Wars shaped Zviad Adzinbaia’s early life, so he came to the Fletcher School to better understand how to avert them
The first time, he was only one year old, too small to understand why his family had to flee. Even his parents thought it was just for a few days when they left their home with its beloved apple trees and found shelter in a distant village, camping out in the windowless rooms of an abandoned building.
But Zviad Adzinbaia, F18, and his family ended up staying in that building for fifteen years. Ethnic Abkhaz-Georgians, they had been forced from their town, Gali, in the territory of Abkhazia as Georgia fought against Abkhaz separatist forces and the Russian military during the 1992-1993 war.
After they were displaced, Adzinbaia’s father, an engineer, and his mother, an accountant, could not find work in their professions, so they sold fish in the market of the nearest city, Zugdidi. When Adzinbaia turned thirteen, he started helping with the business after school. The family scrimped and saved, and a few years later built themselves a new house in Zugdidi.
Shortly after they moved in, war broke out for a second time. It was 2008 and Russia was invading Georgia. Most residents of their city fled, but Adzinbaia’s older brother volunteered to fight and Adzinbaia and the rest of his family stayed in their new home with just one pistol and a hunting rifle to defend themselves.
“Leaving another house was non-negotiable,” Adzinbaia recalled, the emotion still raw a decade later. “You cannot lose your identity again.” For three days and nights, they watched as Russian bombers buzzed overhead and Russian tanks occupied the empty city. Their decision to stay might seem irrational, he acknowledged, but he said, “Love is sometimes irrational.”
Adzinbaia was sixteen then, about to start his senior year of high school. Once the danger passed, with a ceasefire negotiated by the EU and his brother home safe, he made a pivotal decision—he would study political science and try to learn what his generation could do to resolve the problems that had spurred previous generations to war.
He was an eager student, and his dedication earned him notice. While in college in Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi, he was one of five students selected to represent the nation at a 2012 youth summit at the United Nations headquarters in New York. It was his first trip out of his home country.
He found it inspiring “to be surrounded by thousands of youngsters, future leaders,” he said. “I changed in a day.”
Wanting to share what he learned, Adzinbaia co-founded a volunteer-led group called Society XXI in Georgia to convene model government simulations and other programs for youth. He also wrote political commentaries for newspapers, tackling questions related to Georgia’s security and its alliances with Europe and the West.
He started thinking about returning to the United States for graduate school, and when he heard that the dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy was the former supreme allied commander of NATO—an alliance of strategic importance to Black Sea nations like Georgia—the school rose to the top of his list.
He applied to Fletcher and several other U.S. graduate schools, but all rejected him. His English just wasn’t good enough. It took “hundreds of hours of struggle” to bring his language skills up to where they needed to be, and a total of seven tries to get the score he needed on the Test of English as a Foreign Language. The next year, he was accepted at Fletcher. But even with a scholarship from the school and funding from the Georgian government, he couldn’t afford to come to Tufts.
Yet again, Adzinbaia refused to give up. With the help of his friends, he organized a campaign, complete with an online video and a jazz concert in Tbilisi, and raised the money.
At Fletcher, Adzinbaia has studied international security issues with a focus on Europe and the Atlantic. He interned at the NATO Defense College in Rome last summer and published a paper on NATO and the Black Sea region. For his capstone project at Fletcher, which focused on U.S.-Georgia security cooperation and Russian influence on it, he made research trips to Tbilisi, Washington, D.C., and Moscow.
Traveling to Russia was emotionally challenging, Adzinbaia said, but he managed it by going with fellow Fletcher students with the Russia and Eurasia Program. He found some hope in the “less confrontational” attitudes of younger Russians he met at MGIMO University, a Fletcher partner. “I hope they’re in key policy positions in the future,” he said.
After commencement, Adzinbaia will co-lead an educational tour of Georgia and other Black Sea countries for a group of graduate students from Fletcher, Harvard, and MIT. Then he’ll spend the summer interning in Brussels, where NATO will be holding a summit in July. He’s also applied for several jobs in Brussels and Washington, D.C., hoping to put his education to use improving Euro-Atlantic security.
Although he hasn’t received a job offer yet, he said the long, tough path he took to get to Fletcher and the education he’s received at the school have prepared him well. “I’m not afraid of no,” he said with a grin. “It helps you find a more powerful yes.”
Heather Stephenson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.