Georgia On My Mind

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When I told folks I was hoping to get to Georgia this last summer, they inquired with characteristic Minnesota nativism, “Why go to steamy Georgia, when you live in the land of perfect summers?” When I explained it was the other Georgia, there were blank looks. If they had any idea where the country was (between the Black and Caspian Seas), they just might also know a second fact about the country–that it was where Stalin was born. I was going because my son was managing U. S.-funded development work there, and through him, I would have a look at how a rather ill-favored post-Soviet state was handling democratization and the move to a market economy fifteen years after independence.

The Republic of Georgia isn’t in the top ten American tourist destinations for good reason. Although it boasts gorgeous Caucasus mountain landscapes, Black Sea beaches, and delightful native wines, touring the country isn’t for the faint-hearted. The roads are abominable, toilet facilities worse, and if you can’t speak Georgian or Russian, you’d better have a translator in tow.

Georgia’s ill favor is a factor of its strategic location, not its natural beauty or resources. Situated on the crossroads of east and west, Georgia has ricocheted between its stronger neighbors: Greeks, Persians, Mongols, Ottoman Turks, Russian tsars and Soviets, with only a short golden age of self-rule between the 11th and 12th centuries under the remarkable Queen Tamar. Further, it contains a portion of the Caucasus Mountains, home to about fifty fiercely independent ethnic groups. (Chechnya is immediately to its north.) When Georgia withdrew from the USSR in 1991, ethnic strife ignited and continues simmering to this day.

One of the first things to strike me about the landscape was the concrete. It was everywhere. The capital,Tblisi, is in the midst of a building boom and clouds of concrete dust coated my hair on my touring ventures. I counted seven new buildings under construction in the blocks surrounding my son’s apartment. Twenty minutes outside of the city center, drivers encounter the first of miles upon miles of gravel detours as Georgia’s major east-west highway becomes a four-laner, with the help of a $300 million U.S. Millennium Challenge grant.

Okay, those are signs of economic progress to be applauded in one of Europe’s poorer countries, (or is it a part of the Near East as some say?) But what about the empty-eyed, crumbling cinder block apartment monoliths, the 30 foot high concrete blocks that once announced the approach of an urban area (now unreadable), the concrete-lined ditches (remains of an antiquated irrigation system), and half-finished poured concrete buildings? All are remnants of the Soviets. When they pulled out in 1991, money also dried up, and buildings were just left, either half-finished or waiting to be demolished. In the fifteen years since, removing these eyesores hasn’t been a high priority.

What has been the priority is getting an effective government in place. In 1989, Tblisi was the scene of major demonstrations challenging Moscow, ending in a massacre outside of the parliament building. After independence, things were little better as civil war broke out and people starved on the streets. I walked by several bombed-out buildings in the downtown area that appeared to have once been quite elegant, but now hosted squatters. Just as peace was restored in 1994, refugees from the ethnic conflict in breakaway province Abkhazia flooded into the city. Crime skyrocketed. Hope rose with the election of former Soviet foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze as president, and then fell again as he was unable to control the rampant corruption that riddled every level of society.

An example: U.S. energy giant AES purchased the former state-run Telasi energy distribution operation in 1998 for $36 million, invested in metering the country (under the Soviets, electricity was free), and brought transmission plants up to western standards, only to be forced to sell its interest back to the state in 2003. This came after a series of events that left Georgians blaming AES for blackouts actually caused by Russian interests (Russia generates much of the electricity purchased by Georgia), corruption, and customer non-payment of energy bills. The state then resold the company to the Russians for $26 million and AES shareholders swallowed a $300 million loss.

Shervardnadze’s resignation in 2003 led to his replacement with pro-Western, Columbia-educated lawyer Mikhail Saakashvili, in the ‘Rose Revolution.’ Since then, there have been noticeable improvements in some areas, cosmetic in others. For example, the highway from the airport into Tblisi is a smooth four-lanes with attractive landscaping. But travel a mile past the airport, and the road reverts to a potholed two-laner, since President Bush would only see the road to and from Tblisi on his May 2005 visit. Ditto, with paint jobs. Buildings on Bush’s route were freshly-painted, others remained as bare-faced. Saakashvili came under such criticism for this fix-up that he subsequently decreed that all unpainted buildings must sport fresh paint in the coming year.

In the past several years, Georgia has been a recipient of significant U.S. development aid because its strategic importance is immense. Under Saakashvili, Georgia has turned toward the west, causing its relations with Russia to tank. Russia supports the Georgian break-away regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia; has boycotted Georgian wine and spring water, (thus closing Georgia’s largest markets for these signature products); now requires visas for Georgians to enter; and limits the cash Georgians working in Russia can send home. Of further importance to the U.S., Georgia sits on the main transit route between the Caspian and Black Seas, along which gas and oil from the Caspian moves to Europe.

To the north and west of bustling Tblisi are the tumultuous Caucasus, home to many fascinating and fractious ethnic groups. (It was on Mt. Caucasus that Prometheus was chained to a rock for stealing fire for humankind.) My tour took me to mountain communities to observe meetings where villagers discussed their most pressing needs and their hopes for the future. Everywhere, infrastructure repairs were the first priority; terrible roads made moving agricultural products to market difficult, while erratic electrical service, often due to downed poles in the winter, and antiquated water lines rusting out with age, frustrated progress.

Up in Ghorgadze, a new, high mountain community formed after the Soviets departed by farmers living further down the mountain slopes, we found the gender gap alive and well. The community had implemented its first priority, an irrigation project. The men had gathered in a fragrant glade to tell us about the next project for which they hoped to receive a grant: a herb collection center. As they spoke, the women of the village began quietly gathering under the trees. When invited to comment, they declared that their top priority was a water line, for they had to walk 800 meters to get water. My son’s suggestion that perhaps the men could help with that task was greeted with quiet titters behind cupped hands. As for the future, they, like the members of every other community, spoke of finding ways their villages could become more economically viable so that their young would not have to leave to find work.

Where work can be found is in the Black Sea resort city of Batumi, located in the province of Ajara. Until two years ago, Ajara functioned as a semi-independent region under criminal strongman Aslan Abashidze. Now reunited with Georgia, its major city has become a seaside resort filled with vacationing college students and Georgian and Armenian families. We took a break from jolting along gravel mountain roads and stayed at a beachside motel, where we breakfasted in a palm-roofed cabana, tested the luscious Kvarkhara wine dispensed by its brewer, Yanus, from a plastic liter jug, and watched the sun set over the Black Sea from our beach chairs.

And Black Sea resorts aren’t the only attractions for tourists in Georgia. For those looking for outdoors adventure, its mountains offer fine skiing, hiking. trout stream fishing, and off-road expeditions. Just stay away from contested areas. My son had hoped we could visit Svaneti in the mountainous NW corner of the country, home to the Svan ethnic group, but a recent Georgian Army operation to arrest a clan leader there had left local militants ready for a fight. Not a place to go wandering into!

My favorite find in Georgia was discovering St. Nino, a slave girl from Cappadocia (now central Turkey) who converted Georgian Queen Nana to Christianity after curing her of an illness back in 330 A.D. Yes, 330–making St. Nino the first, and maybe only, female apostle credited with a country’s conversion. And, oh yes, I did get to Stalin’s humble birth home in Gori, now surmounted by a temple-like structure, where I posed before the green-painted train car in which he toured the World War II battlelines.

So is Georgia doing well or poorly? In establishing well-functioning democratic institutions, it is probably doing as well as can be expected, considering Georgians have had little experience in self-governance and the difficulties of weeding out a culture of corruption institutionalized as a survival mechanism. Economically, it certainly cannot compete with the Baltic States, the Czech Republic, or Hungary, but with luck the growing prosperity of Tblisi and Batumi will trigger growth in the rest of the country. Of course, lying on the crossroads between east and west–and the transit corridor for precious gas and oil–can’t hurt. Maybe, finally, Georgia’s geographic location will benefit its peoples.

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