On a recent trip to Georgia, I spent about week in Batumi and slightly more than that in Tbilisi. I first visited Batumi in 2003 when I got the full Alsan Abashidze treatment complete with tours of the city, long meals, lectures about the history of the Abashidze family in Ajara that lasted for hours and even a performances at the opera house. I have made several visits there in the intervening 14 years so have seen the extraordinary development and growth of that city. I have, of course, spent a great deal of time in Tbilisi over the last fifteen years, so have a pretty good sense of both cities.
Tbilisi and Batumi are both interesting cities with there own charms and attractions. At first glance the differences are also obvious. Tbilisi is much bigger. Batumi is a beach town, while Tbilisi is in the middle of the country and has a much larger and more diverse economy. Tbilisi feels more urban, while Batumi feels more like a very fast growing small town that is somewhat removed from the central government in the capital.
There is another difference that may be more significant and that becomes apparent very quickly when visiting both cities. In Tbilisi, English is the unofficial second language, particularly in hotels, good restaurants and in the old city. It is also heard in the government offices that are based in the capital. However, in hotels and restaurants in Batumi one more frequently hears Russian, Turkish, Arabic or Persian. Even the Hebrew one hears in Batumi is more likely to be Russian accented than that coming from the Israeli tourists and businesspeople who got to Tbilisi. In general, there are many European and North American business people, tourists, long term residents and visitors in Tbilisi, while the European and North American footprint in Batumi is much lighter. The point here is not simply one of linguistic difference, nor is it a Tom Friedmanesque attempt to explain Georgia by hanging out in hotel lobbies in Tbilisi and Batumi. Rather, there are some bigger differences between the two cities, that represent competing visions of Georgia’s future, of which these observations are illustrative.
In Tbilisi, Georgia’s European inclination and aspirations are very evident. Not only does the city feel more European, but it is much more connected to Europe through business, politics and people. If you spend time in Tbilisi, particularly if you stay in the center and in the more cosmopolitan neighborhoods, it is not hard to see Georgia as European. The cafes dotting the old city, the mix of centuries old churches next to hip restaurants serving interesting fusion cuisines, the melange of European languages one hears at these places and the growing imprint of western youth culture all give Tbilisi a very European feel.
Batumi, on the other hand, is, by any measure, considerably less European. Parts of the city are beautiful, but much less European feeing than parts of Tbilisi. There are a handful of cafes and restaurants that have a true western vibe, but they are much less part of the fabric of Batumi than is the case in Tbilisi. Moreover, the huge presence of tourists from Ukraine, Russia, Belarus, the Middle East and elsewhere make Batumi a fascinating, but not entirely European seeming town. Batumi is nonetheless flourishing and represents a different relationship between Georgia and the rest of the world. Batumi’s growth and success as a beach town and tourist destination rests not directly on Georgia’s European orientation as there are relatively few European tourists there. Instead, Batumi benefits from Georgia’s location at a crossroads of many different countries, reputation as a safe and tolerant place and residual nostalgia from the Soviet period.
In some respects these two cities represent different possible futures for Georgia. The Tbilisi future is one where Georgia accelerates its integration into Europe and becomes something of a European outpost in the South Caucasus, on the geographical fringe of what most people would view as Europe. The Batumi future is one where Georgia becomes a genuine crossroads of the Middle East, the former Soviet Union and, to a lesser extent, Asia and Europe. In this vision, it is not just tourists, but investors and trade that comes to Georgia from these parts of the world.
It should not be overlooked that while these two cities represent two different possible futures for Georgia, there is a third possible future for Georgia. That is the one represented by large parts of the country outside these two relatively dynamic cities and is much less positive. The underemployment, relative economic stagnation and lack of opportunity that has proven to enduring in much of rural Georgia represents a very depressing vision for Georgia’s future. Thus, one way to think about the major question for Georgia is which vision, Tbilisi or Batumi, is best suited to address the ills plaguing most of the rest of Georgia.
Ideally Georgia could synergies these two visions, becoming both European and a crossroads of the Middle East, former Soviet Union, Europe and Asia, but that will not be easy. Achieving either of these goals requires smart policy making, political stability and a clear vision. Achieving both would be much more difficult, necessitating a nuanced policy approach that threads a needle between these two sometimes clashing visions.
The dialectic between Tbilisi and Batumi is not, however, exactly a policy question. The government cannot simply decide to move the country in one direction or another. Additionally, continuing to think about Georgia’s future largely in terms of orientation and direction, rather than concrete policy actions is not the most productive approach to governance. However, policy makers, as well as civil society advocates, media and others in the broader policy arena, would be well served to recognize that both of these cities represent important, and distinct visions for Georgia’s future. Equally, importantly they are reflections of important trends in Georgia now.
Tbilisi and Batumi represent two possible development and policy directions for Georgia, but they also represent two Georgian identities. The notion that Georgia is European and that Georgia’s future lies with greater ties to Europe has been axiomatic among broad swaths of the political elite for years. It is frequently reinforced by framing the alternative to Europe as Russia and all the negatives, from occupation to lack of freedom, that are associated with that country in the minds of Georgians and their western allies. Given those options, the choice is easy, but Batumi implicitly presents an alternative, one that recognizes that Georgia’s European identity may not be as deeply entrenched, or as natural, as the elite consensus suggests, while also presenting an alternative that is not Russia.
The identity suggested by Batumi is complex and not easy, but it may also be more natural for Georgia. While Georgia has strong European elements, the fit has always been difficult, not least because of simple realities of geography and much of the history that grew out of that geography over the centuries. Georgia’s historical ties, not just to Russia and to other countries that were once part of the Soviet empire, but also to Iran, the Middle East and Israel, for example, are different, and in many cases closer than those of most European countries.
For years, Georgia’s European orientation has been as much, or more, about Georgia’s self-perception, than about security, economics or politics. For Georgia, aspiring to be part of Europe is a way to reinforce its vision of itself as being part of the advanced, affluent west and to differentiate itself from its less affluent, less successful neighbors. This desire has spurred Georgia towards reform and been one of the key engines of its democratic development, so it has contributed much to Georgia. However, the desire to differentiate itself from its neighbors may have also created unnecessary barriers to economic development. Because Batumi is so dependent on tourism, it is a good example of this. A big part of the success of Batumi is precisely because it has not pursued the European market, but instead focused on markets where Georgia already has a significant comparative advantage. There is a lesson there for other regions and economic sectors in Georgia.
The quest to be part of Europe also has its limitations for Georgia., By identifying so heavily as part of Europe Georgia misses an opportunity to exploit one of its strategic advantages, its location and strong geographic and indeed cultural ties to several different regions. For example, the Georgian government has indicated that it sees positioning Georgia as an transit corridor between Asia and the west and an important component of economic development. There is no guarantee that strategy will be successful, but it recognizes Georgia’s potential strategic advantage. The vision of Georgia’s future represented in Batumi reflects that advantage as well.
This is not just an economic question as it also speaks to what kind of country Georgians want. At first glance, it seems that if they want a European one, than the model presented in Tbilisi is best, but that is something of an oversimplification because it addressed the political, but not the economic. If Georgia’s commitment to democracy and other European values is strong enough, that the Batumi model will not undermine that commitment. Moreover, if the commitment is not strong enough than simply restating its European orientation and aspiration will not be enough to ensure Georgia moves meaningfully in that direction anyway.
The Georgia Analysis is a periodicanalysis of political and other major developments in Georgia. Lincoln Mitchell is a political development, research and strategic consultant who has worked extensively in the post-Soviet region. If you would like to be on the Georgia analysis mailing list or are interested in more research, analysis or consulting for your business, government, campaign or other organization, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.