Georgia, two years on: a future beyond war

A vicious short war between Georgia and Russia erupted on 8 August 2008 over one of Georgia's “occupied territories”, South Ossetia. Two years on, Mikheil Saakashvili remains in power, surrounded by another cluster of ambitious young colleagues. Tbilisi’s construction projects are transforming the city’s public spaces and social customs. A new realism governs foreign policy and economic ambitions, with Turkey an increasingly prominent neighbour. But amid the flux, the key to Georgia’s future relationship with Russia may lie in the distant past, says Donald Rayfield in a richly textured portrait.
Donald Rayfield
5 August 2010

Two years after the disastrous Georgian-Russian war over South Ossetia on 8-12 August 2008, the situation from Tbilisi’s perspective looks far better than anyone dared hope - or, in the case of some Russian politicians, would have wished. The reasons are threefold:

* Georgia was given generous financial aid, chiefly from the United States, just before the global financial crisis burst

* Russia’s stated desire for regime-change has had the opposite effect. Mikheil Saakashvili is firmly entrenched in Georgia’s presidency until the next elections in 2013; the opposition - some of whose leading figures are  photographed shaking hands with Dmitry Medvedev, Vladimir Putin or Sergei Lavrov - can be represented as traitorous

* It is generally accepted that what are now officially termed the “occupied territories” (Abkhazia and South Ossetia) are irretrievably lost for the foreseeable future; so politicians and the public are able to concentrate on what is still not lost and still retrievable (see Neal Ascherson, “After the war: recognising reality in Abkhazia and Georgia”, 15 August 2008). In similarly “realistic” fashion, both the desirability and the real prospect of Georgia joining Nato and the European Union have receded; thus the discrepancy between western politicians’ words and actions is much clearer, and the EU itself has lost all appetite for expansion (see Katinka Barysch, “Eastern Europe’s great game”, 20 July 2010).

The “occupied territories” are not yet hermetically sealed off from their putative Georgian homeland. Georgia and Abkhazia still share hydroelectric power; elderly peasants in the derelict southern Abkhaz region of Gali bribe various paramilitary groups with sacks of hazelnuts in order to get their harvest over the border to the markets of Zugdidi; Georgians living in Akhalgori (reverted to its Soviet-era name of Leningori) are still allowed to cross the border to and from their homes now under South Ossetian control.

Apart from Gori and villages between Gori and South Ossetia, few signs of the war remain. A temporary metal bridge over the river Liakhvi in the middle of Georgia’s east-west highway is one. There has been a backlash of a kind, often taking an anti-Russian or anti-Soviet form. In December 2009, the Soviet war-memorial in Kutaisi was demolished (so hurriedly that a mother and child were killed by flying concrete); in June 2010, the citizens of Gori, Joseph Stalin’s birthplace, were made to dismantle the last full-size statue of their infamous son.

The Georgian authorities have just announced two more public holidays, or rather days for lowering the flag and observing a minute’s silence: 25 February (the date of the Red Army’s invasion of 1921) will henceforth be “Soviet occupation day”, while 23 August (the date of the Nazi-Soviet pact of 1939) is proposed as the “day in memory of the victims of totalitarianism”.

The shadowed present

Mikheil Saakashvili himself has not lost his talent for rash and impulsive actions that have deadly effects. In March 2010 he seems to have sanctioned a television “mockumentary” (without any warning to viewers, along the lines of Orson Welles's radio adaptation of HG Wells’s War of the Worlds in 1937) ostensibly reporting a new and far more devastating Russian invasion. The result was panic: Tbilisi was beset by traffic-jams and crashes as people tried to flee, while some who could not flee suffered heart-attacks.

Giorgi Arveladze, the president’s old associate and now director of the Imedi TV station, denied Saakashvili’s complicity; but a transcript of a telephone conversation in which Arveladze discussed the programme and mentioned Saakashvili’s views (which could not be proved to be a fabrication) was published on a Russian website. If Saakashvili has got away with this outrage, it is in great part because the spoof documentary - which “reported” the Polish president Lech Kaczyński flying to Tbilisi to show solidarity, and his plane being fired on by the Russian military - was uncannily prophetic of the catastrophic accident that took the lives of Poland’s leaders a month later (see Krzysztof Bobinski, "Poland's second Katyn: out of the ashes", 13 April 2010).

Saakashvili made a gauche if less disastrous intervention on 27 July 2010, when he turned up at Sarpi, one of Georgia’s border-crossings with Turkey, and berated customs-officers for harassing tourists. He declared that nobody gets searched at European borders, and that “must cherish tourists and send them kisses, not subject them to humiliating checks through scanners”. 

But Saakashvili has also been out of the public eye for several weeks, leaving Vano Merabishvili - the interior minister, and the longest-serving cabinet member - to be the government’s public face. Merabishvili controls the security services, the police, and most of the state budget; he has ordered the construction all over the country of large glass-fronted police stations, revealing policemen and policewomen at their desks (like Dutch bordellos, as Georgians joke); he appears at present to be Georgia’s real ruler.

The politics of activism

An older shadow over Georgia’s president refuses to disperse: the deaths on 3 February 2005 of the prime minister, Zurab Zhvania, and his companion Raul Usupov, deputy governor of the Kvemo Kartli region. These were reported as a tragic accident caused by a faulty (Iranian) gas stove, but few believe the official story and cite the failure of Mikheil Saakashvili’s government to hold proper post-mortems or inquests as suspicious (loyalists now insist that this reticence is intended to spare the families revelations of a homosexual encounter).

The evidence suggests that Zurab Zhvania was murdered by security agents with access to Tbilisi’s stock of old KGB toxins; the most plausible of the motives proposed is a quarrel between Zhvania and Saakashvili over South Ossetia. The context was the aftermath of the “rose revolution” that in November-December 2003 ousted Georgia’s president, the former Soviet foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze, and installed Saakashvili and his cohorts in power (including Zhvania himself, who had been speaker of the Georgia parliament from 1995-2001). Soon after, Zhvania had reached an agreement with Vladimir Putin to ensure the then Russian president’s acquiescence in Tbilisi’s regime-change.

The main points of the agreement included the end of Russia’s support for Aslan Abashidze, whose fiefdom of Adzharia in southwest Georgia remained outside Tbilisi’s control (it was “recovered” in May 2004); the withdrawal of Russian troops from the country as a whole; and - perhaps - the return of South Ossetia to Georgian control once the overall situation in the Caucasus had quietened. It is suggested that Saakashvili’s dispatch of Georgian forces into South Ossetia on probing operations provoked Putin into reneging on the understanding over the territory and Zurab Zhvania into quarrelling with Saakashvili. Whatever the truth, the ghost of Zhvania continues to haunt Georgia’s authorities.

Saakashvili’s penchant for rapid-fire cabinet reshuffles has brought to prominence another cluster of ambitious young colleagues. Most international attention has been devoted to the promotion of Vera Kobalia  as economy minister on 2 July, but of more significance is the fact that for the first time the president has a prime minister who is not a disposable lightning-conductor but acts as if he leads the government. Nikoloz (Nika) Gilauri, the 35-year-old former leader of the ruling party’s youth movement, sacked the economic-development minister (Lasha Zhvania) in August 2009 and made the tenure of other ministers (health, economy and finance) look very shaky.

At the same time, Gilauri appears to take advice from the former oligarch Kakha Bendukidze (whose motto for reviving the Georgian economy was “everything is for sale except our conscience”) - though the latter had to be sidelined because of his open contempt for the transparency that EU officials demand. A major issue at present is consultation over a new constitution, in which the powers of the presidency will be diminished and those of the prime minister and parliament enhanced. The vagaries of Georgia’s members of parliament mean that this is not necessarily a step forward.

Another impressively proactive 35-year old favoured by Mikheil Saakashvili won re-election as mayor of Tbilisi in May 2010. Giorgi (Gigi) Ugulava won over 60% of the votes in an evidently fair contest (the most credible opposition candidate, Irakli Alasania, Georgia’s former United Nations ambassador, received less than 20%); though Ugulava showed an aptitude for populist techniques - a bonus for Tbilisi’s pensioners, televised stints working at a petrol-station and selling bread - surprising for a Saarbrücken theology graduate. The frenetic activity that marked the pre-election period continues, as the building of a massive flyover and more élite housing-blocks in central Tbilisi saturates the city's air with cement-dust.

The terms of trade

There are other signs of economic and political revival, several of them connected to the rising regional influence of Turkey. Georgia’s main artery from Tbilisi to the Black Sea is now properly surfaced, its first 100 kilometres a real motorway; a Turkish company has taken over the country’s airports, which lack nothing except international departures and arrivals in normal working hours (aeroplanes are cheaper to insure if they land at Tbilisi at 3am, when Russian artillerymen are asleep or drunk); and there is also a charming little airport in Batumi with a daily flight to Istanbul which costs half the price of the equivalent from Tbilisi (it is much used by Turks living in eastern Turkish towns such as Hopa or Rize, who then take buses back over the border).

In March 2010, the road-border with Russia was reopened at Upper Lars (near the Daryal pass); the Georgians presented their assent to this as graciously allowing landlocked Armenia a lifeline for its exports. This crossing, though built for massive traffic-flow, processes only a few dozen vehicles a day and takes up to five hours to do so.

No Georgian would risk driving across towards Vladikavkaz to be harassed, or much worse, by North Ossetian police; the only Russians who enter in the other direction have gone to the trouble of getting a Georgian visa from the Swiss embassy in Moscow. What other traffic there is is limited to a few Armenian truck-drivers, and Georgians or local Ossetians with dual nationality who drive Russian-registered cars (although one Lithuanian truck and one British mobile-home have been spotted). In any case, the derelict and dangerous state of the road over the pass would be enough to deter most drivers.

The improvements notwithstanding, Georgia’s most obvious problem is the dereliction of much of its infrastructure, and an inability to supervise major projects. The second border-crossing with Turkey between Akhaltsikhe and Posof carries only 1% of Georgia’s traded goods, simply because the last ten kilometres - through the Armenian-populated village of Vale - has spent a decade waiting for reconstruction. A different problem bedevils the third crossing with Turkey, near the Armenian frontier by Lake Kartsakhi; here, the contractors charged with rebuilding the approach-road on the Georgian side have received a grant of nearly $200 million from Usaid, spent a good part of it - and done nothing. The Turks have abandoned their border-post. The opening of the renovated crossing is still promised by the end of 2010.

The situation is different again on the much-vaunted Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway, where work was suspended when the war over South Ossetian erupted. In the war’s aftermath, enthusiasm for the project receded on the Azerbaijan side as the prospect of Turkey-Armenia rapprochement   (including a reopening of their common border) grew; and as the United States and the European Union refused to finance a railway that bypassed Armenia. But the problems surrounding the reconciliation process persuaded Azeris that intransigence on both the Turkish and Armenian sides would prevent that border ever opening. Now, an Azeri company has won a tender to transform Akhalkalaki into a major railway centre where containers from Baku will be moved from Soviet broad-gauge wagons to Turkish standard-gauge.

Turkey remains the key source of Georgia’s trade and much of its prosperity. In part this is by default; Russia still effectively forbids direct flights to Tbilisi (the million or more Georgians working in Russia return home via Minsk or Kiev) and prevents Belarus and Kazakhstan (despite “free-trade” agreements) re-exporting Georgian wine and Borjomi water to Russia. The EU has granted appelation contrôlée status to Georgian wines, but the cost of the best of these makes them uncompetitive with good wines from the Americas. True, an infusion of idealism (including from foreign enthusiasts) has revived Georgian viticulture; but agriculture remains mostly subsistence, its outlets restricted to rural markets.

There are tangible losses. Both Tbilisi’s great central markets are now destroyed: the “collective-farm” market near the old city was converted around 2000 into a dreary shopping-mall selling Chanel and Gucci to the wives and daughters of the mafia; the “deserters’ market” by the railway station is now a hole in the ground, and the surrounding streets with their stalls of fruit and cheap Turkish or Chinese imports have replaced the wonderful vegetables, meat, spices, rural crafts, high-quality tea, garden tools and plants that once were on sale (see Nicolas Landru, “Georgia’s New Face: Old Tbilisi’s Death and New Life”, Caucaz Europenews, 6 May 2010). In central Tbilisi, people shop in mini-markets for salads and bread that come plastic-wrapped from Turkey. The fragrant, freshly baked flat-loaves of bread that could formerly be bought at any hour of day or night are found only in distant suburbs or exclusive restaurants.

The new order

In some ways, the market in ideas has become just as dreary. Georgian newspapers and other media have lost their appetite for argument: they read like public-relations material or court-circulars. Journalists have been heavily intimidated, and perhaps the public demands no more: it is sobering to see that on Tbilisi’s bookstalls the most common political literature in translation is Hitler’s Mein Kampf and Machiavelli’s The Prince. A handful of satirical poets and novelists retain a bold outlook, as do a few websites; though Vano Merabishvili’s security forces also have a reputation for electronic surveillance, and Georgians’ emails and telephone conversations are noticeably cautious.

The positive side of this heavy policing include the refreshing absence of small-scale police corruption on Georgia’s roads, and more broadly a reduction in crime. Merabishvili boasts that Georgia’s chief export to Russia has been “thieves-in-the-law”; the reference is to a law that makes the status of “thief-in-the-law” an imprisonable offence (as it does the actions of a person so defined) - and since the code of these elite criminals demands that they never deny their status, their only option has been to flee the country. The price of a hardline penal approach is that, with 22,000 prisoners, Georgia in proportion to population has the highest incarceration figures in the western world. Georgian courts, moreover, are notorious for their arbitrariness and cruelty.

The cycle of history

Two years after the war, the focus of Georgia’s energies has shifted: there is less appetite either for military expenditure or for confrontation with its neighbours, and more for material enrichment. The visible result is an increase in prosperity and in inequality. On one side, new cars crowd the city streets, Batumi’s art-nouveau buildings and its extraordinary botanical gardens are being restored to their former grandeur; on the other, a concern for elderly people - once a renowned characteristic of Caucasian culture - has died out, and old ladies now have to beg or (faced with a choice of freezing or starving) to sell their cast-iron radiators for scrap. The countryside and many towns are dilapidated: funds go to Batumi, Tbilisi and towns such as Sighnakhi (in Kakhetia) which have tourist potential. Georgia’s health ministry has announced a “100 hospitals” programme; existing services are either expensive or primitive.

Georgia may produce more arts, business and IT graduates than it can use, but much in the education system is good. Tbilisi’s Chavchavadze Prospect alone has three universities, and many courses are academically impressive; Tbilisi public library now functions at a European level. The newly-published history textbooks (at university level) and biology and mathematics textbooks (at school level) are superb. Access to higher education (to the annoyance of mercenary academics and of rich parents of dim children) is now largely dependent on merit, while schooling for 16-18-year-olds has just been restricted to those going on to higher education. Lasha Bughadze’s novel The Last Bell about modern Tbilisi teenagers depicts a new generation no longer under its parents’ control, and certainly unwilling to be forced into university. The bonds between Georgia’s generations have weakened: bad for the old, but probably empowering for the young.

What bodes best for Georgians’ future is a new understanding of their foreign friends’ rhetoric. Ever since 134 CE, when King Parsman II was received with pomp in Rome and allowed to erect statues at the most sacred temples, Georgian leaders have misread western hospitality and warm words as promises of help. Parsman II went home and had to assuage the wrath of the Parthians; Mikheil Saakashvili will return from Strasbourg or Washington, but must eventually negotiate with Moscow (see “The Georgia-Russia war: a year on”, 6 August 2009). 

The “reset” of Russian-American relations by Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton may induce Georgian politicians to take a more tolerant view of their leading partners’ closeness to the Kremlin. In the spirit of other royal predecessors such as King Teimuraz, Georgians may even decide that on occasion it is better to achieve a modus vivendi with your oppressors than to get your so-called friends to deliver on their promises.


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