Wednesday, Aug. 20, 2008

Chevy Chase woman hopes to educate neighbors on Georgia

Predicts humanitarian situation to improve, but political problems are still shaky in former Soviet republic

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During her four years in the former Soviet republic of Georgia, Andrea Harris of Chevy Chase was continually astonished at the generosity of the Georgian people, who she said would "sell the clothes off their backs to buy you dinner."

But observing the conflict between Russia and Georgia over disputed territories, and talking with friends who live there, Harris saw and heard how badly the Georgians now need aid themselves.

"They had to leave their homes with nothing. They have nothing. Their homes have been looted or burned," she said.

While Harris is keeping track of the far-away conflict as best she can through friends and news reports, she is also attempting to organize a local community meeting in early September with the Town of Chevy Chase about the situation in Georgia so her neighbors can learn more.

Harris' interest in the region began more than 30 years ago. She began studying the Russian language with long-time Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School teacher Jim Biedron, and to this day she calls him the best teacher she ever had. As a college transfer student, she studied in the Soviet Union and later worked as a tour guide there.

Eventually, she began working for the nonprofit the Eurasia Foundation as a regional vice president and lived in Georgia from early 2003 to late 2007. She helped various government and economic development programs and nonprofit groups and worked directly with Georgians on projects intended to strengthen civil society.

Despite cartoonish stereotypes of the region, such as the lack of security and a plethora of corrupt bureaucrats and mobsters, Harris said Georgia has become one of the safest and most liberalized of the former Soviet republics.

"They have made the biggest steps in really trying to democratize the country. There are still many challenges," she said.

She recalled current President Mikheil Saakashvili's reaction to ongoing citizen complaints about corrupt traffic cops. He fired all of them.

Georgia greatly admires the United States and the West, according to Harris. For example, she said polling by the Eurasia Foundation showed recent Georgian support for entering the North Atlantic Treaty Organization running well above 70 percent.

She has kept in regular contact with Georgian friends through e-mails, and says that they are very afraid about the refugee situation. And there are concerns about the West's unwillingness to prevent another conflict with Russia in the future.

"They're very afraid that it's going to happen again," she said.

Several of her friends who normally lead non-governmental organizations and civil institutions are piling boxes of food and clothing into shelters and trying to care for the country's 100,000 internally displaced persons. Some shelters have food for only a few days, others have no place for people to sleep, but all have urgent needs.

At the same time, Harris said she has no concerns about the Georgian government delaying aid to its citizens. Several groups have already done excellent work rushing humanitarian resources to the country, she said, including Mercy Corps, Save the Children and World Vision.

She is also volunteering for a small charitable group, American Friends of Georgia, which has an office in the country's capital in Tbilisi and directs aid resources.

"I don't see an ongoing humanitarian problem. I do see an ongoing political problem," Harris said.

Despite the traumatic images of rocket fire and dead civilians, Harris has no plans to alter her scheduled consulting trip to Tbilisi in October. She wants to taste excellent Georgian wine once again and experience a culture that represents an ancient mixture of European and Eastern influences.

She recalled a visit to the town of Sighnaghi with her daughter simply to help out with a local grape harvest, and ended up being regaled by first the farmer's family and then the mayor at two feasts given in their honor.

Harris said she virtually never feared for her personal safety while living in the country. Her daughter attended middle school in Georgia while Harris worked there. She hopes that sense of security prevails in Georgia when she returns.

"I'm planning to go unless there are (Russian) troops on the ground in Tbilisi," she said.