The village of Zerti belongs to the northern region of Shida Qartli, located 5 km from the de facto border with the breakaway region of South Ossetia and 15 km from Gori.
In 2002, the statistical office counted 2,706 people living in Zerti. However, in August 2008the people of Zerti fled their village in the face of back-and-forth Russian troop movements between Gori and South Ossetia.
'There are no more than a 100 men left in the village now' said Giorgi on 20 August 2008.
Giorgi is the son of Lela G. and Gia T. He had to flee his village with his mother and brother due to the recent events in South Ossetia and Gori. His father Gia, however, stayed behind.
As Giorgi describes:
'Russians have not entered Zerti before we left, but there were Russian military planes and helicopters flying over us… also some bombs were thrown in land plots and gardens located around Zerti, burning them.'
The consequences of being so close to the 'de facto' border with South Ossetia were felt in Zerti even before the events of August 2008. Economically, Russia's embargo on Georgian agricultural products had an immediate effect on the incomes of Zerti's farmers, who were selling their produce in both South Ossetia and Russia.
During Soviet times, the collective farm in Zerti played a big role economically, employing around 700 people. In addition, a poultry farm in the nearby village of Mejviriskhevi provided employment for another 60 people from Zerti. Work on the farms – and in the public sector (health care and education) – ensured that almost every household had at least one wage earner. In the words of one farmer in Zerti, Eliza Dotiashvili:
'There was formally no unemployment in the village… unemployment was considered a crime by the Soviet laws.'
Lela Ginturi, deputy director of the Zerti school and former manager at the collective farm, said about her experience:
'Collective farms were the common form of farm management...Besides the machinery, these associations offered expertise on rural issues and consulting on agriculture as well as experts who made measurements and consultations, there was control, fertilizers.'
Lela Ginturi in front of her house. Photo: ESI
The collapse of communism spelled the end of the collective farms in 1991, producing unemployment across all of rural Georgia. Women from Zerti started working in bakeries in Tbilisi and Gori, while men began working as porters in the same cities. They also traded agricultural goods in the nearby towns.
'In 1989-90 as the Soviet system of collective farms was rapidly falling apart, the import of agricultural machinery from Russia stopped and there food was scarce. Unemployment was rising. My salary stayed the same but due to high inflation I could not buy much with it anymore' – Lela Ginturi.
Another blow to Zerti's economy came with Saakashvili's attempt to stop illegal trade in Zerti's backyard, the village of Ergneti. Spread across both Shida Qartli and South Ossetia, Ergneti hosted a market where Russians and Georgians illegally traded everything from tangerines and apples to drugs and weapons. The decision to close this illegal market negatively affected Zerti's economy. While it reduced criminality in Shida Qartli, it also closed off a big market for Zerti's products.
In addition, Zerti's farmers suffered as they lost access to cheap goods necessary for agricultural development (ie. fertilizers), which they buy today on the regulated Georgian market. This has raised the prices of agricultural products in Zerti and has led some to give up agriculture altogether.