By Keely Savoie
In the wake of the Soviet collapse, Stephen Jones, professor of Russian studies and expert on Georgia, suddenly found himself in possession of a valuable commodity: scholarly knowledge about a region that crashed onto the stage of political relevance.
“At the time, the State Department knew nothing of Georgia or its role in post-Soviet politics," explained Jones. “It’s a small country squeezed between Russia and Turkey, but it has come into great interest because it’s in a very important strategic part of the world.”
The soft-spoken British scholar would occasionally brief US officials on the region—a service they paid for in cash. “It was a very different time,” Jones recalled. “Now of course everything is official and above-board, but back then it was rather exotic.”
Jones is one of the nation’s foremost experts of Georgia in the 20th century. This month, he will be recognized for his contribution to Georgian Studies with the prestigious Ivane Javakhishvili International Scientific prize presented by Georgia’s premier university, Tbilisi State University.
Jones’s research has shed light on the country of Georgia itself, but also on many of the issues that the greater Caucasus region faces after the demise of communism.
“Georgia was emblematic of the new world order after the collapse of communism,” Jones said. “Despite the peripheral nature and the smallness of the place, it manifested major issues in the region and major issues we encounter in the world today.”
A small country of just 3.5 million people–less than half the population of metropolitan New York City)–Georgia has nevertheless faced the same problems and crises that have plagued all post-Soviet states. Jones initially was drawn to study Georgia because he saw it as a “place where all these global issues were concentrated.”
Georgia’s early declaration of independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 was followed quickly by a bloody coup and then a civil war. Interethnic disputes occasionally erupted into full-scale violence and wars. Elections were marred by fraud, and Georgia entered a war with Russia in 2008 that led to ethnic cleansing and added to an earlier displacement of nearly 200,000 people.
Yet despite its internal troubles, Georgia is also a keystone state in global politics and economics. The United States has invested both politically and economically in Georgia to show Western models as viable, even in unstable post-Soviet regions like the Caucasus. Georgia also lies across an ancient trade route—one of the medieval Silk Roads— that connects East to West.
Georgia became a crucial piece of the “new silk road,” that united Western and Eastern markets allowing traders to circumvent travel around the African continent or through the Suez Canal, Jones said. But now, instead of camel caravans carrying precarious bundles of tea and spices over land, much of the commerce will happen underground. It will move through an oil pipeline that carries oil from the Caspian Sea to markets in Europe without crossing through Russian territory.
Because of its geographic and political centrality, volatility in Georgia could have implications around the world. Conflict in the region could drag in not only Georgia, but Russia, Turkey, and even the United States, Jones said, making scholarship like his of global importance.
Jones is currently working on the second volume of his four-volume series on 20th century Georgian history.
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