Newport’s surprising link with Georgia’s second city


From the South Wales Argus, 2003

When I heard Newport was twinned with Kutaisi my first reaction was “where’s that?”.

Caucasian Georgia’s second city does no get a lot of publicity, and even its first city – Tbilisi – appears more often in atlases and pub quizzes than in newspapers.

Nevertheless, Kutaisi’s 250,000 souls who live about 4-hours drive from the capital do have on important link with the outside world – Newport.

That link is responsible for enabling at least one Kutasisi student coming to study at the University of Wales College Newport (UWN) every year with their fees waived in the name of greater global cooperation.

It is also responsible for UWN officials helping Kutaisi’ university to reorganise is itself for life after the communist principles, which governed its founding.

The link has enabled many Kutaisi residents to come to Wales for trade visits of short holiday and see how a relatively modern economy (in a relatively old democracy) functions.

In 2000 the Mayor of Kutaisi honoured these and other kindnesses by naming the finest street in the city Newport Street.

Chairman of the Newport Kutaisi Association Bernard Tyson is now looking for business people and professionals from Newport and Gwent who are prepared to offer a few hours each year to act as mentors to Kutaisi’s painfully slow-growing private sector.

Having been dominated by the communist system since the Red Army invaded Georgia in 1921, economic freedom in 1991 meant little more to the 5 million population than an odd Western concept.

In fact, life because harder rather than easier because the trade patterns of the communist system were destroyed as was the system of cheap nuclear power with the USSR organised and distributed.

Even today, citizens shun the railway system because of its dependence on the frequently interrupted electricity.

In terms of natural resources the country is not over-endowed with riches.

Next-door (across the Caucuses to the east) is Azerbaijan, which is oil and gas rich.

Two pipelines bearing these precious hydrocarbons snake across Georgia for customers in the west.

Georgia receives a royalty on this transport which it is hoping to use to stimulate its economic development.

There is not a lot of indigenous industry, it’s a bit worrying when the BBC News web site lists Georgia’s main exports as “scrap metal, wine, fruit”, but there are a lot of trained engineers and technologists.

Georgians have always had an aptitude for higher education and in the old USSR days Georgian professionals worked all over the communist world.

The money they remitted to their families was a major source of national income.

But that is just one more pattern which has been demolished by the collapse of communism.

Bernard Tyson travelled with the Newport delegation for Kutaisi’s 2000 investiture of Newport Street.

He said: “it’s a rugged, dramatic country with extremes of temperature, altitude and climate.”

“The vines like it and Georgians claim to have actually invented wine thousands of years ago.”

“In fact there is some evidence tracing the word vine to the Georgian language.”

Despite being a gateway between East and West, on of the country’s main economic problems is that it’s a long way from anywhere.

His creates transport difficulties.

“It is hoping to establish a high-tech economy without going through the low-tech, volume production model of Korea, Taiwan or Japan first.”

Politically, the population has had a lively time since the collapse of communism.

In 1992 he was deposed by opposition militias, which installed the former Soviet foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze in the job.

He’s still in power despite two assassination attempts and the breakaway of two wetern regions known as Abkhazia and Ajaria on the north and south ends of the Black Sea coast.

Just to put the cherry on miserable cake, Georgia shares a border with Russia’s wartorn republic of Chechnya.

There have been angry political exchanges over Russian claims that Chechen rebel fighters are allowed to enjoy a safe haven in the Georgian Caucasus.

Nevertheless, these two neighbors are separated by more than mountains.

Chechnya is a predominantly moslem country, while Georgia is predominantly inantly Christian.

According to Mr. Tyson the Georgians are an incredibly friendly, hospitable people who like to enjoy themselves and appreciate a good joke.

They like their wine and vodka and have an elaborate toasting ceremony to accompany main meals called a Tamada.

Mr. Tyson said: “They begin with a toast to the dead and departed, then toast the host, then his wife, then his cousin, then the head of the clan, then the guest, and so on.”

“It’s taken very seriously and although many of these people are poor by western standards, they will make it a matter of honour to put on a big spread for visitors.”

Political and economic corruption is another endemic characheristic of life in Georgia and although it may be no worse than many other former soviet republics, it is one of the main problems holding back the country’s development.

As Mr. Tyson said: “It’s important for Georgians to come here and see that our system works relatively free of corruption.”

“It gives them hope that they can work towards achieving a different economic model at home.”

The Newport Kutaisi Association was founded in 1978 by the late Cyril Summers, a Newport Labour councilor and church leader.

Mr. Tyson said: “He was a wonderful man, quiet spoken and impressive.”

“He thought that informal links would promote dialogue with the USSR and help to diffuse the Cold War.”

“It was the USSR which offered Kutaisi and it is one of only two UK-Georgia links (the other being Bristol’s twinning with Tbilisi)”

Mr. Tyson’s own involvement came about when he helped his local church, St Anne’s of Malpas, to entertain a Kutaisi delegation in 1991.

“The then chairman rosemary Butler, who had taken over the leadership baton from Mr. Summers, invited me along to the association’s quarterly meetings.”

“When she was elected to the Assembly she decided she would not have the time to continue so I took over from her.”

Mr. Tyson’s comrades-in-arms include Allt-yr-yn law lecturer Vera Brown who has served as secretary since the association’s founding.

He can also draw on the support of Caerleon-based lecturer Catherine Philpott and retired art teacher Derek Butler (husband of Rosemary).

The union of the two cities has been celebrated in more ways than one.