Issue 4, 2015. August-September

   

ALIKA RONDELI: A LOST PARADISE

Bloomberg journalist Helena Bedwell recalls one of Georgia's greatest political scientists, Dr. Alexander Rondeli, who passed away in June.

Helena Bedwell

A tall, athletic young man in a suit cuts a very sad and lonely figure at the public funeral of great Georgian intellectual Alexander Rondeli. He is sitting in the corner quietly, with moist eyes, his long legs crossed. It's Lawrence Sheets, the author of the book "Eight Pieces of Empire" and, for nearly a decade, the Caucasus region bureau chief for Reuters, as well as a Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford University. After their first lunch together in 1992, today the two friends are seeing each other for the last time.Goodbye, Alika.

Alexander Rondeli, who was 73 when he died on June 12, was by far the most popular Georgian political scientist and one of the country's leading specialists in international affairs.

A Georgian political scientist, policy advisor, commentator, and founder of the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies, Rondeli was famous as the man who explained the country's complicated politics to outsiders, a natural-born teacher who could make even the most novice foreign correspondent or analyst feel like a seasoned expert.

But to me, he was a sweet, gray man, with an amazing sense of humor, using the most perfected speech, explaining all in several sentences. Stories about his wisdom and witty humor were all around us.

It was Lawrence who first recommended I meet Rondeli.

I was writing an article for the local English Language newspaper and was looking for a good, solid quote regarding Russian-Georgian relations which, at that time, were not so tense. "Hey," Lawrence told me,"you have to go and speak to a man who looks like the man from the movie 'Naked Gun'."

The first time I met Rondeli, I was greeted first by a giant poster of the Naked Gun's Leslie Nielsen staring at me near his office. I smiled as soon as I walked through the door and saw a man, with the kindest grin on his face, who bore an uncanny resemblance to the actor.

We became friends on that day and I cannot remember any major event, any big or minor ideas, any articles or television reports, written by me or any of my colleagues, that did not feature Alika (as we all called him) or have a direct or indirect connection with him.

The day he died, social media was awash with condolences and memories from his friends, colleagues, journalists, politicians and students. Many of his students became - and are destined to become - well-known politicians and game changers. Men and women who differ in political views and ambitions but share one common denominator: Alika Rondeli.

The posts and stories about their late mentor were sad but also funny. Stories about a man who looks like the actor from "The Naked Gun," a man as funny as Leslie himself.

The proud son of a well-acclaimed movie director father, Davit Rondeli, he shared his father's gift of capturing Georgia's ironies.

Davit Rondeli's film "Lost Paradise" has to be the most popular amongst Georgians, a movie that somehow perfectly describes the characteristics of Georgian society, including its problems and dark side, with astonishing wit.

The movie is about two snobbish brothers who have nothing left but the old pride of being nobles. They despise work and spend their entire lives at parties, hunting for rich brides. The movie was made at a very tough time for Georgia - in 1938, when the country was part of the Soviet Union.

Alika, one of Georgia's staunchest supporters of Euro-Atlantic integration, hated those times very much. He often told us to remind ourselves - and Russia - every day that the Russians were occupants.

Alika is a Lost Paradise today for all us.

From the earliest days of independence, he became known as Georgia's calling card, the outward face of the country for its foreign guests. It was in his office that a parade of journalists, analysts, and policy makers from all corners of the globe gained a clearer insight into Georgia.

I know fellow foreign correspondents - and even just friends of Georgia - included a visit to him when they traveled to the country. No trip to Tbilisi was complete without seeing him.

Nino Ivanishvili, a veteran of foreign journalism in Georgia who worked as a television producer for Reuters, says that Rondeli was a unique person- not just for the role he played in her professional life- but also for the all post-Soviet journalism, as she told me after his funeral in Tbilisi. He was a guide to Georgia's history and believed in its future.

A generator of huge ideas, he was one of very few people who could put all the small details in a very large picture.

"He was the most quoted person on Reuters TV and print - no one needed to reintroduce him," Ivanishvili said.

Despite the fact that he fought an illness for years, I never thought of one day losing him. I called him almost every other day, pretending to ask him an opinion or a quote, but in fact I just wanted to hear his voice and simply learn something new that day.

My close friend Betsy Haskell, who also had a long friendship with him, and I often shared stories and solutions about Georgia's future, as seen by this amazing man.

He predicted crises and failures, lies and disappointments, in every political event, including war, elections, rallies and government reshufflings. He was right all the time.

His last days were the hardest. I called Betsy a month ago to take her with me to see Alika in intensive care. She gathered some beautiful flowers from her garden and we went. The nurse told us to leave the flowers behind, but Alika smiled from his bed, saying "Take a picture and show me what kind of flowers you are giving me."

This was the last time I saw and hugged him.

Rondeli was always orientated toward people and worried about their vulnerability. He hated political "dirty tricks," which could hurt Georgia's reputation abroad and destabilize the situation at home.

"If this results in turmoil, only Russia will win," he used to say, adding, "and we will lose everything we have gained in the last few years.''

Emzar Jgerenaia, a professor at Ilia University in Tbilisi, said to me that Rondeli is an irreplaceable loss for Georgia.

But, he added, the knowledge, wisdom, experience, inspiration and enlightened young minds he left behind will always stay with us forever.

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