Chaos or Law? Svaneti

God forbid.

I first entered Svaneti in the summer of 1999, taking a taxi from Kutaisi with three friends when we failed to find a rumored helicopter from there. We didn’t see much of the watchtowers on the way to Mestia, having set off late enough that it was dark when we arrived. En route we were stopped by a Soviet “Jeep” and a lady told us off for coming without protection or arrangements. She put us up in her guest house, and maybe saved us from kidnapping or armed robbery, all too common in the province in those wild days.

After that I came under the “protection” of the relatives of a friend in Tbilisi when I visited Svaneti; he is from the village my wife and I now live in, which is largely why we’re here. His relatives were in the Aprasidze clan, themselves part of the criminal situation here which President Saakashvili dealt with in a multi-helicopter raid on our village about ten years ago, “taking out” a father and son and imprisoning two more sons. (Under Shevardnadze they had been under some sort of house arrest which left them free to pursue their activities without consequence.) Their house still stands, ruined and abandoned, about 15 minutes’ walk above ours. The wife moved away from Svaneti; the two sons are now free.

After that raid, Svaneti quickly became a much more lawful place. The message that We Will Have Peace Here was successfully transmitted, it seems. Police structures were replaced and enlarged, as they were elsewhere in Georgia, and I began to see the sorts of travelers which indicate feelings of safety—loners, women, children.

No one wants those times back again. The local people who had nowhere else to go were under a curtain of terror, never knowing when they would be robbed on the road or even at home, or kidnapped. Those who could, somehow, left. Infrastructure was bad too, the road much worse than it is now, electricity very haphazard, the police rare birds. It really was Georgia’s Wild West. If you entered the place without good local contacts and presence, you were taking your life in your hands. This all hardly touched me, thanks to my protectors, but it was in the background of every trip I made here from 1999 to 2005. My friend feared for me when I bought some very nice second hand winter boots; they were too attractive not to want to steal off my feet.

We can’t ever go back to that... can we? Well, Svaneti has been like that before, and has been “pacified” before too. The highest part of it proudly declared themselves ubatono, “lordless”, in feudal times.

All it will take is a little less attention from Tbilisi and Zugdidi, a little more pushing and shoving at local power and authority, a little more looking the other way or even becoming actively involved in local crime. Now, I’m not saying that this is happening now, not trying to be a scare-monger and drive tourism away again. In a few days’ time, a new ski resort, with the highest-altitude winter sports in Georgia, is due to open between Mulakhi and Ipari villages, called Tetnuldi. We want this! It’s good for everyone, locals and foreign investors alike.

I am, however, saying that the balance could be tipped back to chaos again without too much difficulty. As the owner of the main shop and a guest house in my village, I now have a vested interest in seeing this place stay peaceful and safe. I live here too! I haven’t been a mere visitor for years now!

God forbid.

Tony Hanmer runs the “Svaneti Renaissance” Facebook group, now with over 1250 members, at

He and his wife also run their own guest house in Etseri:

Tony Hanmer

03 December 2015 21:30