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GEORGIA



 

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Key Economic Data
 
  2003 2002 2001 Ranking(2003)
GDP
Millions of US $ 3,937 3,324 3,100 126
         
GNI per capita
 US $ 830 650 590 145
Ranking is given out of 208 nations - (data from the World Bank)

Books on Georgia

 



Update No: 320 - (31/08/07)

The cauldron of the Caucasus
Georgia is an unruly country. It has (and always did have) brigands aplenty - and secessionists too. It is perhaps the most difficult nation to govern in the FSU - bar Russia (or Chechnya, if that fellow Caucasian entity is also entitled to call itself a nation). One notorious Georgian brigand, by the pseudonym of Stalin, after all caused no end of trouble.

The Georgian authorities are understandably always on the look-out for mischief-makers. 

A plot against the state
A Georgian court on August 24th convicted 12 followers of an exiled opposition leader of plotting an armed government overthrow and sentenced them to prison terms of up to 8 1/2 years. The defendants, who have dismissed the trial as politically motivated (overthrowing a government could certainly be considered that way), stayed away from the hearing, and a defence lawyer said they would appeal what he called a "groundless" verdict.

An opposition figure whose testimony was key to the conviction was handed a suspended two-year-sentence, meaning she will not be imprisoned.

Shadow of Shevardnadze?
The defendants were detained during raids on offices last September and accused of plotting a coup to replace President Mikhail Saakashvili with Igor Giorgadze, a former security minister who is wanted in Georgia for alleged involvement in an assassination attempt against former President Eduard Shevardnadze - a close-run thing as it turned out clearly backed by 'elements' in Moscow and this was before Saakashvili!

Giorgadze is believed to be in Russia. Saakashvili, who has sought to lessen Russia's influence on his small ex-Soviet republic since his election in 2004, has suggested that the coup plot was part of an effort by "certain forces in Russia" to undermine Georgia's independence.

Crackdown on the opposition?
The defendants and other critics of Saakashvili have said the charges are a pretext for a crackdown on his opponents.

Maiya Topuria, a relative of Giorgadze by marriage and deputy chief of the opposition Justice party, which backs him, was sentenced to 8 1/2 years in prison by the Tbilisi City Court. The party's executive secretary, Revaz Bulia, was sentenced to 4 1/2 years.

The court sentenced Temur Zhorzholiani, leader of the Conservative-Monarchist Party, to seven years and nine other defendants to prison terms ranging from 3 1/2 to 8 years.

Maiya Nikoleishvili, the leader of a loose coalition of parties called the anti-Soros movement, was given a suspended two-year sentence. She had testified in September that coup plans had been discussed at a meeting in the office of the Justice party, and was released on bail following her testimony.

Nikoleishvili's statement sharply contradicted the testimony of 12 fellow activists, who vehemently denied any coup plans. 

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Tbilisi wants an explanation 
Tbilisi still wants to arrange a bilateral meeting between the Georgian and Russian presidents, Gela Bezhuashvili, the Georgian foreign minister, said on August 21.

He said the issue was "still on the agenda" even after the August 6 missile incident (a Russian plane that could have been loaded with missiles violated Georgian air space on that date).

Both Georgian and Russian officials confirmed in late July that consultation was under way to arrange a meeting of the two presidents sometime in August. "I can not tell you an exact date. The exact date was not known even before the missile incident," Bezhuashvili said on August 21. "We are not reluctant to have a top-level meeting. We will use any type of meeting to clarify all the developments that have taken place in our bilateral relations."

Former Soviet Republics are rolling out the red carpet for Western tourists with new hotels, cleaned-up capital cities and advertising campaigns. But are these countries, which gained independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, attractive holiday destinations? 

The Baltics have had the most success so far. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania -- European Union members since 2004 -- are geographically and culturally close to Western Europe, have historic towns, beaches and cultural attractions that are an easy sell to Europeans, who can take inexpensive flights on discount airlines to the region. The number of visitors to the Baltics has grown 10% to 20% a year in the past few years, more than double the average for Europe overall, according to the European Travel Commission, a group made up of the national tourist offices in 38 European countries. (The statistics don't distinguish between tourists and other visitors.)

The old town of Tbilisi, on the Kura river
Other former republics face bigger problems attracting tourists, such as Tajikistan -- with poor roads, unsafe taxis and street crime -- or Turkmenistan, which a guidebook once called "slightly more inhabitable than the moon" for its dull landscapes, harsh winters and blazing hot summers.

Georgia, a tiny nation of fewer than five million people south of Russia, is seeing some success. Visitors have nearly doubled to about a million last year from the previous year. Most of the people came from neighboring countries such as Armenia, Azerbaijan, Ukraine and Russia. Yet 34% of visitors came from Europe, the U.S. and Asia, leaving officials upbeat.

"It used to be that Georgia was Europe's best-kept secret," says the country's president, Mikheil Saakashvili, taking a break from skiing in Gudauri, a small ski resort two hours from Tbilisi. "Now the secret is out.

"Overstated perhaps, but Georgia has, in a short time, undergone a dramatic transformation, and a closer look shows how the country has focused on developing tourism. 

In the past three years, the capital city of Tbilisi has grown far more welcoming. Roads have been repaved and buildings -- even some of the enormous Soviet-era gray ones on the city's outskirts -- have been painted bright seaside colors, in blues, greens and pinks. Fountains in squares have been renovated, new sculptures unveiled, and in the evening attractive lights now illuminate bridges, buildings and trees -- a novelty for a city that three years ago suffered power outages most nights.Early this year, a modern and stylish airport opened in Tbilisi. Another followed in May in Batumi, a resort town on the Black Sea. Hotel chains Marriott and Radisson are building luxury hotels in Tbilisi -- Marriott has two in the center already. There are new roads from Tbilisi to ski towns in Gudauri and Bakuriani, where you'll find new ski lifts and hotels.

Part of the monastic complex of David-Gareja
To train workers, the government is opening a vocational school in Tbilisi in September. With help from the Greek government, the school will train workers in the tourism sector, including front-desk clerks, waiters and cooks.

Officials have encouraged tourism by eliminating visa requirements for countries such as Turkey, the U.S., Canada and EU countries for visits of up to 90 days. To attract tourists, and also foreign investment, M&C Saatchi in London was hired to run a multimillion-dollar ad campaign with print and television ads in Israel, Europe and the U.S.The government also set aside about 2 million to distribute in preferential loans to small companies that cater to tourists, such as guest houses, souvenir stores and ski rental shops. If the projects are successful, another 6 million will be distributed this year, according to a government tourism official. Meanwhile, a special tax incentive was granted to tour operators. They no longer pay an 18% tax on income generated from inbound travel to the country.

As a tourist destination, though, Georgia is, like all of its ex-Soviet neighbors, a work in progress. Many problems still exist -- some of which date back to the fall of the Soviet Union. During Soviet times, Georgia was a popular destination for Russians, with more than a million visiting each year. They skied and visited Black Sea beaches, and also spa towns such as Tskaltubo in western Georgia, which Joseph Stalin favoured for its mineral springs and grand bathhouses.

But since the breakup of the Soviet Union, the number of Russian tourists has steadily declined and resort areas have fallen on hard times. Politically, Georgia remains out of favor with Russians. Past wars and ongoing friction over two separatist Georgian regions with ties to Russia, and a recent series of high-profile disputes -- earlier this month a Russian jet allegedly dropped a missile that didn't detonate about 60 kilometers outside of Tbilisi -- have made Georgia unpopular with ordinary Russians.

Tbilisi's new airport
But times are changing. In 2003, the peaceful Rose Revolution, which removed Russian-backed leader Eduard Shevardnadze from power, led to a democratic and Western-leaning government headed by President Saakashvili. Since then, money has poured in from the U.S., Europe and other former Soviet countries in the form of government grants and private investments.

Still, countries can rebuild only so quickly. New hotels are coming, for example, but not fast enough. "It's a good country for tourists," says English author Peter Nasmyth, who has been visiting Georgia for 20 years and wrote a hiking guide to the country. "But if lots of high-end tourists flooded into Tbilisi this year, they'd have a difficult time finding a hotel. Next year it would be a bit easier."

Progress isn't always smooth. Soon after opening the new airport in Tbilisi, the roof started to leak. Then heavy winds damaged it. Infrastructure, in general, is far less developed than in Western Europe. While there are many road-paving projects, streets remain pot-holed even in the capital city.

Traveling outside of Tbilisi is best for rugged or flexible types, and a guide is advised. English is rarely spoken. Hotels are often more like hostels with saggy mattresses and bare bulbs hanging from ceilings. Visitors shouldn't be surprised to find country restaurants, even those with excellent food, offering an outhouse for facilities with no toilet paper or running water. But Georgia has attractions that tourists will surely appreciate. Its biggest selling point in some ways is its underdevelopment. The countryside remains largely unspoiled. It is rich with natural beauty, and for such a small country, boasts a wide variety of landscapes including mountains, semi-deserts, forests and beaches.

"It actually looks like Switzerland," says Falk Spoerri of Bern, Switzerland, who recently travelled to the mountain town of Bakuriani as part of an American Chamber of Commerce initiative, backed by the U.S. Agency for International Development, to evaluate and recommend improvements to Georgia's tourism infrastructure. The country is also home to a number of endangered species, and attracts bird watchers to see more than 330 types.

In Batumi, the best-known beach town, new hotels have opened in the past few years, as well as restaurants, bars on the beach, a bike rental shop and even a new ice-skating rink. "Generally, it's a lively, friendly atmosphere, people playing volleyball at 7:30 in the morning," says Hans Gutbrod, a German who visited this summer. "And it isn't money that is trying to [push up] to the seafront, it's more quaint.

"Georgia's churches and monasteries -- some covered in bright frescoes and dating back to the first millennium -- draw architecture and history buffs. The monastic complex of David-Gareja, carved into a mountainside, can be reached in less than two hours from Tbilisi on recently improved roads.

In the capital, you'll find a mixture of neo-classical, baroque and late 19th century-style buildings decorated with Georgian motifs, intricately designed in stone or in fanciful metal work. Although Tbilisi has been destroyed many times during its history, wood buildings dating back 100 years remain and many are painted in bright colors with ornately carved wood balconies. In the restored old town, a Western-style caf culture has emerged in recent years with outdoor restaurants and live music.

In the end, though, what's best about Georgia is its famed hospitality. At supras, the enormous feasts that last hours, plates of excellent food are piled high -- typically one on top of another. Spicy grilled meats, khachapuri, or cheese pies made with dough, and flavourful vegetable dishes, some made with ground walnuts and pomegranates, are typical. The Georgians pride themselves on their wine, and for better or worse, your glass will never be empty.

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