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Limp Shevardnadze

Eduard Shevardnadze -
Eduard Shevardnadze. Photo:

Surprisingly there are not that many easily accessible, good books on Georgia in English. This one was written by an American journalist who lived there for two years from October 1998. It is a great book and great portrait of those most troubled of years. Like the good storyteller she is Wendell Steavenson mixes reportage, history and plenty of colour about her own life, including the moment her German boyfriend became a legend in Tbilisi by buying all the roses in the city so that he could send her a thousand. Then she turns down his offer of marriage. In this extract Steavenson describes the party held after Eduard Shevardnadze's re-election to the presidency on 9 April 2000. Shevardnadze was the last Soviet foreign minister and then leader of Georgia from 1992. Of the poll itself Steavenson writes: "Everyone knew the Shevy landslide was coming. In the week before the polls opened the question was not so much who would win by what margin, but whether the result would be mildly fixed or superglued." In November 2003 Shevardnadze was overthrown in the Rose Revolution by one of his former young protégés, Mikhail Saakashvili.

There were several hundred people at the party. It was held outside, under a dirty bit of tarpaulin which collapsed at the first gust of wind. Most of those present were men in suits glad-handing each other and politicking. There were foreign ambassadors, "Georgia! Ha! It's going down the tubes," one told me; a couple of Shevy's pretty granddaughters; Misha (smoothie) Saakashvili, an up-and-coming parliamentarian who was soon given the poison chalice of a ministry post; a lost Scottish MP from the Scottish National Party who wanted to talk to the Georgians about devolution ("Devolution is pretty advanced in the Caucasus," I told him); Irakle Managadze, president of the National Bank, who was chortling proudly, "The lari is the only stable thing in the country!"; an agriculture committee member who was looking forward to his minister getting fired next week; a shark called Boris Berezovsky… Nanuli, Shevy's wife, was like a whale, hefted into an armchair and holding court with a superior smile.

Shevy played his favourite role of amiable elder statesman, grinning, shaking hands, bluff and personable. A male choir sang polyphonically.

The canapés were fine, Shevy's speech no more platitudinous than any other politician's, the champagne and lurid green tarragon fizzy pop flowed, but somehow the whole thing felt lame. Perhaps it was the cynicism and despondency of the conversation. A lack of forward dynamic, dulled optimism; the atmosphere of bandied quips and investitured smugness that made everything seem swampy, bogged down with vested interest. I shook Shevy's hand and to be honest it was a bit limp.  

Stories I Stole: From Georgia. Wendell Steavenson. 2002.
[pp.  184-185 / Atlantic Books]

January 2009
Tim Judah

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