Pepperdine alum issues plea for help from Georgia

Tinatin Baum

Tinatin Baum, who is a Georgian citizen, has been maintaining a correspondence with a Malibu resident who hosted her and another young Georgian woman when they attended the university.

By Nora Fleming / Special to The Malibu Times

Tinatin Baum, a Georgian citizen and Pepperdine University School of Public Policy alumnus, has brought the personal stories of the ravages of the Georgian-Russian war conflict home to Malibu.

Baum, who is serving as a deputy assistant to the Minister of the Interior in Georgia, has maintained a regular correspondence by e-mail with Jody Brightman, director of Career Services at the university’s School of Public Policy, about the devastation of the war, the Russian military occupation and the refugee displacement in Georgia.

“Even though there are some movements on the international level, the situation on the ground is unbearable,” Baum wrote to Brightman. “I have organized a hot line for those people who are stuck in the villages, [with] info on looting, hostages and dead and wounded soldiers.”

In another e-mail, Baum wrote, “The situation is so dramatic and tragic. We are also looking for lost soldiers and you cannot imagine how horrible it is to listen to those people who are in a panic and in great woe. It is destroying me.”

Baum is in Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, and is working with the Georgian government to help refugees with supplies and shelter. Efforts she has made to leave the city with other officials have been blocked due to Russian military presence.

The war between Georgia and Russia, which broke out on Aug. 7, began after a series of border skirmishes over a long-standing ethnic and territorial conflict over two provinces, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, escalated.

South Ossetia and Abkhazia, two ethnically distinct provinces, came under Georgian influence after the fall of the Soviet Union. As a result of civil wars in the 1980s and during the early 1990s, the provinces gained de facto independence, but they were never recognized globally as being completely independent from Georgia.

The Russian Federation has supported separatists in both provinces since the early 1990s by providing passports and aid, a source of long-standing tension with Georgia. This tension over the provinces and other international topics, such as Georgia’s ambitions for NATO membership, increased this year until armed conflict broke out between the two countries in South Ossetia.

Baum has had a long-standing aim to help reunify her native country, Brightman said, and returned to Georgia immediately after obtaining her graduate degree in 2007.

Larisa Romanenko, a Georgian citizen and Pepperdine alum who lived with Baum while they obtained their degrees, cited the Georgian Rose Revolution of 2003 as instrumental in encouraging both her and Baum’s involvement in Georgian politics.

The Rose Revolution brought a shift in power and the inauguration of Mikheil Saakashvili in early 2004, a president who has maintained close ties with the United States and Western Europe and who made reintegration of the Georgian provinces, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, major goals.

In 2004, while taking a course with the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies, or GFSIS, a nonprofit think tank designed to train top level Georgian government employees to improve state economic policy, Baum and Romanenko met Angela Hawken, a Pepperdine faculty member, who was teaching in Georgia.

Hawken encouraged Baum and Romanenko to apply for grants to attend the public policy school at Pepperdine.

Upon their arrival, the grant was still processing and Brightman and her husband, Bill Stump, hosted the young women for short-term accommodation. A two-week temporary placement at Brightman’s residence turned into two years after learning that paperwork complications prevented all the grants from going through, and Brightman and her husband became close to Baum and Romanenko.

Brightman recalled dinner table discussions on public policy, tutorials on American democracy and readings of The Economist as regular occurrences. A fascination with American culture followed suit for roughly a year, she said, but soon it became clear that Baum felt the need to return back to Georgia.

Baum had an iPod, but instead of listening to American pop music, she was playing Georgian folk songs.

“She completely withdrew from the American Dream and refused to be seduced by the American way,” Brightman said. “She didn’t want to become so Americanized she couldn’t go back.”

Baum had attended a Georgian peace conference before she left to attend Pepperdine, where she met two young Ossetian men who had pledged themselves to making peace in the breakaway province. Before graduation, Baum learned that one of these men had disappeared and the other had committed suicide.

It was this, more than anything, Brightman said, that convinced Baum that she needed to return to Georgia to work within the state to make change for Georgia and support re-unification with the provinces.

“We have no frame of reference for understanding how people who live 10 miles apart can be different ethnicities to the point that they don’t even speak each others languages,” Brightman said.

Baum was 12 when the Soviet Union collapsed and, Brightman said, recounted returning home from school one day to find a tank with guns pointed at her family’s apartment. Her parents, middle class Georgians, were unharmed, but, Brightman said, “You don’t forget those kinds of scars, especially at a young age.”

Romanenko, who has remained in the U.S. and just started her first semester at Harvard Law School said, for Baum, reintegration of Georgia has been a very “personal” issue, and while they both aim to use their education and training to work for the Georgian government, their goals are different.

“I think it’s about what you want to accomplish and the tools you need to accomplish those goals,” Romanenko said. “It’s not a matter of going or staying [in the U.S.], it’s a matter of going back with the most tools and experiences you can acquire. For [Baum] it was a year ago. We both, ultimately, will return, but she thought she had what she needed to learn.”

Meanwhile, Baum has issued this plea in one of her e-mails to Brightman, “I, not as a representative of my government, but as a citizen of my country that is fighting for Western values of democracy and freedom, call upon you to stand with us, help us and save us from total devastation.”

Baum cites that the Red Cross is having difficulty in issuing aid to those affected by the conflict. CARE International is an organization working with refugees.