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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Monumental Thanks That's Etched in Stone

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They were calling it a historic day, but it was a strange few hours that illuminated some of the twisted politics that define the Caucasus. Most people in Georgia are well aware that President Mikheil Saakashvili adores monuments and fountains, especially when he gets to open them himself. But the one he inaugurated last week was particularly odd: Not because of its rather mundane and functional design, but because of the man it celebrates. It stands on the right bank of the Mtkvari River that runs through Tbilisi, and declares that one part of the riverside highway is now President Heydar Aliyev Embankment.

That's right: Heydar Aliyev, the cunning old Communist don who became the president of Azerbaijan a few years after independence and remained in post until he suffered a heart attack while making a televised speech, then passed the presidency on to his son, Ilham. There are billboard posters of "Heydar Baba," as he's known, all over the Azeri capital, gazing down wisely and benevolently over the nation he helped to create. But it was something of a shock to see that the Georgian government had placed a similar billboard on the Mtkvari embankment, with Aliyev's serene eyes staring out over the capital of a country that makes great claims for its democratic credentials.

At least the Georgians were honest about why they did it. It was all about energy supplies and the government's long-running dispute with Russia. Last year, when the power went down amid one of the regular flare-ups in the Tbilisi-Moscow standoff, Azerbaijan sent emergency supplies to help Georgia get through. For this, Saakashvili is deeply grateful -- and what better way to express gratitude than with a shiny new public monument?

The Georgian opposition wasn't convinced. One politician argued that Georgia shouldn't be commemorating old Soviet functionaries these days -- particularly when, in the very same week, several streets in Tbilisi were renamed to erase their communist-era titles. Another wise-cracking commentator said that if a street was named after Aliyev because Azerbaijan had sold Georgia some gas, maybe another one should be named after the president of Kazakhstan because the Kazakhs are building a hotel in Tbilisi.

Who knows, however, if the opposition would act any differently if they ever got to power. The Aliyev monument is another testament to the deep-rooted pragmatism which has helped Georgia survive all these years; its willingness to make alliances of necessity in times of hardship. The Azeris helped them when the Kremlin was turning the screw, and that was more than worth a chunk of stone on the riverbank.

Matthew Collin is a journalist in Tbilisi.