Coup de théâtre
There are two invaluable rules for a special correspondent — Travel Light and Be Prepared ... remember that the unexpected always happens.
Evelyn Waugh, Scoop Huge potholes scar the road from the Keda mountains to the Black Sea port of Batumi. My driver cannot see them for the snow, and I can’t feel the bumps because I have been anaesthetised by lunch. I have fallen victim to traditional Georgian hospitality: a meal that ends in toasts drunk from clay horns shaped so that they can’t be put down until they are drained. I raised mine to my driver, to my translator and to the two strangers who led us to our simple restaurant. Each of them raised his or hers to me. I try to do the sum, but the numbers defeat me. Whatever we have had, it’s too much.
As the car lurches down the valley toward the city, I glimpse features I saw more clearly on the way up. The mediaeval King Tamar Bridge, a thin arc of snow hanging impossibly delicately over the river. The frowning exterior of the St Nicoloz church, used first as a barn and then as a cinema under the Soviets, now restored to worship. The steel pipes — big enough to drive a bus through — of the hydroelectric scheme opened by Stalin, Georgia’s most infamous son.
It’s my last freeloading night in the autonomous Georgian republic of Adjara, and I am feeling pleased with myself. The rest of the press pack have been dragged around double-glazing factories, the rail ferry and the port facilities, but I have wangled a trip that has taken me into a backcountry that I had thought existed only in Tintin books. I have seen the mountains, the Botanical Gardens and the Roman fort of Gonio-Apsaros. I have collected colourful stories and met delightful people. And soon, after attending a farewell press conference, I shall be flying home.
The others are already assembled when I arrive. At the head of the vast cabinet room table is our host, Aslan Abashidze, who has run Adjara as his family fiefdom for years. His people call him Babu, grandfather. He has flown us here for the weekend so that we can tell the West how wonderful things are under his leadership, and how right he is to resist the new Georgian President’s claims on the province. At the previous two evenings’ gatherings he has delivered monologues on the glories of Adjara under his government; tonight his audience is held silent not by his words, but by his frown.
Babu has a small tape recorder in front of him, and he plays us a crackly conversation he says has just been intercepted. A general in Tbilisi is telling a friend that a train loaded with troops ordered to occupy Adjara will be arriving in Batumi overnight. Babu presses the stop button and announces that he will meet that invasion with force.
The 12 of us say nothing, but exchange looks. Mine says what luck it is that within the hour, we’ll be out of here, but the other faces show excitement. Babu tells us that though the plane he has organised for us is ready and waiting, we might like to stay to see what happens. The man from the Irish Times suggests we take a vote. Eleven hands shoot up in favour of staying. Mine stays by my suddenly sobered side.
In the corridor I meet an American ‘adviser’ that my fellow journalists tell me is ‘obviously CIA’. I tell him how my colleagues have just voted, and that I am out of my depth. The last article I wrote for The Spectator was about life without mains drainage. I am only here because none of the real journalists that the editor invited first was able to come. I joke that a septic tank correspondent is hardly qualified to comment on the events that are unfolding. ‘On the contrary,’ he says without smiling. ‘You’re in your element. We’re in deep shit. You tell your friends that dead journalists don’t write stories. I am going to see if I can get a car to take me to the Turkish border.’ Before I can ask him to take me with him, he’s gone, and Babu has summoned the rest of us back to the table, which is now covered in white linen and set out for a great feast. It seems a strange way to pre pare for an invasion, but there’s not much else we can do. A curfew has been declared, and the city’s power supply has been cut. Our building has its own generator, but in the rest of Batumi all is black. We are asked if we would like to make any telephone calls before supper. Eleven Western news desks are immediately contacted. I call my wife and tell her that with luck, I’ll be just a day or two late.
There’s a lot of wine on the table, and by the fifth course, my mood has moved from apprehensiveness via bravado to resignation. As the last plates are cleared Babu appears, and tells us that he has arranged somewhere safe for us to stay, and that he hopes the crisis will be resolved by the time we meet again tomorrow. He proposes a toast to us all, drunk in Adjaran honey-flavoured vodka. I compliment him on its excellence as we leave.
We are driven through the blackout to the huge Intourist hotel on the seafront. It has hundreds of rooms, but we are the only guests. Men with machine-guns man the desk and guard the cavernous lobby in which a bubble of fuzzy light surrounds a single bulb connected to a car battery. I am shown to room 323 by a woman with a torch. She takes it with her when she goes. I feel my way to bed, and try not to imagine what might happen if that troop train actually turns up.
But it doesn’t. The next morning we are gathered to be given a press release announcing that a coup attempt has been frustrated by the refusal of troops to fight their countrymen, and by the presence of foreign journalists in Batumi, who had warned the free world what was about to happen. So that’s what it has all been about. We have been used. I say as much to the man beside me, and he tells me to keep my counsel until we are safely home.
Minutes later, I am the last to arrive at the aircraft. The engines are already running and seat belts are being fastened, but just as I reach the door a man in a black jacket and a shoulder holster takes my arm and points to a Mercedes standing on the tarmac. As he leads me back down the steps my knees weaken and images from black-and-white spy movies rush into in my head. I’ve been rumbled. They’ve found out I am a fraud, and they’re offended. No — worse — they’ve been taping the comments I have been making to my colleagues, and I’m for the chop.
When we reach the car, a window rolls down to reveal the face of Aslan Abashidze. My God, this must be serious! But he is smiling. I smile weakly back. He nods to the man beside him, who gets out and hands me two carrier bags. There are six bottles of honey vodka in each. ‘You like it!’ says Babu. ‘It’s a gift: traditional Georgian hospitality!’ I thank him with an intensity that seems to surprise him, and I promise to write about it.
Aslan Abashidze was exiled six weeks later.