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Trying to imagine the future in Georgia
Essay : Republic of Georgia, Tbilisi, politics, history, Soviet Union, Saakashvili, hope, despair
Friday, June 17, 2005 13:42 GMT

There are people who are citizens of nations about which there is no doubt. This fact is important for their confident, relaxed sense of self. They see a world full of certainties: they talk easily of the past and the future, they suffer no lapses of memory, no aphasia, no persistent misgivings about their own existence. Often they do not acknowledge the origins of their breezy composure, for they have been allowed to grow up believing themselves to be self-created “individuals” (such is the maturity of their nation-parents). All that is left over from this repressed paternity is a general, primordial faith in the benign power of the nation-state.

For such people, the myriad uncertainties that arise from being part of a nation that is little more than a phantom are something of a curiosity. Secure within a national fiction that has long ago congealed into fact, they find themselves smiling indulgently at the anxious imaginative turns of more doubtful places: fanaticisms about long-dead heroes, macho fantasies of integrity and purity, neurotic combinations of bitterness and awe vis-à-vis the handful of nations whose triumphant exception is supposed to be the rule. But in a world where the nation-state is the beginning and end of thought, the absence of grand national narratives is experienced as personal lack; and stories of absent greatness rush in to fill the void.

David the Builder (1073-1125), whose conquests created an empire extending across the Caucasus, ranks as Georgia’s most glorious long-dead hero. His memory helped to focus a Georgian political consciousness during the nearly eight centuries from the routing of the medieval empire by Genghiz Khan in 1220 to Georgia’s independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 when Georgians never had a state of their own – except for the three years between Russia's loss of the territory in 1918 and its renewed occupation in 1921. Even now, the Georgian government does not have control over large areas of what is considered to be Georgian territory; and its future attempts to occupy these areas could be very bloody. Meanwhile, for most of its short history, the present Republic of Georgia has found itself ruled by stern, predatory business groups that have borne little resemblance to the benign governments that nation states are “supposed” to have. Largely as a result of their power games, nearly everyone in the country has seen their fortunes dwindle and their possibilities shrink since the long hoped-for independence.

It is only in this context of national failure and disappointment that it is possible to understand the scale of the hopes aroused by Mikhail Saakashvili’s “rose revolution” of November 2003. A dashing 36-year old with a law degree from Columbia, a Dutch wife, and facility in five languages, Saakashvili had already been battling corruption from the centre of Georgian politics for eight years when he became the figurehead for a wave of public resentment against alleged election-fixing by the much-detested President Edvard Shevardnadze – whose family and immediate circle controlled some 70% of the Georgian economy. In a startling, bloodless coup supported by euphoric street demonstrations, Saakashvili took over as president. Like a modern heir to David the Builder, he pledged to right all the wrongs of history and turn Georgia into a “proper” nation state: he would reclaim the breakaway provinces, oust corruption and make the country part of the international flows of jobs and investment. In the presidential elections that followed two months later, he won over 96% of the vote.

It was two months after this, when the posters of the revolution were still on the walls, that I arrived in Tbilisi to do some research for my next novel. It was a country I had been interested in for some time as a setting for a particular character.

Tbilisi airport is full of signs showing anxious women accompanied by leather-jacketed good-for-nothings counting dollar bills, and carrying the assurance: “You Are Not For Sale.” These are a reference to Georgia’s world leadership in the domain of human trafficking, and to the great traumas suffered by many of those trying to cross this border in the opposite direction. As a citizen, however, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Island, a little-doubted state, I naturally encountered only smiles of welcome as I went through immigration.

On my second day in Tbilisi I telephoned Dr Nikoloz Kenchosvili, an academic at the Institute of Oriental Studies. He was not expecting my call. A friend of mine had given me his name just before I set off from home; there had not been any time to warn him of my arrival. The phone was answered after two rings. I explained how I got his details, that I was researching a novel and if he wasn’t too busy...? He burst out laughing.

“This is Georgia. Intellectuals are never busy! Shall we have lunch?”

We arranged to meet outside Philharmonia, Tbilisi's large, late-60s concert hall. I arrived slightly late: I could see him from a distance pacing up and down, white hair shining in the sun.

“Dr Kenchosvili?”
“I was beginning to think you were lost! Come: let us find a place where we can talk.”

We crossed the road to a small cafe where we ordered beer and ham and khajapuri . He needed little encouragement to tell me about himself.

Nikoloz was born into an educated, middle-class Tbilisi family whose members were deeply anti-Communist. During the terrifying and paranoiac 1930s, Beria sent his father’s brother to Siberia for sedition. His father joined the Communist Party in an attempt to protect the family from more such assaults, but their ideological credentials remained shaky, and the young Niko had to abandon his dreams of becoming an opera singer – a career which would have required significant Party patronage. He studied languages and literature in Moscow and returned home to become an academic. (Nikoloz's uncle was to return to Tbilisi in 1948 after eleven years of hard labour. His brother would go through the same ordeal a few years later.)

In the early 1960s, Nikoloz applied for a job as interpreter at the recently-built Bhilai Steel Plant in central India. Bhilai was India's first nationally-owned plant, and an epic statement of Nehru's socialist, modernising vision. It was set up with financial and technical assistance from the Soviet Union, which sent a large number of engineers and managers to oversee the project. The frisson of this intimate encounter persists in the town to this day: people still talk about the foreigners who came to stay, they still drive the Ladas that were imported at the time, and still have a few words of Russian.

The impact on Nikoloz was electrifying. As for many of his secluded generation, international travel felt truly magical; and he fell in love in a way that was full-blown, adolescent, rapturous, and permanent. There were obstacles, of course – the tedium of constant surveillance, the prohibition on social contact with Indian workers and their families, the obligatory daily readings from Marx and Lenin, the censorship (he was prevented, for instance, from seeing the “anti-Soviet” Dr. Zhivago when it came to India) – but these did nothing to muddle the fixity of his adoration. Though such strictures eventually forced him to give up the job and return to Tbilisi, Nikoloz was to devote the rest of his life to studying Indian culture. To date he has translated fourteen works of Hindi fiction into Georgian, and is the author of a number of papers on Indian folktales and literature. His business card described him as “Leading Scientist (Indologist)”.

Niko's vocation relegated him to a lonely, eccentric corner of Georgian life. In the old days he had been able to earn money by translating Marxist Indian writers into Georgian. Now such avenues were closed: Georgian publishing was all but wiped out, and authors who wanted to see their works in print had to pay the publishing costs themselves. Naturally, Niko’s recently-completed Georgian version of Patanjali's second century BC Yoga Sutra lay unpublished. He thought often of giving it all up. “Perhaps I should try some business. What do you think? This indology is getting me nowhere.”

We were still sitting in the cafe.

“I would naturally like to invite you to my house, but I wanted to meet you first. My place is very small, and I didn't know what kind of person you were.” Niko, like most academics in Georgia, earned a salary of under $30 a month. His wife, a teacher of music theory, earned about the same. They lived in an apartment she had recently inherited from an uncle, which allowed them to supplement their income by letting out their old one. “That's how we survive," says Niko. "Most of my friends cannot even eat. They cannot afford a simple meal like this.”

Nikoloz was effusive and dignified, but his conversation circled continually back to the same points of bitterness and anger. “Our consciousness was crushed. This is what is worse than the economic hardship. Young people now have a pure consciousness, but my generation had their minds in a prison. Stalin was a genius but he hated nice men. Intellectuals. He destroyed us and now we have no one who values the intellect. Now the country is run by criminals. They are simple thieves. This Georgian ruling class hates the new President, Saakashvili, because he is a nice man, handsome, intellectual, sincere. He is a genius, and also handsome. I am sure things will get better. But I am sixty-five years old: I have no time to wait.”

Meanwhile, he was forced to ask questions of survival. “I am writing a paper in order to qualify for a professorship. Then I would get a pension. But I want to go to India. That is where I belong. But how can I afford it? Do you think I could set up a school to teach Georgian? There must be some people interested in learning Georgian, no? And I will make khajapuri. I can make it very well.” He sensed that history had overtaken him, and that he should try to adapt to a more prosaic, business-minded age, but he struggled when he tried to imagine the practicalities. “I am not a businessman. I am a creative spirit. My spirit must realize itself in creative work. I cannot escape my self. There are people who are born to be businessmen. You can see that they are meant to do it: how effortlessly they make money! I can never be like that, no matter how hard I try.”

For most Georgians, the end of Soviet rule was a personal catastrophe. 1991 marked the beginning of a period of collapsed industries, civil war, terrorism, mass poverty and unemployment, declining health and literacy, and organized crime. Cut off from the commercial network of the Soviet Bloc, which had provided a vast, automatic market for Georgian industries, and then reduced by crime and instability to a highly undesirable destination for new investments, Georgia is now a bleak place to try and make a life. Shops in the city have little to sell. There are few jobs. The transit points by the highways outside the city are bustling with men queuing for day labour in construction or transport. The “middle classes” are so defined only by the nature of their work, not by their standard of living, since they too live in poverty. One doctor I met had had to pay a $100 bribe to secure a job in a hospital that paid her $10 per month. Everywhere there are old people begging on the street to supplement the state pension of $7 a month.

In contrast to nearly everyone else, the political elite has managed to make good money out of Georgia. As those in power began to see how the end of the Soviet Union would play out, they seized as much as they could of the collapsing state’s assets in order to shore up their position for a new, hardened world. A few individuals consolidated huge fortunes, which made them into significant regional commercial players and turned them inexorably towards organized crime. Unlike the official industrial system of the Soviet Bloc, which was destroyed by its break-up into separate states, the flexible criminal networks that operated out of Moscow and extended all over the world were only strengthened by the collapse of state power: suddenly their international channels faced no competition from “legitimate” ones, the policing of criminal businesses was almost eliminated, and in the new, deregulated climate, powerful organizations were suddenly able to get their hands on amounts of cash that would have been unimaginable under the Communists. Crime paid; and people seeking returns on their wealth built large conglomerates operating in every high-profit sector, whether legal or not: property, construction, hospitality, energy, drugs, prostitution, money laundering, etc.

This fact determines the texture of daily life at nearly every level. It accounts for the absurdly high number of casinos in Tbilisi, and for the ghostly feel of prime areas of the city’s real estate, where expensive boutiques and restaurants run empty because their real business is money laundering. It explains the fact that there are newly-built but empty buildings everywhere. It is the reason for the high levels of violence that broke out on Tbilisi streets, particularly in the late 1990s, as large business organizations fought over turf. It explains the pattern of Georgian emigration, which has largely followed the channels opened up for it by the power of criminal organizations, and has therefore been dominated by human trafficking and prostitution. Above all, it explains the sclerotic nature of Georgian politics, which has been taken over by criminal interests, and is systematically, even joyfully, corrupt. If one image can sum up the last few years it is this group of criminal-politicians, people who were often already powerful under the old regime but who are now toughened for the era of gangsterism, and updated with the hysterically festive style of the hyper rich living amid economic apocalypse.

What is the relationship between all this and the great talent that Georgians seem to have for discussion and friendship? The cafés and bars are filled with the hubbub of intense debate – love, politics, history – and people treat each other with a rare generosity. When you see the way that the whole city comes out onto the streets on a Sunday to amble slowly with friends and discuss the events of the week, you wonder if this provincial town has preserved unhurried forms of intimacy that have been lost elsewhere to speed and distraction. But it is also possible, despite everything, that there is some humanizing aspect to the experiences of the last few years. You cannot abandon yourself to some sleepy faith in the ultimately benign nature of time – to an idea of inevitable progress – because it has shown itself to be spectacularly whimsical, and even destructive. If the future is to be any better it will have to be constructed so by you, and by those around you.

Having seen some posters announcing that the piano students at the Tbilisi conservatoire were giving public recitals, I went one day to listen. The conservatoire was on Griboedov Street near the Academy of Arts; there was a small sculpture garden on the opposite side of the street where stone sculptures had long since toppled over and become overgrown. Inside the conservatoire, a recital was in progress and the doors to the concert hall were closed. I waited in the lobby, where the sound was indistinct; students listened with their ears to the crack between the doors. At length we heard applause from within, and the doors opened.

As is well known, the Soviets were great promoters of classical music, and even in these dismal times – or perhaps because of them – there seemed to be a thriving minority of people involved with this conservatoire. Sixty or so people were here to listen: students, teachers and a few parents. At the back of the room sat a distinguished-looking row of whispering judges in half-moon glasses. A Petrof concert grand stood open on the stage; the pale blue walls were decorated with stucco cherubs and lyres. There were busts of Bach and Beethoven and other great composers.

A young woman walked onto the stage: she was perhaps seventeen. She wore a knee-length skirt and glasses; her movements had a teenager’s awkwardness to them. She offered a minimal bow to the audience, walked to the piano and began a Bach Toccata and Fugue. She played with her back stooped right over, so her nose was just above the keyboard. Her performance was expansive and romantic, with a swelling pedal and the sort of heroic self-expression that went out of fashion some time in the 1950s among western performers of Bach. She ended, and the audience waited silently; she moved on to Liszt’s thundering Rhapsodie Espagnole, and then the Prokofiev Toccata. The whole thing lasted about forty minutes. It was a performance of astonishing virtuosity, during which her absorption in the music did not break once – until the final applause, at which point she bowed coyly and walked hurriedly from the stage.

I had once seen a photograph of this room from 1904, when it was newly built; it still looked exactly the same. There was almost nothing about this whole scene, in fact, which could not have occurred at pretty much any point in the century since then.

At the crossroads of east-west routes from the Caspian Sea to the Black Sea, and north-south ones from Russia to Turkey and the Middle East, Tbilisi acquired the status, in the second half of the nineteenth century, of a prosperous little outpost of the Russian empire. Wars with Persia and the Ottomans had expanded the empire into the Caucasus, and Russian administrators had begun to transform Tbilisi with the boulevards, tramlines, expansive squares and public institutions that were the shared vocabulary of nineteenth-century cities across the world. In 1851 an imposing opera house appeared, an exotic fantasy of Islamic arches, which brought companies from Paris and Rome who performed Mozart, Donizetti, Bizet, Puccini and Verdi. Amid all the other kinds of people in this trading town – the Azeri troubadours, the Persian caravan traders – arose a small bourgeoisie that wore the top-hatted, sober uniform of its peers around the world. Merchants and industrialists from Armenia dominated Tbilisi’s economy, building painted mansions with tiled roofs and carved wooden balconies that climbed gaily up the hillsides to look down on the growing town. A generation of Georgian nationalists, educated in Petersburg, returned to the city in the 1860s to work on celebratory Georgian histories and poems about Georgian kings, peasants and warriors that still provide the basis for a Georgian national consciousness. Since many intellectuals and artists from eastward-galloping Russia were in the habit of falling in love with everything that was oriental about their empire, balmy Tbilisi became a frequent destination for them, too: Pushkin, Tchaikovsky and Tolstoy all spent time there, and Lermontov became so passionate about it he has been adopted as a Georgian national hero. Economic development accelerated towards the end of the century when nearby Baku, on the Caspian, went through its meteoric rise under the influence of the Nobels and Rothschilds, who built it into the centrepiece of a European oil empire to rival Rockefeller’s Standard Oil. Oil from Baku was needed in western Europe, and the Transcaucasian railway (1883) and the subsequent pipeline (1889) went via Tbilisi for loading onto ships in the Black Sea port of Batumi. Tbilisi also became an important centre of socialist thought and activism: for the marginalization of Georgians from its economy added a nationalist tinge to Marxist critiques that made them extremely compelling, and the de facto Menshevik administration that ruled with widespread support during Russia’s crises of 1905 was the first to do so under such a banner anywhere in the world.

Comparatively little of what was built in those dynamic days has been destroyed. If you look down on old Tbilisi from the hills on the other side of the river where the Sheraton Hotel now stands, the view is not very different from what you might have seen in 1900. The steep slopes are still stepped with ornate wooden houses and the occasional polygonal church; above the city the hilltops are still bare. The stone domes of the public baths still cover the square in front of the mosque exactly as they did in Sergei Paradjanov’s 1969 film of eighteenth-century Tbilisi, The Colour of Pomegranates.

Close up, however, things are different. The opera house on Rustaveli Avenue, still graceful, is run-down, and large trees grow out through the cupolas on the round billboards outside. Many houses are empty and collapsed: balconies have fallen to the ground and staircases lead up to floors of bare wooden beams. Children play football in courtyards where the glass has broken in the carved window frames, to be replaced by chipboard. Such decay is everywhere, reaching beyond the old city into the more monumental areas built during the Soviet era. Many of the large housing complexes from the 50s and 60s are now only habitable thanks to makeshift repairs with corrugated iron and plastic sheeting. David Agmashenebeli Avenue, a major thoroughfare of the city’s twentieth-century expansion, has become a proletarian mockery of its former affluent self, with signs for currency exchange and second-hand clothes plastered rudely onto the dilapidated façades of what once were theatres and boutiques and cinemas. Old women sit in every doorway selling sunflower seeds, whose husks lie in little piles under their stools, and apples and onions that they bring in plastic bags. The street is full of idle taxis, whose drivers sit together on the curb to smoke.

There are graffiti on nearly every wall. “Toyota” invokes the unencumbered power, perhaps, of the Land Cruisers that are standard issue for the city’s gliding diplomatic and UN personnel. The names of British football clubs and American actresses (“Angelina Jolie”, “Jennifer Lopez”) resound with glamour and achievement. Some walls have been decorated painstakingly, with drawings of animals or trees or women’s faces. The most common graffiti, however, are “Tupac” and “Eminem”. Heroes for an in-between age, who stand for no particular set of ideas, but who seem to aim all their monumental masculine media power against the way the world is, and thus provide an ego ideal for bored, frustrated youths who have little to do except rail impotently and play video games in Tbilisi’s many arcades.

I sat down to lunch with a young bureaucrat, Vakhtang Maisaia, from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and an American journalist named Jeffrey Silverman. It was a Sunday afternoon, and we were the only ones in the restaurant. In front of us was an enormous spread of barbecued pork and khinkali accompanied by Georgian wine and Borjomi mineral water.

“Who’s going to eat all this?” I asked.
“We are!” Vakhtang was thirty-one years old, but his air of avuncular warmth and his mouthful of gold teeth made him seem older.
“Anyway,” he added, “it doesn’t look nice to have a small amount of food on the table.”

We began to eat. There was no elegant way to tackle the khinkali, and Vakhtang discouraged my efforts in this direction.

“You have to eat it with your hands. That is the way. Don’t worry if the juice runs down your face. And try this mineral water. Borjomi is very famous. It contains many minerals and is very good for your health.”

Jeffrey laughed scornfully.

“Every place you go to has a different kind of Borjomi mineral water. They all claim to be the original. Just look into who owns them all and you’ll have a whole new perspective on it.”

Jeffrey was a tough southerner married to an Armenian from Georgia. Now in his fifties, he had previously worked for a long time for a tobacco company in the US and, as if in reaction to this experience, now lived in Tbilisi where he spent his time seeking out tales of corruption – especially the sort that involves American corporations. His articles on corporate cover-ups, large NGO funds slipping into personal pockets, arms deals and unexplained murders made him a well-known figure in the city, cursed and adored in equal measure.

It was March 14th, 2004. Early that morning President Saakashvili had been barred from entering the province of Ajaria by the troops of its Russian-supported strongman Aslan Abashidze. A military build-up was beginning on both sides, and my lunch companions began to receive a barrage of mobile phone calls. While we talked about Georgia’s political situation they ducked out periodically for urgent exchanges of the latest news.

“The day I got my job in the Ministry,” said Vakhtang, “my boss said to me, ‘We will pay you $20 per month. You must earn this money. You have to be at your desk every day and fulfil your duties. Beyond this, you may carry out your own business in any way you wish. I will not interfere.’ He was explaining the ground rules of corruption to me. Corruption is systematic and entirely necessary – for how can you support a family on $20 a month?”

Vakhtang was a man of serious intent, exasperated with this reality, who wished the country could be brought to a state of “normality” and who had chosen a line of work in which he could do his bit to move things in this direction. He had a strong sense of mission and, in the wake of the revolution, renewed hope.

“This region is still very dangerous. The effects of the break-up of the Soviet Union are still being felt. There are more than forty conflicts over ethnicity or territory that are already violent or may become so; most of these groups are asserting their claims more and more strongly. Meanwhile, Russia still wields undue power in the country. It cuts off our gas supply when it wants to apply pressure. It has provided generous supplies of weapons to the country’s breakaway leaders in order to keep Georgia weak. It’s still not impossible that it could walk in and occupy us again. Now Saakashvili is in power it is at last time to put an end to our fragile situation. We have to quickly reunify the country and forge strong international alliances.”

Of such alliances, America, of course, is the most important. And, as it happens, America is exceedingly interested in Georgia right now. At a point when its continued access to Middle Eastern oil is so unpredictable, the extensive deposits in the Caspian Sea have assumed unprecedented importance, and the US is not leaving its supply lines in the region in any doubt. It has fought long and hard to create an oil corridor from the Caspian that will avoid Russian and Iranian territory and pass through countries that are smaller, easier to control, and friendlier. The most visible result, the soon-to-be-completed Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, was one of the most common subjects of conversation and news reporting in Georgia while I was there, and helps to explain why this poor, provincial place is so full of foreign businesspeople, NGOs and diplomats. It gives Georgia significant geopolitical importance at this point in time, making it clear that its future will be determined at least in part by the struggles of the Great Powers, and holding out the possibility that on this single point of foreign interest might be hung a future of international connections, investment, and prosperity.

More food kept coming. Jeffrey was on the phone to some diplomat.

“Yes I know exactly how they got those arms…
“Of course we can meet… I can tell you when they got them and from whom…
“Tomorrow morning?”

For Vakhtang, the ascendancy of the US in the region was probably a good thing.
“We are a small country on the doorstep of a giant. Our future will always be insecure if we do not have American protection.”

The US is delivering its protection across the region, making it clear that it will not leave its investments exposed to the Caucasian elements. American military bases have recently appeared in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, and are likely to do so in Tajikistan and Azerbaijan. Kazakhstan is setting up a Caspian naval base under US supervision, and US troops have been sent to Georgia to provide training and equipment to its armed forces. All this makes it much less likely that Russia would ever launch a hostile operation against Georgia.

But this is only part of the attraction of the American presence. For Vakhtang – and for Mikhail Saakashvili’s government – the imagined “normality” to which Georgia must return is, at this time of neoliberal consensus, a thoroughly corporate one, and American interest is crucial for bringing it about. Georgia, of course, is one of those places where you see corporations at their most rapacious, and many Georgians may not like what they are doing there. The upheaval caused by the building of the pipeline through villages and agricultural land, for instance, will hardly be assuaged by the NGOs employed by BP to calm the social storms in their wake. But the twentieth century’s utopias have destroyed the country to the point where there is no room anymore for fine debate, new visions or private misgivings. All the choices for Georgia’s future amount to just one choice, which is the same one choice enjoyed by everyone else: to usher in the tumult of the global market. The indications are that Saakashvili’s government will do so with an almost unmatched level of fundamentalist passion.

Jeffrey finished his phone call and looked at me.

“Stick around,” he said. “You may see a war.”

He was impatient with Vakhtang’s pro-American sentiments. He did not believe that American interests could ever be made to serve Georgian ones.

“The US invokes ‘terrorism’ as an excuse for its military influence in this part of the world. This is exactly the same strategy that Russia has pursued. They both want to keep talking about Chechen fighters in Georgia, to treat the country as a ‘failed state,’ so they can exert their influence on its affairs. But their interest is not terrorists, but energy. The real reason the US troops came here was to train the Georgian army to guard their pipeline. Do you think the US could walk in to a successful democracy like Latvia or Estonia and tell the army what to do? No. It’s very convenient for them right now that the country is unstable and they can set things up the way they want them.”

The table was awash with pink napkins drenched in khinkali juice wiped from greasy chins. Jeffrey appealed hotly,

“I seriously think it would be better if they put a wall around this country for fifty years and didn’t let anyone in or out. I really believe that would solve Georgia’s problems more quickly.”

But the phone calls were becoming only more insistent and lunch was disbanded. Vakhtang had to return to the Ministry. Jeffrey went to check his facts ready for his exchange of intelligence the next morning.

After I left the country, the stand-off between Saakashvili and Abashidze ended – without a shot being fired. Abashidze fled to Moscow and Saakashvili entered Ajaria to a euphoric reception. The first obstacle to his reunification of the country had been honourably cleared, and his prestige was sky-high. Vakhtang was proud and excited – doubly so, since he had been appointed Counsellor to the Georgian Diplomatic Mission to NATO, and was going to Brussels for three years.

Jeffrey began to write me depressed emails wondering if the Saakashvili administration would not turn out to be more power-hungry and corrupt even than what had gone before. But then his propensity to hang out in the most dangerous Caucasian recesses got him into more trouble than just the usual beating. While trying to work out what was really happening where the official maps read “Here Be Terrorists” he found himself arrested in Azerbaijan under an old warrant he did not know about; his passport was confiscated and his attention became more focussed on gathering money from well-wishers to pay to the Azerbaijani police.

Meanwhile, the nearly-complete Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, built by French, American and Indian contractors for the BP-led consortium, buried under concrete and watched at all times by guards and electronic sensors, is as secure as human beings know how to build.

Power was in short supply in Tbilisi, and at night most of the streets were in deep darkness. The headlights of an occasional Lada taxi would speed past loudly over the cobbles. Late-night shops spilled light out onto the sidewalks; their simple interiors, with sausages hanging from the ceiling and sacks of flour and potatoes on the floor, seemed cheerful and welcoming in the deep night. Outside, old people sat in the blackness of doorways, and gypsy children trailed passing pedestrians, trying to argue money out of them. A team of men walked the streets with a torch, pasting new posters onto the palimpsest of city walls. A fleet of taxis and gleaming 4x4s jostled outside the Adjara Hotel, whose nightclub was host to some DJ from Paris; rich young men with Gucci shades and model girlfriends were still arriving at 1am to join the crowds of dancers, whose Ecstasy-induced serenity rendered them relatively indifferent to the erotic gyrations of the elongated women up on the stage. A birthday party was happening in one of the restaurants on Perovskaya Street. A large family was packed around a thirty-foot table whose surface was entirely covered, end-to-end, with a couple of hundred of dishes of food. A gypsy band had been hired for the evening: three old men played dances at blistering speed on a violin, accordion and synthesizer. The endless toasts had started – to Georgia, to parents, to women, to love, to memories, to the departed, and so on, and so on – and soon the young people would start to dance wildly until they collapsed with drink. Their seated grandmothers would clap them on to ever-faster footwork, they would leap and reel to the rhythm of the music, and they would end each dance by throwing themselves to the floor and lying in a group on their backs, laughing out loud.

Most of the people I met in the bars and cafés were young. Some of them had jobs. One worked for Opel, in the marketing department, while studying for her MBA in the evenings. Another was employed by an American NGO whose values and motives he mistrusted entirely – but the money was good, and for people whose opportunities are so slender there is not much irony to such contradictions. But many were unemployed. They did not order drinks, and came just to talk.

The young men all seemed to spend their time writing poetry. It was poetry they knew would never be published, written for themselves and their friends. There was a café in Tbilisi, popularly known as the “Literature Café,” where such people met and discussed politics and literature, and where Georgia’s most famous writer, Dato Turashvili, held court in Sartrean style. These people had a romantic persona based on a deep cynicism about almost anything the wider world had to offer, and the celebration of love, sex and the artistic interiority. They found me artificial.

“So you are paid to write books? That is your living?”
“So then for you it is a business. You do not write from the heart. You think only of what people will buy.”

End of conversation. We talked about other things.

It was difficult for these people to believe that any established interest could ever do anything to benefit them. They were young enough to have lived their whole life in a situation of economic and political desperation, and it had become a fundamental condition. They were among those, of course, who had protested during the revolution, and who had had the satisfaction of seeing the old regime removed and humiliated. But their support for Saakashvili was provisional.

“We are giving him time. He is new, he is just starting. Let’s see what he does. We will support him for a while. But he is not our saviour. If he does nothing we will fight to get him out of power.”

They had a general sense that things must get better. The entrenched interests of the former Communist elite could not survive the new political and economic currents, and one day life would perhaps come closer to the fantasy of “normality” that seemed everywhere to float like a mirage above the apparent aberration of Georgian life. But they did not think anything was happening soon:

“Maybe in fifty years, maybe in a hundred. Georgia will become a normal place. Too far away for us.”

Dr. Kenchosvili, four decades older than these people, had said a remarkably similar thing. It was as if the future always began just after you had ceased to be able to experience it, no matter when that was likely to be. This was not about real time, but about an inability to imagine oneself living in a certain kind of world: relaxed, and confident. Sometimes only some deus ex machina seemed adequate to transform this reality into that:

“We need some nuclear bomb. Destroy everything. Start from zero!”

Everyone laughed.

But even an image of such total finality was not quite enough. Someone added,

“Don’t you think even then our rulers would just get up from the blast, and start putting their cousins in power?”

This joke was even better. The laughter was uproarious.

Shortly after I left, a young woman from this group who had had a job lost it as a result of post-revolution realignments. It was a well-paying government job, and she was at a loss for how to find something else comparable. At a party she met a recruiter for an American construction company operating in Iraq, and within a few days had departed for Baghdad.

On the last day I went to Nikoloz’s house. I turned up, as per his instructions, after 5pm, since that was when the electricity came. He lived on the edge of a teeming market selling cheap goods from China and Iran. There was a small room with two single beds, a television and a piano. In the adjoining kitchen the oven door was open to heat the room. Downstairs was a damp basement that Nikoloz had made habitable by building a stove in the corner and covering the brick walls with plastic panelling. A friend of his, hearing that a foreign visitor was coming, had stopped by in the morning to drop off wooden crates for the fire; they burned very quickly, so the freezing room was filled with periodic bursts of heat. On the wall was a large sheet of paper with the handwritten title, “My journey to India.” It was covered with photographs from Bhilai (“In those days I was an important person. Look how all the workers looked up to me. Now they earn four times what I do.”) and from the three subsequent trips he had made as an academic. The shelves were lined with Hindi volumes and the desk was piled with folders labelled “Letters from Indian friends” and the like. His wife brought down a meal of stew, cheese, ham and beer, and departed. We talked about the same things again: the indignities of poverty, the destruction of a society, the indifference of the world towards his nearly four decades of work.

It was time for me to leave. We went upstairs and I played a few notes on the piano. Niko was delighted. He put some scores in front of me. His wife was irritated by his interference: “Just let him play!” She had sat down on the bed to listen. “No, no – play this!” he told me. It was a collection of Italian songs. I started playing the introduction to “O Sole Mio”, and he joined in with a lovely tenor voice. The first time around we were a somewhat shaky ensemble; we performed it once more. It was a strangely beautiful moment: this sugary nineteenth-century love song, this comfortable drawing room sound, here in a proletarian district of a poor Central Asian city, with a slightly out-of-tune piano, Niko’s precise Italian accent, and his unaccustomed voice cracking on the high notes. It felt like a ballad of nostalgia for a genteel past that never existed. I was moved. His wife applauded. I hugged her emotionally, and she waved strenuously from the door.

Niko walked me to the subway station telling me that when he had not drunk beer his voice was much better, and did I think his singing could become a little business?

Further reading

See the wonderful travelogue (1906) by Luigi Villari (1876-1959), Italian historian, traveler and diplomat.