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Seeking Georgia’s past and discovering a glimpse of the future

Source: Wed, 17 Jul 2013 11:23 GMT
Author: Paul Gallagher
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Take a walk down Pushkin Street. Humid air drifts off the waterfront asphalt in the Black Sea port of Batumi. The roadside stores sell wheelbarrows, bags of cement, Orthodox icons and watermelons as big as bowling balls. It’s the Georgian city where Stalin in his youth organised strikes by dock workers. Through the sun-blistered iron railings of Pushkin 19 you catch a glimpse of the one-storey wooden house in which he once lived. Batumi’s Stalin Museum has seen better days. Its doors are padlocked, the front garden neglected. In the drizzle, the bust of a man who dominated 20th century history appears forgotten in a city building a future around casinos and luxury hotels.

For all the glitzy and ritzy architecture of a city on Georgia’s southern border with Turkey, this post-Soviet country remains in transition.  In the countryside, farmers in horse-drawn carts trot down the dirt tracks of villages seemingly unchanged for centuries. When you talk to Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) trying to improve the lives of Georgia’s farmers, prisoners, single mothers or young entrepreneurs, their ambitions are often great but their resources limited. However, they are keen to build a brighter, better future in communities across Georgia.

To assist 15 NGOs in their bid to help shape the country’s laws, the European Union is funding a Westminster Foundation for Democracy (WFD) programme to boost their advocacy skills. As part of that programme, the Thomson Reuters Foundation (TRF) ran a three-day Media and Communications workshop in the capital Tbilisi from July 3-5 and in Batumi from July 8-10 for more than 30 participants altogether. The focus was on developing their media skills, including writing press releases, hosting press conferences and planning print, TV, radio and social media campaigns.

For days we talk about the importance of planning. This goes out the window on my last day in Georgia. I set off with a dog-eared Google map of Batumi in my back pocket. After an hour walking in the rain I find myself lost in the humid back streets of a city with reputedly the highest rainfall in the Caucasus.

I seek shelter in a bookshop and ask for directions. I am clearly not the first tourist struggling with the elusive consonants of the Georgian language to find themselves lost and tongue-tied looking for the Stalin Museum.  A young man who is cataloguing books on the shop floor stops his work and asks if he can help. “You are looking for the Stalin Museum. OK,” he says. “Go right at the building on the corner, then left and keep walking six blocks.” I thank him.

The lost tourist with his interest in the past leaves. The shopkeeper returns to his work with his eyes firmly on the future.

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