Archive for December, 2012

This time last year, I was preparing to leave for my final semester of undergrad–study abroad in St. Petersburg, Russia. If you ask the average American what they know about Russia, they usually mention the same things: vodka, commies, sometimes bears, and cold. Deadly, soul-chilling cold. I spent hours searching for fleece-lined boots that also wouldn’t offend the Russian sense of style, packed a full-length faux-fur coat, and heeded warnings not to wear contacts until March as most brands will end up freezing to your eyeball.

image1223717But actually, it wasn’t that bad. Well, it was. St. Petersburg in late January is definitely the harshest cold I have ever experienced, cutting through multiple layers of clothes, numbing extremities, and burning faces. But in response, Russians take the cold seriously. The Soviets devised a massive system of “district heating” in which entire districts are centrally heated for about 8 months of the year, at heavily subsidized (read: cheap) rates to home and business owners.

The heat comes on in October and goes off in May, with the temperature itself also centrally controlled, and (as it seemed to me) usually set at “subtropical”–the only way to reduce the heat was to crack a window, a widespread practice in Russian cities that has drawn harsh criticism for decades as a sign of the system’s obscene wastefulness. All the sweaters I brought were therefore useless, because you were either outside in the elements in your jacket, or you were were indoors, where it was usually warm enough to wear a tank top if you so desired.

it will make your house "not freezing," but that's about it

it will make your house “not freezing,” but that’s about it

This is not so in Georgia, which once had a similar system installed in Soviet-era apartment buildings. In the chaos surrounding independence and the gas cutoffs in the 1990s, the central heating systems stopped functioning; it made more sense for the residents to saw out the radiators to sell for scrap.

But as many other expats have observed, Georgians as a whole seem unfailingly surprised by the onset of winter each year–which is strange, because while Georgia is not as cold as New England, there’s still usually at least some snow at various points between December and February. This perception of winter as temporary affliction rather than a predictable phenomenon that happens every year is reflected in the local approach towards heating (and road/sidewalk clearing, which is basically non-existent). Very few buildings (even offices) have central heat, insulation is extremely inadequate, and most places use gas wall furnaces, wood stoves, open-coil space heaters, and/or plug-in radiators (usually a combination thereof, as one source is generally insufficient).

While I applaud Georgia for not being as wasteful as Russia, I don’t understand why central heating (controlled by individual thermostat) doesn’t seem to have caught on in recently built or renovated buildings. I understand that it can be difficult to install in an older house, as well as prohibitively expensive–it’s cheaper to buy a space heater for about $50 and replace it every other year than it is to front the hundreds or thousands needed for central air.

But relying on several “disposable,” inefficient, and inadequate heaters is in itself wasteful, poses a constant fire hazard, and in the end isn’t even very livable. My apartment is cold, my office is cold, and even the cafes are a bit cold. My fingers and toes are almost constantly numb, and this actually makes the comparatively mild Georgian winter more difficult to handle for me than the St. Petersburg winter–proof that a problem is really only as bad as how you address it.


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The Balkans and the Caucasus

Drawing comparisons and simplifying situations can often be helpful when trying to understand sociopolitical issues as complex as those found here in Georgia. It can lead to misunderstandings, however, when parallels are drawn between very distinct situations. A substantial amount of news/academic articles reference the Balkans when talking about the Caucasus. I don’t have any problems with comparisons, as long as they are somewhat balanced and take situational differences into account–even processes that look similar on the surface still arose from historic precedents unique to the respective regions.

the Balkan and Caucasus regions

the Balkan and Caucasus regions

Most “conflict journalism” on the 2008 Russo-Georgian war lacked this balance, and was based on simplistic equations such as Russia + Serbia vs. Kosovo + US + EU = Russia + South Ossetia/Abkhazia vs. Georgia + US + EU. Those same analysts then usually asked why Russia was initially against independence in the Kosovo case, and then became pro-independence in the Abkhazia/South Ossetia case–thus acknowledging the limits of their own system of analysis. Essentially, just because both regions include mountains, border the Black Sea, experience more frequent conflict than other European states, and could be said to have once been a part of the “Soviet sphere of influence” does not mean their present-day issues can be analyzed in parallel. Before examining their differences, here is an elaboration of the similarities that often lead Western observers to compare the two regions:


  • In contrast to other countries in Central and Eastern Europe, the Balkan and Caucasian states were not independent during the Cold War, but part of federal or confederative structures whose memories are still alive. Independence was generally acquired through violent conflicts.
  • In both regions, dramatic reforms were introduced in the early 1990s, but the legacy of socialism complicated these processes–leading many observers to label the states as “weak.”
  • Election monitors often report higher instances of electoral fraud in both the Balkans and the Caucasus.
  • The two regions are characterized by various migration trends following interstate conflicts and civil wars as well as periods of social and economic hardship. Both have comparatively high minority populations that are difficult to map, and demographic sources are frequently unreliable.
  • In light of recent conflicts, demands for minority rights are often interpreted by central governments as demands for secession.
  • As is true in many post-socialist states, there is little sense of civil society and the public is considered “demobilized.”
  • The EU and NATO are looking for stability in their “eastern neighborhood,” and have encouraged any short, medium, and long-term solutions for putting an end to tensions.
  • Both the Balkans and the Caucasus are included in various European and American plans related to energy corridors, leading the West to push for security and stability.
  • The independence and sovereignty of both regions depends less on themselves and their internal development, and more on the interests and politics of other countries.


  • In the 19th century, the Caucasus was incorporated into the Russian Empire, while the Balkans were part of the Ottoman or Austro-Hungarian Empires. The social, economic, and political legacies of imperial rule should not be overlooked.
  • From the start, Kosovo stated that the goal of its struggle for independence was aimed at the creation of an independent state unconnected to Albania. The leaders of Abkhazia and South Ossetia were less consistent about their ambitions and their desired relationship to Georgia.
  • The ethno-territorial conflicts in the Caucasus appear deadlocked in irreconcilable opposing demands for common state (confederation)-based solutions on one side vs. autonomy (federation)-based solutions on the other. With the rejection of common state solutions by Georgia and Azerbaijan, the sub-state entities were radicalized and saw outright independence as the only solution.
  • While conflicts in both regions tend to involve foreign intervention of one kind or another, UN and NATO forces played decisive roles in the Balkans, but were never active in the Caucasus.
  • Given the diversity of ethnic, social, and political problems, the process of solution-finding in the Caucasus is at its very beginning, while the Balkans are no longer considered a “black hole of Europe.” Structural problems persist, but there has been dramatic progress in terms of openness to finding solutions for the establishment of viable states, even if the outcome is still uncertain. Croatia has proven to be a successful candidate for EU integration, despite the persistence of problems regarding human rights, treatment of war criminals, and disagreements with its neighbors. And while the Yugoslav crisis effectively ended in 1999 after the FRY was bombed by NATO during its Kosovo campaign, “breakaway” regions in the Caucasus remain conflict-ridden areas where Russian and Western influences continue to collide.

Sources Dinescu, Ana. “The Balkans and the Caucasus: Limits of the Comparative Perspective,” in The Balkans and the Caucasus: Parallel Processes on Opposite Sides of the Black Sea, 2012.

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Tbilisi: No Sex and the City

As if there weren’t more pressing matters at hand in Georgian policymaking, the newly-elected Georgian Dream Coalition initiated a draft bill to limit “minors’ access and exposure to sex paraphernalia.” The bill proposes to ban the sale and advertising of items of a sexual nature in stores that sell children’s apparel and toys. It would also prohibit the sale of such goods in schools and other institutions serving youth under 18, as well as stores located near such facilities.

Divided as usual, parliament has not yet reached a cross-party consensus on what kinds of goods actually can be considered sexual. Thus far, porn and sex toys have been added to the hit list, but Georgia’s leaders remain conflicted as to condoms. Some parliamentarians proposed to make a distinction between condoms that serve the sole function of preventing sexually transmitted diseases or unwanted pregnancy, and those that also enhance sexual experience–bringing some hilariously adult-themed debates to Georgia’s parliamentary floor:

A condom can have not only a protective function, but also be meant to receive pleasure if is enhanced by certain technical means (Levan Berdzenishvili, Georgian Dream)

There are two kinds of condoms; one is meant for protection, another for satisfying sexual urges…One will be sold and another will not be sold. It is very easy. (Koba Davitashvili, Georgian Dream)

We do not mean to ban fictional literature, or magazines and newspapers of a general profile, for example, we can’t ban Zaza Burchuladze [contemporary writer whose works often include sexual themes] using this law.

People get aroused by very different things…what kind of props people use during sex games is a very personal thing… and the state should not be regulating this. (Zurab Japaridze, UNM)

probably the only condom to be allowed...coincidentally the only one I use here anyway, because when one kind is called "extra safe," what am I supposed to think about the other two kinds?

probably the only condom  that will pass the Davitashvili test…coincidentally the only one I buy here anyway, because when one kind is called “extra safe,” how can I trust the other kinds?

One lawyer also pointed out that the proposed bill (with a cutoff age of 18) contradicts the current ruling that 16 is the minimum legal age for sex in Georgia–all legally sexually active people should have equal access to sex-related accouterments. And while UNM pushed Georgian Dream to develop a definitive list of which items and types of condoms should be restricted, representative Davitashvili is apparently following in the footsteps of Jacobellis v Ohio, and stated that “it is obvious when you see a sex toy.”

Setting aside the whole issue of safe sex and sex education (nonexistent in Georgia), and the obvious question of why parliament is prioritizing its citizens’ personal lives, the law’s ambiguity poses several other problems. What if one purchases “items of sexual pleasure” online? And given that there are so many convenience-style shops in Georgia, there are hundreds of places in Tbilisi alone that sell condoms as well as a variety of things that could be said to be “for children.” What are the criteria for determining whether something could be used solely for contraception/STD prevention or for pleasure? Will there be a survey for each variety of condom: did you use this particular kind for sexual pleasure or only for protection? Did you feel pleasure? To what extent would you attribute that to the condom?
some squash in clear violation of the ban

some squash in clear violation of the ban

I guess I’d better go out and buy all the ultra-ribbed, cherry-flavored, glow-in-the-dark condoms I can get my hands on.

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The CRRC Drinking Game

Time to break out a grantee house party favorite–the CRRC drinking game!

logo-geCRRC (Caucasus Research Resource Center) “is a network of resource, research and training centers established in 2003 in the capital cities of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia with the goal of strengthening social science research and public policy analysis in the South Caucasus.” Each year since 2008, a “Caucasus Barometer” survey is completed, in which a broad cross-section of respondents from each country answer questions about their beliefs, activities, and perceptions of certain institutions or ethnic groups. The answers can sometimes be quite surprising, making it a perfect drinking game for expats sticking out the Tbilisi winter in drafty apartments.



Step 1

Select the survey–preferably the most recent Caucasus Barometer for the country in which you are working.


Step 2

Select the variables (you can check a box to eliminate “don’t know”/”refused answer” responses). It is helpful to use Settlement Type (capital city, other urban, or rural), Sex, or Age Group as the first variable. For the second variable, choose the question you want to answer–as an example, did the respondent read a book in the last 6 months?

Step 3

Place your bets–estimate which percentage of people did/did not (by region). For example, you might guess that given Georgia’s high literacy rate, 50% of Tbilisians have read at least one book in the last 6 months.

Step 4 

read a book

Check your bets against the results–whoever is furthest from the actual response takes a shot. The results are disappointingly low–only 34% of Tbilisians (“Capital,” in green) read a book!

Great way to learn about your host country while pregaming. Gaumarjos!


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My relationship to historic architecture could best be described as “it’s complicated.” When I first began working for my local historical society in high school, I saw a real future together. It’s true, I was applying to college at the time and flirting with programs in history or creative writing (my dream of becoming a veterinarian died with AP Bio), but it took only a few afternoons of re-examining the architectural treasures my hometown had to offer to know that Civil War history and I were through. The real-world challenges, the shapes, the textures, the angles…it seduced me, and I happily fell to its (usually Victorian) charms. I looked up the handful of schools that offered historic preservation at the undergraduate level and sent in my applications.



In the early days, we were blissful. Our life together in glamorous Newport was all painted shingles and curvy Italianate brackets. Even on the hard days, or when my program didn’t turn out to be what I expected (what? we’re surrounded by the famous Newport Mansions but have almost no association worked out with their preservation society?) my passion outweighed the work; memorizing roof shapes, studying the work of modern designers, and slogging through colonial cemeteries were welcome challenges. On the best days, it’d throw me a Frank Lloyd Wright, and I’d damn near burst with Prairie enthusiasm. Life was as structured, simple, and beautiful as the Classical orders.

But then things started getting…a little heavier. Our relationship became more about the tedium of chain-of-title than the magic of Gothic Revival. Nights once spent leisurely flipping through McAlester’s field guide were now spent in the drafting lab with a measured drawing, or in the mildewed basement of City Hall, cursing at a microfilm machine older than my mother. I started to get distracted…anthropology was fascinating, and even archaeology had an air of mystery I couldn’t deny. Fed up with dry architectural descriptions, I finally turned to museum work for comfort.   It had the text appeal I was looking for–the creative spin of the script–and my ambition flirted with exhibit design or collections management.

I kept up the pretense for a little while, even attempting to distract my exhaustion through a summer archaeological field school and a semester in Russia, but by the end, the lust had diminished–archaeology had a white guilt complex and took itself too seriously, and collections management surrounded itself with people who sorted their M&Ms by color. Now all my energy was in East European Studies. It wasn’t the same, but it was certainly easier and tolerant of my changing interests.

Months later, post-graduation, I found myself here in Georgia, shut out of my original Fulbright host institution (a museum) because it was undergoing internal reforms and didn’t have time for an inquisitive American fresh out of undergrad; I needed a heritage-related project–ANY project. I exploited every connection I had (lord knows you’re not meeting anyone in Georgia unless her god-daughter’s cousin’s dentist’s neighbor introduces you first) and came up lucky finding work for ICOMOS Georgia.


the agony

Throughout the fall, I resisted the urge to feel fulfilled by the work I was doing. I am 21 and fickle–unwilling to commit to a career just yet, I denied my enjoyment, still convinced that studying whatever post-Soviet social and cultural phenomena struck my fancy was what I wanted to do. Then I met almost every other area studies grantee in the country–writing papers no one will ever read, studying languages they will never use, and (in the words of one friend) “writing four pages of anthropological mumbo-jumbo when all you want to say is ‘one man in Tatarstan doesn’t feel that he’s Muslim’.” As fascinating as concepts of identity, “the other,” and cultural memory are, I do not find them worth keeping up with the fluctuating, politically-correct language required by academia for me to express my thoughts about them.

And now here I am, applying to graduate programs in historic preservation and begging for a summer job that will satisfy as many needs–intellectually, socially, and physically–as my work on a heritage-led neighborhood revitalization program here in Old Tbilisi can. Though I maintain that studying preservation can be at times dull, the real life practice of evaluating historic structures and the communities that use them is rife with nuances that aren’t addressed in school–how to use (and not murder) online databases, how to explain to the public what a heritage designation means for their day-to-day life, or how to design an architectural survey when everyone has different opinions…surprisingly, instead of annoying me, these complexities legitimized the subject for me and gave me a sense of duty, drive, and sheer reality that was lacking in any of the other fields with which I’d had dalliances.

the ecstasy

the ecstasy

Moreover, the schedule of a cultural heritage management job is a dream. About half of my time can be spent out of the office, traipsing around Old Tbilisi and tiptoeing through courtyards after angry old babushkas would yell at me from the balcony on suspicion of investigating them for a fine or tax hike. It is as “dangerous” as any scholarly job can be, and yes, it makes me feel like Indiana Jones sometimes. The other half of my time is creative–writing, analyzing, presenting (seriously, taking photos and drawing site plans can be expressive, even if you stick to a prescribed methodology).

All historic preservation ever wanted from me was a little commitment. Hey, I’m not guaranteeing we’re going to be together forever, but I think I’m finally ready to sit down and talk registry…er, I mean, national and local monument registries.

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Kutaisi Day Trip

Today a few of my friends and I rented a car and drove to Kutaisi, the capital of Imereti (west Georgia), and supposedly the soon-to-be legislative capital. It’s about a 4-5 hour drive from Tbilisi on a well-paved highway (this is nice, but it also means the road is constantly full of slow-moving semi-trucks).

SakartveloOur first stop was at Gelati, an 11th-13th century monastic complex, UNESCO World Heritage Site, and burial place of King David the Builder. I enjoy visiting Georgian churches, but as far as most people are concerned, you’ve seen one and you’ve seen ’em all. Gelati is a bit different, very airy and with much brighter colors on the interior frescoes. There is even a highly elaborate mosaic of the Virgin Mary, for all you mosaic fans out there.  The complex itself is beautifully landscaped (not something you can usually say about any site in Georgia), and is a great place for picnicking.

Next we visited Sataplia National Reserve, a nature park on the outskirts of Kutaisi. I went in with low expectations, but seriously–if there’s good weather, this place is not to be missed. I would have never wanted to leave this place when I was a kid. Because first of all, DINOSAURS. Sataplia is home to an archaeological site where the footprints of Cretaceous herbivores and carnivores were found preserved in rock. In order to capitalize on the dinosaur draw, Sataplia spent its grant money on 1.) creating a building over and around the prints so visitors can view them from a walkway without stepping on them, as was the norm until recently and 2.) ANIMATRONIC DINOSAURS! In a fantastic Jurassic Park knockoff, the path through the woods near the footprint exhibit features a (not-to-scale) stegosaurus, iguanadon, and tyrannosaurus. They grumble, roar, wave their stubby legs, and look a little worse for wear already but meh, who’s paying attention? DINOSAURS!


After a walk through the woods (very mossy, picturesque, and indeed Jurassic-looking at points), our guide led us along a cliffside walkway, where you can see evidence of Sataplia’s honeybee population, which gave the park its name (“place of honey” in Georgian). The walkway terminated at a glass structure that serves as the entrance to Sataplia’s underground caves. According to our guide, archaeological evidence indicates that the caves were inhabited by a small community 100-300,000 years ago. Because they are so deeply embedded in the cliffside, the caves also maintain a constant temperature of 14C throughout the year, creating a habitat friendly to bats and small amphibious creatures (we didn’t see any).

stone heart--make a wish!

stone heart–make a wish!

Thanks to a development grant, the magnificent rock formations (stalactites, stalagmites, “rock waterfalls,” and “rock curtains”) are now also lit by garish multicolored lights that give it a nightclub atmosphere totally at odds with the hushed water-trickling noises. At the center of the caves’ largest cavern is a giant stone heart (not the cartoony kind, it literally looks like an enormous lumpy human heart). This is the only rock formation visitors are allowed to touch, because you get to make a wish when you do so.

Outside the caves, you can walk up a hill to a glass-bottomed ghost walkway projecting from the highest point in the park, from where you can nervously hold onto the handrails and take photos of the magnificent view. Curiously, the walkway also features a space-agey, Austin Powers-style lounge, ostensibly so parents can booze while the kids run around and look at more dinosaurs.


Next we went to go see what was up with the new Parliament building, which can at best be described as a misallocation of funds and at worst a hideous blight on the landscape. Several reasons were proposed for moving Parliament to Kutaisi–two I heard were to help counter Tbilisi’s unquestioned dominance as the country’s major city, and to move government to a non-downtown location where people aren’t as protest-happy. While those are good goals, Georgia once again fell apart on the methods.

sweet smoking Jesus

sweet smoking Jesus

First of all, the new Parliament is built on the site of a Soviet-era WWII memorial and public garden, which was detonated (killing a local mother and daughter across the street in the process, causing public outcry). Then there’s the fact that it looks like a giant creepy eye and is impractical in almost every way. Then they went and installed a laughably incongruous statue assemblage of some fairies on tree branches. I’m not sure if these are left over from the former public garden (which would make it a little more appropriate, if still weird), or if this is literally the most tone-deaf piece of public art ever commissioned.

Next we visited Bagrati Cathedral, Kutaisi’s other UNESCO World Heritage Site and recently the subject of a fierce debate between heritage professionals and the Georgian church/government. Saakashvili decided to have this 11th century masterpiece of medieval architecture “restored” in 2011. I use air quotes because restoration, in the heritage-professional sense of the word, means that a building is brought back to a certain point in its history using various historical sources (plans, sketches, paintings, photographs, first-person accounts, etc.) to ensure accuracy. None of that was possible with Bagrati, because none of these existed–the cathedral was destroyed during an Ottoman invasion in the 1690s, and no sources have been found providing details about what the structure actually looked like before the incident.

a modern addition on Bagrati, including an elevator. Look closely at the stone near the elevator, and you will see that they aren't stones at all--but cement blocks concealed by tiles

a modern addition on Bagrati covering half of the original front facade (including a totally unnecessary elevator). Look closely at the stone near the elevator column, and you can see that they aren’t stones at all–but cement blocks concealed by a sheathing of tile

As Radio Free Europe reports,

Named after Bagrat III, the first king of a unified Georgia, the ancient cathedral is seen as a symbol of the unity of the Georgian state, an idea that still resonates strongly in the Caucasus country, which has two breakaway provinces under the control of separatist rebels.

By restoring Bagrati Cathedral, it’s possible that Saakashvili had hoped to strike a chord with many Georgians who also wish to see the country’s traditional borders restored as well.

Entire apse reconstructed with only 5 original fragments (darker-colored) for reference. A bit like when 19th century explorers would find 5 bone fragments and extrapolate an entire dinosaur. Except this is the 21st century and we should know better,

Entire apse reconstructed with only 5 original fragments (darker-colored) for reference. A bit like when 19th century explorers would find 5 bone fragments and extrapolate an entire dinosaur. Except this is the 21st century and we should know better,

While I’m all for keeping cultural heritage monuments relevant, I do not support doing so when the changes irreversibly damage the original structure and give the public a false sense of the site’s history. As such, the Bagrati restoration project constitutes yet another example of Saakashvili’s modern-day political agenda being forced through at the expense of Georgia’s actual cultural heritage. After much deliberation and tut-tutting, however, UNESCO ultimately decided to change Bagrati’s status (to cultural instead of historical), rather than outright de-list it. Making an example of Georgia and putting strain on diplomatic relations in this way might win the battle, but would lose the war. Although UNESCO has expressed its disapproval, it does not want to remove itself from the many other projects it currently advises and otherwise supports throughout Georgia.

Heritage atrocities aside, I really enjoyed Kutaisi. It’s a great day-trip (in order to see everything at a reasonable pace, I recommend hiring a driver–we paid 200 lari for the whole day, split between 4 of us). Unlike Tbilisi, the city still very much has a small-town feel–most houses are very similar to the vernacular style found all around rural Imereti: low lying (rarely more than 3 floors), with exterior staircases, deep porches/balconies, and interesting ornamentation. I have noticed since first coming here in 2010 that West Georgian houses often feature beautiful metal folk ornaments on their balconies, gutters, rooflines, and gates, but I can’t for the life of me find any photos online, so I’ll have to get my camera fixed and take photos myself later this year.

Downtown we also ran into this newly-installed piece of Georgian heritage kitsch, the Archaeological Fountain! My colleagues at ICOMOS have universally declared it an affront to taste, but (waste of water aside) I thought it was a creative presentation of ancient Georgian art (all elements are replicas of gold work that can be found at the Georgian National Museum archaeological treasury).


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This weekend, ICOMOS Georgia hosted the third in a series of RCCHD‘s international capacity-building workshops, this time on “National Policy of the Heritage Sector.” Participants from Georgia, Azerbaijan, Ukraine, Poland, and Norway presented on the various laws, regulations, and government policies that affect heritage projects in their respective countries.

find me in the background, taking notes as usual

find me in the background, taking notes as usual


Day 2 of the workshop was focused on the examination of Georgia’s 2008 Law on Cultural Heritage (PDF here, in English). Specifically, we examined the ways in which the law is inadequate–it does not clearly state the repercussions for noncompliance (“fines” and “warnings” are mentioned vaguely), the Minister of Culture personally has veto power on almost every decision made in terms of heritage listing (and thus protection), certain terms are not defined (leading to contradictions), and procedures for public participation (what to do if you do not own a historic property but see that it is being damaged).

My colleagues and I had much to say about the law (which will likely be amended under Ivanishvili), but unfortunately I cannot figure out how to post a Word document with our comments to Google Drive/Scribd, so you’ll have to draw your own conclusions!

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