The film "My neighbor Ana" gives a small insight into conflicts currently typical for Svaneti at the fault line between modernity and tradition. These lines of conflict do not only run between ideas of masculinity and femininity, as the film might suggest to the audience. Behind it lie much more complex social and economic problems for which there are no good working solutions yet. They pose an ongoing threat to the social peace and economic security of the region. And they make it more difficult for women to gain recognition as equal partners despite modern changes.

The conflict in ‚My neigbor Ana‘ by Mariam Khachvani

Recently, the short-movie „My neighbor Ana“ by the Ushguli-born Georgian director Mariam Khachvani, which was published on the Chaikhana website, opened a window into a world that is difficult for many to understand. Since there is no male heir in her direct family line, 22-year-old Ana wants to register her family’s house in the village of Chvibiani in Ushguli. She wants to open a guesthouse to earn enough money to fulfil her most ardent wish. Anna likes to study singing, and Mariam Khachvani leaves some space in the film to show that Ana is very talented and hard-working to achieve her goals.

The family’s house, however, is to go to her cousin, her father’s brother’s son, since, according to traditional inheritance law in Svaneti, women cannot inherit land. The film shows how Ana tries to get her inheritance from state authorities – she has a long conversation with the official registration authority. But the hurdles are high. Several officially certified statements from male neighbours would be necessary to confirm that she owns this house in part or whole. In the end, the film implies that Ana will never get these testimonies.

Tradition and modernity in Svaneti

The relationship between tradition and modernity is as tense in Svaneti as in many other regions in the world. On the one hand, Svaneti has undergone intensive phases of modernisation, which began with the Soviet era and fundamentally restructured the region in terms of agriculture and architecture. This had also a considerable impact on the understanding of gender roles because women were forced to access education, and as a result, there are a large number of highly qualified women in the region today. But unemployment is admittedly high, especially for professions with university degrees.

On the other hand, life in the villages still follows strongly traditional ideas. This is mainly because almost all Svans have to do manual labour in agriculture to be self-sufficient. The degree of mechanisation in agriculture is low. Where agricultural machines were used in the Soviet era, they are now mostly left unused on the fringes due to a lack of possibilities for repair. As everywhere else in the world, the more time-consuming, small-scale work in the garden and the household is done by women, while the men do the more physically demanding work in the forest and on the fields.

Modernisation offers in agriculture in recent years have mainly included the proposal to form cooperatives. However, the Georgian state is still not in a position to relieve the people from agricultural self-sufficiency. Trust in state offers is generally low in Svaneti. Those who possess little try at least to keep that in order and concentrate on themselves.

The example of Ana is on the one hand special, on the other hand, typical for the village communities between Mestia and Ushguli, which have been experiencing a substantial influx of tourists for some years. The house of Ana’s family had stood empty for decades because the family had moved away from Ushguli. Only in the summer of 2018, they returned, like many others who originally came from Ushguli, because tourism offered the families the opportunity to earn money with their house and the other land they owned. As is well known, living conditions in Georgia are precarious in no small extent. The Svans, who had been resettled after the winter disaster of 1986/87, especially to Kvemo Kartli, were not able to gain a sufficient economic foothold there due to the difficult 1990s. However, the summer return of these Svans to Svaneti considerabln’ty increases the competition for tourists visiting Svaneti.

Inheritance law and land distribution in Svaneti

Scholars see one of the main reasons for the permanence of traditional social ideas among Svans in the Swan understanding of descent or origin, which is directly linked to the right to own land. The male line of descent of the father is maintained through procedures that have been regulating the negotiation of ownership between family lines for centuries. These ownership relationships, in turn, result from marriage. Accordingly, the lines of descent are regularly traced in brotherhoods as branches of the male line of descent. Their male members are all regarded as brothers. The brotherhoods refer to family branches of the same surname, on the one hand. And they refer to all areas of a locality as a territorial unit, on the other hand. The male lines of descent are used to link some areas of a village and to separate these from others. The family lines of descent are thus inscribed in the entire cultural landscape of Svaneti. For this reason, even the restrictive Soviet system was unable to implement collectivisation in the final analysis in such a way that people’s treatment of the land they farmed broke away from traditional ideas of ownership.The people simply continued to act as before, and whether the land was collectivised or not didn’t bother the Svans to a large extent.

However, traditional inheritance law has always led to a strong fragmentation of land. Even during the Soviet era, many Svans were forced to make use of the possibility of internal Soviet labour migration. Another way for Svans to escape from the land ties was through educational advancement, which led them into recognised academic professions. Another way for Svans to flee from the land ties was through educational progress, which led them into recognised academic jobs.

Current land conflicts in Svaneti

In Svaneti since 1993, the so-called state’s land had also been divided up between agricultural production communities such as collective farms or sovkhozes. This distribution based initially on the principle of privatisation of the workforce. Each employee received an equal share of the land. However, this method of distribution did not become widespread in Svaneti because of the strong traditional ties between the families and the spatial understanding of the heritage of their family lines. When Georgia increasingly disintegrated in the early 1990s, and the fighting over Abkhazia and South Ossetia showed how little the state was able to regulate the processes in the country, the people took distribution into their own hands. Large areas were distributed through mediator courts and so-called professional „reminders“ among the families, who could assert their claims before these unofficial courts. In village communities such as Lenjeri or Latali, this redistribution took place without conflicts because there was less competition for land. In Mestia, however, the distribution led to significant, even violent confrontations. With the increase of demand for land for tourism, disputes related to unresolved ownership issues are also increasing in other village communities.

All these conflicts are intensified by the ‚land grabbing‘ of powerful local families, often supported by political influence. These conflicts grow even further with the increase in tourism. Due to the Georgian legal situation regarding land allocation, only land for which written documents exist can be transferred into private ownership. In Svaneti, however, no such records exist for about 80% of the land. Furthermore, the overwhelming majority of the population does not have the financial means to assert their claims in court. Even in the case of the land in the two large ski resorts of Hatsvali and Tetnuldi and the construction of Mestia airport, hardly any compensation payments have been made to-date because the families affected have not been able to prove their rights to the land. Local influence and financial potential are thus mutually reinforcing effects in Mestia: Large hotel buildings of families which have both power and financial resources, and which mainly serve the rapidly increasing lucrative winter tourism, also contribute to aggravating the conflict. This is because they are often built on so-called state land, which has been legally acquired by the builders according to a written legal understanding. According to traditional legal concepts, however, these areas did belonged to certain families. Thus, for numerous non-governmental organisations, the increase in competition for land due to the inadequate legal situation is leading to more and more de facto expropriation. This is particularly threatening for the families concerned because only 6.7% of the land area in Svaneti is suitable for agriculture. Of this, only 7% of the land is suitable for arable farming; only a further 9% is suitable for hay production – the rest is made up of sparse pastureland above and below the forest line.

The film "My neighbour Ana" gives a small insight into conflicts currently typical for Svaneti at the fault line between modernity and tradition. These lines of conflict do not only run between ideas of masculinity and femininity, as the film might suggest to the audience. Behind it lie much more complex social and economic problems for which there are no meaningful solutions yet. They pose an ongoing threat to the social peace and economic security of the region. And they make it more difficult for women to gain recognition as equal partners despite modern changes.

Text: © Stefan Applis (2020)

Photos: © Stefan Applis (2017, 2018, 2019)

Reading recommendations

Green Alternativ et al. (2011): Problems related to the Protection of Property Rights – The case of Mestia. Tbilisi. https://transparency.ge/en/post/report/problems-related-protection-property-rights-case-mestia-july-2011

Jan Koehler (2016): Parallele und integrierte Rechtsysteme in einer postsowjetischen Peripherie: Swanetien im Hohen Kaukasus. Berlin. https://www.oei.fu-berlin.de/en/re­search/cscca/downloads/jk_pub_swanetien.pdf

Nino Tserediani, Kevin Tuite & Paata Bukhrashvili: Women as Bread-Bakers and Ritual Makers. In Tsypylma Darieva, Florian Mühlried & Kevin Tuite (2018). Sacred Places, Emerging Spaces. Religious Pluralism in the Post-Soviet Caucasus. Berghahn: New York, Oxford.  http://www.mapageweb.umontreal.ca/tuitekj/publications/TSEREDIANI%20TUITE%20BUKHRASHVILI-Women%20as%20Bread-Bakers%20and%20Ritual-Makers.pdf