Georgia On My Mind
How has life in Georgia changed since the “Rose Revolution” of 2003?
It's been almost a year since I have been kissed by a dozen different people within less than a week. This time one was an inebriated cook — who then served me eggs for breakfast the following morning still reeking of beer and brandy.
I recently spent another two weeks in the Caucasus region, where my organization — the International Center for Journalists — works with journalism schools in Tbilisi and Yerevan.
My visit to the Republic of Georgia and its capital city of Tbilisi was already my fifth trip to this intriguing country full of contradictions. After every trip — as the local custom would have it — there are more friends to kiss when I depart.
Goba, the manager of the guest house "Keria" in Tbilisi, is from the young generation. You can see the glimmer of hope for a better future in his eyes. He believes in his new government, which displaced Eduard Shevardnadze's corrupt, old guard during a peaceful "Rose Revolution" three years ago.
"It is my government," Goba told me sanguinely during our late-night discussion about the political changes in Georgia since my first trip there in 2002.
Sosha, who barely understands English, shakes his head. He is the cook at "Keria" — and, within the past two hours, he has consumed a bottle of brandy, plus four beers to chase down the liquor. Sosha misses the “good old times.”
He's probably in his fifties, but his exact age is hard to guess. His handshake and face are rough and indicate a tough life. He makes three dollars a day, he tells me. "How can I feed my three children with that?" he asks, and looks reproachfully at Goba, the manager. "Under communism, we had it better."
Goba doesn't want to hear any of it. Until 15 years ago, when Georgia was part of the Soviet Union, his mother had a good job with one of the ministries. Her work day started at nine in the morning, and most of the time she was back home by one in the afternoon. Plus she had a very good salary.
"The system made the people lazy," Goba thinks. The system was also broken. Over the past five years, the situation has slowly improved in Georgia. During my first visit in 2002, there was no electricity when I arrived — and my drive from the airport to town was made in darkness.
When you look up nowadays to the television tower on top of the hill above Tbilisi's beautiful old town with its narrow alleyways and wooden balconies, you would think Christmas was coming soon.
Georgia's president Michael Sakaashvili decided to light up Tbilisi — until Russia cut off the gas supply once again. Four Russian "spies" were arrested in Tbilisi during my stay. They were ceremoniously handed over to the OSCE, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, in full view of TV cameras. Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, was enraged and promptly placed an embargo on Georgia.
It looks as if the Georgians will have to use kerosene again to heat their homes through the winter. The lines at the gas stations have started to build. Misha, my daredevil driver in Tbilisi, has a brother who works in Moscow and routinely sends money home.
With the embargo, the money transfer business is also shut down. "He'll have to send the money now through Ukraine to Georgia," Misha said. This means additional fees — and less money arriving in his Georgian account.
However, the streets are still lit up brightly so far. You can find new police cars, buses and designer boutiques in Tbilisi. The beggars on Rustaveli Street have mostly disappeared.
On the main square — recently renamed "Freedom Square" — where U.S. President George W. Bush spoke last year, a second luxury Marriott hotel has now opened.
Mamuko and his two young friends graduated from the Caucasus School of Management with MBAs a few months ago. Mamuko is the 21-year-old son of a Georgian business associate and friend. And he's been working for a Western audit firm for a few weeks now.
His friend George also found a good job with a bank, and the third is arguably one of the youngest chief financial officers for a Georgian investment company, or any company for that matter.
There is a strong demand for IT, banking and other such well-paid jobs. However, these positions are mostly accessible to young Georgians with top educations from Western universities.
The unemployment rate still idles around 12%."The old generation," explains Goba, "has a hard time adapting to the new times. Many thought that everything would turn to the better from one day to the other." Such a fundamental turnaround needs more time, he thinks.
"At least another generation," he adds, and looks into the sad, drunken eyes of his cook.