Georgia is on Everyone’s Mind

A strange but titilating image keeps playing before my eyes. A convey of Russian tanks is heading down Rustaveli Avenue in Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, just as they did in December 1991 when the country’s first democratically – elected government was brutally overthrown. Only this time the tanks are greeted by cheering crowds and the Russian soldiers carried aloft by an almost insanely happy populace.

Meanwhile, Georgian president, Eduard Shevardnadze has fled to the US embassy. With his family hastily gathered around him he boards one of the brand new American Hughes helicopters delivered to him just before last year’s parliamentary election and flees the country. The scene is starkly reminiscent of the disgraced Ceausescu’s departure from Bucharest just ten years ago. However, Shevardnadze escapes lynching by the mob and reappears in Britain to become the head of a prestigious Oxford college.

But, down to earth one must come. Although with not such a resounding bump as usual. The war in Chechnya has made life rather uncomfortable for Eduard Shevardnadze. Over the past few months Moscow has charged Georgia on numerous occasions with helping rebels fighting the Russian army in Chechnya. Whatever the truth of these allegations, geography is the problem. Chechnya and Georgia share a common border in mountainous terrain that is near impossible to monitor effectively. And, as the Russian army has swept south in pursuit of fleeing rebels the action is getting perilously close.

There have been other bones of contention too. For one thing, Russia is threatening to introduce a visa regime with Georgia ostensibly to prevent terrorists entering the country. For another, Russian promises to close two of its military bases in Georgia– at Vaziani near Tbilisi and Gudauta – have failed to be met. Whenever the topic comes up it is met with evasion and a tendency to move the goal posts.

What to do? Many observers, rightly, see Georgia as pivotal in the new great game involving the control of oil and gas reserves in the Caspian region. Should the country fall back into the Russian sphere of influence transportation of these resources through Georgia and onto Western markets could be stymied.

Shevardnadze has edged closer to the West and NATO in the past year. In May 1999 Georgia was made an associate member of NATO’s parliamentary assembly. On 23rd February, Strobe Talbott issued a stern warning on CNN to the Russians to lay off Georgia and later in the week Robin Cook was advocating a speedier entry into "EuroAtlantic structures." But, despite the tough talk, it is difficult to imagine the West intervening militarily to protect its interests there. Bluster and rhetoric, rather than NATO’s bombs, is all that has accompanied Western disapproval of the Chechen war so far.

The enigma, as ever, is acting-president Putin. In public he dissembles and calls for the independence of the former Soviet republics to be respected. But is he to be trusted? And is Shevardnadze totally beholden to his new Western allies? Some people think that he may have done a deal with Moscow that would allow the Russians to enter the country in pursuit of Chechen militants. They point to the fact that Georgian inhabitants of villages at the border with Russia have not been provided with any means of defending themselves against an invasion.

No politician in the post-Communist world has received such glowing testimonies and such overall support from the West as Eduard Shevardnadze. Numerous prestigious and well-funded prizes have been showered upon him. Last year alone he was awarded the Baker Institute’s prize for Distinguished public service and in the autumn he was given the Averill Harriman Medal of Freedom by the National Institute for Democracy.

The love-affair began when he was the Soviet Union’s last Foreign Minister and the edifice of Communism was crumbling. The relationship he built up with then Secretary of State, James Baker, continued when he returned to run Georgia in 1992 after Zviad Gamsakhurdia had been removed from office.

The list of politicians who have loved to shmooze with him is long and glittering. In the early days, apart from Baker, there were George Schulz and Hans-Dietrich Genscher. Yet, Shevardnadze speaks no foreign languages and, as far as I know, is neither a wit, a scholar nor man of learning. He is a classic old Soviet apparatchik. But, he is also ‘our’ old Soviet apparatchik, for some observers think that Shevy was ‘turned’, so to speak, and is now at the beck-and-call of Langley, Virginia rather than Moscow. The fascination he holds over the suits from Washington and Bonn is probably best compared with the poacher turned gamekeeper or some kind of exotic transvestite.

However, to most ordinary Georgians Shevardnadze is best remembered as the former head of the Georgian KGB and ruthless Communist Party leader. And, since he returned to power eight years ago they have had no reason to change their minds. I happen to agree with them. During frequent visits to Georgia since October 1992 I have not seen any evidence that Shevardnadze has changed into a respectable democrat worthy of the myriad honours bestowed upon him.

During his ‘reign’ the living conditions of ordinary people have plunged disastrously. Georgia’s infrastructure and economy seem permanently on the brink of collapse. Whereas the country had been something of a show-case during Soviet times it is now more like a third world basket-case. Even seasoned anti-Soviets look back to the old days with nostalgia.

For years now there has been no regular supply of electricity. People living in high rise flats long ago erected makesift stoves to heat their apartments with wood fires. Dangerous and hardly the stuff of the 21st century. The sale of Tbilisi’s electricity company to an American company last year has not made a jot of difference.

There is no public health system – everything from drugs to hospital treatment has to be paid for. There is little economic activity. People seem to neither work nor take vacations, in ways familiar to the West, anyway. Average wages – for those lucky enough to work are less than $80 per month. Yet, surreal solutions are always at hand: Mr. Shevardnadze recently said that every school in Georgia would have a computer – powered by what?

Serious opposition is frowned upon and those accused of political crimes are held in the most appalling conditions in jails rife with TB. In 1996 I visited the hospital in Tbilisi’s main prison where patients lay untended in filth and squalor, many of them on the point of death. The authorities provided no food to the inmates: families and friends had to bring supplies which were often left uneaten, rotting in metal bowls surrounded by flies and mosquitoes. The smell of urine was overpowering – even a member of the prison authorities retched as he left the building.

The country also hosts over 200,000 refugees from Georgia’s war in the breakaway region of Abkhazia. The lucky ones are housed in two of Tbilisi’s main hotels. The rest languish in abandoned Soviet buildings all over the country, often living 5 to a room. In January 1999 in one such place near Kutaisi a man lay dying in agony from complications of TB. There was no medication and no help from the numerous international organizations that flood the country.

The refugees blamed Shevardnadze for their plight and their hatred for the West’s favourite democratic was almost uncontrollable. It is, therefore, unsurprising that they might be disenfranchised in the forthcoming Georgian election. It has been suggested that people like them who only possess old Soviet passports should not be allowed to vote.

Many think that the presence of large number of refugees enables the state to keep the aid bandwagon rolling. UNHCR admits there is little it can do when most of the aid sent to Georgia is stolen. It is also interesting to note that whenever refugees have attempted to return to their homes in Abkhazia an ‘incident’ has occurred which has driven them into back into the arms of the Georgian state.

These are things that I have seen with my own eyes. Yet, little criticism is levelled at the Shevardnadze regime. Human rights groups spend far more time pursuing (retired) General Pinochet or criticizing people like Jörg Haider who has not tortured or killed anybody. Last June Georgia received the ultimate accolade of international respectability when it was welcomed into the Council of Europe with a positive report on its human rights record.

Yet, all elections held since 1992 when Shevardnadze seized power have been rigged. This has not stopped the usual international alphabet soup bodies hailing them as great breakthroughs for democracy. So entwined is the apparat in Tbilisi with its patrons in Washington that the American embassy’s web site boasts that "the Georgian CEC [Central Election Commission] and the US Government will jointly announce the 1998 election report." When a delegation from the Council of Europe delivered their (glowing) report to television cameras on the conduct of the 1995 election they did so from outside Shevardnadze’s private office. It is little wonder that love for the West is spread very thinly in Georgia today.

However, there is a lot of opposition to the Shevardnadze regime. In the last 5 years there have been two assassination attempts (quite apart from numerous threats of violence) against Shevardnadze himself. Cynics say that these incidents were staged to provide an excuse to clamp down on dissidents – it is certainly true that many known oppositionists have been rounded up in the aftermath.

Needless to say, the West has responded by backing Shevardnadze more ferociously than ever: in 1995 former German Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel sent the beleaguered head of state an armour-plated Mercedes to protect him from further attacks. The sound of this monstrous machine relaying the ‘popular’ head of state around Tbilisi literally rocks the foundations of neighbouring buildings.

But a more serious opposition comes from the western region of Ajaria where the local leader, Aslan Abashidze, is challenging the president in forthcoming elections on 9th April. In another classic example of civil society Georgian-style Abashidze has regularly accused Shevardnadze of plotting to kill him. He certainly takes no precautions as he strolls around the local capital Batumi surrounded by gun-toting guards. Snipers keep watch from the roof of the regional parliament.

However, whatever the faults of Abashidze the comparison between life in Batumi and Tbilisi is startling. The former is clean, well-run with small shops and affordable restaurants; Ajaria itself looks prosperous in contrast to the devastation that marks the rest of Georgia. Salaries are paid on time and the electricity works. In any normal democracy people would be turning out in droves to vote for Abashidze but in the last parliamentary election his party Revival trailed Shevardnadze’s Citizens Union. The usual Western commentators predict another victory for the ‘popular’ president in the April poll.

But can the West hold on to Georgia for ever? The rhetoric from Moscow is gaining momentum by the day. On 19th February the Russians alleged that 400-1000 Chechen fighters were on Georgian territory. On 28th February news agencies reported that the fighting was getting close to the strategic Argun gorge which the Russians allege is the key channel for rebel supplies and reinforcements coming from Georgia. Hot pursuit may not be far off: according to Lt. General Gennadi Troshev (reported in ITAR-TASS) air power is unsuitable for destroying local rebel strongholds.

If Shevardnadze’s regime was to fall no tears would be shed in Georgia other that among the small group of Western-sponsored nomenklaturists and profiteers. The Russians would return as heroes. What that other hero, Senator John McCain called "this plucky little democracy" could be free, liberated (ironically) by its former oppressors in to the north. However, help for Shevardnadze might still be at hand. Last week Robin Cook, the Lord Byron of Kosovo, told the government in Tbilisi that he was prepared to "share with Georgia his experience in settling conflicts." Surely there can be no better prospect for any country’s future well-being than that.