What happens to traditional culture when an isolated town in the Caucasus is reshaped in the image of a Western tourism center?
By Marina Kaganova
As you drive into the town of Mestia, there are four things you will inevitably notice: mountains, ancient stone towers, ubiquitous construction, and the police station. Mestia, which holds around 2,600 inhabitants, is located in Upper Svaneti, Georgia, at an altitude of about five thousand feet. The mountains and the towers are the main tourist draws. Surrounded by the snow-capped peaks of the Caucasus (among them the famous double summit of Mt. Ushba), Mestia offers enviable views from all angles. The towers are unique to Svaneti and have stood in place for up to a thousand years, indestructible by any avalanche. They are omnipresent throughout the entire region; there are seventy-five in Mestia alone, nicely illuminated at night by amber spotlights. These structures are under the protection of UNESCO, as is the entire village of Ushguli, about forty-five kilometers up the road from Mestia.
Even today, with a new road, getting to Upper Svaneti takes a fair deal of determination, but until the 1930’s there was not exactly a road in place at all, and up until recent years Svaneti was an isolated, self-contained region with its own customs and even its own language. Svan belongs to the same linguistic family as Georgian and Mengrelian (another regional tongue) but Georgians outside of Svaneti do not understand it; other than Svan and Mengrelian, Georgian itself is not related to any other languages.
President Saakashvili is on a mission to make Svaneti a prime tourist destination, “a Switzerland of the Caucasus.”
The mountains and the towers in this once-secluded region have been around for quite a while, but the construction and police station certainly have not. The construction really is everywhere. It is not just a building here and there being remodeled, not a few new edifices put up, it is the entire city turned inside out and re-cemented, including the sidewalks. This makes walking around an adventure in its own right: I pretend that I am playing a live-action, non-deadly version of minesweeper, treading between the hot brown piles of cow excrement and the viscous grey lumps of cement, as the excavators, freight trucks and jeeps hover in front, behind, and on both sides of me. In the middle of it all, next to a futuristic new hotel, a cow stands chewing on a cardboard box. There is really an urgency to this building–well, as much urgency as there can be in Georgia, where an 11:00 am beer with your neighbor’s toddler is the only right way to start a day of construction, and despite my being here for three weeks already, the workers find time to set down their tools and give me a curious stare through a cloud of cigarette smoke as I walk by–but an urgency nonetheless. So, one might ask, what’s with all the construction?
The things being constructed are mostly hotels and other tourist-related businesses. Though I have seen quite a few tourists here, I wonder if so many of these buildings are even necessary. President Saakashvili does not share my questioning. Himself the owner of a vacation home here, Saakashvili is on a mission to make Svaneti, specifically Mestia, a prime tourist destination, “a Switzerland of the Caucasus.”
This leads me up to the final thing of note: the police station. Not counting some of the towers, this is the tallest building in town. It is new, and imposing—a tall, curvy rectangle aesthetically at odds with the town around it. Though it resembles an amoeba made of concrete and glass, it is large and in charge. Police trucks abound on the disemboweled streets, clutter around their home fortress. That the fortress is glass is no accident: it is part of President Saakashvili’s effort to accentuate the transparency of the country’s administration. The police stations in every town are new, prominent, see-through.
The Svans have never had absolute rulers; the region was governed by the clan-heads, up to two hundred of them, who resolved all issues and made all decisions on behalf of the population at their meetings. It didn’t matter what anyone else said. Blood vengeance was a common practice. As modern times approached, the self-governing spirit did not vanish. In other parts of Georgia, Svaneti became known as a dangerous place, where one could get kidnapped and no laws applied. It is not surprising, then, that the government has opted for such a strong police presence. Rumor has it, a lot of the police officers are not Svan themselves, because it could be problematic for one Svan to arrest another.
Between the construction and the increased police presence, the face of the region is rapidly changing. Since every other family’s home is becoming a guesthouse, the people are driven by the prospect of money. Quite of few younger people, who left for less secluded areas, come back for the summers and interact with tourists: some work for the information center, others run hostels or guesthouses. Everyone maintains a great sense of regional pride. And yet, some see the development as a trap. They fear that the government’s help will change the place, but that once everything is up and running, the taxes and fees will go up, and all the local guesthouse and hotel owners would have to sell their properties. Others think that the police presence is keeping everyone in fear, suppressing the people’s temperament, so they are but shells of who they must be. They say it’s good to have less corruption, and more safety, and see things restored, but add that by no means would they consider this a democracy.
I wonder if it is possible for Westernization to be gentle.
As for me, I don’t know what to expect. A large part of me hates to see these cookie-cutter Western buildings pop up like mushrooms; I long for rougher surfaces, for quiet old homes. With each day the center of Mestia resembles more and more a place like Aspen. There’s nothing wrong with Aspen, but it comes with a certain price tag. It might be better for the people, in terms of income, but I find it sad to see the traditional Georgian hospitality spiked with greed and competition. The other day, as I was walking directly past two or three guesthouses on my way to a neighboring village, an older woman nearly chased me down, trying to coax me into staying at her place, over a mile away.
In this in-between time, as development takes hold but is still new, one sees a huge incongruity: the new German-designed buildings, and a complete and utter lack of “service” to match them. For me, there is a charm in that; it’s actually nice to see the sort of lazy and bewildered reactions of the storekeepers and wait staff. But of course this bizarre liminal state of things will not last, and an all-around money-mania is entering the picture. I wonder if it is possible for Westernization to be gentle.
Georgia is trying, quite persistently, to become a part of NATO. According to local news sources, the US has been a strong supporter of this quest. As the 2013 presidential election draws near, a lot of promises are flying in the air–the usual talk of democracy and progress. I look at Svaneti largely as a microcosm for the entire country: it is in flux, trying to become something else, yet in a way that is hardly organic. On this small scale, it’s easier to see things grow. Only time will tell whether this growth is malignant or benign.
Marina Kaganova writes poems, studies the Caucasus, and lives in Brooklyn most of the year.