Tuesday, November 29, 2005

The Cruel Sea

No, nothing to do with Nicholas Monserrat. The port city of Batumi is fairly quiet during the winter. Summertime these days livens up with many Georgians and some foreign tourists taking a seaside holiday. Down the road from the oil refinery there is a beach of coarse grey sand and pebbles and a long coastal walk. However, just a few kilometres south the coastline changes. At the village of Adlia at least a dozen houses beside the sea have been damaged by storms during October. You might say bad luck for building so close to the water. But in actual fact most houses were built about 60 years ago when the shoreline was a good 500 metres away. Or as one man told me, his horse used to get tired going out to the water and back. Several locals showed me right through (literally) their houses. Many houses had partially collapsed or had gaping holes in rooms facing the sea. The cause: lack of sediment and sand from the nearby Chorokhi River. It meanders through Turkey and end its journey at the Black Sea. There's been a history of dredging sand to take elsewhere up the coast and now the Chorokhi is being dammed in Turkey for hydro-electric power stations.So with no new sand and sediment to replenish beaches the present shoreline is being gouged out during every big storm. Many of the people I spoke with have little hope for having a house after this winter.

I'll post some photos when I'm back in Tbilisi. Tomorrow I'm going to talk to internally displaced Georgians from Abkhazia. Left in limbo for 13 years many are still occupying local beachside hotels.As for the sub-tropical climate here - it's really strange. It's quite cool and I'm rugged up but there's a warm breeze that blows in from the sea all day.

Listen to the story: an mp3 file can be downloaded from DivShare (6 MB)

A little luck in Batumi

Arriving this morning at 6.30am at the end of the line at Makhinjauri I had little idea of how to get to Batumi or where to stay. As luck would have it, I crammed into a mini-bus heading to Batumi and a young bloke asked me where I was going. This is how I met my local fixer. Irakli is 16 years old and has recently returned from a year in South Carolina and speaks fantastic English. I hired him immediately on the spot!

Monday, November 28, 2005

Batumi and Ajaria's Black Sea Coast

Getting around in Georgia is not exactly straightforward. Armed with a large map from Stamford's in London, I thought the big red lines indicated major roads that were open. Well, almost. A road might be there but whether it's usable for public transport is another thing. Rainer Kauffman, a German who runs a couple restaurants in Tbilisi was very kind today to sit down and explain just what is possible. My idea of a triangular route from Tbilisi to Batumi to Akhalkalaki and then back to Tbilsi just isn't feasible. So tonight I'm taking the overnight train to the Black Sea port of Batumi in Ajara. Going south to Akhalkalaki will probbaly mean coming back through Tbilisi. Once in Batumi, I intend to see what life is like now that Aslan Abashidze is gone, and if Tbilisi's promises of a better deal are coming to fruition. And, with a little nod to hydrogeomorphology, I'd like to examine coastal erosion and how this part of Georgia is recovering from this year's spring floods.

Georgia's 'X Files'

Last night I met Georgia's (unofficial) UFO and alien investigator. And no, I haven't been commissioned by 'News of the World' for a 'Georgia Alien Abduction Shocker' expose nor have I been drinking too much Georgian wine. Irakli Shonia works at Tbilisi's local water corportion and in his spare time continues the work of his now deceased father who during the Soviet era was Georgia's official UFO investigator at the Institute of Cybernetics. As a teenager Irakli travelled throughout Georgia with his father examining sites where people had reported seeing something odd - be it UFO's, aliens or something unexplainable. Unfortunately, much of his father's research has been destroyed in the war of the early 90's. Next week Irakli has offered to show me archival footage of his father at work, introduce me to some former members of the original research team, and to take me to a nearby site to conduct experiments that his father used to do. Sounds like the Soviets used to take their UFO's as seriously as the Americans... and, with a very sceptical but open mind to this, I'm curious to see some of the objects Irakli has to show me.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Dov Lynch Interview

For those of you who were interested in listening to Dov Lynch talk about how Europe views Georgia, my apologies for no audio available, however I have transcribed the excerpt below.

GD: Why has the Black Sea been forgotten as a 'European Sea'?

DL: The first reason is because we have other fish to fry. I mean there's other things to think about. I mean if you're in Brussels sitting in an EU office thinking about: what are our strategic interests? What do we have to deal with now, tomorrow and the day after tomorrow, it's the Balkans, the Western Balkans, the Western Balkans and the Western Balkans. This is where the EU is forged as a security actor. This is what we have to deal with... we have to deal with Kosovo in 2006... Bosnia Herzegovina... this is it. Add to that enlargement and we just didn't have time to think about one step beyond this: what is our interest in the Black Sea? Now that is slowly changing because you have with the prospective membership of Romania and Bulgaria in 2007, the accession process of Turkey, Neighbourhood Policy with Moldova, Ukraine and Georgia... it seems like a reality you can no longer ignore that this is actually a 'European Sea' that we've forgotten about. And there's good reasons why we've forgotten - historically also because the Cold War... it [the Black Sea] was a Turkish, Russian, Soviet condominium there. But now, I think it's time now, especially from member states, and future member states, to think about: what should we do here? What are our interests? What stakes are here? What can be done in terms of environmental protection, organised crime prevention, increasing co-operation across the Black Sea, around the Black Sea which doesn't exist yet. I mean despite statements to the contrary, this is a very divided sea. So a lot of work has to be done in this area but it's time to do it.

GD: How does Europe view Georgia and the South Caucasus?

DL: That's changing. I mean Georgia and the South Caucasus a few years ago were being seen as distant and foreign, as a mountain range and not really a region, as a place of conflicts that are unresolved and a place of tensions with Russia - which is a strategic partnership of the EU. So it was kind of seen as something that we should keep at arms length. Member states - Britain, Germany and France - have long been interested and had special policies for the region. With enlargement, with the Rose Revolution, with various changes around the Black Sea, this [Europe's view] has changed. The EU now sees The Caucasus as being part of Europe and these certainly are the frontiers of Europe - as being part of our borders in a sense. Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia are recognised as being important neighbours and we've decided that if we do not have distinct interests, we have stakes at least. We have stakes in the success of this region, we have stakes in its stability and peaceful development beyond our direct interests in energy supplies. So things have changed.

Listen to the interview with Dov Lynch:

Bumper to bumper to Jvari

From miles around Mtskheta one can see the 6th century Jvari Church perched up high on a hill. On the way to Mtskheta, everyone on the local mini-bus crossed themselves several times when it came into view. Having bargained with a local driver for a lift up there, the importance to Georgians of this church became obvious. Not only is it written up in guidebooks as one the greatest examples of early Georgian design, but the 4th century figure, St Nino, is believed to have set up her cross there and gone about converting the population living below... ie the rest of Georgia. The drive up was probably the most white-knuckled one I've done so far in Georgia. We came within a fraction of a head-on collision as my driver tried to overtake cars around a bend. The reason for so much traffic is because on Saturday afternoons, newly wedded couples and their families go up there as a kind of pilgrimage (I also saw a few unwilling lambs being dragged up their too - presumably to be blessed before slaughter and shish-kebabing!). Such was the traffic chaos that my driver decided to go up onto the shoulder of the road and bash it along some sort of cliff top cattle track. Much to the amusement of others we jumped the queue and he deposited me, somewhat pale, at the head of the traffic jam. From the church one can see where the Aragavi and Mtkarvi Rivers meet - a spectacular view.


For a day trip out of Tbilisi yesterday I headed about 25 minutes west to Mtskheta - perhaps the spiritual heart of Georgia and of Christianity in the country. Most kings of Georgia chose Mtskheta as their capital. Today it's one Georgia's three UNESCO world heritage sites. That said, you've got to come prepared with some our your own notes as there's little in the way of help for tourists - except souvenir shops. I walked into the Mtskheta Museum hoping to see some of the antiquities that have been found in local excavations. At first I thought the museum was deserted as no one was around and there was no exhibit. After about ten minutes I heard some music in an office and found two staff members. Alas, they told me it's officially closed and couldn't provide me with more information. Opposite the museum at the Samtarvo Church, black robed nuns dispatched a local girl to talk to me in English. She said the best thing to see is the nearby 11th century Sveti-Tskhoveli Cathedral (top photo). Very impressive and according to legend it's where the robe of Christ is buried. The Cathedral is in the centre of town and many homes are literally opposite the outer defensive wall. Renovation work is in progress at both churches, and one assumes that means either the Church, state or UNESCO are providing some funds for preservation.

Friday, November 25, 2005

The Tbilisi Taxi Debate

Judging a taxi by it's exterior to determine if you'll be overcharged is a topic of debate among local expats. Yesterday I took a very leisurely lunch with a journalist colleague and two bankers specialising in small loans and finance. From 'downtown' I selected a Mercedes taxi in the familiar cream livery of German taxis. The driver confirmed it was in fact an old German Merc taxi. Grinning at my expense when I uttered "Oh my God" as we drove towards oncoming traffic, the driver was of the normal Tbilisi driving school where speed rules and might is right. However, once we arrived at our destination - a screaming match began between my colleague and the driver. He refused to budge from charging 10 lari (about US$5) for the trip when normally about 7 lari would do and he wouldn't give back the right change. My colleague refused to leave the cab. I looked perplexed and felt a little inadequate that I couldn't mediate in Georgian. The cabbie then drove off with us still inside. 50 metres on he stopped and then appealing to me as a male, suggested with by some sort of jaw-like hand charade that my colleague was a greedy woman. And then in english said: "You not good girl." Apparently his behaviour confirmed suspicions that Mercedes taxi charge more. But the debate is still out among expats if the red Toyota taxis overcharge too or if it's just better to jump into one of the hundreds of ex-Soviet conveyances that pass themselves off for cars. Some taxis in Tbilisi would not look out of place in Mad Max.

Viktor Yushenko

Just a quick aside from the Forum earlier in the week. I've just been going through a few photos. The scarring (if that's the precise term?) to President Viktor Yushenko's face is quite shocking. I got within arms length of him a couple of times and it's hard not to stare. Is the poisoning theory still out there or was it stress related or something else?

Back to basics for now

It seems that my attempts to store audio and video and not working out as planned. From here on I'll keep it simple and just post text, and where possible, photos.


Thursday, November 24, 2005

AV Problems

Sorry folks having a wee bit of trouble upload pics, audio and video.


Any comments Mr President?

For such an important national celebration as the second anniversary of the 'Rose Revolution', it was surprising that the media was not offered an opportunity to interview President Mikheil Saakashvili until very late on Wednesday evening. And only then at a very staged managed media conference for foreign press only. Earlier in the week, numerous requests to his staff for an interview came back with the reply that The President is a very busy man. Indeed.

On Tuesday, frustrated with getting no where I even turned up at the Presidential Dinner in Mtskheta (about 25 minutes out of Tbilisi) to try to get that elusive exclusive. Having cheesy-smiled my way inside I found myself sitting a little uncomfortably in front of the band, but beside the Aide de Camp for the Estonian President. An affable naval officer, we spoke quickly between song breaks about the giant steps Estonia has taken with 'e-government'. The food was satisfactory and I kept the menu as a souvenir. I particularly liked the 'Boiled Cheese with Mint', though I passed on a few of the 'Assorted shish-kebab'. As for the evening's entertainment, the athleticism of the traditional Georgian dancers was impressive.

Once dessert had been served, I asked one of the President's (American) advisers if I could have a few moments with him for an interview. The response from The President was quite swift and decisive. He took up a microphone, told everyone he was leaving and strode out.

The following day (Wednesday) I still had hopes of getting at least a couple of grabs from The President. At the forum (see earlier post) I knew that if I was in the right position when he arrived I might get a few words.

Naturally, every other journalist, snapper and TV cameraman had the same idea. What made it even more confusing were the presence of Romania and Ukrainian journalists and camera crews. They too wanted to interview their respective Presidents. Throw in a sneeky back entrance and for about 20 minutes prior to Presidential arrivals you had an Ealing 'Carry On' comedy of journalists, photographers, cameramen and security staff running around the Marriot Hotel helter skelter.

Close to the Hotel Ballroom where the forum was taking place I took up post near a room marked VIP. And would you believe it, Mikheil Saakashvili marched up the stairs and headed straight towards me and the VIP Room. Despite being bundled out of the way by burly large men in black, I was able to remain close to the VIP room and when Saakashvili popped out to greet the Estonian President I yelled out if he had any comments to make. Thrusting out my microphone, the President answered some questions. But in the midst of it all I always wonder why does my brain go blank? If you only have time to ask maybe two questions... what should you ask?

Anyway it was enough to file... and to make me smile.

Democracy and Transformation: Georgia Style

So, what was I up to?

Well for someone who has only just arrived in Georgia, the past two days have been enormously informative. I went along to a two day forum entitled Europe's New Wave of Liberation: Democracy and Transformation. Along with President MikheiI Saakashvili, the forum featured quite an impressive list of regional leaders (Ukraine's Viktor Yushenko, Arnold Rüütel of Estonia and Romania's Traian Băsescu), senior Georgian ministers and MP's, representatives from the United States, the European Union and political analysts from numerous trans-Atlantic think tanks.

The panel sessions delved into institutional reform in transitional democracies; the success of the 'Rose Revolution' and the challenges a country like Georgia faces. For me, the most interesting session was: Why Democracy in the region matters: An Outside Perspective. This was moderated by the Chairman of the Georgian Parliament Nino Burjanadaze. (Her likeness to Dustin Hoffman's alter ego in Tootsie - see photo at above - which local journalists pointed out to me was a little distracting!). Ms Burjanadaze was keen to stress that Georgia is committed to democratic processes, independent courts, and supporting a strong independent media. She also added that Georgia should not be punished by being denied EU entry if other countries in the Caucasus are not yet ready.

Heikki Talvitie, Special Representative of the EU in the South Caucasus, navigated a very diplomatic path in his panel contribution saying that democracy is a tool for change and the EU aims 'to support existing mechanisms'. While Assistant Secretary-General of Nato, Jean Fornet, praised Georgia's military reforms and the army's work with KFOR and also in Afghanistan.

However, along with Charles Fairbanks of Johns Hopkins, the observations of Dov Lynch, Senior Research Fellow at the EU's Institute for Security Studies in Paris, were perhaps the most eloquent and insightful of this particular session. Lynch, an Irishmen, with a subtle trans-Atlantic accent, said that Georgia's 2003 'Rose Revolution' had disspelled three myths. Namely, that Georgia was a basket case of entrenched corruption and a collection of fiefdoms; that countries of the former the Soviet Union were a losing bet; and, that for Europe, The Caucasus was something distant and foreign - that it was not important to the immediate needs of Brussels and not of strategic interest. Lynch added that until recently The Black Sea has been forgotten by Europe as being a 'European Sea'. As for working towards gaining membership to the European Union, Lynch pointed out that the path to Brussels begins not in Brussels but in Tbilisi. Very much in the sense of God helps those who help themselves.

I interviewed Dov Lynch after the panel session and if you're interested you can download a little excerpt as an mp3 file from DivShare (Dov Lynch Interview 1.9 MB).

I'm still here...

Lets be honest. I've never kept a proper diary and while on the road the most disciplined I have ever been was to jot down the date and location of photographs. Internet access in Tbilisi is quite good - there's plenty of internet cafes. You can find a fast connection but uploading photos, video and audio takes time. With the commitments of the past two days out of the way I hope I can post a little more regularly. You'll be pleased to know that I'm paying top dollar tonight at Tbilisi's Marriot Hotel to post directly from my laptop wirelessly.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Driving with Benjamin

According to Lonely Planet Tbilisi has around 1.7 million inhabitants but I wonder how many drive taxis. There's thousands. Traffic jams aren't so bad however driving Tbilisi style rivals formula one. I've caught about 6 taxis today starting off with "Captain" Benjamin from the airport. You know the scene. You walk out of the terminal and the hungry wolves are there waiting to pounce on the bewildered new arrivals. Inside the terminal I had struck up a conversation with a fellow Australian in the visa queue (I know - typical Aussies some would say). Arnold from Melbourne said he was going to see what his mate was up to working for BP in Georgia and a driver of the BP corporation would take him to a hotel. Naturally I asked if I could get a lift into town. Sure, no worries came the reply. Outside the terminal though no BP driver was in sight. What confronted us was a motely crew of unshaven cabbies.

Having confidently turned down all offers we found ourselves in a little bit of a stand off. They were watching us and we were watching them. Finally the BP driver showed up but refused to give me a lift because I wasn't on his official list (thanks BP). So instead I found myself as the last passenger left without a ride.

Their look said it all. They knew they had me. The price of 20 bucks to my hotel just could not be brought down. So, defeated, off I set with The Captain. Along the way The Captain was kind enough to point out sites of historical interest and made the sign of the cross anytime we passed a church or a statue of King Gorgasali - the father of Georgia. On our little mini tour of Tbilisi, it was quite obvious that Benjamin was winging it to my hotel. He had no idea. We pulled over several times to check directions. Each time involved him the turning the car off, finding someone to ask and then fiddling with a bunch of wires under the steering column to hot-wire the car back to life. Was it worth 20 bucks? For the antics and tour... not really great value, but The Captain was the first Georgian I met and I am here in Tbilisi.

To see the video of The Captain in action go to the AV Storage link on the right hand side of the page. You'll need QuickTime to view.

Just enough brain power tonight to give a run down on the rest of the day. My hotel room overlooks Kostavas Kucha which later joins up Rustavelis - so I'm right in the thick of it. I spent the afternoon chasing up leads and meeting some very interesting people. Two of whom stand out. Akaki Gogichaishvili is an investigative journalist on Rustavi 2 Televison's 60 Minutes. A programme noted for exposing corruption during the Shevardnadze era but surprisingly is currently off air - more on that later. And also Ana Dolidze, Chairperson of the Young Georgian Lawyers Association. I hope to ask her soon about Georgia's legal system and fighting corruption.

Tomorrow will see me at an international forum to mark the second anniversary of the Rose Revolution.

ghame mshvidobisa good night

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Anyone for a Sarni?

Not quite a flying start. My flight is delayed three and a half hours. Heathrow Terminal 4 is rapidly closing down around me. So, I've stocked up on a few sandwiches to sit it out. At least I'll arrive at a more respectable hour in Tbilisi and the chance of a little sleep on the plane is more likely.

My flight is the last one out tonight at 00:30 London time. Ciao for now London Town.

Well here goes...

Welcome to The Georgia Project and my debut post on a blog. Over the next two weeks I will be travelling throughout Georgia to produce feature stories for radio and the web. It's my first time to The Caucasus and along the way I plan to write up a few impressions of Georgia and try to describe some of the people I meet and places I will visit. Depending on deadlines and access to the internet I will try to update The Georgia Project at least daily.

Right now I'm in London and going through my last minute check list... and working out how to get to Heathrow on time with the Central Line Tube out of service. That's Sundays for you.

See you in Tbilisi!