Georgia: the aftermath

As Russian forces begin to withdraw, we are learning more about the events of the short but brutal w

The air inside Tskhinvali General Hospital is damp and stale. The worn floors are empty. There is hardly a sound at all in-side the building where, a week ago, wounded civilians and bloody surgical gloves lay in heaps about the corridors.

Tinati Zakhorova, an exhausted doctor with kind eyes and a tangle of curly grey hair, is sitting alone in a small office, tallying up the dead and wounded in a faded old book. She knows what happened here in this tiny mountainous republic, she says, and who is responsible for it.

"This is the fourth genocide against the Ossetian people by the Georgians. How can we ever go back to living under them?" she asks, adding: "And may heaven open up and God strike the head of Condoleezza Rice."

It will be weeks, or even months, before any culpability can be assigned for this big war over a little country. We may never know the extent to which the Georgian president, Mikhail Saakashvili, informed his benefactors in Washington of his plans to retake the breakaway republic, or whether the Russians ordered South Ossetian militias to open fire on Georgian peacekeepers to goad them into a trap.

But amid the chaos of the war's aftermath, residents on both sides of the battlefield have already made up their minds. Zalina Ikoeva, 52, is lying in traction at a hospital in Vladikav kaz. Her leg was shattered by an explosion as she hid in her basement during the initial Georgian attack.

"I was lying there in the basement and I called my sister on my mobile," she said. "I asked her: 'Where are the Russians? They're going to kill us all.'"

On the shattered streets of Tskhinvali, where there is strong evidence that the Georgian military fired both tanks and artillery into civilian buildings, the Russians are viewed as liberators. Russian support over the past two decades is the only thing that has kept this isolated and resource-poor statelet from disappearing altogether.

It is Russian bottled water you see being handed out by the truckload and a brand new gas pipeline from Vladikavkaz in North Ossetia to Tskhinvali that you can see on the drive in. The Russian government has pledged $400m to rebuild the city, and the Moscow city government has promised another $100m. The Russian hearts-and-minds campaign trumps anything Georgia is putting out. The tactic is working.

As we roll through the city in a Russian armoured personnel carrier during one of the Kremlin's highly scripted tours, dozens of local residents, mostly elderly, flock to the soldiers to show their support. An elderly man stands and makes the sign of the cross as we drive by. Women blow kisses and shout their thanks as the Russians look down with benevolence.

The mood was summed up by a Kremlin official. "We are dealing with a psychotic dictator, an inadequate person whose actions cannot be foreseen whatsoever," he said. "It will take as many troops as possible for as long as possible to protect the citizens of South Ossetia."

Twenty kilometres across what used to be the southern border of South Ossetia, inside Georgia proper, the story changes. In the northern areas of Georgia now under the control of the Russian military, within the sights of Russian rockets aimed from the hills around Tskhinvali, the majority of the population believe that they are under occupation.

When the Russian aerial bombardment of Gori began, 80-year-old Sasha Berdize ran down to the river and hid along its banks. Walking back from a Russian-run food depot in the city centre, he stops to ask me where I'm from. I'm an American, I say. "Thank God you're here," he replies, his eyes filling with tears.

Gori, where Joseph Stalin was born, is now a ghost town. In the city centre, where block after block of High Stalinist architecture and a towering statue of the former leader dominate the skyline, there is hardly anyone on the street. It is likely, several residents said, that less than 1 per cent of the population is left here.

But Berdize thinks that these things happen. "Misha made a mistake," he says, using a popular diminutive form of Saakashvili's name. "People are allowed to make mistakes in this life." Many Georgians seem willing to cut their president a great deal of slack, even though his dangerous miscalculation and reckless personality have just cost them territory in both South Ossetia and Abkhazia, another disputed rebel enclave on the Black Sea.

Sitting around a picnic table behind an apartment building in the city centre, six friends pass around a plastic jug of home-made wine and a bag of halva. Although they don't understand why this whole mess started, they know how it will end.

"Everything was great with the Russians," says Soso Rusashvili, 57, "but now they've decided they want our land. What can we do about it? We're such a tiny country."

Rusashvili doesn't blame Saakashvili or George W Bush for his problems, but neither does he want to stay in a land under occupation. He makes me write his name in both Russian and English. Can I send him a letter of invitation so that he can move to America, he wants to know. He would work in construction or drive a taxi, he says - anything to get out of here.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2008 issue of the New Statesman, How to survive the recession

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View from Paisley: How the Conservatives are wooing Labour's Scottish heartlands

Not so long ago, Conservative activists in Paisley could expect doors slammed in their faces. A referendum has changed that.

Tony Lawler, a Labour activist, was recently knocking on doors in the Scottish town of Paisley, when he came across a disgruntled resident. “I’m really disappointed in Douglas Alexander,” the potential voter complained. “I haven’t seen him. He used to be in Morrisons.”

Douglas Alexander, of course, has gone. He was the longstanding Labour MP and onetime International Development secretary who lost his seat in 2015 to a 20-year-old rival, the Scottish National Party’s Mhairi Black. He does not plan to stand again. But when I visit Paisley, a short train ride from Glasgow, I find that memories of him linger on. 

Two years after Alexander’s defeat, I meet Lawler and other local Labour activists in Morrisons, where Alexander used to hold his surgeries. As checkouts beep and trolley wheels roll over linoleum, they point to an empty table in the corner of this hallowed ground: “He used to sit just there.”

In 2015, the SNP’s victory in this former manufacturing town seemed to epitomise the earthquake in Scottish politics. But as the Labour activists know too well, no political fortress is undefeatable. And in Paisley, the home of one of the oldest workers’ festivals in the world, the party with the most to gain is one that previously never dared to canvass in the high street – the Conservative party. 

The town the Brexiteers forgot

In 1988, the historian Sylvia Clarke reflected on Paisley’s lost industries, wondering what was next for the former weaving towns. “Paisley as a tourist centre?” she wondered, in Paisley: A History. “Paisley as a place for visitors to come to, rather than a send-out of goods and emigrants?” 

For all Paisley’s industrial decline, it’s a pretty place. The town is in the running for the 2021 City of Culture, and has the second biggest number of listed buildings after Edinburgh. When I visit in the middle of April, blossom floats on the trees, and a river meanders through a neighbourhood of old, stone houses. It takes a moment to notice weeds tightening their grasp on the window frames. When I try the door of the ancient Paisley Abbey, it’s locked.

Perhaps if Paisley had been located the other side of the border, in Sunderland or Northumbria, it would be voting Leave and flirting with Ukip. But in the most deprived areas here, Labour activists tell me the EU referendum tally was still almost 50-50, and overall the town voted Remain.

There is a view that Brexit is an English concern. “We haven’t picked up anything about the EU referendum,” says Lawler of his doorstep conversations. “What people are talking about is the independence referendum, Jeremy Corbyn and the kids’ ward.” Scotland’s health secretary, Shona Robison, is due to make a decision on whether the specialist ward should be moved to a large hospital in the First Minister’s Glasgow constituency, against the wishes of many Paisley residents. The hospital in question is nicknamed “the Death Star”.  

Another concern, reminiscent of small towns across the UK, is the decline of the high street. When I walk down the historical shopping area Causeyside Street, I find mother and daughter Kate and Linda Hancy packing up what remains of The Pattern Café and Gift Shop. The wallpaper is a glorious Paisley print, but the scented candles are in boxes and a spray soap bottle hangs from a chair. After two years of trying, they are closing down.  

“People just don’t have money to spend,” Kate says. “A lot of people have been on the same wage for more than five years.”

Linda chimes in: “The cost of living going up but wages aren’t the same. I work in a supermarket, and people come in and say ‘How did I spend this much money?’ A lot of people are paying by credit cards.”

The Hancys voted to remain in the UK, and the EU. Although they knew Alexander, they have never met Mhairi Black, and feel devolution, if anything, has made politicians less accountable. “Why are we picking 1,2,3,4,” demands Kate, referring to Holyrood's voting system, which rejected first past the post. “Why can’t we pick one like we used to?”

Without the EU to blame, the most obvious culprits for Paisley town centre’s decline are the out-of-town shopping centres, where cinemas are opening just as historical ones in town close their doors.

Gavin Simpson, owner of Feel the Groove, a new record shop, remembers the 1980s, when a new release would have shoppers queuing round the block. However, he believes the town is over the worst. (As we speak, a customer comes in to reserve such a record and cheerfully warns Gavin that “even if I ask for my money back, don’t give it to me.”)

One thriving business is the longstanding butchers, Wm Phelps. Manager James Peacock tells me it is down to the trustworthy Scottish produce, which is carefully tracked and labelled. But the business has also embraced globalisation.  After noticing a large number of South African customers, Peacock began selling boerewors and biltong.

The other referendum campaign

If Paisley has been spared the divisions of the EU referendum campaign, its “buddies” – as residents are known – are still reeling with the repercussions of an earlier referendum, that on Scotland in the UK. In 2014, the town voted for independence, although the county overall opted to stay in the UK. 

The town is home to a particularly brash strain of indyreffers, including the “Smith Commission burners”, three SNP councillors who gathered in front of the council headquarters to burn a copy of the report setting out new powers for Scotland. One of them, Mags MacLaren, went on to manage Black’s constituency office.

But if the Paisley independence movement has been well covered, less is known about its opposite - the rise of pro-unionism. 

Of the three mainstream parties opposed to independence, it is the Scottish Conservatives, with their unconventional leader Ruth Davidson, who have most effectively capitalised on the pro-union message. In the 2016 Scottish Parliament elections, the Tory Jackson Carlaw captured the West of Scotland constituency of Eastwood, which had been held by Labour since its creation. 

In Holyrood, the Scottish Tories benefit from proportional representation, which allows voters to choose a constituency MSP but also rank parties. 

According to Paul Masterton, the Tory candidate for East Renfrewshire, and the secretary of the Renfrewshire and Inverclyde Scottish Conservative Association, the Conservatives are now getting huge numbers of first preference votes, including in neighbourhoods like the suburb of Ralston, where both Black and Masterton are from. So who are these voters? Masterton describes them as “New Labour voters who were happy with Tony Blair and Gordon Brown but didn’t like Jeremy Corbyn and get tied up into knots by [Scottish Labour leader] Kezia Dugdale flipflopping on the union stance".

The 2016 election saw the Scottish Conservatives surge to second place in Scotland – a superb comeback for a party once ridiculed as being rarer than pandas. The next electoral test is the local council elections. In Paisley, even Labour activists acknowledged the Conservatives were likely to be the most notable winners.

“For a long time we simply didn’t go out in Paisley," says Masterton. "We were written off and we allowed ourselves to be written off.”

But the referendum has changed this. “What I found was that last May, people weren’t shutting the door in your face," he adds. "Once you started the conversation they were far more receptive to that.” 

Like the Labour activists, Masterton argues that the constitutional question matters more than Brexit. “When Theresa May said ‘now is not the time’, I think a lot of people across Paisley did a small quiet fist pump,” he says of a second independence referendum.  

Ironically, after the early election is called, the Scottish Conservatives do everything they can to mention the prospect. “Don't mention the 'i' word,” crows a recent press release about the “SNP indyref ban”. Davidson tweets: “Nicola doesn't want to stand on her record. She knows the country doesn't want her #indyref2.” A Panelbase survey commissioned by The Sunday Times Scotland published shortly after the early election was announced finds support for the Conservatives at Scotland at 33 per cent, 18 percentage points higher than in 2015. 

What you stand for

For now, Paisley remains a Scottish National Party stronghold. George Adams, the MSP with an office off the high street, proves elusive – Labour activists confirm his reputation as a hardworking local. Black’s aide turns down my request for an interview for similar reasons, but I bump into her that evening at a protest against cutting child tax credits in Glasgow’s George Square.

Black, an admirer of the left-wing Labour figure Tony Benn, once said she feels "it is the Labour party that left me". I ask her if she, like her Labour predecessor, holds surgeries in supermarkets. Black says she’d considered it, but given the sensitivity of some of the issues, such as benefit problems, she thought her constituents might appreciate a more private space. “The main thing that crosses the door in my offices is Universal Credit changes,” she explains. She says she has raised her concerns about the children’s ward.

As for the independence debate, she argues that the Scottish government have been “incredibly compromising” since Brexit, but adds: “A lot of folk want another chance at the question.”

Black is standing for re-election. With a majority of more than 5,000, and neither of her previous challengers in the running, she’s likely to keep her seat, even if buddies' discontent over local issues rumbles on. 

Still, as I have discovered, the 2014 referendum continues to reverberate in towns like Paisley. It has divided friends and neighbours on constitutional lines, galvanised new strains of politics, and brought a Labour heavyweight crashing down, with no appetite to return. 

The Tories believe their unionist message is enough to flip seats like East Renfrewshire, once Conservative, then Labour, and now an SNP marginal. As the SNP's shine wears off, could Paisley, with its long tradition of the left, one day follow? It no longer feels implausible. “The one thing about the Scottish Conservatives - and this is true whatever you like us or not,” says Masterton. “You know what we stand for.”

 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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