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Archive for September, 2012

Shatilis Asulo

This weekend I was invited on a trip to the village of Shatili (in the Khevsur region, near the border with Chechnya), which served the dual purpose of seeing the highlands in their beautiful fall colors, and avoiding Tbilisi’s massive pre-election rallies.

Shatili is now primarily a tourist attraction, as its residents were forcibly evacuated in the early 1950s as part of the Soviet Union’s broader plans for the perceived efficiencies of “population concentration” (read: depopulating isolated towns and villages to concentrate the residents in one area, often for more easily-monitored collective agricultural or industrial work). The village did not remain deserted for long, however. Once emptied of the real Khevsurs, the village became a popular movie set for the growing Soviet film industry, and was made famous in a series of films extolling the virtues of a fantastically sanitized Khevsur existence.

Cultural anthropologist Paul Manning has pointed out the irony in that the “Khevsur mountain romance” truly began only once its most iconic village had been cleared of true mountaineers. Today, Shatili is still presented in the media as an icon of Georgian traditional culture (see the dance troupe Erisioni’s Khevsur-themed promotional video, “Shatilis Asulo”), but visitors will note that it only has a year-round population of about twenty.

autumn colors in Shatili

I find Georgia’s relationship to its “traditional side” (and how these views evolved from the ones formed under tsarist rule) absolutely fascinating. The emphasis on exotic ethnographic features is part of a general inheritance from the Romantic movement introduced via imperial Russia.  And like the Russian Slavophile movement, the practice of ethnography in Georgia differs from that of America and Britain: instead of being predicated on an assumption of essential alterity (difference), it assumes an essential identity, an identity that is negotiated in both Georgian academia and pop culture.

Both Georgian and Western researchers historically shared the assumption that their object of study was to be found in villages rather than in cities, and that in certain important aspects, the people they study are necessarily unlike themselves: distantiated in time, not modern, “traditional,” “backwards,” “primitive,” “savage.”  This assumption continues today–although anthropology continues to break new ground in terms of scope, the public perception is still that of a Western-educated researcher documenting the rituals of “primitive” peoples in faraway lands. Tamas Hofer pointed out that one result of such an approach is apparent in the way that findings are presented to the public: “indigenous artifacts” are displayed alongside taxidermy at museums of natural history (the natural world), while artifacts from Western cultures are placed in museums of history and technology (the “civilized” world).

the clash of Oriental and European societies (early 20th cen. illustration from an Azeri journal)

As a country on the uncomfortably shifting border of an imagined geographic opposition between Europe and Asia, Georgia does not entirely conform to Western approaches. At once somehow part of Europe (at least aspirationally) and yet rarely recognized by others as such, Georgian government dating back to the imperial era attempted to forge a European style public with a claim to European identity. These attempts resulted in an [ongoing] crisis of self-definition, as “European Georgia” (often urbanites or members of the Russian-educated nobility) sent researchers and correspondents into “Oriental Georgia,” only to discover that the people of these lands seemed like complete strangers.

So who were the true Georgians? Inspired by the Russian Slavophile movement, which looked to the peasantry as the true “heart” of the nation and embodiment of its values, late 19th century Georgian artists and intellectuals turned to the “folk” as the source of nascent national character.  Perhaps the most famous of these is Vazha Pshavela, a Georgian poet and proto-hipster who idealized highlander rituals, thirst for freedom, purity, hospitality, and non-degeneracy with the “false civilization” introduced by the imperial bureaucracy.

Average Khevsur (TV ads, movies)

Scholars and social commentators have noted that from this early national movement onward, Georgians sought to negotiate a “dual lineage” of indigenous tradition and European modernity to in an attempt to resolve their longstanding identity conflict. So for Georgia, icons of tradition like Shatili don’t quite represent a radical opposition to Europeanized “civilization,” but embody a kind of parallel identity: an ethnographically stereotyped version of the national self as traditional other, a process known as “autoalterity” or “auto-Orientalism.” In this ethnographic vision of the nation, the historic population of Shatili, the fierce and free, hospitable and brave mountaineers, spouting poetry and avenging blood for blood, embody all that is best about Georgians in general–even if most Georgians today hardly live that lifestyle.

Average Khevsur (reality)

With this in mind, it is striking to visitors that a place as deserted as Shatili can be filled with so many cultural associations and meanings. But it seems that the public prefers the village to remain empty (the small local population is almost totally ignored) for the specific purpose of allowing visitors and film directors to fill it with their own notions of what the authentic Georgian lifestyle should be.

All that commentary aside, here is the tourism checklist for Shatili:

our guesthouse, located in an Old Shatili tower

-Stay at a guesthouse (or camp) in the historic village, a late-medieval/early-modern fortress comprised of several houses and defensive towers. There are two or three guesthouses located in the village itself, as well as a campsite on the riverbank. Most offer B&B meals, as there is no shop in town.

-Visit Mutso (მუცო), an abandoned stronghold located high over the Ardoti gorge, considered one of Georgia’s most endangered historic sites (its extreme isolation and clifftop location have made preservation efforts all but impossible). It takes about 45min-1 hour to drive there from Shatili, and almost as long to climb all the way up the rocky slopes to the fortress itself.

-See the “Houses of the Dead.” About a 20min walk from Shatili (and directly across from the border guard station–wave hello!), you will find a cluster of small stone houses on the riverbank. Historically, this location was where villagers infected with contagious diseases would be quarantined–and most often, would die. The houses have been sealed up, but you can see the grim interiors through small windows.

-Although our group didn’t have time (it’s almost a 2 hour drive from Shatili), a local attraction was created a few years ago when a military helicopter crashed on a farm in nearby Ardoti. The farmer took this “gift from heaven” and converted it into a convenient livestock barn.

-Go hiking and/or horseback riding. There are plenty of trails in the area, and even the main roads are generally deserted. Some residents own horses and are willing to rent them, but I’m not sure if there are guided tours.

-Buy honey. Shatili is known for the quality of its honey, and you will see several houses with multi-colored wooden boxes (hives) in their yards. It is a good idea to bring your own jars though, as there is a chronic shortage of them in such an isolated location. Vendors are fine filling up whatever container you bring and will weigh it for you (if you don’t know the container’s volume) to determine the price.

-Get a flat tire! According to our marshutka driver, roughly 80% of round trips to Shatili result in one.

Sources:

Bruce Grant, Lale Yalçin-Heckmann, eds. Caucasus Paradigms: Anthropologies, Histories, and the Making of the World Area. Münster: Lit, 2008.

Hofer, Tamás. “Anthropologists and Native Ethnographers in Central European Villages: comparative notes on the professional personality of two disciplines”, in: Current Anthropology (9:4), 1968.

Manning, Paul. Strangers in a Strange Land: Occidentalist Publics and Orientalist Geographies in Nineteenth-Century Georgian Imaginaries. 2012.

Shorena Kurtsikidze, Vakhtang Chikovani. Ethnography and Folklore of the Georgia-Chechnya Border: Images, Customs, Myths & Folk Tales of the Peripheries, Munich: Lincom Europa, 2008.

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The upcoming election marks a turning point for Georgia. Besides being a contest for Parliament (and possibly the first peaceful, internal power exchange in modern Georgian history), it is also a shadow leadership election. In 2013, after Saakashvili’s second and final term as president expires, a new constitution will take effect, transferring key powers from the president to the prime minister, who will be elected by Parliament. Whoever controls the new Parliament will effectively choose the next prime minister.

Georgian Dream logo on Leselidze painted over with UNM’s ballot number, 5

So even putting aside the disturbing prison abuse videos and ensuing protests, there is a tangible tension in the atmosphere, particularly in Tbilisi, that might actually be stronger than that on the threshold of the Rose Revolution. At least in 2003, there was no popular support for President Shevardnadze’s old regime—even his closest aides did not ultimately defend him. Today’s tension arises from a much different situation, in which the public has polarized into two major camps: UNM (United National Movement  ruling party under Saakashvili) and Georgian Dream (opposition party headed by Bidzina Ivanishvili).

Those familiar with politics in the Caucasus know that political parties are generally characterized by a lack of clear ideology, values, or vision. In all three countries, political parties are elite-driven , with a distinct lack of political culture on the basis of party programs, and a lack of debate in parliament on the basis of arguments. Instead, personal charisma dominates by far, with clan politics and clan rewards as a structural incentive. The opposite of America’s entrenched two-party system, Georgia suffers from volatility in its political sphere as a result of a continuously changing supply of these clannish parties, which tend to serve as vehicles of elite actors, rather than means of representation with clear policy platforms. And the leader-centric nature of these parties was found to be reinforced by voter preferences–of Georgian voters, more than half admitted to voting primarily for a party because of its leader, while only ¼ reported the opinion that a party’s program is more important than its leader(s) (Bader 2011). As a result, many “undecided” Georgians are unsure of what even distinguishes one from the other, as both UNM and Georgian Dream have failed to present coherent programs to voters. And the voters who have decided often did so for widely varying reasons. So aside from power, what exactly do these two sides want?

Since independence, Georgia has been referred to by some as a “gray democracy.” Its first president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, showed traits of megalomania and dictatorship, and kicked off the time-honored tradition of accusing any opposition parties of treason and/or involvement with the KGB. Shevardnadze and his regime, although allowing for the development of civil society and freer media, was hindered by corruption, weak rule of law, and rigged elections.

There were high hopes for Saakashvili when he “cleaned house” after taking power in 2003, effectively ending the public service culture of bribery and corruption. But while a democrat in name, he has forced reforms forward on executive orders, made possible by  a constitution that temporarily granted more power to the president (some of which will be handed down to the prime minister next year). Even with all his reforms and modernization, he has been accused of trampling civil society (and any political opposition) underfoot, surrounding himself with cronies as a buffer against external input.

blood on their hands?

As this week’s events brought to light, human rights, particularly those of prisoners, were considered irrelevant to Saakashvili’s grand national project. The shoot-the-messenger attitude set by Gamsakhurdia reared its ugly head in his televised comments, once again lowering the quality of political debate–rather than taking full responsibility for problems within the system, the ruling party’s instinctive response is still to question the motives of whoever made the criticism. Effective leaders know that they can become isolated, and welcome views from outside the inner circle. If they don’t, (and in this case, concerns about treatment of prisoners were ignored for years) then the case will be stated more forcefully, for example…in videos that come out twelve days before an election, rather than in a report.

Last month, Saakashvili reportedly made the following unnerving comment during a Shuamtoba event in the Adjaran village of Beshumi: “I am not planning on giving the country we built to you to destroy.” So the answer to what Misha wants is perfectly clear–he wants to keep the present government and modernization projects going even without his personal involvement.

More ambiguous is what Bidzina Ivanishvili plans if his party assumes majority status. Ivanishvili, a Georgian oligarch who built his fortune in Russia’s metals industry during the heady privatization period in the 1990s–Forbes values him at $6.4 billion, a figure that exceeds Georgia’s entire national budget–is an enigmatic and colorful figure. Something of a hermit (his hobbies include rearing exotic animals, modern art connoisseurship , and lavish philanthropy), Ivanishvili abruptly entered politics last year with a vow to rescue his country from the current regime–even referring to President Saakashvili as a “son of a dog” in both domestic and international media. He has since built a coalition of six very diverse parties (named Georgian Dream after a song by his albino rapper son), thus unifying Georgia’s long-fragmented opposition.

The coalition is dedicated not dedicated to a coherent ideology, and Ivanishvili still can’t answer why he is superior to any other candidate or what policy alternatives he offers. His party has support in Tbilisi from urban democratic professionals who want to see the current governing party’s monopoly on power broken, and from teenagers who want to stick it to the Man. Outside the capital, it frequently plays on economic populism and barely-concealed xenophobia. A third group in the alliance comprises former bureaucrats who evidently see Georgian Dream as their route back to power.

 

This makes for mixed messages: Georgian Dream has attracted some of Georgia’s most pro-Western opposition members and puts forward a foreign-policy platform that commits them to EU and NATO membership, while its new television station, Channel 9, has lashed out at local Western-funded organizations such as the National Democratic Institute and Transparency International for alleged covert support of the current regime. Ivanishvili has also called for better relations with Moscow, which has fueled UNM-hyped rumors that he is in fact a “Russian agent.” As a result, Georgian Dream manages to have broad appeal in that it has only one supreme goal: wresting parliamentary control away from Saakashvili’s UNM.

In sum, Saakashvili’s governing UNM combines a free market Westernizing ideology with the bureaucratic steamrolling of a typical post-Soviet ruling party. Georgian Dream is an even more diverse alliance whose constituents’ only common connection is loyalty to Ivanishvili and opposition to Saakashvili. An obvious concern for voters and observers is that at present, no party fulfills all three fundamental roles of 1.) aggregating the public interest 2.) offering realistic policy alternatives, or 3.) organizing meaningful debate over political concerns. But if the election proceeds peacefully, there may be room for one to develop in the future.

Sources:
Bader, Max. “Authoritarianism and Party Politics in the South Caucasus,” in Exploring the Caucasus in the 21st Century, 2011.

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If any of you spent time in Tbilisi in 2011, you may have noticed graffiti around the city asking “where is the contemporary art museum?” I was always perplexed by these, until a Georgian friend (who studies at the Tbilisi Art Academy) informed me that it was part of a protest by Tbilisi’s art students, demanding some public gallery space be dedicated exclusively to new art.

Zurab Tsereteli, a Georgian-Russian modern artist and current president of the Russian Academy of Arts, took it upon himself to answer their plight in February 2012 by establishing a shrine to himself on Rustaveli Avenue, in the former Cadet Corps building next to the opera house. Tsereteli (also rumored to be involved with plans for a Disneyland Russia…?) began renovating and expanding the 1909 building back in 2005. Today, “Tbilisi MoMA” is a three-floor homage to his decades-long career in various artistic media–although the women at the front desk assured us that in the future, only the top two floors will be reserved for Tsereteli, while the bottom floor will be devoted to rotating exhibits of less important modern artists.

Mr. Tsereteli appears to have led a very interesting life, working between Russia and Georgia throughout the Soviet period. According to the lengthy biography at the museum’s entrance, the artist managed to avoid persecution from the authorities by “balancing his avant-garde tendencies with his classical academy training.” This biography also goes on to state how he used his wife’s family name (descended from Byzantine royalty) and finances to support his career as a self-styled Renaissance man. But only his family crest is emblazoned over multiple doorways.

For those of you who think you aren’t familiar with Tsereteli’s work, you probably are–he is actually the designer of the St. George and the Dragon monument in the center of Freedom Square. Like his most famous statue, Tsereteli’s other work is also best seen from a distance. In fact, it looks a whole lot like somebody just bankrolled 300 projects from an overeager Central Park street artist to create the most obnoxious solo show ever. It was kind of surreal; I had moments where I felt like I was witnessing a Georgian Exit Through the Gift Shop.

Riveting.

That said, I’m the first person to admit that I’m a bit of a rube. As a whole, modern art isn’t really my jam. I wouldn’t decorate my bathroom with half the stuff in [the actual] MoMA’s collection. But I have professionals to back me up on this. First off, the statue of St. George is only in Tbilisi because somebody else turned it down, after which Tsereteli “generously donated” it to the new Rose Revolution administration. Tsereteli’s offers of statuary were also rejected by their intended recipients on numerous other occasions: Ukraine rejected a statue of Winston Churchill, Uruguay rejected a Magellan, Greece rejected a Colossus of Rhodes, New York rejected an FDR, and France turned down a Balzac. A certain highly reliable resource remarked that “Tsereteli’s works, though often welcomed by the authorities, tend to become objects of strong public criticism. His sculptures are often blamed and mocked for being incongruously pompous and out of proportion.”

The best thing I can say is that it’s free.

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Avenue of the Arts

Today was by far the most exciting of the “Why Museums Now” conference, as the topic of museums’ roles in urban development was addressed. Talk all you want about exhibit design, branding schemes, and collections management–what I want to know is how local communities and the surrounding landscape will be affected by museum planning. And there is certainly a lot of planning to be done: this year, the number of local and international tourists in Georgia increased over last year by approximately 55%. If the country remains politically stable and the current rate of economic growth/infrastructural investment is sustained, the country can expect a lot more in the future as well. Some have predicted 5 million by 2015, which exceeds the current population of Georgia itself.

In order to meet the perceived wants and needs of tourists, the Saakashvili administration has poured money into schemes across Georgia–courting major hotel chainsrestoring world heritage monuments, renovating Old Tbilisi’s historic buildings, and even creating plans for a new seaside “instant city.” As discussed earlier in the conference, museum spaces must keep pace with changing needs by being both aesthetically pleasing and functionally effective. The Georgian National Museum and Tbilisi City Hall plan to contribute by putting forward an idea for a new urban planning project: Tbilisi’s “Avenue of the Arts,” unveiled today by Jean Francois Milou and Suzanne Ogge of studioMilou (a French architectural firm known for its work with cultural institutions around the world).

The Avenue of the Arts proposal outlines the transformation of part of Rustaveli Avenue (from Freedom Square to Tbilisi Marriott, or about four blocks) into “a place dedicated to Georgian culture, arts and traditions,” with the intention of restoring Tbilisi’s status as the cultural and artistic capital of the Caucasus. The resulting space will be a multi-purpose, open-air “cultural platform” for the public, which will also unify and harmonize downtown tourist sites (museums, cafes, shops).

Anyone who has visited downtown Tbilisi before may wonder how it is possible to make a pedestrian-focused piazza in one of Tbilisi’s most high-traffic areas. Irakli Murghulia (of Tbilisi City Hall and Technical University) showed us how a new traffic-diverting highway (nearing completion) is underway on the outskirts of the city. He also mentioned that Tbilisi’s other municipal projects are working to connect the Avenue of the Arts and nearby visitor-friendly areas (Leselidze, Shardeni) to newly renovated ones across the River Mtkvari in Didube, like Aghmashenebeli and Plekhanovi, which will ostensibly relieve some overcrowding in the Rustaveli area. Milou’s team suggested that “automated bollards” be installed at either end of the new cultural district, to either block off automobile traffic entirely or to limit it to reduced-speed traffic. A new [wireless] tram is suggested (the antiquated Tbilisi tram system was removed shortly after the Saakashvili administration took power)–an idea rendered somewhat more realistic now that Parliament is moving to Kutaisi and fewer protesters will be blocking the proposed route.

proposed pedestrian-friendly street layout (wireless tram on right)

Once open to freely-moving pedestrians, some of Rustaveli’s iconic yet underutilized architectural landmarks will be repurposed and incorporated into the plan. The soon-to-be-vacant monumental Parliament building will be a “Hotel of the Arts,” with cafes, exhibitions, and shopping space on the ground level.  The old Youth Palace will become a performance venue and will also feature dining and shopping.

National Gallery extension with Kashueti Cathedral looking rather offended in the background

The Avenue of the Arts plan is intended to rectify some of the shortcomings of the Georgian National Museum’s 2006 Master Plan, which functioned as an internal technical document rather than one intended for the broader public. As a result of the 2006 plan, the museum has been criticized for not respecting and conserving the surrounding historical fabric–for example, a modern extension was added to the National Gallery, immediately adjacent to Kashueti Cathedral. Sometimes, modern architecture can bring variety and harmonize with the surrounding environment, yet it usually ends up criticized for being dissonant and obnoxious. The latter reaction is more likely when the general public is not informed and/or asked for their input.

While the Avenue of the Arts plan is ambitious and does attempt to address some logistical problems  with downtown Tbilisi (cultural institutions isolated from one another by “walls” of traffic, multiple iconic buildings left vacant or underutilized, tourists confused by lack of clear locations to which they should flock), at  the end of the day, the plan was still developed and is beginning implementation without citizen input. Perhaps visitor needs will be addressed, but what about nearby families, who will now have a bustling international arts scene next door? Undoubtedly, such changes in the heart of Tbilisi will have wide-ranging effects on the daily lives of local residents, particularly those in the nearby historic districts of Mtatsminda, Sololaki, and Ortachala. This large-scale centralized plan (ring any bells?) is not complemented by any programs to support nearby historic housing, which is often in lamentable condition already, never mind in several years with the planned increases in tourism and urban population.

Although almost every speaker at yesterday’s conference session discussed the problems of museum attendance (consistently dominated by tourists and local elites rather than the average, less wealthy and educated majority), the Georgian National Museum is currently using an exhibit to “promote public discourse” about the Avenue of the Arts project. Museum director David Lordkipanidze enthusiastically mentioned that several businessmen approached him after seeing this exhibit–but investment pitches hardly reveal a real forum for locals to voice their concerns. I do not think it is possible for the project to have the proposed “trickle down” or “multiplier” effect when none of the affected citizens are made thoroughly aware of upcoming changes or asked for their input before, during, and after the implementation process.

Welcome to CandyLand!

Another concern of mine is that with the completion of the Avenue of the Arts in conjuction with other Tbilisi “beautification” projects, visitors to the city will be directed through something of a Potemkin village, a Disney-Tbilisi sanitized and commodified for tourist consumption–and a Tbilisi completely disengaged from the lived reality (good and bad) of Tbilisians. This concern has been voiced by numerous critics of “New Old Tbilisi,” both foreign and Georgian. Now, I am as opposed as anyone to Orientalist tourists who come to bask in the quaint, “exotic” dilapidation of Old Tbilisi. But the Saakashvili administration, hell-bent on presenting a facade of Westernization and development (even if it is, literally, a facade), presses on in gutting and reconstructing planned high-tourist-traffic areas while ignoring entire residential districts–none of this with public discussion and input, mind you–and that is not the solution.

Dr. Lordkipanidze ended the conference today on a cheery note: “So ‘Why Museums Now’?—for a better life.”

But I can’t help wondering, for who?

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For those of you outside of Georgia (or for those of you in Georgia but who still haven’t come out of shock that there will soon be a Wendy’s on Rustaveli) I would like to draw your attention to the human rights abuse scandal at Gldani Prison No 8. Appalling video footage  was aired today by opposition stations Channel 9 and Maestro (partial footage can be found herehere, and here; discretion advised). The most shocking were the clips shown on Channel 9, which included graphic images of prison guards raping inmates with a stick; in separate footage an inmate was seen tied to a cell door as he was sodomized with a broom handle.

Today, Georgia has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world, and the highest prison population per capita in Europe, with 24,000 inmates (four times as many as when Mikheil Saakashvili was first elected president in 2004). Although the public reaction was strong today, this is certainly not the first report of prison brutality heard of by Georgian leaders and citizens. The Saakashvili administration, however, has chosen to gloss over these issues in the past by vaunting the internationally-praised police reform and the  success of the “zero tolerance on crime” policy.

Clearly, the opposition chose to release the videos this week in order to embarrass the ruling party on the eve of parliamentary elections, but Saakashvili lashed out with a totally improbable response, stating that the bad publicity was part of a “conspiracy” orchestrated by Moscow to manipulate Georgian electoral processes, in order to force Georgia “back into Russia’s imperial space.” But even as Saakashvili tried to contain the ensuing anti-government sentiment with more realistic demands for a full investigation of the penal system, the scandal erupted into angry–but thus far nonviolent and largely student-led–street protests throughout Georgia, the resignation of Khatuna Kalmakhelidze (overseeing minister of the prison system) and most surprisingly, the resignation of the interior minister, Bacho Akhalia.  Akhalia stated he was resigning “despite the fact that I haven’t managed the penitentiary system for [several] years now. Some of the chiefs of the departments started working during my post, therefore I take political and moral responsibility for the fact that we couldn’t prevent the [occurrence] of these terrible incidents.”

The investigation is ongoing. Ten prison officials with direct connections to the abuses at Gldani have been arrested. Vladimer Budukadze (former operative duty inspector, now seeking political asylum in Belgium as he is wanted by the Georgian police), provided Channel 9 with the scandalous video after he was dismissed from the prison in May. He stated that inhuman treatment of prisoners was common practice in almost all Georgian prisons, and that government officials were well aware of the fact. He went on to say that torture was approved of by former interior minister Akhalia, and even President Saakashvili. [The official investigator’s report tells a different story: that Tamaz Tamazashvili, currently serving his term in Gldani No. 8, bribed prison staff for the opportunity to record the abuses, after which he sold the footage for a high sum to Georgian Dream–the main opposition party with which he has close ties.]

Gldani No. 8

Georgia’s public defender, Giorgi Tughushi, has been appointed as the new Minister of Corrections and Legal Assistance of Georgia following Khatuna Kalmakhelidze’s abrupt resignation in light of the prison scandal this week. In his televised public apology, Saakashvili said, “we need brave and bold people who will change everything in the system where everything needs to be changed.” Giorgi Lortkipanidze, who served as acting minister of the prison system, was also present at this press briefing. He previously served as deputy interior minister and was well known for his brutality, leading to the nickname “Borota.”

The U.S. government, the EU, UNICEF, and others watchdogs condemned the abuses and demanded “thorough and transparent investigations;” but many wonder if this will be enough. Political and humanitarian organizations are calling for an investigation of the abuses by the Georgian government and courts–even though high-ranking officials such as the deputy chief of the penitentiary system, the warden of Gldani Prison, and his deputy were all identified as participants in inmate torture. So as mentioned in e recent article from The Atlantic, “President Saakashvili’s pious calls for investigation may resemble Comrade Stalin’s instructions, in November 1938, to Lavrentiy Beria, chief of the Soviet secret police, to find out the truth behind reported violations of socialist legality by the NKVD (the KGB’s infamous predecessor).”

Many Georgians (particularly Tbilisians, who are more critical of the ruling party) worry that the Saakashvili of today is not the same as the young idealist of the Rose Revolution, who made it a priority to end corruption, official misconduct, and chaotic mafia rule? It seems to some that the accomplishments of Saakashvili and his comrades have intoxicated them with the same righteous feeling of power that led Soviet leaders to hand down ruthless Five Year Plans and pursue success even if it meant curbing human rights.

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Ch-ch-ch-ch Changes!

One complaint I hear often from my more progressive Georgian friends is that Tbilisi (and Georgia as a whole) “never changes,” that they are frustrated and feel hopelessly mired in a city and/or country that doesn’t care to address its many problems. While a substantial population of Georgia and its capital remain apathetic, I couldn’t disagree more with this view. Now that I’ve been here a few days, here are some things that have changed (as well as some things that have remained the same) since I first came to Tbilisi in summer 2010–some major, some minor. I have even noticed certain changes since just last summer, although I spent most of my time in the village of Patara Dmanisi rather than in Tbilisi.

These things changed:

  • They added [bilingual!] electric signs at almost every bus stop downtown. For the non-Tbilisian with poor Georgian skills (especially when it comes to reading cramped font on a board propped up in the dusty windshield of a speeding bus), this is a godsend. In fact, I don’t think the post-electric-bus-sign people will ever appreciate how good they really have it. While we’re talking about transportation, I should also note that the city marshutkas have gotten much cleaner. As in, now they smell like you’re wedged into an old lady’s armpit instead of a railway worker’s armpit.
  • Civil society. As recent protests about human rights indicate, I think Georgians are more likely to rally around a good cause and demand government action in a peaceful, semi-organized way than they were a while back. “Working together” is starting to sound less like communism and more like common sense.
  • Learning Georgian is more difficult with more people studying English.
  • There are significantly more chain supermarkets and fast food restaurants (Wendy’s on Rustaveli? Starbucks in Vake?)
  • Tourism. Naturally, all the work Georgia has put into improving its infrastructure, maintaining its cultural heritage sites, and translating everything into English means that tourists have been flocking in ever-greater numbers. While it’s a far cry from Venice, there are now sometimes lines at the museum front desk!
  • Old Tbilisi. As part of the aforementioned schemes to attract tourists and foreign investors, the government has poured millions of dollars into reconstructing (and I emphasize reconstructing, not preserving, conserving, or even restoring) the “charming” old quarter of the city. There are many pros and cons to these activities, but given my background in historic preservation I’m just going to spare you and save it for another post.
  • The quality and quantity of ethnic cuisine in Tbilisi has been steadily increasing with each successive year I’ve visited. I’m sure I will appreciate this more once the novelty of Georgian cuisine wears off a bit as the year progresses.
  • More Georgians use facebook rather than Russian social networking sites.

Caucasian shepherd, bred for fighting wolves and covering miles of highland fields to protect flocks–now in a studio apartment near you!

  • Pet ownership. The only dogs I knew of in Tbilisi circa 2010 were  strays, or served as the poor man’s security system. Both varieties were basically feral and widely feared as disease-ridden, sometimes-aggressive, wildly-proliferating noisemakers. Only a very small percent of the upper and upper-middle classes owned purebred dogs with any semblance of socialization, grooming, or veterinary care. Responsible people today seem to be enjoying their four-legged family members, but unfortunately I think the real spike in dog ownership was caused by style slaves of “Tbilisi street culture.” The breeds currently “in fashion” are Siberian huskies, Caucasian sheepdogs, German shepherds, and Dalmatians (i.e., dogs that really shouldn’t be living in apartments, and apartments in a city with brutally hot summers at that). Combined with the fact that Georgia has no tradition of altering pets, this has created a situation in which there now seems to be a concerning amount of people who wanted a fashion statement but ended up with an aggressive, uncontrollable, 70-140lb dog. Hopefully, this trend will die out without too many negative consequences for the animals, and the new acceptance of dogs will develop into a new acceptance of responsible pet ownership.

But these things haven’t changed much:

  • It’s still hard to find out about things! For whatever reason, even some major events are shared only by word of mouth among limited circles of people, and maybe a few posters. So unless you know someone on the inside, you’ll have no way of knowing that, say, there’s a multi-day international conference on museums going on attended by international professionals in which a total restructuring of downtown Tbilisi is proposed. And you work at the museum hosting it.
  • Neighborhoods that are not part of the “grand plan” to beautify Tbilisi remain in lamentable condition. Even beautiful structures that would be considered architectural gems elsewhere are left dilapidated if they are too far off the beaten track. More concerning is the fact that many people in these technically-valuable historic neighborhoods still live without hot water, heating, or indoor bathrooms they don’t have to share with multiple neighboring families.
  • Sexism (often glossed as “traditional attitudes towards women”). There doesn’t seem to be much of an improvement, at least for foreign women, in terms of day-to-day interactions. I still get blatant stares, suggestive gestures, outright offers for sex, and have to field marriage proposals from male strangers (and female strangers with sons in my age bracket). Frustratingly, my marital status sometimes seems like my most defining feature–even if it’s “just a joke,” I’m not sure who’s supposed to find it funny. Of course I recognize that most Georgian men are not like this–I personally know several who are respectful to women as a matter of course. But the “vocal minority” can be really grating at times.
  • The gypsy problem. This is something that is way over my head (even the Economist has referred to it as Europe’s thorniest societal problem), and is not even an issue unique to Georgia, so I am certainly not equipped to play Judge Frollo and propose any quick solutions to the problem of an impoverished, semi-nomadic people that has inhabited the margins of an entire continent for centuries. This is a very touchy issue, and government/social workers in Georgia and Europe as a whole are conflicted as to what the best options are. Although tourists, shopkeepers, and local residents complain, I don’t think it’s entirely a bad thing that Tbilisi’s Roma are “visible”–at least that means the city’s most vulnerable members aren’t being rounded up and hidden from public sight in some kind of refugee camp somewhere. But when I see a filthy 2 year old with facial sores left on a mat with a cup to collect money for her absent parent(s), in a high-traffic downtown area, I can’t help but become a bit indignant that something hasn’t been done.

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House Hunting in Tbilisi

This week I begin my house hunt in Tbilisi. Rental properties here are plentiful and absurdly cheap as far as national capitals go, but quality varies wildly (hot water and private indoor bathrooms are not a given). One person can find a very classy, fully-furnished apartment in a good downtown neighborhood for between only $300 and $400 USD/mo. My standards are a bit lower so I’m aiming for the $250-$300 range.

Typical one-room Tbilisi apartment with recent renovations

It’s relatively easy to find apartments online, with sites like MyHome.ge and Makler.ge. But the majority are listed in newspapers and real estate magazines, like “სიტყვა და საქმე” (Word and Business), which is published weekly and widely available at Tbilisi’s many sidewalk periodical stands–but be sure to buy it on its first day out, otherwise you’ll spend a lot of time calling for apartments that have already been taken.

Below is a list of the most helpful vocabulary while apartment-hunting in Georgia:

1-, 2-, 3-, 4-ოთახიანი #-rooms

სართული floor

იყიდება for sale

ქირავდება for rent

მეტროსთან ახლოს close to the metro

ცხელი წყალი hot water

ცენტრალური გათბობით central heating

კონდიციონერით air conditioning

საჭირო ავეჯით necessary (partially) furnished

ყველანაირი ავეჯითა fully furnished

ტექნიკით with technology (i.e., TV, internet, etc. included)

აივნით with balcony

ბუნებრივი აირი fireplace

ბინა რემონტით renovated

მაღალჭერიანი high-ceiling

კეთილმოწყობილი comfortable; “with all the amenities”

კარგი პირობებით good condition

სარეცხის მანქანით with washing machine

24 საათიანი დაცვით 24-hour security

დიასახლისთან landlord in-house

ძველი გარემონტებული old but renovated

არასტანდარტული non-standard (room size, shape, etc.)

რკინის კარი iron door

იტალიური ეზო “Italian yard” (on a courtyard shared with neighbors)

იზოლირებული ბინა isolated (in-law) apartment

წინასწარ [ორი] თვის გადახდით must put down first [2] months’ rent

bedroom with balcony in a Vera apartment

Make sure to be really thorough when checking out a potential apartment, because once again, certain things can’t be taken for granted. If you’re not sure how (or even if) the water heater, stove, or heater works, ask the landlord to demonstrate. Check for gas leaks (ex. if you turn on the stove at one end of the house, you may be able to smell a leak somewhere else–this can be dangerous in winter when your windows will be closed), cracks in the ceiling, or mold/water damage. Remember that everything is negotiable. If you don’t like something, you may be able to persuade your landlord to repair/replace it by offering to put down rent for an extra month or two (if you do this, it might be a good idea to make a contract so the amount you’ve paid so far is in writing). By paying four months’ rent up front, I was able to get a newer fridge and some repairs done, so don’t be afraid to ask.

Also, here is a quick rundown of the neighborhoods in Tbilisi where expats tend to gather (see map below):

1. Vake: home to the largest expat community, most notably the embassy workers and international businessmen. This district is known for its balance between historic housing and modern renovations. There is also a higher prevalence of high-end shops and restaurants (I hear Starbucks will be breaking ground there shortly), in addition to nicer public parks. Even so, it is still possible to find affordable 1- and 2-bedroom apartments here and there.

2. Vera: much like Vake, if somewhat less prestigious in the eyes of expat apartment-hunters. Although closer even to the center than Vake, it has a distinct local feel to it, with winding streets and lots of hills (great if you want a workout, but maybe not so much in winter, given the lack of proper snow and ice clearing). There are also many tiny markets, which means lots of people hanging around the stoops, chatting. It’s somewhat cheaper than Vake as well, so if you want to be in a nice, centrally-located neighborhood but still feel like a hipster, Vera might be your place.

Balconied house in the Vera district

3. Saburtalo: due to its cheap and modernized housing stock (only a short bus or metro commute from downtown), this is where you are likely to find a good deal of NGO-workers and expats on the somewhat lower end of the income scale. It is much less cramped than the other downtown areas, with their steep hills and winding streets, but not as “charming”–many of the buildings are “khrushchevki,” or mass-produced 1970s worker’s housing. It should be noted, however, that these intimidating exteriors conceal apartments just as livable as those in Vake or Vera, if not more so due to their more recently-updated heating and water systems. There are also tons of new buildings going up, many of which are basically Western European in quality.

4. Mtatsminda: probably the most convenient location to downtown (and with many of the buildings situated on the steep hillside, with some of the best views), it is becoming more and more difficult to find affordable housing here.

5. Sololaki: this is real Old Tbilisi, right downtown. While beautiful, some people may not find the antique housing up to their standards. Many of the buildings are only held together by accumulations of haphazard DIY repairs, and the “Italian courtyards” mean everyone is up in their neighbors’ business. So although it lags behind the other districts in terms of renovation, there is a slowly increasing stock of restored private apartments with more modern amenities. If you can get an updated apartment here, you will have easy access to the best downtown businesses and scenic areas.

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