A Trip to Georgia

This blog describes my trip to and my observations in Georgia in the former Soviet Union in September, 2006.

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I took a vacation to Georgia in the former Soviet Union in mid-September. We flew through London Heathrow on British Airways. There is currently a London-Tbilisi-Tashkent, Uzbekistan flight.

I had been to Georgia in August 1990 when it was part of the Soviet Union, so I knew it would be interesting to see the changes. In 1990, Georgia was such a welcome relief with its abundance of food after drab Russia. We stayed with a Georgian-Jewish family that then immigrated to Israel. The Georgian Jews have a very long and ancient tradition.

In 1990, I recall that we attended a Georgian-Jewish betrothal in the Philharmonic building where we arrived four hours late. We had learned our lesson because we had showed up on time earlier that summer to a Georgian-Jewish bar mitzvah in Queens. Most people showed up late and we ate all the appetizers, which were numerous and which we thought were the meal. It was only when we saw the waiters putting plates of new food on top of plates of old food because there was no room on the table that we realized that there would be more and more food.

I also recall that the Georgians were knocking down the statue of Lenin at that time in the center of town. That space is still bare today, but they are beginning construction there now.

The first thing about Georgia that is great is that there is no need
for Americans to get a visa. And unlike Turkey, where you have to buy a
visa in the airport, in Georgia, you don’t need a visa, period. This is
a very smart move as it is increasing tourism. There is no need to go
through the frustration of paying a huge fee and sending your passport
off to the consulate in the first place. And then once in the country,
there is no need to pay a fee. Just great!!!

We arrived in Tbilisi, the capital, late at night and stayed at a
hotel about midway between the center of town (Freedom Square) and the
Old Town. Our hotel was right on the Mtkvari River, which bisects
Tbilisi, the capital. Our hotel had an Internet connection and even
though it was 2AM Tbilisi time, I kept checking the Internet for the
Michigan-Notre Dame score, as I am a Michigan grad. So, I didn’t fall
asleep until the game was over, but was up bright and early the next
morning for breakfast.

The breakfast spread at our hotel did not vary from day to day and
we eventually began to tire of it, but now how I long for it. The
Georgians have amazing bread called "shota." Among the best I have ever
had. And they have great cream. I never eat bread in the US, but here I
couldn’t get enough.

Interesting, we would see some of the same faces at breakfast everyday.

Tbilisi is a very walkable city. We wound up taking many strolls down Rustaveli Prospekt, the main drag in town, which contains the Parliament, Opera House and post office. The post office was at the end of Rustaveli and was identical in look to those you would find all over the former Soviet Union.

On our first day, we first went to the Narikkala Fortress and then to the Mother Georgia statue near it. The Fortress is ancient dating back about 1500 years, while the statue is recent, only having been put up during the Soviet period. Mother Georgia has a head covering that reminded me of Darth Vader from Star Wars and carries both a sword and some wine in her hands. The sword is to warn away those who would treat Georgia with ill intentions while the wine is to welcome
those with good intentions.

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We then continued on to the Old Town where we saw the synagogues and bathhouses, as well as the pretty old houses and buildings that characterize that part of town. I also took a photo of a very interesting sight, a restaurant called lobster right next to a synagogue. For those who don’t know, lobster is shellfish and so is not kosher.

Later, we walked down Rustaveli and then down Chavchavadze, a sort of continuation of Rustaveli, into the wealthy and prestigious Vere and Vake neighborhoods, where the elite live.

The next day, we wound up having lunch with a SIPA grad at his restaurant, on a street that is filled with restaurants on tourists. We also met another lady later, who would come to dominate our so-called vacation. I had found out about her on the web in NY because she was planning to hold a conference on investing in Silk Road countries and so I had contacted her.

Through a former US Ambassador to Georgia and Harriman grad, we wound up with an appointment to see one of the grand doyennes of the Georgian Diplomatic Corps, as it were. He has his own think tank and he is thoroughly charming. He also seems to have taught everybody in Tbilisi and arranged meetings for us with former pupils like the Minister of Energy and the President of the Bank of Georgia, a leading private bank.

The grand doyenne also speaks Persian, and my traveling companion, whom I originally met in a Turkish Foreign Policy class at SIPA, also speaks Persian. They were thus able to converse in Persian besides our common Russian and English.

We also hooked up with another friend of ours from SIPA, who works at an NGO protecting the environment in Georgia. He was kind enough to let us use his driver, who took us to Mtskhveti, a very old church, at night. The views were spectacular. We also had dinner with him and his wife, who works for the US Embassy. It turns out that Tbilisi is such a small town. While we were eating, the wife, who speaks Persian, received a call from the doyenne, telling her that he had met an American who speaks Persian!

We walked to the Avlabari area, a poor area of Tbilisi, where we saw the new cathedral, which cost a lot of money to build, and was financed by two Georgian billionaires. The cathedral is spectacular as are the views from it.

We also drove throughout Tbilisi and the environs and we saw land about five miles outside the city where they will build houses and dachas for the rich. Also, Tbilisi has a lot of hills and they are good for standing on and getting good views of the city.

We also drove about two hours west of Tbilisi to Borjomi and Bakuriani. Borjomi is famous for its pure water and as having been a resort during tsarist times. You may recall that the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline that was recently built runs through it and that there was controversy that the pipeline could affect the quality of the water.
We saw the pipeline and it is very thin.

Borjomi and Bakuriani, which is a skiing area, nearby, recently bid for the Winter Olympics and failed. It is clear that they need to build an infrastructure, including better roads and hotels, and they are starting to. But, they would have a long way to go to get to Olympic standard.

On the road from Tbilisi to Borjomi, we passed Gori, the hometown of Joseph Stalin, who is still celebrated there. Our driver asked us if we wanted to stop off in Gori. I wasn’t too interested and my traveling companion’s family was decimated by Stalin. So, we passed.

On one of our last days, I went to the old town to one of the old bathhouses. I first got into a warm sulphur bath and then received a massage where I was beaten with twigs. I then showered off. I came out feeling fantastic, but soon lapsed into torpor due to stomach trouble. It is funny that it took me a week to get stomach problems. Usually, they would occur on the first day of a trip to the developing world.

A few noticeable things:

1) The contrast between the public and private sector. We had meetings at the Ministry of Energy and at the private Bank of Georgia. The Ministry of Energy was in a much larger building and the whole building was rundown and dark, unwelcoming, dusty and dirty like a typical Soviet building. People were standing around doing nothing. By contrast, the Bank of Georgia building was gleaming new and construction was still occurring. Everything was bright and young people were dressed nicely and scurrying to and fro. It was a welcoming hive of activity.

However, the new Minister of Energy is young and western-educated as is his assistant. The President has made a concerted effort to bring young technocrats into government and to pay them real salaries so that they will not have to resort to corruption to support themselves. This is very good to see.

2) Tbilisi has no architectural plan. The old city is beautiful, yet the city itself is ringed by ugly Soviet apt. blocks. Meanwhile, the new rich are building ugly modernistic buildings. Modern is OK, but these new buildings aren’t pretty and don’t fit in with the old architecture. Some of the business centers are typical of what you see throughout the former Soviet Union, ugly unwelcoming glass-enclosed monstrosities. The new apartment buildings are already falling apart, with mismatched windows and plaster coming off. Locals complain that the city is being ruined by this rampant building of mismatched styles.

3) Georgia is not rich, but there is a lack of the grinding and desperate poverty that I saw in Central Asia. And locals will tell you that though they have a way to go, corruption has been cut substantially. One can see it, the roads are quite good and there are no GAI (the new president Saakashvili fired them), the ubiquitous auto police in the rest of the former Soviet Union, who constantly stop passengers on some made-up violations to collect bribes. This was a great surprise, because in Tajikistan, when I was there, it seemed we were stopped every two seconds.

Georgia has signed a Millennium Challenge Account Compact with the US for about $300M. The MCA is a new type of aid, which only gives money to countries that have the governance to handle it and use it correctly. This money has already gone into improving the roads in Georgia.

4) I judge a country by a number of criteria. The first is how it treats and has treated its Jewish population in its history. On this score, Georgia comes out extremely well. There is little tradition of anti-Semitism in Georgian history and there are warm feelings towards Jews. The Jewish history in Georgia goes back about 2500 years. In fact, during Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, we saw the Israeli Ambassador walking to the synagogue.

I also judge a country by how it treats its animals. Interestingly, we saw numerous stray dogs and cats, all of whom looked very healthy and did not fear people. And the large stray dogs were very unthreatening.

A few areas where Georgia comes up short:

1) Like a lot of countries, smoking. Way too much of it.
2) Again, like the rest of the former Soviet Union, the use of leaded gasoline. It really causes the air to stink.
3) Toilets in restaurants. Too often, they were holes in the ground.

However, overall, I felt like I was in the West, though admittedly the far end of the West. And the pro-US and pro-Israel sentiment is huge. In fact, I got asked a number of times when the US would bomb Iran. There is a feeling in Georgia of being a front-line state of the West along with Israel and Armenia, against Islamic fundamentalism and that the West does not appreciate this role. The further logic is that the Islamic fundamentalists would be emboldened if they were to somehow take control (unlikely as it may be) of one of the three states and concomitantly, that attacks in Europe would greatly increase.

Georgia also looks at itself in some respects as a frontline state for the West against a resurgent Russia.

Areas for investment:

1) Real estate, which is exploding in all the capitals of the former Soviet republics. Tbilisi is seeing a real estate boom, with apartment buildings going up left and right. I theorize that a reason for this boom is the fact that the prestigious areas during Communist times are still considered prestigious and are the places where everybody wants to live. So, there is finite land and bad Soviet buildings (so, limited supply) and increased demand (new money), which bids up the price for the land.

Interestingly, the new apartment buildings are going up right on the main streets. I would think that people want to live near the main area, but perhaps a few blocks away in a quieter area. Also, as I mentioned, the buildings are already falling apart.

Also, as in the capitals of other former Soviet republics, where people build a few miles outside of town in quiet and clean areas, the same is happening outside of Tbilisi. People are building mansions and dachas in those areas and there will be a great need for improved roads and other services there as well. Are you listening, construction companies?

However, the real estate boom should also occur in Borjomi/Bakuriani and though I wasn’t there, in Batumi, on the Black Sea coast. The favored holiday/resort destination during Soviet times was Sukhumi, also on the Black Sea, but now in the disputed Abkhazian territory. I believe that Batumi is poised to take over for Sukhumi and a Kazakh group has just decided to buy 21 hotels there.

Furthermore, many Europeans have been investing in real estate in the Balkans, including on the Bulgarian Black Sea coast, and that has meant that prices have been bid up. I believe that the next frontier is to move east across the Black Sea and that within five years the Europeans will discover and begin buying property in Georgia.

It is also interesting that Tbilisi already has two Marriott and a Sheraton and is building a Hyatt and a Radisson.

In conclusion, I can say that enjoyed my trip immensely and would love to visit again. There is much I did not see, including the wine country of Kakhetia, the Georgian military highway and Mt. Kazbek (I would like to ski there!) and Batumi on the Black Sea coast. I look forward to and hope for a bright future for Georgia.
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Daniel Zaretsky is a SIPA alumnus and founder of CAMEDA, Inc.

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