• Nick

Wine and rubber bullets - the politics of business


Georgia is a fabulous country. Amazing countryside, people, culture, food and....wine....oh the wine.....

Wine is not just a drink in Georgia - it's much, much more than that. Blessed with 500+ grape varieties, legions of winemakers with wine in their DNA, pioneering winemaking methods (clay amphoras called Qvevri) there is a tradition of winemaking that stretches back millennia. The wine made in this way is orange - or amber - in colour through skin contact.

Wine is one of the defining characteristics of the Georgian identity - nearly everyone grows their own grapes and makes their own wine. Kids are given parcels of land with vines on when they are still in the crib. There is a ritual and spirituality to wine for Georgians - it connects them to nature, to their history, to their soul.

And of course all of that artisanal craft and skill, all of that variety, all of that passion very nearly got squeezed into extinction during the Soviet era - when winemaking in Georgia was industrialized and concentrated to the point where it was producing 80% of the wine for the USSR. Mostly plonk - all that mattered was volume for the masses.

The winemaking capabilities in Georgia were stressed and eroded to the point of near extinction - two grape varieties were mass planted, crowding out the others; 'factory number one' (now a collection of chi-chi restaurants in Tbilisi) churned out gazillions of gallons, craft and skill were subordinated to volume and low cost.

But winemaking didn't die. Since the end of the Soviet era the core aspects have been revived - the grape varieties, the skills, the capabilities, the quality - to the point now where Georgia is making some of the most fantastic wine in the world.

If you like wine, and if you like food - in fact if you like life - you must go to Georgia.

Post Soviet - friendly neighbours or dangerous dependency

The wine business in Georgia still finds a willing market in Russia (as well as other CIS countries) - a hefty proportion of Georgia's production ends up there. But it's not just wine - Russia is an export market for lots of agricultural produce, as well as a key source of tourists, an influence on capital inflows. A good chunk of the Georgian economy is connected or influenced somehow by Russia.

Russia exerts an influence over Georgia - economically, culturally, militarily - that is not a good thing for a growing independent country. A powerful neighbour with expansionist ambitions and a sense of entitlement that feels almost colonial is (in marked contradiction to the EU's relationship to the UK) something to be very concerned about.

Unlike the embarrassing Brexity nonsense about straight bananas or sovereignty this shit is real for Georgia. in 2008 a war was fought over the regions of Ossetia and Abkhazia that to this day are still under Russian occupation - some 20% of the country. Every young Georgian knows someone who doesn't have a father or a brother because of that war.

A people united

Tensions have been simmering for a while. It is said that the border encroachment is incrementally robbing Georgia of 1.5m of territory every day. So when a Russian politician - under the auspices of a meeting of the orthodox churches - took to making an address from the speaker's chair - it felt like a step too far. The symbolism of the aggressive neighbour sitting on the power seat was the trigger to bring thousands out onto the streets.

Getty Images

Things got heated - tear gas and rubber bullets were fired, protesters lost their eyesight, people got hurt. This was a people united against an aggressor. The Georgian identity has a fierce pride in having resisted and withstood waves of invaders - Mongols, Ottomans, Persians and Soviets.....This crowd of people from an increasingly confident independent state was clear - this is our country, this is our place.

Photograph: Zurab Tsertsvadze/AP

Economic sacrifice

This fierce defence was not just from the people - business got involved too. And this is where it gets really interesting - because not only are those businesses very happy to display their beliefs, to act in an overtly political way, like the Apple store changing its display or the Bank of Georgia changing its logo to reflect the 20% under occupation - they are also willing to take an economic hit to stand up for their beliefs.

In response to the protests allegations of western stirring up have been made, Russian tourists have been advised to leave Georgia, flights between Russia and Georgia are suspended from 8th July, and once again Russia is mulling a ban on Georgian wine. Young Russians are fascinated by Georgia - here on their doorstep is a country that is thriving with freedoms that they don't see at home. Tbilisi is known as "little Berlin" to them - the kind of cool place that symbolizes a way of life that might, just, might one day be in reach.

So perhaps the economic sabre rattling from Russia is not just in retaliation to a perceived political slight. Georgia represents an idea that is threatening - undermining its prosperity would undermine that idea.

These kind of economic threats are now met with a fierce determination from the Georgians to survive, even thrive, without any dependence on Russian markets.

Disentangling a business from its largest and nearest market for a belief is - for me - the most political act a business can take. We talk excitedly in the UK about business being a bit more political (say in sustainability - this is well worth a read) by lobbying a bit more, or making a bit more noise. But taking a hit - dumping your Russian origin stock, losing your Russian clients who make up a hefty 25 to 30% of your volumes - to stand in solidarity with your country and your beliefs...that's proper political activism from business.

It is admirable and humbling. These are businesses willing to risk their prosperity for their beliefs.

So three conclusions from all this:

1 - business can and should be political. In an age where the political class has failed us it is only right that business acts out of conviction. And when that conviction is matched by actions that have real economic consequences that's when it gets powerful. We admire the lobbying power of big business but the things I saw in Tbilisi over the past week or so shows that any business, no matter how big, can act out of conviction. As the nascent politicisation of business continues in the US and the UK we should expect and want that movement to go beyond words into action.

2- disengaging from a powerful economic force is painful. It's not a game. People get hurt. It's the very opposite of the Brexit party hypocrites taking their MEP salaries whilst playing Billy Bunter pranks. If you want to leave a trading bloc be prepared to take the hit personally. Watching the Georgians self organise - people putting their safety on the line, and Georgian business taking economic pain, for what they truly believe in shows what real intent looks like.

3 - go visit Georgia. Now. It's a lovely place and they'd love to see you. And now that flights out of Russia are being suspended there'll be lots of availability.

Tbilisi at night time

#tbilisiprotests #georgia #brexit #politicalbusiness

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