Just in time for the elections, and after months of speculation, Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili on September 30 unveiled a multi-billion-dollar private equity fund.
The Georgian Co-Investment Fund, a $6-billion vehicle that pools funds from over ten investment groups to finance projects in agriculture, energy, infrastructure, manufacturing, tourism, and “other” business opportunities, has been lauded as the key to bolster Georgia’s rates of foreign direct investment (FDI) and economic growth.
Over the next five years, the fund plans to spend $6 billion -- potentially more money per year than the Georgian economy has received in FDI since before the 2008 war with Russia. Aside from attracting large-scale international investment, its stated intentions include increasing Georgia’s exports and local businesses’ access to financing; all among the government’s economic priorities.
There’s just one catch – Ivanishvili himself, estimated by Forbes to be worth a cool $5.3 billion, is one of the investors.
Critics worry that, with one hand managing the government and the other hand on the fund’s till, the prime minister could end up sinking into a deep conflict of interests.
In what seems like a drastic reversal of policy, Georgia on July 19 placed a ban on selling agricultural land to foreign nationals. The move puts to an end to earlier grand foreign investment plans such as bringing thousands of South African farmers to settle in the Georgian countryside.
The so-called invasion by South Africa’s Boers never really happened, but scores of Indians settling in Georgia’s wine country, Kakheti, prompted some local farmers to complain that they had been slighted by the government for foreigners. The foreign privatization of formally nobody’s lands that locals often use for pasture and growing crops led to tensions with the newcomers.
Catering to these sentiments, nationalist politicians pushed for the ban. Some members of Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili’s ruling Georgian Dream coalition said that the move should be temporary until all Georgia's farming land gets categorized in a way that would grant villagers priority access to adjacent farm lands.The ban will be in effect through 2014.
Libertarian economists lambasted the move. “We might as well put a lock on Georgia,” commented Paata Sheshelize, president of the New Economic School, to Netgazeti.ge. He argued that the bulk of Georgia’s agricultural lands remain unused and that investments from foreign farmers are a boon for the Georgian economy, which can use all the boons it can get these days.
In a move that emphasizes the South Caucasus country's emerging ties with the Middle East, Georgia’s largest carrier, Airzena Georgian Airways, has launched direct flights to Erbil, capital of the autonomous northern region of Kurdistan in Iraq.
Georgia and Iraq have visa-free travel and a growing number of Iraqis of late have been trekking out to Georgia by land or by connecting flights. After the number hit 7,000 last year, Airzena started negotiations with the government of Kurdistan over a direct air link.
The region's relative safety and the new money produced by the development of its energy resources seem to have motivated the pick of Erbil, but the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, and the Kurdish cultural hub of Sulaymaniah are next on the list.
“To our surprise the plane was almost 90 percent full, which does not usually happen on the first flights to new destinations,” Airzena spokesperson Keti Mgeladze said of the debut, March 24 Erbil-Tbilisi flight. “Some passengers knew very little about Georgia and we were giving them details on board about the hotels and places to go.”
The Kurdistan region and Erbil may be, as TIME Magazine reported, Iraq’s best bet for tourism, but it looks unlikely to get flooded anytime soon with camera-snapping Georgians. While 70 passengers from Erbil ventured to Tbilisi, no Georgian passengers opted for Airzena's first flight to the Kurdish city.
If you're on a hunting trip in Georgia and happen to kill the last animal of its kind in the country, no need to worry. Just make sure to pay for the license and the fee for each kill, and you can go wild massacring any unfortunate animal you bump into, endangered though it may be.
Desperate to attract tourists, Georgia has decided to allow the hunting of animals listed on the country’s Red List of protected species. Some critics think the controversial decision is another manifestation of the Georgian government’s obsession with deregulation and money-making.
When environmentalists look at the tur, for instance, they say they see a beautiful mountain goat antelope found (decreasingly) only in the west of the Caucasus, but economic development ministry officials, they claim, see thousands of lari they can charge for its killing.
Georgia’s environment minister has tried to convince journalists that the rare animals can be killed for their own good, and that the new rules will introduce order into the hunting sector and somehow help reduce poaching.
Georgia this weekend found itself on a fine line between its commitment to promoting a business-friendly environment and its civil rights obligations. Low taxes and few government regulations? You got it here. Easy labor policy? Hire and fire away! Collective bargaining? Apparently, nothing a few arrests can’t solve, critics say.
Georgian police on September 15 arrested over a dozen striking steel workers in the central city of Kutaisi . Some 100 employees of the Dubai-registered steel manufacturer Hercules had been camped outside the plant to protest what they claim are suboptimal work conditions.
At a time when the government's entire focus appears to be on cozying up to employers and keeping tax revenues coming in, a strike was not an event likely to be viewed warmly by Tbilisi.
But the police maintain that they only intervened when Hercules complained about the strikers causing trouble with the workers hired as their replacements.
The detained workers were released overnight after they promised in writing not to participate in strikes anymore, union officials claimed. The police say, however, that the detainees were only requested to sign a routine police warning paper.
“[MTV Live Georgia] will feature several of the world's top musical acts and will be heavily promoted and broadcast around the world (with a concentration on Western Europe, Eastern Europe, Americas, Central Asia, and many more) to MTV's one billion plus dedicated viewers via its television stations, as well as Internet and cellular platforms,” reads a press release issued by Georgian Prime Minister Nika Gilauri's office when the deal with MTV was made.
In pre-concert remarks to EurasiaNet.org, Maia Sidamonidze, chairwoman of Georgian National Tourism Agency, nonetheless termed the show "quite a good campaign" for attracting tourists to Georgia. "We always try to have a campaign that matches our capabilities," Sidamonidze said, indicating that a larger event "and more people" could have posed accommodation problems.
Concerts by musical sensations and, sometimes, has-beens have long been seen by Tbilisi as a way to boost Georgia's tourism industry, a potential economic lifeline. They also help the government argue that Georgia now is a place where visitors may run into celebrities like Sharon Stone or Sting rather than Russian tanks.
In the market for an extravagant, 275-meter-tall property that lights up at night, and can come in handy for candlelit dinners with a view on snow-capped mountains? Well, until today, the Georgian government had a deal for you: the management rights to Tbilisi's Soviet-era TV tower, all for your very own.
The asking price? A mere $60,600 (100,000 lari). Nearby amenities include a theme park and a broken-down funicular.
But, wait, there's more! Along with the mother tower in Tbilisi, the successful bidder also receives access to 36 baby television towers across Georgia.
And, yes, there is a successful bidder (110,000 lari or $66,566) -- the TV tower auction's only bidder, in fact -- but his or her or its identity, as yet, remains unknown.
But here is the fine print: the buyer only gets four-year management rights to the tower and needs to invest $12 million in updating its infrastructure. Also, the winner should mind a group of protesters, who think the sale may put the kibosh on the country’s government-critical broadcast media by raising broadcast-signal transmission fees.
Georgia’s free market-worshiping government has long been busy auctioning off all and sundry to private owners, but many journalists and civil society activists think that such privatization auctions should be preceded by public discussions. Jet-setting Georgian officials, their eyes on the goal of making Georgia into another Singapore (or Dubai), don't always heed those calls.
Russia apparently believes that the way to the World Trade Organization lies through Georgian grape vineyards. Failing to override Georgian opposition to Russia’s US-backed WTO bid, Moscow is applying pressure on Tbilisi by tempting Georgian winemakers to return to Russia, once the main consumer of Georgian alcohol.
The Georgian government may be ignoring Moscow’s offer to re-admit Georgian wine that passes quality control tests, but Georgian winemakers themselves want to regain access to Russian markets, Onishchenko claimed.
In response,Tbilisi, more interested in territorial than economic concessions from Moscow, has warned Georgian winemakers to beware of Russians bearing gifts. “Seventy percent of the Russian economy runs on hush money,” asserted Georgian Foreign Minister Grigol Vashadze. “Officials do not sign off on anything until they get that infamous envelope.”
Suit yourself, businesses, the minister added, but would you really want to face all the hassle associated with marketing in Russia while the chances are that you will get kicked out again?
Georgian businesspeople, who have a long record of doing business in Russia, may not mind that hassle, but Georgia is not quite the place where corporate pressure can alter foreign policy.
The grand opening of Svaneti’s first-ever ski season, originally scheduled for December 21, was postponed after Leitner, an Italian ropeways manufacturer, reportedly found that the chairlift’s intermediate towers were sticking up from the ground wrong-side-up.
Blaming local contractors for the glitch, the company said that an engineering solution can be found, but that it will take extra time and could limit the lift's passenger capacity, Rustavi2 reported on December 21.
The regional governor partly denied, partly played down the problem in his comments to the channel.
With many skiers in Georgia looking forward to try out the new run, hopes remain that at least the chairs will be installed right-side-up to make for a reasonably comfortable ride.
If such buildings aren't enough, Batumi can always fall back on its balmy temperatures, the official thinking seems to go. After paddling about together with officials and professional swimmers in the Black Sea for TV cameras -- the subject of an entire news story by pro-government Rustavi2 -- Saakashvili came ashore and whipped out an iPad to check temperatures in other sea resorts and promote Batumi's 29 degrees Celsius (84.2 degrees Fahrenheit) to waiting TV crews.