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Is Georgia really that close to Europe? (Stephen Robert Morse)

In late January, I arrived in Batumi, the Republic of Georgia's major city on the Black Sea. Georgia's pro-Western President, Mikheil Saakashvili, who was thrust into power in 2004 following the nation's Rose Revolution, has made Batumi his pet project. He's vowed to transform this 125,000-person resort town from a tourism-based economy that barely squeaks by outside of the high season into an economic and cultural powerhouse.

Saakashvili is known for his capitalist ambitions, extreme anti-Russian sentiment and hyperbolic Chutzpah. In preparation for George W. Bush's historic visit to Georgia in 2005, he re-named a major thoroughfare in Tbilisi, Georgia's capital city, after the sitting American president.

I took to the streets of Batumi to investigate his progress in creating a New Georgia.

After arriving from Eastern Turkey by marshrutka (mini-bus) and haggling with a taxi driver to take me to my guesthouse, the roller coaster ride begins. For the entirety of the two-mile journey, we creep along, coming to abrupt halts every few seconds because the roads we're traversing are in such bad disrepair. When I hit my head on the ceiling of the shabby, mud-covered, early-model Moskvitch, I think to myself, This is Saakashvili's definition of progress? This is Georgia's great leap forward?

From my non-scientific observations, upwards of 75% of Batumi's streets are unpaved and covered in pure rubble. The streetscape features craters as big as Rhode Island and as deep as Loch Ness. Because it's the end of the rainy season, many of these pits are filled with water, so much water that I watch a Georgian child skip stones...on a school-bus-sized puddle.

The Moskvitch kicks up a wake that brings to mind newsreels about life during the Dust Bowl.

The streets weren't like this during Soviet times, or even before Saakashvili's initiative. Yet this is a typical Georgian story: A construction firm is commissioned to replace the streets. It digs up the old foundations of nearly every street in town. The well prematurely runs dry and the project stalls, indefinitely, leaving the population out of luck as they now need to replace their vehicles' shocks, brakes, and tires twice weekly. My friend Jan, a programme officer for development cooperation at the Dutch Embassy in Tbilisi, confirms that it's been like this since he visited Batumi last summer.

I pull up to the guest house. The taxi driver, following a tacit universal code, attempts the ritual extort the foreigner plan and tries to bilk me for an additional 5 lari ($3) beyond our agreed upon price. Georgia must have one of the world's highest taxi drivers per capita, as taxis are used for everything from standard package delivery to cross-border drug runs. They're everywhere, meaning it should be a buyer's market. Initially, I argue, but ultimately give him 2 lari to quit whining, only because I don't want to look like a cheapskate in front of my host family.

Despite Saakashvili's love of all things Western - he earned a Master of Laws at Columbia, the very institution that gave Barack Obama his undergraduate degree - Georgia is still very much a developing nation. The squat toilet and lack of running water in the guesthouse are testaments to this.

But the average Georgian lives on just $4,800 per year, so maybe I shouldn't be so harsh. With this thought in my head, and a noisy space heater beside my mattress, I soon fall asleep.

The next morning, I wake up to sunny skies. It's January but it feels like April. The first thing I notice when I step outside is the graffiti scrawled on the exterior wall of the house next door. It reads, in English, STOP RUSSIA.

 

Graffiti

Graffiti in Batumi, written in English. (Stephen Robert Morse)

At the first street corner, I notice a group of twenty men. All of them smoke; some play classic Three card Monte; others roll dice; but most are just waiting. A passing work van screeches to a halt: A chance for a day's work!

Three men charge toward it. A fight breaks out and the eldest of the troika, who must be in his mid-60s, is told by the others that he must wait his turn. The van takes off as the dejected man is swallowed up by the vehicle's thick, comet-like, soot trail.

This scene takes on an extra sense of urgency and despair because unemployment here is so high. Though the government lists the official unemployment rate at 16.9%, it hasn't produced new official figures since 2009. But every local I speak with tells me the same thing: The unemployment ranks are actually closer to 50% of the working-age male population. Men are unemployed at significantly higher rates than women because prideful males feel that many jobs are below them.

The government attributes the unemployment woes to the global financial crisis, because this cataclysm caused foreign direct investment (FDI) in Georgia to suffer significantly: After FDI hit a high of $2.014 billion in 2007, it fell to a mere $553.1 million in 2010.

However, there's one more factor that accounts for the decline of FDI that the government never mentions: Russia.

Since the Rose Revolution, sizzling tensions between Georgia and Russia have been the norm. In 2006, Russia devastated two of Georgia's major industries by banning imports of all Georgian wine and mineral water, citing dubious safety concerns about contaminated products. (Russia previously comprised the market for nearly 90% of Georgia's wine exports.)

The ban is still in place today, forcing Georgia to seek out new export partners, a difficult task during the recession and recovery. While Georgia exported 59 million bottles of wine annually before the ban, this figure was reduced to 15 million bottles in 2010. Most wine exports now go to Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus, nations that have long considered Georgian wine a delicacy.

This economic warfare was a direct consequence of escalating unease between Georgia and separatists living in the disputed Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The separatists are supported financially and militarily by Russia. Three years ago, Russia escalated tensions by installing additional peacekeepers in the disputed regions and issuing Russian passports to citizens of the breakaway territories, which particularly agitated Georgians because South Ossetia is located just an hour's drive from Tbilisi.

This situation has serious undertones of ethnic conflict: South Ossetian and Abkhaz people are racially different from Georgians (and Russians). Though Georgians have never been the majority in South Ossetia, Abkhazia had an ethnic Georgian majority during Soviet times, but this population has been reduced to a small percentage of what it once was because the 1992-93 Abkhaz-Georgian War displaced hundreds of thousands of ethnic Georgians and continual hostilities have caused even more to flee.

Catching the world off guard, Saakashvili unilaterally invaded South Ossetia in August 2008, which meant war with Mother Russia.

Though the conflict lasted only 10 days, it demonstrated Saakashvili's audacity, which erred more on the side of hubris and, in this instance, recklessness: Georgia lost territory in both Abkhazia and South Ossetia. A few hundred soldiers were killed, a thousand more were injured, and a further 100,000 Georgians became internally displaced persons (IDPs), bringing the country's total IDP count to between 250,000 and 500,000.

But the physical damage from the war wasn't the only loss: The Georgian economy was booming during the mid-2000s - GDP rose by more than 12% in 2007 - but the war made foreign investors wary of committing to investments in the fledgling Republic because of its geopolitical instability. Furthermore, investing in Georgia meant potentially losing business with Russia, a much wealthier nation with thirty times Georgia's population.

To be fair, Saakashvili may have thought the Bush administration or NATO would back him militarily. And with Dubya's term coming to a close, Saakashvili had to act. But the war remained regional and no foreign powers intervened.

 

Georgian

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s official residence in Tbilisi, designed to look like the White House. (Stephen Robert Morse)

I continue my stroll through Batumi and notice a large purple flag with 14 yellow stars arranged in a circle. This represents the Council of Europe, and Georgia is a proud member. Though the Council is a relatively powerless organization, the prominent display of this flag symbolizes Saakashvili's dreams of integration into the European Union and NATO. Beside the flag is an enormous billboard that reads, Georgia: Part of Europe. An accompanying map shows Georgia's geographic proximity to Europe, but somehow the proportions are wrong: Georgia is made to appear closer than it really is.

I presume that Saakashvili personally commissioned this billboard...and may have even drawn the map himself. The breed of propaganda Saakashvili disseminates is unique: It is wholeheartedly pro-Western, which effectively curries favor (and aid money) from first world governments.

Back to the war. The European Union ultimately issued a report condemning Georgia for firing the first shots, but also chastised Russia for instigating the conflict by violating international law (by issuing passports) and then reacting with disproportionate force and attacking civilians deep inside Georgian territory, far from the disputed regions, with illegal cluster bombs.

In a twisted way, Georgia was lucky to have this war in August. In the immediate aftermath, America pledged $1 billion in aid to Georgia and the EU pledged $4.5 billion (in September and October 2008, respectively). To make the magnitude of these gifts clear, the US gave only $1.8 billion to Georgia between its formation in 1991 and 2008. This capital influx was promised to Georgia in the weeks that directly preceded the darkest hours of the global financial crisis. Should the war have come later, the cash-strapped donors would have been less likely to come to Georgia's rescue with such generosity, if at all.

I wonder, did Saakashvili rebel against Russia because he figured if he crossed the line, the West would come to his aid?

I pass many fruit stands with rows of neatly piled apples, bananas, oranges, even kiwis. But they're covered with a fresh layer of dust, and I don't want to take the risk. Like the 9/11 responders who developed long-term and deadly respiratory problems from their exposure at the World Trade Center site, I fear that the people of Batumi may suffer an equally terrible fate, with only the most basic healthcare system to lean on.

Batumi is not like a Chinese metropolis where modernity (read: pollution) has made citizens mask-clad by custom: Here, only the pregnant women wear masks. The rest tough it out. After a year of stagnation, there's neither a bulldozer nor worker in sight to finish this job. Why won't Saakashvili use that aid money to put the unemployed to work and fix the city that he promised to empower?

I head toward the sea. The buildings are beautiful, thick, old constructions with elaborate facades. Though there is certainly aesthetic value in the rustic nature of peeling paint (think Tuscany), these edifices are on the verge of crumbling. It makes me wonder whether Batumi's heyday was in the Soviet past or whether it hasn't happened yet. Or maybe it will never happen.

Among the old Volgas and Ladas, the roads are conspicuously filled with BMWs and Mercedes, none of them new. They're products rebuilt from German scrap yards, but here they're the ultimate status symbol for men ranging from their late teens through their 30s; those who have little recollection of Soviet times and apparently prefer MTV. Rock music and rap blast from car stereos at makes-me want-to-vomit volumes. This cacophony is made worse because most of the cars are stationary along Melikishvili Street (formerly Engels Street), parked where the pavement should be, as the vehicles' owners and their pals hang out the windows, sit on the hoods, and stare at themselves in the windows, which function as mirrors for gelling hair and popping zits.

As I feverishly dart across roads, I watch brave (or insane) high-heeled women do the same. But they risk debilitating ankle injuries if they lose their footing, or death if one of their stilettos gets caught in the rocks at the moment when one of Batumi's hundreds of marshrutka drivers barrels down the street. Marshrutka drivers notoriously soldier on like they're simultaneously blind, drunk, and overdosing on amphetamines, clinging to the crosses of St. George that dangle from their rear-view mirrors to save them. St. George won't save them, nothing can! Advice for crossing any Georgian street: Traffic stops for no one, not even Saakashvili himself.

I approach the tourist office to pick up a map. The woman behind the desk asks me if I'm an English teacher. Since 2010, Georgia has been flooded with English teachers recruited through a new government initiative called Teach and Learn in Georgia (TLG), because Saakashvili wants every Georgian pupil to learn English as a second language. The government believes that if young people learn English rather than Russian, they will feel disconnected from the Russian sphere and never turn their backs on Western values or ideals.

Saakashvili's last-minute decision to recruit teachers for the 2010-2011 school year proved disastrous in some instances. With positions desperately needing to be filled at schools across the country (so Saakashvili could make good on his pledge), Georgia accepted nearly everyone who signed up to teach, never considering the varying degrees of English fluency among native speakers.

Many of these recruits were simply unemployed in America, the UK, Canada, or Australia, until TLG brought them to Georgia, sometimes without having heard of the place, let alone being able to locate it on a map. Urban legend has it that one teacher thought Tbilisi was a suburb of Atlanta, Georgia. In a more horrifying twist, a newly transgendered woman, Alexis Reich, formerly known as John Mark Karr, a long-time English teacher and serial child molester  who rose to notoriety when he falsely plead guilty to the murder of child beauty queen JonBenet Ramsey, arrived to teach Georgian children. These debacles somewhat subsided when qualified teachers started ratting out their unskilled colleagues, who were told to pack their bags and were given one-way tickets home.

When I wear my prescription eyeglasses, I am constantly asked, Are you a teacher? but when I revert to sunglasses it becomes, Are you military? Regardless, Americans - whether they're lieutenants, teachers, or tourists - are loved unconditionally in Georgia, perhaps more than in America itself.

Ironically, the tourist office only has Russian maps in stock. Perhaps this is not a best practice for a nation that wants to remove itself from the Russian orbit. But a Cyrillic map is better than no map, and I meander through the 6th of May Park toward the old Batumi Aquarium. A new one, designed by Danish architecture firm Henning Larsen, is set to open this summer. I'm not holding my breath.

The

I approach the ticket booth.

One ticket please.

A blank face stares back at me. She hasn't heard a word of what I've said because inside the booth, a 1980s throwback boom-box plays pop music at obscene volumes. Georgians have a strange proclivity for music that can seriously damage one's ears. During dinner hours, almost all Georgian restaurants feature live music performed at heavy-metal concert volumes. In a society that lacks a widespread use of credit cards (due to fraud/corruption), cash and ear plugs are two necessities for dining out.

I display 2 lari ($1.25) and she gets the message, handing me a ticket and pointing me toward the entrance.

When I open the door, two cats scamper past. I enter the shell of what once was an active laboratory. A lone woman with a cigarette in hand (she looks like a washed-up bordello proprietor), points me toward a second door.

Fish tanks, certainly from the Stalin era, line the walls, and a feature exhibit in the center of the one-room aquarium is called Fish from the Black Sea. They must have scooped them up with today's catch, since the sea is just across the highway, 300 feet away.

The room reeks of spray-paint, like someone's been huffing. Inside a large tank in the corner of the room, four men smoke and tinker with tools. Another three men and a lone woman watch them at work and make small talk, all with cigarettes in hands. It's like everyone here is born with a never-ending supply of tobacco that doesn't become extinguished until death. With a per capita GDP of $4,800 and a pack of cigarettes priced at roughly $2, I wonder how pack-a-day smokers can justify spending 1/7 of their annual income on tobacco.

If I were feeling friendly, I would describe this aquarium as vintage. But in a bad mood, I would call it a hell-hole. Every tank is seriously overcrowded and the water is consistently a filthy brown hue. Perhaps Darwinian evolutionary biology has made it such that only the most adaptable creatures survive and reproduce in these harsh conditions. After all, whether they like it or not, each organism now sucks down the equivalent of three packs of lingering Kents (Georgia's most popular cigarette brand) through their gills every day. There are three tanks filled with goldfish of questionable scientific value, making them unworthy of a lifetime in commercialized captivity. Is it possible to call social services to have the youngsters removed?

In its worst form, one fish, which, given my limited knowledge of marine nomenclature, I would describe as a large black grouper, sits alone in a tank so inadequate for its size that it can't even swim. The animal remains stuck between the walls of the tank with its tail awkwardly wrapped around its back, as if it's in cardiac arrest.

I'm not an animal rights activist, yet I am still horrified by these poor conditions.

A Marlboro Man in his early 30s approaches me. He introduces himself as the marine biologist.

I ask, So what's the most exotic fish in your collection?

The African Cichlids we have over there.

The African Cichlids? I had those when I was a kid. I was even able to breed them on my own.

When I walk back outside I notice a Dolphinarium - a miniature Sea World-esque stadium - that will open for summer. All I can think is, GOD, HELP THOSE DOLPHINS! because they're probably kept in water-filled coffins, maybe leftovers from the war.

I cut across the coastal highway, one of the five properly paved roads in town, to the seafront. I expect it to be litter-filled, so I am pleasantly surprised when I approach a rocky yet pristine waterfront. I stroll down to the end of the boardwalk, also well maintained, and hop on a marshrutka to the botanical gardens. I am sandwiched between four grade school-aged kids in the back row. They are shockingly well-behaved, not uttering a word during the course of the ride. As the first child exits, he attempts to pay the driver the .20 lari (12 cents) fare, but he refuses it in the classic Your money's no good here fashion. He won't take money from the other kids either.

When I enter the verdant gardens, I am alone. I stare across a panorama of snow-peaked mountains further inland, hillside homes with orange groves in their backyards, a dozen cargo ships in the Black Sea, and Batumi, now five miles away. I feel like I'm in San Francisco's Presidio, my favorite place on earth for solitude. I close my eyes and imagine that Georgia's coast is replaced by views of Sausalito, the Marin headlands, Seacliff mansions, and of course the Golden Gate Bridge. I think: Where are the locals? Why are these gardens empty on a picture perfect afternoon? Then I remember: I paid six lari ($3.50), a considerable price for the average Georgian, to enter these gardens. I stick around for the sunset across the sea and head back to town.

When I arrive in the center, I see that a crowd has formed: There has been a jewelry store heist. Someone's just become very rich. I tread carefully through the open-air market among the fishmongers (some fish look like they've been bathing in nuclear water), sunflower-seed mongers (another major Georgian export), and black shoe mongers (each stall contains 84 different styles of black shoes, but not a single shade of brown...why?).

I can't read most of the signs on the shops. Only one-third are written in English. When I stare at the unique Georgian script, I can't help but think of The Scream, because each letter looks as if it has been perpetually twisted and elongated, just like Munch's anti-hero. Perhaps Georgia's independent spirit is derived from its linguistic history: Like Basque and Hungarian, the Georgian language is wholly unrelated to those of its neighbors.

The most peculiar aspect of this market is that every other storefront is a foreign exchange office. Such businesses are easy to set up (there are few start-up costs other than renting a tiny store-front), but their proliferation means one thing: money laundering. Given Batumi's proximity to Turkey, Georgia's gateway to the West, Batumi's underground economy, the one that is only revealed by the numbers of Mercedes crossing the border, is booming. Estimates suggest that more than 70% of Georgia's economy is underground, which is among the highest in the world.

I'm tired. I've walked for hours and breathed in enough particulate matter to harden my throat and redden my eyes. All I can do now is commit myself to a cozy dinner (at a restaurant sans music), a glass of local wine, and a good night's sleep, because tomorrow, I'm heading to Tbilisi.

As I seek out a suitable dinner locale, I think about Georgia's future, which is inextricably linked with Russia's future. Russia is the world's largest nation that is not a member of the World Trade Organization, but it will likely be up for admission this year. Georgia is already a member, which gives it the power to veto its former occupier's entrance. Perhaps Saakashvili's audacity is rooted in his possession of this ultimate trump card: Russia may have destroyed his wine industry, but as long as he's in power, he holds the keys to one part of Russia's economic future. Upon entry to the WTO, Russia will be more globally competitive in some sectors but as a consequence it will be necessary to curtail activities in its less competitive industries. To join the WTO, Russia must kowtow to Georgia's requests, and Saakashvili can't resist dangling these keys in front of Mother Russia's face.

Stephen Robert Morse is a journalist and documentarian who traveled extensively within the Republic of Georgia in 2011 while conducting research as an Erasmus Mundus scholar (sponsored by the European Union) in journalism, media, and globalization. Please see www.StephenRobertMorse.com for more of his work and find him on Twitter at Twitter.com/Morsels.

Be sure to check out the following e-books by Stephen Robert Morse:

http://www.amazon.com/Chasing-Bill-Bryson-Bootleg-ebook/dp/B005H86WXY

http://www.amazon.com/Chasing-Bill-Bryson-Chivalry-ebook/dp/B005EO8PLS

http://www.amazon.com/Georgia-Portraits-nation-brink-ebook/dp/B005H40J3W