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Tamar Beruchashvili
Tamar Beruchashvili

Tamar Beruchashvili is Georgia's Deputy State Minister in charge of European integration. She was born in Tbilisi in 1961.

I was born in a house that belonged to my great-grandparents. At the beginning of the century half of it belonged to them, but after the Soviets came in 1921 the family were squeezed into two rooms.

Mine was a family of intellectuals who strongly valued education and culture – Georgian culture, of course, but we were also open to others. One grandfather studied in St. Petersburg and the other had close ties with France.

Until I was seven, when we moved to live in a new block, we lived in that house. I remember this old courtyard with balconies and very beautiful flowers. We call them "Italian courtyards" because they might remind you of the atmosphere of Naples.

From my window I could see Father David's Church, which I can see now from my office, and which is why I love this office.

Both my parents were engineers. When I was 13 my father was sent to work in Turkey. It was very rare then for people to be able to go with their families, including children, but we were allowed to.

Because of school, I had to stay behind and lived with my aunt. I did visit my parents during holidays, though. That's when I remember tasting Pepsi for the first time and the smell of little supermarkets. I also remember going to the cinema, but then being told to dress appropriately! There were very strong [Communist] Party groups in charge of people who went abroad.

I was interested in science and decided to study chemistry. So, after I graduated from school with a gold medal I got through stiff competition to get to Patrice Lumumba University in Moscow. It was an unusual place because only 25% of students were Soviets, the rest were foreigners, mainly from the Third World.

My family had just returned from Turkey and it was not easy for a traditional Georgian family to let their daughter, just 17, go to Moscow. For me it was an exciting opportunity to get a quality education in a unique atmosphere. I had always loved maps and geography.

I was in the department of chemistry, maths and natural sciences. After I graduated I was expected to go abroad to teach chemistry, for example in an Asian country where they spoke French, like Cambodia or Vietnam, and to spread Soviet ideology. The KGB also wanted to use people like me to infiltrate scientific circles.

I never thought about any of that, though, and I enjoyed myself. I also studied English and French. These were the last years of Brezhnev, then Andropov and Chernenko, but I was not interested in politics.

Then my life took an unexpected turn. At 22 I got married and had a baby. When my baby was nine months old I left him here in Tbilisi and went back to Moscow to finish my studies. When I graduated I came back and the Komsomol, the Party youth organisation, suggested I go abroad to teach, but I said "No, I have a family". Then they wanted me to work for them, on the ideological front, but again, I said "no". I just wanted to continue my work in chemistry.

So I went to work at the research institute of the Georgian Academy of Sciences on the medical use of plants, specifically for treating cancer.

The late 1980s were a period of opening up. We had more foreigners coming here and got more foreign publications – but the end of the Soviet Union was an absolute shock. We could hardly imagine such a thing. We thought we lived in the biggest and most powerful country in the world, which began in Europe and ended in Vladivostok. That was Soviet ideological brainwashing.

It was good feeling to be independent and to elect our own government, but this was also a period of difficult days. I came to the lab and there was no gas and no basic materials, and we lost almost all our links and contacts with our colleagues in the former Soviet area. I just could not continue my research and I realised I had to try something else. I could not sit around passively.

I abandoned research and became deputy head of foreign relations in the Ministry of Science and Technology. Then I worked on cooperation with TACIS, which was the EU's technical assistance programme. That was in 1992 so I am a veteran of EU – Georgian relations!

Tamar Beruchashvili
Tamar Beruchashvili. Photo: Tim Judah

This was a particularly hard time, though. There was war in 1991-92 and fighting in the streets here. I did not like those nationalist elements of the Georgian government and was shocked by the violence. There were long lines for bread and very little food. And then I got divorced, so, as I say, it was a difficult period. The only thing that helped was my being an optimist and a workaholic.

Then I was sent to do a crash course in English and European Studies in Limerick in Ireland. It was beautiful. I lived with an Irish family and helped teach their children maths, chemistry and some Russian.

When I came back I was again working on TACIS, but I realised I needed to learn more. So I applied for, and got, an American Muskie scholarship, which took me to Bloomington, Indiana for two years of study. I felt I had changed roles. Now, after Patrice Lumumba, I was the foreigner studying abroad – and, at that, in the land of our old "enemy"!

Before I came back I had an internship in the office of [former US National Security Advisor] Zbigniew Brzezinski in Washington, which was really interesting. Then, on the plane back to Tbilisi from Istanbul I met my former boss, who was the minister in charge of foreign economic relations. He was looking for a deputy.

This was the time when plenty of others who had been fellows like me in the US, like Mikheil Saakashvili, who became Minister of Justice, were coming back. I had to see [then president Eduard] Shevardnadze first and he accepted me. Back then he was still a strong and visionary man. This was a time when he was bringing in young professionals to improve government.

In September 1998 I was promoted to minister. I was already seven months pregnant. I had gotten married again. I had ten days off before the baby arrived and 30 afterwards.

In January 2000 they abolished my ministry and reassigned its responsibilities. So, as Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs I continued dealing with the EU.

It was a period when we were going down, though. It was a time of mismanagement, corruption and inefficiency. Relations were worsening with our main partners and Shevardnadze was no longer the same. He was surrounded by a very corrupt, close circle.

Being a deputy minister at the time of the Rose Revolution was very odd. I was not a party person. I am a professional bureaucrat. I thought my calling was not to take to the streets, but to continue in my position, working for my country. But of course I had my own sentiments. I was very nervous, though. I prefer evolution to revolution, but thankfully it was peaceful.

Afterwards, I became State Minister for European Integration. After a reshuffle and a reorganisation of the system, they asked me to stay on as Deputy State Minister. I accepted because I believe that the European choice is the only choice for Georgia.

Now, after the [August 2008] crisis, Georgia has a unique opportunity to come closer to the EU. I am very happy to see Europe active and finally understanding that Georgia is part of Europe, and not just part of the neighbourhood. It is European in terms of values and security. I don't believe Georgia will be abandoned.

September 2008
Tim Judah

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