Upper Svaneti: A Place of Permanent Tension - Literature Review

The article outlines the complexity and the multifaceted nature of the way development projects - and related local practices - unfolded in Upper Svaneti over the past few decades. Additionally, the author provides, based on the example of Svaneti, a theoretical overview for understanding how engagement with market forces affects the state and its sovereignty, as well as local practices. 

Stefan Applis (2020): The struggle of the villages against the water power and the threatening destruction of the familiar life
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Stefan Applis (2020): The struggle of the villages against the water power and the threatening destruction of the familiar life

Both during the era of Soviet modernisation and ever since, Upper Svaneti has been a focal point for a diverse set of development projects. In response, local communities in Mestia, Khaishi, Tchuberi, Nakra and beyond have engaged, for more than three decades, in a movement of continuous resistance. Opposition from locals, civil society groups and parts of the scientific community thwarted the Khudoni Hydropower Plant project initiated in the 1980s. However, the 2000s saw the revival of the idea of building massive hydropower plants in Upper Svaneti, rekindling local resistance, which culminated in an oath of unity declared in Khaishi in 2013.[1] As a result, the second wave of hydropower development shared the fate of its predecessor. Today, plans for large-scale hydropower development, including plans for the construction of Khudoni HPP, Nenskra HPP, Dizi HPP and Kvantchianari HPP, are still on the government’s agenda, which also includes tens of medium and small-scale projects.[2]

Alongside investments in energy, the past 15 years have also seen a rapid development of tourism infrastructure in Upper Svaneti, mostly concentrated in Mestia and Ushguli. Tourism has significantly transformed parts of Upper Svaneti and have made the region attractive to tourists. But the growth of tourism has largely sidestepped those villages of Upper Svaneti that large hydropower proposals threaten with flooding.

More recently, Upper Svaneti has also attracted the cryptocurrency industry. Upper Svaneti is an attractive destination for mining for two main reasons: (1) the long-standing policy of subsidizing residential energy consumption in Upper Svaneti makes electricity mostly free for locals, while its (2) cold climate provides a natural cooling environment for the crypto industry’s digital infrastructure. As a result, cryptocurrency investments have been flowing to Svaneti, and some locals have also taken up mining crypto coins. The emergence of cryptocurrency mining in Svaneti has generated uncertainty and tension within the local community, including a desire to shut down the industry. An oath of unity declared in 2021 in Mestia, which called on all participants to cease cryptocurrency mining in Svaneti, expressed this collective desire and also served the purpose of rebuilding broken trust among members of the local community. Despite these efforts, cryptocurrency mining in Svaneti is still an important issue and many locals think its intensification is in the cards (Rekhviashvili, 2022).

Upper Svaneti is a meeting point for diverse development and prosperity projects, which penetrate the local context and trigger profound changes. They often profess economic and social goals of many kinds - promising social welfare or claiming to follow the logic of the free market - and entail different conceptions of state involvement. The multifaceted and often ambivalent processes they trigger in the local community, as well as the issue of the involvement of state institutions (or the lack thereof), are both fascinating and significant, driving my research interests in the region. Within this long-standing and multidimensional dynamic, my PhD research focuses on large-scale energy infrastructure. Therefore, it will explore transformations that energy projects of the Upper Svaneti trigger locally and nationally. My research is focused on ongoing processes, but the long history of these projects and the impact of this historical legacy on Svaneti will also play an important role in the analysis.  The questions this research poses concern the influence dominant economic interests - always a factor in large-scale energy projects - exerts over political power and the way they affect local processes in Upper Svaneti.

The main assumption my research makes at this stage is that projects pursued in the name of development and/or prosperity profoundly transform daily life and social practices in Upper Svaneti, affecting social and economic relations, traditional forms of production, local well-being and economic ties among Svaneti’s villages. They produce dilemmas and antagonism within the community; affect the generation of trust and distrust; empower or weaken networks of solidarity and resistance; and shape the practice of local customs and customary law. They also dictate conceptions of Upper Svaneti’s future.

A Region in Crisis

Upper Svaneti is simultaneously a shared point of focus for different governments’ attempts to exploit energy resources and a major theater of resistance by local communities. This long-standing confluence saturates the region with invaluable knowledge and collective experience. Therefore, Upper Svaneti, with its completed or planned large-scale infrastructure projects, is where strategies and the rationale of the most powerful economic and political actors of the past few decades are most readily observable (Pataraia, 2013).

Academic Literature on Tension/Crisis

To understand the complex phenomena taking place in Upper Svaneti, it is important to draw our attention to the academic literature that explores the logic of global capital/markets and describes the conflicts and crises that the capitalist economic model and its structural characteristics generate around the planet. A subset of such literature traces the origins and the causes of such conflicts to the nature of the economic system itself. Other works understand these antagonisms as stemming from outside the economic system and see them as a consequence of the conflict between the market economy and the social sphere (Polanyi, 2001; Harvey, 2003; Fraser, 2017).

Outlining Polanyi’s main observations is especially important for the purposes of my PhD research. Polanyi argues that until the end of the feudal era, economy was understood as an integral part of social relations. According to him, the rise of the market economy profoundly transformed this “embedded” relationship (Polanyi, 2001). Industrial production required a stable and continuous supply of vital resources. The demand to guarantee such supply - a precondition of functioning markets - turned people (symbolizing labor) and nature (symbolizing land) into what Polanyi referred to as “fictitious commodities” and involved them within the process of commercial exchange (Polanyi, 2001).      

This triggered “the great transformation”, signaling the total subjugation of people and nature to the self-regulating market. The subjugation entailed within itself the possibility of the exploitation and the destruction of the human and the natural (Polanyi, 2001). Polanyi derived his observations on the origins of tensions and resistance, as well as of the crisis of the self-regulating market economy from his understanding of the emergence of relations of domination between the market on the one hand, and the human and its environment on the other. More specifically, Polanyi saw in the logic of the market a need for the market to subsume and consume non-market elements, disrupting the social fabric, causing tensions and ultimately leading to the destabilisation of the market itself (Polanyi 2001).

Departing from Polanyi’s binary conceptualisation, Nancy Fraser offers a three-dimensional model: (1) the separation of economic production and social reproduction (of the factory and the family, of labor and care); (2) the separation of the political and the economic (of the market and the state, of the powers of the private individual and the public power of the state); and (3) the separation of nature and culture. Fraser shows that we should understand capitalism as a “social order built on institutional separations that incline the society to crisis” (Fraser, 2017, p.5).

The Economic and the Political

Today, many scholars write of the crisis of democracy and of democracy devoid of meaning - emergent phenomena with multiple possible explanations. I argue that it is impossible to understand these without taking into consideration the contributing economic factors. 

Wendy Brown, a scholar of political theory and democracy, draws our attention to the total exclusion of people from collective governance. Brown explains this exclusion through the unabashed willingness of contemporary states to participate in the accumulation of capital through environmental, fiscal, social, energy and labor-related policymaking that directly serve the interests of capital (Brown, 2011).  As a result, the state turns from a locus of popular power to an agency of business administration, while entrepreneurial principles replace democratic principles, purging demos from democracy and transforming the latter into a “market democracy” (Brown, 2011, p.48). According to Brown’s conceptual framework, neoliberal rationality undermines liberal democracy and substitutes its core principles (constitutionality, political autonomy, etc.) with market criteria (cost/profit, profitability, efficiency) (Brown, 2011). As a consequence, the political substance of democracy’s most important characteristics make way for an economic rationality, effectively “undoing” democracy (Brown, 2015).

As noted above, among the many antagonisms, Fraser identifies that between the economy and political power as one of the most consequential. According to Fraser, the capitalist order constrains the possibilities of democratic decision-making, collective action and public oversight, incapacitating democracy. As a result, capital is able to discipline the state, which becomes unable to respond to social needs and solve social problems (Fraser, 2022). The opposition of the political and the economic precipitates a political crisis and helps undermine political power, destabilizing it in the process (Fraser, 2022).

As economic influence comes to dominate political power, the concept of sovereignty - a complex and tangled idea at the intersection of politics and law - becomes subject to revision as well (Humphrey, 2004). Understood as a territorially-bound authority to make decisions and act without external constraints, sovereignty - as well as the state - is being undermined, according to scholars, by non-sovereign actors’ (like markets and investors) practices of disciplining the state. This tendency forces the states to compete with other states globally and to comply with the demands of competition, eventually manifesting in a pressure to enact specific policies (Gill, 2000).

Recent works also draw attention to repressive manifestations of political power in the context of the disappearance of the political and the erosion/restriction of state sovereignty. One part of this literature explores the tendency of neoliberal states to respond to the mantra of “small government” with privatization, deregulation and with sacrificing the public good. In contrast, other works focus on the rise of the carceral state - armed with a strong police force, prisons and other repressive instruments - within the neoliberal system that is not only powerful but also powerfully punitive (Wacquant, 2009; Chomsky, 1999; Harvey, 2005).

The relationship between the political and the economic that emerges around development projects in Upper Svaneti precipitates not only a local crisis, but also a crisis of sovereignty for the state itself. In the complex socio-political processes taking place in Upper Svaneti, the state either delegates public interests to business and the market, or vanishes from the scene altogether, undermining its own sovereignty. At the same time, we have numerous examples of the state (as in its attempts to crack down on anti-hydropower movements) making its powerful presence felt through punitive and repressive measures.

Nature and Culture

Along with the separation of the economic and the political, the rupture of nature and culture is also often theorized as a particularly important binary (Fraser, 2017). Such theories explore the structure of environmental resistance and show how the decoupling of nature and culture is related to the exploitation by the market of “devalued” nature and natural resources (Fraser, 2022). This implies, therefore, that there is “an ecological contradiction lodged at the heart of capitalist society – in the relation this society establishes between economy and nature.“ (Fraser, 2022, p. 87).

When discussing these normative, binary conceptions, it is also important to note Descola’s and Latour’s theoretical frameworks regarding the critique of modernity and its ontological assumptions (Drescola, 2013; Latour, 2014). In his recent work, Latour tries to shed light on the grave consequences of the antagonistic conception of nature and society and of the corresponding subjugation of nature, which he sees as the defining crisis of our times (Latour, 2018). Latour argues that modernity constructs a strict delineation between the human and the non-human that does not actually exist (Latour, 2014). According to him, modernity has developed multiple repertoires that exist independently of each other. But Latour claims that they are not independent in practice. In fact, Latour argues that it is impossible to disentangle them. Instead of seeing them as related and intertwined in complex ways, modernity sees and presents nature and culture as mutually exclusive and antagonistic spaces, asserting, thereby, its distinction from (and its victory over) everything else (Latour, 2014).

In Svaneti, as in Georgia’s other regions, infrastructural projects are unveiled and pursued in the name of progress and development, followed by a discourse and a language proclaiming the universality, rationality and the unquestionable nature of this trajectory (Rekhviashvili, 2022; Nakhutsrishvili, 2019; Qeburia & Chubabria, 2017). This approach stands on the assumption of the supremacy of the human over nature; on the logic of exploitation, utilization and subjugation of nature, which can be traced back to the legacy of Western ontology. Literature that is critical of the politics of development - both as a discourse and as a project - is also very important for the purposes of my PhD research. Such discourses of development usually contrast the universality and the inevitability of development with regressive local forces and transform these notions into practical instruments of disciplining, controlling and repressing local communities (Santos, 2004; Escobar, 2007; Latour, 2018).

The content of the article is the sole responsibility of the author and can in no way be taken to reflect the veiws of the Heinrich Boell Foundation Tbilisi Office - South Caucasus Region.

Works Cited

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[1] Collective oaths are an important part of traditional Svan customary law. There are several different types of a collective oath, which differ in purpose and form. One of them is an oath of unity, during which a village community gathers in a church and members swear an oath to each other professing loyalty to shared commitments and obligations      (Stéphane Voell, Natia Jalabadze, Lavrenti Janiashvili, Elke Kamm (2016), Traditional Law as Social Practice and Cultural Narrative: Introduction in S. Voell Traditional Law in the Caucasus Local Legal Practices in the Georgian Lowlands, Curupira, Bamberg, p. 41-42).

[2] According to the National Energy and Climate Plan (NECP, draft, p. 448-449) prepared by the Ministry of Economy and Sustainable Development and the Ministry of Agriculture and Environmental Protection, total new installed capacity of large hydropower plants proposed in Svaneti is around 1,400 megawatts (Khudoni HPP - 702 MW, Nenskra HPP - 270 MW, Dizi HPP - 250 MW and Kvantchianari HPP - 230 MW).