The dark side of Georgia's peace

A MONTH ago the dialling tone in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, made an ominous change in tune. Without warning it started to ``wail''. Phone-users began receiving a haunting, oscillating lament through the earpiece; calls increasingly failed to connect.

``It's an omen,'' remarked Dan Jenkinsk, manager of Tbilisi's first, and so far only, American hotel. ``A bad one. Soon the Middle Ages will be back. And they're saying this winter will be worse than last - if that's possible.''

His prediction has proved startlingly accurate. Life in what was the former Soviet Union's richest regional capital has made an extraordinary shift backwards. For the third winter in a row Georgia, holiday resort of the USSR, heartland of wine, theatre and film, is almost completely without power.

The phone, that most sensitive barometer to the shrinking amperage, had its wail quickly replaced by a bubbling, burping noise, then more often than not, silence. Electricity was leaking away from the central Caucasus as fuel deliveries to the power stations dried up. Soon only numbers close to the Parliament or government buildings could be reached reliably. ``I can give you Paris, London or New York,'' apologised the operator at the four-star Metechi Palace Hotel, whose satellite service runs via a private generator, ``but I'm afraid not Tbilisi. You must make local calls by foot.''

By the last week in November, longer and more frequent powercuts were gripping the city. At night whole districts would plunge into darkness, relight, then disappear again. Tower blocks blinked on and off before vanishing. Up on Gorgibashvili Street, the American hotel's dinners became candle-lit - of necessity.

``You need a taste for irony to survive in winter in Tbilisi,'' Jenkins admitted. ``We just spent a lot of time installing our own hot

water system; most of Tbilisi hasn't had it for three years. Then guess what, off goes the gas.''

Officially the Georgian government have explained the latest calamity as a breakage in the pipeline somewhere in central Asia. But many, including the vociferous Round Table opposition, claim it is due to Georgia's inability to service a $400m (pounds 260m) gas debt to Turkmenistan and that the creditors have turned it off. With water pressure often dependent on pumping stations, many Georgians wake up to no water, electricity, gas or phone.

``What's happening in Georgia is like a second revolution,'' said art historian Marika Didiboulidze. ``As in 1921, we're losing what we've had, having to change, learn a new system. For some it's terrible again, like the refugees from the war in Abkhazia, or those trying to survive on a State salary of one-and-a-half-million Coupons.''

The Georgian Coupon now stands at about two million to the US dollar, making it hard to see how even irony can help. With the new hike in bread prices, state salaries amount to two loaves a month. Most of the nation's former state employees, teachers, doctors, architects and academics have tried setting up private practices. More often than not they've ended up having to sell possessions or join the new ``import-export'' business across the Turkish border.

But it's the 225,000 Abkhazian refugees from last year's war who still suffer most. About 80,000 live in Tbilisi, many cramming into the former tourist hotels. The two largest, Iveria and Ajara, lift from the centre of Tbilisi like huge warning fingers, their balconies now draped with washing. Their main assistance comes from Western aid organisations now hoping to organise deliveries of food and clothing for the winter.

Yet a curious spirit survives in the city. Georgia's wine, brandy and champagne industries produced again this season. The war has been over for a year. Now it seems the greatest danger facing the country is that of all small nations after wars - of being forgotten.

-The leader of Georgia's National Democratic Party, Georgy Chanturia, was shot dead yesterday. His wife Irinia, also an MP, was badly wounded when gunmen opened fire outside the couple's Tbilisi home. - AP

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