samedi 31 mai 2008

Isolated, the Mountainous Regions of Kvemo Kartli Rest at a Standstill

Article published in, 20/03/2007 Issue
By Nicolas LANDRU in Manglisi, translated by Kathryn GAYLORD-MILES

© Nicolas Landru (Road Tbilisi-Tsalka, near Manglisi)

Less than 100 kilometers from Tbilisi, the small town of Tsalka could be a suburb of the Georgian capital. During the Soviet era, it was one of the “attics” of the metropolis, assuring the city’s supply of dairy products and potatoes. But in this mountainous region, the breakup of the USSR immediately caused, besides the ruin of the structures of production, the extreme deterioration of roads and railroads. Today, upper Kvemo Kartli is one of the most isolated and neglected regions in Georgia. It is an extreme example of the disintegration of Georgian territory.

After the prestigious village of Tskhneti, barely a dozen kilometers from Tbilisi, the road from Tsalka is strewn with potholes. One branch was redone a bit, but as often in Georgia, the repairs weren’t followed by a permanent maintenance of the road, so it is again deteriorated. The asphalt dwindles for kilometers, to the point of being almost absent after Manglisi, in another time a summer resort region visited by residents of Tbilisi. After Manglisi, it is almost impossible to venture on the steep road—Tsalka is at an altitude of 1,600 meters—without an ATV.

Singed in July 2006, a complete renovation program sponsored by the World Bank should take place—even if similar projects have been formulated in recent years without leading to anything. In the meantime, to reach Tsalka from Tbilisi, one must pass by the east, where the road between Tetri-Tsakaro and Tsalka has been re-tarred by British Petroleum during the construction of the oil pipeline Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC). But this road has also quickly returned to its initial state of disrepair. The surest solution is to take a detour of more than 300 kilometers, going directly west, only to turn back east towards Tsalka by way of the far-away Javakhetia, whose roads have a mediocre reputation. Naturally, the secondary roads of the region are in worse shape. The notable progress in transportation is the railroad, abandoned, then reopened in August 2006. There rests a sizable stumbling block: the insufficiency of trains and their slowness.

A Divided and Empty Region

Tsira, who is 75 years old, lives in a village close to Manglisi, seven kilometers away by road. Once a week, she walks there to wait for a car to take her to Tbilisi, public transportation having almost completely disappeared. There, she sells tkemali sauce to supplement her meager pension. During the Soviet era, she worked in a factory in Tskhneti, commuting every day. The trip took less than a half an hour; today, it is two to three times longer. The regional activities, centralized in other times, have virtually ceased. In this zone close to the capital, those who go to sell agricultural products in the markets of Tbilisi are not able to do it daily unless they have a good vehicle and only then, in summer. “At the beginning of the 1990s, Greeks could leave for Greece and Armenians for Yerevan,” she remembers, “but we, the Georgians of the region, we didn’t have any other choice but to stay.”

It’s what the mountainous districts of Kvemo Kartli know, other than a large logistic and economic disintegration: the most important division of community in the country. Before 1991, the Tsalka raion was largely populated by Greeks and Armenians, that of Tetri-Tskaro by Georgians, and that Dmanisi, to the south, by Azeris. Inside the majority zones, villages of different communities are located close to each other, but intercommunity contacts aren’t very high, nor that there is a tendency towards ethnic mixing. The economic collapse and the degradation of the roads only served to reinforce this characteristic, and today each village tends to live isolated and inward-looking.

Emigration has upset the social structure of the region, especially in Tsalka, the one of the three raions that has the most difficult situation, where the massive departure of Greeks since 1991 has left the majority of villages empty. In general, the Armenian communities were also inclined to emigrate; the Azerbaijanis as well, but on a smaller scale, in part because they had fewer viable destinations. Even the raion of Tetri-Tskaro, majority Georgian, has been largely depopulated.

The numbers speak for themselves: to compare the census data from 1989 and 2002, the number of residents of Tsalka raion was divided by 2.2; that of Dmanisi by 1.8. Even if the official statistics are not entirely trustworthy—it would seem that the numbers are alternately increased or diminished according to political needs—the difference is significant. Additionally, the chaotic movements of migration leave detailed counts almost impossible. It seems that the population of upper Kvemo Kartli is barely 80,000, even though it was more than 150,000 in 1989.

Tsalka: A Destabilized Zone

Another demographic factor that has caused instability in the region is the immigration of Georgian populations in successive waves, generally in depopulated zones, at the end of the 1980s, in 1998, 2002, and 2004. Svans and Ajars come from zones threatened by landslides or are at high risk of being resettled there, especially in Tsalka, in homes left empty by the Greeks.
Controversies have arisen on the real objective of the government. Certain spokespeople of ethnic minorities have seen in it the desire to Georgianize a region that is majority non-Georgian. The authorities advance the argument of the urgency of dealing with the depopulation of the region.

Other than the ethnicizing discourse, it is clear that an arduous fight for the control of resources and the economy of the Tsalka region has been set off between the old and new residents.
The absence of organization that has characterized the process of the implantation of the new arrivals has caused a general fuzziness on questions of property ownership—some have installed themselves in empty houses that still belong to others. The lack of legislation the deployment of security forces has left a place for crime and violence, especially since 2004.

In March 2006, the murder of an Armenian by a Svan in Tsalka provoked intense reaction in Georgia’s Armenian community. A little while earlier, the assassination of a couple of Greeks by Ajars led to a series of settling of accounts between old and new community structures.

At the Margins of Public Attention

These social and community defiances add to the serious problems. These three mountainous districts are among the poorest in Georgia. Near Tsalka, most of the villages have neither running water nor electricity. Crime has long held the region on the sidelines of major political processes, and the lack of knowledge of the Georgian language by ethnic minorities reinforces this political isolation. Even if, under the former President Eduard Shevardnadze, then with the Rose Revolution, the State has little by little re-established its authority over the region, administrations are here largely less transparent than the average for the country.

The geographic carving of Kvemo Kartli has made a particularly artificial region, unbalanced, and therefore difficult to administer. Its lack of coherence isn’t unique in Georgia, but the disparities there are particularly large: between Vazisubani, the difficult suburb of Tbilisi, the large industrial complex Rustavi-Gardabani, the largely Azeri agricultural plain of Marneuli and Bolnisi and the three isolated and multi-ethnic mountainous districts, the social and economic defiances are very different. Ironically, Kvemo Kartli means “lower Kartli,” but three of its districts have some of the most mountainous and rugged terrain in the country. Compared to the highly-populated raions of the plain, these three districts often seem of limited importance to regional political decision-makers.

Another handicap, not any less important, is that the region and its difficulties pass largely unnoticed in the Georgian media and public life. Javakhetia is often pointed to as the example of a poor and isolated region in Georgia.

But this image is often attributed to cover the ethno-political problems that underpin it—a largely Armenian region, it has a Russian military base scheduled to close in 2008; above all, it often overshadows the Tsalka region, in which the difficulties linked to isolation and poverty are more heightened, and which doesn’t have Armenia as a door, like its neighbor.

If Greece exercises its influence so that the rehabilitation projects are done well in Tsalka, the Greek minority has diminished too much for that to have lasting consequences.

Certain Armenian organizations occupy themselves largely with the situation of Armenians in the region, where social tensions often take on an ethnic dimension, but to this day, Javakhetia has mobilized their attention more.

While certain other development projects, like the Millennium Challenge Program, include the mountainous zones of Kvemo Kartli, for the moment, there isn’t any factor that could quickly make the situation evolve. The means and the vision of a comprehensive development plan on the part of the Georgian authorities, and the diverse projects are more often developed on an ad hoc basis.

“In Manglisi, they are lucky that Mr. Bejuashvili (Georgian Minister of Foreign Affairs) is from there,” complains Tsira. “He’s doing good things there. But in my village, we aren’t getting anything at all.”

Aucun commentaire: