Georgia: Riding the Potato Train

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By Olesya Vartanian in Ninotsminda and Tbilisi (CRS No. 321, 06-Jan-06)

At first the freezing train was almost empty, but it rapidly began filling up with potatoes and their carriers. Two men came in board with heavy sacks. The corridor filled up, then the floor of the carriage. When the train moved off, the owners of this ocean of potatoes clambered over the sacks and rested on them on the little space that remained below the ceiling. This small train of just two carriages makes its way three times a week from the mountainous town of Ninotsminda in southern Georgia to Tbilisi from April up until the end of December. It carries cheese and fish but its main cargo is potatoes, which are the main source of livelihood for the poor Armenian-majority population of the region of Samtskhe-Javakheti. The train journey is the main way for the potato-growers to sell their crop. For the first three months of the year, the railway is blocked by snow. The roads are also in poor condition and often covered in snow and transporting the goods by car is not profitable. Last September hopes were raised that this kind of hardship would come to an end when Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili visited Javakheti and announced that the Georgian army would buy the region's entire production of potatoes, meat and dairy products. Asked what the government planned to buy, Saakashvili told a public meeting in villages of Ninotsminda district, `Everything that is produced in Javakheti - and that will not be enough for the Georgian army.' Earlier, the president had promised in Tbilisi that `not a single one of our citizens of Armenian nationality should fear that he will remain without an income'. Concern over the local economy has been heightened by the closure of the Russian military base in Akhalkalaki - which formerly employed large numbers of locals. Following Saakashvili's visit, the defence ministry helped open reception points for local produce in Ninotsminda and Akhalkalaki. Soldiers handed out vehicles to local farmers so that they could bring their produce to the sites. Lists were compiled of enthusiastic farmers wishing to sell their crops. However, the defence ministry refused to answer journalists' questions about how much of the crop in Samtskhe-Javakheti the army intended to buy and at what price, saying only that a `plan is being worked out'. Then, when the army began finally buying the crops in November, the vast majority of it remained unsold. Official statistics confirm that Javakheti produced 30 times more potatoes and 210 times more milk than the 20,000-strong Georgian army can consume. Locals were distressed. `I had already begun to make some calculations, planned to pay back some debts, buy something, and my wife and I had begun to think that the end of our torments had come and that when the next harvest came we could think about saving some money,' said Misha Putulian, a farmer from the village of Khojabeg. `But what happened? First they announced that they would buy more than a thousand tonnes of potatoes, then we were told bit by bit through their people that this year the army needs only 125 tonnes. And then they bought it all from [other sources] and forgot about us.' `We are a commercial firm,' said Jumber Lomidze of the firm Javakhk damzadeba, which makes purchases on behalf of the defence ministry. `We were told to buy 125 tonnes and we bought it from the people who first called us. The lists [of local farmers] were no use to us. There were names on them of residents of such remote villages that it would have cost us money to go there and bring the product back.' According to Nana Intskirveli, a spokesperson for the ministry of defence, 240 tonnes of potatoes and 35 tonnes of beef were purchased from the Javakheti region last year. But she added that there were plans for an eight-fold increase in local procurement of the former in 2006. `People had unrealistic expectations and then they were not justified,' said political analyst Gia Nodia of the government's purchase of Javakheti produce last year. `This is a logical result because the decision itself was political so as to reduce tension after the withdrawal of the Russian base.' This New Year as usual the streets of Akhalkalaki have been filled with vehicles from Tbilisi, selling household goods and asking for potatoes as payment instead of cash. Yegish Sirakanian from the village of Gandza said he had expected this to happen and was relieved that he had already made several trips to the capital to sell his potatoes for cash. `Now, until our boys come back, we have enough to live on,' he said. `Our boys' are the young men from the family who, like most residents of the village, go and do seasonal jobs in Russia to support their relatives. Javakheti is the Georgia's leading region for production of potatoes and cheese. The head of the agriculture department of Ninotsminda, Norik Saakian, says that productive capacity is growing by more than ten per cent every year, but that the main problem remains selling the products. In Soviet times, the state bought the produce from the collective farms. Nowadays, the lack of any big buyers has given birth to the phenomenon of the `potato train'. `The train is a social project and it means nothing for the railways of Georgia as it does not bring in any profit,' Irakly Ezukhbaya, head of Georgian railways told IWPR. Currently, the travelling farmers are charged eight lari (4.5 US dollars) for a ticket to Tbilisi and another 1.5 lari (85 cents) for a sack of produce. When they arrive at dawn at Tbilisi's Navtlugi Station, the buyers are waiting for them and there is little haggling. A kilo of potatoes is sold for around 25 tetri (15 cents). `The buyers are the bosses here and our people have the right only to sell their goods to certain people,' said Armen Khovanesian, a policeman from Ninotsminda accompanying the train. `Sometimes they frighten them and I try to intervene. But on the whole no one deals with this mafia.' A few hours later the Javakheti potatoes are being resold at the Navtlugi Market for more than twice the price, at 60 tetri (35 cents) a kilo. As the potato train makes its way back from Tbilisi, it is much emptier. Mesrop from Ninotsminda looks quite happy. On the money he has made by selling his potatoes he has managed to buy his children several bags of tangerines. Olesya Vartanian is a correspondent with Southern Gates newspaper, published with IWPR's support in Samtskhe-Javakheti. Levon Vartanian a correspondent with Southern Gates newspaper, also contributed to this article.