Georgia has always led a precarious existence.
Over the centuries, the country has been the object of rivalry between Persia, Turkey and Russia, before being eventually annexed by Russia during the 19th century. Since emerging as an independent state in 1991, Georgia has sought to strengthen its position through greater ties with the West. Successive governments have sought to integrate with Western blocs such as NATO and the European Union. Georgia’s previous prime minister, Mamuka Bakhtadze, from the ruling Georgian Dream party, vowed to continue Georgia’s efforts to join the EU and NATO, which he described as ‘crucial for the country’s security and stable development’. Bakhtadze resigned in September 2019, saying he had ‘fulfilled his mission’ in the post of prime minister. His successor, Giorgi Gakharia, spent a large part of his career in Russia and, until recently, held a Russian passport, leading some to question whether his appointment will strengthen the pro-Russian side of Georgian politics. Nevertheless, being openly pro-Russian would likely provoke strong public protest in Georgia and for now, it’s unclear what direction the new leader will pursue. Hovering over it all is Georgian Dream’s founder, the billionaire tycoon Bidzina Ivanishvili, who is thought to control the leadership of the party and ultimately dictate the direction of Georgian politics.
‘The cost of living has risen. A few years ago, we didn’t pay for electricity or water, but now everything is more expensive at the local shops than in the neighbouring town,’ adds her son Roman, 33, a trainer at the town’s karate club. This city-turnedvillage now languishes at the end of a bumpy road that the government hasn’t repaired since the Soviet period. Elders find comfort in nostalgic memories; young people simply leave. In 2017, a glimmer of hope seemed to appear when the government unveiled a grand project to transform the dam and its surroundings into a tourist centre dedicated to hydroelectricity and extreme sports. But, much to the locals’ despair, construction work has yet to start. From the top of the dam, it’s possible to spot the first meanders of the Enguri as it reaches the coastal plains of Samegrelo province. These lowlands enjoy a subtropical climate that allows the cultivation of tea and citrus fruits. But it’s here that the scars of the conflict with Abkhazia are most evident.
For a 30-kilometre stretch, the river marks the separation between Georgia proper and Abkhazia. Since 1993, when the river became the state border for Abkhazia, crossing this stretch has been punishable by
arrest and large fines. This has hit many locals living on the Georgian side hard – they previously crossed the river frequently, using formal and informal crossing points, to visit graves and relatives and friends who live on the Abkhaz side.
Things changed at the beginning of the 2010s, following the brief war between Tbilisi and Moscow in 2008. Russia increased its military presence in the breakaway territory and began the ‘borderisation’ process, which has seen formal borders erected between the two regions.
Not far from the main town of Zugdidi is Shamgona, a village built on an island located between two arms of the Enguri River. On the island’s western edge, only a few dozen metres separate the two banks of the river. ‘The opposite side is under the control of Russian soldiers, not Abkhaz. There are fences, watchtowers, cameras. If you cross, they will arrest you,’ says local resident Vitali Ekhvaia.
Another local, Soso, says it isn’t dangerous as long as you stick close to the Georgian bank. Born and raised in Abkhazia, he is now formally known as an ‘internally displaced person’, living on the Georgian side near Zugdidi and forbidden from setting foot in his homeland. ‘Of course, it’s hard to be so close to my former home,’ he says, his voice brimming with emotion as he fishes a few hundred metres downstream with a friend. ‘I spent my whole childhood there, I still have some land and the graves of my ancestors.’
From Shamgona, the mouth of the river is just 25 kilometres away. A 500-metre wooden pedestrian bridge marks the estuary of the Enguri and connects two quiet villages: Anaklia and Ganmukhuri.
This marshy maritime interface of Samegrelo province has long been neglected by political authorities, yet it’s here, along these anonymous beaches, that former president Mikheil Saakashvili decided to build a summer paradise. Both villages were partially transformed into seaside resorts between 2008 and 2013. Hundreds of palm trees were imported to adorn a seaside promenade designed by a Spanish architect, while two luxury hotels and an aquapark were built along the shore. Work stalled after the electoral defeat of Saakashvili’s party in the 2012 parliamentary elections.
During the summer holidays, many Georgians now visit to take a swim in the Black Sea at Anaklia and Ganmukhuri beaches. The atmosphere is relaxed and family-friendly, yet at the very end of the seaside promenade an inscription on the rusty palisade announces: ‘ENTRY DENIED’. Barring the path here prevents visitors from venturing into the buffer zone between Georgia and Abkhazia, which is monitored by the Georgian armed forces. The positions of the Russian border guards are situated just a little further along the shore.
Things are now changing in the region. The new government is no longer betting on the development of tourism but has decided to revive an old plan to build a deep-water port in Anaklia. With support from China, the village is set to become a strategic point on the new Silk Road linking China to Europe. Work began in December 2017 but, in a turn of events characteristic of the Caucasus, the government cancelled the agreement signed with the consortium in charge of the construction three years later. The main Georgian stakeholders were charged with money-laundering, which they claim to be politically motivated prosecutions.
For the time being, it seems that the mouth of the Enguri will remain both a half-built seaside resort and a half-built port, epitomising the dichotomy between Georgia’s global aspirations and its limited, mismanagement-marred economic capacity.
A young girl living in Potskho Etseri
In Potskho Etseri, children play near the ruins of an abandoned building
A family relaxes at the beach near the village of Ganmukhuri