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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

'The Real Thing' Arrives in Thirsty Georgia

TBILISI, Georgia - Virtually the entire Georgian government turned up Wednesday to a red carpet opening of Coca-Cola's new bottling plant in Tbilisi - the first serious foreign investment in Georgia since Eduard Shevardnadze became president 15 months ago.


The Soviet Union's last foreign minister was lucky enough to be given one of the first distinctively shaped bottles of "the real thing" - complete with labeling in the even more distinctive Georgian script. He was lucky because, on a sweltering summer day, supplies of Coke soon ran out.


The new Coke production line - built in a Georgian soft-drink plant and capable of producing 26, 000 bottles an hour - is the first in the former Soviet Union outside Ukraine and Russia, and a ground-breaking investment for Georgia, whose war-torn economy has scared off most foreign businessmen.


With several civil wars of his own to worry about, Shevardnadze was cavalier about the cola war that is being fought in the former Soviet Union between the two American soft-drink giants, Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola.


"It tastes just like Pepsi-Cola", he said after taking a drink.


The former Soviet republic of Georgia is now the 197th country in the world to produce Coke. According to Muhtar Kent, Coca-Cola's president in east and central Europe, the Central Asian state of Uzbekistan will be next.


The new $5 million production line is an important psychological investment at a time when most foreign businesses still consider Georgia too unstable to merit serious attention. While most weapons have been cleared off the streets of Tbilisi, gunfire can still be heard every night. Coca-Cola officials were treated to a shoot-out in their hotel earlier this week.


A state of virtual civil war exists between western Georgia, which generally supports the previous nationalist regime of Zviad Gamsakhurdia, and eastern Georgia, which supports Shevardnadze. The railway line and other links through western Georgia are prone to attack and sabotage.


Fighting between Georgian government troops and separatists continues in the Black Sea region of Abkhazia, closing the principal railway line from Georgia to Russia and Ukraine. Less important for foreign investors, but still present, is the simmering conflict in South Ossetia about 100 kilometers from Tbilisi.


But Georgia is nevertheless in a better position than its neighbors in the Transcaucasus - Armenia and Azerbaijan. Kent said wars and economic collapse make neither attractive investments.


Coca-Cola officials said their product would initially sell for about 200 rubles (16 cents) - about the same price as in Russia and a fifth of the price of Coke brought in from Turkey.


The newly modernized plant in Tbilisi, which is owned by the Georgian Kavkasioni Soft Company, used to produce "Soviet Koka-Kola" under license. But a Coca-Cola representative scorned the Soviet brand adding that his own product "really is the real thing! "