SPOTLIGHT ON... ENGURI RIVER drive from Mestia and is located on the opposite side of Mount Zuruldi. Neither ski lifts nor paved roads reach Ieli and it hasn’t benefited much from the tourism boom. It isn’t uncommon to come across free-roaming cattle; the locals still use bulls to work the fields as the relief is too rugged for mechanised farming. Ieli is known for having kept alive the tradition of gold panning in the Enguri River, a practice so old that it’s associated with the Greek myth of Jason and the Argonauts, who travelled in search of the Golden Fleece from Thessaly to Colchis, an ancient kingdom covering western Georgia that was known for the large quantities of gold in its rivers. In recent years, however, the harvest has been meagre. ‘All young men from the village participate, but it’s hard work because the temperature can reach –25°C,’ says 41-year-old Yevgeni Pangani. ‘The harvested gold is then shared. Some sell it, others make jewellery.’ Tourism and gold aside, most of the economic activity in Svaneti is centered around wood processing and hydroelectricity. Halfway through its journey to the Black Sea, the Enguri is stopped by a huge concrete structure. With a height of 271.5 metres, the Enguri dam is the fourth-tallest arch dam in the world. The dam’s construction spanned from 1962 to 1989 and attracted thousands of workers and engineers from all over the USSR. They were accommodated just below the building site in a new settlement called Potskho Etseri, made up of blocks of flats situated on a narrow plateau overlooking the Enguri. The dam was meant to be one of the greatest technical achievements of the Communist regime, but its history has been fraught. The end of construction coincided with the collapse of the Soviet Union and although Georgia gained its independence in 1991, it immediately faced a civil war and two separatist conflicts. In 1993, it lost the province of Abkhazia, which lies on the western side of the Enguri. Although Russia acknowledges the province and supports it financially and militarily, the rest of the international community considers Abkhazia an integral part of the Republic of Georgia. The conflict has not only divided Georgia but also its main hydroelectric power plant. From the reservoir, a 15-kilometre-long diversion tunnel leads to the turbines, all of which are located on territory that has been under the control of the Abkhaz authorities since 1993. Miraculously, the dam and its generators survived both the 1992–93 war and the widespread violence of the 1990s. Since 2004, the concrete giant has undergone extensive renovation in order to meet international standards. It now symbolises a rare case of cooperation between two enemies – the Georgian public company that manages the infrastructure feeds 35–40 per cent of production into Abkhazia’s electricity network free of charge. Today, the dam offers one of the only well-paid jobs in the downstream town. Since 1989, Potskho Etseri has lost 90 per cent of its inhabitants and most of its buildings are in ruins. Of the 300 residents still there, only ten or so work at the dam. Others survive thanks to odd jobs or social assistance. ‘A good salary here is €150 – only those who work at the dam have a higher income,’ says Gulnazi, 56, a cleaner at the local school. Geographical 46 •
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