Georgia

THE BURDEN OF THE PAST

ALEXANDRE TRUDEAU October 25 2004
Georgia

THE BURDEN OF THE PAST

ALEXANDRE TRUDEAU October 25 2004

THE BURDEN OF THE PAST

Georgia

A ROAD TRIP AROUND MOSCOW might distract one with new roads, shopping malls and slick housing developments. But a road trip in Georgia will reveal decrepit remnants of a bygone era: immense industrial complexes slowly decaying; massive but increasingly shabby public housing erupting out of neighbourhoods of traditional homes; great roads in great disrepair; streetlights where there is no electricity; gutted state stores in rustic villages. These are the ruins of the civilization that was the Soviet Union. It may have been fatally flawed, but no one can deny its reach and transformative power. After all, it gave

the world Sputnik and the first man in space.

For all its failings, the Soviet Union laid out a network of which the remotest village was a part. Some bureaucrat would decide on the powdered milk or flour entitlements for its inhabitants. Roads would be built to get there, and some driver would be assigned the fuel to deliver those products. In principle, every man, woman and child in that village was looked after, if only on paper. They were thought of, if only by the machine.

Now, as the monuments of the Soviet Union slowly crumble, much of the world

Moscow once touched withdraws into an older space, one where the inhabitants are left to their own devices, to virtually infrastructure-free subsistence economies. Either free-market forces have not yet reached these places, or they act like a vacuum, sucking the people toward the centres of capital, leaving ghosts and ruins behind.

Of this disappearing civilization that was the Soviet Union, it can be said that no man was more responsible for its success or its failure than Iosef Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili, a.k.a. Joseph Stalin. At Stalin’s death in 1953,

Winston Churchill said of him that he “found Russia with a wooden plow in its hand and left it with the atom bomb.” The Georgianborn Stalin may not have too many fans left. But he does have descendants.

Jacob Jugashvili is a painter in Tbilisi, Georgia. He is a fresh-faced, blond-haired young man of 32. On my arrival in Georgia, he comes to fetch me at the airport, wearing Bermuda shorts and a lumberjack shirt and holding a small sign with my name on it. Even though there appears to be a family resemblance, as I get to knowjacob it seems comical to even associate someone so easygoing with the ruthless Stalin.

The family story goes something like this: Stalin had a son, Yakov, with his first wife, Ekaterina Svanidze, to whom he was married for just three years until her death in 1907. Yakov died in a Nazi prison camp after Stalin refused to trade him for a captured German

Moscow’s legacy weighs heavily here

ALEXANDRE TRUDEAU

general. Yakov’s son, Yevgeny, grew up in a military orphanage and went on to become a Red Army colonel. He had two sons: Jacob the painter, and Jacob’s older brother Vissarion, a filmmaker. Only in this branch of the family do Stalin’s descendants still bear a version of his name, and still live in Georgia. Georgia has a contingent of people proud of Stalin’s heritage—and proud that one of their own once dominated the Soviet Union. But most, and especially those in power now, revile his name. That hasn’t been easy for Jacob and his brother. Vissarion found it impossible to find work, and is now doing menial labour in New York City.

Jacob carries his name’s burden more defiantly. As an artist, he just gets by: few Georgians have money for art, and there is no lack of artists. He lives in a cramped studio. But he is intent on defending Stalin when he feels his ancestor is unfairly demonized.

During one of my preliminary meetings with Chechens in Tbilisi, Jacob lectures them about Stalin’s real achievements. He is sorry to interrupt, he says, but he “must clarify a few things.” Later he jokes, “It is my life’s duty.” Jacob may be struggling with a heavy past, but as with any other young Georgian, the uncertain future weighs more heavily. “I was one of those out demonstrating against former president Edvard Shevardnadze during our so-called Rose Revolution last November,” he says. “We can do better.”

GEORGIA is an ancient, mostly mountainous place. Its language, like many others in the Caucasus, is old and unique, as is its brand of Orthodox Christianity, a separate variety of the faith. Georgians are not as

rough and warlike as many other nationalities in the Caucasus. They are in fact an agricultural people who boast one of the oldest viticulture traditions in the world. And their cuisine is probably without equal among the former Soviet republics.

But modern Georgia is facing serious difficulties, with over half its population living below the poverty line. And since the breakup of the Soviet Union, relations with Russia have been periodically strained. In the early 1990s, Russia supported the secessionists in Georgia’s western province, Abkhazia, by giving many of them Russian citizenship (Abkhazia now rules itself as a breakaway region). Russia has also caused problems among Georgia’s Ossetians. For its part, Georgia has intermittently provided safe haven to Russia’s enemies, the Chechens, over the past little while.

Georgia does not have any oil and is a

net importer of energy. But since September 2001, BPplc has been building a massive pipeline from the Azerbaijani oil reserves, through Georgia and Turkey, to European markets. Once it is completed, Georgia will receive US$50 million a year for transit rights. But it will have to protect the pipeline from sabotage, and given the region’s ethnic problems that may not be easy. Moreover, Russia is far from overjoyed about oil that used to be under the control of the Soviet Union being funnelled out of its hands and into the West. The area’s geopolitics are not likely to get any simpler soon.

Soviet central planning, meanwhile, has left a bad legacy. With Moscow focusing different sectors of economic activity in different regions, Georgia was to remain predominantly agricultural. Now, thanks to the strains with Russia, there is no obvious market for Georgian produce. As for manufacturing, Moscow did establish the Soviet Union’s biggest metallurgical plant in Rustaveli, near Tbilisi. With the market now dried up, it is slowly being dismantled and sold off piece by piece as scrap metal.

DURING the Rose Revolution, Georgians protested against a corrupt government that had long since failed to meet their expectations. In January’s presidential election, they elected a U.S.-educated lawyer, 37-year-old Mikheil Saakashvili, inaugurating a new era of hope. Through the persistence and connections of photographer Heidi Hollinger, who is accompanying me, the new president grants us an audience, despite his staff’s concerns about my illegitimate visit to Pankisi (.Maclean’s, Oct. 11). He is a big man, with a youthful face and a bashful manner. Nine months into the presidency, he tells me that by reducing corruption and tax evasion, his government has increased budget revenues by 300 per cent (at US$700 million, though, the country’s budget remains tiny). About his achievements outside the fiscal realm, Saakashvili summarizes: “We have regularized the delivery of electricity, and we are building a new presidential chancellery.”

Many Georgians worry that Saakashvili is too close to the U.S., which will be of no real

benefit to a country so deeply rooted in the East, especially if the U.S. thinks Georgia is an effective thorn to be used against Russia. They are concerned about the state of relations between Georgia and its giant neighbour, especially since Russia imposed avisa requirement on Georgian citizens a few years ago (Russia has also raised the possibility of barring air travel between the two countries). One can’t forget that Georgia was

JACOB is intent on

defending Stalin when he feels his ancestor is unfairly demonized. ‘It is my life’s duty,’ he jokes.

part of Moscow’s sphere for two centuries, although a tour through Tbilisi State University reveals that many young Georgians don’t speak much Russian—something unthinkable for older generations (while they now prefer English, few young people speak that language either).

The countryside grows poorer, but Tbilisi is slowly developing a western flavour and nightlife. As in many other places in the former Soviet Union, growth is concentrated in the main urban centre. The man in charge of Georgia’s economy is Kakha

Bendukidze, an oligarch recently returned from Russia who made his money manufacturing industrial and mechanical equipment. Perhaps because of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s manoeuvres against the oligarchs, Bendukidze happily agreed to come back to Georgia to become Saakashvili’s minister of economic development.

Bendukidze’s economic plan is for aggressive privatization of Georgia’s state property. He says he wants to “sell everything except our conscience.” When I ask him what he means by conscience, he says it is “whatever we can’t sell.” The idea is to bring new investment into the country. But Bendukidze tells me that since he took his post, he has only made two major sales. Outside interest in a place perceived as a wine and cheese country beyond the frontiers of Turkey and Russia apparently has its limits.

There will be no quick miracles. Georgians will have to balance the gradual acquisition of real independence with the desperate need for more foreign investment and the often cruel pressures of an emerging free market. Jacob Jugashvili, greatgrandson of that wolf among 20th-century wolves, summarizes his fears by saying that “with this kind of primitive free market, I am afraid it is a time of wolves for us all. I loathe the idea of having to tell my kids: be ruthless, and you will triumph.” I?]