Out of Georgia: The deadly weapons of guns and scholarship

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TBILISI - Putting glass lifts in the lobby was not a good idea. To be fair, the architect could hardly have known. When the Metechi Palace Hotel first opened in 1991, shimmering with polished marble and chrome, independent Georgia was barely a month old. And peaceful. Violence, when it happened, was usually the work of Soviet soldiers, like those armed with sharpened trench shovels and sent into the streets of Tbilisi in 1989 to deal with nationalist demonstrators.

Shovels? How improbably quaint the idea seems today. Not that primitive instruments ever stopped Soviet squaddies spilling lots of blood. But no one frets much about a spade attack anymore. Nor about Soviet - reclassified as Russian - soldiers, of whom 14,000 are still billeted on Georgian territory, mostly too poor and too frightened to venture far outside their crumbling compounds. Never do they stray into the Metechi Palace, where a single room costs dollars 200 ( pounds 130) a night - equal to a Russian officer's annual rouble salary, to 1,440,000 Georgian coupons (Georgia's Weimar Republic-style currency), or, to use a unit with real value, 28,000 loaves of Georgian bread.

A sign by the Metechi Palace's revolving door addresses, very politely, the real issue: 'For the comfort and safety of all guest kindly deposit all firearms with security.' A metal detector tries to ensure no one cheats, as does a newly formed Diplomatic Police, which, according to a memo addressed to guests last week, 'will ensure the security of the hotel and help us to realise our goal to keep the interior of the hotel arms-free'. A modest goal, perhaps, but about as likely to be implemented anywhere in the Caucasus soon as a nuclear-free zone was around the Kremlin at the height of the Cold War. Calls for unilateral disarmament, whether of handguns or A-bombs, quickly stirs suspicion of a trick.

Such was the case on my second night in the hotel when a plump, bald man in a shiny suit, distraught at being asked to leave his pistol behind, began taking pot-shots at the roof. I was in the glass lift when he started. Fortunately, he was more interested in letting off steam than scoring points by hitting a moving target. He was, hotel staff would confide later, as if this somehow explained his behaviour, an off-duty policeman. The reason for his tantrum: 'My enemy is in the piano bar,' he had shouted. 'If you take my gun, he will kill me.'

It has a certain logic. The arms race was fed by the same reasoning. There would be much discussion later of whether the bullets were actually fired within the lobby itself or just beyond the threshold. The hotel management, led by an Austrian, seemed to view this as an important distinction. 'Don't worry,' advised the general manager. 'This is normal, a little family quarrel.'

Everything is normal in Georgia. Rebels blow up power-lines and plunge half the country into darkness. Accountants in Moscow, angry at unpaid bills, pull the plug on Georgia's long-distance phone-lines and turn off the tap on a gas pipeline. President Eduard Shevardnadze, halfway through an interview in his office, laughs as a gust of wind slams shut his balcony door. It could, he jokes, just as easily have been gunfire. Such are the torments, petty and murderous, reserved each day for this, the most sophisticated, elegant and educated of former Soviet cities.

There are still concerts at the Philharmonic - held in the afternoon to avoid night-time shootings. The Rustaveli Theatre continues to prepare for its next season. And Thomas Gamkrelidze, professor of philology and chairman of parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee, keeps trying to prove that Indo-European languages all began in the same linguistic homeland somewhere near present-day Georgia. His latest work is: The Indo-European Glottalic Theory: A New Paradigm in the Indo-European Comparative Linguistics.

But high culture seems to fuel the violence too. Professor Gamkrelidze, for example, has written scholarly articles on the Abkhazians, Georgia's enemy for the past year in a barbaric conflict along the Black Sea. The essays, couched in linguistic jargon, set out to prove the Abkhazians a wholly Georgian creation, with no real identity of their own. Such scholarship is easily as dangerous as Soviet shovels. And when members of parliament tried to legislate restrictions on gun ownership they ran into learned opposition from the floor. The right to bear arms, they were reminded, is a sacred democratic right enshrined in no less a document than the American constitution.