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.
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.”
Part of my homework for the weekend is reading a new briefing report by British think tank Chatham House on the current political, economic and social conditions of Georgia in 2011.
It sounds based on it’s summary points that they are on the right track:
From the Rose Revolution in 2003 to the war with Russia and financial crisis of 2008, Georgia achieved impressive macroeconomic results. Government reforms reduced petty corruption and criminal violence markedly. Rapid progress was made in the delivery of public goods. The investment climate improved.
President Mikheil Saakashvili has weathered the fallout of the war with Russia. Weak opposition and substantial Western aid have enabled the government to stabilize the economy and consolidate its political position.
However, positive headline macroeconomic results may not be sustainable and mask persistent concerns regarding poor performance in combating poverty, unemployment and increasing inequality.
Human rights continue to be a problem. The government cuts corners on democracy and the rule of law. Media freedoms remain constrained. Civil and parliamentary oversight of governmental decisions is limited, and the judicial system is subject to political interference.
The abuse of state power and enduring poverty and inequality risk alienating the population and increasing social tension. There is therefore reason to question the sustainability of Georgia’s economic model and the stability of the post-war political situation.
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.
Lukashenka (right) with Russian Vice President Vladimir Putin (center) in 2005. Courtesy of wikicommons
On Christmas Eve this year, Belarusian Presdient Aleksandr Lukashenka was declared the official winner of the Dec. 19 elections roundly denounced as fraudulent and unfair, meanwhile police interned protestors demonstrating near a prison where most of Lukashenka’s challengers were held.
Although fixed elections have become the sad norm to Belarus, recent developments had given the international community hope that some progress in its democratization might be seen this year. Over the past year, Belarus has feuded with Russia, which has long propped up Lukashenka’s authoritarian regime, leading to utility cutoffs and public wars of words as the Eastern European country appeared ready to open up to more cooperation with the EU and the United States. The West, in turn, offered Belarus billions of dollars in development grants and loans on the condition that it demonstrate efforts to embrace democratic principles in this year’s elections. Instead, Lukashenka – or “the last dictator in Europe” as he is known — held true to the reputation he has built in 16 years as president, barring election observers from doing meaningful monitoring and using opposition protests as a pretext for police to arrest — and in some cases physically assault — nearly all the other candidates along with hundreds of their supporters.
To get some perspective on what is going on in Belarus and where the country is headed, I spoke with my colleague, Belarusian journalist Lizaveta Zhahanina.
So, to start off, what is your reaction to the most recent elections overall?
I am not surprised at all. Eighty percent is a usual number Lukashenka assigns to himself, I would at least hope he would be slightly more generous to opposition this time, but clearly he was not. There was no real hope for a fair and free election this time around, since all the run-up and the country’s political scene has been screwed for years. What is shocking, however, is the amount of force Lukashenka chose to impose on opposition again. Similar crackdowns happened in 2006, but the current post-election violence from the side of authorities seems even more far-reaching in a way. Continue reading →
Most people paying attention to the gradual post-Bush thaw in U.S.-Russian relations and increase in bilateral cooperation likely see it as a logical development between two powers that can collaborate in mutually beneficial ways. And I agree.
However, observing this from the vantage point of the Caucasus, it’s hard not to note the flakes of absurdity that shake off of the policy.
Last month was a good one for U.S.-Russian relations. First, executives from Google and other tech companies arrived in Russia as a part of a delegation led by California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to examine Russian President Dmitri Medvedev’s efforts to spur the emergence of a “Russian Silicon Valley.” Schwarzenegger called Medvedev an “action president” and declared that the U.S. “wants to be friends with Russia.”
Medvedev for some reason thought it was good symbolism to drive the Governator to Russia's innovative new business school in a old Soviet luxury car. Photo by Mikhail Klimenyev/Agence France-Presse
Both sides were also remarkably civil both publicly and behind the curtains when the Kyrgyz went to vote in parliamentary elections Oct. 10, in what could have made for a nasty proxy battle over a poor country that hosts both Russian and American military bases.
To preview Kyrgyzstan’s Oct. 10 parliamentary elections, Washington DiplomatManaging Editor Anna Gawel and I took a close look at the elections and the stakes for three superpowers involved in the Diplomat‘s October issue. Take a look!
As voters in Kyrgyzstan go to the polls in parliamentary elections Oct. 10, many will be watching intently for a sign of where this unstable yet strategic Central Asian nation is headed.
Kyrgyzstan hosts both U.S. and Russian military bases and is a key link in energy trade and narco-trafficking routes. The country is also perpetually hobbled by ethnic strife, endemic corruption and streaks of authoritarianism. This past year alone, Kyrgyzstan has experienced bouts of upheaval that have all but wiped away hopeful memories of the so-called “Tulip Revolution” five years ago.
In April, a violent uprising toppled the autocratic regime of Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, although his presence lingers in the bitterly divided nation. That bitterness came to a boil this summer when inter-communal violence erupted in Kyrgyzstan’s ethnically mixed south between minority Uzbeks and the majority Kyrgyz, killing at least 400 people — and possibly many more — while displacing tens of thousands.
When the ethnic fighting broke out in July, Roza Otunbayeva, the interim president, publicly requested that Russia send a peacekeeping force to help quell the violence. Interestingly though, despite Moscow’s penchant for inserting itself into the affairs of its former Soviet-bloc neighbors (most notably Georgia), Russian President Dmitry Medvedev declined, saying his country would not become involved in “an internal conflict.”
Settling into my third busy week back in Tbilisi after a two-week stint in the States, I’m back in the swing of things — translating, reporting and blogging.
While none of my articles have gone public yet, many articles written by other people have caught my eye.
A fabulous piece in Foreign Policy entitled “Call off the Great Game“ by Thomas de Waal has been emailed and posted around the clique of foreign journalists in Tbilisi. In it, he debunks some of lingering counterproductive misconceptions about the Caucasus and how the outside world could help stabilize this traditionally turbulent region.
Saakashvili meets with Georgian troops at the Krstanisi military base in February.
Apparently I missed a rather odd weekend in Tbilisi.
Throughout the region, local journalists and politicians mark August 7-8 on their calendar for the usual stories and statements about the anniversary of the August 2008 war between Georgia and Russia. The political leaders of Russia, Georgia, South Ossetia and Abkhazia snipe and grandstand and journalists write up something quick about where the two sides stand today.
I will always think fondly upon Barbara Slavin as the person who gave me my first start in this wacky, and sometimes unforgiving business. It’s good to see she is doing well after bumps in her own career.
A week or two after graduating from American University I nervously approached the offices of the Washington Times. I was overdressed for the casual, coffee-stained nature of the newsroom and I had probably over-caffeinated myself as I tried to remember the points I wanted hammer into my pitch for why they should give regular freelance work to a 21-year-old kid headed to a tiny post-Soviet republic.
Barbara Slavin, via AOLnews.com
After eating a cafeteria lunch with Foreign Editor Willis Witter, I was led around the newsroom, and eventually to the office of the head honcho — Managing Editor Barbara Slavin. She listened and took notes through my jittery spiels on story ideas, and then tried to hone in on what could be a tighter focus within a few of them. She then asked me a key question “Вы говорите по-русски? (Do you speak Russian?)”
I explained in Russian that I did, and the conversation continued in that language. Eventually she asked me where I learned it. “I spent a year studying in St. Petersburg,” I said. “Where did you learn Russian?” I asked her. “In Leningrad,” she smiled. She then officially welcomed me to the team and bid me a “всего хорошего!” as I walked out with a smile.