Monuments of Defeat Hit Georgia's High Life

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Enjoy the high life," urges the advertisement for a new business center, shopping mall and apartment complex called Uptown Tbilisi -- a rare flash of optimism amid gloomy times in the Georgian capital. The new development, which will boast glass-fronted towers, luxury condos and designer stores, appears to be aimed at those "New Georgians" whose creed is conspicuous consumption. These are the young men who drive Hummers with personalized license plates and the young women who buy their clothes on shopping trips to Europe.

Before the August war, Tbilisi was in the grip of a construction boom fueled by strong economic growth. But since then, property prices have fallen, banks have drastically cut back on loans, and many building sites now lie idle. I recently ran into a friend who is involved in several big property developments. When I asked him how things were going, he responded with a scowl. "Bad, bad, bad," he grumbled.

Some large-scale projects continue, like the Arab-funded Uptown Tbilisi development and the five-star Hyatt hotel and apartment complex, which, somewhat bizarrely, is set to receive $30 million as part of U.S. government loans for post-war rehabilitation. But the most intensive construction work has been taking place in the new villages for wartime refugees that the government has built with European aid across central Georgia in a frantic race against the encroaching winter.

The largest of them on the country's main highway consists of hundreds of almost identical red-roofed cottages, laid out in stark, geometric rows. These box-like dwellings are a poignant admission that thousands of people will never be able to return to their own homes, which now lie behind Russian army checkpoints in South Ossetia. They are effectively a monument to defeat.

Arriving at these new communities for the dispossessed with their remaining worldly goods loaded onto the roofs of their trusty old Zhigulis and Volgas, many of the refugees say they're grateful to the authorities for giving them shelter, and they refuse to criticize the government for causing their predicament. But most of them, like pensioner Venera Kasradze, say they'll never stop dreaming of the beloved villages they fled. "We had a very big house there with balconies all around it," Venera told me, gazing sadly down the muddy lane outside her new front door. "I'll never have a house like that again."

Of course, her new house is hardly Uptown Tbilisi. But at least Verena will not freeze this winter.

Matthew Collin is a journalist in Tbilisi.