Date: Wed, 18 Sep 1996 20:16:51 CDT
Letter from Tbilisi (Georgia)
By Felix Corley, Middle East International, 6 September 1996
London - Lights glow warmly in the cafes along Tbilisi's main thoroughfare, Rustaveli Avenue. Shop windows display a wide range of goods. Fashionable women - who always seem to be clad in black - promenade in the evenings. The miracle has happened. Rustaveli Avenue, which suffered so cruelly in the street fighting that marked the ousting of President Zviad Gamsakurdia in late 1991, has been splendidly restored.
Climb through the narrow maze of cobbled streets that rise precipitously above Rustaveli and gaze down on the city spread out along the valley of the River Kura below and relive the charm of this easy-going place that had all but disappeared in the early days of independence.
At night the foreign community - international bureaucrats, aid workers, journalists - mingle with locals drinking cocktails or Heineken in the Jazz Soul Club down in the vaults below the Adjara Hotel. A policeman sits next to the old lady collecting the entrance fee at the bottom of the steps, but the Kalashnikov he clutches carelessly seems more a reminder of past instability than a current necessity. Inside the rather misnamed club, ancient Bee Gees songs are interspersed with more modern Western rhythms, Russian numbers and - to close the night at 2 a.m. - a sentimental song about beloved Tbilisi.
Even though the city seems at ease with itself, the same cannot be said of the whole country. A constant reminder of unresolved conflicts is the presence even here of refugees from Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the two breakaway regions that seized the chance for independence during the era of nationalist frenzy that gripped the Caucasus in the early 1990s.
Hopes for reconciliation with South Ossetia (Samachablo, the Georgians call it) have risen with the memorandum promoting security and strengthening mutual confidence, signed in Moscow in May by Georgian Foreign Minister Irakli Menagarishvili and the South Ossetian prime minister, Vladislav Gabaraev. After the signing, President Eduard Shevardnadze met the South Ossetian parliamentary chairman, Lyudvig Chibirov. Whether the old-style Communists who retain an authoritarian grip on South Ossetia will agree to a full reintegration of the region into Georgia remains to be seen, but greater economic potential as part of Georgia, rather than relying on hand-outs from Moscow via North Ossetia, may push the South Ossetian leadership to grasp the nettle.
Pessimism is rife over Abkhazia, however. Positions on both sides are unyielding. With several hundred thousand Georgian refugees - nearly half the pre-1989 population of Abkhazia - living resentfully in Tbilisi, western Georgia or Russia, pressure on Shevardnadze to try to retake the rebel province by force remains strong. With the Georgian blockade now joined by Abkhazia's erstwhile sponsor, Russia, and now beginning to bite, the breakaway republic has been plunged into poverty. Crime is rampant as the remaining population desperately seeks the means to live.
There seems as yet little indication that the Abkhaz side is prepared to countenance the return of the Georgians driven out in 1992-3. UN-sponsored schemes have got almost nowhere. The Abkhaz regime of Vladislave Ardzinba insists that the future status of Abkhazia must be resolved before the refugees return (they would, of course, easily outvote the minority Abkhaz). The Georgians insist that the refugees must return first and that Abkhazia must recognise the authority of Tbilisi. Neither side is willing as yet to recognise their mutual guilt for the mistakes that led to the frenzy of communal violence during the brutal war.
Some think Shevardnadze will sit out the winter and attack Abkhazia in the spring, hoping that the debilitating winter ahead will hit Abkhazia harder than it will hit the rest of Georgia. The Georgian army is certainly in better shape and more able to fight than the raftag troops marshalled by Georgia's warlords in 1992. And now the South Ossetia conflict seems to be moving towards reconciliation, there is less danger for Georgia of two fronts opening up at once.
All this may be the subject of political intrigue in the cafes of Tbilisi, but it seems a world away. Life here, suddenly and still inexplicably, took a turn for the better in spring 1995 and it seems at last that Georgia is coming out of the depression. Lawlessness, which has been rife over the past few years, has been checked. Last November's presidential and parliamentary elections - though not perfect -provided a reasonable democratic base that the government has lacked. Agreements have been signed with Azerbaijan over the transit of Caspian Sea oil through Georgia, with the promise of future wealth.
For the rich, there is already the basis for a happier life. A travel agent on Rustaveli Avenue displays the destinations of choice in the window: Moscow or the Gulf for business, Paris or Antalya for pleasure. The beaches of Turkey's Mediterranean coast provide some substitute for the beautiful Abkhaz coast, now off-limits for the Tbilisi elite.
But signs of the winter to come are apparent. The electricity supply - even in summer - is irregular. It will get a lot worse in winter, despite the government's attempts to ensure increased supply. Many Georgians who can afford it will continue their recent practice and winter in Russia, where electricity can still be taken for granted.