Keeping Georgian on their minds

IT HAS always prided itself on its Georgian chic. But now Edinburgh's New Town can really live up to is reputation.

Because Scotland's smartest urban quarter has been invaded by some of the richest and most influential of Georgians; from the former Soviet republic that is.

At least such is the claim being made by opposition leaders in the troubled Caucasian nation. They have accused senior figures in the Georgian Government of buying up homes in the area - and using taxpayers' cash to do so.

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The general secretary of the Georgian Labour Party, a social-democratic group, has even cited the existence of a "Georgian quarter" in Edinburgh as evidence for his allegations against several functionaries of the ruling party, the Unified National Movement for a Victorious Georgia.

Soso Shatberashvili named two senior "Nationals" as being among an unspecified number of individuals in or close to the government to have bought up "luxury private villas" in Edinburgh's New Town.

Government and party officials have so far declined to comment officially on the allegations.

And in Edinburgh the solicitors and estate agents are maintaining their traditional discretion – only admitting that there is a great deal of business coming from the former Soviet Bloc.

John Coleman, of international agency Knight Frank, said his firm was doing "significant amounts of business with individuals from the former Soviet Union" but was unable to say how many of his clients were from Georgia.

He said: "We are finding that a lot of people from the former Soviet Union – we tend just to call them Russians – initially want to buy somewhere in or near London. Then they look for somewhere in Edinburgh, often because they like the idea of a Scottish school or university for their children."

High-end estate agents in recent months have seen a surge in interest from the ultra-rich of the former Soviet Union, China and India in UK properties, not least because of the pound's relative weakness against the euro and dollar.

Coleman said: "Russia, China and India are where the money is coming from these days."

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There are still bargains to be picked up in Scotland for billionaire foreigners. Knight Frank last week said prices on its Scottish and north of England properties were down 11 per cent on last year, although they edged up half a percentage point in the last quarter of the year.

One relatively recent former Soviet buyer was Vladimir Lisin, a Russian steel magnate worth more than 5bn and ranked as the world's 93rd richest man. The self-made oligarch set up home at 16th century Aberuchill Castle and its 3,300 acres of land near Comrie, Perthshire, in 2005.

But claims of an influx of Georgian politicians into Scotland came as a surprise to the nation's biggest champion north of the Border, the clan chief of the MacLarens.

Donald MacLaren of MacLaren was Britain's ambassador in Tbilisi between 2004 and 2007 and has a deep affection for the country. MacLaren, however, has seen plenty of mudslinging by Georgian politicians over the years.

"The Labour Party in the past has made allegations that are nearer the mark than most of the others," he said yesterday. "But there is nothing unusual about allegations of corruption in Georgia.

"Buying a house in Edinburgh's New Town would, after all, be beyond the reach of most British MPs, never mind Georgian ones."

MacLaren attributes the tit-for-tat allegations to anti-corruption campaigns by Georgia's president, Mikheil Saakashvili, leader of the party accused of dabbling in the Edinburgh property market.

Georgia under Saakashvili has earned the reputation as a country on the edge of Europe where it is easy to do business. The nation last year ranked 66th in the world Corruption Perception Index, between Italy and Greece, and far less corrupt than other post-Soviet nations.

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Labour, a social democratic group, was initially allied with Saakashvili in his campaign to clean up Georgia but has since bitterly parted company with the president, who is described by some as a westward-leaning liberal reformer or by others as a bellicose, hot-headed nationalist.

Labour's leader, Shalva Natelashvili, a former ally of the National Movement, has previously been accused of spying for Russia, with whom Saakashvili fought a short war last summer. The allegation was later dropped but pro-government commentators routinely refer to remarks made by him or his colleagues as being Kremlin propaganda. The European Court of Human Rights, meanwhile, ruled in 2008 that Labour's rights had been infringed during Georgian elections.

Georgian opposition figures have also been drawn to Britain. One of Saakashvili's biggest enemies, billionaire Badri Patarkatsishvili, moved to a 10m Surrey mansion. His 2008 death sparked speculation of a Litvinenko-style slaying. It later turned out Patarkatsishvili, who stood against Saakashvili at the last presidential elections, had died a natural death.