I’ve passed two days in Tbilisi Georgia, and I am truly amazed.
Of course, my reaction to visiting a new place is largely determined by the reality as compared with my expectations, and perhaps my expectations were low going into this former Soviet satellite state. However, I’d like to think that even if I had reasonably high expectations, I’d still be quite pleasantly surprised.
Here are a few thoughts on Tbilisi, Georgia – in no particular order.
Tbilisi is a place in radical and continuing transition, and it shows signs of tension between the old ways and the new. Western-inspired, modern-looking buildings are under construction beside Soviet-era tenements. Reconstruction of old-building facades takes place at one storefront, but the crumbling fronts of adjoining structures are crumbling from age and weathering. Here’s where the contrast is most noteworthy: The Georgians are building impressive structures – but without fire escapes or sprinkler systems, and the workers don’t often wear hard hats or strap into safety harnesses. Distinct from other Eastern European countries, here there are many cars from this decade and popular in the West (Subaru, Honda, Ford, etc.) that are completely absent even from Germany but certainly from Poland or the Czech Republic. And those modern vehicles are often pieced together from scrapped cars from the United States – they often lack seat belts and functioning components. But they look genuine from the outside. Curious. The number of times my hosts said to me “Oh, that restaurant/café wasn’t here two months ago!” probably numbers in the dozens; the rate of new business creation is high, but business failure and turnover is equally high.
A related point that struck me is this. Free-market supporters in the West often talk about marketplaces improving performance of competitors – “If they do a bad job, no one will hire them” being the common refrain. The lie is put to that platitude in evidence here in Georgia. The lack of regulations means many new businesses, but those businesses seem to be competing not in quality of outcomes, but in cutting corners, resulting in dangerous vehicles, civil engineering projects, and buildings. That brand new apartment building that created a hundred jobs two years ago? If it catches fire, everyone inside will perish. The corner shop that opened up so easily last month? They have no food-safety protocol, no vents for their ovens, and no bathrooms. The businesses that fail are not those that are worst in terms of safety and what one might call overall quality, but rather those whose owners fail to open the store with regularity and predictability. This is the Wild West of the free market corrections to a completely controlled economy of a soviet system.*
A third point goes to support an article I published last month, in which I claimed that a visitor can tell a lot about a culture by watching its traffic patterns. Georgia is no exception. That it is a culture in transition is obvious immediately upon arrival at the airport. I pulled into town, so to speak, at 4 o’clock in the morning, was led by bus from the tarmac to an airport terminal that had opened a mere three days prior to my arrival – a new, shiny, well-lit building – and abruptly was halted by the most chaotic passport control I’ve yet experienced. The obvious problem was this: Georgians don’t do lines. Much as Italians don’t do café-lines, Georgians don’t do any lines. They do not queue. They mass, gather, push, shove, weasel, go round, and crowd. The authorities haven’t yet figured out that they might alleviate this habit by introducing some rope lines to the chaos. But alas, they’ve not figured this out yet. Efficiency for its own sake is not necessarily valuable, but sometimes efficiency is a virtue. Moving large groups of people from one place to another with minimal shoving is one example of a time when expediency and orderliness are undervalued in a place like Georgia.
I arrived in the passport-control zone of the airport, was startled by the 500 or so people congregating gregariously, and put myself behind three Georgian priests who I figured at least knew the habits of their compatriots and would lead me where I needed to go. After about half an hour of moving inch by inch forward behind these fellows, all the while watching families, businessmen, and others shove round the sides of the vague line, I observed the following in the priests. Despite the language barrier between them and me, I understood what was happening as one priest turned to another and said something that surely meant something like, “Screw this,” and the three went round as well, pushed nearer the front of the line, and I found myself alone in a sea of confusion once more. Eventually, I made my way to the front of the line and was welcomed enthusiastically by the border guard checking my passport: “Welcome to Georgia!”
Fourth is the ubiquity of English. The country has made an intentional push to be more American-friendly over the last fifteen or so years (see an earlier post as to why), so it’s actually a lot easier to get around here as an English-speaker than it is to get around Prague, for instance. (And Georgian is the native language here, though the older people tend to speak Russian – and the younger people hate Russians and their language – again, see my article from earlier today on this point.)
English is surely not as common here as it is in Qestern Europe, but I was surprised. Had I not been with my Georgian-speaking hosts, I would have been able to navigate well enough on my lonesome.
And on to my last observation. The city is beautiful, despite (and in part because of) its confluence of cultures. Arabian-styled carpet dealers and hookah bars beside native-Georgian districts of restaurants, oddly-laid-out parks near round, glass, police stations that look like they’ve come straight out of Judge Dredd, and green mountains everywhere… it is a thing to behold, this city.
I recommend a visit, and I plan to return, and my expectation that I’d have no desire or option to travel here again in the future is undone.
The only thing I feel confident in asserting and expecting for a visit in the future is that this place will likely be wholly changed from its currrent appearance.
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*Addendum to the text above.
The business owners complain the same as they do in the United States: “We are being choked by regulation!” But the cry here, as in the U.S., is often merely ideological rather than factual. Or perhaps its more fairly stated like this: the facts do not support the conclusion. For instance, if an entrepreneur is hamstrung by a requirement that they pay an employee a certain minimum wage, it does in fact cost them more money to operate – but this by itself is not an argument for abolishing that standard or regulation, no more than the cost of hard hats stands as an argument against requiring builders to purchase them for their workers. Taxation in the United States is in fact a real cost to the taxpayer, but without it, we cannot pay for our schools (see Kansas’ recent debacle of a tax-reduction experiment for one case in point). In any case, Georgia is a good example of a country in dire need of greater regulation in areas of safety and education, while perhaps the U.S. is a good example of a nation in need of streamlining and elimination of some taxes or regulations. It’s not really fair to compare the two directly – but the mere argument that regulation = bad is put to rest here quite firmly. (There might be other reasons to eliminate regulation, but mere cost is not an argument for their elimination – there must be cost *plus* some other element.)