By Julia Norsworthy-Edghill ’25
The Global Research Institute’s Summer Fellows Program provides international experiential learning opportunities to W&M students. This post is one installment of a series highlighting the 2023 Fellows’ key discoveries and formative experiences.
This past summer, I was a Summer Fellow in the capital city of Tbilisi, Georgia and worked at the Georgian Strategic Analysis Center (GSAC) with Summer Fellows from the International and Political Affairs of the Caucasus (IPAC) research at W&M. The Black Sea region has been a front for West and East ideologies and alliances for decades, but especially in light of the Russo-Ukrainian War. As a Summer Fellow, my work with GSAC, a non-governmental organization, resulted in my peers and I collaborating with established professionals in foreign policy to conduct research and draft grants throughout the duration of our time there.
The GSAC building in Tbilisi, Georgia. What was once a Soviet broadcasting building has now been replaced by several GSAC offices focusing on different projects.
Over the course of my first few weeks at GSAC, I produced four papers on the following topics:
- The Russian-controlled Georgian territories of Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region
- (South Ossetia)
- Georgia’s applications for NATO and EU membership
- The political parties within Georgia
- The Georgian population in the Russian Federation
The process primarily consisted of cross referencing sources, due to the magnitude of misinformation on these topics. While I used mainly English sources, it was also enlightening to read the Russian language sources that described Georgia and the ongoing war. After my primary research, I had the liberty to construct the narrative of my papers, but tried to remain as objective as possible. I had assistance from my colleagues from GSAC — one of whom served as a minister for several years — who guided me on themes and wording, such as addressing South Ossetia with its correct name: the Tskhinvali region. My papers — and those produced by other Summer Fellows — are currently in the editorial process to be published together. This project enriched my understanding of the status of Georgian foreign policy, a topic I am deeply interested in, and prepared me for the work I would do throughout the summer.
GSAC primarily engages with issues that occur domestically and in the Black Sea Region through publications, classes, and conferences. Nonetheless, the GSAC has sponsors and supporters around the world who are committed to creating a stable Black Sea region. At the office, GSAC provides night classes within some of their projects, and I got to sit in a class when one of my supervisors was teaching in Russian — since I didn’t speak Georgian. Additionally, I was able to attend two project graduations sponsored by Turkey and the Netherlands and meet each nation’s ambassadors in attendance. The GSAC has several connections in the West, which exemplify the Georgian public’s draw to the West, since there is a willingness to connect. Accordingly, it seems that almost every corner of Tbilisi has pro-Ukraine, pro-EU, and anti-Russian graffiti. I can also recall two instances where I saw a street sign that was indicative of the Georgian-US relationship that has grown stronger over the past few decades, with one being labeled “George W. Bush Street” and the other being “George W. Bush Ave.”
The Freedom Monument, also known as the St. George Statue, is located in Liberty Square, a downtown hub of Tbilisi. The sign below was for the U21 Men’s Soccer Championship tournament being held in Tbilisi and Batumi during the summer.
While at the GSAC, I gained invaluable experience in writing grants and briefs that typically regarded marginalized groups and that were addressed to the USAID, the EU, or the UN. One project in particular focused on women learning to become entrepreneurs, while another was centered on the topic of ethnic minorities in the Samtskhe-Javakheti region. For me, simply being in the country offered a perspective on the realities of individuals in Georgia and other post-Soviet countries. These countries’ identities were linked under the USSR — willing or not — which has led to a more fractured population. For instance, the younger generations of Armenians in the Samtskhe-Javakheti region speak Armenian at home and in school. They do not speak Georgian, even though they live in Georgia. This is the case for many regions in Georgia and other former Soviet states. The GSAC was engaging with as many communities as possible — from the most urban and densely populated areas to the most remote part of the countryside.
While in Tbilisi, I also worked on a smaller-scale project alongside my internship that was proposed by a member of the W&M faculty, Professor Prokhorov, the Russian Studies Program Director. The project focused on how the lives of Russian migrants living in Georgia changed after the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine. The GSAC offers a few evening classes a week in which the students are Russian nationals. These classes provide an opportunity for Russian nationals in Georgia to achieve education and assimilation. The student objective behind learning Georgian history and the Georgian language is to either become a part of Georgian society without needing local Georgians to use the Russian language, or to take what has been learned back to Russia. These classes illustrate how soft power can combat stereotypes that Russians may have of Georgians and their country. From this pool of GSAC students, which dramatically varied in terms of age and background, my peers and I connected with and interviewed a group of individuals willing to speak about their experience of migrating to Georgia. This semester, Fall 2023, I am the lead in a group of students in IPAC (International and Political Affairs of the Caucasus) that is translating and transcribing these interviews to create an organized project archive that can be used as an oral history of this period in time during the Russo-Ukrainian War.
An encounter with wild horses on the way up the mountain. In the visible distance lies the Gergeti Trinity Church, built in the 14th century, and a stretch of the Georgia-Russia border encircles the town below.
This past summer also had its recreational moments. While I spent the weekdays in the GSAC office, I was able to enjoy other parts of the country on the weekends. My first weekend adventure was to the resort town of Batumi on the Black Sea. Visiting the Black Sea was especially meaningful for me since my grandmother was from Odesa, Ukraine, and my mother lived in Gelendzhik, Russia. Both Odesa and Gelendzhik are coastal towns on the Black Sea, and I finally had the chance to form my own memories on a shore of the same waters. Additionally, I visited the Adjara mountains near the Turkish border and explored villages with historical structures and churches that date back to the 4th century. Another trip I made was to the Kaheti region, known for its historical wine practices, where I visited a monastery that is still a wine-producing site centuries later. My last big trip was to Kazbeji, or Stepantsminda, in the South Caucasus Mountain chain. My fellow Americans and I hiked up a Caucasus mountain to see Mount Kazbek’s peak, a glacier along the Georgia-Russia border. The journey took six hours and brought me to what will possibly be the highest altitude I will ever reach on foot — much less one that I trek to in jeans.
My time as a Summer Fellow in Tbilisi gave me the opportunity to pull from my classes and research at W&M and put these skills to practice. I engaged with content I had learned in Russian language, foreign policy, and history classes to create pieces of work with the GSAC that would create an impact in people’s lives, and in a country that I hope to see prosper. Learning about the Black Sea region from IPAC and my Georgian roommate at W&M could not prepare me for the beauty of the country and its culture, and I hope to return in the future. In the meantime, I plan to continue my research on the region with IPAC and convince more people to learn about the South Caucasus.