Tourism and trade shadowed by hesitations and fears. JAMnews correspondents report on the complex relations between the two neighbours" />

North Ossetia-Georgia: invisible ties

Tourism and trade shadowed by hesitations and fears. JAMnews correspondents report on the complex relations between the two neighbours

Vladikavkaz, April 2017. Photo by Tamara Agkatseva, JAMnews

Georgia and the Republic of North Ossetia-Alania (an entity of the Russian Federation) are very close neighbors location-wise. Tbilisi and Vladikavkaz, the capitals of these republics are located approximately 200km from each other.

One would think that the Georgian-Ossetian conflict in the early 1990s as well as the 2008 war around South Ossetia should have marred the neighbors’ friendly and business relations. However, this is not the case, given that the Russian region is still tied with the neighboring country by the actively developing tourism, trade and endless kinship.

It is noteworthy that the Russian region of North Ossetia maintains its ties with Tbilisi unlike South Ossetia, which has sealed off its borderline, having proclaimed independence from Georgia and being recognized by Russia in 2008.

Moreover, today North Ossetia is the key and single legally operating land gateway between Russia and Georgia.

The Verkhny (Upper) Lars border crossing point closed for repairs in 2008, which coincided with the escalation of tension in the Russian-Georgian relationship. Naturally, it seriously affected the relations between the neighbors, virtually freezing them.

The border crossing point was re-opened in 2010. Trade, as well as family ties resumed, given that Georgia had unilaterally introduced visa-free travel rules for the Russian nationals (Georgian citizens still need visas to travel to Russia).

Vacationing in Georgia has become popular in Vladikavkaz.

Travelling from Vladikavkaz to Georgia

Georgia is a popular tourist destination in Vladikavkaz. Skiing in the mountains and sunbathing on the Black Sea coast attract people, as well as the Georgian historic and cultural heritage and recreational facilities.

video vox-pop by Tamara Agkatseva, JAMnews 

Opinions differ on the quality of vacationing in Georgia.

Alena, a housewife, spent her vacation at the Georgian seaside with her husband and two children for the first time last year. The family enjoyed their vacation very much and intend to spend it there this year again.

“We rented a room close to the sea, but I cooked myself. We took potatoes, macaroni, cheese and even dishes from home and bought food when necessary. The nature is amazing, and we did not spend much. The interaction between us and the locals was neutral – nobody disturbed one another. We are going to spend our vacation in Georgia again this year.”  

Zalina, 35, an economist, was invited by a friend to Kobuleti, a popular Georgia sea resort, two years ago. The resort quality didn’t meet her expectations and she doesn’t intend to go there again.

“There are no jobs in Georgia. People aren’t always hospitable; the men sit idly especially in rural areas, and many of them drink a lot. I was treated more neutrally than friendly. They didn’t care much that I was Ossetian. Also, there was no open-heartedness and hospitality that people in Georgia like to talk about so much.”  

Many told us they were concerned that Ossetian tourists would be met aggressively in Georgia. A director of one of the Vladikavkaz-based travel agencies, who preferred  to remain anonymous, said: “At first, almost all our Ossetians feel apprehension there, but later they share their opinion and say that nobody talks about the conflict and that the situation is calm there. Thus, the fear vanishes.”

The businessman claims that many, having spent a vacation in Georgia once, travel there over and over again. From his experience, seaside vacationing is particularly popular: “People like to spend vacations with their families in Batumi or in neighboring towns. It’s almost three times cheaper than, for example, in Krasnodar region.”

Batumi is one of Georgia’s most popular tourist destinations. Several people in Vladikavkaz shared a view that the city could do with larger beaches. “The way they are today, they’ve failed catastrophically to accommodate all the tourists,” one respondent said. Photo by JAMnews.

Murat is fond of adventure vacationing. Gudauri, the Georgian ski resort, is his favorite destination.

“Tsei ski resort is the only place where you can have a holiday in Ossetia. The skiing tracks are ideal there, but the service is poor and the prices are sky-high. There is no medical aid there and the infrastructure is outdated. It takes two hours to get to Tsei and the same time is required to get to Gudauri, where the conditions, service, and skiing track attendance are excellent and the food prices are much lower than in Tsei. A new cableway is being installed in Kobe. It will be possible to leave a car in Kobe and reach Gudauri by the new cableway.”

Many in Vladikavkaz said they preferred Kazbegi. And it’s their unwavering choice, despite the need to cross the state border to get there. Besides, there is also a flow of tourists from Ukraine, Belarus and Russia at the Upper  Lars crossing point. One will have to spend several hours, especially on the Russian side, depending on the queue length.

The director of the travel agency says that Tsei resort and hotel owners spend their vacations in Gudauri. “I often meet them there! And it is no wonder, since there is neither infrastructure, nor any equipment in Tsei and the prices are exorbitant there. Gudauri is an international resort. As for Tsei Valley in North Ossetia, only Russian tourists travel there for old times sake.”

Tamerlan Tsomaev, a civil activist from Vladikavkaz, believes that cultural, tourist and commercial relations between Georgia and North Ossetia are ‘sporadic and unbalanced’. They are mostly built on kinship and personal contacts. In his words, it’s important that the Ossetian people remember the bloody pages of the past.

“We should not forget the pain that Georgia inflicted on our people. But if we choose between friendship and fighting, I think it’s better to be on friendly terms rather than to fight with each other. We should build a new relationship with due account of our common historical experience,” Tsomaev says.

Vladikavkaz, Aprili 2017. Photo by Тamara Agkatseva, JAMnews

Khatuna is a young, energetic woman. She says she has ‘Georgian roots’.

“We are ethnic Ossetians, but our ancestors used to live in Georgia, in Akhmeta district, Kakheti region. My father moved to North Ossetia in the 1990’s [when the conflict broke out]. There he married my mother, who is from South Ossetia. And I was born in Vladikavkaz.”

Khatuna says she first visited Georgia at the age of 11. Her family was visiting their relatives in Kakheti then. She cherishes her very warm memories of that trip. As she grew up, she travelled to Georgia on her own.

“My relatives took me all over the country – Tbilisi, the western and eastern regions of Georgia. I even travelled to the mountainous villages. There are only a few Ossetian villages left. I met a lot of tourists from Russia and other countries there.”

Khatunа enjoyed the trip: “The cuisine is delicious, and the prices are affordable even in the restaurants. The nature is rich and very beautiful.” Yet, many things were a disappointment to her.

“What I didn’t like was that many people there live in poverty. Even professors have to sell their belongings in underground passages. There are also problems with jobs and the earnings and pensions are scanty. The rich people certainly live in prosperity. My peers there told me, they would like to visit our country, and they were interested to see how we live here. Young people almost don’t know Russian, and what I didn’t like most is that they are obsessed with everything western. Girls smoke publicly, which isn’t a typical behavior in the Caucasus. It seemed to me that they were not quite Georgians, but they were not Europeans either. Georgia has become an absolutely different country.”

Trade – from Georgia to Vladikavkaz

Georgia holds a dominant position among North Ossetia’s trade partners. “Georgia is followed by China, the Czech Republic, Turkey and South Ossetia,” the Russian Foreign Ministry’s representative to North Ossetia, Bagir Mamiev, reported on 12 April, 2017.

Judging from conversations with the locals one will have an impression that those, who are engaged in trade with or via Georgia are mostly the refugees from Georgia, who were displaced in the 1990s, as they put it, as a result of the nationalistic policy of the then Georgian president Zviad Gamsakhurdia, as well as the result of the conflict between Georgia and South Ossetia.

It is easier for these Ossetians to travel to their native places. Besides, many of them still have relatives and friends in Georgia. Such contacts are very useful for joint businesses.

“Many locals buy real estate in Georgia, in the resort areas. And that proves that mutual relations are being restored,” the owner of a Vladikavkaz-based travel agency told us.

According to the RF Statistics Service data on North Ossetia, the republic’s commercial relations with Georgia have been steadily developing after reopening of the Upper Lars checkpoint in 2010 and up until 2014 (the latest data provided by the service).

  • Trade turnover between Georgia and Republic of North Ossetia-Alania totaled USD 1.8 million in 2010, whereas
  • In 2014, it already exceeded USD 6.2 million
  • Georgia accounts for over 15% of the republic’s foreign trade turnover.  

The official statistics apparently doesn’t reflect the actual amount of trade between Vladikavkaz and Tbilisi. Namely, it’s almost impossible to keep record of trading operations through offshore companies and Moscow firms, the share of which is obviously very significant.

The ‘shuttle’ business, in which the Ossetian refugees from Georgia are actively involved, isn’t recorded either.

Photo from “How Tbilisi changed”, a project by Georgian company Borjomi

According to Vladikavkaz market vendors, Borjomi mineral water, lemonade and wine are the most popular import from Georgia.

Alfa Group is the official supplier of the popular Borjomi mineral water, but is also being imported in substantial amounts by petit merchants in small lots. Goods are being purchased at the markets in Tbilisi or other Georgian cities, then delivered and sold to second-hand dealers in Vladikavkaz. Georgian lemonade and wines are on sale in Vladkavkaz supermarkets.

Gairbek Salbiev, the head of ‘Darial’ NGO dealing with the problems of ethnic Ossetians in Kazbegi district, Georgia, is discontent with such sporadic cross-border trade and prefers to see the products from Russian regions, instead of Georgian goods, being sold at the local markets.

“The republic can easily do without Georgian products. This is business of the few for the sake of personal enrichment. They deliver goods from Georgia in small lots, through corruption schemes.”

“Goods from Georgia should be documented and have excise stamps, like other import. They should undergo due control. However, this is not the case, and goods of dubious origin and quality are being delivered to the counters,” Salbiev said.

He believes that economic relations between the neighbors are hindered because many Ossetians can’t return to their homeland – Georgia.

“Profitability of Georgian resorts and the intensity of commercial relations between North Ossetia and Georgia would have increased if, officially, Tbilisi had returned Ossetians to the lands they had inhabited for centuries – to Gudo Valley, Kobi, and Truso Valley Gorge. If the Ossetian population had been allowed to return to their lands, to their abandoned houses, the Ossetians and Georgians would have found a common language faster. There are historical ties between us,” Salbiev said.

“After visiting a Georgian resort, many people come back here wondering why nothing is being done in Ossetia in terms of its development as a tourism destination – especially as a mountainous tourism destination,” said a Vladikavkaz-based businessman who organizes tours to Georgia. Photo by Tamara Agkatseva, JAMnews

Unlike the period before 2014, when a hike in commodity turnover between the neighbors was recorded, there has been a stable decline in exports from North Ossetia over the past 3 years.

The republic mostly exports metals (in particular, zinc and lead), the products thereof, as well as other raw materials and produce.

Another business that flourished in that period was travelling to Georgia for foreign car spare parts. But it also saw a decline after Russia had raised duties on imported cars. “They are urging us to get back to ‘Zhiguli’,” concluded a taxi driver, who drove us to the border.

According to Tamerlan Tsomaev, who has a reputation in Vladikavkaz for civil activity, the North Ossetian-Georgian ties have pretty good prospects both in terms of commerce and tourism.

“We also could have supplied produce to Georgia, such as grains, wheat, maize and brewing products, as well as alcohol, raw materials for wine and brandy.”

“The Ossetians also have many historical links with Georgians, be it princess Burdukhan, Queen Tamara or King David-Soslan. In order to make the potential work, our relations should be equal and well planned.”

Verkhny Lars checkpoint on the border between North Ossetia and Georgia, July 2016. Photo by Alan Tskhurbayev, Kavkazsky Uzel
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