When, more than 20 years ago, I began my involvement in Georgia’s fledgling snow sport tourism, it was only a distant dream that we could host a Ski World Cup. In February, that dream became more of a reality, as world class skiers and snowboarders arrived for Ski and Snowboard Cross World Cup events at Bakuriani. In 2023, that dream that generations of Georgians held will be further realised as the world’s best skiers congregate for the FIS Freestyle World Ski Championships, writes George Ramishvili.
Dominated by the South Caucus Mountains with stunning natural beauty, good snow cover and regular sunshine, Georgia could be soon discovered by millions of snow sports fans as a perfect winter sports destination. Georgian mountains dwarf the peaks of their Western European counterparts, with many reaching over 5000m, providing some of the best Heliskiing and freeride skiing available.
During my time as President of the Georgia Ski Federation, I prioritised establishing competitive skiing in Georgia. By introducing the National Georgian Ski Championships, we enabled talented young skiers at locations across the country to gain greater experience in competitive skiing. This also helped lay the groundwork to bring bigger and better international competitions to Georgia.
Bakuriani was one of the country’s first ever ski resorts in 1932, acting as a training hub for top athletes back in the days of the USSR. It will play host to 2023’s FIS Freestyle Ski, Snowboard and Freeski World Championships and can now become the vivid centre of the continuing vision of turning Georgia into a major winter sports hub. This progress made has not happened overnight and required the commitment of the Georgian Ski Federation and the strong support of the Georgian Government, who are doing an excellent job of building infrastructure, driven by a fantastic team of enthusiastic supporters. It is also with thanks to the FIS Council members and their President, Gianfranco Kasper, for recognising Georgia’s potential as an elite competition venue and trusting us as hosts.
This is welcome recognition for those of us who have supported and developed the industry over decades. World class skiers can only compete on world class slopes, which Georgia is patiently spending time, money, and effort developing. Silknet and Silk Road Group between them have been proud sponsors of the Georgian Ski Federation and Georgian National Ski Team for nearly 20 years, providing logistical and financial support to back up our faith in the winter sport industry’s potential.
Despite this, even in Val d’Isère back in December 2015 when my advisor and long-time friend Patrick Lang and I first envisioned and discussed the idea of Georgia applying for future FIS Freestyle Skiing and Snowboard World Championships, the reality still felt a long way off. By starting with smaller scale, such as basic FIS-class tournaments, soon followed by Europa Cup level Freestyle and Snowboard events, we quickly built up the infrastructure and experience required to soon host world class events.
With Georgia stepping firmly forward as an elite winter sports destination, it is important as a next step to establish ski schools in mountain locations such as Gudauri, Bakuriani, Mestia and Ajara. This will enable children to live, study and train there before going on to succeed in European tournaments. This is a crucial step in making Georgia a world class winter sports destinations.
Now, with high-profile World Cup competitions successfully held last winter, our ski resorts are firmly on the map, placing the Caucuses increasingly alongside major winter sport destinations like the Alps and the Rockies. Resort development for competition skiing has triggered development for tourism, which, in turn, will form a greater part of Georgia’s wider economic progress. It will also help to promote a healthier lifestyle further adding to the social and economic benefits, especially in light of the pandemic.
As fantastic as it is to see the world’s leading winter sports competitions heading to Georgia, getting amateur skiers from across the world to our slopes should be the next goal. Tourism has a key role to play in Georgia’s economic recovery from Covid. In 2019, a record-breaking over 9 million foreigners visited, with projections suggesting this growth was only going to increase further, however most of these were not winter sport tourists, meaning there is lots of potential left to realise.
Skiing has always been a sport close to my heart. Growing up, I was a regular at the soon to be World Cup slopes of Bakuriani. In the 1990s, during the aftermath of the Soviet Union collapse, it was heart-breaking to see the urban development mistakes at the resort. With extensive, modern winter sports infrastructure such as new chair lifts and artificial snow lakes, necessary for holding large-scale world class events, Bakuriani will revert to its former glory. The hope is that a more methodical, smarter approach to developing relatively untouched slopes of Kazbegi, Mestia, Tusheti, Racha, Bakhmaro and Goderzi will be adopted. This will also help further the prospects of those young skiers taking part in competitive skiing and efforts to improve the health of Georgians as a whole.
I am confident that as vaccines increase and international travel slowly resurges – as is already starting with direct flights from Europe, Dubai and Israel – Georgia will recover its tourism momentum. In the meanwhile, despite the ongoing difficult times, we can be grateful to have world class ski competitions in the Caucasus, a positive signal that should encourage us all.
Georgia's prime minister resigns, opposition calls for early election
Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia announced his resignation on Thursday, prompting celebrations from the opposition, which called for an early election, write Dmitry Antonov and Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber.
Gakharia, who had held the post since 2019, said he was stepping down because of a disagreement with his own team over the detention of Nika Melia, a prominent opposition politician.
“I believe that confrontation and rivalry within the country endanger the future of Georgia’s democratic and economic development,” Gakharia wrote on Twitter.
“Therefore, I have announced my resignation in the hope of reducing polarisation and de-escalating the situation.”
Gakharia had said that Melia’s detention was unacceptable if it threatened to fuel political divisions in the South Caucasus country of 3.7 million people.
Melia, chairman of the United National Movement (UNM) opposition party, had been accused of inciting violence at street protests in June 2019, a charge he has dismissed as politically motivated.
A court in the capital Tbilisi on Wednesday ordered that Melia be taken into custody for allegedly failing to post bail.
Following Gakharia’s resignation, the Interior Ministry announced it was postponing carrying out the order to take Melia into custody.
A crowd gathered outside his party’s offices and waved Georgian flags in celebration, according to Sputnik Georgia.
Inside UNM headquarters, Melia called for an early election.
“On behalf of all opposition parties, I declare: let’s sit at the negotiating table with representatives of this government and start negotiations on new early elections,” Melia said.
Georgian Dream won the parliamentary election in October last year, but the opposition said the vote was rigged and marred with violations.
Melia said at the time that his party did not recognise its outcome and called for a re-run.
Irakli Kobakhidze, chairman of Georgian Dream, said it was putting forward Defence Minister Irakli Garibashvili as a candidate to replace Gakharia, TASS news agency re
Georgia: EU report highlights the need for political compromise to continue the reform momentum
The European Union has published its annual report on Georgia's implementation of the EU-Georgia Association Agreement. The report, published ahead of the 16 March EU-Georgia Association Council, concludes that, over the past year, Georgia has remained committed to this reform agenda, despite the COVID-19 related challenges. Further efforts are needed, however, notably in the field of judicial reform and tackling political polarisation. High Representative/Vice President Josep Borrell (pictured) said: “We appreciate Georgia's continued reform progress and commitment to our bilateral relationship, as well as to the Eastern Partnership.
"Following the 2020 Parliamentary elections, it is of vital importance that all Georgian political parties act within the institutional framework to find common ground and a way forward from the current political situation. This would enable the Georgian Parliament to take resolute action for a sustainable recovery from COVID-19 and for advancing the wider reform agenda. We are also working well with our Georgian partners towards agreeing an updated Association Agenda to equip us for the coming years.”
Neighbourhood and Enlargement Commissioner Olivér Várhelyi added: “The EU stands by the Georgian people since the start of the pandemic. We mobilized €183 million of grants for COVID-19 related assistance to Georgia last year, in addition to €150m in macro-financial assistance. We will continue to assist Georgia in its economic recovery and in taking forward the reform agenda to fully implement and reap the benefits of the Association Agreement. Improving connectivity and business environment remain crucial in this context and are key for boosting investments.”
More information is available in the press release and in the 2021 Association Implementation Report. You can find more details on the relations between the EU and Georgia in the dedicated factsheet and in the Delegation's website.
Youth football peace initiative for Georgian conflict zone
A widely praised peace initiative in Georgia has launched an appeal for vitally needed fresh investment. The international peace project on the Georgian conflict zone has been lauded for helping to reconcile all sides in a dispute dubbed Europe’s “forgotten war.” In an effort to bring long term peace to the area, an ambitious project was launched to set up football infrastructure in the conflict zone of Gori municipality.
Spearheading the initiative is Giorgi Samkharadze, originally a football referee (pictured center) who has now made an appeal for international donors to help finance his plans.
He said, “Our project has been partly financed by several business companies but it is definitely not enough to tackle our tasks. On the contrary the situation became worse, tension is just increasing since the beginning of a conflict.”
Some $250,000 has been raised so far from a couple of investors and this has gone on drainage and an artificial pitch but more investment from donors is urgently needed for his proposals to come to full fruition. Backing has also come from the EU/Georgia Business Council and Samkharadze hopes aid may come from both the public and private sectors.
Support for what is still a charity has come from the Georgian Parliament which has written an open letter, appealing for investment for what is seen as a vitally important local peace initiative.
The Parliament of Georgia has given priority to the international peace project Ergneti, a state document was drawn up to seek donor organizations, the finances needed to develop children in the conflict zone with the help of appropriate infrastructure and to promote the systematic development of peace through sport and culture.
The letter, written by the Chairman of the parliament’s Committee of European Integration, senior Georgian MP David Songulashvili, strongly recommends the project which, he says, “touches on reconciliation of the societies of Georgia and Tskhinvali Region - a very prominent issue for Georgia, as well as its international partners.”
Development of the existing project, he says, “would facilitate people-to-people contact, dialogue processes, and reconciliation of the youth from both sides of the Administrative Boundary Line.”
He writes that the Committee “firmly believes that the goals and expected outcomes of this project are truly in line with the western direction of the country’s development, as peaceful resolution of conflicts and territorial integrity within the internationally recognized borders are values we and our international partners are strongly committed to.”
Songulashvili reaffirms the Parliament’s support to the project and recommends Samkharadze as a “valuable potential partner.”
He concludes, “We truly hope to see this project develop and progress in line with the country’s interests.”
Samkharadze told this site he welcomes the intervention by the Georgian parliament, adding, “Georgia is a country of parliamentary rule and, when the Parliament of Georgia and the European Integration Committee supports such an international peace project, I would hope that the European Commission will feel compelled to provide some financial backing for our project.”
He said he now hopes to see “practical help” from the EU for the initiative.
He says such efforts are all the more important now because of a worrying recent upsurge in tensions in the region.
Ergneti is one of the numerous villages located next to the administrative boundary line (ABL), the demarcation between Georgia and Tskhinvali region or South Ossetia. Following the Georgia-Russia War in August 2008, barbed wire fences were installed on the ABL hindering the freedom of movement of people and goods.
In the past, the EU has applauded the efforts of the project but the hope is that this support will translate into financial aid.
Georgian TVs have broadcast news about the project while the President of the European Commission, Ms. Ursula von der Leyen, and the leadership of the European Parliament have sent letters of support.
Samkharadze said, “This international peace project needs the practical involvement of investors"
One obvious success so far has been the construction of a temporary football stadium for use by locals, located 300 meters from the temporary demarcation line in Ergnet. Recently, there was a friendly football match composed of the locals from the conflict zone. It took place near the Ossetian border and 300 hundred meters from Tskhinvali and local families of those taking part all chipped in to pay the costs of staging the event.
The event itself was highly symbolic and, so too, was the date when it took place, in August – it was in August 2008 that the bitter, albeit short, war started. Representatives from local government and the EU monitoring mission in Georgia (EUMM) were among those present.
Samkharadze said, “They told us many warm wards and encouraged all of us to continue our activities.”
He told EU Reporter the aim now is to coordinate with different partners “to build the necessary infrastructure in the conflict zone so as to engage young people in sports and cultural activities.”
He adds, “it is necessary to have a good infrastructure for all events and an environment conducive to teachers and children, so as not to lose the enthusiasm they now have but to develop in search of a better future.”
Ergenti was severely damaged in 2008 and a temporary dividing line runs through the village.
“That,” he adds, “ is why we need to create a good infrastructure for all. We do not want war, on the contrary, we are committed to peace.”
He adds, “We are people of different professions committed to one big goal - to develop both young people and employment in the conflict zone.”
In the longer term he wants to see other sports and activities take place such as rugby, athletics and cultural, artistic and religious events.
“It is necessary to have a good infrastructure for all such events, and an environment conducive to teachers of sports and cultural events and children, so as not to lose the enthusiasm they now have but to develop in search of a better future,” he states.
The exciting project – located on one just hectare of land - that he heads will, he says, also continue to facilitate the reconciliation between Ossetians and Georgians along with the development of villages close to the neighbourhood.
The area, as snow, has been a source of tension since the break-up of the Soviet Union. After a short war between Russia and Georgia in 2008, Moscow subsequently recognised South Ossetia as an independent state and began a process of closer ties that Georgia views as effective annexation.
Some 20% of Georgian territory is occupied by the Russian Federation, and the European Union does not recognize the territories occupied by Russia.
Before the war, many persons in Ergneti used to trade their agricultural products with the nearby territory now under occupation. Moreover, the market in Ergneti represented a crucial socio-economic meeting point where both Georgians and Ossetians used to meet each other to do business.
Samkharadze hopes, with his pioneering project, to bring the good times back, at least to this part of his native country. The project is, he argues, a model for other similar conflicts around the globe.
It is to be hoped now that, despite the world being gripped by a global health pandemic and the corresponding financial impact, the positive soundings coming out of this small but troubled part of Europe will have some resonance in the corridors of power in Brussels - and beyond.
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