Tag Archives: Abkhazia

‘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.

“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.

Return to Abkhazia: Day 4 – Turks, trade and terrorists

So part IV of my “Return to Abkhazia” series finally ran at the Faster Times, and it’s already gotten me thinking about an epilogue. In fact, I kinda like tis style of writing. Maybe I should just ditch this journalism nonsense for the much more stable profession of book-writing …

Russian Coast Guard sailors in Sokhumi practice firing flares in April 2010.

On my second full day in Sokhumi, I wanted to focus less on the political opposition, which dominated my first day in the de facto capital, and more on the increasing Turkish trade and investment in Abkhazia.

So, I wandered down to Sokhumi’s main pier past the crowded tables of old men smoking, drinking Turkish coffee and feverishly playing Backgammon and dominos to the docks. The one fully functional pier in Sokhumi is a microcosm of the city itself. Parts of it have rotted and rusted away, left as is. A few fishermen sat alone drinking beer and casting their lines on the sturdier sections, and some workers were trying to weld together a makeshift set of stairs at one of the loading areas – I guess the previous jury-rigged steps had broken. At the end of the 200 ft pier sat a swanky two-story open air sushi bar and lounge called “Apra.”

In the summer, Apra is definitely the place to be if you don’t mind shelling out executive prices. In the warmer months they open the windows and let the sea breeze blow through the billowy white curtains that envelop the main eating area. What’s more, the sushi is actually the best I’ve ever had in this part of the world. This time, however, sushi and scotch were not in the cards. I had come to write for a couple of Georgian magazines, so I didn’t have the budget to treat myself.

Standing around, I furtively snapped some photos of the ships that had come into harbor – all of them Turkish. In between photos of their crews and masts bearing the Abkhazian and Turkish flags, I took some shots of the sea, of the restaurant, of my shoes – whatever to make myself look less like a spy.

Over the two days I had seen four ships in Sokhumi – three fishing boats and one container ship that had been unloading something all day. This was far more than I had seen in previous visits, and Akhra Smyr, the political analyst I had talked to the night before, said that their presence had boomed since late 2009. That fact was quite interesting, because that meant that this sudden increase followed two key international incidents, which likely encouraged the Georgian Coast Guard to halt the enforcement of their blockade on all trade and economic activity with Abkhazia.

Although the Georgian government has never publicly acknowledged ceasing to enforce the embargo (they specifically refused to comment to me on this issue), every sign pointed to the conclusion that they had. After Georgia seized a tanker ship in August 2009 with 2,800 tons of fuel and 17 Turkish crewmembers, Turkey’s previously neutral official position on the blockade-running activities of its citizens began to harden. When the ship’s captain was sentenced to 24 years in prison for violating the blockade, Ankara sprung into action to defend its own. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu promptly flew to Tbilisi, and five days after the conviction, the captain was released. Simultaneously, Russia declared that its coast guard vessels would be patrolling de facto Abkhaz waters and would fire on any Georgian ship attempting to interfere with Abkhazia’s maritime commerce.

Thus, by late 2009, the blockade had failed on the two most important fronts. First, Georgia had not only failed to convince Turkey to participate in the embargo, but by overreaching in its punishment of the tanker crew it had provoked Turkey to actively push for protecting Turkish ships that chose to take the risks of illicit trade. Secondly, with Russia involved, Georgia simply could not afford to continue chasing trade ships in de facto Abkhazian waters – Georgia’s two largest naval vessels were destroyed in the 2008 war, and thus the Georgian Coast Guard’s remaining patrol boats would be extremely exposed, risking firefights with ships from Russia’s Black Sea fleet. And, in the end, hampering Abkhazia’s economic development was simply not worth the chance of igniting another conflict with Russia. Continue reading

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.

East Timor a model for Georgia? … for Abkhazia and South Ossetia?

Courtesy of wikipedia commons

I’ve been pondering models for peaceful ways forward in normalizing the Russian-Georgian relationship lately and also for the gradual and long-term resolution with Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Most EU people I talk to look at Northern Cyprus as the correct model for engagement and resolution of Georgia’s breakaway territories. While I certainly like what has been done there more than here, it is necessary to point out that the Cyprus situation is in fact, still unresolved after nearly 30 years.

East Timor, or Timor Leste, is another interesting situation. East Timor announced this week that it is interested in increasing its military cooperation with Indonesia, buying patrol boats for $40 million — on loan — and said it hopes to establish military education ties.

Normally, a deal of this size would hardly be noticeable, it’s only interesting because of who is involved. Indonesia brutally occupied East Timor between 1975 and 1999. It is estimated that the occupation cost between 100,000-183,000 Timorese lives — out of a population of less than 700,000. East Timor became officially independent in 2002, and needless to say, there has been no love lost with its former occupier.

Thus, with ties seeming to improve and bilateral cooperation increasing, the two countries represent a good example of how nations with bloody histories can move on peacefully. Frankly, I don’t know enough about Indonesia to compare it to Russia and say definitively whether this example is transferrable at all, but the headline nonetheless left me thinking, “Wouldn’t it be nice if Georgia and Russia could have normal regional collaborative relationships rather than stockpiling weapon systems and warships to fight one another?”

Like East Timor and Indonesia, Georgia, Russia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia have plenty of ugly baggage, but they also have common interests and all would be better off if their respective governments could stop politicizing their situations and get down to real business. I guess this is just my hippy post of the week — you can’t hug with firearms … unless you’re making them together!

Return to Abkhazia: Day 3 – to the future via the past

Sunset in Sokhumi

Here’s part three of my four-part series on Abkhazia in the Faster Times. In it, I discuss how Sokhumi/Sukhum is shaping up two-and-a-half years since the Russian recognition. I also look at how the massive Russian investment is affecting local politics. The first of my two articles on Abkhazia will appear in the March 7 issue of Liberali magazine.

Enjoy, and, as always, click on the ads :)

Anyone who has traveled through the former Soviet Union knows that 50 or more years as a part of the socialist empire had profound effects on the countries involved. Today, twenty years since the Soviet Union’s fall, cities from Berlin to the Pacific coast of Asia bear the legacy of Lenin in their skylines, popular culture, and mentalities at both the administrative and family level.

This is particularly true in countries that were barely industrialized or urbanized before the arrival of the Soviets. Traveling east away from Europe, you will find ancient cities where 90 percent of their present-day structures were built during the Soviet times. This is not the case with Sokhumi, however, which was once a thriving port and playground for the Tsars and nobility of pre-revolution Russia. After the Bolshevik invasion, the grand palaces that dot the Abkhazian coastline became dachas for the Soviet elite. Many of the breezy houses with gated gardens full of flowers, palms and tangerine trees that make up most of Sokhumi’s structures have been taking in the salty sea wind since long before the red revolutionaries stormed the Winter Palace and the  Avrora fired the opening shots of Soviet century.

But, in many ways Sokhumi feels more Soviet than the austere industrial towns of Russia or the extravagant capitals of the ex- SSR’s. This is because, while even the poorest nations of Central Asia have upgraded infrastructure here and there and allowed foreign food and clothing chains to open franchises across their territory — Abkhazia has remained closed zone. To continue reading, click here.

Return to Abkhazia: Day 2 – Marshrutkaland

In part two of my sojourn towards Abkazia, I finally arrived via Georgian and Russian checkpoints, conversations with a couple of new friends and marshrutkas of widely varying quality.

I was worried that it ran a bit long, but as anyone who has traveled in this region knows, there is simply no way to capture the richness of absurdity you encounter in 800 words or less.

I’ve not started working on Day 3, and the first article produced by the trip will be coming out in Liberali magazine March 7.

Enjoy.

Marshrutkas come in all shapes and sizes.

There are the shiny new Mercedes mini-buses like the one I took from Tbilisi to Zugdidi, and there are sputtering old commuter wagons with DIY seats, which, like the rest of the vehicle, are held together by duct tape, twine and prayer. There are sedans that also technically qualify – mostly 60’s model Volgas and Zhigulis – where every non-claustrophobic person in the neighborhood packs in and rides along a specific route, either splitting the fare or paying a set fee (the word “marshrutka” is short for “marshrutnoe taksi” – a fixed-route taxi in Russian).

As mentioned above, I got lucky with the first leg of my westward journey towards Abkhazia, spending the five-hour ride from Tbilisi to Zugdidi in a stunningly new and clean mini-bus, albeit in the worst seat for a tall person – the back left right corner. Still, at the station, several taxi drivers came up to me offering to drive me to Zugdidi for 200 lari ($120) as opposed to the 15 lari ($8) for the marshrutka ride, a price based purely on my Western appearance I am sure. Fat chance.

I sleepily arrived in Zugdidi’s central square around 1 p.m. and I had already called ahead to Dato Patsatsia, head of the Zugdidi-based Human Rights Centre, whom I hoped to meet with in the city. He met me shortly after I climbed out of the deluxe German marshrutka and led me to a massive Samogrelo-style house where a few human rights workers typed away in a small cold office full of maps and posters. To continue reading, click here.

Return to Abkhazia: Day 1 (sort of)

This is the first part in my series for The Faster Times, chronicling my most recent trip to Abkhazia — last week. This time I was heading in to report on Turkish trade and investment in the partially recognized republic, and the state of the political opposition there.

Although I didn’t make it very far on my first day, I had too many observations in that short experience to just gloss over it.

On each of my three visits to Abkhazia over the last 18 months, I’ve seen an incredible amount of change.

The first thing along the journey that was radically different was the Tbilisi train station. The first time I took the night train to Zugdidi, the Georgian town closest to the de facto border with Abkhazia, the place looked abandoned. I approached the unlit train tracks and asked the figures standing around in the dark where I could buy tickets. They pointed to the dark shell of a structure surrounded by wooden and concrete barriers. All of the doors I could find were blocked. It looked like the kind of ghostly place that high school kids dare each other to break into with tales of a murderous caretaker. Once inside, the only occupied room in the massive building was a small waiting room with only one ticket counter open.

Now the old Soviet station has been renovated into a clean glitzy shopping mall with a train terminal at its center, and I immediately didn’t like it. I admit that like many Westerners living and traveling through the former Soviet Union I have a strange fetish for the old palaces of the proletariat — train stations, metro stations, etc.. The proud structures of a bygone era continue maintain a charming mixture of socialist realist murals and general dilapidation. This new station seemed almost offensively out of place.

In one of Tbilisi’s poorer neighborhoods, the big white building sits next to the city’s largest open-air market where merchants push everything from vegetables to panty hose and bathroom fixtures. On both sides of the train station, masses of marshrtukas – a type of panel van converted to squeeze in 20-or-so travelers – wobble around and rumble off, carrying commuters around the city and country. Stepping into the train station is like being transported to a different reality.

To continue reading, click here.

The promise and threat of effective missile/air defense

Coming to a breakaway territory near you!

In the February issue of the Washington Diplomat, managing editor Anna Gawel and I, chimed in on what has been and is likely to be one of the defining issues in East-West relations for years to come — missile/air defense.

In the article we talk about how defensive systems have been the source of both tension and rapprochement in recent years from Poland, to Abkhazia, to Azerbaijan and Iran.

Throughout the Cold War, the deployment of offensive missile systems on air, land and sea by NATO and the Soviet Union was a constant point of contention — one that nearly sparked cataclysmic war during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.

Now, in the post-Cold War era, the focus has shifted to defensive missile systems, which have had their own contentious, complicated history over the last decade alone. And while their deployment continues to inflame regional politics in many parts of the globe, from Eurasia to the United States, the potential for finding common ground on missile defense may conversely quell tensions between former Cold War adversaries.

At a summit in Lisbon last November, NATO leaders agreed to implement President Barack Obama’s revamped missile defense strategy for Europe that would phase in sea- and land-based components over the next decade. Most notably, however, Russia pledged to cooperate with NATO on the U.S.-planned missile network in Europe in what was seen as a major foreign policy breakthrough for Obama — and a dramatic turnaround from the Bush administration’s previous missile defense plans that sparked angry objections from Moscow that Washington was needlessly ratcheting up Cold War-era tensions.

In stark contrast, the Lisbon accord “symbolized a conclusion by the United States and its main European allies that Russia is not a threat to be protected from but a potential ally in girding the continent against possible ballistic missile attacks from Iran or elsewhere,” wrote Edward Cody in the Washington Post.

Over the next year, the NATO strategy calls for the deployment of sea-based weapons system off Europe, with additional mobile radar and interceptor assets in the Black Sea, as well as integrating the missile defense networks of NATO states. By 2020, the $20 billion program would deploy advanced defenses against medium, intermediate and intercontinental ballistic missiles on both land and air in Europe. To continue reading, click here.