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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

Photo: ANDREW TESTA/THE NEW YORK TIMES/ EYEVINE
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Interview: Nicola Sturgeon's Scottish referendum dilemma

In a candid interview, the First Minister discusses Theresa May’s coldness, Brexit and tax rises – and why she doesn't know when a second referendum will be held. 

Nicola Sturgeon – along with her aides, who I gather weren’t given much choice – has taken up jogging in the verdant country­side that lies to the east of the Scottish Parliament. “The first time was last week,” she says, when we meet in her large, bright Holyrood office. “Loads of people were out running, which made me a bit self-conscious. But it was fine for ages because everybody’s so focused. Then, suddenly, what must have been a running group came towards me. I saw one of them look and as they ran past I turned round and all of them were looking.” She winces. “I will eventually get to the point where I can run for more than 100 yards at a time, but I’m not at the stage yet where I can go very far. So I’m thinking, God, they’re going to see me stop. I don’t know if I can do this.”

This is a very Nicola Sturgeon story – a touch of the ordinary amid the extraordinary. She may have been a frontbencher for almost two decades, a cabinet minister for half of that and the First Minister since 2014, but she retains that particularly Scottish trait of wry self-mockery. She is also exceptionally steely, evident in her willed transformation over her adult life from a shy, awkward party member to the charismatic leader sitting in front of me. Don’t be surprised if she is doing competitive ten-kilometre runs before the year is out.

I arrived at the parliament wondering what frame of mind the First Minister would be in. The past year has not been especially kind to her or the SNP. While the party is still Scotland’s most popular by a significant margin, and Sturgeon continues to be its dominant politician, the warning lights are flashing. In the 2015 general election, the SNP went from six seats out of 59 to 56, a remarkable result. However, in Theresa May’s snap election in June this year, it lost 21 of those seats (including those of Angus Robertson, the SNP leader at Westminster, and Alex Salmond), as well as half a million votes. Much of the blame has been placed on Sturgeon and her call for a second independence referendum following the vote for Brexit. For critics, it confirmed a suspicion that the SNP only cares about one thing and will manipulate any situation to that end. Her decision also seemed a little rushed and desperate, the act of a woman all too aware of the clock ticking.

But if I expect Sturgeon to be on the defensive, maybe even a little downbeat, I’m wrong. Having just come from a feisty session of First Minister’s Questions, where she had the usual barney with her Tory opposite number, Ruth Davidson, she is impressively candid. “When you come out [of FMQs], your adrenaline levels are through the roof,” she says, waggling a fist in my direction. “It’s never a good idea to come straight out and do an interview, for example.” Adrenalised or not, for the next hour, she is thoughtful, frank, funny and perhaps even a little bitchy.

Sturgeon’s office is on the fourth floor, looking out over – and down on – Holyrood Palace, the Queen’s official residence in Edinburgh. As we talk, a large artistic rendering of a saltire adorns the wall behind her. She is similarly in blue and white, and there are books about Burns on the shelves. This is an SNP first minister’s office.

She tells me that she and her husband, Peter Murrell, the party’s chief executive, took a summer break in Portugal, where his parents have a share in an apartment. “We came home and Peter went back to work and I spent a week at home, just basically doing housework…” I raise an eyebrow and an aide, sitting nearby, snorts. She catches herself. “Not really… I periodically – and by periodically I mean once a year or once every two years – decide I’m going to dust and hoover and things like that. So I did that for a morning. It’s quite therapeutic when you get into it. And then I spent a week at home, reading and chilling out.”

In a recent Guardian interview, Martin Amis had a dig at Jeremy Corbyn for having “no autodidact streak”. Amis said: “I mean, is he a reader?… It does matter if leaders have some sort of backing.” One of Sturgeon’s great strengths is that she is a committed bibliophile. She consumes books, especially novels, at a tremendous rate and raves to me about Gabriel Tallent’s astonishing debut, My Absolute Darling, as well as Bernard MacLaverty’s Midwinter Break. She has just ploughed through Paul Auster’s daunting, 880-page 4 3 2 1 (“It was OK. I don’t think it should be on the Booker shortlist.”) She also reread the works of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie before interviewing her onstage at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in August.

The First Minister is now reading What Happened, Hillary Clinton’s book about her defeat by Donald Trump. “I’ve never been able to read any of her [previous] books because literally every word is focus-grouped to the nth degree,” Sturgeon says. “This one, there are moments of frankness and raw honesty and passages where it’s victimhood and self-pity, but that’s kind of understandable and very human. The thing that fascinates me about Hillary, apart from the politics, is just her sheer bloody resilience.  Given what she’s gone through and everything that’s been chucked at her, I genuinely don’t know how she keeps coming back.”

***

Speaking of resilience, does she have any fellow feeling for Theresa May, humiliated by the electorate and, for now, kept in No 10 like a racoon in a trap by colleagues who are both power-hungry and biding their time? “At a human level, of course,” she says. “When you’ve got an insight into how rough and tough and, at times, downright unpleasant the trade of politics can be, it’s hard not to feel some personal sympathy. Her position must be pretty intolerable. It’s tempered, though, by the fact that nobody made her call an election and she did it for purely party-political interest.”

How does she get on with May – who is formal and restrained, even off-camera – in their semi-regular meetings? Sturgeon starts laughing. “The Theresa May that the country ended up seeing in the election was the one I’ve been dealing with for however long she’s been Prime Minister. This is a woman who sits in meetings where it’s just the two of you and reads from a script. I found it very frustrating because David Cameron, whose politics and mine are very far apart, always managed to have a personal rapport. You could sit with David and have a fairly frank discussion, agree the things you could agree on and accept you disagree on everything else, and have a bit of banter as well.

“I remember just after May came back from America [in January], when she’d held Trump’s hand [Sturgeon starts laughing again], she’d also been to Turkey and somewhere else. This was the Monday morning. We sit down, it’s literally just the two of us, and I say, ‘You must be knackered.’ She said, ‘No! I’m fine!’ And it was as if I’d insulted her. It was just impossible to get any human connection.”

Given this, and the weaknesses exposed during the election, Sturgeon is scathing about how the Conservatives fought the campaign, putting May’s character and competence front and centre. “The people around her must have known that vulnerability,” she says. “God, we all make mistakes and we all miscalculate things, so this is not me sitting on high, passing judgement on others, but don’t build a campaign entirely around your own personality when you know your personality’s not capable of carrying a campaign… Even if you can’t see that yourself, somebody somewhere around you should have.”

Sturgeon might not be in May’s beleaguered position but she has problems. Her demand in March, at a press conference at Bute House, Edinburgh, for a second independence referendum by spring 2019 was a serious mistake and it has left a dent in what had seemed her impermeable personal popularity. Polls show support for the SNP and independence now share a similar downward trajectory. Over the next three years, the First Minister must persuade a sceptical electorate that her party deserves a fourth consecutive term in government.

Does she regret demanding another vote on separation?

Here she gets as close as she will go to a mea culpa. “Obviously I’m thinking pretty deeply about it. I think Brexit is a complete and utter car crash – an unfolding disaster. I haven’t changed my views on that, and I think it’s deeply wrong for [Scotland] to be taken down that path without the ability to decide whether that’s right or not.

“I recognise, as well – and it’s obviously something I have reflected on – that understandably people feel very uncertain about everything just now, partly because the past few years have been one big decision after another. That’s why I said before recess that I will not consider any further the question of a second referendum at this stage. I’m saying, OK, people are not ready to decide we will do that, so we have to come back when things are clearer and decide whether we want to do it and in what timescale.”

Will she attempt to hold a second referendum? Could it be off?

“The honest answer to that is: I don’t know,” she says. Her expression of doubt is revealing.

Would she, however, support a second EU referendum, perhaps on the final separation package? “I think it probably gets more and more difficult to resist it,” she tells me. “I know people try to draw lots of analogies [between the EU and independence referendums], and there are some, but whatever you thought of the [Scottish] white paper, it was there and it was a fairly detailed proposition.

“One of the beautiful things about the independence referendum was the extent to which ordinary folk became experts on really technical, big, macro­economic positions. Standing on a street corner on a Friday morning, an ordinary working-class elderly gentleman was talking to me in great detail about lender of last resort and how that would work. You can say the white paper was crap, or whatever, but it was there, people were informed and they knew what they were voting for.

“That was not the case in the EU referendum. People did not know what they were voting for. There was no proposition put forward by anyone that could then be tested and that they could be held to account on. The very fact we have no idea what the final outcome might look like suggests there is a case for a second referendum that I think there wasn’t in 2014. It may become very hard to resist.”

Sturgeon hasn’t found the Brexit process “particularly easy”, especially when the government at Westminster is in the grip of what is becoming an increasingly vicious succession battle. The SNP administration has repeatedly clashed with the relevant ministers at Westminster, whom it says have given little care to Scotland’s particular needs. Sturgeon’s view of David Davis, Liam Fox and Boris Johnson is not rosy.

“Probably not a day goes by where I don’t look at them and think, ‘What the hell’s going on?’” she says. “That’s not meant as a personal comment on their abilities – although [with] some of them I would have personal question marks over their abilities. But they’re completely paralysed, and the election has left them in a position where you’ve got a Prime Minister who has no control over the direction of her government, and you have other senior ministers who are prepared to keep her there only because it’s in their short-term interests to do it. If you’re sitting on the European side of the table now, how can you have a negotiation with a government where you don’t actually know what their position is, or whether the position you’re being told across the table is one that can carry support back at home? It’s a shambles and it’s increasingly going to be the case that nothing other than Brexit gets any bandwidth at all. It’s really, really not in the interests of the country as a whole.”

***

This is an accusation that is directed at the SNP, too – that the national interest takes second place to its constitutional imperative. It is undoubtedly something that Sturgeon considered over the summer as she sought to rebalance her administration. As a result, the programme for government unveiled earlier this month was impressively long-term in places: for example, its promise to create a Scottish national investment bank, the setting of some ambitious goals on climate change and the commitment to fund research into a basic income.

Most striking, however, was Sturgeon’s decision to “open a discussion about… responsible and progressive use of our tax powers”. With the Scotland Act 2016, Westminster passed control over income tax to Holyrood, and Sturgeon intends to use this new power.

“For ten years,” she says, “we have done a pretty good job of protecting public services as best we can in a period of austerity, while keeping the taxes that we’ve been responsible for low. We’re now at a stage where austerity’s continued, we’re going to have economic consequences from Brexit, we all want good public services, we want the NHS to continue to have strong investment, we want our public-sector workers to be paid more, we want businesses to have the right infrastructure. How do we progressively and responsibly, with the interests of the economy taken strongly, fund our public services going forward? Most people would think right now that there is a case for those with the broadest shoulders paying a little bit more.”

I wonder whether the success of Jeremy Corbyn has influenced her thinking – many expect that a revival of Scottish Labour would force the SNP to veer left (it will also be interesting to see how Westminster reacts to Scotland raising the top rate of income tax). “It’s not particularly Corbyn that’s made me think that,” she insists, a little unconvincingly.

Isn’t Sturgeon concerned that making Scotland the highest-taxed part of the UK could undermine its competitiveness, its attraction as a place to live and as a destination for inward investment? “We should never be in a position where we don’t factor that kind of thing into our thinking, but you talk to businesses, and tax – yes, it’s important, but in terms of attracting investment to Scotland, the quality of your infrastructure matters. Businesses want good public services as well, so it’s the whole package that determines whether Scotland is an attractive place to live and invest in and work in,” she tells me. “It’s seeing it in the round. The competitiveness of your tax arrangements are part of what makes you attractive or not, but it’s not the only part.”

As for the immediate future, she is upbeat. She believes that Ruth Davidson, her main rival, is overrated. “I think Ruth, for all the many strengths people think she might have, often doesn’t do her homework very well,” she tells me. “From time to time, Ruth slips up on that… Quite a bit, actually. I know what I want to do over the next few years, and I’m in a very good place and feeling really up for it. After ten years in office, it’s inevitable you become a victim of your own success. What’s more remarkable is that, after ten years, the SNP still polls at least 10 and usually 10-15 points ahead of our nearest rivals.”

Author's note: Shortly after this interview went to print, the SNP got in touch to say that Nicola Sturgeon’s comment, ‘the honest answer to that is: I don’t know’, was about the timescale of the next independence referendum and not whether there would be one. The misinterpretation was mine.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

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