STORY: RACHA – OUT OF SIGHT, OUT OF MIND? Print this page  |  Email this page   
By Diana Petriashvili

Locals charge that mountainous Racha, famed for its altitude and its alcohol, is the region the revolution forgot. Neither corruption nor smuggling in this isolated territory present hot topics for government discussion in Tbilisi. And villagers claim both are running rampant.

Racha’s extreme isolation carries much of the blame for the persistence of these two ills. Most roads have not been repaired since 1980. Barring recent landslides, rain or snow, it is nearly impossible to reach higher-altitude villages without a heavy-duty Russian-made Kamaz truck. Telephones do not exist for much of the region; the Internet is non-existent. Village residents are usually unable to watch TV, read newspapers, send letters, or visit a doctor.

At the local level, political stagnation reigns. Although Racha’s regional leadership has changed since Mikheil Saakashvili became president in January 2004, many gamgebelis, or village administration heads, are holdovers from Zviad Gamsakhurdia’s 1991-1993 presidency – or even earlier.

Region officials argue that there are too few people in Racha’s districts to provide adequate options for a fresh sweep. Slowly but surely, the region’s population seems to be drifting away, lured by the chance of jobs in Tbilisi or Russia. Villages in Upper Racha, the northern part of the region, often stand entirely empty, with houses left furnished. Between 1995 and 2001, the region’s population declined by more than one-third, from more than 55,000 residents to 36,600.

Nonetheless, that population decline has not impeded conditions for smuggling. Racha’s contraband trade does not rival that of border regions Shida Kartli or Kvemo Kartli, but the region still carries on a brisk business in flour, cigarettes and fuel with the neighboring breakaway territory of South Ossetia. Smugglers are reportedly mostly Ossetians, with several families in Racha’s Oni district responsible for placing orders and handling distribution of the goods, according to local officials.

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In an interview with EurasiaNet, Otar Siradze, the recently appointed governor of the Racha-Kechkumi and Kvemo Svaneti region, could not put a financial value on the trade, and conceded that Racha’s administration has relatively limited information about the way smugglers operate. Nevertheless, Siradze said, “We urgently need the financial police here.” Detained trucks have carried contraband worth GEL 10,000 to GEL 20,000 (roughly $5,468 to $10,937) – the equivalent of several years’ work for most residents, who earn, on average, a mere 84 laris (about $46) per month.

So far, more than a year after their much-touted debut, the Finance Ministry’s financial police have yet to open a branch in Racha. Instead, the region depends on the financial police in Kutaisi, the administrative center of the neighboring region of Imereti, some 78 kilometers away, to register contraband. When road problems, snow, landslides or other obstacles prevent the Kutaisi financial police from traveling to Racha, investigations can stall. Georgia’s 2005 budget does not include provision for a financial police unit based in the Racha-Lechkumi and Kvemo Svaneti region.

That lack appears to be part of a larger issue. Currently, no state programs exist to develop Georgia’s high mountain regions. Nor do any appear to be in the offing. Jambul Bakuradze, head of the regional policy department at Georgia’s State Chancellory, stated that the country needs to re-define the term “mountainous regions” before it develops programs to meet the specific needs of regions such as Racha.

“There are too many regions listed as ‘mountainous’ and the state can not afford financing for all of them,” Bakuradze said. Local programs to tackle Racha’s isolation appear to be limited to a plan to open an Internet café – sometime soon, according to Governor Siradze – in the regional center of Ambrolauri, a town of about 3,000 people.

Meanwhile, another bugbear of the pre-Saakashvili era – corruption -- thrives here as well. Accusations are common throughout Rachan villages that gamgebelis have misappropriated government funds for roads and electricity. In the village of Bari, residents told EurasiaNet that police had beaten up one villager after he asked the gamgebeli, Alexander Meskhi, to grant him the 5.5 hectare land allowance to which each family that owns land or property in the village is entitled. “[They said] I was not supposed to threaten the gamgebeli,” recounted Abibo Kereselidze. Charges of embezzlement of road and electricity funds have also been made against Bari’s 80-year-old village head. Meskhi could not be reached for comment, but Siradze has since launched an investigation into the allegations against him.

The landslides and heavy flooding that hit western Georgia in April have only worsened an already desperate situation. As of late May 2005, the government had still not distributed compensation funds in the districts hardest hit by the floods – Oni, Tsageri, Lentech – although, according to Siradze, food assistance had been supplied by both the Georgian government and the UN Food Program. Work is still ongoing to restore power lines.

The government’s slow response to the situation in Racha sparked fierce criticism from opposition New Conservative Party member David Saganelidze, who represents Racha in parliament. Saganelidze charged that high-ranking officials from Tbilisi had not visited the remote region because it did not have the population to warrant “election interest.” The government has denied the charges.

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Siradze called migration “an historical problem” for Racha, but locals say that the reality of the situation is much worse than official statistics suggest. Some 100 families are supposed to live year-round in the village of Tchibrebi in Racha’s Oni district, for instance, but in April only two elderly peasants were in residence there.

Villagers blame inadequate health care and educational opportunities for the population exodus. Taxi drivers charge roughly $ 20 for traveling the 15-20 kilometers from the mountain villages of Upper Racha to Ambrolauri or Oni, where a polyclinic, hospital and schools are available. Public transportation is not available, but the price of a taxi is unaffordable for villagers, who rely exclusively on barter trade in items such as cheese and butter to make any purchases. “[They] have forgotten what money looks like, “ commented Siradze.

Bad roads add to the difficulties. A EurasiaNet correspondent’s car in April was the first seen by residents of the mountain village of Zvemo Bari since October of the preceding year. To get around the road conditions, a nurse from the Ambrolauri polyclinic simply instructed several villagers in Upper Racha how to administer injections to patients and left behind the necessary medications for the winter. “Some people could die from the flu,” commented Gela Archvadze, a resident of the mountain village Phutieti. Many villagers just opt to leave when their children reach school-age, said Ira Kereselidze, a resident of Zemo Bari village.

For now, the chances appear slim that this population loss will reverse itself. In 2004 only 35 births were recorded in Upper Racha’s Oni district, an area with heavy migration, compared with 350 deaths, according to regional government statistics.

Meanwhile, Racha’s residents say that time is running out for their mountainous region. “In ten years, it will be impossible to restore these mountain villages,” commented Jaba Skhirtladze, a resident of Bari. Another villager was succinct: “The revolution has not yet reached Racha.”

Editor’s Note: Diana Petriashvili is a freelance political and business reporter based in Tbilisi.

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