Tag Archives: Russia

When You Call Georgia, Who Picks Up the Phone?


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

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.

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.

Sharks in the waters of the Georgian casino industry

For more than a decade, Georgia has been virtually the only place in the region to go for (legal) gambling. Unfortunately for the Georgian casino industry, that’s about to change. But not all change is bad, and although the industry faces new threats, new opportunities are also beginning to emerge.

When I wasn’t running around Abkhazia or teaching English over the last couple of months, I have been looking into this trend for Investor.ge.

Georgia has seen few industries boom in the   years since its independence like the casino industry. While neighboring countries banned or tightly limited gambling throughout the 1990’s, Georgia allowed it to flourish; as a result there are more than 500 slot clubs currently operating in Tbilisi. But the gambling business is now facing new threats. In the last several years, Georgian casinos have increasingly been the target of proposed tax legislation as the government vied for a bigger slice of the industry’s traditionally murky profit pie. Furthermore, although Georgia once occupied the title of the Las Vegas of the region, it is no longer the only game in town.

In Azerbaijan gambling has been illegal since 1998; however, as of January this year state-run gambling houses are now allowed to operate. In the same month Armenia issued licenses to dozens of gambling organizations, which, once relegated to the outskirts of Yerevan, are now working their way into the city.

But Vedran Bajat, General Manager of Casino Adjara, said that he has been closely watching these changes in the market and in his opinion they will not have a significant impact on the Georgian casino business.

Despite the fact that a steady stream of Armenian and Azeri thrill-seekers has traditionally been a boon for the Georgian casinos, Bajat estimated that Casino Adjara, which attracts an average of 1,000 players per day, has a clientele that is 90 percent local. In addition, he pointed out that Azerbaijan has only legalized sports betting and lotteries, so Azeri crapshooters and card-players will still have to make the trip west to Tbilisi or Batumi to get their fill.

Still, the increased competition, high taxes and a steep 5 million GEL ($3 million) annual licensing fee for casinos seems to have made it difficult to break into the market. Currently, only two casinos operate in Tbilisi: Casino Adjara and Iveria Casino. A third, Grand Sakartvelo closed recently.

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

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!

Post-revolutionary Georgia on the edge?

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.

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.

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.