GEOPOL­I­TICS

Geographical - - SPOT­LIGHT ON... -

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

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