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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A to Z of the 2017 general election

Our strong and stable guide – for the many, not the few.

A is for the Andrews

Although Theresa May spent the election campaign dodging debates (and, consequently, an unhappy junior reporter from the Mirror in a chicken costume) there were a few live interviews for masochistic audiences. The BBC’s Andrews – Neil and Marr – both had a go.

On 30 April, Marr made it harder for the Prime Minister by telling her before they started that she wasn’t allowed to use the phrase “strong and stable” or other soundbites. (She lasted 30 seconds before cracking.) “People can listen to that sort of thing and think it’s a bit robotic,” he told her, foreshadowing later criticism. By the time of Andrew Neil’s BBC1 interview on 22 May the conversation had moved on. “You started this campaign with a huge double-digit lead in the polls. It’s now down to single digits in some polls. What’s gone wrong?” Mrs May’s answer? “Well, Andrew, there’s only one poll that counts . . .”

B is for Brenda

Brenda, a resident of Bristol, spoke for the nation on 18 April when she heard the news that an election had been called. “You’re joking. Not another one?!” she said, her face a cross between overheated aunt at village fete and Edvard Munch’s Scream. “Oh for God’s sake, I can’t, honestly – I can’t stand this,” she told a BBC reporter. “There’s too much politics going on at the moment. Why does she need to do it?” Judging by Brenda’s subsequent internet fame, much of the country was asking the same thing.

C is for clinky

Boris Johnson was mostly kept on the bench during the campaign but he did surface from time to time. He began the campaign by insulting Jeremy Corbyn (see M), and on another occasion he put in an awkward appearance at a Sikh temple. “I hope I’m not embarrassing anybody here by saying that when we go to India, we have to bring ‘clinky’ in our luggage,” he told the audience. “We have to bring Johnnie Walker.”

The Foreign Secretary added that, after Brexit, we could reduce the stiff import tax on alcohol. The audience told him that Sikh teachings forbid drinking alcohol. “How dare you talk about alcohol in a Sikh temple?” said one. Johnson’s plan to visit a mosque to talk about the pork trade was presumably cancelled.

D is for dementia tax

David Cameron, George Osborne, Theresa May – all came a cropper because of a tax that isn’t really a tax. While Cameron and Osborne opted for taxes on spare bedrooms and hot pasties, the 2017 Conservative Party manifesto announced a raid on your ailing granny. The principle of the so-called dementia tax was that those with assets of more than £100,000 would have to pay for their social care. (Those with assets of less than £100,000 would escape paying anything.)

The world quickly turned on its head: the left-wing Momentum group defended the right of the middle classes to large inheritances, and the once-obdurate PM was forced into a hasty U-turn (lamely stating that “nothing has changed”).

E is for Emmanuel Macron

Be still, notre beating coeurs. On 7 May, the pragmatic centrist Emmanuel Macron beat the far-right Marine Le Pen in the run-off of the French presidential election. After Brexit and the success of Donald Trump, it felt like a ray of sunshine to Europe’s weary liberals – proof that Euroscepticism, isolationism and anti-immigrant rhetoric are not the only ways to win.

Since taking office, Macron, 39, has consolidated France’s commitment to the EU and eurozone, naming a minister for “European and foreign affairs”. He has condemned Russian state news outlets as “organs of influence” while standing next to Vladimir Putin, and he shook Trump’s hand (above) for a really, really long time. “My handshake with him – it wasn’t innocent,” Macron said. “It was a moment of truth.”

F is for Fallon

Michael Fallon has many roles: Defence Secretary, “Minister for the Today Programme” and Smearer-in-Chief. An otherwise unremarkable cabinet member, he was happy to be drafted in by CCHQ as an attack dog – unleashed to make personal gibes about the opposition whenever it looked as if the Tory campaign was wobbling.

In 2015, he warned that Ed Miliband had “stabbed his own brother in the back” to become Labour leader and would be “willing to stab the UK in the back” by doing a deal with the SNP to cancel Trident. This time around, Fallon branded Jeremy Corbyn a “security risk” because of his stance on the nuclear weapons. A bit rich, when you consider that the pompous Fallon presided over a failed Trident missile test.

G is for go-karting

“Labour is in pole position to beat the SNP”, proclaimed Scottish Labour’s Twitter account on the day of the party’s manifesto launch. Accompanying this optimistic statement were three pictures showing the regional party’s leader, Kezia Dugdale, as she won a go-kart race against a black-helmeted racer wearing an SNP rosette. If only it were that easy to defeat First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.

H is for hairstyles

The Andrew Marr Show is best known for its interviews (and end music) rather than its style tips. Yet during this campaign, two politicians used it to share their grooming tips with a grateful nation. First up, Labour’s Diane Abbott told us that in the 1980s she used to have an afro (and strong opinions about the need for armed struggle in Ireland) but has since “moved on”.

The Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, then responded by saying that she had “changed her hairstyle a few times in 34 years, too” but her opinions on public safety had not shifted. Let us know if you move away from 2017’s shoulder-grazing blonde bob, Amber. We’re waiting for your update.

I is for ivory sales ban

It isn’t every day that Britain’s “powerful antiques industry lobby” – presumably made up of those interchangeable men in tweed jackets on Antiques Roadshow – makes headlines. However, after the Conservative manifesto launched without a pledge to ban the ivory trade in Britain, Theresa May was accused by animal rights campaigners of U-turning on David Cameron’s previous commitment.

Given that Prince William is one of the ban’s most vocal advocates, you would have thought Theresa the Traditionalist might have happily ditched the antiques dealers in favour of the royal seal of approval.

J is for java

Dark, bitter and scalding: coffee has become the latest accessory of class war. While out in his constituency, the Tory candidate for Wakefield, Antony Calvert, caused outrage by tweeting about a mere proletarian’s audacity in entering a branch of that renowned aristocratic haunt, Costa: “Man recognises me at #Wakefield Westgate. ‘These f*ckin Tories, always looking 2 trample on t’working class, like me’. Man walks into Costa.” Working-class people can’t drink competitively priced caffeine products in popular high-street chains, so the guy must have been a faker, right?

And it’s not just Tories who think an espresso is la-di-da. The Mayor of Manchester, Andy Burnham, suggested that only rich people buy coffee from shops when he condemned the government’s proposed “barista visa” as a Tory plan for avoiding “waiting longer in the morning for their posh coffee”. Workers of the world, percolate!

K is for Katie Hopkins

For the past few years, it seems, no news event has escaped the attention of the former LBC shock jock and Mail Online columnist Katie Hopkins, formerly a candidate on The Apprentice. After expressing her hatred of tattoos, the obese, mobility scooters, maternity leave, the McCanns and redheads, and her admiration for ebola (“Malthusian”), she finally lost her LBC gig after tweeting, then deleting, a call for a “final solution” to Muslim terrorism in Britain after the Manchester bomb.

L is for Lynton Crosby

Nicknamed the Wizard (or Lizard) of Oz by unimaginative Westminster insiders, Lynton Crosby is the Australian election campaign guru who delivered David Cameron’s surprise general election victory in 2015. He is known for his colourful metaphors: the need to “get the barnacles off the boat” (ditch any baggage that might impede a campaign); “you can’t fatten a pig on market day” (voters’ preconceptions are hard to overturn); and, of course, the “dead cat”, which is irrelevant to the argument but nonetheless changes the conversation (often thrown by Michael Fallon; see F).

M is for mugwump

On 27 April, an attention-starved Boris Johnson momentarily forgot that everyone stopped finding his sub-Wodehouse shtick amusing some time ago. Writing in the Sun, he claimed that Labour voters didn’t realise what a grave danger Jeremy Corbyn posed to Britain. “They say to themselves: he may be a mutton-headed old mugwump, but he is probably harmless.” Cue a day of people googling “mugwump”, which turns out to mean: a) someone who left the US Republicans in the 19th century because they found the Democrat Grover Cleveland more appealing; b) the supreme wizard in Harry Potter; c) a predatory species from William Burroughs’s Naked Lunch that “have no liver and nourish themselves exclusively on sweets”.

In its response, Labour went both high (“It is the sort of look-at-me name-calling that you would expect in an Eton playground,” said the shadow housing secretary, John Healey) and low: “Boris Johnson is a caggie-handed cheese-headed fopdoodle with a talent for slummocking about,” said the deputy leader, Tom Watson.

N is for Natalie

“I’m not Natalie,” said Plaid Cymru’s Leanne Wood, after Ukip’s Paul Nuttall twice got her name wrong in the second-tier leaders’ debate on 18 May. Later, Natalie (Bennett of the Greens) tweeted: “The only time I can recall being in the same room as Paul Nuttall was #BBCAQ in 2014. He clearly hasn’t recovered.” No wonder Ukip wants to ban face coverings (see V). Nuttall already has difficulty telling women apart.

O is for The One Show

After the rigours of the set-piece political interview, Theresa May (with her husband, Philip, above) and, later, a solo Jeremy Corbyn had a chance to show their softer side on BBC’s teatime chatfest The One Show. Revelations from the Mays included that their household has “boy jobs and girl jobs” (ie, Philip puts the bins out), that it was “love at first sight” and that “the Red Box has never made an appearance in the bedroom”.

Poignantly, May recounted how when she was a young Conservative candidate she received a phone call from her shocked mother-in-law, after a local newspaper mistakenly printed that she had a new baby. For his appearance, Corbyn was in full-on affable uncle mode, talking about his allotment and his love of decorative drain covers and presenting the show’s hosts with a jar of his home-made jam.

P is for polling

In the final days of the 2015 campaign, the pollsters were accused of “herding”: massaging their raw figures with turnout filters and other wizardry to produce what they thought was the most plausible election result, and therefore missing the possibility of a Tory majority. No such problem this time: there were double-digit differences between pollsters’ estimations of the Conservative lead over Labour, indicating that they were prepared to go out on a limb and take some risks.

Q is for the Queen

“I had a very nice chat with the Queen,” said Jeremy to Jeremy on 29 May. Paxman had been trying to press Corbyn on why his republican leanings hadn’t led to Labour calling for the abolition of the monarchy. “You don’t like her, though – you don’t like what she represents,” Paxman said. But Monsieur Zen was untroubled. “We got along absolutely fine.” Are you thinking what we were thinking? What a pair of replacements they would make for Paul and Mary on Channel 4’s Great British Bake Off . . .

R is for regressive alliance

In the early stages of the campaign, left-wing idealists and disillusioned tribal politicians alike turned to the prospect of a “progressive alliance” as the only hope of challenging the Tories. (And Theresa May invoked it herself with her line about a “coalition of chaos” propping up Labour.) However, commentators largely ignored the emergence of the Regressive Alliance: that is, a Conservative Party boosted by Ukip’s decision not to run in nearly half of the 650 seats. Forget a progressive realignment – this is the big shift in British politics.

S is for strong and stable

It was Lynton Crosby’s New Coke moment: out with the lame old Conservative brand, in with unfussy Theresa May and her “strong and stable leadership”. The campaign began with May and the cabinet – fresh from unlearning the phrase “long-term economic plan” – dutifully parroting their new line. Destination: landslide? Not quite. “Strong and stable” lost much of its rhetorical power when it turned out that the equivocating May was, in the words of Channel 4’s Michael Crick, more “weak and wobbly”. Soon afterwards, Jeremy Corbyn’s performance in the polls began to improve.

T is for terror

The horrifying terror attacks on Manchester and London led to temporary suspensions of the national election campaign. Theresa May and her Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, faced questions about cuts to police numbers and the ability of the security services to monitor known extremists.

The Manchester bomb prompted an outpouring of solidarity and fellow feeling, with thousands of people gathering in the city’s Albert Square for a vigil on 23 May. There they listened to Tony Walsh’s moving performance of his poem “This Is the Place”: “And there’s hard times again in these streets of our city/But we won’t take defeat and we don’t want your pity/Because this is a place where we stand strong together/With a smile on our face, Mancunians for ever.”

U is for Ulster

“Can we ever have too much democracy?” ask the people of Northern Ireland. Having stoically endured decades of tumult and violence, this was their fourth national election in 13 months (after two assembly elections and the EU referendum).

V is for Vitamin D

Ukip’s election manifestos have often been very odd (anyone remember their 2010 pledge to reintroduce “proper dress for major hotels, restaurants and theatres”?) but their 2017 offering surpassed all expectations. Under its “show your face in a public place” policy, Paul Nuttall’s party suggested that the UK should implement a ban on the burqa and niqab: partly because they are a “barrier to integration”, but also because these face coverings “prevent intake of essential Vitamin D from sunlight”. Unsurprisingly, the science was a bit whiffy. Sunlight causes the body to make Vitamin D; we don’t “intake” it from sunrays.

W is for worker bees

The Manchester attack led to a quirky fundraising attempt for the victims’ families as tattooists donated their time to create a permanent symbol of Manchester’s resilience and unity. Among those who got a worker bee tattoo – taken from the city’s coat of arms – was Labour’s Jonathan Reynolds, who was first elected the MP for Stalybridge and Hyde in 2010.

His only worry, he wrote on Facebook, was how his mum would react. Less than quarter of an hour later, we found out. Luckily, although Judith Reynolds expressed shock, she thought her son’s action was for a good cause. “OMG this is your mother!!! I hate tattoos but under the circumstances totally support you.” By early June, the appeal had raised more than £300,000.

X is for xeroxed

As the Labour Party was preparing to launch its general election manifesto, the entire draft was leaked in the Daily Mirror and the Telegraph. This allowed the Daily Mail and other right wing newspapers the opportunity to run pearl-clutching “Back to the 1970s” headlines a few days earlier than they would otherwise have done.

Although the usual accusations of incompetence were levelled at Jeremy Corbyn’s office, the leak might have been deliberate – it gave Labour two days of coverage rather than one for its policies, most of which polled well with the public.

Y is for Yotam Ottolenghi 

When the celebrated restaurateur appeared on the Today programme to discuss the Conservatives’ plan to scrap free school lunches, it was hard to tell what shocked Middle England more: that Theresa May’s favourite chef strongly disagreed with her proposals, or the revelation that he sometimes sends his children to school with ham-and-cheese sandwiches for lunch, rather than a fancy fattoush salad topped with pomegranate and baba ganoush.

Yotam Ottolenghi argued that a hot school lunch was an important social, as well as nutritional, experience for children. Friends and relatives of the Prime Minister should be on high alert for regifted copies of his cookbook Jerusalem this Christmas.

Z is for Zac Goldsmith

It’s just traditional now, innit? Yes, Z for Zac is standing again, mere months after he lost his Richmond Park seat to the Liberal Democrats’ Sarah Olney in a by-election he had called over the proposed expansion of Heathrow Airport. No, he didn’t get the concession he wanted from the Conservatives. Yes, people still remember his dog-whistle campaign for the London mayoralty, which was run by the “strategic mastermind” Lynton Crosby (see L).

We are caught between admiring Goldsmith’s commitment to public service and wondering whether he should just find a hobby. 

This article first appeared in the 08 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Election special

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