Part Three: Disgust, Distrust, and Death Threats


AKHALI SAMGORI, GEORGIA—Four years ago, Jemali Tsiklauri, a trader and traveler who had gone off to find fortune in Moldova, returned penniless to this desolate village to try his hand at living off the land. He knew the soil on his fields was barren, the drinking water so contaminated he had to buy it from trucks. But the 53-year-old purchasing specialist (in Soviet times, his title was simply “expert in goods”) had not much choice. Subsistence farming, he believed, was the only way he could go on surviving.

Tsiklauri found his village much as it had been, maybe worse. Akhali Samgori is the product of Communist–era central planners who needed housing for workers at a nearby metallurgical plant. Since the Iron Curtain fell, the plant’s operations have rusted to a virtual standstill, and surrounding communities have had to scrape by. Bony cows tug at weeds near walls enclosing acres of dilapidated industrial machinery. Natural gas and electricity are absent luxuries. Unemployment is as high as 95 percent.

The BTC pipeline will pass through land Jemali Tsiklauri says belongs to him. But with no way to prove his ownership, he’ll get no compensation.

(photo: Raffi Khatchadourian)

Still, Tsiklauri quickly recognized he might have come home at the right time. Next month, construction will begin on a $3 billion oil pipeline that will arc through Akhali Samgori. The project, known as the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan, or BTC, pipeline, is headed by BP (formerly British Petroleum) and heavily promoted by the United States. In the coming decades, up to a million barrels a day of Caspian Sea crude will pass through this village on the way to Turkey’s Mediterranean port of Ceyhan. The pipeline is the kind of project that could help wean Western markets off unstable Middle Eastern suppliers like Iraq. For its role as a transit corridor, Georgia will earn roughly $65 million a year.

“Everyone is talking about it,” says Tsiklauri, standing in his small garden. People here want to sell their property to the BP-led consortium, known as the BTC Company, and get a piece of the action, a ticket out of the village, or at least some relief from poverty. Tsiklauri ducks into his two-room cinderblock house, where a tattered bed, a table, and a few chairs surround a woodstove, the only source of warmth. In semi-darkness, he kneels and tosses a few pieces of weathered, machine-cut wood into the ambers. “These are from my fence,” he says. Coffee boils in a tin bowl over the stove. He pours it, and then sits to talk about a disappointing discovery: He will not be one of the lucky ones—although luck, he is certain, had nothing to do with it.

This sad realization came to him about four months ago, not long after BTC officials visited the village to scout the land they wanted to buy. They photographed various parcels, made detailed assessments of what was there, and, when satisfied they’d found the correct landowner, asked the person to sign a paper they called an inventory agreement. Then they left, promising to return with offers to purchase land wherever construction would proceed. Tsiklauri is sure he should be among those who receive compensation, because the pipeline will be buried three feet deep on his property. The only problem, he says, is that records of his deed vanished from the state land registry into a vortex of low-level corruption.

Land fraud and manipulation of the registry have been long-running problems throughout much of the former Soviet Union, where state monopoly on ownership gave way to shadowy markets with few clear rules. “The system in Georgia is so fuzzy one can’t easily judge what happens locally,” says one Western diplomat. “In the BTC pipeline safety corridor, a fair number of what are called ‘mushroom parcels’ suddenly emerged from nowhere. They are exactly the dimensions of the corridor—it isn’t subtle.” That leaves a company like BP, which has branded itself as an environmentally and socially responsible purveyor, the difficult job of trying to keep its feet clean as it treads such muddy terrain.

Modern Georgia, a mountainous republic of roughly 5 million people and numerous ethnic groups, was born into chaos. Following Soviet collapse, multiple civil wars tore the country apart. The fighting ended in the mid 1990s, but Georgia is not whole. Two breakaway provinces—Abkhazia and South Ossetia—operate in a state of virtual independence. In Tbilisi, the capital, fistfights are known to break out on the floor of the highest legislative body, and parliamentary deputies accuse each other of forming private armies. A tradition of fierce localism, combined with pandemic corruption, has meant the state is often helpless in enforcing laws throughout the country. Transparency International, a Berlin-based nongovernmental organization, puts Georgia among the 10 most corrupt countries in the world. Moreover, a recent U.S. State Department report observes: “Many U.S. and foreign firms doing business in Georgia have had direct experience with official corruption.”

Local NGOs say some of that illegality might be creeping into the BTC pipeline’s land acquisition process, with regional bosses possibly doling out state-owned parcels to kin and cronies. Green Alternative, a Tbilisi-based environmental watchdog, says it has collected several reports of criminal activity, ranging from complaints of fudged registries to gunmen tracking down those who’ve been paid and demanding a 10 percent cut. “One man came to us,” says Kate Kvinikadze, an activist at Green Alternative. “He was told the registry showed his land—land the company wanted to buy—belonged to someone else, although the authorities would not say who. When he started to make noise about it, he was told there was a mistake and that he owned another parcel, also along the route.” Now the man is afraid to talk, lest he jeopardize his compensation.

BTC officials insist the process has been vastly positive, with only a few aberrations, and not all of those illegal. Stuart Duncan, BTC land and permitting manager for Georgia, says they’re dealing with roughly 3000 private owners, some whom have never known which parcel was theirs. “The people at the registries are working under very difficult conditions,” Duncan says. “Often they have no pencils and paper; some of the Soviet records were in a state of disorder. Many discrepancies we catch are genuine. The state has been double-checking registrations that look dubious, and if there is something a bit smelly, it’s put right.” Moreover, he explains, given the history of nepotism and fear of the free market under the Soviet system, people suspect the worst when neighbors do well: “After all, this is a country of rumors.”

Nevertheless, the company admits that with land compensation packages as high as $30,000—an unheard-of sum here where monthly pensions can be as little as $6—low-level fraud is a problem. The BTC consortium expects to spend as much as $13 million on land compensation, and an additional $5 million on community programs for people who aren’t directly affected by construction, but who believe their situation should be bettered by living so near a moneymaker. Because 70 percent of the pipeline will likely be financed by public money, the company must demonstrate that the project serves the public interest. Oil and transit revenues will of course bolster cash-poor budgets. But how far must the company go to ensure that smaller payments end up in the right hands? That’s a complex question, BTC officials say. According to Duncan, the company can only go by government information and make a good-faith effort to point out irregularities as they arise. “Beyond that, we can’t deal with it,” he says. “At some stage, you have to believe in something.”

Belief about the BTC pipeline project generally falls into two categories. There are pessimists who see it as a textbook study in globalization’s greatest ills, with mighty oil corporations willfully becoming mired in the dealings of largely corrupt or authoritarian regimes for the cold-blooded cause of financial gain. There are optimists who say it offers a chance to demonstrate that not all businesses are crooked, and that if a project on this scale can operate here at (mostly) Western standards, virtually any kind of economic development in the frail republics of the Caucasus is possible. Reality is probably somewhere in between.

Shorena Aptsiauri would like to see backers of the BTC pipeline do more for her village, perhaps even build a water system. For her efforts, she has received death threats—most likely from fellow villagers who worry her activism will scare the oil companies away.

(photo: Raffi Khatchadourian)

In villages like Akhali Samgori, there are two kinds of believers, too, but they’re divided more pragmatically into camps of those who know they will gain and those who know they will not. Distrust is growing between the two, and activists say information about the project’s specifics—legal rights, technical and environmental matters, even copies of inventory agreements—has been poorly distributed, making relations all the more tense. Kvinikadze, of Green Alternative, remembers sitting in on a BTC meeting intended to brief locals about the project. “They told the villagers that if they were approached by the company they had better sign the agreement, otherwise their land would be expropriated,” she says. “What they didn’t say was that villagers had a right to challenge that in court.”

Locals say they want to know more. Guram Kavtaradze, the elected administrator of Akheli Samgori, believes misunderstandings are tearing his community apart. “People read this document but don’t believe it,” he says, holding a BTC brochure. “They need to send someone here—not a Georgian, who people won’t trust, but a foreigner.” His office is frigid. Kavtaradze’s breath puffs into small clouds. In the otherwise bare lobby, there are several splintered tree stumps and an ax stuck in a log, but the only stove is in another room. He tightens his jacket and explains that alongside the oil pipeline, there will another pipe for natural gas. He says he intends to do his best to have some of the gas diverted to the village for heating.

But Akhali Samgori’s previous experience with pipelines has been less than stellar, Kavtaradze adds. Just beyond his office is Stalin Street. After two turns, the road fills with deep rivulets of mud. From here one can see a midway terminal for the Baku-Supsa pipeline, part of an old Soviet oil transport network that was refurbished in the 1990s, again with BP as the main operator. “About $32,000 was transferred to the regional government as compensation for the building of that terminal,” he says, “but our community didn’t get a cent, even though it was due to us.”

In the village, farmers who once leased that land from the state say they are now cannibalizing their homes, selling bricks, doors, and window panes to eke out a living. Others have begun to organize, but that has come with a cost. Behind the metal fence of one home, hungry guard dogs growl at passersby. Inside the brick shack, Shorena Aptsiauri, 30, an unemployed nurse-activist, unfolds a scribbled note left on her property: “Stop, Shorena, or else . . . ” Not long ago, there was another warning, this one in curvy Georgian letters cut from newspapers and arranged like a Hollywood ransom note. “You’ll get what you deserve,” the message said. “You will pay dearly for your actions.”

A villager steps aside on the road to the Baku-Supsa pipeline, an earlier project that has left locals suspicious of the new one.

(photo: Raffi Khatchadourian)

She says she’s not sure who is responsible. Others here say it may well be landowners who worry her activism will scare the company away. Aptsiauri would like to see BTC install a line for bringing water to the village, and she suspects games are being played with the registry. During one visit to the local authorities, she says, she saw a map dividing state land, including roads intersecting the pipeline route, into private parcels. Meanwhile, villagers who expect to sell property argue these accusations are merely a case of sour grapes. The trouble with a country like Georgia, experts say, is that it is nearly impossible to know who’s right.

All Jemali Tsiklauri knows is that he wants his land back. Standing in his dim, two-room house, the former “expert in goods” holds a photocopy of his deed. “With this copy I told the authorities, ‘This property is mine.’ They said, ‘No it isn’t.’ So I said, ‘OK, show me where my land is.’ They didn’t say anything. Then they said it needed to be investigated, and the secretary of the local town council was supposed to get back to me by February 23 with a report. Well, I’m still waiting.” Outsiders might not understand, he added. “This village is split. And if people don’t get justice, war will be waged.”