By Sean CW Korsgaard
RICHMOND – When visitors to Richmond say they’re from Georgia, Atlanta and peaches probably come to mind. But for a group of dignitaries who recently visited Virginia’s capital, Georgia conjures up Tblisi and wine. They hailed from the country of Georgia, which is nestled between Europe and Asia and used to be part of the Soviet Union.
The visitors – a member of the Georgian Parliament and four legislative staff members – spent a week in Richmond, where they toured the Virginia Capitol, met with Gov. Terry McAuliffe and other political leaders, and learned how government works in the United States.
The visit was sponsored by the Open World Leadership Center, an international exchange program that was established by the U.S. Congress in 1999 and operates under the Library of Congress. The program seeks to build relationships with, and foster democracy in, former Soviet satellite states such as Georgia.
Three units at VCU collaborated in hosting the Georgians: the Global Education Office, the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs, and the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture.
The visit’s theme was “Accountable Governance – Legislative Development.” VCU faculty members put together an itinerary for the Georgians that included extensive interaction with state and local officials. During their visit, the Georgians stayed at the homes of Richmond families to observe authentic American life.
None of the visitors had been to the United States before.
“We have seen many American movies, so nothing here is too strange,” said Tinatin Asatiani, an assistant to a member of the Georgian Parliament. “We are a very curious people, so we like to study other cultures.”
All members of the Georgian delegation are from their country’s capital, Tblisi. Besides Asatiani, they included:
-Gogita Mamporia, a member of the Georgian Parliament
-Natia Archvadze, a specialist for the Parliament’s Budget and Finance Committee
-Mariam Katsitadze, a specialist in the Parliament’s Public Relations and Information Department
-Solomon Songhulashvili, a specialist in the Research Department of the Parliament’s Division of Information Support
They were accompanied by Tinatin Museridze, who served as the group’s facilitator for travel and other logistics. Museridze is a manager of the Georgia office of a nonprofit organization called the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs. She speaks fluent English and has accompanied other Open World groups on visits to the U.S. – including one to the state of Georgia.
For meetings with government officials and other formal activities in Richmond, VCU arranged for a U.S.-based interpreter, Alexander Tetradze, who speaks English, Georgian and Russian. Funding for the interpreter was provided by FHI 360, a nonprofit that has a grant from the Open World Leadership Center to administer the exchange program.
During their stay in Richmond, the Georgians:
-Toured the State Capitol, attended a meeting of the Senate Finance Committee, met with Sens. Bill Stanley of Moneta and Bryce Reeves of Fredericksburg, observed the Senate and House in action and were recognized with applause by legislators from the floor
-Toured the Governor’s Mansion and met Gov. McAuliffe and first lady Dorothy McAuliffe
-Met at City Hall with Charles Samuels, president of the Richmond City Council
-Discussed government operations with officials at the Virginia State Crime Commission, the Division of Legislative Services and the Virginia Department of Planning and Budget
-Discussed open government with officials at the Virginia Freedom of Information Act Advisory Council and the Virginia Public Access Project
-Discussed the role of advocacy groups with officials of the Virginia Chamber of Commerce and McGuireWoods Consulting
-Toured the Library of Virginia and learned about Virginia history
There was also time for fun. The Georgians visited Colonial Williamsburg, toured the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, went shopping and had dinner with various local and state officials.
Moreover, the visitors took a tour of the CBS 6 newsroom in Richmond, led by morning anchor Reba Hollingsworth Newby. They watched journalist Bill Fitzgerald anchor the evening news broadcast and then chatted and took pictures with him.
Members of the Robertson School faculty conducted a seminar for the group about the government and legal systems of Virginia and the United States.
On the last day of their visit, the Georgians gave a presentation of their own – about the culture, government and other aspects of their homeland – to students from VCU Globe, the university’s Global Education Living-Learning Community. The students then conducted a panel discussion with the visitors.
The dignitaries cleared up some misconceptions Americans may have about Georgia. For instance, although many people refer to it as “the Republic of Georgia,” the visitors said their homeland is simply “the country of Georgia” –not a republic.
They noted that Georgia has an ancient culture; its history as a nation-state goes back to the early Middle Ages. Georgia has a unique language; it’s not Indo-European, Turkic or Semitic. Georgia has a culture deeply rooted in Orthodox Christian tradition and is reportedly the oldest wine-making region in the world. Today, the country is well known for its wines.
Georgia, which borders the Black Sea, has nearly 5 million people in an area of about 27,000 square miles – slightly larger than West Virginia.
In recent years, it has been a geopolitical flashpoint following the Russo-Georgian War in 2008, with Russia continuing to occupy the Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. In light of this, Georgia has sought greater integration with both the European Union and NATO.
Georgia remains a firm U.S. ally in the region – a position affirmed by Gogita Mamporia, who heads the ruling Georgian Dream party in the Georgian Parliament.
“We are not perfect, but we are improving, and we are partners of the United States,” Mamporia said. “The nation of Georgia will always be your friend and ally.”
Reflecting on their visit to Richmond, the dignitaries said they were impressed by Virginia’s hospitality, the VCU campus and the state’s history. They quickly picked up on Virginia’s nickname as the “Mother of Presidents.”
“We found it interesting that Virginia, which is just a little larger than Georgia, is the birthplace of eight American presidents,” Katsitadze said.