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The Vanishing Greeks of Tsalka

Although oil-fueled life is returning to a remote Georgian hill region, it comes too late to stem the outflow of its Turkish-speaking Greeks. by Natalia Antelava and Dima bit-Suleiman 8 August 2003
TSALKA, Georgia--The chants of a Greek Orthodox service fill the church in a Georgian hill town. Here in Tsalka, people might pray in Greek, but their native language is Turkish.

The priest tells a story about how this came to be: Perhaps two centuries ago, some Greeks living in northeastern Turkey under the Ottomans were forced to flee religious persecution. About 50,000 of them settled in the Caucasus mountains in southern Georgia.

And their language?

"A long time ago the Turks gave my ancestors a choice: either faith or language. They were forced to abandon their language in order to keep their faith,” the priest, Father Dimitry, says. Only a very few in Tsalka, like Father Dimitry, can speak Greek.

In one form or another, the locals tell these stories to visitors. Whatever the truth behind their remarkable odyssey, these people found in the high, remote meadows of the Tsalka region a place where they could follow their Greek Orthodox faith and speak their mother tongue.

THE JOURNEY CONTINUES

As a priest during the Soviet times and a victim of Soviet repression himself, Father Dimitry knows all too well the hardships of keeping faith alive. He spent years in labor camps for secretly baptizing Tsalka’s Greeks. And yet he remembers the past with nostalgia--at least, the old priest explains, back then there were people to baptize.

"Everyone has left, all the houses are empty …" Father Dimitry sighs. "They came here running away from Turks, but then they had to run again."

A decade ago, Tsalka's Greeks fled--this time seeking relief from economic hardship and political chaos brought by the breakup of the Soviet Union. Many opted for their historical homeland, Greece. They left behind what was once one of Soviet Georgia’s most successful regions.

In the old Soviet Union, the Tsalkans were famous for hard work and discipline. Their dairy products became famous. Tsalka's cheese was especially popular at the Kremlin.

But then things changed. The place was abandoned almost overnight by thousands leaving the instability and crime of post-Soviet Georgia behind, and today it feels like a time capsule.

Outside the peaceful coolness of the church, Tsalka's dusty streets are empty. Schools are shut down, factories looted and destroyed. A big lock hangs on the doors of the cultural center where children once learned Greek folk dances. Soviet slogans praise socialism and hard work from the crumbling walls of deserted houses. Scruffy signs in Greek furnish small shops whose owners spend their days waiting for customers who can't read Greek anyway.

PIPE DREAMS

On a recent visit, the only apparent signs of life emanate from a shack off the road--a restaurant whose sign promises Turkish kebabs with Georgian plum sauce. Countless crates of empty brandy bottles fill the yard. Who is downing all this liquor?

In the past months, life and trade has returned to Tsalka in the shape of brand-new jeeps with British Petroleum logos on them, and workers in bright orange construction overalls.

Photo by Natalia Antelava
BP has come here to build a section of the $3 billion oil pipeline known as BTC--for its Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan route, stretching 1,750 kilometers from Azerbaijan to Turkey. The pipe, due to start flowing in 2005, will open up the oil-rich Caspian Sea to the West, bringing billions of dollars to the governments of Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Turkey, and providing Western markets with oil free from the restrictions of OPEC. Environmentalists claim the pipeline will be vulnerable to earthquakes and could damage sensitive ecosystems; Amnesty International warns of the social costs involved in resettling the 30,000 people who live along the route. But to the Greek couple running the restaurant, all that money pouring into deprived Tsalka means that there are at last people willing to taste their famous Turkish kebabs.

Their restaurant is the only one in town, and it caters daily to 40 construction workers, plus their foreign managers who party here on Saturday nights. But despite this sudden business boom, and promises from the government that the pipeline will bring development and prosperity to Georgia, Julietta, who owns the place with her husband, is skeptical. She says there are things the pipeline won't be able to replace and problems it can never solve.

"The problem is no one cares about people. They are only thinking about this pipeline, but they aren't doing anything else. We have no electricity, we have no gas, no water,” says Julietta as she piles plates high with potatoes and meat.

She remembers when Tsalka was a booming town, home to many factories, businesses, and above all, people. Of the 40,000 or so Turkish-speaking Greeks in Tsalka in the mid-1970s, only a tenth are left. Overwhelmingly, the rest migrated to Greece.

In the early 1990s, the Greek government sent a few teachers to teach Greek to the locals. There would be no point in it now.

It’s people, Julietta says, that she misses the most: “It's upsetting. We are really nostalgic, we miss kids, we miss relatives."

A similar mood dwells in the house of Pavel Kotanov, one of the elders of Tsalka's Greek community. Pavel's entire family lives in Greece, and without them, he says, he would never be able to survive on his pension from the Georgian government, which amounts to the equivalent of $7. For many years Pavel refused to leave Tsalka. But now his sister has come to visit from Athens and to convince her brother to move. It looks as though she may succeed.

“Why stay?” Pavel asks. “Before, I used to be ashamed of leaving the graves of my parents. But there [in Greece], it’s Europe. There you don’t have to worry about electricity or running water. There are jobs, there are European passports. And here? Here--five more years and the old people will die. The young ones have left. Greek Tsalka is dying.”

Back in his modest house next to the church, Father Dimitry is preparing for another lonely service. He says he never omits a certain prayer: for the revival of Tsalka.

The BTC pipeline has put Tsalka on the BP maps and in the Georgian authorities' spotlight. The empty villages around are slowly filling with Georgians, mostly refugees from the country's conflict zones. In a way, though perhaps not in the way he would have hoped, Father Dimitry's prayer has been heard.
Natalia Antelava and Dima bit-Suleiman are TOL correspondents in Georgia.
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