By Nicolas LANDRU in Tkibuli, translated by Yvette CHIN
© Nicolas Landru, Tkibuli Train Station
On a high plateau dominating the Imereti plain, embedded in the foothills of the Greater Caucasus mountain range, the road leading to the lowland town of Tkibuli is under construction. Here, the construction workers are laying new asphalt. For the few weeks before the October 5th local elections, the Georgian government gave the impression that it wanted to address the stagnation of the last fifteen years in the Okriba region in western Georgia. Work on the Kutaisi-Tkibuli road has started. As elsewhere in the country, in Tkibuli kindergartens and sports facilities are being built or modernized. Next May will bring the opening of the railroad station closed since the economic collapse of the country. However, despite the veneer laid during election time, few here are optimistic. “Saakashvili does everything for Tbilisi and Batumi, but he rarely thinks of us,” complains Kakha, a former miner, like the majority of the inhabitants of Tkibuli.
The case of Okriba is different from that of the rest of Georgia. Sparsely populated until the beginning of the 20th century, this bridge between the Kutaisi plain and the Racha Mountains was changed by the discovery of coal seams during the Russian Empire. Quickly exploited, those gave way to mines, and then in 1892 the village of Tkibuli, a mining center, federated with the neighboring villages which had up until then been primarily agricultural.
It was in 1939 that Tkibuli acquired the status of a city. In addition to its four coal mines, it became an extraction center for granite and sand, and especially a center for the tea-cultivating collective farms in the surrounding areas. To the honor of the area, even Stalin preferred the tea of Tkibuli.
With only 39,600 inhabitants in 1986, Tkibuli never became a true urban center. The villages surrounding it, however, were strongly connected to its activity, so much so that agricultural activity was abandoned there as many miners came to the area to live. Most villagers also provided the labor for the tea plantations.
A true industrialized rural zone, the district of Tkibuli became one of the most prosperous areas of the Soviet Union in the 1950s. According to its inhabitants, a summer spent working on a tea plantation was enough to pay for the construction of a house. The miners had among the highest wages in the Soviet Union, attracting a considerable number of migrants from other areas, primarily Russian and Bulgarian migrants. Prosperity also supported the holiday and tourism industries in the surrounding villages, which had sanatoria, canteens, and pensions.
The skeleton of abundance
Today however, arrival in Tkibuli offers a dismal picture. Mines and buildings left abandoned, stripped plaster factories, cows and pigs grazing in industrial wastelands: built along the sinuous road, the partly-deserted city is nothing more than a succession of concrete blocks.
With the fall of the Soviet Union, all the state activities collapsed in Georgia. Here, the disaster was felt more sharply, because on the whole the republic had been industrialized remarkably little. “In Vani, in southern Imereti, people never had many things, they did not notice the difference much,” comments Tamuna. “Here, we lost everything.”
In the few months after the sudden stop of economic activity in 1991, prosperity gave way to disaster. The inhabitants plundered their own warehouses and took apart the equipment. They took the windows of the factories to put them in their own apartments removed the timber structures of the mines as firewood, and removed the rails to sell as scrap.
Even though the mines were closed, some continued to go into them illegally to mine coal to sell or to stay warm, risking their lives. The safety conditions continued to worsen over the years, and accidents were numerous. The tea plantations were also abandoned, as most were located too far from workers’ dwellings, and as former workers can attest, without agricultural machinery or means of transportation, it was impossible to work the fields.
Villages without resources
Coming from the Imeretian plain or the Racha mountains, the absence of agricultural activity in the Tkibuli area catches the eyes. Fields have gone to seed and former rows of tea are grazed by the animals. In the gardens of the village houses, fruit trees are rare, as are potatoes, or other means of survival. If the townspeople point to the poverty of the soil, it seems, however, that the neighboring areas do not represent an improvement.
Uprooted from their rural environment, the inhabitants of about fifteen villages surrounding Tkibuli were steered towards industrial activity and the intensive cultivation of tea during the Soviet era. When the collapse came, they were unable, like many of their compatriots accustomed to agricultural work, to convert to mixed farming to produce their own food. Rural proletarians were as destitute as the inhabitants of the cities.
Often, the former plantation workers could cultivate tea for personal use, but they lacked the equipment to continue commercial production. Corn is another agricultural option in the region.
Moreover, the district lacks an irrigation system, unlike agricultural zones like the Vani district. The imposing water tank of Tkibuli, along the road leading to the Okriba plain, is reserved for hydroelectric energy, would require massive work to be used as an irrigation source. Last summer brought little rainfall, and all the corn dried up. The rumors here suggest that Ivanishvili, the Imeritian millionaire, wanted to purchase the tank from the state for the good of the inhabitants, but the government refused…
Another important factor: the incomes coming from immigration and the purchase of foodstuff are more profitable than development efforts in an infertile area.
The emigration here can be seen with the naked eye. In the main street of the village of Satsire, only two houses have lights on at night. The young Giorgi confides, “Most of my friends are in Russia during the year. Me, I study in Kutaisi, but I want to return here. This is home.”
According to statistics, a third of the population has left the district. But local observers estimate even more. In the summer, the villages and the city are repopulated; in September, men and women seek work elsewhere.
The completely empty houses are evidence of the departure of whole families, particularly for the suburbs of Tbilisi, if the heads of the households found employment there in construction or as salesmen. But if their education allows them—that is, if their language abilities allow them—they leave their families in the countryside to find resources abroad, generally in Russia.
These migration patterns follow personal connections. When somebody succeeds in settling in another country, close relations or neighbors can follow suit. “One of my friends is doing well in Italy; if the situation here does not develop, I will join her,” explains Nino. Women seem to have an easier time finding work in Italy or in Greece, while the majority of men, who generally have a good command of the Russian language because of Russian military service, have easier access to Russia.
As for those that remain, they find work here and there, in the sales networks related to the town of Kutaisi. With local economic activity being next to nothing, those that remain become laborers with daily or weekly journeys to Imereti. The number of kiosks selling cigarettes or Coca-Cola, particularly high compared to the number of inhabitants, is a testament to the paucity of the remaining local trade.
One family out of two lives on the revenues of a family member that has emigrated. This does not encourage households to try to revitalize the land. Some young people, very few, remain by choice: they will get their education in Kutaisi, although a better one is to be had in Tbilisi, and hope to contribute to the development of their native soil and to live there. But their chances of finding employment there are very slim.
Signs of change?
The evolution of the general situation in Georgia is likely to influence the prospects of the entire region. The deterioration of relations between Tbilisi and Moscow has initially affected Georgians in Russia. Following the problems with the Russian spies, retaliatory measures undertaken by the Kremlin have led to actions against Georgian immigrants. Even though the effects of these measures are psychological—the number of Georgians expelled was insignificant compared to the number of Georgians living in Russia—it was still extremely powerful and, in a way, is even more strongly felt in an area which lives almost entirely on money from abroad.
On the other hand, the renewal of economic activity in Georgia has reached Okriba. A Dutch company has recently bought the granite quarry to send minerals to Poti. Even if it employs only a few people, it is a good sign for the revitalization of the area.
Two years ago, one of the coal mines of Tkibuli was privatized in favor of Sakinvesti and has started to function again. But it seems that the inhabitants prefer to live on foreign money rather than re-entering one of the most dangerous trades.
Since the initiatives undertaken the day before the elections have not stopped, it would seem that the government has taken measures to open the area. According to a new program of assistance to poor families, 60,000 households in the district have received financial assistance since mid-October, one of the highest assistance rates in the country. Moreover, the rebuilding of infrastructure and the opening of the area suggest the possibility of renewed activity. At the very least, the population will feel less abandoned by Tbilisi. The visit of Prime Minister Zurab Nogaideli before the elections helped to dissipate dissatisfaction and gave a crushing majority to the National Movement, the party in power, at the end of the elections.
If the district of Tkibuli is an isolated case because of its economic history, then it has the same problems as all of Georgia. In Javakhetia, where a great majority of Armenians can be found, the situation is more dramatic still: 60-70% of the inhabitants emigrate regularly.