Trans Eurasia travel

Georgia's regions

Georgia is much more regional and less centralised than the other Transcaucasian countries, and since independence there has been a marked increase in the power of the regions vis-a-vis the centre. The country includes the two autonomous republics of Abkhazia and Adjara, the formerly autonomous region of South Ossetia, and ten administrative regions (mkhare). From east to west these are Kakheti, Kvemo (Lower) Kartli, Shida (Inner) Kartli (which includes the seceded region of South Ossetia), Mtskheta-Mtianeti, Samtskhe-Javakheti, Imereti, Racha-Lechkhumi, Samegrelo, Zemo (Upper) Svaneti and Guria.
Historical anf Geographical provinces of GeorgiaKakheti is the easternmost region of Georgia, projecting into Azerbaijan; it's known almost entirely for its vine growing and winemaking. Kvemo (Lower) Kartli lies to the south of Tbilisi, across the routes to Armenia; it's largely inhabited by people of Azerbaijani origin who produce much of the food sold in the markets of Tbilisi. Although there are secessionist tendencies and in 1992-95 there was some sabotage of pipelines and railways, both the Georgian and Azerbaijani governments are keen to keep things calm. Further west, around Lake Tsalka, is a population of Greeks raising livestock and growing potatoes.

In general the people of Kvemo Kartli are reformist, wanting to be allowed to make money, while the Kakhetians are conservative, with plenty of old-style communists who want to be left alone with their wine.

Shida Kartli is the heartland of eastern Georgia; with a population of 343,000 it produces 5-10% of Georgia's industrial output as well as most of its fruit. It now theoretically includes the autonomous region of South Ossetia (also known as Samachablo, with a population of about 70,000), which has now seceded.

Mtskheta-Mtianeti, to the north of Tbilisi, straddles the Georgian Military Highway, the main route to Russia; it's an agricultural area with vegetables grown in the lower region and sheep raised in the high mountains. Industry is growing in Mtskheta and Dusheti, and Georgia's main ski resort is at Gudauri.

Samtskhe- Javakheti covers the high empty volcanic tablelands of the southwest of Georgia; 90% of the population is Armenian and in many ways the area is largely autonomous. Few speak Georgian and they are not conscripted into the Georgian army; however, the Russian army base near Akhalkalaki (which closed in 2006) took recruits for the Russian army. It's a harsh area and its few agricultural products rarely reach markets due to the poor road and rail links. Javakheti, near the present border of Armenia and Turkey, was settled by Armenians in the 19th century, after the Russian conquest of the area; here and in Meskheti, to the west, there was also a heavily Islamicised population of largely Georgian stock, the so- called Meskhetian Turks, who were deported to central Asia in 1944 and have still not been permitted to return. There's little industry, apart from some low- grade coal and Swiss and French investment in sugar plants. There's now a road crossing to Turkey at Vale (and another planned at Сildir), but the 98km extension of the railway from Akhalkalaki to Kars in Turkey is still awaiting international funding. This would link Azerbaijan and Turkey, and thus Kazakhstan and China with Europe, moving freight faster than the Trans-Siberian. It seems to be held up largely by Georgian inertia (although the country would earn about US$150 million per year in transit fees) and opposition from the US-Armenian lobby, who see it as another way to isolate their homeland.

Georgia's second city is Kutaisi, capital of Imereti; 10-25% of Georgian industrial production is based here, although this share is declining - it's largely dependent on the Chiatura mine (which used to produce a quarter of the Soviet Unions manganese) and the connected ferro-alloys plant at Zestaponi.

Samegrelo (or Mingrelia), in the northwest of Georgia, has historically had a considerable degree of autonomy, partly because the Mingrelian dialect is almost unintelligible to the people of Tbilisi. Politically the area is still strongly associated with Zviadism and opposition to the central government. The regional capital, Zugdidi, is now overloaded with refugees but benefits from illicit trade with Abkhazia. The subtropical climate makes tea and citrus fruits important crops, while traditionally Zugdidi has produced porcelain and Senaki carpets. Exports of tea have crashed since the end of the Soviet Union and many plantations are now being replanted with hazel trees.

To the north of Kutaisi, Racha-Lechkhumi and Kvemo-Svaneti lie in the foothills of the Caucasus; the only roads here are minor and circuitous because of the hills. Winters are harsh, with much of the population decamping to the city, but nevertheless Racha manages to produce both tea and wine. The chief towns of Racha are Ambrolauri and Oni, both little more than villages. Lentekhi, capital of Kvemo Svaneti, is even smaller. Kvemo (Lower) Svaneti was historically part of the feudal system of western Georgia, while Zemo (Upper) Svaneti was always self-governing and has developed a far stronger cultural identity. With its stunning Caucasian landscape, its defensive towers, its haunting music and its superb and ancient icons, Zemo Svaneti is the area to which all the more enterprising tourists to Georgia are drawn like moths to the flame.

Guria, a small swampy region on the coast south of Poti, is known for its subtropical crops, stunningly complex polyphonic songs and the humour of its people. People usually come here en route to Adjara, which dominates Georgia's trade both across the Turkish border and through the port of Batumi. With this trade, subtropical agriculture, beach tourism and some copper and gold mining, Adjara is a prosperous republic.

Finally, the autonomous republic of Abkhazia, in the extreme northwest of Georgia, has effectively seceded, making it difficult for foreign visitors to visit. In the past this was perhaps the most sought-after holiday area of the entire Soviet Union and Russian holidaymakers are starting to return in large numbers, entering by means of the western border near Sochi. Its exports are citrus fruits, hazelnuts and timber, so there is some tax revenue, and arrangements have been made to share the power produced by the Inguri hydro-electric station between Georgia and Abkhazia; but it'll be a long time before normality returns.

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