Batumi, 150 thousand inhabitants, is a major coastal city of Georgia on the eastern shores of the Black Sea. Every summer, its large waterfront dubbed the “Boulevard” attracts throngs of visitors from the wider region, among them Turks, Russians, Ukrainians and nationals of the countries surrounding the Persian Gulf.
At about 10pm last week-end, while sitting on a bench in the spotlights of a few medium-size cargo ships, I had one of those rares flashes of lucidity, in this case a good idea to improve business. The burst of enthusiasm that followed and the distraction of a long display of fireworks across the bay of the harbor made me forget my sleeveless jacket on a low wall. With it, I had lost my Georgian residence permit, a credit card, a public transport card for the city of Tbilisi, my RFID card to access CospoT and a 5 lari banknote. The jacket was a gift from my colleagues in Bahrain and I was already regretting it almost as much as the residence permit.
After an hour spent running to ask the restaurant, the hostel and the waterside restaurants “if anyone had seen a black jacket,” I ended up in a first police station. There, I was made to point at the exact location of the loss on a map. A few phone calls later, a police officer drove me to a police station in another jurisdiction.
I had three hours left before the departure of my train to Tbilisi. I learned the Russian word for “filing a report” and, in the second police station, met L., a young policewoman on duty.
The tourist season had barely begun and there weren’t any translators on-site. L. gave calls every ten minutes while keeping an eye on the clock. She requested an English translator and finally got the promise of a Russian one (since I write and read Russian). She kindly brought me water in a mug decorated with the image of Stalin, the kind of mug you find cool to buy when on vacation but hard to get rid of when having to figure out who to offer it to.
Here is the most interesting part of our discussion:
– “Do you live in an apartment in Tbilisi?”, she asked.
– “Ah! My dream.”
Read: the dream of a young public servant in Georgia is to earn enough money to rent her own apartment. The rents are so expensive (or the wages so low) in Georgian cities that many young people still live with their parents, who themselves most probably live in the apartment that their parents were left with when the Soviet Union collapsed. Over 90% of Georgians are homeowners.
I hit on the topic again when we talked about France where – I explained – unemployment is high. Georgia also has many unemployed(1) but the situation differs in that, in France, the rules make it difficult to hire and dismiss employees. In Georgia, those rules are more relaxed and, if it appears easier to find a job, this one will most often be poorly paid (and more so even in times of crisis(2)).
Young people therefore live at their parents’ home. They are never really independent, always on a leash, and the system sustains itself. With exceptions, unaffordable rents thus are a powerful tradition-keeping force, a force towards the conservation of society (regardless of whether this is a good thing or not).
The epilogue of the evening is also revealing. At about half past midnight, three Turks entered the police station and, before our eyes, produced the jacket they had found nearby: my jacket with the residence permit and all the documents and everything. L. congratulated me (in the Russian manner where you are congratulated for your birthday, as if you did anything special for it), gave some calls, and handed me a piece of paper with a phone number and the word “Police” on it: “Come back to the police station on your next visit to Batumi, as a guest. ”
(1) Unemployment in 2015 according to GeoStat: 12.4% (http://geostat.ge/index.php?action=page&p_id=146&lang=eng). In practice, unemployment is widely perceived to be much higher.
(2) The national currency of Georgia – the lari (GEL) – fell 30% against the US dollar between November 2014 and May 2015. The historical foreign exchange rates of the National Bank of Georgia are available on the website of the National Bank (https://www.nbg.gov.ge)