Tbilisi – A Museum of Desolation?
08 September, 2017
Tbilisi – A Museum of Desolation?
When you’re a well-established European journalist and you visit Tbilisi and then write a blog about your impressions, it’s supposed to be a glowing review of the city, praising it’s beauty and authenticity. At least, that surely seems to be the trend nowadays. But one Swiss Journalist had other things to say. “Tbilisi – a Museum of Desolation,” Bernhard Odehnal writes, followed by the notion that you’d need a rather thick pair of pink glasses to not notice just how neglected the city is, administering further salt by stating that most foreign “reviewers” and Tbilissians themselves are rather happily sporting abovementioned headgear. Needless to say, the blog didn’t sit well with the Georgian audience, so GEORGIA TODAY and Panorama TV Show tracked down “the culprit” for further questioning.
Why do you think The Tbilisi you saw was so different from what other journalists describe?

I got a lot of criticism for this blog in my newspaper and also among my friends. I’ve many friends who have traveled to Georgia and who are actually very big fans of the country. And truth be told, it even caused some disturbance in my relationship as even my wife doesn’t seem to agree with what I’ve written - and she was with me in Tbilisi! But you know what? I think it was just about disappointed expectations. I’ve read a lot about the city and I’ve heard a lot of good things about it from friends who spend a lot of time there, so, naturally, I expected a lot – but when I got there for a family holiday, I was left disappointed. And I expressed my disappointment in a blog that has apparently caused so much stir in Georgian and Russian circles. It wasn’t a report about the city, it was a blog of my personal experience and impressions.
Do you think you saw a Georgia that others don’t see?

Well, I think you can look at the glass and it’s either half full or half empty. So maybe it was just me having a negative attitude and I saw a glass that was half empty. I really expected more, I didn’t expect this kind of neglected city. I felt a kind of depression there, it was a hopeless place. This hopelessness permeated the whole atmosphere of the city. Take the buildings for example, they are extremely neglected and that
was a very disappointing thing to see.

Had you been to Georgia before?

No, it was my first trip there. I wanted to go in the 90s, but the civil war there made it impossible.

Your words would be very much on spot had you been describing Tbilisi about 15 years ago – but today? City of desolation? Really? There are lots of construction works ongoing in Tbilisi – How come you didn’t notice any of it?

I saw the city from the perspective of 2017. And truth be told, when I arrived it was like stepping back to the beginning of the 90s. You say there are reconstruction works going on – I’m sorry but I didn’t see any of that. What I saw, most of Old Tbilisi looked like a warzone. Or the aftermath of an earthquake.

And I asked myself how come people don’t care about this historically valuable part of their city becoming a ruin? And the most shocking part of this was that some people still live there, putting their lives at risk.
Who do you think is responsible for that?

Good question. I guess the city council has some responsibility. I don’t know if these buildings are private or public, but my guess is that the authorities have to do something about it. I don’t know if you can rebuild them or if they are lost forever. But they look like nobody cares about them and that they’re beyond any repair.

In your blog, you describe your way from the airport to the center, but what else did you see in Tbilisi to result in such a depressing impression?

The surroundings of Freedom Square, Sololaki and Kote Abkhazi Street. Can you see this picture (holds up a picture with a ruinous, neglected house in Tbilisi)? The whole quarter looks like that. I’ve been to warzones, I’ve been in Bosnia, in Kosovo, and didn’t see much difference between this quarter in Tbilisi and what there was after the war. Tbilisi looked like the war ended just weeks ago.

Well, this is a post-soviet state that experienced war less than 10 years ago, yet you seem to judge it by European, maybe Swiss or Austrian standards. Is that fair?

I’m not judging it by Swiss standards. Or German standards for that matter- there are some amazingly ugly cities in Germany. Tbilisi is not an ugly city, I’m not saying that, it’s just neglected. And it’s hurts to see that, because you also see that with proper care, this city would be really beautiful. Unlike cities in Germany where this beauty is long gone, in Tbilisi it wouldn’t require much effort to restore it. The more you neglect your city, the more effort you’ll need to restore it and I’m afraid for some quarters it might already be too late for that. Another thing I didn’t like was to see how pedestrian-unfriendly the city was. You literally cannot cross the street –it’s full of cars. The city is too car-focused and it really isn’t best for tourists. That’s probably one of the things that doesn’t get mentioned often enough in articles about the city – I was hoping to enjoy a beautiful city, but I couldn’t find this beauty when I came here. And that was the main source of my disappointment. What I want to stress though is that people were extremely friendly – So I don’t have anything bad to say about Georgian people. It’s just I came with big expectations and then felt rather shortchanged. But perhaps when I come to Tbilisi next time, I’ll leave with more positive impressions.
Here is a question that the majority of people commenting your article in Georgian social media posed - What was your interest in writing this blog? Some in Georgia claim you were pro-Russian in doing so, yet we can see from your other material you are anything but. Did your article help Tbilisi become a better city?

I think so. If people only focus on positives and never write about problems, then these problems will remain unresolved forever. Had I written yet another article about the beauty of Georgia, about the beauty of Tbilisi, I think nobody would’ve cared about it. Whereas now we’re talking about these problems, people who read my blog are talking about them, discussing, so it might serve as an impetus to make things better, right? One certainly hopes so.

Author: Vazha Tavberidze

Source: Georgia Today
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