National Geographic : 1992 May
The subtropical hills of Atchara are a delight to the eye, while Borjomi and other mineral spas of central Georgia and the vine yards of Kakheti could vie with the best in the world. Before the recent unrest, Tbilisi was a charming capital city with tree-lined boulevards and a cosmopolitan atmosphere, thanks to the mix of peoples - Georgians, Armenians, Jews, Kurds, and Russians. If Georgia develops its tourism and learns to package and market its marvelous wines, champagnes, and brandies, the nation might well thrive. But transforming the rotten econ omy will be a struggle, and it will surely entail much poverty and strife. C OMMUNISM ROUTED the middle classes, the bourgeoisie that makes capitalism work. Ironically, therefore, the key people in the new free-market economy may turn out to be the same as those who really ran the communist one-the "Mafia." The term, which has nothing to do with the families described in Mario Puzo's novels, refers to the secretive group of entrepreneurs who figure a way to move goods through the nation's underground economy, often at enormous profits. Through an acquaintance in Tbilisi, I was introduced to two members of this under ground world. The first-who suggested I call him Irakli-took Tomasz and me to a restaurant that was closed, but which pro duced a sumptuous banquet for us at the snap of Irakli's fingers. He did not pay for the meal. The manager thanked him unctuously for having come. Over the meal, Irakli told us about the "thieves' law" and ethical code. First of all, he said, they prefer the term "thieves" to "Mafia." The thieves, he said, were scrupu lously honest with one another and came into being only to compensate for the total failure of the former Soviet planned economy. Thieves were found at every level, from gov ernment minister to factory manager to shop floor worker. The system of payments and kickbacks made sure that the creaking system at least produced something. Each thief was on a "salary" appropriate to his level in the network. Unlike the Mafia in America, this one never went in for murder: If a new boss with no thieving affiliation was appointed who threatened their livelihoods, they did not kill him; they just bought him off and made him one of them. Salaries might have to be raised a little, but the system remained'intact. Our contact whisked us off in a car one night through the darkest Tbilisi streets to meet what he called a "real" Mafia boss in a mansion the boss was building for himself. Geno, a slight figure in a black silk shirt and white trousers, met us and showed us around his new home. "It is worth millions," he con fided, "but I never paid a kopek. Every ounce of cement, every piece of wood, every nail, was donated by my friends." "What did you give them?" I asked. "I stand by them every minute," said this Tbilisi godfather, with great solemnity. "Any time of day or night, if they're in trouble or need help, I'm there."