Georgia’s most famous son, Ioseb Jughashvili, later known by his cryptonym, Josef Stalin, once had monolithic cement replicas of his diminutive stature and lugubrious countenance peppered all across the Soviet empire. These days he doesn’t have even a single figurine in the whole of the city where, as a teen, he studied in the seminary and became initiated into Communism. If you’re dying to see what is likely the last Stalin statue not yet torn down, a 90-minute bus journey from Tbilisi to his birthplace of Gori is on the cards.
Any news that you will have seen, read or heard, regarding this former Republic of the USSR, is almost certainly negative and troubling in one way or another. But while Georgia is not the only one of the Republics to have faced war, internal political upheaval, and problems with organized crime, it has certainly had more than its fair share of notorious and well-publicized troubles.
The government in Tbilisi is not only dealing with two separate regions – Abkhazia and South Ossetia – within its defined borders, that are waging a low-intensity armed struggle for independence from Georgia, but also with the vicious conflict in neighbouring Chechnya, which has dragged on for more than a decade. The most vivid memory that an outsider is likely to have of this Nation is the “Rose Revolution” of November 2003, which, through popular demonstrations in Tbilisi, led to the deposing of President and former Soviet Foreign Minister, Eduard Shevardnadze, who had held the Presidency ever since Georgia supposedly “broke away” from Moscow in 1991.
Neither have those more interested in sports than politics been spared the niceties of Georgia’s social ills, as the country’s most successful athlete, AC Milan defender, Kakha Kaladze, had the misfortune of having his brother, Levan, kidnapped on a Tbilisi street in May 2001 by a group of uniformed policemen. Despite numerous pleas and negotiations the younger Kaladze is still missing till this day. Surprising it may seem then, when I give my impression of Tbilisi – Placid and Arcadian!
During my few days there I noticed that the only sign of the Revolution, which had occurred a few months back, was an occasional souvenir trinket or key chain with the words “Rose Revolution” inscribed across a map of Georgia.
Central Tbilisi, which has the Parliament that all the world came to know during the Revolution at its core, surely lacks the ambience of a country at war, as only an occasional military truck filled with young conscripts, or a UNHCR jeep, breaks the monotony of the Soviet-era Ladas trundling by.
The military’s presence is only pronounced once you reach the edges of town and the beginning of the highways that lead to the onerous Western and Northern parts of Georgia. Here you can see convoys of 5-10 trucks at a time heading out.
The visitor on the proverbial shoestring budget will likely be the only type exposed to the refugees from the various regional conflicts, since the city’s tallest (18 floors), cheapest (roughly five dollars a night), and most centrally-located (in the middle of the main stretch, Rustaveli Avenue) hotel – Iveria, is filled with mostly Abkhazian families. The wooden boards that cover the windows and exteriors of many of the rooms make this by far the oddest-looking hotel I have ever seen—kind of like a high-rise shantytown!
As for the organized crime cells, supposedly made up mostly of former KGB and police officials, it’s important to keep in mind that if you are an average tourist on holiday with your family, or a scraggy “backpacker,” then you are surely an unattractive target. They can make a better profit just by targeting successful, local citizens and businesses; and besides, committing crimes against citizen of foreign nations, especially powerful ones such as Britain or America, might be construed as idiotic and self-destructive on their part.
That being said, Tbilisi is not a good place to roam after dark due to the side effects of another major, local headache – power cuts. The government simply does not have enough cash in its coffers to provide 24-hour electricity for the entire nation and heaven knows that once the lights go out, even denizens of a prosperous metropolis like NYC are not immune to illicit undertakings.
I read an interesting piece in the English-language daily regarding how the new government was trying to reduce the power shortage by offering former Ministers and supporters of the Shevardnadze regime immunity from corruption charges in return for sizeable cash donations, given to the Ministry of Energy.
Foreign tourists getting searched by police officers is all too common in the third world but, surprisingly, the only time I was shaken down in Georgia was at the border crossings with Armenia and Azerbaijan. Even then, a trivial item such as a cigarette or pen was enough to satisfy the venal official.