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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Georgia: A Paradise Lost

TBILISI, Georgia -- "Even if all our ministers were geniuses, there's no way we could avoid the economic crisis in Georgia", the Georgian leader, Eduard Shevardnadze, said last week.

In what used to be the Soviet Union's most luxurious republic, the current level of economic degradation is a particular affront. In Tbilisi nowadays everything shuts down at 8 P. M. Lines for bread -- at 100 rubles a loaf -- last well into the evening. Public transport has been cut back because of the fuel crisis and trolley buses ride through the city with men hanging off the sides, even perched on the roof. The city used to pride itself on the highest level of car-ownership in the U. S. S. R. Now there is a deathly quiet on the streets in the evenings. Even the Georgian's traditionally fanatical hospitality is somewhat muted.

Georgia used to be locked firmly into a Transcaucasian mini-economy. It sent machinery and metals to Armenia and Azerbaijan and received oil and gas in return. Now the country is simply helpless in the face of the general disorder on all its borders. In the spring the government started to distribute coupons, brightly colored notes printed in England depicting a panorama of Tbilisi. They are supposed to be a transitional stage towards the lari, the new Georgian currency. As everywhere else in the former U. S. S. R. , Georgians prefer the dol-lari (as it is known round here), but so feeble is the economy that the ruble has turned into a kind of hard currency, trading unofficially at one to three coupons. Pity the poor scientist trying to feed his family on 6, 000 coupons a month.

The economy is being undermined as much from within as from without. Goods are simply disappearing and not being delivered. Noting that more bread than ever is being baked but that not all of it reaches the shops, Shevardnadze has used the word "sabotage". A new road militia has been formed with a hundred armed men to protect food convoys heading for the capital.

But in Georgia it is sometimes hard to know where the legitimate forces of order end and the armed mafias begin.

Shevardnadze has finally managed to sideline the two warlords who helped him back to power with the support of their armed groups, the National Guard and the Mkhedrioni militia. But the two men, Tengiz Kitovani and Dzhaba loseliani, still command great loyalty if they need to call on it. If you need proof that Georgia is a country at arms you need look no further than the sign outside the Metechi Palace Hotel. A gun with a red slash through it tells visitors, "Please don't bring your guns into the hotel".

So now that loseliani is out of power, have his men, the Mkhedrioni, been disarmed, I asked Timur, the local entrepreneur taking me round the city. By way of reply he lifted his jacket and patted the gun at his hip. No Georgian male, it seems, likes to be without his gun. If Moscow is more and more like 1920s Chicago, this is the Wild West.

And what of Shevardnadze himself? Opinions vary. Some say he should have resigned as soon as Kitovani embarked Georgia on the disastrous war in Abkhazia. Others are more indulgent -- the former Soviet foreign minister could be in a comfortable job at the United Nations, they say, or a professprship at Princeton. Instead he chose to come back to us.

The strain of it is all too visible on his face. In this very young state Shevardnadze must sometimes feel like the wise man surrounded by unruly children. Perhaps the most apt comment came from one of his political advisers, a professor at Tbilisi University. "My main fear", he told me, "is that he came back too soon, when the turmoil was still at its height and that he will be the one to pay the price for all our problems. If only he'd had the chance to come later! He's the best politician we have and it will be a great shame if because of these hard times we throw him out".

Tom de Waal is a journalist with the BBC World Service in London.