Progress in Georgia hampered by its neighbour to the north

EU Monitor James Donally returns to Georgia twenty years after independence to find a safer, more prosperous land – yet one still living under the shadow Russia and its ever-shifting foreign policy

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 12 August, 2014, 5:41pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 12 August, 2014, 10:32pm

The contrast between Georgia in 1994 and this year is vast. In early post-independence Georgia the then President Shevardnadze – who died in July – controlled only a few streets in the capital Tbilisi, while a variety of police, mafia and other local strongmen ran small fiefdoms in the rest of the country.

A journey from Tbilisi to Zugdidi at the far western end of Georgia involved numerous ‘police’ check points designed to relieve you of your cash, vehicle or even your life should the mood take them. The only place in Tbilisi with reliable electricity was the Metechi Palace Hotel, a grim concrete building which still exists today but is no longer the city’s most glamourous place of rest.

In 1994, I worked on aid programmes to assist those affected by Georgia’s 1990s civil wars but we were not immune to the prevailing criminal situation, with our warehouse, staff and equipment routinely being robbed by Georgians, government officials among them.

Twenty years later we see a very different Georgia. Despite a small war with a big neighbour in 2008, Georgia today is benefitting from some serious reforms undertaken over the past 10 years. Not least was the sacking of the entire police force by the previous president, Saakashvili.

Whatever charges Saakashvili’s many critics throw at him, even the most negative and cynical will admit that, on street level, it is now impossible to bribe – or more importantly – to be asked for a bribe. What happens with corruption on a higher level may be different but Georgians at last feel safe on the street, in local government offices and in their homes. And they know how to enjoy such safety and freedoms: Georgians are lavish entertainers and epic drinkers, consuming vast quantities of homemade wine by the horn-full. (You cannot put down a drinking horn, hence must drink it down in one slug).

However, the loss of two chunks of territory – South Ossetia and Abkhazia – in the early 1990s and over which the 2008 war with Russia was fought, still hangs over Georgia. Over 100,000 Georgians were displaced from these regions into the rest of Georgia and many still live in extremely poor conditions in so-called collective centres, often abandoned Soviet-era factories and kindergartens.

Georgia played politics with these people for the past 20 years by pretending they would one day return home, which for the majority remains highly unlikely. Whatever the political rights and wrongs of the fighting in these regions, these two enclaves will not return Georgia and it may be that the current government now recognises this. It now promises to create a ‘durable’ housing solution for these internally displaced people.

Meanwhile, Abkhazia and South Ossetia remain in limbo, recognised only by Russia, Venezuela and some random South Pacific islands. South Ossetia is keen to "do a Crimea" and join Russia, whilst Abkhazia doesn’t want to be in Georgia or Russia, but instead is trapped by a diminishing population, dysfunctional internal politics, an overbearing Russia snapping up its premium coastal property and by an alarming criminal situation.

Nevertheless, the rest of Georgia looks outward and attracts more and more visitors. The economic embargo imposed by Russia in 2008 meant that Georgia had to attract other sources of income. Shiny, somewhat tacky casinos – if not quite on the scale of Macau – sprang up in the coastal city of Batumi and visa restrictions were lifted on most nationalities. Batumi may be one of the few places where can you observe Israelis, Iranians, Iraqis and Turks sitting at the same poker table puffing away peacefully in the country that is as addicted to tobacco, as it is to alcohol.

Likewise, neighbouring Azerbaijanis and Armenians – who are still in conflict with each other – gather alongside each other in Georgia’s Black Sea coastal resorts. A spectacularly successful advertising campaign in Poland led to a growing number of Polish tourists, mainly young backpackers, and the arrival of low cost airline flights to Georgia.

The spectacular Georgian countryside now routinely sees a smattering of Polish cyclists and hikers attracted by a cheap, safe and hospitable country. Plus a common understanding can be found through some Polish and Russian words. And, of course, a shared love of alcohol and vigorous socialising helps too.

But Georgia is not unaffected by the recent events in Ukraine. In some ways Georgians feel vindicated by Russia's treatment of Ukraine and its terroritory and Ukrainian flags are flown in sympathy in bars and restaurants across Georgia. "See, we told you Russians were bad and mistreat their neighbours," is a commonly-held belief.

And there are fears that Russia will now meddle even more in Georgia and impose some final settlement on the breakaway territories. But perhaps Russia will now be too much engaged in the Ukraine crisis to bother so much with its small Caucasian neighbour; although there is the corresponding fear that the West may not be able keep up its interest in Georgia either.

Ukraine is also an important market place for Georgia, sending it tourists and buying its wine and mineral water and so any long term downturn there will not help Georgia’s recovery. On the plus side, remote Zugdidi and its Black Sea resort of Anaklia is about to benefit from the Kazantip music festival which, normally held in Crimea, now finds itself displaced and has chosen Georgia to hold its festival-in-exile this year. At least tens of thousands of new revellers will discover the delights of Caucasus this summer.

James Donally worked as an EU Monitor in Georgia 2013-14