Why does Georgia import Coca Cola from Azerbaijan?

Posted on July 22, 2011 by

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Yes, this is yet another beverage post. Given the popularity of the last one I thought it would be appropriate.

By the time I had been in Georgia for three or four days, I noticed that Georgian Coca Cola makes me nauseous about ten to twenty minutes after I drink it. Georgian Pepsi is even worse. I don’t know why this is, and so far it hasn’t happened with any other Colas in Georgia (or any other drinks of any kind, in fact). I do know that Coke formulas vary by country and I even have a friend who, along with her brothers, has embarked upon a mission to try as many world Coca Colas as is convenient, so whenever any of them travel they bring back some local cola for the others to sample. I got in on this for one of her trips and tried Coke from like Cambodia and some other places. It’s fascinating business, really.

It’s also notable, while we’re on the subject of Coke, that in the US Coke is made with high fructose corn syrup, rather than plain old sugar, because in the US, HFCS is like subsidized or something, which is why (some people think) Americans have been getting really fat since the 1970s. But I digress. In the US Coke is made with HFCS, but on and around Passover, a Kosher for Passover Coke is sold, which has yellow caps and is made with sugar, because corn and corn products belong to a category of food known as “kitniyot” which Askenazi Jews (who happen to be the majority of Jews in America) are forbidden to consume during passover. So even within the US it’s possible to obtain at least two different kinds of Coca Cola (and I hear rumors that Mexican Coca Cola, which is also made with sugar, is also available in the US although I have never personally verified this).

Coca Cola is really fascinating because of its variations, its cultural penetration, its ubiquity, and what the Coke formula reflects in terms of local tastes and local and global economics. What makes Vietnamese Coke taste so much better than Cambodian Coke?

So anyway, when I lived in Gldani, my local bodega happened to sell cans of Coca Cola with Latin, rather than Georgian, letters on it. Upon closer inspection the words appeared Turkic and I noticed “Azərbaycan” written on the can, which suggested to me that the Coke was Azeri. I tried it and discovered, to my delight, a complete lack of nausea during and after my consumption of the delicious beverage. So I took to drinking Azeri Coke, when I wanted a Coke, and all was well.

But as I’ve been thinking about things like Georgia’s trading partners, import/export ratios, domestic production, and other economic issues, I started to wonder: why would there be Azeri Coca Cola in Tbilisi?

I mean, is there a shortage of Georgian Coke? It has to be expensive to truck cases of Coca Cola across the Azeri/Georgian border. Is Coke cheaper to produce in Azerbaijan? It seems unlikely given how expensive Azerbaijan is rumored to be compared to Georgia; I’ve been warned off Baku due to the purchasing power differences (and advised to go to Yerevan instead, which is supposed to be comparable to Georgia in terms of prices of things). Aren’t things generally produced in places where labor and other means of production are relatively cheap and then exported to places where these things are more expensive? It seems like it would make more economic sense for Georgia to produce extra Coke to send to Azerbaijan, unless Azeris suffer from the same difficulties as I do regarding Georgian colas.

So is there like, one Georgian coke bottling plant that’s running at capacity, and any excess demand is met by imports? That doesn’t seem to make sense especially since Coke has to compete with Pepsi and with several other carbonated beverage producers, like Natakhtari, who could conceivably make a cola-flavored limonati to crib some market share off an under-performing Coca Cola franchise.

I bring this up because it reflects a cultural and economic reality about Georgia that I have noticed and commented on before. Georgia is vastly underproducing food and other agricultural products, based on its natural and human resources. Georgia used to supply food to the entire USSR; now Georgia’s fields lay fallow and Georgia’s farmers scrape by on subsistence farming and federal pensions. In a world with increasing food prices, a nation that can produce lots of excess food should be doing so, and making money hand over fist in the process.

Others have written about why Georgia does not mobilize to take advantage of this situation – cultural aversions and post-communist politics are most often blamed – but that discussion goes beyond the scope of this particular post. Suffice it to say that importing extra Coca Cola from Azerbaijan is just another example of Georgia operating at below capacity for no apparent reason.

There are lots of pretty obvious things that Georgia as a nation and Georgians as individual entrepreneurs could do to be more competitive and thus bring in more income. From Georgia as a whole underutilizing its natural resources to Georgian restaurants not teaching their staff proper service etiquette to Georgian store owners not stocking their drawers with change for a lari, to a hundred other little things that a Westerner notices from day to day, there are tons of ways that Georgians could be a lot better at capitalism.

But that says it all, doesn’t it? I come from a capitalist society, and so when I see Azeri Coke on a refrigerator shelf in Gldani, what I see is money flowing the wrong way. It’s a lens through which not every culture views the world – but I think that if Georgians want their country to be more prosperous, they could gain a lot by paying attention to where their Coca Cola is coming from.

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