The current conflict between Russia and Georgia, involving the desire of the Ossetians for autonomy, and complicated, as usual, by economic interests, have brought to mind a story that was told to me in the early 1990s by John Mroz, the President of the Institute for East West Studies (IEWS). The IEWS is a unique, impartial, and important behind-the-scenes mediator in many global affairs and a source of well-informed, influential, and objective subject matter experts who work tirelessly to promote peace, to avoid conflicts, and to help resolve them.
Before I relay John’s story, let me add that I have no real understanding of the complexities involved in this (or any other) major global conflict, but I am comforted by the fact that there are organizations, like IEWS, working behind the scenes to sort out the issues and to bring this conflict to a rapid and satisfactory conclusion.
John Mroz is, among other things, an expert on Russia, and was able to predict, in the early 90s, the set of events that would transpire after the break up of the Soviet Union. I am still grateful for the opportunity to listen to him as he described how the next 20 years would unfold. Everything he described in the strategy co-design meeting his team held at my home in Boothbay, Maine, 16 years ago, has come to pass.
John told me this story in 1992. He described a dinner he had had with Edvard Schevernadze and his wife, Nanuli, at their home in Georgia. This was one of many such dinners that had taken place over the years. The two men enjoyed comparing notes on world affairs and what was going on in Russia and Georgia. Throughout the dinner, Nanuli remained largely silent, listening and enjoying the spirited conversation. But when John Mroz raised the Ossetian question, she lost her composure. She put down her wine glass and slammed her hand on the table. “It’s terrible,” she exclaimed! “You know how hospitable we Georgians are,” she said. “We open our homes up to anyone. We provide wonderful food and go out of our way to make sure you’re comfortable. But the Ossetians,” she said, “have overstayed their welcome.”
“What if, in the middle of a terrible storm, a bedraggled family turned up at your door in the middle of the night?” she asked rhetorically. “Of course, you would let them in and welcome them with food and warm clothes and a bed by the fire. That’s what we did with the Ossetians. But then they stayed for 600 years!” And she slammed her hand down on the table again, shaking the glassware.
That story has stuck with me for years. It speaks to the long-held cultural and tribal rivalries that are part of the human condition. Office politics and intractable organizational issues seem pretty petty in the light of these kinds of cultural challenges. On the other hand, it’s part of what makes us human—to struggle with passionate us/them feelings of belonging and exclusion.