Georgians and their country on the way

Jan Hanzlík  | Fotografie: Petr Šilhánek

In Georgia, a transforming country cut off from international trade, the world economic crisis, augmented by the war in Ossetia, hit very hard. Georgians cannot get work at home, the doors are closed to them in Russia due to their reluctance to conform, and there is only a ghost of a chance of getting visa for the EU. Hundreds of thousands of people lost their homes, jobs, and all stability in the fight for Ossetia and Abkhazia. Desperate people do desperate things – often many Georgians set out for the West to find work without visas and work permits. Those that returned voluntarily through repatriation programs received new stimulus and a chance to start their own businesses. Their success, however, is largely not in their own hands. It will be also influenced by the overall development of their beautiful and welcoming, although isolated and poor Caucaus country.


There is hope, but no chance

(contemporary Georgian proverb)

It went like this: it is dusk, a young woman is sitting behind a cash register looking forward to going home; maybe she is thinking about how to spend the evening and where to go to find the cheapest food at the market. There is no one in the shop anymore, it is almost  time to close up. But then the door flies open again and two men with hoods covering their heads and knives in their hands burst in. In that moment she would have given them everything but luckily they just settle for the money in the cash register. After they leave, the salesgirl collapses to the floor and cries in shock.

The two robbers were caught a week later – with no money somewhere on the other side of Georgia. But the girl did not care anymore. At that moment, only one thing mattered to her. To get out of there. To Europe. Supposedly in Europe everything is easier. Work is plentiful and there are no robberies in broad daylight. She must get away. And start over again.

Natalia Tzereteli (29 years old) wanted to be a journalist since she was a child. When I was young, I already used to sit in front of the mirror and speak into it with a brush in my hand instead of a microphone, says the petite, pretty girl and as she recollects this memory she laughs sincerely. She is careful not to get too animated because the size of her room in a former maternity hospital in the Sololaki quarter does not allow for such excessive gestures. A bed, a table, a chair, a wardrobe, a television, and three people fill the rest of the space within these four walls.

“I never let it go. I graduated from journalism and started to work at a newspaper, but it was an opposition paper and as president Saakashvili’s national party took power in 2004, it gradually lost influence and money and finally went bankrupt. And I lost my job.”

To have no work is a common problem for many people in Georgia. Even if they have it, it is not what they were educated for and they can potentially be working in a profession that is not at all adequate to their education. Finding any kind of job other than badly paid manual labour is practically impossible without contacts or bribing someone and even this is scarce. This is the reality faced by young idealists such as Irakli Shatakeshvili, who received a top-notch education in Germany and, despite the financial crisis, also obtained an excellent offer of employment. He turned it down due to a sense of responsibility to his homeland. He came to believe that, with the education and experience that he had acquired abroad, he should go and help his fellow countrymen. Irakli, when speaking of his decision, adds: “Running away is no solution. The time away allows one to realize what is wrong at home. But then one should return and try to do something about it. When the opportunity comes up, one has to try.”

Like many others of his kind, this idealistic graduate of a western university would be extremely happy to find any kind of job even remotely connected to his field of study.  Whereas in EU countries there is always a demand for lawyers, in Georgia jobs just simply do not exist. The public sector is unable to create them and the private sector is small and more or less saturated. Irakli does have the advantage, though, that he is young. In contrast, sixty-year-old Volodya does not have this advantage. For thirty years he played the trumpet at the Tbilisi Opera and now he wanders around restaurants and night clubs with a digital camera and printer giving drunkards a memento of their evening out for five Lara (just over 2 USD). And Zaza, a translator of German, English and Russian, is around fifty and lives with his mother, trying to make a living by collecting empty bottles. None of them can expect a government pension of more than 100 Lara (about 50 USD) per month. And no amount of scrimping can make that last a month, not even in Georgia. There are many just like them. No one can be choosy about their job, there are just too few.

In the refugee camp

Natalia was not choosy either and she gladly took the job of salesgirl in a grocery store. Monotonous work, thirteen-hour shifts, low wages, but at least it was a job. And everything was fine. Until that early evening, when two hooded men robbed her store. “That was the last straw. I just couldnt imagine getting behind that cash register again. But at the same time, I knew I couldn’t find another decent job in Georgia. So I decided, after spending ten years in Tbilisi, to try my luck in Europe.

Natalia has a friend in Italy who promised to help her find a job. She planned to stay for a year or two – three if possible – and then come back with enough money for a flat and everything else. In the end though, because of the similarity between the Polish language and Russian, which she spoke perfectly, she went to Poland in April 2009. Poland, as she had heard, also accepts refugees, which suited her, as she had no money for a work visa. She was desperate and decided to take the risk. It soon showed to have not been the luckiest decision. From the airport, she went straight to a refugee camp in Rodzin Podlaski, applied for asylum and waited. “Our camp was near a missile base at the village of Bezwola. I’m not sure but there must have been something in the air or water, everybody just slept all the time, including me. I slept or cried for the first couple of weeks. There was actually nothing else to do.”

Natalia received an allowance of seventy zloty a month, so once she got used to the place, she started looking for work. Finally, a local family in Rodzin hired her as a nanny and a housemaid but she was working illegally and had no prospects for the future. And the chances of her refugee status changing to legal residence were minimal.

“I knew for sure that I would not be granted asylum and that sooner or later theyd send me back to Georgia. So I decided to take a risk once again and I bought a bus ticket to Italy.” She packed, took the last of her money and got on the bus. Everything was fine until they reached the Czech-Austrian border. The Czech border guards stopped her and led her straight to a prison cell.

“I spent a day in a prison cell at the Czech border. The next day they brought me an interpreter and took me to a Czech refugee camp near the Austrian border for questioning. Of course I told them the truth; I had nothing to lose. I spent three weeks in the Czech camp and then they sat me in a police vehicle and returned me back to Poland.”

Natalia paid a fine of eighty Euros with the last of her money for illegally crossing the border. When she got back to Poland, she could theoretically apply for asylum again and wait but she already realized there was no point.

“In the meantime, my mother fell ill; she called to say that she didn’t feel well. I also found out that the IOM helps refugees return home and even start their own business or finish their education. So I figured coming back was better than staying in the Polish refugee camp.”

Coming home with IOM

From the perspective of the governments of countries receiving refugees, people like Natalia are a source of frustration and unpleasantness. In western countries, public pressure is pushing politicians to take a hardline stance on illegal immigrants. Of course, a “hardline” approach has its own drawbacks; deportation is fairly costly and those involved in the process are often heavily criticised – and this criticism is not coming just from human rights groups. This twofold pressure could explain why many countries have decided to support voluntary repatriation programs where returnees receive funds not only for transportation but also financial support to make a new start in their home country. In many cases, these programs are connected to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), an intergovernmental organisation of 127 member states. Often, it is the only organisation offering assistance to refugees and returnees, as Natalia can attest to: “There was no other contact information on the walls at the refugee camp, just the local office of the IOM”.

Thanks to the IOM, which is concerned among other things with the fight against human trafficking and with helping refugees in foreign countries, many stories of illegal refugees from Georgia have at least partially happy endings. Since the financial crisis began, the Georgian IOM office has been increasingly busier. According to current statistics, since 2003, the Georgian office of the IOM has facilitated the return of 1,158 people. Although in the better financial times of  2007 and 2008 it was 97 and 98 people respectively, 2009 saw the return of no less than 374 people and by October of 2010, a further 361 had returned. During these years, 105 people returned home from the Czech Republic (funded by the Czech government), 49 from Belgium (funded by the Belgian government), and 370 from Poland (funded by the European Return Fund). The funds available for reintegration in the home country differ from country to country and year to year, but the base amount can range from anywhere between tens to thousands Euros. In 2003, the Czech government, for example, gave every person 75 Euros, but by 2009 it had gone up to 1,500 Euros. And just for interest’s sake, between 1998 and 2010, 94,793 Georgians applied for asylum in other countries around the world.

Getting poor by working

Natalia, like many others, approached the Polish office of the IOM and, after 8 months in Poland, she returned home with their financial assistance in December 2009. In addition, the IOM paid for her computer lessons and contributed funds for a new laptop and desk. Thanks to this help, she finally found a job.

“Just before the municipal elections in May, I found out that the opposition Conservative Party was looking for a girl with a computer, so I applied, helped them with their election campaign and then they hired me.”

And so Natalia Tzereteli is finally working again. At the Tbilisi Conservative office, she is in charge of media relations, organises press conferences and prepares the partys public statements. She is as close to her original profession as she could be but she has not won yet. With an average monthly salary of seventy dollars (US) a month, she cannot even afford to rent a flat on her own. Moreover, the situation of the Opposition in Georgia is not exactly rosy and the state can do whatever it pleases. But Natalia is definitely not planning another illegal trip to Europe.

“In Poland, I used to just sit and cry”, she recalls with bitterness. “If I found a job with a salary of at least 500 dollars, I wouldn’t go anywhere because my family is here. But nothing has changed here. And there’s no point in sitting here and doing nothing, so if I don’t find a decent job and I have a chance to go to Europe, I’ll try. But only legally! And that’s impossible now, because I was deported, so they said I can’t go to Poland or the Czech Republic for three years. So I have to wait…”

Without the tight embrace of mother Russia

Georgia is one of the so-called “post-Soviet” countries, which suffered a downturn in its standard of living after the break-up of the USSR. The Georgian Soviet Republic served, together with Moldova, as the “vineyard” for the Communist Bloc. A large percentage of the politician, sportsmen and other elite came from Georgia and the whole country made good use of its ties with Moscow. Today, however, everything is different. After years of political chaos, the economy is in a catastrophic state; its famous vineyards are drying out, the capacity of its roads has reached their limit, blackouts are frequent and it is dependent on imports of everything except nuts, grapes and, in the East Bloc, the popular mineral water Borjomi. Relations with Moscow, who used to be the primary consumer of Georgia’s produce, have plummeted well below freezing. They paid for their independence with an economic collapse and the war against Russia in Ossetia led to a complete Russian embargo on all Georgian goods. During that time, links between Tbilisi and Moscow were closed, as was the border. The situation has improved ever so slightly; air traffic has resumed, although sporadic and irregular, and one crossing point has been reopened. But stable relations are still a long way off. Russia has cut off parts of Georgian territory (Ossetia and Abkhazia) on the pretext of protecting minorities, and further, supports separatist factions within Georgia with the aim of destabilizing the country. As a result, over the past twenty years, hundreds of thousands of Georgians have become refugees (after the war in Abkhazia in 1992-1993, the number of refugees amounted to about 36,000 people). In the ruins of this poor, barely functioning country, with an over-saturated labour market, these internal refugees desperately seek new work and a new home. With protectionism, cronyism and corruption running rampant together with the saturated labour market, these unfortunates, driven from their homes, towns and villages, have no option but to hope for a miracle.

The development of the economic situation of Georgia can be described by clearly concrete numbers: in 2008, a more stabilized political situation had encouraged a wave of foreign investment, leading to an increase in the Georgian economy of 8.6% per annum, but the war with Russia in August 2008 put an immediate and abrupt end to that growth. The economic slump rapidly worsened with the arrival of the financial crisis, which made itself apparent in its negative effect on not just the volume of production but also in shipped goods. The collapse was greater than local economists had predicted. The GDP fell by 4%, unemployment jumped to 16.5% and at the beginning of 2009, 24% of the population found themselves below the poverty line (although some sources put that figure at 40-50%). This figure continues to rise. One way out would simply be to link the country to European structures (which Russia persistently interprets as a direct attack on itself and the only definite support Georgia receives is from the USA, which is obviously quite far away), and markets (however, endowment policies of European markets deprive Georgia of any financial competitiveness). At the moment, Georgia is standing at a crossroad of dead-ends.

Zurab from Telavi

The road to Kakhetia is flanked by hundreds of hectares of melon fields. An old woman or old man sit at each field and wait, the fruits of their harvest piled high before them for sale. There are dozens of them and how they are able to make a living this way is one of the many mysteries of Georgia’s seemingly autarchic economy. Anyone who stops by the road and buys a melon pays on average the equivalent of twenty cents US per kilogram. But in fact, Kakhetia is not a country of melons but wine. An overwhelming majority of Georgian wine production comes from here and it is impossible to imagine Georgia and its inhabitants without it.


Though indispensable, Kakhetia is not a rich province. Former government owned wineries look run-down and decayed, the local roads are just as bad as in the rest of the country, and the journey from Tbilisi to the regional centre of Telavi, a distance of just over 100 km, takes three hours. But if the weather is good, you will be rewarded with a breathtaking view of the Caucasus and by legendary hospitality, which we were alerted to already in Tbilisi by the locals, who said: “Are you going to Kakhetia? You won’t be back today then.”

Our destination in Telavi is the house of Zurab Jashiashvili. Thirty-two year old Zurab was born here, his wife has a private dental practice, his son dances like Michael Jackson and his daughter speaks excellent English even though she has just barely started to go to school. His family is terrific but he has lost his job. For years he worked as a border guard between Georgia and Dagestan. But once a friend of his told him about Switzerland, a country with mountains similar to the Caucasus, where wine is also made and, above all, where good work is rewarded with good pay. Without a second thought, Zurab packed his knapsack and set off.

“I bought an airline ticket to the Ukraine and continued from there on foot. Every time I came to a border, I went to an internet café and used Google Maps to find the best place to cross. I only had my knapsack and maps downloaded from the internet with me. I slept in ditches and within ten days I reached Romania. From there I alternated between travelling by train or by foot until I got to the Swiss border. I went to the police there and they sent me to a refugee camp.” Once inside the gates of the camp, he understood that travelling without visas was a big mistake. “But at that time, we just didn’t have the money for a visa. I didn
t think about it; I just took off. I had no money for transportation, so I went on foot from the Ukraine. All the time I kept hoping Id find work in Switzerland. Everybody said that life is good in Europe.”

But disillusionment came quickly.
Switzerland is not a country that welcomes immigrants with open arms and when they offered to transfer Zurab to Belgium, he did not hesitate.

In Belgium, they put me back into a camp again, but still, it was good there. I had a room, food, everything was fine. I even got a card from the Red Cross, something like a refugee passport, so I could travel all over Europe. Nobody bothered me too much and it wasnt a problem at all to ask the cops the right direction. I learned a little French and otherwise I used my hands and legs to communicate.” But with an allowance of sixty Euros per month, Zurab had no choice but to try to find a job again. But it was futile. “I thought that life could be better in the EU than here, which may be true, but theres nothing at all for illegal immigrants. I have a wife and children here, so there was no point staying there without a job. Why should I stay in Belgium with my family waiting for me here? So I decided to come back.”

A friend at the camp told him about the IOM, and then everything just fell into place. And their assistance did not end with the airline ticket. “I used to work as a carpenter; I had my own workshop at home but I couldn
’t afford to repair the roof, so the first heavy rains destroyed everything. But people from the IOM helped me out. They came to look at our house, paid for a new roof over the workshop as well as new equipment and materials, and they even gave me some money towards a new car. Without their help, nothing would have happened.”

Zurab shows us around the yard behind his house. Apart from the chickens running around and a pig chained up, there is also a new roof, a workbench under it with some simple tools, and a steam chest. Zurab’s father Vacho and his friend and neighbour Volodya are just taking a softened board from the steam. They fix it in a vice and bend it. When it dries out, they will take it out of the vice and the board will become the base for a new chair. It is Zurab’s and his father’s new occupation. “It’s up to us now. When we’ve made enough chairs, we’ll try selling them at the market. The competition is strong but our chairs are pretty good. I think we're going to make it.”

The Illegal activities of Konstantin Bagiriadze

Konstantin (35 years old) orders a cappuccino. He takes a sip and grimaces. “Nobody here makes as good a coffee as they do in Germany.” He must know; he lived there for ten years.

Konstantin studied cybernetics and programming but he knew he would never be able to find a job in this field in Georgia. So even before he graduated, he had decided to go to Germany. He scraped up some money, got himself accepted into the university at Stuttgart, obtained a student visa, bought an airline ticket and, in the year 2000, he headed off into a new world.

“I went to classes and worked part time for the first five years. You know, if you want to eat, you have to earn some money. And I also didn’t want to live on campus, so I rented a flat. Eventually I was working more than studying. I did not finish my studies but with my valid student visa I stayed in Germany legally for five years.”

Finally after five years his visa expired, but Konstantin did not want to return. He had fallen in love with a Georgian girl who was also studying in Germany. So he stayed in Stuttgart.

“I worked illegally almost everywhere. I tried to find work in my own field, but it was impossible, so mostly I worked in construction. It’s a strange system; you may have work for a month and then the next month you don’t. I met many immigrants in the same position. A lot of Georgians, Africans and Czechs as well. I have a lot of German friends too and I’m still in touch with some of them.”

In the meantime, his girlfriend became his wife. “We talked a local orthodox priest into marrying us and he did. Unofficially, but he did it. It was very important for us.” After five years of legal residence, Konstantin spent another five years in Germany illegally. He had no chance to get any jobs other than illegal ones. “I just used the service of one company that offered illegal work. They charged 22 Euros per hour for arranging the work, and out of that, I got 9 Euros per hour as a wage. I had no papers and I even lost my passport, so if the cops stopped me, I would have been in big trouble. For the first month I was nervous and afraid, but later I got used to it and travelled around Europe with ease. I visited Switzerland and I’ve seen all of Germany, but I didn’t hide and I wasn’t afraid of the police or any authorities.” The last years in Germany were some of the best in his life. He got a stable, albeit illegal, job as in construction, he had lots of money, and his wife became pregnant.

“But suddenly the financial crisis came, the layoffs began and after three years I lost my job and I couldn
’t find a new one. On top of that, my son Alexander was born. Fortunately, my wife still had a student visa, so our papers were OK and she could give birth to our son at a proper hospital. Otherwise it would have been a big problem.” But the money quickly ran out; the child needed a doctor and insurance and his father’s documents were no longer valid… Suddenly everything became much more complicated.

“So I bought airline tickets to Georgia, but I didn’t have a passport, so I went to the embassy in Berlin. I told them everything truthfully. They took my fingerprints and questioned me but then they gave me a temporary passport and that same evening my family and I boarded a plane for Tbilisi.”

They came back to Georgia in May of 2010. “When I went to Germany ten years ago, I felt it was the only opportunity to leave Georgia and experience a different way of life. Georgia was at war at that time, Shevardnadze had messed everything up, the streets weren't safe, there was no work to be found, so what can you do in such a country? In fact, when I left as a student I already knew that, rather than study, I would try to live in Germany.”

The Georgia he returned to is a much more pleasant country than it was ten years ago. The streets are safe, goods and services available. But one problem still lingers: there are no jobs. 

“I did not bring any money back to Georgia but I did bring a sense of perspective and knowledge of the German language but there is no demand for translators. I’m still looking for a job; we are renovating our apartment, my wife lives with her parents in a village, so it’s not easy at all. But we have to take it as it comes. And would I go back? Sure, I’d love to, but I’d have to have a job arranged first, and I don’t even know if they’d let me in. I have a family now, which makes it more difficult. But never mind, there’s no time to choose or wait for what’s going to happen. We have to try for ourselves.”