Batumi: One Square Mile Georgia

Batumi: One Square Mile of Georgia

The glitzy Black Sea resort of Batumi is visible proof of Georgia's ambition to westernise and shake off its Soviet past.

A golden Ferris wheel is built into the side of one modernist skyscraper. Fountains spurt in time to French pop music blaring out of speakers dotted along the promenade. At night the whole city is lit up purple, blue and red, like an out-of-control Christmas tree.

Subtle, Batumi is not.

Georgia Direct graphic

A decade ago the city was a dingy and impoverished corner of the former Soviet Union. Today, it is a brash gambling town of bright lights and flashy casinos.

Welcome to the Las Vegas of the Black Sea.

In fact, gambling can be seen as the ultimate incarnation of Georgia's ultra capitalist aspirations: fast bucks, low regulations and big risks.

Ambitious experiment

It has helped Batumi become a booming destination for tourists from nearby Turkey, where gambling is illegal.

According to the manager of the Peace casino, 95% of his customers are from Turkey.

He estimates that the casino business and the money gamblers spend on holidays in Batumi provide about a quarter of the local budget.

Turning Batumi into a Georgian Monte Carlo is the most visible sign of an ambitious experiment to transform this country.

The Ferris wheel incorporated into a high rise building in Batumi, Georgia. Batumi's buildings are as inventive as they are impressive.

That experiment began after US-educated lawyer Mikhail Saakashvilli, who led the 2003 Rose revolution, became president at the age of 37 and embraced all things Western.

Democratic reforms swept the country, petty corruption was wiped out and Western aid and investment flooded in.

In his office, President Saakashvili used to show visitors a model of a futuristic metal tower, topped with a space-age metal globe, which he had helped design.

Today, known as the Alphabet tower, it stands on Batumi's boulevard, dominating the skyline.

Minority rights

For Mr Saakashvili, this city is a gleaming symbol of Georgian success. But the glitzy new face of Batumi has a flip side.

During a decade of untrammelled power, high-level corruption and cronyism within the Saakashvili government grew.

"The contracts handed out for a lot of these infrastructure projects involved more money than the real cost of the buildings," says local politician Parmen Jalagonia, pointing to the flash new towers around us.

President Mikhail Saakashvili enjoys a toast with US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton President Mikhail Saakashvili, seen here enjoying a toast with US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, has modelled Georgia's economy on that of the US

Many poorer and older Georgians felt ignored and left out of Mr Saakashvili's US-style turbo-capitalist economy.

While Mr Saakashvili remains president, his government was ousted from power in elections last year. For many in Batumi, that has raised hopes of a change.

"Everyone is really hoping things will get better. And everyone thinks that the new government will improve things," says Sveta Shuskaya, who earns between $3 and $12 a day selling flowers and nuts that she grows in her garden.

But although the new government has promised to improve the lives of the poor, there are fears the country may be becoming less tolerant.

Batumi is a test bed for Mr Saakashvili's brand of Western capitalism. And that not only includes American-style cut-throat free markets but also means promoting European attitudes of tolerance towards minority groups.

Under President Saakashvili's government, laws were passed guaranteeing rights for other religions. But some now fear those rights may be eroded under the new administration.

And it's in Batumi that this aspiration could face its biggest test.

This region is home to Georgia's largest community of Muslims, who've been here since the 16th Century, when the area was part of the Ottoman empire. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Georgian Orthodox Church became an increasingly important part of the newly-independent state and of Georgia's national identity.

Start Quote

Most Muslims here feel humiliated, because their Georgian identity is being questioned.”

End Quote Eter Turadze Journalist

Muslim Georgians started converting back to Christianity but today around 30% of the population is thought to follow Islam.

Confrontation

Outside Batumi's main mosque, Muslims gather for Friday prayers. The mosque is full, so mats are laid outside on the street, and about a couple of dozen Muslims kneel down to pray.

Suddenly an angry man, attracted by our camera, starts shouting at me: "When people pray here, we all have to hear it!" he screams jabbing a furious finger in my face. "Is that fair?"

He says he works next door and is outraged at having to hear the sounds of Muslims praying on Fridays. His rights are being undermined, he shouts.

Batumi's dancing fountains in tune to the music. Batumi's fountains dance in tune to the music.

Since the new government took over in October there have been at least three small protests in this region against Muslims.

"If Muslims practise their faith openly, then the majority population attacks them," says Eter Turadze, editor-in-chief of the region's main newspaper.

"Most Muslims here feel humiliated, because their Georgian identity is being questioned," she adds.

Keen to join the EU, President Saakashvili's government had strongly defended minority rights.

But some supporters of the new government say this is a Western concept, which undermines Georgian identity, traditionally defined by some as white, Christian and heterosexual.

Ten years into its capitalist makeover Batumi has been absolutely transformed.

But the challenge for Georgia's new government is how to preserve the tolerant attitudes of the Saakashvili era while at the same tempering its excesses.

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