Tbilisi Hangout 013 … and 012

Hey everyone,

So if you can’t wait to listen to the Tbilisi Hangout tonight at 8 p.m. on Radio GIPA 94.3, you can watch it now on YouTube. This week we talked about Georgian wine returning to Russia, cameras returning to the courtrooms, but Akhalaia doesn’t want a jury in there and much, much more.

Also, in case you missed last week, well, I forgot to post it, so here it is!

When You Call Georgia, Who Picks Up the Phone?

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Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, courtesy of wikicommons

As Europe increasingly began integrating the European Union and becoming more of a bloc than a constellation of self-interested nations, Henry Kissinger once famously retorted, “When you call Europe, who picks up the phone?”

Georgia, which is now going through its first experience with divided government, faces a similar problem with its foreign policy.

Although the Georgian Dream government, which won parliamentary elections last fall, has formed its own cabinet and staffed the Foreign Ministry itself, that hasn’t kept officials from the previous government from representing its own foreign policy vision on trips abroad and in public statements.

After all, the United National Movement party still holds the executive branch and a sizable minority in the parliament. But, after presidential elections this October, a new Constitution will take effect and transition the country into a parliament-centric system where the president is largely a figurehead. Until then, however, the country is still run by a system with a powerful executive president.

So who’s in charge?

Technically both parties are, but they have been unsuccessful thus far in coordinating their new foreign policy together, so each side has been making foreign visits, each espousing very different viewpoints on where the country should be headed. Foreign leaders and outside observers can be forgiven for being confused by the display.

The focal point of the schizophrenic statements is, of course, Russia. Since his initial election in 2004, President Mikheil Saakashvili has styled himself as an anti-Russian, pro-Western crusader. Prime Minister Ivanishvili, who took power in October, meanwhile, campaigned on a pledge to improve ties with Russia. The open disagreement has already made it awkward for a number of Georgia’s partners, who also straddle the balance between Russian and Western interests.

Azerbaijan is a perfect example. Last December, Ivanishvili began his tour of Georgia’s neighbors in Azerbaijan with a delegation from the new government. In late February, President Mikheil Saakashvili did the same, this time taking with him members of the minority. No Foreign Ministry officials accompanied him. Continue reading

Tbilisi Hangout 011 with Mathias Huter

So this week on the Tbilisi Hangout we were had the great opportunity to have Mathias Huter on the show of Transparency International Georgia and TBLPOD fame.

In this episode, we discuss in detail the National Library incident and the poor state of the Georgian government’s “cohabitation” as well as Mathias’ own research into the murky ownership structures of the country’s media and internet service providers. He knows more about that than probably anyone else outside of Georgia’s shadow elite and he tells us why that’s a problem.

Check it out!

Also if you prefer to hear us in better quality or if you’d just as soon not see my face while tuning into the show, we’ll be on GIPA radio 94.3 at 8 p.m. tonight.

‘With the First Pick in the NFL Draft, the Kansas City Chiefs Select: Not Luke Joeckel’

So, if you know me, you know that I am a unrepentant Chiefs fan unswayed by years of poor management and inept play. As a way of keeping a link a back to that conversation alive, I write a weekly column for Chiefs fan site Arrowhead Addict. This was my latest piece on draft talk and what the Chiefs should do with their 1st overall pick in the 2013 Draft.

Last week, I laid out why I think it would be a mistake for the Chiefs to select DT Star Lotulelei with their first pick. This week, it’s Joeckel’s turn.

There’s probably no player more frequently mocked to the Chiefs than LT Luke Joeckel, but there are a lot of problems with that pick.

Still, let’s start with the good:

He’s a blue chip player at a blue chip position and if the Chiefs don’t re-sign Brandon Albert, it’s a need position for the Chiefs as well.

By almost all accounts he is one of the top three prospects in this draft. Left tackles with the natural ability and prototypical size that he has do not grow on trees. In a year of iffy quarterback prospects, tackles also tend to be safer picks and he’ll be cheaper than retaining Albert’s services most likely.

He has no injury concerns and held his own against some of college football’s best pass rushers in the SEC. All around, he is a low-risk pick and could be the best LT in all of football with some development.

So why not take him?

First off, while there is an overall lower bust rate for tackles in the top of the draft, they’re not a sure bet either. Of the eight tackles taken in the top ten since 2008, all but two are currently rated by Scouts Inc. as just “good starters,” which they describe as a “Solid starter who is close to being an outstanding player … Has few weaknesses and will usually win his individual matchup but does not dominate in every game, especially when matched up against the top players in the league.”

That’s not exactly an inspiring result for a 1st overall pick. If you pick in the top five, you should be landing a guy that is a star in the league for years, not a guy who is merely better than average.

To continue reading, click here.

Tbilisi Hangout 010

In case you’re not already watching, Georgian journalist, blogger and professor extraordinaire Mirian Jugheli and I have been hosting a weekly show on Google Hangouts that streams live to YouTube every Wednesday at 20:00 Tbilisi time (GMT +4).

If you’re into Georgian and Caucasus news, I strongly recommend you check it out and comment on the page live while we’re going to get involved.

The show is also now broadcast on radio GIPA FM 94.3 in Georgia Thursday nights at the same time. If you miss both times, it’s no big deal, you can watch the show anytime on YouTube. Check it out!

Also, like us on Facebook for reminders when to tune in and for extra links and materials about what we’re talking about each week at this link.

‘Georgia for Georgians’ Returns to Tbilisi

This week I was strolling around Hero Square between meetings and saw some fresh graffiti in one of the stairwells adjacent to the zoo.

In English it was scrawled: “Georgia for Georgians.” The whole descent on the stairwell was decorated with swastikas, SS symbols and other phrases like “Fuck Niggers” and “We’ll rise again.”

GeorgiaforGeorgians1

These Nazi and openly racist statements are likely more shocking to most Western readers, especially Americans, who have a long and painful history with the N-word.

I, however, was struck most by “Georgia for Georgians.” It’s hard to find any European city these days without a bit of neo-Nazi vandalism. Those swastikas and racial slurs could have just as easily been found in Paris or Vienna as Tbilisi.

But, “Georgia for Georgians” has a more specific, dark history in this country. It was one of the loudest cries of Georgia’s chaotic rebirth as an independent post-Soviet state. That slogan and the policy implications behind them played a major role in the young country’s descent into civil war, poverty and anarchy throughout the 90’s. In fact, those words are so iconic that they have their own Wikipedia page.

 

Continue reading

Three Kings is Back!

TKlogoIt has been nearly a year and a half since you’ve heard from me on these pages, and boy have those been a journey.

In those eighteen or so months, my former employer, Kanal PIK, has risen and fallen, I’ve gotten legally married and Georgia has a new government, just to name a few.

For me, I’ve gone from editing endless news bulletins in the shared offices of PIK and Mze TV, to working from home — a spacious former komunalka — freelancing for various places, but primarily chasing financial news for Mergermarket, a newswire owned by the Financial Times Group.

Oh, and my hair has grown much, much longer.

Part of what took me so long to get Three Kings up and running again was that I wanted to make sure I had a good slate of content coming your way and I wouldn’t be merely faking you out with an “I’m back!” post followed mostly by silence.

The other reason is that it has been so long that I’ve grown unfamiliar with all this web hosting stuff and am having to teach myself how to run a site again. Once I do, expect Three Kings’ look and layout to change, because change is good.

For now, I have some good stuff coming up for you — a testimonial from a young Iranian on the impact of sanctions on the economy and youth, an analysis of Georgia’s sacrifices in Afghanistan and a full inside look at the fall of Kanal PIK, my former employer.

Keep up by following me on Twitter @ClaytonNicholas and on Facebook here, there’s a lot on the docket!

Spies, State Terrorism and Government Credibility

Last weekend I finally got the time to catch up on a number of projects that were hanging over my head, and among the things that I desperately needed to get done was to write a column for the Faster Times on the biggest drama of the summer: photographer spies and terrorist patsies.

Were several freelance photographers secretly spying for the Russian government? Did Russia plant a bomb at the U.S. embassy and other locations? We don’t know, what we do know is that these two much ballyhooed cases have provoked serious questions about the Georgian government’s credibility.

When I first contacted journalists and NGO workers in Georgia about coming to this country in the summer of 2009, most said that it was poor timing.

“Everyone’s on vacation, it’s too hot to work, so, nothing really happens in Georgia in the summer,” they said, “except the occasional war.”

Still that was enough for me to buy the one-way ticket and I am now moving into my third eventful summer in the South Caucasus.

This year, while the Western world was gearing up for barbeques and summer movie blockbusters, Tbilisi was host to a fascinating spy scandal involving three freelance Georgian photographers. Two of them worked directly for the government, including one who was the president’s personal photographer. They were accused of being paid to transmit sensitive government documents – including the minutes of ministerial meetings, blueprints of government buildings, official itineraries, etc. to another country.

Meanwhile, more details emerged about a series of mysterious explosions the previous fall that had rocked Tbilisi – actually “rocked” is a bit of an overstatement. All of the devices were small, causing hardly any damage and no one in Tbilisi seemed to pay much attention to them.

Either way, it has been an interesting, if swelteringly hot, couple of months.

On the explosions, I actually happened to be at the U.S. embassy in Tbilisi to interview the ambassador the day after the strange explosion occurred outside their walls. Although I was there to discuss IDP issues, I asked every aide and employee at the place what they thought it was all about. Most shrugged, figuring it was some local digging for copper, who accidentally struck a natural gas line, or perhaps some sort of odd practical joke. Who knows.  These things happen in Georgia (in March, a Georgian pensioner allegedly cut off the internet for a significant portion of the South Caucasus – including nearly all of Armenia – while scavenging for buried cables).

To continue reading, click here.

The circle of trust improves between business and government in Georgia

In addition to writing about Poti’s port upgrades in the summer issue of Investor.ge, I also took a look at the government’s attempts to regain the business community’s trust after a period of aggressive raids by tax authorities left Georgia’s big businesses feeling besieged.

While the Georgian government has tried to get back in business’ good graces, the perceptions of the general public has also gradually become more positive towards the economic elite. But why?

Despite a rocky relationship with business in the past, the government is working hard to create better ties with the private sector.

New state intiatives – including a business ombudsman to advocate for tax-payer rights and a business council in parliament – are easing tensions between the government and business.

Last December, President Mikheil Saakashvili said in a speech that there were “many deficiencies” in the relationship between the government and the private sector, admitting that business leaders felt that “the State does not listen to them appropriately and treats them unfairly”.

The speech marked a step in the president’s year-long campaign to repair the frayed relations – damaged, in large part, by a period of increasingly aggressive raids and hefty punishments for tax crimes at the hands of Georgia’s Financial Police.

Giorgi Pertaia

Lawrence Sheets, International Crisis Group’s Caucasus project manager, said in an interview with Investor.ge that the government’s ballooning foreign debt, which is projected to reach 43.2 percent of GDP in 2011, put pressure on the authorities to increase tax collections, resulting in a soar in both the frequency of tax raids and amounts of the eventual fines. Georgia’s economy also contracted by 3.9 percent in 2009 following its 2008 war with Russia, further straining tax revenues.

The government responded to the growing gulf of distrust between the public and private sectors by first hiring former AmCham customs specialist Giorgi Pertaia to advise the prime minister’s office and serve as a “bridge” between business interests and government authorities.

To continue reading, click here.

Renovations begin under the Poti port’s new owner

courtesy of wikicommons

In this month’s issue of Investor.ge I reported on a couple of bits of news — first, the transfer in owner ship of Georgia’s main cargo port, Poti.

Flipping the Poti port has been one of the government’s major development goals, and is a key to increasing Georgia’s potential as a logistics and transit hub for East-West goods trade. APM Terminals, a subsidiary of the Maersk Group bought the port earlier this year and it says it has already begun to assess its renovation plans aimed at increasing its safety, efficiency and cargo capacity.

All good news, but they have a long way go to. Read more below.

Since acquiring an 80 percent share of the Poti port earlier this year, APM Terminals now plans to invest $100 million on upgrading the port facilities, and is eyeing additional investment projects in the region, company officials said.

APM Terminals, part of the Moller-Maersk Group, announced that it had acquired an 80 percent share of the Poti Sea Port in April, and officially took over from UAE-based RAKIA, in May.

APM Terminals’ Senior Vice President and Head of New Terminals, Peder Sondergaard, said APM intends to “add value” to the port, meeting the demand for a “high-quality port infrastructure in the Black Sea.” In the same press release, he also said APM would be investing $100 million in the port facilities over the next five years.

RAKIA continues to operate the Poti Free Trade Zone (FTZ), which occupies about 100 hectares adjacent to the port. RAKIA, which bought the zone in 2008, hopes to develop it into a major logistics and industrial center, pledging a $200 million investment.

APM Terminals’ Vice President for Business Development, Hans-Ole Madsen said in an interview with Investor.ge that the first stage of APM’s development plan has already begun, with engineers surveying the port’s existing equipment and determining which terminal cranes will be updated and which will be scrapped.

To continue reading, click here.

the three-way chess game in the Caucasus continues …