A state of disgrace

By Tom Masters

The downfall of Shevardnadze comes as no surprise. Regarded as a hero in the west, his rule was defined by corruption and by the collapse of Georgia's infrastructure.

THROUGHOUT THE SUMMER paraffin-powered generators noisily hammered away outside shops and public buildings in Tbilisi. Yet barely a comment was passed on what anywhere else would be a national scandal — this was, after all, just another daily 12-hour power cut in the elegant Georgian capital, something to which people have become well accustomed in the past decade.

When the American management of the electricity grid decided to write off their investment in Georgia — where they had become convinced it was impossible to do business — the ensuing chaos as they negotiated the sale of their assets to the Russian United Energy Systems took its toll, as usual, on the long-suffering Georgian people.

“Every day it’s the same,” says Tamuna Sujashvili, who runs a small shop round the corner from the Presidential Administration building. “No one comes to shop here because I can’t afford a generator. Some people seem to be living well, though,” she adds with the wry humour typical of a people used to appalling governments. The latter reference was probably to the recently deposed President Shevardnadze’s nephew Nugzar, who is reputed to run the paraffin cartel that profits wildly every time the lights go out.

“There’s no gas, there’s usually no electricity and the water supply only works for a few hours a day. It’s like Africa,” says 20-year-old Temuri Dzidziguri, one of a new generation of bafflingly ambivalent Georgians who accept the collapse of the nation’s infrastructure as a reality that can’t be changed. “Of course we mind, but we’re just used to it. The only way to get around it is to leave the country,” he shrugs.

Frustration and fury finally boiled over last weekend as the Georgian people staged their own “velvet revolution” to depose their president. But with its infrastructure in tatters, its people poorer each year despite the millions of dollars that pour into the country from the West, it’s amazing that Shevardnadze lasted as long as he did — and indeed, his survival in the face of adversity earned him the accurate soubriquet “The Grey Fox”, evading and stringing along the mob with impunity.

All summer Georgia seethed: if you travel around the country, it’s not hard to see why. In every town and village groups of men and boys crouch in the dust by the roadside, smoking all day long, with nothing else to do. Most of the factories have been shut for more than a decade, no new jobs have been created to replace Soviet heavy industry and living, for most, is hand-to-mouth. Pensioners survive (or not) on $5 a month, and have suffered the indignity of hearing that this was “ enough” from Shevardnadze’s wife Nanuli. Corruption is everywhere, from the traffic police who stop anyone they can and demand “fines”, to the very top, where its scale has still to be discovered.

While the ubiquitous posters of Nino Burdzhanadze, Speaker of the previous parliament and now acting President, flap impotently in the wind promising a new future, it seems that even the opposition didn’t inspire any hope. Georgians were sick of politics, sick of promises and most of all, sick of poverty.

“Shevardnadze is shit and the rest of them aren’t much better. Basically that’s all you need to know to understand Georgia,” says Ambartsum, an Armenian engineer in the southern town of Akhaltsikhe. “I moved here to work in a great job as chief engineer, then two years later the factory shut and I’ve not had a job since. Everything was better during the Soviet Union.”
This last refrain is familiar to anyone who has spent time in the former Soviet republics, but the resentment is felt particularly strongly in Georgia, where people once enjoyed one of the highest standards of living in the USSR.

A Georgian president being bundled out the back door of the parliament building is nothing new; Shevardnadze’s histrionic predecessor, the nationalist Zviad Gamsakhurdia, was accorded the same treatment during a popular uprising in 1992, echoes of which were seen in what the Georgian press calls the “revolution of roses” last weekend. But Shevardnadze’s ignominious and humiliating end has surprised many who associate the former Soviet Foreign Minister with the peaceful end of communism: when he came back to lead Georgia in the middle of chaos and civil war, he was hailed as a hero and saviour.

“I remember clearly that feeling of elation when he returned, similar to the one that the crowds have now,” recalls Svetlana Jariashvili, a former senior civil engineer. “And then it all just fell apart, almost immediately. I can’t be positive now, I’m just worried that things will go back to how they were.”

Even by the standards of former Soviet republics, Georgia has had it hard. Two breakaway republics, Abkhazia on the Black Sea and mountainous South Ossetia, declared their independence shortly after the end of the Soviet Union: both declarations ended in armed conflict with Tbilisi. In Abkhazia, once the Soviet Union’s most prestigious holiday resort, there was a bloodbath in which many claim Russia was complicit in an attempt to destabilise its former satellite. The Muslim republic of Adjara, run as a political fiefdom beyond Tbilisi’s control, further undermined any form of national government. Refugees from Abkhazia continue to overflow from former Intourist hotels in Georgia, where many have been living for a decade.

While Shevardnadze could have done little to prevent these largely ethnic divisions, the sheer level of corruption and cronyism around him has defied belief. From the start, he surrounded himself with old allies from communist days rather than the generation of reform-minded politicians who have come of age in the past decade. Manoeuvring himself deftly into the American camp and infuriating Moscow, which had still not lost its sense of natural dominion over its former colonies, Shevardnadze negotiated vast sums in aid from Washington.

“When the money came pouring in,” Svetlana remembers, “corruption simply couldn’t get any worse. Everyone in Shevardnadze’s Government suddenly had a palace they’d built with state funds, they all had limousines and their children all received foreign education. In the meantime Heroes of the Soviet Union starved to death or rifled through dustbins to survive. When you notice corruption as a normal citizen, you know it’s bad.”

Like many Georgians, Svetlana can live decently only because her son works abroad and sends her money. Sacked by a State, which no longer planned to build roads, for three and a half years in the mid-1990s she and her son lived on bread and tea three times a day.

“It’s one thing to go to bed hungry yourself, but to see your son go hungry is hell on earth. Friends have committed suicide from shame, some starved to death.” She now works for the Catholic charity Caritas running a soup kitchen in Tbilisi. “We feed most of the intellectuals in the city here,” she jokes grimly. “Musicians, artists, journalists, writers — they all end up here.”
Shevardnadze won a second term in 2000, with almost 80 per cent of the vote. While voting irregularities were reported, such a landslide was impossible without support, and he garnered this largely by blackmail, promising that the country would spiral into chaos without him.

There was something to this: Shevardnadze’s name alone was enough to secure billions of dollars for the country and almost blanket American support. This relationship is symbolised by the building of a pipeline connecting the vast Caspian oil wealth of Azerbaijan to the Turkish Mediterranean port of Ceyhan (and thus American markets) through Georgia — bypassing the northern bogey, Russia, and the southern bogey, Iran. While the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline promises huge benefits to the Georgian state coffers, there appear to be few advantages for the Georgian people.

Given this legacy of failure and the shameless dealing out of favours within the clan of the former communists who surrounded the President, it seems incredible that anger was fomented sufficiently only by the elections this month. But if you ask anyone on the street, they will confirm that it was Shevardnadze’s shameless behaviour in the elections that precipitated his downfall. Svetlana Jariashvili puts it very simply: “Entire houses, entire streets and even entire blocks were left off the election list. People went to vote, queued for hours and found that they weren’t on the register. My neighbours’ son was killed in a car accident years ago — when they went to vote they discovered that they were unlisted, but sure enough their son was there, and no doubt his vote was used.

“The election was the straw that broke the camel’s back. If you take away a person’s most basic democratic right, they have nothing left, it’s an insult. The Georgians will put up with almost anything, but not an affront to their pride.