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April 25, 2007

Roses are Blue? Lincoln Allison reports on his tenth visit to Georgia in the last fifteen years, his first since the "Rose Revolution" of 2003

Posted by Lincoln Allison

Lincoln Allison returns to Georgia and finds that the hopes for the future he found on his first visit fifteen years ago still very much alive. The trouble is that little has happened in the intervening years to turn these hopes into reality.

Arriving at night, the impression of change is dramatic and immediate. A brand new airport building, swish and spacious: I remember Tbilisi airport when there was shit on the floor and burned out military aircraft alongside the runways. A broad, smooth new road into the city, called after George W. Bush, the only American president ever to visit Georgia. Where once there was post-Soviet gloom and after that the sinister darkness of collapse, now there are the bright lights of garages, advertisements, fountains and random ornamental structures which twinkle.

But when I get up in the morning it is to a more familiar and less cheerful scene. The snow swirls down unseasonally, melting as it lands and filling the pot-holed streets with water. Buildings which have been spruced up on the outside are still cracked and dilapidated on the inside. When the conversations begin there is constant disillusion with the government of President Mikheil Saakashvili and his United National Movement who came to power in 2004 with 86% of the vote. "A government only good at window-dressing" is a common theme. (Better than a government good at nothing, I think.) "Increasingly authoritarian" they say, but every government Georgia has ever had has become increasingly authoritarian and perhaps there are reasons for that.

Apart from the bright lights the window-dressing includes applications to join NATO and the European Union and to host the Winter Olympics. Unfortunately, none of these have been successful; a visit by the President of the USA and admission into the Eurovision Song Contest are the best of it so far. The President himself is a symbolic figure in the country's supposed new identity: still under forty, seven languages, two American degrees, a Dutch wife. If symbolism could make you democratic, capitalist and "Western" Georgia would have made it by now.

To say that Georgia's progress has been patchy would be polite indeed. The country once had over 5 million people and now there are only about four million. The GDP per capita is around $3,500 compared with $4,600 in 1985. A meaningless figure, perhaps, but most people over forty will tell you that they were much better off in the Soviet period with its cheap housing, fuel, wine and transport. And having said that they will go on to tell you how much they detest the Russians and despise the Soviet legacy. Last year the president opened a "Museum of the Soviet Occupation". Vladimir Putin reacted with predictable scorn. Who ran the Soviet Union at its brutal worst? The likes of Sergo Orzhonikidze and Laventi Beria, not to mention a certain Josef Djugashvili - Georgians all. It is a bit like Scots complaining of British imperialism.

There are increasing criticisms from NGOs and monitoring bodies of the government's record on "human rights". Deaths in custody, violence against demonstrators, torture and the crushing of judicial independence are all serious issues. There have even been comparisons with Belarus, the least westernised of former Soviet republics. The Georgian prison population is three times per capita that of the UK, which is the worst in the EU. There is only one bed for every three prisoners, which doesn't deter Georgian judges from sending more prisoners down as it would in Britain.

However, it is difficult to imagine this land of violence and "amoral familism" being ruled by Scandinavian methods. And some of the most corrupt features of Georgia in the nineties have been turned around completely. The police used to be sullen, useless and intent only on parting motorists from their money. A new, young police force is now in place and is considered fair, to the surprise of most of the population. University admissions, a process which was utterly corrupt in the past now consists of objective tests monitored from the Netherlands.

Schools are operating fairly well, perhaps best at the primary level though there are huge natural constraints on progress such as a lack of resources in general and a lack of competent English teachers in particular. The school principal whom I interviewed spoke highly of government policy, but he has been in post since the days of Andropov so he has probably spoken highly of more regimes than the Vicar of Bray. This summer he will have to re-apply for his own job as the police and others have done.

Progress in the state universities, the focus of my fist visit, in 1992 has stalled almost completely, however. In fact, in the two areas I know most about, sport and higher education, the post-Soviet collapse has never been reversed and the most obvious symptom is that anyone with any ability aspires to go abroad.

There are plenty of areas of business in which the shoots of revival are vigorous. Restaurants are thriving, at least in Tbilisi. The ancient Georgian wine varieties, many of which virtually disappeared in the 1990s, are almost all back and in much more glamorous packaging. Garages are thriving and selling proper petrol, unlike the engine-busting stuff you had to buy from Soviet army tankers in the nineties. You can get any car mended on the main roads out of Tbilisi. There is a massive modern supermarket called Goodwill just west of Tbilisi and proper banks which people trust.

On the other hand all these signs of recovery are confined to Tbilisi and the modernised road leading west to the Black Sea. Get out of the city and away from that corridor and you are back into clapped out corners of the USSR: half-deserted villages, ancient Ladas, a population which is massively and sullenly unemployed. It doesn't make much sense to talk of an unemployment rate because you have to register as unemployed and there is no point. But it is realistically 80% in some areas and official figures show 52% below the national poverty line.

So what is the Georgian problem? Given that this is a country with a long history and many assets and was one of the three richest in the USSR how come it is in many respects the most disastrous of the post-Soviet republics? The most spectacular dimension of this is the official figure of an 83% decline in the standard of living between Soviet times and the nadir of the mid-nineties, a world record in its way. But the half dozen separate nasty little wars which the country has experienced are also some kind of record. The answer, I think, is a compound of three elements: culture, economy and geo-politics which have all served to exacerbate each other.

When I consider Georgian culture the heart and the head go in opposite directions. I first went there to "reform" the state university in 1992, but I had shown some affinity for the place years earlier when as an undergraduate I had spent two successive evenings at the Oxford Playhouse watching the Georgian State Dance Troupe. Obviously these moustachioed and booted Caucasians with long knives had something to offer which Oxford did not. And it is not a disappointment in living up to its image: if you are looking for a place where even a shared snack requires wine and toasts and probably oaths of undying loyalty to friends, this is it.

Or a place, you suddenly realise you hadn't realised, is the fiercely proud origin of everything significant - like alphabets, wine, wheat, the "white" race, European Christianity, St. George, etc. We recognise this status only in our bizarre classification of ourselves as "Caucasians". But all this fierce-proud stuff constitutes a fairly significant barrier to rationality and modernisation. The most famous of Georgians, dear old Uncle Joe Djugashvili, was in some ways a representative figure. He was a loving husband and father, a warm and emotional friend, a witty and jovial drinking companion - and he killed tens of millions of people. And then cracked a rather good joke about his achievements: "To kill one man is murder; to kill a million is statistics."

Georgia's only experience of modern economic activity is Soviet. Georgian production was locked firmly into the Soviet system: the tractor factory in Kutaisi required Russian parts and produced for a Russian market. Without Russian cooperation you might as well raise it to the ground and start again. And there is no non-gangster tradition of enterprise - which means that enterprise has a bad name and people have no notion of what they might do between strategies for family survival and the fortuitous assistance of a vast authoritative institution such as the state or a transnational organisation. Thus the completeness of the economic collapse and the difficulty of making any progress by democratic means.

And the third part - the only real problem if you listen to some Georgians - is geopolitical. The Georgian mental map sees the country as a small island between a Muslim desert and a Russian ocean. For most of history the Russians were the inevitable protectors because they were co-religionists. But the protection turned into a suffocating bear-hug. And the Russians will not let go: surveys show that Georgia and Ukraine are the only former Soviet republics about which Russians feel any sense of loss and that Saakashvili is the third most hated man in Russia. Russian attitudes to Georgia have been compared to the loss to a middle-aged man of his lively, dusky, bright-eyed bride. Georgia was where Russia's favourite wine and food came from and was its favourite holiday destination.

And Russia now effectively controls Abkhazia, which is one of those "special" provinces to Georgians as Kosovo is to Serbians and Kashmir to Indians. The saddest conversation I had on my recent visit was with a man who had lost his home, his brother, his sister and his son to the Abkhazian conflict and finally accepted he was never going to go back. The news on the other "autonomous regions" in Soviet parlance is not so bad: Saakasvili's greatest achievement is the reincorporation of Adjara back into Georgia, which required ridding it of its one time party boss, Aslan Abashidze, who had just crossed out the word party from his job description. There is even hope in South Ossetia. But the Georgian fantasy that the Americans might ride to their rescue is occasionally punctured by the recognition that the Americans may need Russian cooperation more than they need oaths of loyalty from Georgians.

Thus those central theoretical questions of the post-Communist period - What is the relationship between capitalism and democracy? and Which should come first? - are peculiarly acute and unanswered in Georgia. People often make a little speech along the lines of, "We were so naive! We thought all we had to do was to get rid of the Communists, hold an election and we would be just like the West." They are not so naive now , though they often act as if they were and political stability must still be in doubt.

They elected the extreme nationalist Zviad Gamsakhurdia with over 80% of the vote (in 1991) and the former Communist Eduard Shevardnadze with a similar majority the following year and they dismissed both with forms of revolution. So it is no guarantee of anything that Saakashvili was elected with an overwhelming majority. Nor should we be much impressed by his "western" credentials. Gamsakhurdia was a mystical and fanatical nationalist with little understanding of the modern world: his The Spiritual Mission of Georgia (1990) is one of the weirdest books I have ever read. But he was also a former lecturer in American literature at London University.

Most Georgians would now tell you that they would have preferred what they see as the Chinese route to capitalism: order, infrastructure and capitalism before democracy becomes either safe or useful. And I agree with them. I'm still hoping that this time, slowly, patiently, substantial progress will happen. Fifteen years ago I sat with my new-found Georgian friend and fantasised over a bottle of Kindzmarauli about the bright, global future of Georgian wine and tourism and universities. The trouble is we are still fantasising, but our hopes are not yet dead.

Lincoln Allison retired from an academic career in 2004 to become a freelance writer and broadcaster. He remains Emeritus Reader in Politics at the University of Warwick and Visiting Professor in sport and leisure at the University of Brighton.


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I believe this was a pretty accurate account of social affairs and public's attitude in Georgia. However, it was a rather farfetched attempt to identify the reasons behind the slow progress and existing problems of the country. If I understood the author correctly, according to this article, Georgians' main problem that keeps the country from achieving true success stems from the fact that Georgians are bunch of mini Stalins (who, in fact was not a loving husband and a father) who give oaths of loyalty and... yet are ready to kill millions- are authoritarian.
I agree that all the governments tend to become authoritarian with time in Georgia. The problem in my opinion though lies with the poor (real) separation of powers, lack of professional ethics and excess of "band" mentality. Which in turn is a result and manifestation of green democracy. Even deeper problem is the allienation of each individual from his/her country, lack of the understanding of the common good- which paradoxically is a result and resedue of more than 70 years of Communism, when people were told they could own nothing, that everything belonged to the huge, ethnicity-less, faceless USSR. Stealing from the USSR, making illicit deals did not feel as a crime. This mentality still remains to a good extent. That is no justification for present-day immoral government officials or businessmen who try to get what they can while they can.
As to the symbolism and obsession with the appearances I have to agree it has gone out of control. However, when I travel to Georgia it is nice to arrive to a clean Airport and to see the lights in the streets- Tbilisi no longer looks as remains of deserted civilization as it looked like on many winter nights before. One has to start somewhere and it is hard to strike the correct balance. That requires experience and wisdom. Which I hope, I don't fantasize, I strongly hope will develop. Just like Georgian wines have already very successfully reached the shelves of many stores abroad (the manager of liqour store in Georgetown in DC often remarks how fast Georgian wine "goes"). So I guess there is reality and there is hope for Georgia which like many correctly point out has a very challenging geopolitical situation.

Posted by: keti Shubitidze at April 26, 2007 12:17 PM
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