Two Tales of Pride and Joy in Tiny Georgia
A country that makes headlines for its political troubles shows a lighter side
TBILISI, GEORGIA — AS Georgia struggles to transcend its tumultuous recent past - wracked by political assassinations and economic chaos - a more benign symbol of its history came calling last week. Giorgi Bagration, pretender to the Georgian throne, arrived for the first time in the country that his forebears ruled for 1,000 years, bestowing his gracious presence on his would-be subjects. But where his ancestors once marched at the head of conquering armies, Mr. Bagration was obliged to trail around his kingdom behind an interpreter. Better known as Jorge in Spain, where he was born and has lived all his life, the wannabe monarch does not speak a word of his people's language. His grandparents fled Tbilisi in 1921, just ahead of the Red Army's advance that integrated Georgia into the Soviet Union. They died in exile in Marbella, the Spanish resort favored by Europe's indolent rich. Bagration and his family came back to rebury the remains of some ancestors in the traditional resting place of Georgian monarchs, the ancient capital of Mtskheta. The Bagrations have not actually ruled Georgia since 1801, when the Russians - who had taken Georgia as a protectorate some years earlier - told King Giorgi XII that his throne no longer existed. But the family remained popular among average Georgians, and a remarkably broad spectrum of Georgian society still likes the idea of a monarch. Not broad enough, however. Even as the claimant to the throne and his entourage drove around doing royal things such as visiting orphanages and old people's homes (driven, incidentally, in a long black chaika limousine that once epitomized the Soviet nomenklatura), Georgia's parliament finally approved a new Constitution. It declares the country to be a republic. Forebears safely buried in the Church of the Living Column, alongside their more glorious ancestors, Bagration promptly went home to Marbella. The way it all began Georgians are intensely proud of their mountainous land - not only because they have lived here for thousands of years and developed one of the region's richest cultures, but also for the bounty of its soil. Grapes abound and wine is one of the country's most highly prized products. But the fruits that are piled in the stores in the capital of Tbilisi this time of year - plums, melons, pomegranates, peaches, and figs, not to mention the walnuts that seem to be an essential part of most Georgian dishes - are testament to the country's great variety of crops. Georgians' attachment to the earth they till is evident in the extraordinary number of ecologists they elect to their parliament - there are 17 Greens in the 234-member body, more per capita than in any other country in the world. It is also clear from a legend that Georgians like to tell. When God was dividing up the earth among its peoples, the story goes, the Georgians tarried on the way to their rendezvous with the Almighty, taking time out on their journey to dance and sing. When they arrived, God said that unfortunately they were too late. God had already handed out all the land. Instead of complaining at this treatment, the Georgians accepted their fate with good grace, but said that before they went, they would like to sing God a song. Charmed by their attitude, God relented: ''All right, you can have the little piece I was keeping for myself.''