x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

The political and the personal bind me to my Georgia

There are 5.5 million Georgians, but every time I read that someone has died, my heart skips a beat and I wonder if it's someone I know.

My family will return to Tbilisi later this month, a visit concocted by my daughter, Georgia, whom we adopted 15 years ago from the former Soviet republic after which she is named. She had befriended a girl of the same age online, who was the grandaughter of the same nurse who helped care for her when she was two months old.

My wife and I melted in the face of the emotional argument to revisit: it would be the first real memories Georgia would have of her homeland. So we have been anticipating a festive time, a reunion with the nurse, Olga; her daughter, Eka; with Eka's daughter, Liza; and perhaps reconnecting with people we met through the adoption process and with whom we remained in some contact for a few years.

This will in fact be our second visit; in 1998, I had done some reporting there. The reporting took a week, and we spent an extra week tooling around the city and touring the countryside, including the Napa-like east. It was summer. Driving back at dusk from a tour of Kakheti, we passed through no-name villages where boys kicked balls in the street, men sat on their haunches smoking and women held out peaches for sale.

The temperature rose some of those July days to above 40 degrees and insisted that the humidity rise along with it. Still, we were better off outside than inside. There was no air-conditioning in the apartment we rented from one of Eka's friends. It was 1998 and Eduard Shevardnadze was in power. Yet despite his campaign promises to turn on the power, some days there was no electricity.

We had attended Mr Shevardnadze's inauguration ceremony in 1995. It was November 26 and the date sticks in my head because we met our daughter for the first time that day. There was no electricity then, either. Olga's apartment was freezing. Georgia was having her diaper changed, and shrieking.

Her cries were like music, however, notes as bittersweet as the sentiment outside the window: it was one year after the end of two civil wars. There were ethnic Georgians fleeing the fighting and living like refugees in the downtown Iveria Hotel; homeless and unemployed people were begging in the streets - an unknown sight in Soviet days - and people were cutting trees in the city to take home as firewood.

Mr Shevardnadze's inauguration was held in front of the parliament building, the back of which was hidden by scaffolding. Repairs were still being made from the fighting that led to President Zviad Gamsakhurdia's quick departure and his rather-quick replacement by the man who promised to turn on the lights. Mr Shevardnadze also promised to clean up the government and negotiate a sustainable autonomy for Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Eka says they have electricity now. The internet is reliable enough that we can have a video chat without getting cut off. The air-con works; the heating works. Mr Shevardnadze has gone, however, replaced by Mikheil Saakashvili in 2003 in what would be known as the Rose Revolution.

Several petals off that rose have fallen, however. Mr Saakashvili is accused of growing authoritarianism, of having antagonised Russia into invading South Ossetia in 2008, of persecuting the opposition, and of campaigning against the Winter Olympic Games in Russia, in 2014.

Everyone was sure that the rose would die. But barely a year after massive protests against Mr Saakashvili, his party won in the municipal elections. Now, an ally of his is running for mayor of Tbilisi - the first direct-vote election for the capital's mayor - and the opposition looks in disarray.

Last month, a 58-year-old woman was killed in an explosion outside the offices of the opposition Labour Party in Tbilisi. She had been sitting in her apartment near a window that shattered in the explosion. The Labour leader claimed that the blast was politically motivated.

There are 5.5 million Georgians, but every time I read that someone has died, my heart skips a beat and I wonder if it's someone I know. It's completely illogical, but such are the ties that bind me to this country - it's as if a family memebr had died. The excitement of next month's visit to Tbilisi, then, as it was the last two times, is tinged with anxiety. There remains a lot of tension in the country.

I imagine Eka and Olga will have plenty to say this time as well. The difference is that we will have two 15-year-old teenage girls among us. It is entirely possible and indeed likely that conversation will include Glee, the Jonas Brothers and Katie Melua, a Georgian herself.