It's a hot summer day. Postman Ketevan Gocadze walks down the narrow streets of Tbilisi. Her mission for today is to deliver three letters. A mother of two children, She says she forgets her private problems when she brings long-awaited letters to people and make them feel happy.
Gocadze has worked as a postman for nine years. Before that she worked for the Georgian Post Office as a telegraph operator for 16 years.
"I get 35 lari (about $19.50) per month as a postman," she says. "As it's not enough to support my family, I work as a house cleaner very often. My husband is unemployed right now."
"I love people. I like when I talk with them, when they share their problems with me. I know almost everybody in the (downtown) Chugureti region which I cover."
Now she is afraid of losing her job. Changes are coming at the Georgian Post Office. Monthly pension checks, which were delivered by postmen and produced extra income for the postal system, will be distributed entirely by the national bank system by the end of the year.
Rapiel Kukava, the head of administration at the Tbilisi Post Office, says "it will cause problems. Approximately 300 employees will lose their jobs. May be even more.''
There are 70 postal branches in Tbilisi employing about 700 people. Kukava estimates that 15 years ago there were more then 3,000 people working for Georgian Post in the capital.
"There isn't intensive letter writing and exchanging of products among people," he says.
"These days, 99 percent of correspondence is official. Otherwise, there is usually only letters, parcels and greeting cards, mostly sent from Georgians who live abroad and support their families in Georgia."
Kukava recalls how it was in the 1980s before the declaration of Georgia's independence. "There were tons of letters," he said. "During the holidays, we hired other people for help. Georgian Post had 700-800 postman and 2000-3000 newspapers were delivered every day. Nowadays, only 500 newspapers are delivered."
Georgian Post wants to wins back its business. But according to Kukava, the post office has serious financial problems and is in danger of closing.
"The only advantages which Georgian Post has are low prices and the state's guarantee of delivery. But the postal service now can't answer the demands of our population. That's why there are lots of complaints.
"If there's not any improvement in the system, I'll quit. My monthly salary is 100 lari (about $55). I don't see any sense staying here."
"The Post Office should be the monopoly that also collects all utility bills," says Dimitri Chkeidze, spokesman for the marketing division of Georgian Post in Tbilisi. "This will be good for the state, because there won't be any hidden money and the postal system will improve and meet European standards." Chkheidze suggests the postal service could collect electric, gas and telecommunication bills.
Zaza Intskirveli, the general director of Georgian Post, says more than money is needed to rebuild the postal service. "We think that the offices we have in Tbilisi are not attractive to consumers. The big help from the state would be a law that will give us some exclusive rights. The state is the 100 percent owner of Georgian Post."
But the head of the postal communications department, Ivane Gochitashvili says it's not right to give exclusive rights to the post office. He said any new law "will decide the destiny of the Georgian Post; it will remain under ownership of the State, it will be sold to one company or to different companies, or it will be privatized. But in any case, all the rights and interests of the State will be reserved."
"The collapse of the Georgian Post Office began after the fall of Soviet Union," said Intskirveli. After the old Post and Telecommunications system was eliminated in 1995, Georgian Post was established. It currently receives five million lari (about $2,780,000) in annual funding from the federal budget.
At Georgian Post the reduction of employees has already begun. They have approximately 3,000 employees nationwide, of whom 60 percent are postmen.
"Throughout Georgia we will reduce 1,000 people," Intskerveli said. "Some of them will be given jobs at the national bank and they will continue their same activities. Since these people know a lot about the pensions already, they will be a great help to the bank.
"The monthly salaries are very low here. It's approximately 50 lari ($28), may be even less. By reducing employees we will save annually around 450,000 lari ($250,000). The first thing we intend to do is cover the debt we owe on unpaid salaries of about 1,800,000 lari. ($1 million)."
"The post office needs to be profit-oriented," says Gochitashvili. "The post office should be one of the most important institutes of the state, like the army, for instance.
"We have the stamps which are some of the best in the world. They are remarkable. They express the intellect of the Georgian nation. With the help of our stamps, our Georgian symbol, other countries could get knowledge about Georgia. The administration and management don't respond to contemporary needs. The Post needs serious investments, new personnel."
But before the world can be amazed about Georgian stamps, the mail needs to arrive at its destination. This is a problem for Georgian Post; letters and tparcels are very often lost and even more often late.
"Exchanging of the post is a very complicated procedure. It happens that the letters are late, lost, or damaged. This doesn't happen only with us," said Intskirveli.
Competing private services can send letters and parcels to over 200 countries. One of them is the private postal service DHL.
"Letters in particular are never lost by DHL, and our short delivery time is an advantage of our company. But I agree the prices here are high," said DHL manager Manana Berulava.
If you use DHL service and send a parcel to Azerbaijan, it will be delivered in one day and will cost $45, while sending a package by Georgian Post will take two weeks and cost $6.38.
Sending parcels by DHL to Europe the United States normally takes three days. The maximum normal time for parcel delivery is six days to certain countries including Iraq and South Korea. EMS, another private company, promises one-week delivery anywhere.
For the past 26 years, the letter-sorting hall at Georgian Post has not been repaired. In the hall where the letters from all over Georgia and foreign countries are gathered, you can find clocks that don't work, a ruined floor and walls, and doves flying around the ceiling.
At one time 130 people worked in the hall hand-sorting the mail. Today there are only 24 workers.
"To repair this hall with all its equipment we will need 200,000 lari (about $111,000)," said Giorgi Mujarishvili, head of the international branch of Georgian Post.
Mujirishvili has 50 years of experience at Georgian Post. "We used to have hills of letters here," he said. During one day we handled 50 tons of correspondence, of which six tons alone were letters.
"At that time we bought a universal machine that could read addresses. Now the machine doesn't meet contemporary needs, and anyway it's out of service."
Postal officials say that this building will be repaired beginning next year.
Gochitashvili confessed that Georgian Post is in big trouble. "If a foreign audit enters Georgian Post, it will expose a terrible picture," he said. "They will deduce that the post is bankrupt and ruined. I would agree to that statement.
Some changes are expected next year at Georgian Post. "There is a united world postal project from which we will get $32,000 dollars," said Intskirveli.
But considering the $1 million debt owed to back salaries and the already-low wages, it's going to be very difficult for the postal service to again serve its consumers properly. The question is whether the Post Office is in danger of being closed down.