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Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Georgian Holidays


Barbaroba, or St. Barbara's Day, which falls on December 4th, may or may not mark the beginning of the holiday season. If it does, it's because it is the first feast of the month. You see, Georgians exploit any possible opportunity to indulge in the joie de vivre of eating and drinking big, and as New Year's Eve approaches, the intensity of satiation increases.

While a family may spend large sums of money on a restaurant banquet or a home cooked feast, they do not go into debt to prove their love by buying junk nobody really needs. Jesus can look down from heaven and be pleased that the Georgians have not blasphemed his name by turning it into some gazillion dollar consumer phantasm where people are compelled to feel inadequate if they don't go along with the program or labeled scrooges if they dissent of such artificiality. The holiday season is the most lively time of the year and you can enjoy it fully without ever having to step into a shopping mall or sing We Three Kings.

In lieu of the mall, Tbilisi has vogzal bazroba (the central bazaar) the last place you ever want to drive to this time of year. While always anarchic, during the winter holidays bazroba is absolute bedlam as swarms of people elbow their way through swarms of people haggling over mountains of shelled walnuts, fish, chicken and piglet carcasses and every imaginable seasonal fruit and vegetable; fresh, dried or otherwise. People consume natural homegrown food products, not plastics. Much of the waste will even feed Tbilisi's stray animal population.

This is not to say the symbolic act of gift giving is ignored, for on New Year's Eve (the December one), gifts are modestly exchanged and Georgian Santa Claus - Tovlis Babya - arrives that night with a present for each kiddie. December 31st is the big bash, ordinarily celebrated at home with family and close friends until midnight, when many people continue their festivities elsewhere till the morning hours. Rustaveli Avenue, the city's main drag, is blocked off and a stage or two or three may be set up with musicians performing in the freezing temperatures while people stroll up and down the street swigging champagne from the bottle and dodging fireworks aimed at the face.

The New Year's day is spent at a relative, neighbor or friend's house, working on the previous night's leftovers, inevitably washed down with more toasts. For the next two weeks, Tbilisi closes down for an extended binge.

Technically, being a good Georgian Orthodox Christian means one should fast through this period of gluttony, but Georgians for the most part make an exception for the holiday season. Nevertheless, on December 7th, Georgians will attend mass to commemorate Jesus' birthday according to the Julian (Orthodox) calendar. Mass is preceded by a feast of course, although it is nothing on the scale of New Year's or the western Xmas dinner.

Butterball turkeys can be found, but only foreigners buy them. The standard holiday fare is Satsivi – chicken in walnut sauce. Chicken is often substituted with fish or Georgian turkey, which Americans may find hard to recognize as they are not plastic wrapped and have not been injected by a slew of hormones or fed nuclear pellets. Piglets are also a tasty seasonal treat, particularly if they have been taken to the baker to roast in the tone – traditional oven.

January 14th is the old New Year and the last party of the season. Tovlis Babya has long returned to his igloo on the North Pole and it is safe to drive to bazroba. It is when I take the lights off our Christmas tree and hang them somewhere else in the house. And like the rest of Georgia, it is when I consider it about time to get back to work.

(For my cousin Ken, who asked how the holidays were celebrated here)

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Georgian Army

Georgian president Mikhail Saakashvili inherited a non-army when he came to power in 2004. Ranks were sold, soldiers were underfed,under-equipped and under-trained.

"In my two years of duty (1995-97)I fired my gun twice. We had no bullets," my friend Beso says. "For two years, all we did was march." On a salary of about 3 dollars a month, Beso was expected to buy his own uniform.

When Saakashvili became president, he made restoring the country's territorial integrity his first priority and revamping the military a top priority. By 2007, Georgia had the highest average growth rate of military spending in the world, according to Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. The total defense budget of 2007 was GEL 1.271 billion (about USD 765 million) or 6% of the GDP. Two months before the August war, parliament proposed a defense budget increase of GEL 1.395 billion.

Despite recommendations from the International Security Advisory Board (ISAB) to cut back the total manpower of the armed forces from what was in 1998, 38,000 to an optimum level of 13,000 - 15,000, Saakashvili established an armed forces of 33,000 professional servicemen and 100,000 reservists.

Maybe that's fine on paper, but during the August war, I saw how busloads of reservists were called into Gori, many in tennis shoes and ill-fitting uniforms to await orders to be cannon fodder. Meanwhile, Georgian troops were hanging out near the front lines, distraught and exhausted, while the officers were trying to figure out their orders over cell phones, sometimes asking locals for directions.

While today's Georgian army is a far cry from the decrepit institution Beso served in back in 1995, you cannot build an army in 5 years. Chris Chivers has a very good story about this in the NY Times.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

THE FILM FEST FOLLIES (or "why my jacket got ripped")

The 9th annual Tbilisi International Film Festival kicked off with a bang this year, and I mean “kicked” in the very literal sense.

Last week I went to see the new Bond flick, in English. Sometimes a Sunday night with a bucket of popcorn at the cinema is the perfect remedy for any ailment – all the more so if the film happens to be mindless, plotless garbage. Or in other words, in Tbilisi we take what we get, particularly if it hasn't been dubbed into Russian.

Once a year though, for one week, cinema lovers in Georgia can devour films which haven't come off the Hollywood assembly line. With this in mind, my lady and I hoofed it down to Amirani cinema theater to catch the opening night attraction, Atonement, by Englishman Joe Wright.

I was thrilled to see such a crowd in front of the cinema. The film fest organizers boast that one of their main aims is to expose the Georgian public to new trends in world cinema, and by the looks of it, a hundred people or so appeared to be hungry for exposure. But why were these people standing with their backs to the cinema? Why were they holding pictures of Georgia's first president Zviad Gamsakhurdia and chanting “Georgia for Georgians?” More importantly, why were they physically preventing me from entering the cinema to watch a film?

A burly man shoved me away. His timing was bad, for my mood had been sour for a couple days. I pushed back only he was supported by a mob. Undeterred by their aggression and my lady's pleas to leave the crazy idiots alone, I took a few steps back and tried to make a break up the middle, like a fullback (or crazy idiot), shouting in English that I have a right to enter a cinema. The problem of course was that I was shouting at Zviadists, who at this moment smelled blood - mine – and like a horde of George Romero zombies, were determined to snuff my soul. The women were especially vicious as they kicked me and ripped my coat.

You see, the Zviadists are an informal cult of psychotic pseudo-fascist supports of Georgia's first democratically president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, a soviet era dissident whose nationalistic policies basically turned Georgia into the mess it is in today (my Zviad story). Ousted in a coup in 1991 and found dead with a bullet hole in his head two years later, Gamsakhurdia is a martyr to a rabble of social flunkies led by his widow Manana. They simply refuse to let go and move on. While they have given up their daily protests in front of George Soros' Open Society building, they continue to gather in front of former president Eduard Shevardnadze's house and shout (Shevardnadze replaced Gamsakhurdia after the coup).

My jacket was torn in front of Amirani Cinema because the organizers of the festival refused to show a documentary film about Zviad Gamsakhurdia - not because of their opinions of the man, but of the film.

“First of all, we are not showing documentaries at this festival this year,” organizer Nino Anjaparidze said. “And secondly, it was a terrible film. But these people think we should be showing it on opening night.”

We had followed Nino and dozen other film lovers through the exit door on the side, which the Zviadists goons quickly blocked off.

“These people remind me of those Americans who believe Elvis is still alive somewhere,” said Zura, a man who slipped in with us. “One woman was shouting that the festival is showing pornography.”

The cops eventually got off their asses and set up a perimeter so festival goers could enter. The cinema was standing room only. As for the film, well, it started off really well but then got too full of itself and lost the plot, which ironically is exactly what happened to Zviad Gamsakhurdia.

(the man responsible for ripping my coat)

Tuesday, December 9, 2008


He was wearing a tie as classy as his pointy shoes. It was too dark to see the dandruff on his shoulders but I did notice he had a blotchy dermatological condition. His name was Gari and he was just another manager of yet an another exclusive Tbilisi nightclub.

Gari was not jacked up on crank, he just talked like he was. We showed up at 7 for a sound check and waited an hour for the sound man to come and bitch that nobody told him he would need microphones. It took him another hour to find some. In the meantime, Gari told us that we needed a manager. For two hours, Gari rambled about how a good manager could get us to Kiev, Moscow and money.

“Show business,” he affirmed.

We had a separate gig to get to and the sound man's lack of inertia was grating on my nerves. While he played with the wires I noticed a wad of gum had stuck to the bottom of my shoe. The gum was Gari.

“How do you like the sound?” he asked.

“I don't know Gari, he hasn't turned anything on yet.”

Later, at midnight, we filed through the metal detector at the entrance but Gari grabbed me by the arms.

“No, you can't walk out there,” he says. “It's not professional. Showbiz.”

He ushered me into a dressing room by the kitchen. The room smelled like toe cheese. Gari told me to wait. I said I'd wait better with a beer.

I left the door open and watched Gari walk around in zig-zags. “Your band does not look professional,” he said. “They are dressed like alpinists. It's showbiz, you know.”

“Well you tell them how to dress if you want,” I muttered. That's when I noticed how his black coat was a collector of bits of skin that had flaked off his face.

Then Gari instructed me on how to address the audience when we start – so that we appear professional. Gari went on and I tuned him out. The band came in and Gari told them how they should dress. As we were were preparing to go on stage Gari stopped me and unbuttoned one of my coat buttons.

It was a pretty decent stage, but if the management had invested as much money into sound as it did into lighting, the scene would have been a lot better. Yet despite all the fancy lights everywhere, the club remained dark, except for the intermittent floods of spotlight in my eyes. I could only make out two blond hookers at a table right in front and Gari, sitting in a chair next to the stage. Although the club looked empty from the stage, there were people in the shadows.

Thirty percent of Tbilisi is officially unemployed, which means if you are a parking attendant making 10 lari a day, you're not a statistic. But this is a city full of restaurants, expensive cars and exclusively cheesy nightclubs, like the one we were playing in - facts I will never understand.

We watched people dance to our music, which for a blues band in a land unaccustomed to such music, is always a particularly extra positive stroke, especially when the dancers are female. The problem was we couldn't hear what they were dancing to. There was only one monitor on the stage and we had to put it in front of the kick drum to keep it from sliding across the floor. The callouses on David's fingers began to split from the beating they took on his bass strings.

After the first set, Gari escorted us to the stink room.

“Hey Gari, no beer for the band?” I asked. He shrugged his shoulders. “But Gari, it's showbiz.” I reminded him.

Gari told me that Giorgi Baramidze, the Minister of European Integration, was in the house and asked me if I could go out and personally thank him for coming. I would have preferred to thank the two hookers.

“No, Gari. I'm not going to go out there and thank him. But here's my phone, if you want to call him.”

“OK, OK, well when you start your next set, thank everybody for coming. It's professional, you know. Then thank me, the manager, Gari.”

I thanked the hookers for coming first and then thanked Gari for the beer I hoped he would buy the band. We played through our last set and the sound cut out about a half-dozen times. But people were drunk and they danced. I thanked them at the end of the night, for if we had been playing to an audience of chair huggers hiding in the shadows, this gig would have been murderous.

In the end Gari did not sport us a round of beer but he did pay us in medium notes, which was the most professional thing he had done that night.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Me and the 800 lb Gorilla

About the time the August war with Russia had made the back pages of the papers and all the world's great war hacks were checking out of the Tbilisi Marriott, I got a phone call from a guy named Ferguson in Atlanta and in one breath he said:

“Hi my name is Paul Ferguson and I represent the eight-hundred pound gorilla in broadcast news around the world today and we're expanding, yes, at a time when the rest of the networks are cutting back, CNN is expanding our operations, extending them farther than any network in the history of broadcast news. This is your lucky day - we need a stringer in Georgia...”

I wondered why he had to sound like a telephone solicitor instead of coming out and just asking me if I wanted a gig.

“...Broadcast news is where the money is. We won't pay you as a freelancer, we'll put you on a monthly retainer you see, whether there is news or not. I used to be a print journalist but when I became part of the network it was the greatest thing that ever happened in my life. There was no turning back. Our correspondents make two point five thousand dollars an hour. That comes out to about two-hundred and fifty dollars a minute.”

There was a long pause.

“That was a joke,” he said.

“I'm laughing inside,” I replied.

I let the sales pitch continue racing around the phone line and wondered how long it would take to get a CNN business card if I chose the job. I also thought of my empty bank account.Then I pictured myself at the Marriott bar slipping Clarissa Ward (below) of ABC my CNN card with my phone number personally underlined and messing up US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza's hair when he came to hug me.

“But I'm a writer,” I said.

“I was a writer too, still am, but broadcast is the mother, man. It's the mother of all. Once you go broadcast you don't go back, it's where the bucks are my man and you'll always have time to write...”

My brain had been blunted from a month of Gori and a diet of Snickers and Borjomi.

“Well, I've done some TV commercials,” I admitted.

My first job was an audio report for CNN World TV. Then I ran around following potential news in the event a phone call would come. I wasn't crazy about that, for it started to resemble a job, but then CNN suddenly opened doors my previous surname tags never. Ministers even returned my calls.

Nevertheless, I was not convinced this was the work for me. I asked my friends for advice and there was nobody around to talk me out of it. In the meantime, Ferguson had become my handler. He stopped sounding like a salesman and more like an Atlanta desk professional.

“When the camera's rolling look straight into the lens,” he instructed. “When you look away you appear distrustful. Practice in the mirror, I know it sounds weird but it works.”

The trick, Ferg noted, was to imagine you are explaining the situation to a relative. I pictured my uncle in California asking me “so what the hell are they fighting about over there, anyway?” and I had one minute to explain it all to him.

I got a call telling me Cindy McCain was coming to town and I was going to do a stand-up about her visit on tape. My big break. I called the US embassy press guy.

“Hi Steve, how are you? It's Paul Rimple, CNN.”

Steve said Mrs. McCain doesn't like the press but he would call me back. He had to. Cindy would not come all the way to Georgia and snub the 800 pound gorilla.

Her shtick was a visit to IDP shelters, which in TV English I was reminded are “refugee shelters.” She was dressed in jeans, a t-shirt and had a lavender cast on her right wrist. Her eyes were blotto as if a big sheet of cellophane tape had been slapped on the front of her head. Walking through the airless and malodorous shelter, her expression never changed. She maintained a safe personal distance from IDPs, most of whom didn't know who she was, other than an important blond-haired woman with a pink cast on her wrist.

After the tour, she accepted only 3 questions from a small group of 80 pound monkeys. What did I possibly want to ask her?

“How is your visit linked to your husband's presidential bid?” somebody asked.

She answered it wasn't, that it was her own private affair to help the suffering people of Georgia.

Two more questions. Somebody blurted the inevitable “Do you like Georgia?” I put my notebook in my pocket. When someone asked why she had a cast on her arm, I walked away.

Georgian villages were burning, tens of thousands of people were displaced, hundreds of people dead, corpses rotting in fields somewhere and Cindy McCain was news. When I got home Russia had recognized the independence of the two breakaway territories. I made some calls but the big-wigs were too busy for even CNN. I tried to call some colleagues to find out what they had heard but my phone was refusing to work.

CNN had given me instructions to meet the Turkish camera crew stationed across the street from Parliament. I put on a smart shirt and got there in time to mentally put my Cindy McCain story together. I also managed to call my friend to find out what the president's TV address was all about, but I had to go on camera before she could tell me.

The Turks were set up next to one of the busiest streets in the city. I had a wire in my ear and couldn't hear the anchor with the noise of the traffic in my other ear. The technicians turned the wire up which blasted distortion in my ear. Then the camera started and the anchor asked me to report the public and presidential reaction to Russia's recognition thing.

“Well, people are upset, sure, and like, well, the, uh, president was just on TV rallying the nation to stand united against the Russian threat and well, you told me to follow Cindy McCain around all day.”

The anchor told me not to look at my shoes and to peer into the camera. “OK,” she humphed. “Then tell us about Cindy McCain then.”

“Well, she visited several refugee centers today. She stressed that her visit was in no way connected to her husband's presidential bid.”

“We can see Mrs. McCain has a cast on her arm. What happened?”

“Yes, she broke her wrist.”

“Thank you, Paul Rimple, from Tbilisi.”

“Thank you Sarah.”

I went home and poured a tall drink. Ferguson called and asked me how it went. He saw how it went.

“I'm not nervous about being on camera,” I said. “I'm just nervous about fucking up on camera... Do I get a business card?”

He contributed a mercy chuckle as if he was laughing inside and told me not to wear patterned shirts and that I should consider shaving my mustache and goatee. He also suggested I go to and do these homemade reports via Skype to practice. It was good advice, but I would never take him up on it. And they would never call me back.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

FOX NEWS and the war

Leave it to Fox News to get it WRONG.

After Russians moved into Gori and blocked off the "Sukhumi Highway", journalists hung out at the checkpoint to wait for either an opportunity to be allowed into the occupied city, or some kind of Kodak moment, like that which occurred when a couple car loads of Ossetians/North Caucasus irregulars pulled up behind the Russians, jumped out, fired their guns into the air and stole 4 or 5 vehicles from journalists. Some hacks turned their cameras on to film the theft while guys like Steve Harrigan of Fox ran away and reported that frustrated Georgian irregulars came and shot at journalists.

For the record, there were no Georgian irregular fighters in this war.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Circassian girls

Funny what you come across searching for the history of North Caucasus religion...

"Circassian beauties, or "Moss-haired Girls" as they were sometimes known, reflect a curious legacy of racial stereotyping and sexual titillation. Racial theories of the mid 19th century held that the people living in the Circassian mountains near the Black Sea were examples of the “purest stock” of the Caucasian race. Legend had it that the Circassians produced the world’s most beautiful white women, who were consequently in great demand for the harems of Turkish sultans."

Then there's a letter by PT Barnum instructing his representative how to purchase a Circassian girl HERE

There is also a compelling story of Circassian traffic by the London Post August 6 1856 with this as a lede: "There has been lately an unusually large number of Circassians going about the streets of Constantinople."

Monday, October 27, 2008


Anzor Sharmaidze, the guy collared for killing CIA operative Freddie Woodruff 15 years ago, has been freed. This comes a little more than a week after Andrew Higgins' WSJ story on the closed case.
Read his followup piece HERE.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

McCain wins the other Georgia

(image lifted from

It's totally understandable really. In a country with a street named after George W Bush, you can't really expect it to pull for a democrat. You can also look at it another way.

In 1997 Georgia received a measly $700,000 from the largest U.S. military aid program, Foreign Military Financing (FMF). Although the number rapidly increased to a respectable $5.3 million, the floodgates opened under Bush. Since 1997, Georgia has received $79,390,000 million in FMF grants, not to mention the additional $12 million Bush requested to the 2006 budget. That's just FMF grants.

Bush allocated $64 million to train and equip Georgia’s soldiers (GTEP)to fight invisible al-Qaida terrorists in Pankisi Gorge. The next thing was to prepare Georgians to come help fight terrorism in Iraq etc. The first Sustainment and Stability Operations Program (SSOP) cost $60 million and we can expect the second installment cost about the same.

As for social/economic/democracy development money, Between October 2004 and September 2005 alone, $138 million was budgeted by the US for assistance programs to Georgia. This was immediately followed by George W Bush’s Millennium Challenge Corporation, chaired by Condoleezza Rice, which signed a five-year $295.3 million grant to “ reduce poverty and stimulate economic growth” outside of Tbilisi.

And don't forget Dick Cheney's promise of $1 billion post-war aid.

Now you have to ask, if Putin had been this generous over the past 8 years, mightn't the people of Georgia support his chosen successor?

Anyway, my CSM piece is HERE

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Abkahzia In-dependent?

Came back from another fun-filled trip to Abkhazia...Actually, that was a couple weeks ago - time flies. I'd say the highlight was getting shakendown by some drunken cop and so-called Russian peacekeepers in the name of protecting us from invisible Georgian "provocateurs".

You won't read about that HERE though. Instead you'll get the straight story, about the semi-recognized country's identity crisis.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Freddie Woodruff

In August 1993, CIA operative Freddie Woodruff was murdered in Tbilisi.

Was he assassinated or did a lucky shot hit him in the head?

ANDREW HIGGINS reopens a nearly forgotten story here: Our Man in Tbilisi

I scribbled my spy story about Woodruff last year for Georgia Today:

I’ll begin this story at the end, with Thomas Goltz, the “rogue freelancer” of the 1990s Caucasus. Before reading his compelling Azerbaijan Diary, I had heard gut ripping stories of him in Baku, as he is still a notorious character in those parts. This was only a couple years ago, during Azerbaijan’s failed orange revolution. I was writing for a now extinct e-zine called Sobaka, which was a subjective, sometimes accurate, yet highly readable (in my opinion) magazine about people, places and events that don’t ordinarily get covered.

It was around this time I received an email out of the blue regarding the murder of Dennis Woodruff, a CIA operative working in Georgia in the early 90s. After doing a little research, I learned that Thomas was perhaps the single person most informed of the story, as he was a friend of Dennis’ and mentioned incidents related his work in the Caucasus in Azerbaijan Diary.

When I finally had the opportunity to meet Thomas one summer night at a party informally in his honor, I was thrilled to discover he is in fact as mad as I had imagined and lives up to the reputation that surrounds him. My mistake however was mentioning the name of Freddy Woodruff and Gary Best when I should have just asked for a light instead.

“What, are you a spook?” Thomas said.

I sat there dumbfounded trying to figure out if this was part of his sense of humor, but his entire posture had tensed and his eyes were no longer happily glazed, but accusatory.

“Yeah, I’m a spook,” I confessed. “I just play harmonica as a cover.”

“No, are you a spook?”

“If I was, would I tell you?”

I thought I probably wouldn’t if I was. I’m sure in the spy handbook there is a list of highly effective comebacks for such accusations. Things had been going so well too, but I just sat there trying not to look like a secret agent until I gave up and walked away.

Several weeks ago Thomas was in Tbilisi for a reading of his new book Georgia Diary. There at Prospero’s, he mentioned Freddie Woodruff, who I’m willing to bet many of the attendees of the reading are unfamiliar with. And that is the purpose of this story, which began with this email:

“I am a Houston-based lawyer representing family members of Freddie Woodruff (a CIA Station Chief murdered near Tbilisi in 1993). I am working on their behalf to obtain the release of Anzor Sharmaidze, the young man wrongfully convicted of Freddie’s murder. In December 2004 I succeeded in obtaining an order from the Supreme Court of Georgia for re-investigation of the case. This case involves a host of significant Georgian figures including Igor Giorgadze, Eldar Gogoladze and Shota Kviraya. There is information to suggest that it may also involve the elusive Gary Best... Can we talk?”

Michael Pullara, the attorney who sent me this e-mail was at President Mikhail Saakashvili’s address to staff at Tbilisi Technical University on November 16, 2004. Pullara introduced himself much like he did in the e-mail above, mentioned the promises made before the Rose Revolution and asked the president to “give justice to the man who was wrongfully convicted for that murder and set Anzor Sharmaidze free.”

Saakashvili was nettled: “Suppose my friend President Bush delivers a speech and a Georgian lawyer happens to ask him a question about freeing a person whose case is being reviewed by an American court...” He went on to say that an American should respect the Georgian system and laws the same way Georgians respect America’s. “Georgia is not some third-rate country that can be spoken to in this manner.”

Nevertheless, two months later, Saakashvili asked the Prosecutor General to reopen the case, despite the fact that he had supported the court’s decision not to reopen it, based on lack of evidence, several months earlier.

The murder investigation of a CIA operative in Georgia in 1993 is bound to be chock-full of conspiracy theories ranging from the far-fetched and macabre to the plausible and probable. However, there is one fact that is indisputable: On August 8, 1993, Freddie Woodruff died from a bullet in the head.

Officially, Woodruff was a State Department regional-affairs officer training Eduard Shevardnadze’s security forces, upgrading Georgian intelligence service and monitoring factional struggles. He had gone on a picnic to Kazbegi with Shevardnadze’s chief bodyguard, Eldar Gogoladze, and two girls, in a Niva. Upon their return, several young men in army uniforms tried to stop the car at the city entrance. Gogoladze, the driver, refused to stop and turn on his headlights. As they attempted to pass, a single shot was fired, hitting Woodruff in the back seat.

After dropping Woodruff off at the hospital, Gogoladze returned to the site and detained three men, one of whom was 20 year-old Anzor Sharmaidze. At the police station, Sharmaidze confessed, claiming it was an accident, and was sentenced to 15 years in prison in February 1994.

Not an Open and Shut Case

If this wasn’t Georgia in 1993 and if the murdered man wasn’t a CIA station chief, the alleged facts could have been taken at face value. But when Sharmaidze claimed his confession was tortured out of him and the FBI conducted their own investigation, the open and shut case began to crack.

Pullara said that according to FBI documents, there was no trace of a bullet hole in the Niva, yet Georgian prosecutors and ballistic experts maintained the bullet left a hole obvious to the naked eye. The fatal bullet’s shell case was later discovered to have been planted by police.

Another discrepancy is the official time of Woodruff’s death. First of all, prosecutors claim Sharmaidze fired his gun because the Niva was driving without its lights on, but the reported time of the shooting was around 9pm and the sun wouldn’t have set in Tbilisi yet. Furthermore, Woodruff’s body arrived at the Tbilisi hospital in an advanced state of rigor-mortis at about 10 pm. According to Pullara, this would have been impossible if Woodruff had been alive less than hour earlier.

Besides being the head of Shevardnadze’s security force, Eldar Gogoladze was also a trained homicide investigator. Nevertheless, he didn’t call police near the alleged shooting scene to respond - he waited until after delivering Woodruff to the hospital. Nor did he surrender his weapon for ballistics testing, and clothes for forensic analysis.

Despite the reports Pullara has examined, the FBI, along with CIA director James Woolsey stuck to the official line that “this attack was a random act of violence and not politically motivated.”

The Inevitable Russian Link

Shevardnadze eventually had a falling out with Eldar Gogoladze, who was charged with possession of a weapon in August 1996, despite the fact he had a license to carry one. His home was searched, no weapons were found but he was held in pretrial detention for three months nonetheless. Charges were eventually dropped a year later. During this time, word began floating about that Woodruff’s murder was set up.

Former Georgian State Security Service chief, Irakli Batiashvili, claimed at a news conference in Tbilisi on October 13, 1995, that Woodruff was murdered by the Russian KGB.

Security Minister Shota Kviraya went on the record to blame his predecessor, Igor Giorgadze for ordering the murder. That was a safe bet, Giorgadze was wanted by Interpol for the 1995 assassination attempt of his boss, Eduard Shevardnadze. While everyone in positions of power in Georgia, particularly in the 90’s, was suspected of working for the KGB, there is strong evidence implicating Giorgadze - he used to be a chief KGB officer, fled directly to a Russian base and was transported out of the country by Russian military. Incidentally, he claims to be innocent of the assassination attempt stating that if he had planned it, he would have been successful.

The only problem with Kviraya’s statement is the credibility of the mouth it came out of. In June 1997, parliament provided evidence to the Prosecutor General of a video tape made in November 1993 of Kviraya shooting six members of the Mekhedrioni in Zugdidi, who were accused of looting. He was also implicated in tapping journalist’s phones and controlling the black market cigarette trade. Kviraya resigned in July 1997, maintaining his innocence and recanting Russian involvement in the murder.

The Elusive Gary Best

Mr. Pullara hasn’t responded to questions regarding Best’s involvement, but a glimpse at the man’s profile makes speculation fun.

At the time of Freddie Woodruff’s murder, Gary Best was in Baku setting up an incredulous oil business, MEGA Oil, with Richard Secord (of Iran-Contra scandal fame) and legendary Air Force special operations commander, Brigadier General Harry “Heinie” Aderholt. The plot line of this affair is as wacky as Best’s supposed biography and involves Missing in Action Vietnam POW’s, recruiting Mujahedin from Afghanistan to fight in Nargorno-Karabakh, along with American mercenaries, in addition to setting up the first western oil company to pump oil in Azerbaijan.

Gary Best has no known address and was a self-described electronics importer operating chiefly in Southeast Asia. He had ambiguous connections to Iran-Contra figures like Oliver North and had made several trips to the USSR and Asia, including Afghanistan and Pakistan in the 1980s. One associate was convinced Best was a CIA operative, or a former one, by the type of people he surrounded himself with.

It has also been speculated that in Best’s effort to acquire money for his adventures, he was involved in trafficking narcotics.

Aldrich Ames and the War on Drugs

If not the most famous foreign spy in American history, then Aldrich Ames was certainly the most damaging. In the nine years of spying for the Soviet Union and later Russia, as the CIA counter intelligence chief of Eastern Europe, Ames gave up the names of every “human asset” the US had working there. Of the twenty-five sources he exposed, ten were executed.

Ames was in Tbilisi two weeks before Woodruff’s murder. That means he would have been in contact with Georgian Security Chief Igor Giorgadze. Since it was Ames’ business to expose American spies, it is not unlikely he would have revealed Freddie Woodruff.

Senator Jesse Helms linked Woodruff’s murder to America’s War on Drugs in an address to Congress in April 1994. Helms believed that narcotics trafficking was the new battleground in the post-cold war era and the KGB was engaged with Cuba and Columbia in the business. He uses an article written by Mark Almond of the Wall Street Journal to back his point.

In 1990, Ames became head of the narcotics intelligence department for the Black Sea countries.

Almond stated that Woodruff was allegedly investigating Georgia’s role as a conduit of heroin from the ex-Soviet Union to the West, and that Shevardnadze’s security force – the guys Woodruff was sent to work with – were widely known in Georgia to be involved in the heroin business. If Woodruff had reported this, Ames would have been the first man in the CIA to see the report.

Back at Square One

The KGB, CIA, FBI, double spies, drugs and murder – the pages of a Tom Clancy novel come to life. It has been 14 years since Woodruff’s murder and nothing has been proven except he is still dead. His family is convinced Anzor Sharmaidze is innocent.

Micheal Pullara says “We have made substantial progress in our investigation of the murder of Freddie Woodruff. We have traveled to three continents and interviewed dozens of people in our effort to obtain justice for Anzor Sharmaidze. These efforts have been very productive in establishing Anzor’s innocence. We anticipate major developments in the very near future.”

Pullara said that three years ago and the clock is still ticking for Anzor Sharmaidze, who has one more year of his sentence to serve.

While the CIA never officially acknowledged Freddie Woodruff worked for them (which is standard procedure), he is buried in Arlington National Cemetery: Freddie Russel Woodruff, Specialist 5, USA-CIA Officer.

Friday, October 17, 2008


The link to Camerawars has been fixed.

Camerawars is Lech Kowalski's latest film project.

" It is a new kind of cinema in a new venue, a cinema free of television and corporate production restraints. It rips away the walls corporations have erected between the audience and artists, an experimental cinema, sorely lacking in the new world order, accessible outside of traditional venues and television.

"Director Lech Kowalski blogs about each chapter and the audience can interact with comments or submit films and music of their own... Chapters can be viewed full screen, smaller image or with a black border. Headsets or external speakers connected to the computer will produce optimum sound quality."

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Quotes that didn't make the cut: Somaliland

"So Max, looks like Somalia's the next country in line to recognize your independence,"
I said to Maxim Gunjia, Abkhazia's deputy foreign minister.

"Oh God," he said. "I really hope they don't. We'd rather have Somaliland. It's much more stable, even if it is unrecognized."

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Gali Story

photo: Sophia Mizante

Abkhazia has hailed Russian recognition of its independence from Georgia as the start of a new era, but for Georgians in the southern Abkhaz region of Gali the campaign to strengthen Abkhazia’s statehood poses a dilemma: whether or not to take Abkhaz citizenship.

Many Georgians in Gali, a predominantly ethnic Georgian (Mingrelian) area, fear that they may be forced to take Abkhaz passports, which would require them to forfeit their Georgian citizenship, an act few are willing to make.

Read more here and check out my pal Sophia Mizante's photographs.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Story from Pankisi Gorge

One of the things you have to get used to is editors shaving your story to make it fit. It's part of the gig though and you really shouldn't whine unless you're paid by the word.

The nice things about blogs is there is no need to shave.

Here's a story about Pankisi from the CSM
Below is the original:

When Russian tanks rolled towards Tbilisi in August, shops closed and streets emptied as the benumbed population was home, glued to their televisions and radios. A hundred miles northeast from Tbilisi, in the mountainous enclave of Pankisi Gorge, Chechen refugees and their local ethnic kin, “Kisti” also watched the invasion on TV, but with less stupefaction and more cynicism.

“They (Russians) say they fought to protect their citizens but look what they did to us. We were their citizens too,” avows Musa Dadayev, a Pankisi refugee for 9 years.

Chechnya spent the better half of the 1990s at war with Russia. Like Georgia's separatist territories Abkhazia and South Ossetia, it too won a de facto independence at the end of a gun, but when Russia launched a second front in 1999 to regain control, it leveled Grozny and displaced hundreds of thousands of people. Amnesty International estimates 25,000 civilians were killed in this war alone.

4-5 thousand refugees spilled over the mountain border into Pankisi Gorge and found sanctuary with fellow Muslim Kisti, ethnic Chechens who arrived in the Georgian region some 150 years ago. Most refugees were women and children, however, many fighters also arrived and used the area as a safe haven to launch military operations into Russia from.

Pankisi soon became notorious for its lawlessness as Tbilisi officials not only turned a blind eye to the kidnapping, arms and drug smuggling the valley was rife in, but was often complicit in it. Meanwhile, the Chechen guerrilla movement was attracting foreign “jihadists” who were also importing a wahabbist ideology into the traditionally Sunni/Sufi religion practiced in the region.

Tensions between Russia and Georgia increased over Tbilisi's inability or unwillingness to control the Pankisi Gorge and in 2001 Moscow had threatened to invade Georgian territory to eliminate the Chechen “terrorists.”

Washington responded by introducing the Georgia Train and Equip Program (GTEP) in May 2002, the United State's first direct military assistance program in Georgia. The 18-month, $64-million plan was designed to train and equip four six-hundred man battalions with light weapons, vehicles and communications in order to successfully confront the situation in the Pankisi Gorge. Putin supported the GTEP program despite internal criticism that the United States was encroaching on Russia's sphere of influence.

Today, heavily armed paramilitaries no longer swagger down village streets in Pankisi and a small police station has replaced the former Georgian Ministry of Interior checkpoint. But when
Russian helicopters entered Pankisi airspace in August, many locals had flashbacks of the war and some refugees, like Taus Yerznukayeva, took her family and fled to the Turkish border in a vain attempt to seek asylum.

“We were all certain there would be war again,” asserts the 52 year-old mother of nine.

Like nearly all of the 1,102 registered refugees in Pankisi, Ms. Yerznukayeva has no home in Chechnya to return to. Moreover, she does not want her sons to have to live in Chechnya's new reality under former rebel fighter turned Putin-backed Chechen president, Ramzan Kadyrov, and be conscripted into the Russian army.

Two Chechen companies from the Zapad and Vostok Battalions were engaged in the war with Georgia while Georgian villagers in the conflict zone have recounted numerous stories of how Chechen and North Ossetian marauders ransacked and burned their homes. This is not good news for the people of Pankisi.

Musa Dadayev is not surprised Chechens fought, but refuses to believe they would loot and burn homes, claiming it is a Russian tactic, while Shorena Khaugoshvili a 33 year-old journalist, is less skeptical.“We Kisti don't like to hear this,” she says. “I don't know if it's true. I want to believe it's not true.”

Adam Makhalov, a 34 year-old Chechen pedagogue of Russian literature is not surprised at the allegations.“We heard a father and his two sons were killed by Kadyrov for refusing to fight Georgians. Those who fought aren't Chechen. They're assimilated Russians,” he affirms.

It was not without bitterness the Chechens and Kisti of Pankisi Gorge noted the West's active role in negotiating the peace process in Georgia. Other than human rights groups, the West had no presence in Chechnya, nor made any firm stance to stop what it considered Russia's internal problem. Lia Margoshvili, a 44 year-old Kisti widow believes western intervention would have stabilized the entire Caucasus by keeping Russia in check.

“If the world had supported Chechnya the way it supported Georgia, there wouldn't have been a war now,” declares Ms. Margoshvili.