Human Touch Offers Pensioners Respite

Independence grants few blessings in post-Soviet Georgia

by Natalia Antelava
photographs by Dima Chikvaidze

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It was a retirement plan no one could interfere with – or so Vera Rodnova thought.

In the early 1950’s, Ms. Rodnova escaped the hunger and poverty of post-World War II Russia and moved to Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, then one of the Soviet Union’s most prosperous republics.

“First I thought I would work for a while and then go back home. But I married, my husband and I built a house and my parents in Russia died. There was no reason for me to go back. My life was here,” she recalled.

The death of her husband in 1979 left Ms. Rodnova with the tough prospect of aging alone. But 30 years of work as an administrator at the Tbilisi Railway Station guaranteed her a Soviet pension. And that, together with her modest savings, would be enough to secure her retirement, she thought. Then, she said, it all went wrong.

“It was like waking up and realizing that overnight everything you have worked for has gone down the drain,” she said.

After the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, the relative stability of Soviet times gave way to civil war and economic chaos. The elderly were hit the hardest: passports, pension funds and the savings accounts of thousands of pensioners were annulled. The price Georgia had to pay for its independence – instability, electricity blackouts and hardship – proved too high for many.

“In the beginning of the 90’s, we stood in queues for bread all nightlong,” Ms. Rodnova remembered. “You could not find groceries to buy, there was nothing. For some it has since gotten better.”

Things have since improved, but for those like Ms. Rodnova, things have not. Today, bread queues and empty supermarket shelves are no longer part of everyday life. But while Georgia’s economy slowly picks up, the country’s some 500,000 elderly have been left behind. For them, change for the better is elusive. In a country riddled with corruption and budgetary problems, social service programs are left without resources. Pensions and other payments are well below $1 per day – the absolute poverty level adopted by the World Bank. In Georgia, old-age pensions amount to about 20 cents per day.

This means that Ms. Rodnova, who does not have the traditional safety net of a family on which to fall back, is left to survive on a monthly pension of just $8. And in a country where a welfare system no longer exists, this is nowhere near enough to make ends meet.

“No one needs us,” sighed Ms. Rodnova as she put the kettle on a small gas heater in her tiny kitchen. Even refilling this heater is often beyond her reach.

“Winters are the most difficult of all. Electricity is off for days sometimes and it is freezing here. So I just have to bundle up and go to bed. Often I don’t have four lari ($1.50) to refill the gas, so I cannot even make myself a cup of tea,” she said.

And yet, despite all hardships and problems, despite disappointment and the frightening prospect of her deteriorating health, Ms. Rodnova said she is among the lucky ones.

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Tags: Georgia Caring for the Elderly Belarus Tbilisi Pensioners