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'Everything is in ruins'

The war with Russia last August has devastated Georgia: work and even food are now scarce. And Georg

A late autumn afternoon in Tbilisi. A group of middle-aged men, neatly dressed in yellowing shirts and fading suits, are playing backgammon under the trees in a square in the Armenian quarter. Several have well-groomed moustaches. The atmosphere is jovial: Alexander, a proud man in his late fifties, dominates the group with his loud laughter. Were it not for the derelict shells of buildings behind them, this could be any Mediterranean capital.

The war with Russia last August did not come near the capital, but this part of Tbilisi looks bombed out all the same. What happened? It's just decay, they say. Much worse than during the Soviet era. "Just look at the state of the buildings," says Alexander. "It was never like that before. No one has work." He used to run a factory that made mechanical parts, but is now one of the long-term unemployed. He is an educated man, proud of his flawless Russian (Georgian is his native language). In Soviet times he con sidered himself middle class. Now he feels poor and humiliated.

Meanwhile, his country has backed itself into a corner. On Tuesday the second round of international talks on security in the Caucasus opened in Geneva; discussions were described as "difficult" and the Tbilisi-Moscow relationship is as tense as ever. But a change of leader in Washington might make a difference: President Saa kashvili will soon have lost his chief ally in the west, George W Bush. A populist and opportunist, Saakashvili is dismissed by many Georgians as too hot-headed, and organised protests are planned against him.

After ousting Eduard Shevardnadze in November 2003, Mikhail Saakashvili, now 40, helped to attract millions in foreign funding. He was perceived as being a pro-western reformer and democrat. The Americans gave $22m during the war in August and promised another $1bn in September. That came on top of $1.6bn in outside investment in 2007, much of it from the US, a 40 per cent increase on the previous year. The foreigners are to blame for this whole mess, Alexander asserts, because they prop up dodgy regimes. "Our government is more corrupt than any other in the world. And the US and the UK support them in their corruption."

The American money has not benefited the likes of Alexander. To reach the capital's Armenian quarter from the international airport there is only one route: straight down President George W Bush Street, the only pothole-free highway in town, festooned with pictures of a waving Bush. But Alexander can't afford to travel abroad and doesn't expect to be able to find the money any time soon, so he has never driven along the route. Local officials have used the foreign money to buy up the best property and evict the poor, he says. His own house is at risk: it belonged to his great-great-grandmother and all his family were born there. Some people he knows survive by stealing, he says - a loaf here, some supermarket food there. He claims to have friends in prison who are desperate to stay because inside they don't go hungry.

“Our government is more corrupt than any other . . . and the US and the UK support them in their corruption”

Nana, 44, a biologist, is strolling through a nearby park opposite the parliament building with her four-year-old son. This is where Saa kashvili's supporters celebrated with fireworks when he forced Shevardnadze's resignation in 2003. "Things feel uncomfortable now," she says. "I'm not frightened at the moment but I feel as if we are not going in the right direction." She worries about her son's future. Eighty per cent of the intelligentsia have lost their jobs, she says, and no one needs scientists in the way they did in the Soviet era. "I am lucky - I still have a job. Most people I know are out of work. I don't think this problem with Russia will be resolved peacefully and I find that very upsetting. Saakashvili was wrong to use violence [against the breakaway provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia]. It was not the right way to respond. I feel as if we are not being told the facts. This situation is benefiting someone, but you can't quite work out who. I do agree that we should fight to keep these territories because they are ours and not Russia's. But it should be a diplomatic fight, not a military one. Why kill people over something like this?"

The one hope, she says, is the popular female politician Nino Burjanadze, a 44-year-old pro-democracy campaigner who was briefly acting president before Saakashvili took office. Burjanadze has already aligned herself with the protests against Saakashvili's actions this summer and is calling for elections. The word is that "something" could happen as soon as the end of this month. "No one knows what, though," Nana says, stroking her son's head. The more she talks, the more upset she becomes. "Sorry - I am not articulating myself very well. It's because I'm afraid."

Down the road in an underpass leading to the main street, Rustaveli, four menacing-looking youths are hunched together around a cap thrown on the floor. Suddenly they open their mouths to sing, and a pure Georgian chant reverberates around the walls. Next to them a woman in a housecoat and slippers is selling curtains. Some old men are having a picnic of tomatoes and bread on an upturned cardboard box. Out on the street, stray cats and dogs are everywhere, picking their way through buildings abandoned halfway through reconstruction. You encounter well-dressed, middle-aged people who look as if they are sitting down waiting for someone or something. It is only when you see the outstretched, cupped hand and the expression of shame on each face that you realise they are begging. At a set of traffic lights one man is trying to sell balloons, weaving in and out of six lanes of traffic.

Before the war with Russia in August, Georgia’s economy was expanding rapidly: its reported growth rate for 2007 was 12.4 per cent, according to the New York-based analysts EurasiaNet. There are signs of stability: BP, PricewaterhouseCoopers, Pepsi, Coca-Cola and the legal firms Baker & McKenzie and DLA Piper all have offices here. There is a vigorous cafe culture: a chain of literary cafes has opened in recent months. For young people in their late teens and twenties, especially those who speak several languages (as many do), the outlook is not bad; new Marriott and Hyatt hotels have opened and the service industry is growing. Anyone who can get a job with a western company can hope for a salary of up to $2,000 a month. But this is an option for only a privileged minority. The salaries of state teachers and doctors are a tenth of this. And men like Alexander are completely washed up.

In Tbilisi's most affluent quarter, Shardeni, the mood is more combative. Besarion Darjani, an affable gallery owner in his fifties, says he supports the current regime: without American aid Georgia would be even worse off.

"It's all about money, the oil pipeline and Russia's pretensions to be an empire," he says. "Putin wants someone in some godforsaken Siberian town in the middle of nowhere to turn on his TV news, see the bombing, beat his chest and say, 'Hey, that's our territory!' Saakashvili was obliged to do what he did because he had to defend our territory against the Russians. He was provoked."

His gallery sells the work of 50 local artists, many of whom have up to ten dependants. It is largely foreigners who buy the artwork, he adds, so he is happy to see them and their money. In a courtyard near the gallery, a group of Americans are drinking a bottle of Georgian red wine. Last month the Georgian Chamber of Commerce welcomed a group of a dozen British tour ope rators for a week-long trip. But, with the crisis unresolved - and likely to flare up again at any moment - fewer foreigners have been coming.

If the situation with Russia is not resolved quickly, says Darjani, his business could dissolve: "Russia spits on the world and on any- one who gets in the way of their great empire. The current government has ruined years of friendship between Georgia and Russia. I don't blame ordinary Russians, though. I have a lot of friends living in Moscow and Leningrad. But the people of South Ossetia and Abkhazia are Georgians. Their nationalities have been artificially created by the Russians - they give them passports and money and promise them autonomy. So then of course they want to be Russian. But what about the fact that it is our territory and there are Georgians living there?"

Many of these South Ossetians and Abkha zians have sought refuge in Tbilisi, living in hospitals and schools. Their numbers are estimated at anything between 20,000 and 60,000. (According to the UN, another 20,000 have fled into Russia.) The capital's infrastructure can barely support them.

The authorities host regular entertainment and when several hundred Georgians turn up for a charity performance at the theatre on a Saturday night, they look as if they almost fit in but somehow don't. These are modern refugees: the children are impeccably dressed and taking pictures of each other on their mobile phones.

Some of the other theatregoers are local people. I meet a group of young women outside on the balcony. Dressed in satin blouses and leather trousers, they are not worried about Georgia's future. "You couldn't really notice any difference in Tbilisi in August," one of them says. "It is worrying, of course, but I think that whatever happens the EU and Nato will bail us out, especially if it gets really bad."

But those of the older generation know how conflicts have been resolved in the past. Many of the actors from the theatre died in the last war in the early 1990s in Abkhazia. “These were boys who did not even know how to hold a gun,” says the director Robert Sturua. “I told them, ‘If you go to war, don’t bother coming back, because I don’t want murderers in my theatre.’”

The theatre has a small government subsidy but survives largely through donations from an anonymous businessman, who pays the directors' and actors' salaries. They cannot hope for too much from the state, says Sturua. "We have a government that is making a lot of mistakes. That's normal, though. That's freedom. It's like Jefferson said, 'Freedom is a tree you must water with blood.' It sounds cruel but it's the truth. Georgia has suffered more than any other former Soviet republic. There is a generation of people who have completely lost hope."

Worst of all, the war in the summer eclipsed some of Georgia's greatest cultural achievements this year, he says. The State Ballet of Georgia was acclaimed at this year's Edinburgh Festival, where the much-feted prima ballerina Nina Ananiashvili performed Giselle. Another Georgian dancer, David Makhateli, is a rising star with the Royal Ballet in London.

Sturua argues that life has returned to something approaching normality since the events of August: there is no military presence here at all and already the tourists are returning. Cultural and historical tourism is something many see as Georgia's potential salvation. Sturua is an optimist: he sees no reason to think Georgia won't thrive once the territorial disputes with Russia are resolved.

But this sort of talk will not pacify the likes of Alexander. He just wants a regime change, and doesn't care who becomes president so long as he or she stands on an anti-corruption ticket. "There is no such thing as normal life here," he says. "Everything is in ruins. Even if you work you don't always get paid." But how do people survive, then? "A very good question," he laughs. "Why don't you ask our government how people like me get by? They don't care."

This article first appeared in the 24 November 2008 issue of the New Statesman, How to get us out of this mess

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Sturgeon's mission: how Brexit changes the SNP's argument for independence

With Labour in disarray and Westminster focused on leaving the European Union, the next Scottish referendum - whenever it happens - is the SNP’s to lose.

If the political events of a single day can set the tone for what follows, the UK is on its last legs. Calling for another independence referendum at Bute House in Edinburgh on the morning of Monday 13 March, Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, appeared typically poised and (apparently) in control of events, while from Downing Street that afternoon there was the distinct sound of flapping.

Brexit highlights the contradictions on both sides of the constitutional divide. There is an obvious flaw in the SNP leader’s argument that the UK extracting itself from an economically beneficial union – the EU – would prove “catastrophic” while Scotland leaving the UK will be fine. Equally, Theresa May cannot credibly talk up the benefits of UK “independence” while casting the Scottish equivalent as a calamity.

Yet the optics in Edinburgh and London don’t give the full picture. By any empirical measurement, the economic case for Scottish independence is weaker than it was in 2014. However, the trouble for unionists – as for Democrats in the US and Remainers in the UK – is that the political conversation is no longer taking place in the realm of balance sheets or, indeed, of objective reality.

Sturgeon probably knew that this was coming from the moment she put a second independence referendum back “on the table” the morning after a majority of UK voters (but not Scotland) chose to leave the European Union. Yet between then and Monday morning, she had to appear reasonable, as if she had exhausted every possible compromise. The British government’s inflexible response to the First Minister’s quixotic plans for a “differentiated” Scottish settlement strengthened her hand.

No one in the SNP expected Theresa May to deliver the requested compromise. And while many believe that Sturgeon got a little carried away on 24 June 2016 in her expectation that pro-European sentiment would boost support for independence significantly, Brexit has been a political gift. Not only did the differential outcome in Scotland reinforce long-standing arguments about the “democratic deficit”, it also enabled the SNP to recast Scottish nationalism as internationalist and cosmopolitan, in contrast to the “Little Englander” variety.

Nevertheless, the First Minister ended up taking the plunge slightly earlier than anticipated, probably because newspapers had suggested that Article 50 could be triggered on 14 March. Sturgeon will now get a second media “hit” at her party’s spring conference in Aberdeen this weekend. Forcing her hand was not Alex Salmond, as some spurious reports implied, but the realisation that circumstances would never be this good again. Yes, there is the backdrop of Brexit, but equally important are the existence of a pro-independence majority in the Scottish Parliament (which is unlikely to be sustained beyond the 2021 Holyrood elections) and the continuing dysfunction of the Labour Party. Jeremy Corbyn might go down in history as an unwitting facilitator of both Brexit and Scottish independence.

This time last year, Nicola Sturgeon was telling interviewers that she would pursue another referendum only if opinion polls showed a sustained lead for independence. Though two recent surveys suggest a modest tilt towards Yes, this has not transpired – at least not in public polling. It seems likely, however, that private polling tells a different story, which is another reason why the SNP leader felt able to move as she did.

Crucial to the next vote is the group that we might call “Yes-Leavers”. With a degree of intellectual consistency, its members want to regain “sovereignty” from both London and Brussels. In an attempt to keep hold of that constituency, the First Minister has attempted in recent months to detach a second referendum from Brexit, arguing that independence “transcends” this and almost every other political consideration. SNP advisers also floated the idea that an independent Scotland might settle for membership of the European Economic Area, like Iceland or Norway (the party’s favourite constitutional case study), rather than full-blooded membership of the EU.

The SNP is confident that, come the crunch, the majority of Yes-Leavers will end up backing independence. The tenuous claims, made during the last Scottish referendum campaign, that an independent Scotland would “automatically” become or remain an EU member are dead in the water. Instead, the Scottish government tacitly accepts – indeed, welcomes – the possibility that it will be outside the EU, at least for the time being.

On 13 March the First Minister said the Yes side would “be frank about the challenges we face”, yet another indication that the independence proposition will be less Pollyannaish than it was in 2014. Its advocates have little choice. Not only have North Sea oil revenues dwindled, but the sizeable gap between what Scotland raises in taxation and what it spends on public services – somewhere between £9bn and £15bn a year – is given an annual airing with the publication of the Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland (GERS) figures.

Just as the SNP reversed its opposition to membership of Nato in 2012, the party is now closing down potential lines of opposition attack. The benefit of having fought a referendum just a few years ago is that nationalist strategists know where their weaknesses lie. Central to this process is a “growth commission”, led by the former SNP MSP Andrew Wilson.

Wilson has said that oil revenues will no longer be “baked” into the economic case for independence. His remarks were not intentional but proved useful, neutralising the oil issue early on, but the twin challenges of currency and the deficit remain. Last time, the SNP adopted the least bad option of a “currency union” with the rest of the UK, but since then opinion within the SNP has shifted in favour of a separate Scottish currency. Whether that becomes policy, however, is not yet clear.

There has also been a change of tone regarding the deficit, if not a wholehearted acceptance that the early years of independence would necessitate both steep tax rises and deep cuts to public spending. “It’s going to be tough for the first few years,” one Salmond-era adviser admits, but how frank the SNP is about that in public will be a test of the new realism.

Like Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, the SNP has been better at calling for an alternative economic model than articulating what it would be. That won’t matter much in the heat of another referendum battle. The meta-narrative remains strong, and as the EU referendum and US presidential election demonstrated, a beguiling story of apparently easy solutions to difficult problems – even in the absence of any details – can prove a winning formula.

The central role of Andrew Wilson in the SNP’s pivot away from land-of-milk-and-honey predictions is also interesting. He and Sturgeon were colleagues in the first Scottish Parliament between 1999 and 2003, but they were far from close, and Wilson is typical of the Salmondista nationalists who once thought the idea of her leading the party was a bad joke but now view her with increasing admiration, not least for her willingness to gamble her career on a second referendum. The First Minister’s kitchen cabinet is small, but over the past few months, as a source puts it, “there’s been some reaching out” to Salmond-era advisers. A divided movement is not in any nationalist’s interest.

So where does that leave those who want to preserve the United Kingdom? Not in a good place, as the initial response demonstrated. The carrot-and-stick approach of the 2014 referendum is subject to the law of diminishing returns; offering yet “more powers” is difficult, now that the low-hanging fruit has been picked, and Project Fear II would likely suffer the same fate as last year’s Remain campaign. Organisationally, each of the three unionist parties – the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats – will fight its own anti-independence campaign, thus appearing disunited (the Yes campaign will probably be much more disciplined than in 2012-14).

More to the point, with Northern Ireland once again in tumult, what precisely is it that binds Ulster, Wales and Scotland to England, beyond a balance sheet? In recent weeks, everyone from the Prime Minister to the Scottish Lib Dem leader, Willie Rennie, has attempted to articulate the Holy Grail of a “positive” case for the Union. None has got beyond the usual platitudes about past (the tense is revealing) British greatness and fuzzy rhetoric about “solidarity”. There is also English public opinion to factor in. A few years ago, the English, on balance, wanted Scotland to stay, but who can say if that sentiment will survive Brexit and a second independence referendum?

As Europhiles know all too well, defending a union that can appear harsh and remote is no easy task. It doesn’t matter that independence is a conclusion in search of an argument – oil in the 1970s, Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, the Iraq War in the 2000s and now Brexit – or that economic reality favours the status quo. Success in 2019 (or perhaps even later) will come down to who tells the better story. Brexit gives the Yes side a more compelling good v evil tale than it had in 2014. If the No campaign relies on the same old boring story of economic woe (what else is there?), a second indepen­dence referendum is the SNP’s to lose.

David Torrance has written biographies of Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon

This article first appeared in the 16 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit and the break-up of Britain