Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Lights Go Out Over Georgia

Power cuts are a feature of Tbilisi winter life but residents have found ways and means of getting around the problem.
By Marina Rennau

With winter months approaching, the Georgian website, wiredkartvelebi.com, invited its readers to come up with songs to help people get through the dark, chilly nights.


Their selections - which included "Hello Darkness My Old Friend", "Candle in The Wind" and "I've Got the Power" - reflected Georgian's penchance for black humour.


"It's typical for Georgians to joke even in the darkest moments of life," said The Dude, nickname of the website poll author. "What else would you do? Complain about it all the time? No, try to deal with it."


It helps if you know someone like Tamaz who checks meters for a local electricity company in Tbilisi. "We're supposed to cut the power if people don't pay," he said "but there are always ways around this.


"You see, we understand that we have to help each other, so every time I come to check the meters they invite me inside, give me a shot of vodka with a pickle and we talk. I just turn back the meter, let them pay a small share of what they've actually used. I also get a little money, so everyone's happy..."


In this poverty stricken culture, just about everyone's open to a little palm-greasing.


"We're lucky," said Karen, who works at a local store, "there's a hospital just in front of our apartment block, so we just bribed an administrator there and diverted an electric cable to our house. It's not enough for all of us, so we use the power in shifts.


"If my neighbours don't have power today they come over to my place and we watch the latest news on TV and cook in the kitchen."


Even those who diligently pay their bills are often left in the dark. "We haven't had power for a month," said one local resident. " When we complained to the local community service office they told us that there was some breakdown in the district distribution network.


"Apparently they'd sent a man to replace a broken part. Later we found out that he'd sold it in another district to people who had a similar problem. So as soon as we get the money together we'll pay him to replace ours."


If all else fails then people resort to generators. These juddering machines perch on balconies everywhere in Tbilisi. Walking through the city at night the noise is almost comforting. They've certainly become a part of life here. Having one is a sign of material success.


These highly-prized machines are also the target of mobsters who specialise in lifting them from their balcony homes - even when they're chained like dogs to the railings.


Last year, Tbilisi was harassed by the notorious "generator gang" which targeted apartment blocks. "They're incredible, I went out to the balcony when I heard a noise outside, " said one victim." The gangster was trying to cut through the chain and when he saw me he disappeared over the side of the balcony with a machine, without even bothering to turn it off."


If you can't bribe, barter or buy a generator - you freeze. Tamara lives in an old soviet apartment block. "It is incredibly cold here inside so we just keep our coats on," she complained. "Some people have electric heaters. But we cannot afford them."


She waves to her children to go out and play in the street. "They will feel a bit warmer if they run around," she explained. "Today we'll go to a friend of mine. She has electric water heater and so from time to time we visit her and have a shower. If we do it quickly there will be enough water for all of us."


Those fed up with the power cuts demonstrate. Protest rallies some time around the end of November, beginning of December, are becoming a tradition. "I am paying for electricity, but even then they cut it off. We sit in the dark," said one of the protestors at a rally last week, "the house next door never has any such problems - that's because a high-ranking politician lives there. What to do?"


"Treat it with humour," The Dude would say." How else are you going to survive?"


Marina Rennau is IWPR project coordinator in Tbilisi.