Georgia on my mind: a tourist’s impression

On the fringes of EBRD’s 2015 Annual Meeting I visited the Republic of Georgia, mainly to explore it as a tourist. A 17 billion $ economy (around 0.03% of world GDP), a population of around 4 million, makes a per capita GDP of around 4.000 $, or twice that in IMF’s purchasing power estimate. It is a poor country with glaring income differences: the jeuness doree in Tbilisi sports Maseratis, Mercedes 500s, large Audis and Hummers, when visiting the night hotspots. This is a country with stunning landscapes, the more than 5.000 m high Caucasus peaks along the whole Northern border with Russia, the wine and fruit and vegetable growing areas in the South towards Armenia and Azerbadjan in the East, and the Black Sea coastal areas in the West, with beaches and sub-tropical climate.

Spring is arguably the best time to visit, as everything is covered in a velvety green cover, fruit trees are blossoming, ample rivers and spring all over the place, ostensibly a little paradise. However, on closer inspection, the major impression when driving around the country is that about one half of all houses are abandoned and falling apart, whole villages deserted, parts of old Tbilisi collapsing. While the country is obsessed with cleanliness – thousands of people sweeping the streets with characteristic brooms, the sidewalks spic and span, hardly any trash along the roads, this dereliction oft he traditional housing structures makes for a depressing impression. While in the spring the country looks absolutely pastoral, ist environmental situation is described as catastrophic: air pollution around the industrial center of Rustawi, heavily polluted rivers and a chemically saturated landscape – all this leads to severe clean drinking water shortages, even though enough beautifully looking water runs through the country in many springs and rivers. Large areas of virgin forests are cut down for export to Turkey. A first impression in Tbilisi lets one think that cleaning and security personnel must be the strongest professions in this country, where in the countryside – as in many Southern European countries – men sit around dingy cafes most oft he day, playing backgammon or just talking. The official unemployment rate of around 11% seems to be an artefact.

Georgia lost nearly 10% of ist population (all men) in World War II. This is extremely high for a country that was lucky enough not be become a battleground. This is shown in depressing clarity in the beautiful mountain tourism town of Sighnaghi, where the ceramic war memorial shows the names of around 4.000 persons lost in the war while the town itself today has only 2.000 inhabitants. The effects of the war with Russia in 2008 which resulted in the quasi-independence of the Western provice of Abchasia and the Northern provice of South Ossetia (both only recognized by its occupation power Russia) are still visible around the countryside where Georgian refugees from these provinces were settled in villages.

Georgia is the Kolchis of Greek mythology where Jason found the Golden Fleece and Medea, the local princess who helped him. As a sourceress, she is the namegiver of our “medicine” and obviously had magical powers.

Georgia claims to have been the second country (after Armenia) to have officially adopted Christianity in the 4th century (as Iberia). This Christian Orthodox heritage can be seen in the many old churches (many oft hem from around the 11th/12th centuries) sprinkling the wide landscape. Between the 10th and 12th century the various Georgian fiefdoms were united in ist „golden age“, only tob e destroyed by Mongolians (Tamerlan) in the 13th century. Georgia also boasts to be the first country in the world to make wine from grapes and prides itself of ist originally and uniquely way of winemaking, where the (feet-pressed) grape juice, together with the skins and stems are filled into large clay jars which are buried under ground. The addition oft he skins and stems adds colour and tannin and seems to make the addition of sulfite superfluous. The jars are emptied and refilled several times (quasi as a filtration process). In an old winemaking farm we saw these jars in the ground, covered by a heavy slate stone, from which the farmer took a jar to let us taste. Georgian wine, made this way, has a strong earthy and slightly bitter taste, reminiscent a bit of Greek Retsina. Wine, being one of Georgia’s main exports, was excluded from being imported into Russia, ist main market, after the 2008 war, but this restriction seems to have been lifted recently. Georgians also make wine „European style“ for export to Europe. We were told that close to 300 types of grapes are cultivated in Georgia, most of them unknown tot he European wine drinker, like myself.

Cows and sheep graze all over the countryside, many shepherds seem to be migratory, driving their flocks from pasture to pasture, always with a donkey or mule carrying their own tents, etc. Milk products, like excellent yoghurt, curd, cottage cheese and cheeses paly an important role in the diet, as do cucumber and tomato salads, frequently sprinkled with ground walnut powder. Walnut trees line the roads.

An impressive North-South road, the famous „Georgia Military Highway“ going north from Tbilisi to Russia, climbs up steeply to a pass at 2.200 m, where a Russia-Georgia friendship pavilion displays ceramic images oft he eternal friendship between Georgia and Russia. This road goes back tot he first millennium B.C., the old foot and bridle path was turned into an access road for Russia when it incorporated Georgia in the mid-19th century, and today is a heavily used gruck transit road where trucks from Russia, Armenia, Azerbadjan, Georgia, Ukraine, Belarus crawl up the steep mountain passes. This road takes you to Kazbeghi (12 km from the Russian border), which sports a most fantastic view oft he Caucasus mountains, with Mount Kazbeghi (5.046) guarding the village and ist magnificent „Rooms“ hotel at 1.800 m. A small pilgrimage church and monastery, plus hiking and mountainbiking make this a major tourist attraction – which I can wholeheartedly recommend.

A visit to Gori, Josef Stalin’s birthplace reveals a beautiful neo-baroque museum building dedicated tot he one son of Gori who „made it“. A rather grotesque picture show through a number of rooms reveals Stalin’s early childhood, his seminary experience, his turn towards revolutionary ideas, his industrialization plans, his heroism in WWII (siege of Leningrad, battle of Stalingrad, etc.), Stalin among Roosevelt and Churchill in Tehran (1943) and Yalta, him among many of his (surviving) comrades, but practically nothing about the victims oft he revolution, the collectivization of agriculture in Ukraine (with millions of hunger deaths), the Gulag deportations and executions, except to say that Stalin was so religious that he released 1 million prisoners after Lenin’s death. Original words oft he guide: Lenin was against the bourgeoisie and the church, Stalin only against the bourgeoisie! Only after asking specifically, the guide led us into a basement broom cabinet which showed five memorabilia of Georgian victims of Stalin’s.

A number of cave cities which were inhabited until the 17th century, but also used by later populations show the early cultural life of a nation (acutally several nations) which were unlucky enough tob e perched between the Black and Caspian Seas and the High and Low Caucasus and containing important cross-paths from West to East. As a result, many invaders came and plundered and killed and exploited the fertile landscape, until in 1991 Georgia became independent after some struggle, falling victim once more in 2008 in the self-inflicted war with Russia.

This is a potentially beautiful country in a troubled region with rather little economic potential. However, stronger efforts towards tourism in this beautiful landscape would be helpful, and also profitable once the necessary infrastructure is in place. Since independence, about one quarter oft he population has left, mainly for Europe and the USA. Georgia’s ambition to join the European Union have been resisted by the EU, ostensibly because of still endemic corruption, but rather because EU political will to absorb more problem countries with very weak economies at this point is rather low. Most recently, Russia has made inofficial dvances for Georgia to join the Eurasian Union, more overt advances in this direction have been made tot he separatist regions of Abchasia and South Ossetia – which, however, have not yet been recognized by Union members Belarus, Kazakhstan and Armenia. Recent polls show about 1/3 of Georgians being in favor of joining up with their traditional trading partner, while 2/3 would rather lean towards the EU.


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