- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 2, 2001

TBILISI, Georgia — In the Soviet era, the Gudzhezhiani family drifted freely among their country cottage, beach house and city apartment on the resort-speckled Black Sea coast.
For most of Georgia's 10 years as a free country, the four of them have lived in a cramped hotel room in the capital, Tbilisi.
"Nothing is better today than 10 years ago," Maluni Gudzhezhiani said, her bare feet tucked under her on an armchair that folds out as a bed. An infant nephew mewled from his blanket. The scent of watermelons mingled with propane from a wobbly stove on the balcony.
The Gudzhezhianis are refugees from the 1992-93 war in the breakaway province of Abkhazia in western Georgia. Their plight reflects the decline that has debilitated all three states of the Caucasus Mountains since they won freedom amid the dissolution of the Soviet Union a decade ago.
Soviet vacationers used to stream to Armenia, Azerbaijan and especially to Georgia, whose Black Sea beaches rival the French Riviera.
The repressive rules set by Communist Moscow were only selectively applied here. You could sing unapproved songs while feasting on pomegranates, seafood and wine.
Independence in 1991, after 70 years as Soviet Socialist Republics, freed the Caucasus nations to vote and publish and build legitimate businesses. But it severed them from the centralized system that had heated homes, provided jobs and trade, and taught mountain shepherds to read.
Separatist wars in the early 1990s turned the region into the bloodiest in the former Soviet empire.
Today, fighting has subsided but fear of kidnapping has scared off the tourists. In many regions the electricity rarely stays on long enough to prepare a meal. These nations with their proud traditions and ancient roots are desperate to keep their own people from leaving.
"People saw everything and lost everything in the past decade," said Aslan Abashidze, governor of Georgia's coastal Adzharia region. "They let us out of the cage, and the people went wild."
The communist system had lumped together the 15 million people in these three distinct nations, with their scores of languages and ethnic groups and differing religions, as a single mass on Russia's southern flank. And it suppressed the tensions that have boiled in the Caucasus since Christianity and Islam came to the area many centuries ago.
Christian Georgia borders Muslim Azerbaijan and embattled Chechnya, also Muslim and a part of the Caucasus that remains under Russian rule. Azerbaijan borders on Iran and Turkey. And tiny, landlocked Armenia, the world's first Christian state, is unluckily sandwiched between its historical enemies Turkey and Azerbaijan.
The result is a web of rivalries and kinships that ignore borders, and a geostrategic confluence of Europe and Asia in which powerful forces — Russia, Turkey, Iran and even the United States — vie for influence.
In pockets such as the Georgian beach town of Batumi, residents say things are improving. Batumi has cleaned its beaches, restored churches, mosques and a synagogue, and built a university.
Yet swaths of once-packed shoreline stand empty in midsummer. Corruption and crime have suffocated investment and discouraged foreign aid.
Eduard Shevardnadze, who as Mikhail Gorbachev's foreign minister helped to end the Cold War, is now Georgia's president. A former Communist Party chief of Soviet Georgia, he was invited to return as leader during a 1992 military revolt.
Mr. Shevardnadze seems incredulous at his country's decline. "This was a land in which people lived well," he said.
By Soviet standards, these lands — particularly Georgia, homeland of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin — lived well for much of the communist era. Smart local leaders knew how to get generous subsidies from Moscow. The Caucasus used its greater artistic and commercial liberty to produce some of the Soviet Union's boldest art and film — and its richest crime bosses.
By Soviet standards, Georgia was a paradise, and it still is. Fragrant forests and lemon orchards slope down to the rocky Black Sea shore, 5th century stone cathedrals are perched on rugged outcroppings, and traditions of hospitality require even casual guests to be treated to rich wine and barbecued meats.
But nowadays it's not uncommon for old friends to avoid each other simply to get out of having to invite each other home for lavish meals. The average wage in Georgia is less than $12 a month.
In Azerbaijan, 60 percent of the population is below the poverty line. Eighty percent of Armenians earn less than $25 a month.
Mr. Shevardnadze sees the troubles daily on his commute over Tbilisi's crater-pocked streets, a reminder of the civil unrest that erupted in the capital in the early 1990s. Yet, he insists, "Material well-being cannot compensate for democracy and independence."
In her hotel room, Mrs. Gudzhezhiani disagrees. The country may now be free to have elections, print its own postage stamps, sing its own anthem, but she sees little gain for her family.
Fighting between Muslim separatists and Georgian government troops forced the Gudzhezhianis to flee their native Sukhumi in 1993 to Tbilisi, 210 miles away.
For 10 nights they slept in the concrete parking lot outside the Hotel Iveria, which was taking in refugees on government orders, until they secured a room.
Eight years later, the couple, their daughter and son are still there.
"How long can you live in one room? We're all going a bit crazy," she said.
Her husband, an engineer, now supports the family by doing odd jobs. Their son, an army conscript, brings in a small wage.
The hotel's signs are so rusted they are illegible.
Long-term refugee populations are common around the Caucasus. Hundreds of thousands fled Azerbaijan and Armenia when ethnic fighting, that began in the late 1980s, escalated into war.

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