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Batumi: Football and the New Economy

Batumi, a bank building with its Art Nouveau facade. Photo: Peter Nasmyth
Batumi, a bank building with its Art Nouveau facade. Photo: © Peter Nasmyth

Until the Rose Revolution and Saakashvili's government came to power, the western region of Adjara was not under the control of Tbilisi. There was a border dividing Adjara from the rest of Georgia. Nasmyth quotes a variety of voices on this.

The Ajaran border… [is] not a real border, it's to keep the Georgian mafia out… away from theirs… Aslan Abashidze, the ruler [of Adjara], is a clever man… He made this check-point to keep the Mkhedrioni [from] coming in. It made Ajara the safest place in Georgia. Here all the guns belong to one man.

[p. 210]

Batumi's history is closely linked to the oil fields of Azerbaijan. After being part of Turkey for 300 years (between the 16th and 19th centuries) it came under Russian control (as the rest of Georgia):

[At this time] the Baku oil fields were being developed… and a period of strong Europeanization and investment began almost immediately. By 1888, 21 per cent of the cent of the world's entire oil production passed through Batumi – then the railhead of the new Caspian-Black Sea rail link. A few years later a pipeline terminus and large refinery (funded by the Rothschild family) were added. But not only oil investment. By 1892 Georgia produced 38 per cent of the world's manganese – passing through Batumi and its sister Black sea port, Poti, 100 kilometres to the north. The trade expanded and by 1917 it was said that Baku had more millionaires than Paris or London – most had villas in Batumi.

[p. 212]

But even here Nasmyth can't escape the economic downturn and war:

My walk to the sea-front took me past elegant turn-of-the-century mansions displaying a fascinating blend of Art Nouveau, Art Deco, Neo Classical, Italian baroque, mingled with the Caucasian balcony… Very quickly Batumi lived up to its reputation for varied architecture – in every way except one. For virtually all its fine old buildings… were neglected. Four years of war and poverty had shut down all maintenance.

[p. 212-213]

But there between all the decay and remains of economic success and poverty, Nasmyth stumbles upon a sign of hope, an emblem of the new Georgian economy:

Browsing through a stall in the square something called my attention; a pair of shoes with the words MADE IN GEORGIA printed on the sole. I experienced a little thrill. The first product manufactured by independent Georgia…? Certainly I wouldn't see another clearly indigenous product for a year – then a carton of tangerine juice stamped PRODUCED BY LILO COMPANY TBILISI, GEORGIA… Slowly, a few daring businessman were starting to fill the gaping hole left by the Soviet system.

[p. 215-216]

Back in Tbilisi Nasmyth witnessed another sign of hope for the newly independent nation: Georgia had entered the European Cup and for the first time in its history would play Wales at home.

The game was like few I'd ever seen. Not only did Georgia win 5-0, Temur Ketsbaia (since taken by Newcastle United) scored Georgia's first ever goal as a nation in a major competition (until then the Georgians had to play as Dynamo Tbilisi in the Soviet League).

[p. 221]

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