During recent anti-government demonstrations in Georgia, a pro-government member of parliament expressed surprise that protesters demanded electoral reforms rather than action on a bread-and-butter issue such as unemployment. VOA correspondent Peter Fedynsky recently visited Tbilisi, and has this report on Georgia's widespread joblessness and why it is not a political issue.
In a telephone interview with the VOA during recent anti-government protests in Tbilisi, the head of Georgia's Parliamentary Human Rights Commission, Elena Tevdoradze, expressed surprise by what she said were "sudden" opposition demands for electoral reforms. Tevdoradze says the protests would not have surprised her had they involved social issues, such as widespread unemployment.
Unemployed men hoping to get work for at least a single day gather near a Tblisi bridge each morning. The American Chamber of Commerce in Georgia estimates the unemployment rate in this city at 29 percent. The government puts Georgia's nationwide jobless rate as high as 17 percent; though critics say it could be higher.
Tens of thousands of Georgians have lost jobs in the post Soviet era when inefficient factories were closed, and when reforms cut the size of government bureaucracy. A Russian economic embargo has reduced demand for Georgian goods, especially wine and agricultural products. Internal and external instability has made foreign companies hesitant to invest in Georgia.
Sandro Urushadze, the director of Georgia's Social Subsidy Agency, says even if jobs are available, many lack the training required by private companies. "These organizations are looking for new people to employ. However, there is a gap between the ability of people to work there, and the need of organizations to employ qualified personnel."
Qualifications are a factor in Georgia's construction industry, which employs a substantial number of workers from Turkey. Unemployed Georgians resent the foreign workers, who are accused of receiving preferential treatment from Turkish companies, which have won numerous building contracts in Tbilisi. Georgian officials, however, say the Turks fill a need for skilled labor.
Malkhaz Chutkerashvili lost his job as a TV cameraman two years ago. He says finding a new position has been frustrating, but notes that getting angry at the political situation would only make things worse.
"We've had various elections – democratic and undemocratic – but there has been no movement,” he says. “But I know we need to somehow find a way out. There is no time for pessimism. There is no time to get angry and do something foolish. No, the situation itself will determine what comes next."
Many Georgians say joblessness is a personal matter, which they prefer not to discuss publicly.
Soso Tsiskarishvili, Chairman of the European Integration Forum in Tbilisi, says the typical Georgian approach to solving the unemployment problem is more Russian than European.
"There was an 18th century [Irish]-English thinker, Oliver Goldsmith, who said that to overcome any kind of problem, you must, first of all, talk about it loudly," says Tsiskarishvili. "I would say that's a European approach. The Russians have a different approach: 'Don't wash your dirty linen in public’."
Tsiskarishvili says Georgians tend to demonstrate over reasons of fairness and honor, as they did in Soviet times when they felt their language or national identity were threatened. And many who participated in Georgia's recent anti-government demonstrations say their demands involved a fair electoral process.
Meanwhile, the unemployed here quietly survive on meager welfare benefits, as low as $10 per month, and an occasional odd job.