The Enguri, a discreet river located on the edge of Europe in Georgia, is little known by outsiders. Its waters don’t pass through any major town and just bypass Zugdidi, the main city in the region of Samegrelo. Yet, despite its relative solitude, this is a river of great geopolitical significance, one that serves as a backdrop for Georgia’s tumultuous contemporary history and that stands as a symbol of the painful division between the mainland and the breakaway province of Abkhazia, whose independence is only recognised by Russia and a few other states.
The source of the Enguri lies a few hours hike up from the village of Ushguli at the bottom of the Shkhara glacier on Mount Shkhara, the country’s highest peak. Standing at 5,193 metres, this mountain is also the third-highest summit of the Greater Caucasus, a range dominated by Mount Elbrus, which rises 5,642 metres above sea level. Running for 213 kilometres, the Enguri flows down these mountainous slopes, across the marshy plain of Samegrelo and finally into the Black Sea.
Located at 2,100 metres above sea level, Ushguli is considered one of the highest permanently inhabited settlements in Europe and has lately, and perhaps surprisingly, become a popular destination. Tourists from China, Japan, Russia, the USA, Europe and Israel cross paths in its muddy streets and almost every house has been turned into a guesthouse, many of which also function as restaurants, markets and wi-fi cafes, as advertised on boards outside.
The tourists come for the views – a high green valley dominated by the icy cliffs of Mount Shkhara – as well as for Ushguli’s peculiar architectural heritage. As in other villages in Svaneti, the region in northwest Georgia that borders Russia, stone houses stand side by side with medieval defence towers, around 30 of which are scattered throughout Ushguli. They were originally built to protect the villagers from invaders and from vendettas between rival clans. It’s thanks to the presence of the towers, some of which were built a millennium ago, that Ushguli was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1996.
After Ushguli, the Enguri flows westward across gorges and steep valleys. Svans, an ethnic subgroup of Georgians, have lived in these mountains since antiquity; their name is mentioned in the writings of the Greek geographer Strabon in the first century BCE. Their language, which belongs to the indigenous Kartvelian family, comprises Svan, Mingrelian, Laz and Georgian, and is now considered endangered, with only 30,000 speakers.
Isolation is common on these slopes. While Svaneti’s capital, Mestia, a small town of roughly 2,000 inhabitants, has, like Ushguli, been turned into a tourist hotspot since a ski resort opened in 2011, most of the mountainous villages are agrarian communities untouched by outside influence.
One of these communities is Ieli. A small village harbouring several old tower-houses, it’s a 45-minute drive from Mestia and is located on the opposite side of Mount Zuruldi. Neither ski lifts nor paved roads reach Ieli and it hasn’t benefited much from the tourism boom. It isn’t uncommon to come across free-roaming cattle; the locals still use bulls to work the fields as the relief is too rugged for mechanised farming.
Ieli is known for having kept alive the tradition of gold panning in the Enguri River, a practice so old that it’s associated with the Greek myth of Jason and the Argonauts, who travelled in search of the Golden Fleece from Thessaly to Colchis, an ancient kingdom covering western Georgia that was known for the large quantities of gold in its rivers. In recent years, however, the harvest has been meagre. ‘All young men from the village participate, but it’s hard work because the temperature can reach –25°C,’ says 41-year-old Yevgeni Pangani. ‘The harvested gold is then shared. Some sell it, others make jewellery.’
Tourism and gold aside, most of the economic activity in Svaneti is centred around wood processing and hydroelectricity. Halfway through its journey to the Black Sea, the Enguri is stopped by a huge concrete structure. With a height of 271.5 metres, the Enguri dam is the fourth-tallest arch dam in the world.
The dam’s construction spanned from 1962 to 1989 and attracted thousands of workers and engineers from all over the USSR. They were accommodated just below the building site in a new settlement called Potskho Etseri, made up of blocks of flats situated on a narrow plateau overlooking the Enguri. The dam was meant to be one of the greatest technical achievements of the Communist regime, but its history has been fraught. The end of construction coincided with the collapse of the Soviet Union and although Georgia gained its independence in 1991, it immediately faced a civil war and two separatist conflicts. In 1993, it lost the province of Abkhazia, which lies on the western side of the Enguri. Although Russia acknowledges the province and supports it financially and militarily, the rest of the international community considers Abkhazia an integral part of the Republic of Georgia.
The conflict has not only divided Georgia but also its main hydroelectric power plant. From the reservoir, a 15-kilometre-long diversion tunnel leads to the turbines, all of which are located on territory that has been under the control of the Abkhaz authorities since 1993. Miraculously, the dam and its generators survived both the 1992–93 war and the widespread violence of the 1990s. Since 2004, the concrete giant has undergone extensive renovation in order to meet international standards. It now symbolises a rare case of cooperation between two enemies – the Georgian public company that manages the infrastructure feeds 35–40 per cent of production into Abkhazia’s electricity network free of charge.
Today, the dam offers one of the only well-paid jobs in the downstream town. Since 1989, Potskho Etseri has lost 90 per cent of its inhabitants and most of its buildings are in ruins. Of the 300 residents still there, only ten or so work at the dam. Others survive thanks to odd jobs or social assistance. ‘A good salary here is €150 – only those who work at the dam have a higher income,’ says Gulnazi, 56, a cleaner at the local school.
‘The cost of living has risen. A few years ago, we didn’t pay for electricity or water, but now everything is more expensive at the local shops than in the neighbouring town,’ adds her son Roman, 33, a trainer at the town’s karate club. This city-turned village now languishes at the end of a bumpy road that the government hasn’t repaired since the Soviet period. Elders find comfort in nostalgic memories; young people simply leave. In 2017, a glimmer of hope seemed to appear when the government unveiled a grand project to transform the dam and its surroundings into a tourist centre dedicated to hydroelectricity and extreme sports. But, much to the locals’ despair, construction work has yet to start. From the top of the dam, it’s possible to spot the first meanders of the Enguri as it reaches the coastal plains of Samegrelo province. These lowlands enjoy a subtropical climate that allows the cultivation of tea and citrus fruits. But it’s here that the scars of the conflict with Abkhazia are most evident.
For a 30-kilometre stretch, the river marks the separation between Georgia proper and Abkhazia. Up until the 2008 war with Russia, crossing this border was relatively easy, but since then crossing has been punishable by arrest and large fines. This has hit many locals living on the Georgian side hard – they previously crossed the river frequently, using formal and informal crossing points, to visit graves and relatives and friends who live on the Abkhaz side.
Things changed at the beginning of the 2010s, following the brief war between Tbilisi and Moscow in 2008. Russia increased its military presence in the breakaway territory and began the ‘borderisation’ process, which has seen formal borders erected between the two regions.
Not far from the main town of Zugdidi is Shamgona, a village built on an island located between two arms of the Enguri River. On the island’s western edge, only a few dozen metres separate the two banks of the river. ‘The opposite side is under the control of Russian soldiers, not Abkhaz. There are fences, watchtowers, cameras. If you cross, they will arrest you,’ says local resident Vitali Ekhvaia.
Another local, Soso, says it isn’t dangerous as long as you stick close to the Georgian bank. Born and raised in Abkhazia, he is now formally known as an ‘internally displaced person’, living on the Georgian side near Zugdidi and forbidden from setting foot in his homeland. ‘Of course, it’s hard to be so close to my former home,’ he says, his voice brimming with emotion as he fishes a few hundred metres downstream with a friend. ‘I spent my whole childhood there, I still have some land and the graves of my ancestors.’
From Shamgona, the mouth of the river is just 25 kilometres away. A 500-metre wooden pedestrian bridge marks the estuary of the Enguri and connects two quiet villages: Anaklia and Ganmukhuri.
This marshy maritime interface of Samegrelo province has long been neglected by political authorities, yet it’s here, along these anonymous beaches, that former president Mikheil Saakashvili decided to build a summer paradise. Both villages were partially transformed into seaside resorts between 2008 and 2013. Hundreds of palm trees were imported to adorn a seaside promenade designed by a Spanish architect, while two luxury hotels and an aquapark were built along the shore. Work stalled after the electoral defeat of Saakashvili’s party in the 2012 parliamentary elections.
During the summer holidays, many Georgians now visit to take a swim in the Black Sea at Anaklia and Ganmukhuri beaches. The atmosphere is relaxed and family-friendly, yet at the very end of the seaside promenade an inscription on the rusty palisade announces: ‘ENTRY DENIED’. Barring the path here prevents visitors from venturing into the buffer zone between Georgia and Abkhazia, which is monitored by the Georgian armed forces. The positions of the Russian border guards are situated just a little further along the shore.
Things are now changing in the region. The new government is no longer betting on the development of tourism but has decided to revive an old plan to build a deep-water port in Anaklia. The village is set to become a strategic point on the new Silk Road linking China to Europe. Work began in December 2017 but, in a turn of events characteristic of the Caucasus, the government cancelled the agreement signed with the consortium in charge of the construction three years later. The main Georgian stakeholders were charged with money-laundering, which they claim to be politically motivated prosecutions.
For the time being, it seems that the mouth of the Enguri will remain both a half-built seaside resort and a half-built port, epitomising the dichotomy between Georgia’s global aspirations and its limited, mismanagement-marred economic capacity.