Category Archives: Politics

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?

misha

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.

‘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

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.

In case you missed it: Georgia’s Silver-Haired Rioters

Well,  it’s been busy.

Settling into a new job, starting new projects, still teaching, still freelancing and working through the most eventful week in Tbilisi all year has forced Three Kings to fall by the wayside. But if you’ve fallen behind, let me catch you up!

First off, I had what was perhaps my most high-profile piece in terms of publication in covering the Tbilisi protest that was violently dispersed in the early hours last Thursday morning. I saw it as a great opportunity to focus on some of the narratives of Georgian society and politics that rarely get covered, and it was clear by the way that this crisis rolled out that the real story would once again be lost in the trees.

A protester lies handcuffed on the sidewalk in the aftermath of the police dispersal. REUTERS

The protest had been written off as a (possibly Russia-backed)  futile, rambunctious effort to disrupt the peace by a marginal politician and her hooliganish followers. But the story that was lost amid all the absurdity of this past week’s politics was that it all represented a persistent and unaddressed problem in the new Georgia — that the revolution had left many behind.

TBILISI, Georgia — In the wee hours this morning, in heavy rain, Georgian riot police closed in on a crowd of protesters who had appropriated a bandstand in front of parliament — the spot where the president was to speak just hours later.

It was the deadly end to a five-day protest led by two Georgian opposition parties demanding the resignation of President Mikheil Saakashvili. At its peak, an estimated 10,000 people took part in the protests, which blocked a major thoroughfare in front of the headquarters for Georgian State TV in the capital, Tbilisi. On Wednesday, about 3,000 demonstrators marched on to the bandstand, where they hoped to disrupt the annual Georgian Independence Day parade.

The opposition parties claimed they were marching for democracy. The government said they were Russia-backed provocateurs bent on sewing disorder. Both positions miss the point.

As footage of the protest’s violent dispersal trickled out, it became clear that the majority of those who had taken to the streets were not young radicals, but middle-aged workers and retirees, huddled together gasping for air through the tear gas and rain, frantically avoiding the swinging billy clubs and rubber bullets. A protester was reportedly killed in the violence while 37 people were wounded.

To continue reading, click here.

 

South Caucasus internet vulnerable to shut down — accidental or intentional

My most recent article in The Faster Times was intended for another publication, but the unfortunately changed their freelance policy literally hours after I sent it in and it didn’t run.

Be on the lookout for more Faster Times stuff from me, covering protests across the Caucasus.

In recent years, internet security has become an issue of increasing concern for governments around the globe, but in the turbulent South Caucasus, local experts say the threats against both the physical internet infrastructure and cyberattacks against governments and organizations are a reality.

The fragility of the South Caucasus internet infrastructure was underlined this March when a 75-year-old Georgian woman allegedly shut off the internet for 90 percent of Armenia as well as large parts of Georgia and Azerbaijan, by accidentally cutting a fiber-optic cable while digging for copper wire.

Network monitors in Western Europe alerted Georgian authorities to the source of the disruption, and the internet was restored five hours later.

Currently, most internet coverage in the three South Caucasus countries, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, comes from a single fiber optic line that traverses the Black sea into Georgia. From there, the system is neither properly protected, nor properly backed-up said Thomas Van Dam an internet expert who worked with online marketing firm, MatchCraft, in Georgia until 2010.

“There is zero redundancy in the system,” he said. “This is strange because the concept of ’99 percent uptime’ is only possible when you have fully redundant systems.”

Representatives from Georgian Railway Telecom, which owns Georgia’s fiber optic lines, said the company is currently “undergoing reorganization” and were unable to respond to media queries.

To continue reading, click here.

Why revolution could, but won’t be coming to the Caucasus: Georgia

Bon voyage?

Following the massive upheaval of the “Arab Spring,” opposition groups across the South Caucasus have been calling for revolution in their respective countries. This is part I of a three-part series @ The Faster Times, wherein I will be looking at Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan individually with an eye to the conditions that could be fertile for major political changes, and also the factors that are likely to hold it back.

Since taking power in 2003 in a revolutionary wave of popular support, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s government has faced a number of tests. Following a widely denounced crackdown on peaceful demonstrations in 2007, a disastrous war with Russia in 2008, and months of sit-in protests paralyzing downtown Tbilisi in 2009, Saakashvili appeared to be on his political deathbed. But after a successful campaign in the 2010 local elections, the ruling United National Movement (UNM) party is once again back on solid footing, even if the country still is not.

Many Georgians remain deeply discontented with the Saakashvili government, and several opposition leaders have called revolution “inevitable.” Michael Cecire, political analyst and founder of Tbilisi based news-zine Evolutsia.net, said that primary cause of this is the naggingly sluggish economy. Despite all the talk of the Georgian economy rebounding from the double-barreled crisis in 2008 caused by the war and the global economic meltdown, Georgians have seen little real improvement in their own economic situation, and the bad economy could become tinder to the revolutionary fire, he said.

“Inflation is high, prices for energy and food are rising, and income inequality seems to be getting worse, not better. In many ways, it’s a perfect storm for a smart opposition candidate to run on a forward-looking, policy-oriented platform,” he said.

Furthermore, after enacting radical and effective democratic reforms in the early years after the 2003 Rose Revolution, Saakashvili’s reforms seem to have run out of steam – a situation that is not lost on the public — said political analyst and Tbilisi State University professor Kornely Kakachia.

“The Georgian public is kind of disoriented at this stage,” he said. “It supports the government’s Euro-Atlantic integration policy and democratic reforms, but at the same time it also realizes that this particular government has already exhausted its progressive ideas. The only aim of the current authorities is just to maintain stability and the current status quo.”

To continue reading, click here.

“Turkish Investment and Trade Booms in Abkhazia” – Tabula magazine

Turkish sailors in Sokhumi beside their ships adorned with both Turkish and Abkhazian flags in February 2011.

Anyone who has been following my writing on Abkhazia over the past couple of months, will not be too surprised by the conclusions of my piece published in the English edition of Tabula magazine yesterday. In it, I talk to one of the very few analysts who have dug deep into Turkey’s quietly deepening trade ties with Abkhazia, Argun Baskan, a researcher with the Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey.

Although Georgia continues to officially maintain an embargo on the breakaway republic of Abkhazia, experts and local observers now believe that the Georgian Coast Guard may have backed off enforcing the embargo and is no longer seizing Turkish ships bound for Abkhazian ports.

Abkhazia has been under an official blockade and a ban on all economic activity imposed by the Commonwealth of Independent States since 1996. Although Russia began progressively lifting economic sanctions on Abkhazia in 2000, causing land trade to increase, Georgian navy patrols continued to make sea trade with Abkhazia sparse and treacherous.

More than 60 ships were reportedly captured by the Georgian navy between 1999-2009. Often times the ships were later auctioned off and their crews briefly imprisoned. But, Argun Baskan, a researcher with the Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey said that since Russia recognized Abkhazia as independent in 2008, economic and cultural ties between Turkey and Abkhazia have greatly increased.

Baskan, who co-authored a report on the issue in December 2009 entitled “Abkhazia for the Integration of the Black Sea,” said that the Abkhaz diaspora community in Turkey, numbering about 500,000 people, has been very active in lobbying Ankara for a restoration of transit links and deeper economic and political ties with Abkhazia.

To continue reading, click here.

News and other stuff you should be reading (when you’re not reading Three Kings)

Remember that country we created? – First of all, Global Post has been virtually the only news organization that has taken a seriously look at the fact that the United States continues to support the Kosovo government, which, as recent allegations allege, is led by mafiosos who are managing drug, internal organ and sex trafficking on the side. I have made my thoughts on this overlooked scandal quite clear in several posts (click here for Three Kings’ past Kosovo coverage). Global Post has done great work pulling together the facts in a three-part series called “Kosovo’s ‘Mafia.’” Everyone should check it out.

Femen protesters in a demonstration against "all forms of patriarchy."

Flashing for feminism – Elsewhere, my friend, Emily Channell, has a very interesting post at Facile Gestures Blog (which you should all be reading as well) about Femen, a fascinating organization of feminist activists in Ukraine. Rightly or wrongly, Femen is most well known for their topless protests in public places. While focusing on that particular tactic belies some of the overarching points Femen is making, it brings about an interesting discussion. By making their bodies — both the subject of objectification by men and submission by the state — into the vehicle for their protest are they successfully appropriating their sexuality and subverting the perversion of the masculine state? Or, as others argue, are they continuing their subordination and objectification through this method and giving the world “a lasting picture what a Ukrainian girl is: beautiful, slim and ready to undress as soon as a camera is pointed at her”? Give it a read.
When diplomats keep it real – And finally, back to Georgia. Last week offered one of the unfortunately rare examples of foreign diplomats in Georgia taking on the role of public truth-sayers. First, French Ambassador to Georgia — and fabulous saxophone player — Eric Furnier slammed the Georgian government in a public forum for failing grasp and implement the EU’s policy suggestions. The CE News Blog had a rough translation:

“It seems like all the efforts of the European Union have been like pouring water in the sand, that we are making absolutely no progress, and that the European Neighbourhood Policy is maybe empty or not European at all, because, what is left of the European values in what we heard? Almost nothing. Lack of freedom of media, total contempt for labour and trade unions, lack of progress in economy. It’s a disaster.”

“I’m afraid after hearing you, I have the impression of getting a description of a neo-bolshevik state with absolutely no freedom. And when I heard that there is now young people for stealing 8 [Georgia lari’s worth of] goods, throw them into jail, it is absolutely scary. [...]”

“[...] So I think it’s about time we maybe organise more seminars of this kind, but maybe putting on the table concrete steps to change the situation. Because what you have just been telling us is – I’m sorry – very depressing for any European citizen. Thank you”

In the middle he was making reference to the story of a teenager in Gori who was thrown in jail after stealing a box of pens. Apparently he was offered to pay an exorbitant restitution amounting to thousands of lari, instead got locked up for several years.
Following on Furnier’s tirade, Hansjörg Haber, head of the EU Monitoring Mission in Georgia (EUMM) — a notoriously quiet and passive bunch — dished out some tough truth at the NATO Parliamentary Assembly’s Rose-Roth Seminar in Tbilisi on March 23. He said the peace process with Russia was “not progressing.” He also agreed that Russia had in the past used Abkhazia and South Ossetia to leverage Tbilisi for more influence, and therefore, Moscow lost what cards it had once it recognized them as independent. Now, the Russians “are at a loss how to re-establish their influence over Georgia,” and so far their approach is “not very imaginative.”

But, Georgia’s policy isn’t much better, he said.

“Basically it consists of using international leverage to demonstrate the continued character of the principle of territorial integrity, which of course we all support and therefore additional confirmations of the principle of territorial integrity tend to demonstrate the principle of diminishing returns,” Haber said. [...]

He cited an example of Georgia’s demand in respect of Russia’s WTO bid, wherein Tbilisi in exchange of its consent for Russia’s WTO entry wants to have some sort of control over the trade at the Abkhaz and South Ossetian sections of the Georgian-Russian border.

“Legally this is certainly justified demand,” Haber said, but added that even if this demand would materialize “what is going to change in terms of ultimate Georgian objective of reintegration of Abkhazia and South Ossetia?”

“I do not see any contribution towards this national goal”.

“So there is really question of whether Georgia wants to win diplomatic battles to underscore again the principle of territorial integrity or whether it wants to promote reintegration,” he added.

After his speech, Giorgi Kandelaki, an MP on the foreign relations committee, spoke and defended the push for customs agents as it would add a “political dynamic” to the issue. But that is exactly what many European diplomats have told me is the problem. Rather than moving towards resolution, Tbilisi remains committed to politicizing and polarizing the peace talks with Abkhazia and South Ossetia in pursuit of small, short-sighted victories.

Haber wasn’t finished. He also argued, like me, that the Georgian government needs to engage directly with Sokhumi and Tskhinvali.

In this context he said that the Georgian authorities’ treatment of Sokhumi and Tskhinvali as mere Russian puppets was further pushing the two regions “deeper into Russia” and such approach was not advancing the cause of reintegration.

He also spoke of “notable differences” between Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

“South Ossetian diplomacy,” he said, “is angry; it’s passionate; it’s exaggerating, but they are still closer to Georgia.”

“Abkhazia is different – they are more moderate, but… they are completely cold with respect to Georgia,” Haber said.

He also said that both Abkhazia and South Ossetia “need strong gestures from Georgia to consider alternatives to the present relationship with Russia.”

It’s a shame these sorts of signals are only sent to the Georgian government publicly when they are coming from the mouths of delegates on their way out of the country.

Just for fun – Not to pile on or anything, but in another healthy sign of political competition from Georgia’s rowdy opposition, two major opposition figures got into a brawl in the Munich airport. Like a lot of things in Georgian politics, you just can’t make this stuff up.