I am attaining a much deeper understanding about the impact of the collapse of the Soviet Union on this area of the world. In Australia, we learned about the Berlin Wall coming down, the fall of the Iron Curtain, the liberation of millions of people from communism. However, the reality for Armenia and Georgia was quite different.
In 1990, this region was full of enormous factories, such as those for extracting copper and producing steel. Along the coast and in the mountains, huge Intourist resorts were under construction, and the Georgian mountains were the training grounds of the Soviet Olympic skiing team. Nuclear power provided electricity across the region, and cheap gas was supplied from the Russia SSR.
After the collapse of the USSR in 1991, the simmering discontent in the region plunged into civil war, rife with ethnic cleaning and countless refugees. Armenia went without electricity for five years, and without gas for ten years. All construction stopped, and the factories shut down. Each country had been specialised to perform a specific function, and now that the supply lines had been cut, everything was paralysed.
Driving through the Caucasus, it is hauntingly easy to imagine life immediately after 1991. The giant factories still stand as monoliths on the outskirts of the cities, and the concrete skeletons of giant holiday resorts still ring Lake Sevan.
Now these countries must slowly rebuild themselves, redefine their identity and find a way to sustainability and progress, all while dealing with internal and external conflicts. Belarus has done an amazing job, and Minsk glimmers with promise and affluence. Armenia still bears the deepest scars of poverty and conflict, and has allied itself with Russia, its major acceptor of its exports.
Georgia has lost much from its war with Russia, and now looks to the West for its future, with many signs in English and Council of Europe flags visible throughout the city. Tbilisi has a very pleasant feel to it, with streets lined with cafes and wide boulevards for evening promenades. Georgia has a way to go before it is eligible for EU membership, but it is encouraging to see it inching away from war and slowly towards open communication and dialogue.