Taming the unruly people of Georgia: Moscow still has 'imperial ambitions' on his country, Eduard Shevardnadze tells Hugh Pope in Tbilisi

THE HELICOPTER skiing is still said to be great in the Caucasus mountains of Georgia. But hanging round the lobby of Tbilisi's best hotel one evening recently, guests on the weekly charter flight from Vienna discovered why trips to the former Soviet republic are so inexpensive just now.

First shouts, then shots, rang out. One man lay on the marble floor, his face bleeding. Another man wildly waved a pistol, dragging a second body towards the revolving door.

It was not a scene to inspire faith in Eduard Shevardnadze's Georgia, although Fred Wieland, manager of the pristine Austrian-owned hotel, showed the same cool that the former Soviet foreign minister has had to master to deal with his unruly country of 5.4 million people.

Rallying his unarmed security guards, Mr Wieland herded the evening's drunken episode of army officers vs the mafia into the courtyard. A few more pistol shots popped out and within minutes the lobby settled back into its fountain-fed calm. Amazingly, nobody seemed badly hurt. 'It's a great country, a great people, great prospects,' Mr Wieland said later. 'The trouble is, weapons and alcohol are a bad combination. And the wine here is very good.' He did not have to add that weapons were in plentiful supply: his hotel has a separate desk for guests to check in their guns.

Mr Shevardnadze seemed under few illusions either. Rubbing his famous pale face into a smile that folds up everything except the black points of his pupils, whose steady gaze never ceases to appraise his visitors, he described his main problem as 'the nature of the Georgian people'.

That is just the start of it. Six months after Georgians elected him chairman of parliament and transitional chief executive until elections under a new constitution due in 1995, Mr Shevardnadze is virtually the only force holding Georgia together.

Celebrated for his role in freeing Eastern Europe from Moscow, Mr Shevardnadze is locked in his own struggle with Russia over the only issue that seems to unite the Georgians: rejection of a return to two centuries of Russian rule.

Mr Shevardnadze's fame won help from President Bill Clinton at the Vancouver summit - Boris Yeltsin's ear was bent to Mr Shevardnadze's complaints about Russian attacks - but it has earned him only a small stream of Western aid, much of it from a Germany grateful for reunification. 'If Russia could have just pursued a sensible policy towards us, we would not have this instability at all,' Mr Shevardnadze said, complaining more sharply than ever of Russia's 'imperial ambition' to stay in the Transcaucasus.

Moscow has easily exploited Georgia's natural anarchy, which has brought separatist revolt to most of regions of the country. First the Russians quietly backed South Ossetia against Tbilisi. Then they helped rebels in Abkhazia, ordering in air strikes against Georgian positions at the height of eight months of fighting in the once-rich Black Sea autonomous republic.

This month, Moscow cut off its supply of roubles, forcing Georgia to issue coupons. With trade at a minimum and no foreign currency reserves, specialists fear all Georgia's roubles will bleed out to buy black-market fuel and food from neighbouring republics. 'We are under financial blockade,' Mr Shevardnadze said.

Georgians fear the country's second autonomous republic, Adjaria, may be next. The Muslim territory on the Turkish border is quiet, but Russia and the Adjarian leadership have recently made threatening statements about mutual interests and Black Sea ports.

Russia could also try to destabilise the alliance of warlords and democrats who support Mr Shevardnadze, notably the Defence Minister, Tengiz Kitovani, who is thought to have the sympathy of at least half Georgia's 15,000 fighting men.

Despite all this, Georgian politicians speak optimistically, pointing out that Mr Shevardnadze remains popular and has succeeded at least in calming the civil war which broke out during the overthrow of the former president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, and wrecked Tbilisi's picturesque centre. 'Without this, we could be a banana republic, shooting at each other. Shevardnadze tries to make emotions calm,' said Irina Sarishvili, a democrat activist in the 234-seat, 25-party parliament. 'People think him too much of a compromiser. But he has to make some kind of a balance.'

Quietly, Mr Shevardnadze hopes to start training a new army to replace the loosely organised bands of troops fighting in Abkhazia. Some diplomats discern a new sense of military discipline. Others say the country is far from facing reality.

Many Georgians believe that the crisis is a brief, nightmarish interlude, from which their country will soon awake to the relative wealth it enjoyed under Russian rule. Few understand that Georgia is staring into an abyss. Output per head is down to dollars 60 ( pounds 38) a year, and fell 45 per cent last year alone. Agriculture is in a mess. Trade routes are cut by fighting and plagued by bandits. Supplies of energy and raw materials are between one tenth and half of normal levels.

'Formerly one of the richest republics of the Soviet Union, the country stands on the brink of catastrophe in the spring of 1993,' are the cold words of one German official report. 'Without normalisation with Russia . . . and unless Georgia can get access to raw materials and energy before the second half of the year, the economy will collapse.'

(Photograph omitted)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
There will be a chance to bid for a rare example of the SAS Diary, collated by a former member of the regiment in the aftermath of World War II but only published – in a limited run of just 5,000 – in 2011
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm today
Elton John and David Furnish exchange marriage vows
peopleSinger posts pictures of nuptials throughout the day
File: James Woods attends the 52nd New York Film Festival at Walter Reade Theater on September 27, 2014
peopleActor was tweeting in wake of NYPD police shooting
Martin Skrtel heads in the dramatic equaliser
SPORTLiverpool vs Arsenal match report: Bandaged Martin Skrtel heads home in the 97th-minute
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Billie Whitelaw was best known for her close collaboration with playwright Samuel Beckett, here performing in a Beckett Trilogy at The Riverside Studios, Hammersmith
people'Omen' star was best known for stage work with Samuel Beckett
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Wright has won The Apprentice 2014
tvThe Apprentice 2014 final
Arts and Entertainment
Darrell Banks’s ‘Open The Door To Your Heart’
Detective Tam Bui works for the Toronto Police force
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor winner Ben Haenow has scored his first Christmas number one
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Telesales & Customer Service Executives - Outbound & Inbound

£7 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Are you outgoing? Do you want to work in...

Recruitment Genius: National Account Manager / Key Account Sales

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for a...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity to join...

Recruitment Genius: Recruitment Consultant

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We have an excellent role for a...

Day In a Page

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'