- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 26, 2004

TBILISI, Georgia — Her hands fluttering like butterflies as she talks in the darkened theater, Nino Ananiashvili is the lithe and graceful embodiment of a trend Georgia’s leaders see as a national-security priority.

An international dance superstar and a prima ballerina in Moscow’s Bolshoi Theater, Tbilisi-born Mrs. Ananiashvili is part of a stream of talented Georgian expatriates lured home by the energy and potential unleashed by last year’s Rose Revolution.

Her first production with the reconstituted Tbilisi Ballet Theater, a trio of one-act performances at the capital’s stately old Opera House, opened last month to an audience that included Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili. She plans nine more productions over the next two years.

“I never lost the feeling that Georgia was my home, but until this year, there was no feeling of movement, of change here,” she said after finishing a final dress rehearsal before opening night.

“Now there is a real feeling of change, a possibility that you can make a difference,” Mrs. Ananiashvili added.

Reversing a decade or more of brain drain has become something of an obsession with Mr. Saakashvili and other Georgian leaders.

The Kvali Organization, a private research group, estimates that about 1 million Georgians — a fifth of the population — left the country in the troubled years after the breakup of the Soviet Union and the political and economic stagnation under former President Eduard Shevardnadze.

Among those fleeing were lawyers, doctors, business executives and other professionals needed to guide Georgia’s struggling economy and to staff its civil service.

In an interview, Mr. Saakashvili noted ruefully that Georgia won two gold medals in the recent Athens Summer Olympic Games, but that three more gold medals were won by Georgian-born athletes competing for other countries.

“That is the biggest hope I have for my country,” the president said. “If we can be successful just in luring back our native talent, it will be an enormous help to us.”

The campaign to lure talented Georgians home already has scored other notable successes, including several figures at the very top of the Saakashvili government.

Foreign Minister Salome Zurabishvili was serving last year in the French diplomatic corps, as France’s ambassador to Tbilisi. Her first deputy, Nick Tabatadze, studied in London and was working as a lawyer in New York when he was recruited to come home.

Kakha Bendukidze, the bearish and controversial economics minister, oversees Georgia’s ambitious privatization program after making a fortune buying state assets as one of Russia’s leading oligarchs in the 1990s. Members of the Georgian diaspora have come home to run one of the country’s top banks, a leading chain of restaurants and other major enterprises.

Ghia Nodia, director of the Tbilisi-based Caucasus Institute for Peace, Democracy and Development, said it is vital that Georgia reverse the brain drain.

“We lost some of our very best, and it is a slow process to get them to come home,” Mr. Nodia said. “But I think there is clearly a more positive attitude, among both Georgians and non-Georgians, of the opportunities now.”

Mrs. Ananiashvili, 41, has been based in Moscow since she was 13, when she was identified as a promising dance talent at the Tbilisi Choreographic Studio. In less then a decade, she was a prima ballerina with the Bolshoi Ballet, embarking on an international career that included major roles with the New York-based American Ballet Theatre.

Mr. Saakashvili personally lobbied her to come home. She was performing in New York when she got a call from the Georgian minister of culture broaching the idea of returning to Georgia to form the new company. That led to a meeting with the president.

“We met at the beginning of August,” she said, “and he asked me what it would take to agree to come home. He said they would do everything I want.”

She also expressed pride in the young Georgian company she assembled, many members of which worked without pay during the two months of rehearsals that followed in preparation for last month’s first production.

“There has been a change in our mentality,” she said. “We are a very old culture, but a very young country. We are like a very young child — you can’t force it to be smart, to be organized, although the [improvements] come very quickly.”

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