Georgia’s Byzantine politics

Susan Richards
3 November 2005

Georgians used to enjoy a somewhat privileged position in the old Soviet order. Their sandy beaches and spas, their snow-capped mountains, wines and legendary traditions of hospitality drew tourists to their country from all over the empire. But when communism collapsed, they responded to the siren song of nationalism. Georgia disintegrated into ethnic enclaves and bloody civil war. From this they were rescued back into a sort of peace, corrupt and stagnant though it was, by the old Soviet statesman Eduard Shevardnadze.

In late 2003 Mikheil Saakashvili ousted Shevardnadze in Georgia’s remarkable, bloodless “rose revolution”. Since then he has been doing his best to regain that privileged position for his country, this time in the western sphere of influence.

Saakashvili had reason to be confident. His government was young and its leading members western-educated. He also had excellent western advisers, not least the elegant, passionate Salome Zurabishvili who became his foreign minister. Georgian by blood, European by culture, she was France’s ambassador to Tbilisi when the revolution happened. Jacques Chirac proceeded to “lend” her to President Saakashvili.

Also on Georgia’s “rose revolution” and its aftermath on openDemocracy:

Amy Spurling, “Tbilisi’s polyphonic carnival” (November 2003)

Brenda Shaffer, “Georgia: domestic challenges and regional implications” (November 2003)

George Hewitt, “Sakartvelo, roots of turmoil” (November 2003)

Nino Nanava, “Mikhail Saakashvili: new romantic or modern realist” (December 2003)

Alexander Rondeli, “A rough road from the rose revolution” (December 2003)

Sabine Freizer, “The pillars of Georgia’s political transition” (February 2004)

Neal Ascherson, “Tbilisi, Georgia: the rose revolution’s rocky road” (July 2005)

Chris Smith, “Baku-Ceyhan: the geopolitics of oil” (August 2005)

Andrew Mueller, “Abkhazia futures” (August 2005)

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Under her aegis, her department pulled off two of the government’s most substantial achievements. The breakaway region of Adzharia on the Black Sea to the south, the fiefdom of local strongman Aslan Abashidze, was reintegrated into the country in May 2004. More remarkably still, Russia agreed in May 2005 finally to withdraw from its military bases and transfer its facilities in Georgia by 2007-08.

Against this background of progress, Zurabishvili’s sacking on 19 October came as a surprise, not least to herself. Does it signify a change of direction by her government? Tbilisi has been buzzing with rumours. The official explanation that she was “incompetent” raises more questions than it answers.

Salome Zurabishvili has not scuttled back to France to resume her diplomatic career. With the backing of her Georgian husband – a philosopher and well-known cultural commentator – she has opted to stay and “serve my country”. She proclaims herself faithful to the spirit of the rose revolution, and plans to mobilise the Georgian people for democracy: “I want to build a social movement”, she told me with a gleam in her eye.

A meeting of some 10,000 supporters at Tbilisi’s Hippodrome on 20 October demonstrated that she could mobilise considerable numbers of those disaffected by the turn Georgia has taken. The scene at her flat in the capital suggested the backing of the same influential intelligentsia which threw itself behind the rose revolution: its large rooms were busy with knots of people, conferring, writing press releases, waiting for a word with Salome.

“We’ve reached the stage in developing our democracy where people need to start taking their own initiatives, doing something on a local level”, Zurabishvili told me. “People’s minds are free, but up until now the best have held back from politics. That’s why it’s impossible to think of creating a political party now. Later, perhaps. Only a civil society which understands democracy can control its government.”

Her eyes are fixed on the municipal elections in June 2006 and beyond those, the 2008 national elections. Her declared aim is not to start another revolution, but to harness the widespread disenchantment with the government she has left.

That government has introduced sensible enough reforms – halting police corruption, stabilising the electricity supply and overhauling the education system. But the economy is not moving. A World Bank report just published states that “Georgia is one of the few countries (in the region) that has not experienced major poverty reduction”. The figures are stark: the official estimate of unemployment is 35%; between 20%-25% of the population has left the country to find work; teachers earn less than the World Bank-designated poverty line of $2 a day. In a country with no social security, pensioners survive on only 50 cents a day.

The most significant development is the construction of an oil pipeline from Baku in Azerbaijan to Ceyhan in Turkey that crosses Georgian territory, whose Georgian section opened in October 2005. But this is more of a coup strategically than economically, for its construction involved the employment of few workers, and it earns the country only transit fees.

The problem is that foreign investment has failed to materialise. This is because Georgia’s privatisation programme has broken down. The fate of the country’s largest industrial asset, the Rustavi steelworks, is a case in point. Five million square metres of rusting, derelict plant, which once pumped steel into the Soviet industrial economy has just been sold to two Georgian companies at a bankruptcy auction for $27 million. But an Italian company, Metal Geo, claims to be the true owner. The Italian firm has taken its case to international courts in Strasbourg and Washington. A judgment is expected within three years. Until then, the workers who strained to “fulfil and overfulfil” their socialist norms will just have to keep on growing vegetables in the concrete ruins and hoping their children will keep sending them money from Turkey, or Russia, or wherever.

A Byzantine state

Meanwhile, the government has been building roads and hotels to exploit the one economic opportunity unaffected by privatisation – western tourism. This venture deserves to succeed. To visit Georgia from the west is to have the sense of finding again a culture deeply familiar, long forgotten. Listening to their polyphonic singing, you are not surprised to learn that the Georgians claim descent from Noah’s great-grandson, Kartlos (Georgians’ name for their country is Sakartvelo, and the Georgian language is Kartvelebi). Faced by those magnificent mountains on the eastern shores of the Black Sea, it seems obvious that this should be ancient Colchis, Medea’s homeland, where Jason brought his Argonauts in search of the Golden Fleece. To this day, people are still panning for gold by placing sheepskins in riverbeds.

Also by Susan Richards on openDemocracy:

“Russia changing” (December 2001)

“Defending the palace of western culture” (October 2002)

“The world’s fair” (February 2003)

”Chechnya and Iraq: imperial echoes, militant warnings” (July 2003)

Georgia was Christian when Europe was still pagan, and a miracle of Byzantine architecture surmounts its every hill. This is the wild Caucasus which Tolstoy brought to us in stories like Hadji Murat, and Lermontov in A Hero of our Time.

Yet for all these shared points of cultural reference, the land where Salome Zurabishvili is bravely starting her grassroots movement is a long way from today’s Europe. She knows all too well how hard it will be for Georgia to escape its place on the map.

That map shows a land of 4.3 million people, the size of Ireland, perched on a strategically crucial southern flank of Russia’s vastness. Invaded over the centuries by everyone from the ancient Greeks onwards, this was the land whose rulers asked to be included in Russia’s Orthodox empire in the 18th century, after a particularly vicious invasion by one of its Muslim neighbours.

Russia may have agreed in principle to withdraw its military bases from the country by 2008. But there are plenty of other, only marginally subtler ways in which it will keep on reminding the Georgians who is the power in the region. Russia’s active support for two regions beyond Tbilisi’s control and seeking independence, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, is only the most obvious of these. The country’s electricity supply is Russian-run, and dependent on Russian goodwill. The large number of Georgians who work in Russia could have their visas cancelled at any time.

As for the sticky matter of privatisation, Georgians are surely aware that Russian investors will always be much readier than western ones to cut through legal complexities and enforce their rights without recourse to the courts.

On the surface, the sacking of one minister in Tbilisi may not appear to portend deeper changes. The new foreign minister Gela Bezhuashvili has pledged to continue his predecessor’s policies. Saakashvili’s government is not without foreign friends: in May it hosted a flying visit from President Bush that drew a huge crowd to central Tbilisi. But with trouble at home and in his foreign adventures, Bush’s administration will be disinclined to upset Russia further by committing itself more deeply in Georgia. As for the European Union, undergoing its own crisis of identity following rapid enlargement, it looks equally unprepared for bold initiatives on its far-eastern border.

Salome Zurabishvili deserves support as she ventures out on her campaign to ignite democracy in Georgia. “One of the first things we need to do is to go to the regions – there is no democracy in the regions.” She is right about that. But on her travels she is likely to be reminded at every turn how irredeemably western her optimism about democracy is. In Georgia, it is not just the church architecture that is Byzantine. So are the politics.

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