Leigh Miller for GlobalAtlanta
Georgia forestry experts are helping the Republic of Georgia make its forestry industry more profitable following a recent conference in Tbilisi, the capital the former Soviet republic.

Members of the state of Georgia’s forestry industry traveled with the Georgia National Guard Sept. 22-29 to the Republic of Georgia in the former Soviet Union to attend a forest products industry development conference and share U.S. forestry business techniques with their European counterparts.

Attending the trip from the state of Georgia were Kenneth Stewart, Georgia Forestry Commissioner; Robert Izlar, director of the Warren Center for Forest Business at the University of Georgia; William Thomas, trade manager at the Georgia Department of Agriculture and Andres Villegas, vice president of international trade, marketing and governmental affairs at Valdosta-based forest products company Langdale Industries Inc.

The program was part of an ongoing partnership between the two Georgias since 1995 to help the Republic of Georgia develop its industry in the post-Soviet era.

“There was enough interest on both sides that we will certainly continue our exchanges of information. I won’t be surprised if we see a delegation from Georgia’s environmental ministry coming here,” said Lt. Gen. David Poythress, adjutant general of the state of Georgia, who led the trip.

Mr. Stewart and his group gave presentations on the U.S. Georgia’s forestry management processes, visited some Tbilisi sawmills and offered suggestions for how to improve the profitability of Georgia’s forestry industry.

One suggestion was for the Georgians to learn to price wood based on its quality, following world market pricing. Some of the wood produced in sawmills there could be sold for significantly higher prices than the companies were asking, as it was very high in quality, Mr. Villegas said.

“It was successful as a first step. Nobody is taking orders, and no immediate sales are on the horizon. But it was a very useful door-opening process,” Mr. Poythress told GlobalAtlanta. “It was beneficial for the Georgians to learn what the U.S. Georgians had to say about forest management, which is a new concept for them.”

While the state of Georgia cultivates relatively quick-growing pine, forests in the Republic of Georgia are comprised of mostly beech wood that is harvested only once every 120 years. So, the country has had difficulty building its forestry industry, even though 45 percent of its land is covered with trees, Mr. Poythress said.

He added, however, that there could be some business opportunities in the future in the sale of parquet flooring from Georgia.

The country of Georgia is still developing its market economy after its independence in the early 1990s when the Soviet Union dissolved. The exchange program with the Georgia National Guard began as part of a U.S. State Department initiative to pair each former Soviet republic with a different U.S. state to teach them about free markets and democracy, Poythress said.

Today, every former Soviet republic except Russia and Belarus has a U.S. partner state.

The Georgia-Georgia partnership was based on the name only, Mr. Poythress noted. It began in 1995 as a military to military exchange, and then evolved into a military to civilian exchange, where the Georgia national guard worked with the Republic of Georgia’s civilian organizations such as its Ministry of Internal Affairs.

The partnership is now evolving into a civilian to civilian relationship where private industry from the state of Georgia is being paired with the country’s civilian agencies.

“We wanted to take businesspeople there to talk to specific industries that have real economic potential for that country and perhaps develop business relationships. Forestry fit the bill,” Mr. Poythress said.

The ultimate outcome is that the partnership eventually disappear, he added. As the former Soviet republics, including Georgia, achieve NATO membership and become self-sufficient in their governmental, democratic and free market processes, the exchange program will no longer be needed, he said.

Georgia is well on its way to becoming self-sufficient, Mr. Poythress said, but he noted that it has been a satellite country of Russia for several centuries, even before being brought into the Soviet Union with the 1917 revolution.

“There is nobody in that country who remembers what a free market economy is like, so the learning curve is a lot steeper,” he said.

The country is working toward NATO membership, however, and its economy is developing, he added, though tensions with Russia remain high.

While the Georgia state delegation was visiting, Georgia arrested four Russian military officers for spying, and Russia withdrew its diplomatic officials in response.

Mr. Poythress thought that the current tensions do not represent a long-term breach in the countries’ relationship, although Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili is an U.S.-educated lawyer who is moving the country closer toward the West. President Bush visited Mr. Saakashvili last year, the first time a U.S. president has ever visited Georgia.

The state of Georgia’s partnership with the country is ongoing, with one guardsman living there and working with the Ministry of Defense. Five to 20 U.S. Georgians are working in Georgia at any given time, Mr. Poythress said.

Attendees on the recent forest conference trip also included Brig. Gen. Lawrence Ross, commander of the 78th Troop Command of the Georgia Army National Guard; Brig. Gen. (Retired) Thomas McCullough, chairman of the Atlanta-Tbilisi Sister Cities Committee and Col. (Retired) Bruce Wood, international partnership specialist with the Georgia National Guard.

For more information, contact Mr. Poythress at (678) 569-6001 or Mr. Wood at (678) 569-3903.