Sunday, June 20, 2010

Caucasus Contradictions

It sounds like a cliché to say that something lies between East and West, but for Caucasus its geographical position between the Black and Caspian Seas guarantees that this literally is the case. Georgia has straddled this balance for centuries but, at least for now, its heart is in the West. The small country has been occupied numerous times by its neighbours and conquerors from further away: the Byzantine Empire, the Arabs from the south, Turkey, Persia, even the Mongols. In 1801, Georgia was annexed to the Russian Empire. Just for a few years after the 1917 Bolshevik revolution in Russia, Georgia enjoyed independence but in 1921 the Red Army marched into Tbilisi, the capital, and again brought the country under Moscow rule where it remained until the breakup of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. The Soviet dictator Josef Stalin was born in the town of Gori in central Georgia, which guaranteed a special place for the country in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Privileged Communist Party bosses would come for rest and recreation on the Black Sea coast.

Less than two years ago Georgia emerged from a short but traumatic war with Russia. The conflict flared up when the little country provoked its much larger northern neighbour regarding two separatist regions, Southern Ossetia and Abhkazia. These separatist enclaves are supported by Russia, partly to irk Georgia, which had aligned itself clearly with the West. There's indication that the Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili rather naively assumed that NATO would come to the little ally's rescue. This did not happen. As might appear likely to any observer, NATO and the United States would not risk a war with the Russian Federation on behalf of a tiny country in a remote region that until rather recently was part of the Soviet Union. Not even if the little country had whole-heartedly embraced the market liberalization and 'freedom' agenda of George W. Bush. Georgia got a bloody nose and Russia recognized the rebel regions. South Ossetia declared independence. The war triggered a huge flow of refugees adding to the numerous internally displaced persons (IDPs) that already existed as a result of earlier conflicts. August 2008 was not a happy month for Georgia.

Now in the spring of 2010 things looked up again. The issues with the secessionist regions were not solved, IDPs were still a problem (there were close to a quarter million of them) and internal travel remained difficult, but the May sun shone brightly and the country was excitedly awaiting municipal elections. Kura River flowed freely through Tbilisi, its muddy water whirling turbulently on its way down from the mountains surrounding the capital.

When Georgia achieved independence from Russia in the aftermath of the disintegration of the Soviet empire, the first president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, proved to be short-live: he was deposed off in a coup already in January 1992. He was replaced by Eduard Shevardnadze, who had served as the last foreign minister of the Soviet Union. During his reign, Georgia’s economy largely collapsed and the state was unable to provide basic services, such as electricity, to the citizens. His time in power also solidified the corruption, black marketing and smuggling that continue to thrive to this day. Shevardnadze was thrown out in the popular 'Rose Revolution' of 2003. The new crowd that took over was not apologetic for its distaste for anything that smacked of socialism. The young guns considered any government control or planning as communist legacy. The majority of the new guard that now ruled the republic was in their 30s and 40s, many of them educated in the United States in the heady days of the NeoCons.

The government of this underdeveloped land did not initially even recognize that there was a poverty problem. In their libertarian mindset, the new rulers put priority on overall economic growth, believing that it would be enough for the benefits eventually to trickle down to all people. In fact, they were remarkably successful in instigating economic growth by removing red tape and bureaucracy hindering the private sector and by cutting taxes. Georgia achieved an annual growth rate of some 10 percent over several years. Today in Tbilisi, new construction and renovation of old buildings is ubiquitous. And so are the numerous German luxury cars—MBs, BMWs and Audis—cruising the poorly maintained streets alongside the old Volgas and Ladas. Business thrives, especially in the capital, but not all of it is legitimate by any stretch of imagination.

And the economic juggernaut has not been able to eradicate poverty. Although the government stopped even tracking poverty levels in its firm belief that the wave of liberalization would lift all boats equally, it is obvious that inequality remains and has even increased. A 2007 World Bank study estimated that 24 percent of Georgians were living in poverty. Out of these, 40 percent (translating to almost one in ten of all people in the country) were living in extreme poverty. The 2008 double whammy of the war with Russia, which destroyed much of Georgia’s infrastructure and natural resources and increased the IDP problem, and the onset of the world economic crisis, further exacerbated poverty. The economic development has a geographical dimension and much of the abject poverty is found in the rural areas.

Like everywhere, the Soviet rule resulted in environmental degradation as polluting industries sprouted and natural resources were exploited for the benefit of the new Soviet citizen. These effects were somewhat eased up following the collapse of the Soviet Union, largely because industrial production fell dramatically in most of the former satellites. The downside of this was of course social and economic deprivation in communities that had depended on these industries for their livelihoods. The lack of regulations in today’s Georgia has exerted new pressures on the country’s environment and natural resources. For instance, the government removed any controls with regard to emissions from cars, arguing convincingly that the existence of control and licensing processes only provided opportunities for corruption. But a consequence of this has been that the air pollution from traffic in parts of Tbilisi is quite obvious for anyone taking a stroll.

Also, during the war of 2008, the Russian air force systematically bombed forest reserve areas in the central Georgian mountains causing significant environmental damage.

On the first evening just hours after I had arrived in Tbilisi, my colleague Masa who has spent more time in Georgia undertaking an evaluation of UN programs in the country, met me in the lobby of our small hotel in a residential neighbourhood. He led us out and walked determinedly down the steep street on which we were staying. I tried to keep up with him, skipping between the potholes and trying to avoid tripping in the cracks in the pavement. This was one of the best neighbourhoods in the city, I was informed. A few blocks on, Masa opened an unmarked door on the corner of an old solid looking building and continued down the stairs that led to the cellar. Here we found a large space with solid wooden block tables without tablecloths and a well stocked bar against one wall. The ceiling was held up by thick rock pillars.

In the adjacent room, a middle-aged man was singing the George Harrison tune ‘Something’ against a taped background karaoke style. He looked like an unlikely pop star with his thinning white hair and rather bulky body. He was dressed like a waiter in a white shirt and black vest.

Only a couple of the tables were occupied as we sat down at one. Soon a young woman in blue jeans appeared to take our order. I left it to Masa who ordered an excellent selection of natural cheeses, olives, the freshest vegetables imaginable, and kebabs of juicy minced meat wrapped in thin bread. We washed it all down with a couple of bottles of excellent Georgian red wine. Wine making was one of the few successful industries in the country since the Soviet times.

As the corpulent man continued to sing, it dawned on me that this was the job he had been hired to do; to entertain the guests at this establishment. In fact, he was a very good singer, indeed, and had a seemingly endless repertoire of Western pop songs which he interpreted with understated elegance. At the end of the evening, when I went to tell him how much I had appreciated his performance, it turned out that his spoken English was quite limited, although he had just sung several dozen songs in that language.

The municipal elections were to be the week after my visit and the country was full of excitement. My friend Natya stated the obvious: "The elections are very political." I asked another friend, George (there is no need to protect the innocent: half of the women in Georgia are called Natya and half of the men George) about the likely outcomes. He said he didn't expect any changes because the government controls the media and the political apparatus. George's point was that since the government came in power in 2003, the electoral system has not been open and transparent. This has been clearly confirmed by many outside observers. In fact, following the Rose Revolution, President Saakashvili closed down several independent newspapers and TV stations that opposed his policies. A similar fate befell several NGOs that criticized the laissez-faire policies that did not improve the social and economic situation quickly enough.

On a sunny but windy morning I went for a long walk in the old part of town. The old town is a living city with people residing there, not a museum. Many of the buildings, however, are desperately in need of repair. The walls appear to be crumbling and many houses are heavily tilted this way or that as they rest on the steep streets climbing the hillsides. A peek to the backyards reveals poor living conditions. Skinny cats stared suspiciously at the intruder.

Here and there, however, some of the houses had been recently renovated. A few of them looked truly impressive, with fancy roof terraces and modernized penthouses that were visible as one climbed higher on the slopes. There is a lot of money amongst the poverty. I climbed the Betlemi street-stairs, built in 1850. The climb to the top was very steep and the irregular old stone steps didn't help (nor did my being more out of shape than I had imagined). I passed several old churches along the way, their sharp conical steeples sprouting with green weeds. Georgian Orthodox crosses topped the spires.

About halfway up there was a beautiful rose garden. Then still the final squeeze towards the top of the ridge, which was getting ever steeper. Gnarly pines hung on to the hillside from which grey rocks protruded. The austere slope was lightened up by small yellow flowers and an occasional red poppy that would grow in between the stones. Finally, out of breath and panting, I reached the foot of the huge white statue of the city's guardian saint. She stood tall overlooking the city with her prominent breasts jutting above the valley.

From the top of the hill there was a stunning view over the old city and its red and brown rooftops. The Kura was flowing brown through the centre down in the valley. From this vantage point I could also observe that there was indeed a lot of renovation and new construction going on. In my dehydrated state, I could imagine the pleasure of relaxing on one of the renovated rooftop terraces with a cold drink in hand. These buildings were in a stark contrast to the dire Soviet era suburban blocks that could be seen against the horizon. Thankfully, they had been built rather far on the outskirts of the city to leave the old town in place. At least this way there is still a chance that Tbilisi will achieve its old glorious charm.

On the other side of the ridge away from the city, the landscape opened to green hills. Rows of poplars stood guard protecting the ruins of an old fort. I realized that this was a popular spot for young lovers. Even on this Thursday morning, couples were strolling arms around each other, kissing on secluded benches partly hidden by bushes.

Georgia does play an important role in the great game between the West and the East, especially when it comes to energy. The Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline inaugurated in 2005 carries almost a tenth of the world’s oil from the Caspian Sea to the Mediterranean through Turkey while avoiding Russian territory. Although the BTC only passes through Georgia carrying Azeri oil to the West, it still places the transit country into a strategic position, a fact that Georgia intends to capitalize upon to the full extent. Parag Khanna in his recent book The Second World: How Emerging Powers are Redefining Global Competition in the Twenty-first Century quotes a Georgian government adviser as saying: “Now that the West’s energy security depends on our strategic position, it will have to help us get control of the country.” The West's inaction in the 2008 war must have been a disappointment from this point of view.

Energy security is of course very important and competition over the world’s oil resources has been increasing with the emergence of new actors in the game. Especially China is very active in trying to secure fuel for its overheated economy. It has expanded its operations notably into Africa where its companies work to bring home oil and other minerals in exchange of infrastructure development. Russia, which has huge oil and gas reserves of its own, wants to use them to control Europe, especially its old satellites. Americans for their part are in search of oil that would come from more acceptable sources than the less than democratic Gulf Arab countries—not to mention Iran and Venezuela—that hold so much of the black stuff. America’s plans to expand its own oil production through offshore drilling just hit a major hindrance with the explosion of BP’s Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico. The unmitigated disaster graphically showed the risks of drilling to the environment and local economy, energizing the opponents of the oil economy. The Caspian Sea falls smack in the middle of these rivalries. Although Georgia is not itself oil producing, its position as a transit country does give it a bargaining chip.

The walk down from the hilltop with the huge white saviour saint was easier, although it was necessary to watch your step when descending the steep and uneven old stone stairs. It was still early and not quite lunchtime. I was hot and tired from the walk under the blazing sun, so I decided to enter one of the several churches lining the Kura river. The beautiful church was indeed cool inside and the darkness was restful to the eyes. Despite the soothing silence, the church was teeming with people. The Georgian Orthodox faith is alive and well and plays an important role in many people’s lives. Georgians are proud of the fact that the country was amongst the first ones to adopt Christianity as the official state religion. Caucasus itself is a religious mosaic. In the neighbourhood, most nations except Georgia and Armenia adhere to a different creed. Turkey, Iran, Azerbaijan and the southern Russian regions, such as the troubled land of Chechnya, are all Islamic.

Inside the church, worshippers were moving from one altar to the next, lighting candles in front of shrines devoted to various saints. There were equally many young people as old. The younger ones wore their Western street cloths, but the women had covered their heads and arms with scarves. Many of the older women wore all black. Despite the crowd, the scene was tranquil. The gold in the many beautiful icons glistened in the flickering candlelight.

Once outside, I found a shady table on a terrace in a small mall with several restaurants clustered in the semi-closed open courtyard. I ordered a tall glass of ice water, which I gulped down before selecting a chicken salad and a glass of dry white wine for lunch. The mall was clearly newly built, but the style fit nicely with the old neighbourhood by the riverside. Little by little people started to come in until after a while all the tables in the restaurants were occupied. There were a couple of foreigners—a Norwegian father and son enjoying a cold beer after sightseeing; a British businessman directing a deal on the cell phone while sipping wine—but almost all of the people were locals. Almost all were also youngish, elegantly dressed and well groomed, smoking and chatting while waiting for their lunches. Presumably they were workers from offices and shops located in and around the mall. Sitting here, I had to remind myself that this was a post-conflict country where one quarter of the people lived in absolute poverty.

It has proved challenging for the United Nations to find a proper niche and to promote human development in Georgia, especially as the government has not been very susceptible to ideas that target specific poor and vulnerable groups for assistance. The 2008 Georgia Human Development Report, The Reforms and Beyond, prepared under the auspices of UNDP, identifies a number of areas where creation of wealth is not enough to guarantee human development. On the political front, it is important to ensure rule of law and to reign in corruption. Social issues, such as health and education are equally important, as is environmental quality. Lately, the government has become more inclined to address specific social problems, notably the very high unemployment rate, that mar the country.

The elections came and went without any troubles and with few surprises. The Council of Europe that sent observers to the elections commended Georgia for significant progress towards international electoral standards, although in some regions systemic problems, such as ballot box stuffing, were still reported. As my new buddy, George, had predicted, no major changes took place. But as he said, the key should be to keep a cordial relationship with Russia. Whatever happens in Georgia, the neighbours are going to stay and they are big and aggressive.

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