. Latvia and Lithuania, which on occasion are openly critical of Russia, have likewise refused to change.

But Georgian officials like Deputy Foreign Minister Nino Kalandadze are still hopeful they can persuade some of their fellow postcommunist countries to adopt what they are calling the country's "contemporary" name.

"We have to make every effort to get these countries to stop using the old name," said Kalandadze, who oversees the ministry's relations with the presidential administration.

The Case For Change

To that end, ambassadors and other embassy officials have been pressed to make their case with colleagues in their host countries.

Nino Nakashidze, Georgia's ambassador to the Czech Republic, said she made the recommendation to her Czech contacts as long as a year ago. (Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg acknowledged that such a recommendation had been made, but declined to say whether it would be making the switch.)

Nakashidze described the Czech Republic as "a big supporter" of Georgia and dismissed suggestions that Prague would base any decision on concern for its relations with Moscow, with whom it has strong investment ties.

"I think this is a purely linguistic issue, and an issue that will make the life of politicians in some regards easier," Nakashidze said. "In its English-language documents, the ministry is already calling Georgia 'Georgia.' All we're asking is for them to use one and the same name in all of their documents, whatever the language."

But officials from other countries point to centuries of paperwork and literature and say such a change is not as easy as it sounds. Magda Nowakowska, who works with the Polish Embassy in Georgia, noted that the word "Gruzia" was naturally suited to the innumerable grammatical cases and declensions that riddle Slavic languages.

All but the most masochistic linguists, she suggested, would be loathe to attempt the switch. "The word 'Gruzia' is deeply rooted in the Polish language," she said. "I think it would be very difficult to change."

'Ridiculous'

And even as critics contemplate the ins and outs of putting "Georgia" in the dative or locative case -- not to mention potential confusion with the U.S. state of Georgia -- others continue to spar over the true source of the word "Gruzia."

Davit Zurabishvili says the effort sets a bad example.
Although it has been adopted by Russia and other countries with Slavic languages, many argue that the word is actually Turkish or Syrian in origin. (Western European historians, meanwhile, argue that the term "Georgian," which has been used since medieval times, springs from the country's admiration of St. George; the country's red-and-white flag features the St. George's Cross.)

Davit Muskhelishvili, a well-known Georgian historian, is among those who argue that "Gruzia" is not a Slavic term. But even if it was, he said, the current flurry of debate was a waste of time and effort.

"I can't say what kind of sense it might make in political terms, but it's ridiculous," he said. "What difference does it make whether Poles call us 'Georgia' or 'Gruzia'?"

In a multilingual region of myriad names and multiple grudges, Georgia's latest struggle could prompt an outflow of similar complaints. Tbilisi, for example, refers to its breakaway republics as "Abkhazeti" (Abkhazia) and "Samachablo" (South Ossetia). But those republics refer to themselves, respectively, as "Apsny" and "Khussar Iryston."

Those territories may be far from enjoying similar leverage in suggesting how they should be called. But Davit Zurabishvili, a member of Georgia's opposition Republican Party, said Georgia's "Gruzia" initiative was setting a bad example by putting a priority on words, rather than deeds, in shaping the country's foreign policy.

"It's the usual thing. Every country is called something different by different countries, according to tradition," Zurabishvili said. "To place such importance on this and point to it as a regrettable relic of the Soviet past is ridiculous. I strongly suspect that this is a private fixation of [President] Mikheil Saakashvili."

written in Prague by Daisy Sindelar based on reporting by Jimsher Rekhviashvili in Tbilisi

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