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Mobilities, Boundaries, and Travelling Ideas

Philipp Schröder
Manja Stephan-Emmrich

Part 3. Movements from Below: Economic and Social

7. Informal Trade and Globalization in the Caucasus and Post-Soviet Eurasia

Susanne Fehlings

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1In Central Asia and the Caucasus, one can observe many petty traders, who travel long distances and cross international borders to complete their business. Even though these traders have little financial capital at their disposal, and even though the economic activity of each individual seems rather unimportant, the total effect of such agents, their trade, and their mobility is more than a random phenomenon. They are typical actors of globalization — or, more precisely, of something that has been theoretically framed as ‘globalization from below’ (Portes 1997, Mathews 2011, Mathews et al. 2012), ‘grassroots globalization’ (Appadurai 2000), or ‘translocality’ (Freitag and von Oppen 2010, Smith 2011).

  • 1 For literature on ‘border-markets’ in Central Asia and the Caucasus see, for example, Dabaghyan an (...)

2During my fieldwork in the Caucasus, conducted between 2008 and 2010, I met many of these traders on the roads between Yerevan (Armenia) and Tbilisi (Georgia) and those between Tbilisi and Baku (Azerbaijan). I remember the day when I crossed the Armenian-Georgian border for the first time. The minibus had just crossed the wild mountains and deep valleys of the Caucasus at breathtaking speed and some passengers had been sick. After I got my passport back from a serious-looking border official, I suddenly felt much like an adventurer — like Tolstoy, who describes the Caucasus as a remote and wild region — and I felt like I was in ‘the middle of nowhere’. But as I understand now, this perception of the border as a remote place was an illusion of mine. In fact, the borders in the Caucasus (and Central Asia) are very vibrant places and hotspots for all kind of exchanges and economic activity (compare Reeves 2014, Gellner 2013). They are central loci, ‘nodes’, or ‘sites with a lot of transiency’ (Hannerz 1998:139) along the travel routes that cross the whole area, traditionally connecting Europe and Asia, and Great Powers like Russia and Persia. In many cases ‘border-markets’1 have developed in their proximity.

3On the roads you can find all kinds of people: besides tourists and commuters, you will meet Iranian truck and Georgian minibus drivers, Armenian fruit and vegetable retailers, Turkish businessmen — and, invisible to the eyes of ordinary travellers, smugglers of drugs and weapons. Almost all of these people can be labelled ‘petty traders’, who obviously form a very heterogeneous group. My aim is to learn more about these people, their economic activity, and their travel routes. In this chapter, I shall first outline the theoretical framework and main research questions of my work, which is conceived as a subproject within the research project ‘Informal Markets and Trade in Central Asia and the Caucasus’, funded by the Volkswagen Foundation. I shall present some general objectives of the project, and discuss some of its central theoretical concepts such as ‘informality’ and ‘globalization’, which I shall then link to ‘translocality’. Finally, I shall present some preliminary results from my own recent research trips and my initial fieldwork on local markets in Georgia, which I took as a starting point to investigate the theoretical concepts mentioned above. One of the results was the identification of research units that might help to investigate ‘translocal contexts’ and ‘translocality’ in general. Using research units such as location, people, mobility, goods and frequency, which are components of the economic activity I investigated, I describe and pay special attention to my target group: female petty traders, who travel long distances and who exist at the lower end of the scale of informal entrepreneurial activity.

‘Informality’, ‘globalization’, and ‘translocality’

4One general objective of the project ‘Informal Markets and Trade in Central Asia and the Caucasus’ is to reach a comprehensive understanding of the ‘informal economy’ in post-Soviet regions and their bordering countries. These local contexts, which reach as far as from Turkey to the Caucasus and Russia, and from Central Asia to China, have been shaped by the breakdown of the Soviet economic system and its opening up to the world market. The project thus starts from the concept of ‘globalization from below’ or ‘grassroots globalization’ that conflates informality and non-elite local actors with global flows, networks, and settings, which have become more and more relevant for local people and economies since the early 1990s (Fehlings and Karrar 2016).

5‘Globalization from below’ is usually distinguished from ‘globalization from above’ (Portes 1997, Appadurai 2000, MacGaffey and Bazenguissa-Ganga 2000, Mathews 2011, Mathews et al. 2012). While the latter is defined as regulated by state institutions and large enterprises, ‘globalization from below’, according to the literature, encompasses the economic activity of individual entrepreneurs, who usually have little money at hand, rely on their personal networks, and have no formal training. As the everyday exchanges of these people are unregulated by the state or official law, their activity is often associated with ‘informality’ as defined by Keith Hart (1973). Especially in the aftermath of the Soviet Union, during the process of nation-building in the newly-established and recently-independent republics on former Soviet territory informal practices seem to have substituted for many formal (state) structures that had disappeared or were not yet fully established, implemented, or accepted (Giordano and Hayoz 2013, Morris and Polese 2013, Holzlehner 2014).

  • 2 ‘Informalization’ is a concept originally developed by Castells and Portes (1989), describing the (...)

6‘Informality’, as used by academics, quite simply describes the absence of ‘formality’. But because it is difficult to define clear boundaries between formality and informality, between formal structure, as defined by state bodies, and the individual interpretations of these structures, between formal rules and socio-cultural practice, and between institutionalized and written codes of behavior (legal law) and agency, the definition of informality (and formality) leaves much space for interpretation (Hart 1973, 1986, 1992, Helmke and Levitsky 2006, Chen 2007, Sassen 2001, Giordano and Hayoz 2013, Morris and Polese 2013, Hardenberg and Fehlings 2016). State regulations are usually taken as formal (in the Weberian sense of ‘rational government’) but there is no doubt, as proven by many examples from Central Asia and the Caucasus, that states, governments and their administrative bodies are not only grounded in rationality and legal law regulations (compare Gupta 1995, 2012). In Uzbekistan, for example, the state and enterprises supported by state institutions extensively use informal practices such as social networking, which is why Kaiser (1997) and Rasanayagam (2011) have described this situation as an ‘informalization’2 manifesting at all levels of society (Hardenberg and Fehlings 2016, Iskandaryan 2014). In contexts like these, ‘culture’, which, in economics as well as in public media, is often associated with ‘backward and primitive behavior’ is held responsible for the informal practices that, in a next step, are sometimes equated to corruption. Culture, in this formulation, is perceived as an obstacle to economic growth and welfare, which, according to some (Georgian and Western) economists is a reason for the lack of economic success of Caucasian petty traders and small entrepreneurs, who trust in their kinship networks instead of taking loans from credit institutions, and who spent their money on feasts and family matters rather than on reinvestment.

7From an anthropological point of view, culture and ‘backwardness’, same as culture and informal structures, cannot be equated but need to be treated as separate categories. Just as states are rarely purely formal and based on rational government, so are social practices and organizations, cultural norms and codes of behavior, rarely arbitrary or chaotic — or ‘backward’ and illegal per se. This is why I use both terms — formality and informality — in a non-dogmatic way. Formality and informality, in my opinion, should not be taken as strictly analytical classifications. They are starting points to describe the different facets of structures, of behaviors, of motivations and of practices on all social and spatial levels and in relation to each other. Thus they help to describe these structures, behaviors, motivations and practices as more or less controlled by official bodies, more or less visible, and more or less difficult to grasp through official statistics. From an emic perspective, people involved in economic activities like petty trade or bazaar vending do not at all distinguish between formal and informal practices. For them, their activity is a logical reaction or adaptation to the circumstances shaping the market and the marketplace. These circumstances simply have to be transformed into successful business. State regulations are sometimes perceived as unfair and therefore ignored. Sometimes, traders look for loopholes in the legal framework. But as long as no major crime (such as murder or trafficking) is committed, people (petty traders as well as officials) do not perceive these crossings of regulatory boundaries as significant. Entrepreneurs complete their business and sometimes one has to pay a fee. Thus, the classification of activities into formal and informal categories and the use of such terms are academic rather than practical.

8From a theoretical point of view, as already mentioned, ‘formality’ and ‘informality’ and ‘globalization from above’ and ‘from below’ are related to each other in similar ways. Thus, from an analytical perspective, we need the same tools to understand ‘globalization from below’ as to understand ‘informal practices’, which are both important aspects of globalization as a whole. It is the mingling of the two spheres that interests me.

9Authors such as Keith Hart (1973, 1986, 1996) have argued that globalization as such to some extent promotes ‘informality’, because it weakens the role of nation states and their formal regulations. In fact, geographical borders, specifically national borders, are constantly being transgressed and undermined though informal practices: migration, economic activity, tourism, and personal networks (virtual networks, kinship, or other) that escape state control (Portes 1997). Becoming at some point institutionalized, they create new structures beyond or within national horizons. Yet at the same time, there is no doubt that national borders and institutions exist and that people have to deal with them (compare Reeves 2014, Gellner 2013, Harris 2013).

10The term ‘translocality’ is used to engage with similar phenomena and problems. According to Freitag and von Oppen (2010:3), the notion of translocality includes the attempt to focus on actors, connections, flows, places, and processes that range ‘below the elite level’. Rather than solely taking into account the perspectives of those with power, researchers using a translocal lens pay attention to marginal mobilities, historical changes, and the dynamics of specific places through flows, relations between local and global connectedness, and local adaptions of translocal experiences. The goal is to write a ‘social history from below’ and to ‘understand the manifold ways in which the world is constituted’ (ibid.:6).

11Here, we face the same problems as mentioned above: on the one hand, we have to consider ‘processes of the establishment and institutionalization of cultural, social and political structures’; on the other hand, specifically in an overall situation of mobility, flows, and transition, ‘it seems that translocality is often marked by transient, non-permanent and unordered spaces’ that are difficult to record (Freitag and von Oppen 2010:7).

  • 3 The importance of infrastructure has been discussed by Cresswell (2006), Dalakoglou and Harvey (20 (...)

12The actors, such as petty traders or migrants, are the focus of our interest when examining informality, globalization from below, and translocality, and they have a similar background and use similar networks and practices. But while researchers using the concepts of informality and globalization from below emphasize these actors and their specific practices, movements, backgrounds, behaviors and networks, researchers using a translocal perspective investigate ‘the tensions between movement and order’ and address ‘the attempts to cope with transgression and the need for localizing some kind of order’ (Freitag and von Oppen 2010:8). Thus, translocality, as I understand it, deals with new and fluid belongings, new identifications, networks, imaginations, ‘livelihoods’, and adapted practices. These are linked to the unconventional definitions of space that appear in these contexts, but are still rooted in localities and thus not arbitrary or unbound. As such, translocality, in contrast to transnationalism, takes into account that there are boundaries other than purely political ones. This is, for example, true in the context of trade networks — such as those reaching from Turkey to the Caucasus and from Central Asia to China — that cross the region currently under our investigation (compare Freitag and von Oppen 2010, Schetter 2012, Schröder and Stephan-Emmrich 2014). However, we have to admit that conventional nation-state borders have not ceased to exist. Truck drivers, for example, as I could observe myself, spend hours at border posts. They thus physically experience the existence of borders. There are material blockades, administrative obstacles, language barriers, and, last but not least, socio-cultural boundaries rooted in ethnic backgrounds, social networks like kinship relations, religious and social practices, customs, beliefs, and worldviews that have to be overcome. At the same time, national institutions promote trade and mobility. Local governments build many of the roads on which the traders travel and provide the infrastructure that makes communication, exchange, and economic success possible.3

13Therefore, the activity we observe takes place in spaces that are neither solely locally bound nor totally ‘translocal’; they are neither completely informal nor formal; they are global but usually the actors are embedded in local contexts. Consequently, we have to investigate the points of intersection and the ‘linkages of different scales’ (Freitag and von Oppen 2010:19), by considering a ‘plurality of perspectives’, making use of, for example, multidisciplinary attempts and different regional experiences (ibid.:18–20).

  • 4 See, e.g., Mauss (1990 [1925]), Malinowski (1935), (1972), Bohannon and Dalton (1962), Polanyi (20 (...)

14To summarize, we must keep in mind that the economy is not an ‘impersonal (formal) machine’ but made and remade by people in their everyday lives (Hart 2010). Therefore, I try to investigate the economy, respectively informal markets and trade, in accordance with anthropological tradition4 in conjunction with other realms of human existence such as culture, social relations, politics, and religion. Informality, globalization from below, and translocality are simply means to describe some aspects of the interrelation of these fields.

Informal markets and translocal trade in Tbilisi and beyond

  • 5 Compare Bestor’s (2001) investigation of the international seafood trade by focussing on Tokyo’s T (...)

15For this chapter, I have used materials from previous long-term research stays in the Caucasus and from two and a half months of fieldwork on local markets in Tbilisi in spring 2014. Based on these experiences and data I started to classify marketplaces, traders, forms of mobility, and the types of the trader’s economic activity. My first idea was to get in touch with traders and to travel with them in order to track their trade routes and observe their translocal environment, as well as their behavior and experiences, thus understanding the formal and informal context of their practices, and their socio-cultural background and motivation. But walking through Tbilisi and paying attention to traders, trade, and marketplaces, I was simply overwhelmed by the number of merchants and the amount of goods that flood the city. Globalization from above and below, and the translocal contexts of trading, become most obvious in the local setting of the Georgian capital. Thus, to get an overview, I did not follow individual traders on their travel routes, but tried to understand the variety of economic exchanges and the diversity of social groups involved in trade by investigating the places, which are, besides border markets, the spatial centres and the nodes of economic action in the region.5

16A specific group of traders attracted my particular attention: female petty traders who travel quite long distances, crossing international borders. These women usually buy a few goods, like furniture or clothes, which, back home, they sell for a small profit. To get a better understanding of the particularity of this group in relation to other groups of traders, I tried to identify parameters that help to describe different aspects of trade, the specific social groups of traders, and their ‘embeddedness’ in socio-cultural contexts. These parameters can also be interpreted as possible units for investigating formality and informality, the interrelation of globalization from below and above, and translocality. The parameters consist of: a) the locations where economic activity takes place, b) the people involved, c) their mobility, d) the types of goods that are traded, and f) the exchange volume and frequency of activity. Some additional aspects under consideration include historical and political dynamics.


17Tbilisi is full of street vendors, bazaars, markets, small shops, malls, etc., and it is almost impossible to differentiate between them, as they coexist in close proximity without being strictly separated. One can hardly draw a line between territories, the different groups of people working there, and the various types of businesses being represented. Despite these challenges, I tried to understand what distinguishes them.

18Let me start with space and sales facilities. The locations of economic exchange in Tbilisi (and in the Caucasus in general), can, as a first step, be classified — even though, as mentioned above, this is a very tentative and problematic classification — as more or less formal or informal. The level of formality, in this case, usually can be defined according to the solidity and durability of the sales facilities and their ability to meet official sanitary standards. Sales facilities and displays range from a cloth that is placed on the soil in front of the vendor, to push carts, booths in roofed and unroofed bazaars of different size and importance, small shops and kiosks, and boutiques, supermarkets, shopping malls, and department stores.

19While the less formal traders use public spaces like streets, metro stations, or parks, the more formalized businesses are found in permanent locations explicitly designed and equipped for this purpose. For each of the different spaces of exchange there exists a particular local term, such as, for example, in Georgian, supermarketi, marketi, maghazia, bazari, bazroba, budiki, and budka; or in Armenian supermarket, khanuth, shuka, krapak, etcetera.

Fig. 7.1 Eliava’s spare parts market in Tbilisi.
Photo © Susanne Fehlings (2014), CC BY 4.0

20The different spaces of exchange have different legal statuses. Some are approved and supported by formal state institutions, such as Lilo Molli next to Tbilisi’s airport, which is the biggest wholesale and retail market or bazaar in the Caucasus. Here, you can find a market administration, hierarchical organization, and security measures, and the shops within the marketplace are neat, numbered, and listed on a map. The wholesalers and retail traders there will usually rent some space and thus automatically receive an official license to sell their merchandise on their allocated spot. When I asked the manager of a similar market in Tbilisi’s centre how the market was organized, the conversation quickly came to an end: ‘people pay, they get a booth with a certain number of square meters, and then everything is fine. I do not know how they manage the rest. This is none of my business [it does not concern me.]’.

21In other spaces such as public pavements or metro entrances, trade is much more chaotic, only tacitly accepted by officials, or sometimes even prohibited. In Tbilisi there have been several initiatives, which were enforced by the state police, to expel street vendors from public spaces (Khutsishvili 2012, Rekhviashvili 2015). Similar initiatives, which in Tbilisi were eventually dropped by the new government, can be observed all over post-Soviet territories, because informally-operating street vendors and their goods displays are usually perceived as an obstacle to formal urban order and a modern city lifestyle (Stephan-Emmrich and Mirzoev 2016).

22All the above-mentioned localities, even the more permanent ones, have in common the appearance of being comparatively transient and disordered. Indeed, the less formally controlled they are, the more they become, at least from the perspective of an outsider, jumbled accumulations of merchandise and people, or chaotic bazaars, which are composed of labyrinths of small corridors and tentative stalls overloaded with commodities. In such places the smells of food mingle with those of rubbish, and music from different stalls competes with the noises and shouts from the street. Many of these locations are in a state of permanent transformation. Shops, goods, merchants, and consumers come and go. Some shops get bankrupt, more successful traders open new shops, changing demand requires new merchandise, and consumers may develop new habits and become attracted by other places and types of shops.

23Importance and centrality, of course, are two more key features that should be considered in order to understand the position of marketplaces within local and global geographic, political and economic landscapes, within networks of marketplaces and as part of trade routes both within and beyond the Caucasus (Dannhaeuser 1989).

24Interestingly, the women of my target group make use of these webs of marketplaces and profit from price differences that occur within them. But in many cases, they bring the merchandise from a far-away market directly to their clients, which is why they do not necessarily appear in the local markets of the Caucasian capitals. They often do not have a space for selling their goods, but use their villages and private houses as locations for economic negotiation and exchange. Invisible to the eyes of outsiders and to state control, these private places can be interpreted as the complete opposite of formal sales facilities.

Fig. 7.2 Traders next to the railway station and the bus stop in Tbilisi.
Photo © Susanne Fehlings (2014), CC BY 4.0


25In markets and shops, it is quite common for the salespersons to be hired simply as sellers and to be not at all involved in the process of importation. In other cases, producers and traders are the very same, for example, in the case of farmers (glechebi in Georgian), who sell their vegetables and fruits on Tbilisi’s streets or on the platforms of Tbilisi’s railway station. According to Ketevan Khutsishvili ‘their products are known to be extraordinarily fresh and cheap, and this is why consumers buy from them’.

26Some traders buy their merchandise at cheap wholesale markets like Lilo and re-sell them for a small profit in the city centre, as was the case of an old woman who I saw every day selling costume jewelry on Tbilisi’s central Rustaveli Street, where she used the architecture of public buildings as a showcase. Others travel long distances and live translocal lives.

Fig. 7.3 Street vending in Tbilisi: using public buildings as a showcase.
Photo © Susanne Fehlings (2014), CC BY 4.0

27The motivations for working as a trader vary widely. Besides entrepreneurs, for whom their business is their ‘real profession’, there are many people who get involved in trade only out of absolute necessity. The socio-cultural background is essential to understand why people do what they do and how they do it. The socio-cultural context, for me, consists of social relations (such as kinship relations or other social networks) that shape society, social practices and hierarchies, cosmology, beliefs, and shared values. These shape economic practice. In Georgia, many people, especially the elderly, grew up with a Soviet ideology that condemned trade, profit-making, and free-market economics (Mandel and Humphrey 2002). For these people, it was, as far as I could make out from the conversations, a hard and amoral decision to turn to trade. Very typical sentiments were: ‘by profession I am an engineer’, ‘a university teacher’, or ‘I have [X number of] diplomas’. This is a way to express regret about declining status as a result of external factors (compare Niyozov and Shamatov 2007, Schröder in Chapter Eight). This was the case with many female petty traders, whom I met at local markets or on their travels.

28In the 1980s and 1990s, trade and therefore travelling became a strategy of survival for all kinds of people who had lost their livelihoods. Many of them belonged to the so-called intelligentsia, whose members were especially vulnerable during this time, and many of them were women (compare Niyozov and Shamatov 2007). These people, who were called chelnoki, had very little experience in the field of commerce. Armine, an Armenian university teacher, for example, told me about trade expeditions in the 1990s, which she undertook with small groups of students to Iran. She remembered how they veiled themselves to explore this unknown territory and how they crossed the border for the first time.

29The term ‘chelnoki’ derives from the term ‘shuttle’ (chelnok), which is a device used in weaving to carry the weft by moving back and forth. This motion recalls the back and forth of the traders’ travel (Holzlehner 2014). Mobility, in times of crisis, became the basis of peoples’ economic existence. But in contrast to the widespread opinion that translocality, mobility, and flexibility lead to economic success (Stephan-Emmrich and Mirzoev 2016), many of the petty traders under consideration here engaged in trade for their mere survival.

30Nowadays, this group of people and their kind of economic activity has decreased. The women I am interested in, their travels, and their special kind of commerce, might be the last remnant of the chelnoki phenomenon. It can be classified as highly informal because it is often not even a permanent occupation, since it is based on personal relations, and — at least in large part — operates outside of the state controlled sphere of formally registered business. Almost everyone else from this first generation tried to stop doing this as soon as there were other possibilities. The women of my target group, however, continue this business, but rarely travel very long distances (e.g., to China or India). The women’s new and favorite destination is Turkey, which they can reach easily by marshrutka (minibus). I wonder if their activity, again, is an outcome of political and economic crisis (in this case, the financial crisis of 2008). I believe this is an interesting hypothesis, which is worth investigating in future work.

31However, female traders, especially those who have passed the age of forty, belong to the lowest class of traders (and of society in general). They are perceived (by large parts of society and often by themselves) as the last remnants of the Soviet system and the transition period. Usually, a tragic biography and the absence of support from family members, which is perceived as crucial for a successful and happy life in Georgian society, has forced them to continue this occupation at a time when most other people, thanks to the recovering national economy, have started bigger businesses or other jobs. Thus, for example, I met a woman in the train from Baku to Tbilisi who had just returned from China. Her son and her daughter-in-law had died in a car accident. Having lost her family and all financial support, she had to care for her grandchild, which was the only reason for her to turn to petty trade. Another woman, Marina, who travels to China, lost her husband and has to feed two children, and Hasmik, who trades in vegetables from Turkey, which she buys in Tbilisi and sells in Yerevan, told a similar story.

  • 6 How modes of entrepreneurship change and which factors influence this change is one subject of the (...)

32Younger, so-called bisnesmeny have a totally different attitude. For them, trade and economic success is linked to prestige and a ‘modern lifestyle’. This lifestyle, as I observed, fits well with the ‘new’ ideology. It accords with the cultural orientation towards a market economy and a more Western European outlook, and it is also supported by the Georgian Orthodox Church, representatives of which present themselves in the guise of businessmen. In general, elderly people and women work in the more informal and less profitable sectors, whereas men and younger people more often manage to establish themselves in business permanently and profitably. In this context it makes sense to ask, at what point does one become a successful businessmen, trader, or entrepreneur? This is, of course, difficult to answer. Perhaps the level of formalization, which manifests in owning a permanent location like a registered booth or shop among other signals, is an indicator. It is clear, however, that the traders who are forced into trade and an itinerant work schedule do not belong to this category. They are far from being able to accumulate wealth and usually not able to make their business grow.6


33The first discovery during my recent fieldwork was that many traders working in bazaars and markets do not really travel, but sell goods they buy from wholesalers. The more established traders, most of them men, buy their goods by catalogue order. For example, Levan, who sells furniture from China next to Tbilisi’s railway station, told me that he had once travelled to China and visited the factory where his merchandise is produced. The Chinese factory had employed a professional Russian translator, and once the business relationship was established, offers and orders for goods were placed via the internet. As soon as one delivery is sold out, Levan orders the next. Payment is made through bank transfer, and transport and payment of custom duties organized through globally operating cargo companies, thus limiting the risk to, and individual mobility of, those involved in this exchange.

34The establishment of business relations and the regularity of exchange call for structuring, formalization, specialization, and division of labour, which often leads to the outsourcing of logistics. It follows that personal movement is often linked to a lower degree of formality. Consequently, one could also classify the merchants, their informal or formal character, and their involvement in translocal contexts, with reference to their personal mobility. The farmers mentioned above, for example, usually bring their products from rural to urban areas to sell them on the public streets or in proximity to railway or bus stations. They usually manage their itinerary in less than one day, and hence are quite mobile. They are definitely operating on an informal level, but do not feel any tensions between ‘being here or there’ (Freitag and von Oppen 2010), or movement and order. Thus, their translocal experience is limited to their interactions within the marketplaces.

  • 7 The Georgian movie director Natia Arabuli-Weg shot an interesting documentary about these traders.

35Yet some farmers, in contrast, stay in Tbilisi for a few weeks or months to try their luck at getting more permanently involved in the process of exchange. The exchange volume of their transactions is very modest. For example, they start with a bag of potatoes that they sell for a few coins. They then use this money for living expenses and to buy some tomatoes, which they sell again to buy other products and so on. With a minimal profit, people can thus afford their daily survival and a dirty room in a shabby hostel next to the railway station, where there is no privacy and where they share the poor conditions with plenty of others.7 Their day-to-day lives are transient, impermanent, and experienced as uncertain — and the more this is the case, the more such an experience can be classified as translocal and at the same time as belonging to the uncontrolled and unregulated sphere of informality. These people are generally from the lowest levels of society and are not even noticed by state officials, and if they are noticed, they are usually perceived as a blight on the urban landscape.

36Other people, especially local women from Tbilisi, buy commodities at Lilo Molli, which is not far from the capital. Lilo is the commercial centre of the region. Goods from Turkey, China, Iran, Russia or elsewhere are brought here and then redistributed all over the area. Thus many (female) traders use the minibus to bring merchandise from Lilo to the city centre, where they sell the goods for a small profit on the streets, or in smaller marketplaces or shops.

  • 8 There is a growing literature describing this kind of petty trade in Central Asia, the Caucasus, a (...)

37As mentioned above, there is a kind of hierarchy of markets linked to importance, centrality, size, and price differentials (see Dannhaeuser 1989). The mobility of traders and the system of markets and bazaars form a (global) web of interrelations, flows, and routes, which is at least as fascinating as the ancient Silk Road. Some traders only transport goods from one end of the city to the other, while others undertake adventurous journeys to neighboring countries or even further (see Karrar 2013). Thus, for example, in the early morning, Georgian vendors, who have just returned from shopping tours in Turkey, sell their merchandise to Lilo’s wholesalers, who resell the goods to traders and middleman, who then bring the goods to Tbilisi or other urban centres in the region. From here, goods travel further, as I could observe myself when travelling in the region as described in the introduction.8

  • 9 At the same time, foreigners come to the urban or border markets in the Caucasus. There are, for e (...)

38Having some more capital at hand, long-distance traders, today, usually fly. For example, a friend of mine travelled to Oman by plane to buy some special scarves for a museum shop in Georgia, while Georgian traders, who do their shopping in wholesale department stores in the centre of Beijing or Guangzhou, all travel by air. But there are still people who travel these distances by bus or train, thereby economizing. Most of the petty traders who travel these distances and then sell their commodities in the Caucasus are Georgian, Armenian or Azerbaijani. Accordingly, Chinese factories and wholesalers in China, and Turkish businessmen in Turkey, have specialized in taking on these traders as clients and have engaged Russian-speaking translators to enable this (as mentioned above).9

39Many people specialize in certain goods and have institutionalized their business, while others are less committed and only occasionally take the opportunity to make a quick deal. Usually, the latter are much more ‘mobile’ and ‘flexible’ than the former, which at the same time correlates with the fact that their business is an informal occupation, which is sometimes even combined with tourism.


  • 10 Just as with traders, the group of clients has metamorphosed since independence. As an example, th (...)

40One can also distinguish traders by the kind, quantity, and quality of goods they sell. Usually this also determines the location of exchange (Gell 1982), which in turn determines the clients.10 High quantities and quality of goods usually point to more financial capital, more regulated activities, and hence to more formalized business. Small quantities and low quality often indicate individual initiative, a weak financial background, and thus less recognition by state bodies resulting in informal practices of avoiding regulation and flexibly adapting to changing frameworks. Thus, for example, it is easy (and even legal) to bring small amounts of goods through customs without paying clearance. Petty traders, who deal with small amounts, thus simply ask fellow travellers to carry some of the merchandise through customs control, thus hiding the total number of goods. In 2017, for example, I was asked by Giorgi, who has a small shop in Batumi, to take two furs in my luggage from Beijing to Tbilisi; and almost every time I crossed the Armenian-Georgian border, there was a petty trader who distributed some of his bags among the passengers.

41The quality of merchandise is often associated with its country of origin. Although merchandise such as shoes, handbags, and clothes from Turkey had a bad reputation in the 1990s, they recently became much more prestigious than goods from China or India. There are changing trends. A few years ago, for example, most of the furniture and plastic toys were from Asia, while nowadays many items are produced in Iran. Electronic equipment, computers, mobile phones, laptops, perfumes, and the haute couture collections are brought from Dubai, cars from Germany or Japan, and sweets and milk products from Ukraine. The most prestigious products are usually those from Europe.

42The merchandise is diverse and at the same time it is always the same. You will find market stalls and shops for food (e.g., fruits and vegetables), for clothes and shoes, for accessories (e.g., handbags, glasses, jewelry), for plastic and soft toys, for electronics, for repair parts, for furniture and building materials, for antiques (e.g., books, porcelain), and for items of daily use (e.g., for cooking). There are whole areas, like the marketplace in the city of Rustavi, where one can buy cars, and there are sections in bazaars, where there are about twenty or more stalls advertising and providing the same shoes, the same handbags, and the same winter coats. Everything looks identical and vending is quite competitive. Indeed, many traders I talked to in the bazaar told me that they sell less and less. A friend of mine told me that she was happy about this decline in demand: ‘It is a good sign for our economy, that people do not buy on bazaars anymore, but go to shops and buy better brands’.

43One more feature that characterizes commodities is, besides their quality, their age. While the prices of antiquities increase with age, second-hand parts and clothes are less expensive than new merchandise. However, there are some items, e.g., some repair parts, that have the reputation of having been produced in a better way in former times, which is why consumers prefer to buy them second hand. In any case, the offered item tells much about the vendor and his social status.

Fig. 7.4 A bazaar in Tbilisi: a huge number of goods, which, at least to the author, all look the same. Photo © Susanne Fehlings (2014), CC BY 4.0

Amount and frequency

44How do all these goods come to the Caucasus? As mentioned above, some are simply ordered and then brought to Georgia in huge containers. They are, for example, shipped to the harbour of Poti, and then loaded onto trucks, which bring them to Tbilisi and beyond.

45The petty traders who bring the merchandise from abroad themselves usually transport their goods in small quantities by train or mashrutka (minibus). Sometimes oral agreements between the traders and the mashrutka drivers exist. When I travelled from Tbilisi to Yerevan during my field trip in March 2014, the mashrutka started about four hours late because the driver was waiting for a young woman, Hasmik, who was heavily laden with boxes of eggplants. When I asked her about her business, she told me that she travels regularly to Tbilisi to buy vegetables and fruits (which come from Turkey), because they are a little less expensive than in Yerevan. She did not tell me whether she was paying something to the mashrutka driver for helping her, but it was obvious that they knew each other pretty well and were ‘working hand in hand’. During the trip, Hasmik, who was playing the role of an intermediary, was constantly calling dealers from Yerevan to negotiate prices and to arrange the delivery of her products. Yet she seemed not very happy with her job, especially as she was making this trip twice a week. ‘You have to eat and I have two children’ was her sober explanation.

  • 11 Sometimes it is not even a professional activity but a by-product of travelling in the context of (...)

46Other goods are brought to the Caucasus by individuals who are much less regularly involved in trade than this Armenian woman. Many of my acquaintances told me that they use business trips or holidays to buy reduced-price clothing from designer shops. The dates for seasonal sales in Europe are common knowledge in the Caucasus: according to my experience, almost everybody in the Caucasus is somehow involved in ‘doing business’, which includes all kinds of economic activities and forms of economic exchange. To classify a group of entrepreneurs or traders it is important to clarify whether trade is a permanent or an occasional occupation.11 Do traders use established business relations and infrastructures? Are they constantly involved in translocal networks? Do they run a shop and do they pay taxes? Does their exchange rely on contracts or oral agreements? What is the economic volume of goods? And do the traders trade for fun or do they live on it?

47Many people, such as the elderly women I met between Tbilisi and Baku, only travelled once a year, but brought as much as they could to make their livelihood. Their purchases filled up an entire freight container that had to be shipped to Georgia. Other people just bring a few T-shirts from abroad to sell them to their friends, classmates, or colleagues. It is difficult to classify this kind of ‘favour’ or exchange as trade, even though the agents make some profit. Many people told me that they used to travel once a year, usually before Christmas, to make some extra money for feasting expenses. The motivation and social background of agents in these interactions usually differ very much from that of the elderly women or the well-established businessmen working in the bazaars.

48Most of the cases described above are characterized by the small amount of exchange value — at least in comparison to that of international trade companies. Even the economic activities at the high end of the scale are still managed by individuals, who usually run a business with only the help of their personal networks, including their kin. Dato, for example, who perceives himself as a successful businessman and who owns three shops or booths on Lilo Bazroba, still belongs to the category of small entrepreneurs. He and his wife run the business with the help of some relatives, and several times a year, Dato travels to Turkey and his wife to China, to buy the merchandise themselves. In Turkey, Dato cooperates with a Turkish businessman with whom he is friendly. His wife uses a similar social network to complete her business in China. Dato keeps the accounts, pays taxes, and is very religious. In each of his shops, there is a corner with icons. He regularly prays and burns candles in front of them, which might be one reason for his satisfaction in life. To be successful, these traders also need a lot of courage or a wide range of knowledge about global trends and local conditions, which are, as a rule, transmitted and communicated face to face. We can therefore talk of this economic trend as something I would call ‘informal globalization’ or ‘globalization from below’, whereby a large amount of goods and the overall frequency of this trading activity indicate more informality than does a small quantity, simply because large-scale and permanent trade is more visible, less flexible, and cannot work without institutional support.

Dynamics, embeddedness, gender

49A problem for the investigation of the cases of economic exchange I have described, especially the cases of informal exchange, is the fact that conditions constantly change. The national and international political and economic situation perpetually transforms, which has a direct impact on local markets and exchange patterns. One outcome of this fact is that certain economic activities and places of exchange grow or shrink, that people are forced to leave one kind of business to get involved in another, and that people become rich or impoverished. Thus, for example, in recent years, the bazaars of Tbilisi were modernized and ‘formalized’, which means that they turned into an accumulation of registered shops and supermarkets (see Jaeger 2016). In a parallel development, many entrepreneurs who were not able to pay taxes were pushed into informality, resulting in a worsening of their situation and a growing amount of ‘wild markets’ and ‘illegal’ street vending (Khutsishvili 2012).

50It follows that one challenge and risk is that legal frameworks — on the local, national, and international level — change, which is why, for example, travelling to certain countries might suddenly become more complicated and less profitable on the one hand, while restrictions in the one country might make it complicated to sell the goods in the other. Such restrictions can take the form of conflicts and wars (which were an obstacle, for example, for border trade between Georgia and Abkhazia); visa formalities and import duties; rising taxes; or new laws restricting, for example, street vending or the import of certain goods (see, for example, Turaeva-Hoehne 2014). A good example of a law affecting a whole economic branch is the announced introduction of MOT (Ministry of Transport) certificates, which led to a panic among my interlocutors, since it would affect and diminish — or even eliminate — the secondhand car, scrap, and spare-parts trade.

51At the same time, tastes and therefore consumption patterns follow fashion trends, which is why certain goods appear and disappear on the market (see Bestor 2001). The economic situation in general, however, and only fashion trends, determines consumption. Thus I was told by a friend of mine that, ‘in the 90s all women wore the same black skirts from Turkey, because they were available and cheap. Today, there are more possibilities to create an individual look. There is more choice and people have more money’.

52Additionally, the ideological, the economic, the socio-cultural, and the historical contexts are dynamic. Central Asia and the Caucasus, not least because of the Silk Road, have a long tradition of trade (see, for example, Kalandarova 2007). Traders, trade routes, and mercantile expeditions, as well as commercial cities, trading posts and caravanserais, are part of the history and identity of the region. Despite this heritage, Soviet ideology has brought all kinds of economic activity into discredit. Traders were classified as speculators (spekulanty, galamchilveli in Georgian), who had a very bad reputation for being ‘immoral’ (Mandel and Humphrey 2002). Accordingly, it was not obvious that so many people would turn to commerce after the breakdown of the Soviet Union (Niyozov and Shamatov 2007). Today, by contrast, commerce has almost lost its negative connotations. To be a ‘businessman’, as it is called now, is an accepted professional occupation. ‘Everybody is doing it, currently’, I was told as a justification. However, people who are seen as too successful are still suspected of being corrupt or having done something illegal. This might be one reason why economic success in Georgia, as people explained to me, is seldom made public or discussed with others.

53Another development over the last few decades has to do with gender and concerns my target group. If it was mainly women who worked as traders in the first years of independence (see Werner 2004), which were years of crisis, it is now mostly men who run established shops and businesses. An Armenian friend of mine, Levon Abrahamian, explained this gender-specific development, which was often mentioned by my interlocutors, as follows: ‘in times of crisis people return to primitive modes of economy. In the black years after independence, it was the women who managed to feed the families. What they did, was to go out and to sell some homemade cookies on the streets or to trade’. Indeed, it seems that women were the pioneers of petty trade. This might be founded in the fact that the low end of petty trade is regarded as a low-grade (primitive) occupation and therefore associated with female inferiority (see Werner 2004). Some people argue that women are more talented at negotiating. Women’s affinity for gossip and communication is often mentioned as a necessary quality for being a good trader, one which men lack. On the other hand, women working as traders, especially young women, are exposed to all kinds of risks, last but not least of losing their reputation as ‘proper girls’ (see Stephan-Emmrich and Mirzoev 2016). On the one hand, they gain status through their contribution to family income (see Abrahamian 2007); on the other hand, they have to struggle with socio-cultural norms regarding gender roles, which they violate when engaging in trade. However, in many cases women were the first, after the breakdown of the Soviet Union, to take the risk and discover unknown, unfamiliar territory. Only later, when relations and infrastructure were established, when trade became more formalized, did men take over the business.

Fig. 7.5 Female traders at Lilo Bazroba in Tbilisi. Photo © Susanne Fehlings (2014), CC BY 4.0

54Taking into account the above-defined research units (location, people, mobility, goods, etc.), most of the female petty traders of my focus group can be described as not being linked to specific marketplaces. They usually have a social background that positions them on the losing side of historical (economic, political, ideological, and social) change. Having lost most of their previous socio-cultural capital (social networks, professional qualifications, prestige within their community) and their financial capital as a result of the breakdown of the Soviet Union and the following period of upheaval, they usually describe how they were forced into mobility and commerce to make their living. The amount of goods and the frequency of their economic activity are rather limited, and the goods they trade are usually not of extraordinary quality, but rather cheap products from informal markets abroad. All these facts rank the economic activity of these women as highly informal. But because their number is non-negligible, and because they cross half of the globe, we can perceive them as actors of a ‘globalization from below’, who contribute to the flows of goods, people, and ideas across a vast area.

55As far as it concerns the women’s translocal experience it is difficult to come to clear conclusions. Female petty traders use networks and their knowledge of translocal communities, and they flexibly adapt their mobility to translocal opportunities and contexts. I am not sure, however, how much they are effectively involved in translocal identities. Their experiences are translocal, but their involvement in translocal belongings and their imagination of translocal space seems rather vague and does not really lead to the accumulation of economic wealth. Just as they perceive their activity as a fall-back plan, even though it might become a permanent occupation, they perceive their engagement in trade and translocal networks as accidental, and therefore not part of their ‘real’ identity. This is possibly the reason why they are not able to fully exploit the chances linked to translocality as described in the literature.


56As one can conclude from my examples, one has to consider many aspects to get a holistic picture of the situation of petty traders and trade in the Caucasus, specifically in Georgia. To understand informal trade activity, or ‘globalization from below’, it is important to look at the very complicated and changing contexts along the trade chains that cross the region. One has to consider the socio-cultural background of traders and buyers in different locations, and one has to take into account different legal frameworks and historical, geographical, political, and macroeconomic circumstances on the different levels of interaction — local and global.

57In this contribution, I have tried to suggest some parameters, which, taken together, help to describe and classify economic exchange, marketplaces, and traders at the grassroots level. These parameters, along with their specific character and interrelations, help to cast light on the level of informality, and, in my opinion, give some interesting insights into how globalization from below and translocality become real. As I have shown, the specific locations of economic exchange, the social groups of people appearing there, their forms of mobility, the goods they sell and buy, the volume of exchange, and the frequency of their activity are linked to, refer to, and determine each other. By describing these links and dependencies, we come to a portrayal of specific groups of traders and their forms of economic behavior and embeddedness in socio-cultural contexts, which includes the description of their involvement in translocality and globalization.

  • 12 Kaufmann et al. (2004) have pointed to the linkages between physical and social mobility, thereby (...)

58In my opinion, although almost all traders described above are somehow involved in ‘globalization from below’ purely by virtue of the fact that they trade in goods that circulate on the global market, not all of these traders live translocal lives in the sense of being linked to translocal space or belongings. Especially from the perspective of those not participating in mobility, the globalized world is only the backyard of their private homes. This is of course a question of perspective. Even the traders I met on their travel routes, for example the women of my target group, who crossed half of the globe, were very much focused on their own problems and duties at home. Even though they sometimes profited from translocal relations, they did not necessarily feel the tension between the relations of translocal connections. Besides, frequently the poor petty traders are people lacking connections of any kind who have to fight their own individual battles to survive. If they had any ‘local’ or ‘translocal’ networks, they would not have to move. Mobility can, as mentioned in the literature, of course result in social mobility.12 This is probably true for many labour migrants, who are comparatively successful and able to accumulate wealth. But in many cases, the mobility of the traders I observed only ensured economic survival or resulted in a small surplus, which was immediately used up for personal or family needs.

59Of course, it depends who is travelling and why. While the business trips of successful entrepreneurs or the occasional travels of trade tourists are quite prestigious, the mobility of the lesser group of traders is perceived as a marker of their low social status, which pushes them into informal businesses. This was true for most of the female petty traders of my target group.

60Thus, we can conclude that informal practices are usually part of translocality, but do not necessarily lead to translocal identities. Informality includes a huge spectrum of techniques of adaptation, which are particularly useful to those who can easily escape state control. In the case of petty trade, such people generally do not belong in permanent locations, they range at the low level of society, they are forced into mobility, they trade with small amounts of goods of cheap quality, and they perceive themselves as unprofessional, which is why they are active only sporadically and if necessary. Looking at the whole picture, one can observe, at least in the Caucasus, a certain degree of ‘formalization’ as soon as the overall economic situation improves. Thus, since the 1990s, the low end of informal petty traders has diminished. However, as soon as a new crisis arises (for example in 2008) they reappear.

61Simultaneously, we observe that all structures are culturally embedded and that state structures are far from being exclusively formal, which of course calls into question all definitions and dichotomies such as formal vs. informal. State capitalism means something different in Georgia than in Germany. Thus, the market economy, globalization, democracy, nation state, and modernization, etc., have to be considered as local adaptions of pretended neutral notions, which makes classification even more complicated.



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1 For literature on ‘border-markets’ in Central Asia and the Caucasus see, for example, Dabaghyan and Gabrielyan (2008, 2011); Yalcin-Heckmann (2012) and Turaeva-Hoehne (2014).

2 ‘Informalization’ is a concept originally developed by Castells and Portes (1989), describing the growing impact of informality not only in third-world scenarios but also in wealthier economies through, for example, labour migration. For Kaiser and Rasanayagam, on the other hand, the important point is that the formal structures themselves provide the framework within which the informal activities emerge (compare Sassen 2001).

3 The importance of infrastructure has been discussed by Cresswell (2006), Dalakoglou and Harvey (2012), Larkin (2013), and Nadjmabadi (2014).

4 See, e.g., Mauss (1990 [1925]), Malinowski (1935), (1972), Bohannon and Dalton (1962), Polanyi (2001 [1944]), Gudeman (2001), (2005), Carsten (1989), Parry and Bloch (1989) and others.

5 Compare Bestor’s (2001) investigation of the international seafood trade by focussing on Tokyo’s Tsukiji seafood market and the local specificity of market and place within a globalized urban setting.

6 How modes of entrepreneurship change and which factors influence this change is one subject of the project ‘Informal Markets and Trade in Central Asia and the Caucasus’ (Fehlings and Karrar 2016).

7 The Georgian movie director Natia Arabuli-Weg shot an interesting documentary about these traders.

8 There is a growing literature describing this kind of petty trade in Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the whole post-Soviet region (for example, Werner 2004, Yalcin-Heckmann and Aivazsishvili 2012, Turaeva-Hoehne 2014, Holzlehner 2014).

9 At the same time, foreigners come to the urban or border markets in the Caucasus. There are, for example, a lot of Turkish retailers, who come to Batumi, and also a growing community of Chinese people, who seem to establish permanent shops and trade relations, which they organize through their own exclusive (ethnic) networks.

10 Just as with traders, the group of clients has metamorphosed since independence. As an example, the average citizen who became impoverished during the breakdown of the political system usually bought at cheap bazaars in the 1990s. As soon as their financial situation recovered, they changed their consumption patterns and turned their attention to supermarkets and boutiques. Buying from street vendors, for many citizens, has turned into an act of charity.

11 Sometimes it is not even a professional activity but a by-product of travelling in the context of business or holiday trips.

12 Kaufmann et al. (2004) have pointed to the linkages between physical and social mobility, thereby introducing the term ‘motility’.

Table des illustrations

Légende Fig. 7.1 Eliava’s spare parts market in Tbilisi.Photo © Susanne Fehlings (2014), CC BY 4.0
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Légende Fig. 7.2 Traders next to the railway station and the bus stop in Tbilisi.Photo © Susanne Fehlings (2014), CC BY 4.0
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Légende Fig. 7.3 Street vending in Tbilisi: using public buildings as a showcase.Photo © Susanne Fehlings (2014), CC BY 4.0
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Légende Fig. 7.4 A bazaar in Tbilisi: a huge number of goods, which, at least to the author, all look the same. Photo © Susanne Fehlings (2014), CC BY 4.0
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Légende Fig. 7.5 Female traders at Lilo Bazroba in Tbilisi. Photo © Susanne Fehlings (2014), CC BY 4.0
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Postdoctoral researcher at the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology at the Universität Tübingen (Germany). Her research covers informal trading routes and markets, globalization from below, and urban anthropology in Armenia, post-Soviet Eurasia, and the Caucasus.


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