October 6th, 2012


Back from Georgia

Blogging has been a bit light over the last week, because I have been in Tbilisi, working with Bidzina Ivanishvili and his Georgian Dream coalition on this week's parliamentary elections. As you may have heard, he won, scoring 54.85% of the vote to the government's 40.43% (officially at least; the campaign's exit poll showed a bigger margin) and is now negotiating the process by which he will become Georgia's new prime minister when the new parliament meets later this month.

Ivanishvili went into politics just over a year ago, to general surprise; he was known as a wealthy businessman and philanthropist, who made his fortune initially by importing push-button phones and personal computers into the dying Soviet Union and then diversifying into banking, mining and much else, and had given vast amounts of money to various charitable causes in Georgia. He was originally a supporter of President Saakashvili, who took power in the 2003 Rose Revolution, but they fell out after the brutal suppression of opposition demonstrators in 2007 and the disastrous war with Russia in 2008.

Ivanishvili built a coalition of pre-existing opposition parties (including basically all the sensible politicians in Georgia, which was quite a strong recommendation) and also activists who had never been in politics, and ran for election on a platform of moving away from the creeping authoritarianism of Saakashvili's government, and continuing Georgia's EU and NATO integration which restoring pragmatic relations with Russia. For his pains, he was stripped of his Georgian citizenship as soon as he announced he was going into politics, and throughout the last few months he and his campaign colleagues were subjected to vast and arbitrary fines through a hastily constructed new legal structure (most of whose senior officials mysteriously ended up as government candidates).

The crucial moment - though internal polling suggested that the campaign was already ahead - was the release of videos two weeks ago showing some pretty awful abuse of prisoners in Georgian jails. Everyone in Georgia had known this was an issue - successive Ombudsmen had been vocal about it for years, and Council of Europe officials had told me it was a serious concern (along with the 99.8% conviction rate in the courts). Saakashvili's policies had given Georgia a per capita imprisonment rate higher than any country bar the USA and China, so everyone is likely to know of someone who knows what it is like to be inside (unlike in the USA, where it's possible for many people to be unaware of prison conditions because the criminal justice system primarily targets a visible minority). But the videos brought the reality home in a way that was impossible to ignore.

I was working in the party headquarters on the day of the election, and Ivanishvili watched the TV coverage of the first exit polls as voting ended on the evening of 1 October on the big screen in our office. The news was good, with even the government-run stations agreeing that he had won the popular vote. We were still watching as someone took this shot:

There were a couple of wobbles subsequently - notably a rumour that the opposition might win the popular vote but still lose out on number of parliamentary seats, which I shot down after some number crunching. But just after lunch on Tuesday President Saakashvili grumpily conceded on TV that the vote had gone against him. He now must endure a year of cohabitation with Ivanishvili until the presidential election which is scheduled for late 2013, at which Saakashvili must step down because of term limits, and also constitutional amendments kick in transferring a number of significant powers from the President to the Prime Minister.

I close with the official campaign anthem, a rap performed by Ivanishvili's son Bera at every rally. If you listen carefully you will hear the words "Georgian Dream" in English as well as "Kartuli Otsnega" in Georgian.

It's been amazing.

September Books 21) The Sleepers of Erin, by Jonathan Gash

Lovejoy goes to Ireland this time, lured into a particularly implausible (though for once fairly comprehensible) scheme involving fake gold copies of a Celtic torc, and Lovejoy becoming very entangled with the women behind the scheme. As with the Hong Kong of Jade Woman, this Ireland is of an earlier time period than the one the book is ostensibly set in; but also (as indeed in most of his work) Gash largely avoids ethnic stereotypes. Can't quite say the same for his women though.

September Books 22) A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens

I loved this book when I first read it a quarter of a century ago, and I loved it again now. Things I thought of, in no special order:

It's set in 1776-1792, and was published in 1859. So for its first readers, the setting was only as long ago as the 1929-1945 period is for us: the descent into homicidal totalitarianism of a country which now generally behaves as a responsible neighbour.

Both Doctor Manette and Sydney Carton, the two most interesting characters in the book, have obvious, and sympathetically portrayed, mental health problems. The Doctor is a pretty clear case of what we would now call post-traumatic stress disorder. Carton thinks of himself as simply an alcoholic, but clearly has irrationally low self-esteem and probably depression. Today he would, one hopes, have access to drugs and therapy, though even in the eighteenth century he is more or less able to hold down a high-profile job (the stress of which probably doesn't help).

Madame Defarge, however, is not mentally ill, just vindictive.

Is there another Dickens book with both a memorable opening and a memorable ending?

There were a number of sentences involving Manette which I was tempted to post here as a "which Doctor Who novel is this from" quiz, because he too is almost always referred to as "the Doctor". (Added bonus for fans of the recent Paul McGann audios is that these passages tend to involve his daughter Lucie.)

The comic Cruncher family are the one part of the book that doesn't work so well for me. Dickens is often a bit annoying when he does the rude mechanical bit but normally he finds some humanising feature. (The characterisation in the book is generally thin even by usual Dickensian standards.)

To finish on a more appreciative note, Dickens does social horror very well, and effectively links the social injustice of ancien régime France to inequality in contemporary England, and also even more effectively links the brutality of aristos and revolutionaries to the brutality of the British judicial system; it's not a past thing from a few decades ago, it's a hook for one of his best and most heartfelt class warfare arguments.

Anyway, it's brilliant, and I will not wait another 25 years before I read it again.