Oct 10, 2009


One of the few things that all residents of the South Caucasus have in common is a love of tea. Betting on local tea-drinking customs, a group of regional manufacturers hopes that a joint tea brand -- involving individuals and entities from Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, as well as the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Nagorno-Karabakh -- may help ease feelings of enmity in the region.
"We’re creating a unified tea brand to show Europe that we have another image apart from conflicts," said Ismail Allakhverdyev, the project’s Azerbaijani coordinator and a livestock expert for the Azerbaijani Ministry of Agriculture. "When professional businessmen talk, political issues are absent"

The project’s brand -- Caucasus Tea -- will offer tea leaves from all five participating countries and breakaway territories. Georgia and Azerbaijan will produce black and green tea; Armenia and the disputed regions of Karabakh and South Ossetia will contribute herbal teas. Expected to launch by late 2009, the project is the brainchild of national tea associations and the British government-funded Caucasus Business Development Network, a non-governmental organization that promotes business initiatives in the South Caucasus as a form of conflict resolution.
The project’s timing proved less than auspicious. It kicked off in July 2008 at a regional tea conference in Baku, just before the outbreak of the five-day war between Georgia and Russia. That conflict spooked many foreign investors. The war also may have cost the project one key participant: Russia, with its smoky black teas from the Krasnodar region, situated to the north of breakaway Abkhazia.
On hand for the initial discussions, the Association of Tea and Coffee Producing Companies of the Russian Federation, a group of the largest Russian coffee and tea producers also known as RosTeaCoffee, has not contacted any of the project partners since the end of the conflict.
Ustin Shteyman, the 89-year-old chairman of RosTeaCoffee, says the organization considered itself merely an observer at the initial Baku talks. RosTeaCoffee officials now believe the project has slim chances for success. Caucasus Tea is more about politics than business, Shteyman said.
"Georgia and Azerbaijan are at a different level of tea production at the moment and both lag behind on tea production standards, while [Russia’s] Krasnodar tea is of better quality," Shteyman said. "Restoring [tea] quality requires big investments and much time."
Not all of the project’s partners are actual tea producers, he continued, noting that Armenia, Karabakh and South Ossetia will contribute only herbal teas. "Herbal tea is not tea to me," scoffed Shteyman.
RosTeaCoffee General Director Ramaz Chanturia argues that the project also requires intergovernmental cooperation among all partners -- a remote possibility in the South Caucasus. So far, government agencies in the project partners’ countries are taking no official part in Caucasus Tea.
"If we want to develop a united brand, we have to base this concept on international experience and work out this initiative at the inter-governmental level," Chanturia maintained. "The involved countries could get the right of international copyright protection for the . . . brand Caucasus Tea, create a logo and a special trademark for the products produced in the region, create a government-based structure responsible for promoting and protecting this brand in the international market."
Russian tea producing companies, he continued, will participate in this process only in compliance with Russia’s interests in the region. RosTeaCoffee planned to collaborate with Abkhaz tea producers, but a lack of financing put the venture on hold.
One Caucasus Tea partner -- South Ossetia -- agrees with RosTeaCoffee’s reasoning, but Ossetian representatives contend that the project’s peace-making angle is a worthwhile pursuit. "The project would show ... that a degree of common sense has remained in us," said South Ossetian coordinator Timur Tskhovrebov, a journalist who works with the Caucasus Business Development Network in South Ossetia.
Tskhovrebov told EurasiaNet that the de facto government of South Ossetia has not "welcomed the project initiative, but has not tried to stop it, either."
Georgia’s other breakaway region, Abkhazia, has so far reportedly shied away from the project. Representatives of relevant Abkhaz companies did not respond to EurasiaNet requests for comment.
Karabakh, the scene of a six-year war between Armenia and Azerbaijan, reportedly plans to contribute a local mountain herbal tea to the project. Karabakh representatives could not be reached for comment.
How much tea each participant will contribute to the Caucasus Tea brand for now remains unknown.
Georgia, once a tea powerhouse, produced 90,000-130,000 tons per year during the Soviet era, but production in recent years has plummeted to roughly 4,000-5,000 tons annually, according to the Association of Georgian Tea Producers. Ninety percent of that production is exported abroad to Ukraine, Germany, the United Kingdom, Mongolia and Middle Eastern countries.
Data on Azerbaijani tea production was not immediately available from the Association of Azerbaijani Tea Producers or from the government. Azerbaijani project coordinator Allakhverdyev noted that Azerbaijani tea plantations have not been updated since the Soviet era. One industry source estimates that Azerbaijan’s tea production is just a tiny fraction of 200-300 tons produced per year during the Soviet era.
Once the brand goes into the marketing phase, consumers will not know which country or region’s tea dominates the contents of a Caucasus Tea box. Boxes will be stamped "Made in the Caucasus," with no mention of the particular countries of origin. That absence is deliberate. "If we put the names of breakaway republics side by side with legally recognized countries, it means we also recognize their sovereignty," commented Tengiz Svanidze, chairperson of the Association of Georgian Tea Producers.
While the region’s tea industry may not be as robust as it once was, and the project fraught with potential political complications, talking about how tea could foster an "image of a business-friendly place," according to Artush Mkrtchyan, the project’s Armenian coordinator and the chief executive officer of Yerevan’s Caucasian Center for Proposing Non-Traditional Conflict Resolution Methods. The possibilities give participants at least something to talk about.
Azerbaijani coordinator Allakhverdyev agrees. "It’s better to have economic dialogue than not to have any," he said. "Dialogue leads to solutions, ultimately."

Source: Eurasianet.org