All's Fair In Wine And War: Drinking To The End Of Russia-Georgia Tensions

Bottling wine in Georgia's Kvareli region
Bottling wine in Georgia's Kvareli region
Anna Vasileva, Yekaterina Drankina

MOSCOW - Russia’s Surgeon General, Gennadi Onishenko, is a well-known teetotaler who recommends not drinking for everyone, even on New Year’s Eve. So it came as a surprise last week when he spoke out enthusiastically about wines from neighboring Georgia.

“How long has it been since Georgian wine has been sold here?” Onishenko complained to a group of visiting Georgian winemakers, whose visit, incidentally, had been delayed because they could not get visas for several months. “If politics doesn’t get in the way, Georgian wine will be back in Russian stores.”

The Surgeon General was the one who banned the sale of Georgian wine back in 2006. Of course, that was not for political, or economic reasons, but rather due to unsanitary conditions.

There were some small squabbles during the meeting. The Georgians said that there was no way to comply with all of the procedures for the restoration of trade before the summer, while Onishenko shook their hands and said that it needs to be done sooner, in the spring.

Although Onishenko has not even looked at Georgian wine since 2006, he is certain that the quality has improved enormously. A group of Russian representatives plans to visit 60 Georgian winemakers in their own country, to take care of some of the paperwork, and immediately thereafter even those who didn’t go will be able to pour themselves a glass of Georgian wine. Onishenko says that Georgia will sell at least 10 million bottles a year in Russia.

Paradoxically, the Russian embargo on Georgian wine has helped the Georgian wine industry. Before the embargo, 80% of the wine exports went to Russia, and then suddenly that market was gone. It seemed like the end of Georgian wine. But today, the total value of the Georgian wine exports is only 30% less than it was at the peak in the early 2000s, but they are selling less than half the number of bottles. That means that Georgians are selling significantly their wine at a higher price than before.

“The government really did strongly insist that everyone work hard on the quality,” said Georgi Salakiya, the director of Badagoni, a well-known Georgian winery. “It was very important to strictly control the grape vintage, which allowed us to crack down on counterfeits. The wine improved quite a lot.” Georgia’s main markets are in Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belorussia, but they making inroads even in Western Europe and the United States.

There hadn’t been much talk of lifting the embargo. From the Georgian point of view, it wasn’t really “that bad.” Mikhail Saakashvili even thanked the Russian government for the embargo, saying that it forced the wine industry to examine itself and understand its real possibilities.

But everyone seems happy about the end of the embargo. Badagoni, which has never worked in the Russian market, is prepared to produce an additional one million bottles for the Russian market. “We’ll have a whole line for the Russian market. We don’t want to compete with the cheap wines - we’ll compete with the most expensive, the legendary wines,” Salakiya said. The most expensive wine the company plans to sell will cost around $66.

Even companies like Alaverdi, which sold in Russia for many years and were burned when their sole export customer barred them from the market, plan to increase production. Alaverdi now exports to 12 countries and was initially skeptical about re-entering the market. Now the company’s co-owner says he hopes Russians, who used to buy 1 million bottles a year, haven’t forgotten the taste of his wines.

No Rush

There are also several things that are blunting the wineries’ excitement. First is the state of the Russian wine market – during the embargo years, the competition has increased and the overall size of the market has actually decreased, at a rate of 2 to 3% per year. Russians remember a Georgian wine that was often counterfeit and poor quality, but today’s winemakers will not be selling for less than $10. It is also a bit late to appeal to Soviet nostalgia, when Georgian wine was available in all price ranges. Above $10, they’ll be competing with prestigious wines from France and Italy. Georgian winemakers will be entering the market completely cold.

But to give the Georgians their due, they have certainly learned how to successfully conquer new markets over the past couple of years. The real threat is elsewhere. When Onishenko made his cryptic statement about “if politics doesn’t interfere,” he knew what he was talking about. He was only able to see the success of the Georgian winemakers after Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s United National Movement party lost the parliamentary elections last October. The next presidential elections are in October, and Saakashvili has the right to disband parliament right in between those two events – which would mean this April. Onishenko is trying to rush the wineries to do everything needed to reenter the Russian market in part so that they will put pressure on Saakashvili not to disband parliament and endanger the wine detente.

“If I were a winemaker, I wouldn’t make the investment. It’s still not clear how long this detente will last, there’s too much politics,” said Georgia expert Larisa Burakova. Pata Shesheldze, another expert on Georgian economics, pointed out that if it was a purely economic question, then the rules would have been made much more transparent. “It’s clear that the world has changed. Any old Georgian can’t just grab a bunch of oranges and a few dozen jugs of wine, hop the border and go sell it all at a bazar. That’s normal. But what the Russians are proposing – visiting each winery and verifying the quality by some unspecified means – first of all, it discriminates against small producers, because you can’t go to every village. Secondly, it presents an opportunity for corruption and third, the process could be reversed without any explanation whatsoever.”

Georgia has a history of corruption – President Saakashvili has thrown prominent business people in jail and then demanded huge sums of money in exchange for freedom. But he has generally considered foreign investment saintly, and Russian foreign investment has flowed into the country even when the political relationship between the two countries was at its worst. Saakashvili has cultivated strong trade agreements around the world, which is one of the reasons the Georgian economy has been growing at astounding rates.

Perhaps one day the Russian government will adopt Saakashvili’s enthusiastic approach to international trade, and start showing respect for international trading partners. For example, it’s shameful that Russia is insulting small but trustworthy Georgian winemakers. There’s a saying that if you spit on your neighbor it will fall on you. In fact, many Georgian winemakers are partially, or entirely, owned by Russian investors.

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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