The port city of Poti, located north of Batumi on the Black Sea, is in many regards an awaiting city. Since the decline of the port and a long period of stagnation in the 1990s, the inhabitants of Poti are waiting for the city to regain its former importance. In the past, it had the second-largest port after Batumi as the western starting point of the Poti-Baku railway line. During the Soviet era, Poti was used to export metal ores, products of Georgian steel processing and, among agricultural products, mainly wine. A sustainable upswing would also help the many internally displaced persons who have been waiting in Poti in dilapidated housing units of former port and industrial workers since the Abkhazian war in 1992/93.
The article series "Georgian Perspectives" provides insights and analyses of contemporary Georgian social life from a geographical viewpoint. This means that all articles examine the social space and the practices taking place within it. This includes both the built space and the non-built space and all communications about places and spaces. It is important to underline that the insights given here must always include views from the outside, as the author is neither a native speaker nor permanently living in Georgia.
The decaying infrastructure on the beaches and in the city is evidence of formerly more extensive tourism. Today, you find accommodation in Poti only in a few hotels or guesthouses, which are mainly used by transients. In Poti itself, one looks in vain for places that invite to relax and recuperate. Flâneurs do not seem to have seen the city for decades. Only a few strollers might appreciate the charm of industrial and commercial wastelands, of residential areas whose inhabitants seem to resist the decay and of oversized administrative and educational institutions that tell of a formerly higher number of inhabitants.
Until two years ago, Poti’s only café bore the name of the Georgian writer and politician Niko Nikoladze, who promoted railway construction to Poti in the period before the October Revolution. Young musicians played there for a few guests, together with them they seemed to be waiting to be discovered. In the summer of 2019, the operators gave up and moved back to Tbilisi. Their hopes for Poti’s ascent had, unfortunately, did not fulfil.
By naming the Café Nikoladze, Café Nikoladze not only referred to the man who was the first Georgian intellectual of standing in Western Europe to obtain a doctorate. At home, people soon considered him an enlightener, as he pushed for the modernisation of Georgia towards a liberal state, whose politicians should be committed to social responsibility towards the citizens. This brought him into conflict with tsarist censorship, but without diminishing his reputation in Russia. From 1894 to 1912 Nikoladze was mayor of Poti and turned the small port city into an important commercial centre. After the Russian Revolution, Nikoladze fought for Georgia’s independence and became a representative of the National Democratic Party of Georgia. During the few years of the Georgian Republic (1918-1921) he participated in significant social and economic reforms. With the Soviet invasion in 1921, independence ended, and Georgia became the Soviet Socialist Republic of Georgia. Former manor houses, bourgeois town villas and trading houses bear witness to the time before that.
Like a stranded whale, one of the wooden residential buildings on the beach was once home to families of members of the fishing fleet of the Georgian Soviet Republic and workers in the metalworking industry.
The Caucasus Barometer for 2019 indicated that 15% of the Georgian population did not have enough money to buy daily food for themselves and their family in a month; 34% of the people would have enough money for food but not for clothing every month. 28% are dependent on the sale of products from small subsistence farming, while only 40% receive more or less regular wages. 26% of the population stated that they needed USD 250 per month as a lower limit of household income to be able to lead a „normal life“. 52% of the population, however, had a household income of only USD 50-250; pensions averaged USD 50 per month (cf. Caucasus Barometer 2017), while about 59% of the population relied on these payments to support household income in the family. For some years now, there have been reports of increasing indebtedness among households that have to borrow money to try – mostly in vain – to escape the poverty trap (cf. Lomsadze 2018).
As everywhere in Georgia, not only the houses but also the gardens in Poti bear witness to the economic status of their inhabitants. According to the statistical findings on poverty, there are potatoes, cabbage, aubergines, tomatoes and leeks. Almost everyone uses every free space for growing vegetables, fruit and small livestock like chickens; some even keep a pig in the garden. Here, as elsewhere in Georgia, people praise the fact that all this is organically grown, free of pesticides and other toxins. Those who can afford it, however, buy here as elsewhere in supermarkets, to give expression to a newly acquired status of living. If you look at the gardens and the houses, it is easy to recognise: Most of the inhabitants of Poti are far away from that.
In 2008, the Georgian state initially sold 51% of the port and additional areas of 300 hectares to the investment consortium RAKIA from the United Arab Emirates, and in 2009 the remaining shares of the port to RAKIA. During the financial crisis in Dubai, RAKIA decided to sell the port. In 2011, A.P. Moller-Maersk from Denmark acquired 80 per cent of the Poti port site; the significant investments expected to create the necessary jobs have so far failed to materialise. Nevertheless, the interest of investors from the Gulf States in real estate in Georgia is increasing, as is that in Armenia (see Kucera & Sanamyan 2017 for an overview).
As is widely known, the Black Sea region represents a highly unstable area of conflict in the relationship between NATO and Russia. In the 1990s this began during the armed conflicts in and around Georgia. Then, the annexation of the Crimea by Russia in the wake of the Ukraine crisis followed. In 2017 NATO announced that it wanted to increase its presence on the Black Sea (cf. Kucera 2017). Georgia, through its Supreme Allied Commander in support of NATO plans, then offered the port of Poti for the establishment of a permanent Black Sea presence. The establishment of a NATO port should also help develop a robust Georgian navy as a regional stability factor to show strength vis-à-vis Russia (see Khachatrian 2008 and Ismailzade 2008 for an Armenian and Azerbaijani perspective).
At the same time, China has for years been interested in establishing itself on the Black Sea coast via Georgia (see Jardine 2018 for an overview). Since other investors occupy Poti, there have been plans since 2012 to make Anaklia, located north of Poti directly on the border with Abkhazia, the largest seaport on the Black Sea coast. However, Anaklia has also been waiting for the time being. No investments have yet been made in more than concrete and iron breakwaters, and Chinese investors have already twice offered their shares to other consortia. Georgian policy is nevertheless positive. Whoever implements the project, Georgia will play a significant role at the far end of a new Silk Road belt. This is – as always – also linked to the hope of keeping Russia at a distance by involving other players. Parallel port projects in Anaklia hinder the development of Poti and vice versa. The respective initiatives on the ground lead to persistent tensions and ultimately to a backlog in development (cf. OC-Media 2019).
Wherever it may ultimately go, depending on the interplay of global political imponderables (see Zabanova 2017 for an Iranian perspective), Poti seems to remain Georgia’s waiting city on the Black Sea for the time being.
Not least because the country’s poorly developed infrastructure makes all investors act with restraint. As long as there are no multi-lane roads designed for bulky goods traffic through the countryside to Poti or Anaklia, it won’t be easy to transport products (see Bradley 2017 for a first successful project linking Tbilisi with Baku).
As a result, the central bus station in Poti, on the site of a former filling station, will probably not need to be extended in the foreseeable future.
Text: © Stefan Applis (2020)
Photos: © Stefan Applis (2017, 2018)
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