The book ‘Stories I Stole’ was written by the English author Wendell Steavenson, who lived in the South Caucasus’ – mainly Georgia – from 1998 to 2001. This was a turbulent time, with great hardship and limited law-and-order. It makes for a fascinating read, since so much has changed in Georgia in these ten years. But one thing has not changed in the region – landscapes littered with ‘Large Abandoned Objects’ (LAOs).
Before the fall of the Soviet Union, the South Caucasus countries benefited from the planned economy. Industries were established here, which were not economically viable and, once these countries attained independence and the subsidies were turned off, the industries failed. From collective farms to factories, closures happened throughout all the countries.
Wendell devotes an entire chapter to the LAO, which has really struck me in the way Wendell has been able to encapsulate so well the term LAO and its relation to what we see in these countries:
“I stared out the window and mentally collected LAOs…; they were my driving pastime. Rusting tractors, bits of pipeline, lines of coal cars shunted and left along a rail line, half-built bridges and apartment blocks standing concrete and empty; a skeletal, burnt out crane hanging over them. Bits of the past left, ruined collective farm barracks and factories with all their windows smashed and their plant ripped out for scrap. Remnants of something else – a civilization of sorts? – scattered everywhere, lumps of concrete and bits of twisted metal, lying about to stub your toe on. Everywhere lay the debris of the Soviets, the husk of an empire. Mostly there were hundreds and hundreds of piles of reinforced concrete slabs, rotting, crumbling, rusting from the inside. In the villages ruined shops were abandoned, miles of counter and shelves left permanently empty; instead people fashioned kiosks from scraps of metal fence and corrugated iron and bits of wood tied together with wire … ” (pages 93-94)
Ten years later, the LAOs still stand. In September, when I visited the Kakheti Regional Road Improvement Project in Georgia, there were large abandoned buildings in Gombori, which I was told once comprised a large Soviet base. Just days before, on the lovely Black Sea at Kobuleti, I had stumbled along what was once a large beachfront hotel, now just an empty skeleton.
Perhaps the poignant example of the changes wrought after the economic turmoil of the early 1990’s is visible when driving from Tbilisi to Yerevan. You find the remnants of a viaduct that was under construction and then one day was abandoned. At another point in the drive, there are several 20-meter concrete columns in the middle of some fields. Why were they built? What were the plans? I’m sure it will perplex archeologists in future years.
As someone involved with infrastructure development, the prevalence of LAOs in the South Caucasus gives me pause. These abandoned projects are a reminder of the importance of ensuring that our investment projects are not only worthy of doing, but also that they can be sustained over time. I have seen, too often, countries barreling into significant infrastructure investment programs without due consideration to how these programs will be maintained and operated over time. I have even seen preference given to new road construction over fixing potholes and maintaining existing roads. In fact, I might argue that failure to properly maintain roads over time means that they effectively become LAOs … but that is another story.