Europe

Georgia aims to raise patriotic youth

Anti-Russian theatre performance in Georgian summer camp (August 2010)
Image caption The participants lap up the symbolic theatre at the summer camp

Efforts to promote patriotism in Georgia have taken on a new urgency in the wake of the Russian-Georgian war two years ago, the BBC's Tom Esslemont reports from a special youth camp.

On Georgia's Black Sea coast, rising out of the sand, stands what looks like a multicoloured castle.

It's a brand new building painted in bright reds, greens and yellows. It resembles something made out of Lego building blocks.

From every turret, Georgian flags flutter in the breeze. But this is no castle, it is a youth camp.

In total, 2,000 youngsters will come and spend 10 days here during the summer months.

A total of 150,000 Georgians have attended similar events since the programme began five years ago.

Everyone who comes is given a special red and white synthetic uniform in the style of the Georgian flag, though wearing it is optional.

'Dream'

One of the young Georgian attendees, Elena Lomidze, tells me, shyly, that she is a little patriotic.

"This is in every Georgian, in small children, in old people," she explains.

"Every generation has seen wars," she says.

"I have seen these wars. I am only 17 years old and I have already seen these terrible things."

Elena was born in 1993, just as 200,000 Georgians were fleeing Abkhazia, a breakaway region which had just declared independence from Georgia.

"Some day it will be [ours]," she tells me, "I know from my mother that it's wonderful there."

The summer camp she is attending is located 6km (four miles) from the border with Abkhazia - now cut off to most Georgians.

"My dream is to go to Abkhazia and one day and [be] with my Abkhaz friends."

Strong criticism

But in August 2008, during its war with Russia, Georgia lost what nominal control it had over Abkhazia and another disputed region, South Ossetia.

It was a humiliating loss for Georgia and since then its government has focused on ways to rebuild its military and its national pride.

There is no shortage of the latter.

Every morning the teenagers line up to listen to the national anthem. Each day a different "patriot" is invited to raise their national flag.

Later in the day one of the Georgian youngsters stands on a balcony overlooking the camp and passionately reads out a Georgian patriotic poem.

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionCamp leader Lena Kochiashvili gives the BBC a guided tour and explains why she believes the camps are important

The camps are optional, but there has been strong criticism from opposition figures.

Kakha Kukava, the co-leader of Georgia's Conservative Party, says he thinks it amounts to the brainwashing characteristic of an autocracy.

"In the communist era we had the same system at all schools, we had pioneer camps and then Komsomol for university [students]," he tells me.

"And right now instead of Soviet flags there are just national flags. And somehow this is the youth wing of the ruling party."

The government says it has toned down the patriotic element to the camps, and denies any suggestion of a political motive.

It says they are simply aimed at building children's self-esteem.

'Narcissistic nationalists'

Since coming to power, the Georgian president, Mikheil Saakashvili, has concentrated on developing a strong younger generation.

When he took over, older figures in government departments and police force were sacked.

Now at least eight ministerial posts are held by people aged 35 or under.

"It's a certain psychological bias that he has," says Zurab Karumidze, an author and specialist in Georgian culture. "He just prefers to play with the youth."

But two years after the war and with the relationship with Russia still in tatters, I ask him whether an ultra-patriotic youth - as some are calling it - might be a dangerous trait to encourage at a time like this.

He says Georgians are narcissistic, not aggressive, nationalists.

"They say, we are good, we are the best. They've never been aggressive," Mr Karumidze adds.

After 70 years under Soviet rule, Alexander Rondelli, director of the Tbilisi-based Foundation for Strategic and International Studies, says the patriot camps are essential to forging a single Georgian identity.

"Saakashvili and his guys understand that [a] new kind of nationalism has to be developed: state nationalism," Mr Rondelli says.

"But for foreigners who come, it looks like a bit naive and irritating: it reminds you of totalitarian states or something like that. But I would say that it is absolutely necessary."

Propaganda

Back at the camp not far from the border with Abkhazia, its leaders are putting on a performance for the young patriots.

To haunting music, men in white jackets (marked with the word "Russia") stalk at the back of the stage before grabbing other performers wearing labels marked "South Ossetia" and "Abkhazia".

Image caption Every day, one participant raises the national flag, another reads a patriotic poem

For a brief second the two "victims" are held in an arm-lock at the back of the stage, before being tugged back into the care of their Georgian friends.

It is a simple piece of anti-Russian theatrical propaganda that has the audience standing in rapturous applause.

Afterwards I catch up with Elena, who had been choking back tears during the show.

"I did not expect it to be such a great show. The most special thing was that everything had a happy end."

I ask her if she has enjoyed her time at the camp.

"This is one of the best days of my life. Yes, really," she says.

And with that she walks off into the darkness with other loud, young, cheerful flag-waving, flag-wearing, Georgians.

Tom Esslemont's documentary 'Proud to be Georgian' can be heard on this week's edition of Assignment on the BBC World Service, and from 12 August will be available online: go to bbcworldservice.com/programmes and click on Assignment.

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