Thursday, June 05, 2008


During some of our time off, we went to visit one of the most fascinating sites in the entire region – the abandoned cave-city of Vardzia.

Originally dug inside a mountain near Aspindza, it was founded by Queen Tamar in 1185 as a place of protection from the Mongols.

The monastery – which consisted of over six thousand apartments in a thirteen story complex that included a church, throne room, and an irrigation system that watered terraced farmlands – was exposed by an earthquake in 1283.

Although about 60-70% of the complex was destroyed by the quake, the remaining structure was used for another three hundred years - until it was raided by Persians in 1551.

Today, it is a tourist attraction attended by a small group of monks, and is definitely worth a visit.

The exposed parts of Vardzia - previously in the middle of a mountain - have had steps and handrails added for safety

Wandering around the interior tunnels was a fascinating experience that left us wondering how the intricate series of overlapping passageways was constructed with only rudimentary hand-tools more than 800 years ago.

Many of the chambers had frescos on the walls and ceilings - some depicting the saints of orthodox Christianity

We spent hours wandering through the passageways, marveling how cleverly they were designed.

At some points, there were holes in the ceilings - only later did we come across side passageways with holes in the floor, through which the inhabitants could have attacked invaders who were following them!

We were also shown a chamber with a pool of crystal clear, cool water that we were told remained at a constant level and temperature. Somehow, it sits right at the natural water-table of the mountain an manages to remain full - even though it's carved into the solid stone floor!

Unfortunately, the photos of those amazing features of Vardzia didn't turn out too well because of the lack of light and the confined spaces - you'll just have to take my word for it, or go visit Vardzia yourself!

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Election Day

A rural Georgian schoolhouse - a typical location for a polling-place

Having taken a day to figure out where the most accessible polling places were, Indre and I set out on election day to visit as many of them as we could to make our observations.

The routine to be followed at the polling places is pretty straightforward.

Voters arrive at their local polling place and are greeting by a member of the local election commission who uses a UV light to check for traces of invisible ink on their hands – which is applied when someone receives their ballot. If someone has signs of ink on their hands, they aren’t allowed into the polling place.

Checking for invisible ink

Then, the voter checks in at a table to sign in on the voter list and receive their ballot, and to have their thumbs marked with the invisible ink.

Signing in to vote

Inking of the thumbs

They then go into a booth to mark their ballot, get an envelope in to which to place the ballot, and drop their envelope into the ballot box.

For those who are unable to make it to a polling place, Georgia – and many other areas of the former Soviet Union – has “mobile voting.” Instead of vote-by-mail absentee voting, a small ballot box is brought by members of the local election commission to your home.

"Mobile Voting"

A family member helps a visually-impaired woman vote at home via "mobile voting"

Everywhere we went, we were welcomed with enthusiasm by the local election commission – who were eager to answer our questions and share their hospitality by offering us refreshments.

Coffee, tea, and pastries were plentiful – but two items clearly stood out from all the others.

The first was one of the national dishes of Georgia – Khachapuri (hoch-a-poor-ee), a round, flat cheese-filled bread that was served as a staple of every meal I ate in Georgia and was loved by everyone.

The other was local, home-made white wine – consumed in a series of toasts that require those partaking to consume the entire glass in one long pull each round.

Georgian hospitality in the backroom of a polling-place on election day


The one time I politely passed on the wine I was brought bottled water – or at least that’s what I though it was, until I raised the glass to my lips and was greeted with some very potent vodka…

Of course, as the day wore on this became overwhelming – and put us in the delicate position of having to decide exactly how much hospitality we could accept before diplomatically excusing ourselves to move on to the next polling place.

Eventually, as the 8 p.m. deadline came near, we made our way to a polling place where we would observe the closing procedures, vote counting, and the sealing up of all of the materials and the filling out of a “protocol” sheet that accounts for everything.

While the actual voting seemed to go well in the polling places we visited, our fellow observers in other areas saw several irregularities: piles of neatly stacked ballots, one atop the other, resting in the ballot box – along with seemingly identical signatures in the voter sign-in sheets – were indicators of potential ballot-box stuffing.

Eventually, our observations – reported via checklists that we fill out and fax back to the OSCE team in Tbilisi – were combined with those of 180 two-person observation teams deployed all over the country on election day.

Filling out my forms

The result?

The OSCE issues a preliminary finding, stating in part that:

“Election day was generally calm, and overall, voting was assessed positively by the large majority of IEOM (international election observation mission) observers, with regional variations.

However, there were procedural shortcomings, especially with regard to inconsistent application of inking procedures.

Inaccuracies remain in the voter list, despite verification efforts undertaken by the CEC (central election commission).

In a considerable number of polling stations, a relatively high number of voters were added to mobile voter lists.

Cases of domestic observers and proxies being pressured or expelled from polling stations were noted.

Counting was assessed less positively, with significant procedural shortcomings observed, as was tabulation.”

Indre and I didn’t observe nearly as many problems in the area where we were working – but once we returned to Tbilisi, I met friends who were deployed to other parts of the country who reported some very chaotic polling places.

After some further analysis, the OSCE will have a final report that will include recommendations to the Republic of Georgia on how to improve their elections process – and, as we in America can attest, there’s always room for improvement.