Pages

Recent Posts

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Season's Greetings From Georgia

The holiday season in Georgia means eating piglets and drinking October’s grape harvest. It means New Year’s on Rustaveli swigging champagne from the bottle and dodging fireworks aimed at your face. But above all, the holidays mean experiencing family intimacy on a level totally obscure to those from the West, whose holidays often mean having to be with the family, or in other words, experiencing an inconvenient necessity. Georgians undoubtedly find that concept inconceivable, yet it is a reality in some American households.

I was at one American Christmas gathering that ended up in a fight, where one woman got her face slapped by a brother-in-law, who in turn got kicked in the groin. The kind of language that has no business being uttered in the worst Skid Row dive – let alone under the mistletoe – was being slung at every member of the family before they even had a chance to pour their eggnog. This was just an ordinary, suburban, Anglo-Saxon family (unlike mine, who are just a bunch of crazy Mexicans). My family doesn’t drink eggnog or hit each other (at Xmas), but they do yell. My favorite comments occur as the ever present multitude of children rip their gifts open, sending wrapping paper in the air.

“Oooh, ughh, this is ugly!”

“You better like it, it was expensive!”

“Shut up or I’ll smack you!”

“Where’s the receipt?”

Meanwhile, the males sit on the sofa and watch football with beers between their legs. It has been like this every year for as long as I remember.

But then, what is the holiday season if not a time of year steeped in tradition and routine?

Take Nick Ponti. As an Italian, his family did not possess the exuberance of my Anglo-Saxon friends and Latin American relatives. Christmas with them was a spaghetti dinner, whiskey and watching a documentary about Charles Manson. While Nick’s mother did rag about Nick not having children yet, it was done very quietly.

I’m all for tradition and high spirits, which is why I find Georgia particularly endearing. And as I enjoy yet another Tbilisi Christmas, I have developed a new routine, a kind of family tradition: drinking the holiday chachatini.

For some of us foreigners, chacha - Georgian grappa - is a stinky poison to be avoided at all costs. To others it is a kind of exotic hazard. For me, it is my drug of choice. Like wine, I prefer homemade chacha to the bottled variety. Of course you need a good source – it’s much easier to get bad chacha than good.

While I’m not opposed to drinking down the hatch, it is pleasant to sip a cold chachatini in the warmth of one’s home, in the pleasant company of friends, films or books, or simply alone in the dark, and get slowly throttled. To make this delectable butt-kicking treat, you need nothing more than the basics: a shaker, ice, green olives and a bottle of vermouth. Personally, I prefer the Luis Bunuel method of mixing extra-dry. First you shake the piss out of some chacha and ice, pour it, then hold the bottle of vermouth up and let a ray of light pass through the bottle into the glass. In the evening I use the light from blinking Xmas lights. This guarantees not only a perfect taste, but eventually the sound of sleigh bells, whether Saint Nick is there or not.

We all have ways of celebrating the holidays, some of us more or less sober than others. It’s called holiday cheer for a reason.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

ABKHAZIA, SOUTH OSSETIA - 4 / WORLD - 188*


Abkhazia and South Ossetia just scored another point in global recognition of their independence, as Nauru, the world’s smallest nation, has jumped on the little red bandwagon with Venezuela, Nicaragua and Russia, raising the number of countries that recognize the separatists' sovereignty to four.

A couple weeks ago, Abkhaz Foreign Minister, Sergei Shamba, said they were looking to get recognition from nations uninfluenced by the Big Powers. While you gotta admire his “we look at things as they can be” attitude, the fact is Abkhazia has to take whatever it can get, even if it is an 8 square mile chunk of disappearing bird shit in the South Pacific.

As far as countries go, Nauru is quite simply a cheap whore. Blame it on a troubled childhood. Europeans first started exploiting Nauru’s phosphate - fossilized bird shit – for fertilizer in the early 19th century. After getting tossed around between Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and the UN, Nauru eventually got control of its own bird shit in 1967. Soon, the island of some 10,000 people had a per capita income second to Saudia Arabia. The problem is fossilized bird shit is not a renewable product. Much like the inhabitants of Easter Island extincted themselves by raping their environment, the Nauruans laid waste to their piece of the rock and when the shit disappeared, everything else did too. Nauru became a barren ecological wasteland with a 90% rate of unemployment by the turn of the century.

The Nauruans blamed the Europeans for the disaster and sued in international court for damages inflicted by over 100 years of strip mining. Australia, NZ and GB all kicked some annual guilt settlement in the pot, but it wasn’t enough to keep the country from going bankrupt by 2000. One way out of the mess was by providing a friendly climate for money laundering. Another was by investing in a musical, "Love, Lennie da Vinci and Me," which failed miserably. For a while, steady income came by housing refugees yanked out of waters headed for Australia in bleak, unsanitary refugee camps. The Aussies paid over $100 million for the service until a change in government closed the camps in 2008.

In the meantime, Nauru was building a reputation of being a wishy-washy global political player. After a formal 22-year relationship, Taiwan severed ties with Nauru after the little island took $130 million from China to unrecognize Taiwan’s independence. A couple years later, Nauru re-recognized Taiwan for a nice sum. Can you blame them? The country has zero exports and is entirely dependent on imported goods, including water. Nauru's only asset is its willingness to recognize separatist nations. Russia paid $50 million for the recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Merry Christmas guys.


Four countries is two more countries than last year, is one way of looking at it. While we snicker at Nauru and its remarkable 80% obesity level (highest in the world), Abkhazia is lobbying Ecuador and making contacts in the Middle East, including Iran, which Shamba says is only logical, as the country is a big neighbor. To Abkhazia, a flag is a flag is a flag and they will wait as they have waited for the past 18 years, one flag at a time, whether Russia pays for it or not.


* Nobody can agree on the number of countries in the word. The US says 194, the UN has 192 members and most world almanacs have 193.

Photos:
King Aweida and his posse circa 1921, lifted off www.janeresture.com
Thomas J McMahon and islanders in 1916, lifted off www.naa.gov.au
The island /www.wayfaring.info

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Nasty Neighbor Blues

When Robert Frost said good fences make good neighbors he wasn’t lying. Of course he wasn’t the first to say that. Chinese Emperor Qin Shi Huang said the same thing when he started building his chunk of the Great Wall and the practice continued right up to 1961 when Walter Ulbricht put up the barbed wire fence, which ameliorated into a wall and created two neighborly Berlins.

I know all about fences. My brother built one to keep his neighbor’s dogs from shitting in his yard and we built ours to keep Vova from gaping through our window like a lobotomized imbecile. Dogs have no excuse – they’re dogs. Vova’s excuse was that he was drunk, which is no excuse at all even if it’s the only one you got.

Closer to 70 than 60, Vova is a wiry old jackal with an evil potency and a constitution full of vodka, piss and vinegar. An ulcer in human form. He had a viscous German Shepard he kept tied in the sun, just short of his water dish in the shade. The dog died of a heart condition just before we moved in.

Our relationship began when we were obliged to meet him and get his OK to buy his half-brother Viktor’s portion of the house four years ago.

“Oh a Pole and American. Great. I thought my brother might sell his half to some Kurds or Megrelians and we’d get all their relatives living here too,” Vova spat.

The last words of Olga, Viktor’s wife were “I don’t know how you’re going to live with that man next door.”

That was a fine time to tell us.

I soon discovered Vova was not the kind of guy you ask “how are you?” because he’d tell you and you didn’t want to know. The world’s against him because he’s against the world – and visa-versa. One of those, “life was better during communism” kind of guys, only during communism he was bitching too. He was born to bitch and because he knows best, he was also born to give advice:

“You’ve got to dig a drainage ditch behind your house... It’s easy...”

“You should fix that retaining wall before it falls on my garage... It’s easy...”

These were things we were aware of and planned to do when the time was right, but Vova wouldn’t let up and his advice turned to nagging which turned to bitching.

“Your fucking retaining wall is going to fall on my grandchildren! When are you going to fix it?!”

We eventually got around to building the retaining wall. Kind of Mexitecture, practical, competent and ugly. It wasn’t good enough for Vova, he made that crazy sign, like the work was done by lunatics, which in a sense it was, but that’s another story. He let me know that this wall we built has no drainage system and the seepage will destroy his garage, which has been decomposing for decades. So if his garage rotted tomorrow, it would be my fault. Everything is somebody else’s fault.

When I put up a new roof above our bathroom, he suddenly had some roof work of his own to do, but of course he just wanted to inspect what I was doing. A pest. One day he just materialized in our dining room to see what kind of work we had done.

We finally got around to digging the drainage ditch behind our house, not because of Vova’s nagging, but to control the mold. The work started with picks and shovels but we found that sort of labor would put us in the poor house in no time, so we rented a jackhammer.

Needless to say, the jackhammer is one of the most annoying tools in the world. Racketing behind our wall, I had to live with it and my only console was that it was driving Vova crazy too. But that had repercussions of its own.

I had a stomach virus one day which had an ill effect on my demeanor. The jackhammer rattled my nerves when it was on and more so when it was off, because it meant the boys weren’t working. That hammer cost 20 bucks a day. Then came Vova, sucking on a cigarette, beckoning me to come to his house. He escorted me by the arm to point out three cracked tiles and a half-dollar sized spot of peeling plaster on the ceiling. My jackhammer, he claimed, was the cause of it all. But the hammering was being done far from his bathroom. I shrugged my shoulders. “It’s an old house. We have lots of cracks in our bathroom.”

Then he screamed. “Your work is destroying my house!”

“Not my problem,” I said and walked away. And then something snapped. He said something I said something and the volume increased. Our shouts drowned out the jackhammer. I cussed him out in three-and-a-half languages. The workers ran out to see if I had killed him, which I would have done, but I didn't have a gun.

For about a year he wouldn’t talk to me, which was grand. I’d say good morning and he’d growl. Communication was done between the women, which was a drag for Justyna as Vova’s wife is a hysterical maniac, driven mad by decades of living with Vova. One day she came out to give us the gas bill with a big shiner around her eye.

“I...uh.. fell,” she said shamefully.

“Yeah, I know exactly where you fell,” I thought.

From time to time, Vova would show me the water seeping through the wall of his garage and I’d agree that “yes, it looks wet,” and walk away unperturbed. But when we woke up in the morning to appreciate our Tbilisi view and saw Vova peering through the chain-link fence staring back at us, we called a carpenter friend to help us make a Great Wall of Vera. As long as Vova was out of sight, he was out of mind.

In the meantime, Vova had put his house on the market so that he could return to Russia and live off the fat of the land with a Russian pension. After more than a year of praying for the day he would leave, I am now looking out the window, peeking between the slats of our fence and watching new neighbors move in. Nice people. They even mentioned that after they are all moved in, we might not even need the fence anymore. I smiled but said nothing.

(re-printed from my Georgia Today column a couple years back)

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Snake Oil Blues


My friend Sam co-penned a story for the Wall Street Journal about a British company that had its steel mill in Georgia seized by the government and sold off to a dubious Georgian firm. Meanwhile, Georgia's Prime Minister, Nika Gilauri, is in England to convince everybody what a great place Georgia is to invest in.

Read the article HERE





Thursday, November 19, 2009

Working Man's Blues

A few months back, the Mayor of Tbilisi, Gigi Ugulava had a little celebration in Vake Park to honor the city's garbage men by awarding them with applause and new uniforms. One sanitation engineer, however, was not there. He did not want to spend the only day off he had had in months to hang out in the park with a bunch of garbage men, so he came to our house.

"We work seven days a week now," he said. "If anybody complains, they'll lose their job."

Before our friend landed this job, he worked at a tractor factory where he was told he would have to work one probationary month free of pay. Theoretically, the owner could get free labor this way, by firing each candidate at the end of each month.

As the son of a UFCW Local 101 man, I had a personal interest to find out if there's any laws protecting workers in Georgia. And the answer is, not really.

In 2006, Georgia amended their Soviet era labor code into a neo-liberal code that is designed to protect "employer's rights," which sounds kind of funny, as how often has an employer had to worry about his rights in the past 90 years?

Technically, workers have every right to engage in collective bargaining and organize, and the constitution protects citizens from discrimination. Yet there is a gaping hole in the labor code that allows an employer to terminate a contract without stating a reason. So it's against the law to say "I'm firing you because you are a union agitator." All the employer must remember is to drop the subordinate clause when dismissing someone.

The government says with a straight face that the problem isn't with the code, it's that workers don't know their rights. Business leaders say that protecting this right will scare investors away from Georgia, which suffers from something like 30% employment. "The economy will regulate itself if we let it," they say. But these business leaders live in a kind of bubble because they must compete for skilled labor and have to offer good salaries and benefits to their employees. But what of the other reality where unskilled laborers must silently compete for crumbs 7 days a week?

Georgia's Ministry of Economic Development (MED) boasts that according to The Heritage Foundation, Georgia ranks 99.4% in labor freedom, which sounds pretty damn good, but what does it mean?

Well, if you're an investor it means there are "highly flexible labor regulations" where the "rules on the number of work hours are very flexible. The non-salary cost of employing a worker can be moderate, and dismissing a redundant employee is costless."

To the worker, 99.4% labor freedom sounds a bit like serfdom, but then the Heritage Foundation is a neo-con think tank whose mission is to "formulate and promote conservative public policies based on the principles of free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, traditional American values, and a strong national defense."

Georgian workers aren't demanding more pay and benefits (in some cases they are asking for the back-pay they're owed, but many are afraid to do that for fear of losing their jobs). What they want is their constitutional right of non-discrimination to be protected in the labor code too. Meanwhile, all my friend the sanitation engineer wants is a day off from time to time.


My labor story for Eurasianet.org is HERE.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Russia's Hidden War by Evan Williams

It's a story well known in the Caucasus - How Russia uses terror to control its republics. Reporter Evan Williams goes to Ingushetia for Dateline and discovers how innocent civilians are being kidnapped, tortured and murdered by Russian security forces.
You can watch the entire story straight from the horse's page in better quality, or check out the youtube versions right here...


Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The scum dogs of the caca press

When it comes to bad journalism there are the low-rent lice like Rezonansi newspaper that will publish slanderous pieces under the guise of a paid ad, which they claim to have no editorial control over, and there are the ignominious cockroaches like Rustavi-2 TV, which goes by the motto "if you can't find the news, then invent it."

There is another category of purulent curs, which plummets off the category of bad journalism, to the depths of vile, lowest common denominator propaganda. Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to introduce you to the scum dogs of the caca press, the Georgia Times.

Not to be confused with the legitimate English language newspapers Georgian Times (note the plural) and Georgia Today based in Tbilisi or the Georgian Daily website based in NY, the Georgia Times is an ambiguously published fake newspaper, full of twisted stories that slander Georgia.

For those of us who know anything about the region, one look at the Russia Today link on the page is a dead give away this is KGB press, without looking at a single headline. The Georgian language link does not fool us. There is no list of contacts other than an "info@" email - no names, numbers or an address.

One example of the site's creativity is in how they plagiarized my Eurasianet story about gambling and twisted it into a malicious piece on Georgia being a mafia gambling haven full of gambling dope addicts etc etc, by cutting and pasting my lines and adding adjectives to fit the theme. They couldn't resist tossing in a quip about how Andy Garcia played a mafiosa in Godfather III and now is playing Saakashvili.

Get it? Not only are they cheap, but they are clever too!

This round of the information war goes to Russia for reaching the abject lowest in taste, methods and humor. For this, and for dishonoring my story, I have been left with no alternative but to inflict the chingas curse on them, one of the nastiest curses known to man. There is no pity for the victims of the chingas curse, nor is there a cure.

Tip o' the hat to J.O.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Gambler's Blues

Sofia Mizante c/o eurasianet.org

This summer, Russia closed down all casinos and gaming parlors and exiled them to Siberia. Armenia has also passed a law moving casinos to regions far from the capital. Meanwhile Azerbaijan and Turkey forbid legalized gambling. A few years ago in Abkhazia, a developer tried to open a casino to a backlash of civil disapproval. Gambling, the public said, would only bring disaster to the mostly indigent population, who would get hooked on the quick fix attraction of games of chance. They fought the developer by petitioning parliament and won.

For Georgia, the gaming industry is a welcomed source of revenue and brought $10 mil. into coffers last year. Yet, this economic asset is also a social liability as many Georgians become addicted to gambling. This in turn leads to a deterioration of family relationships and is often connected to other forms of dependency such as alcohol and drugs. But because Georgia is so far behind in the treatment of addictions and no studies have been done on the effects of gambling, the problem goes unrecognized and untreated.

I've heard plenty of stories of people losing their homes from gambling debts, or of families who have had to bail out a family member by selling their home. Friends tell me of well-known public figures they have loaned money to for gambling debts and an opiate using neighbor tells of his almost wins at the casino one day, and asks me to loan him a 20 the next. In Georgia, gambling is only a problem when you lose.

"You want to know why the Georgian football team is so bad?" my friend, a former director of a Tbilisi casino said several years ago. "Because the owners are losing money at my casino all the time."

You can read the story I did with my pal Sofia Mizante for Eurasianet HERE.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Orthodox Blues


"Everything bad in man is only accidental." Father Gabriel


Lenin Square was packed to capacity during Tbilisi’s May Day celebration of 1956*. Two gigantic portraits hung from the Executive Committee of the Communist Party building; one of Stalin and the other Lenin (3 months after Khrushchev’s denouncement of Stalin). At the height of the commemoration, Stalin suddenly burst into flames, followed by Lenin. The crowd is said to have froze in horror.

As the portraits burned, a man appeared from the second floor window and gave the following sermon:

“The Lord said, ‘Thou shall not make unto thee idols or any graven images… Thou shall not bow down thyself to them nor serve them for I am the Lord your God… Thou shall have no other gods!’
“People come to your senses! The Georgians have always been Christians. So why are you bowing down before these idols? Jesus Christ died and on the third day rose again… But your cast idols will never be resurrected. Even during their life they were dead…”

It didn’t take long for the authorities to get Father Gabriel out of the office he locked himself into and when they dragged him outside, the crowd went ape-shit and pummeled him into a bloody pulp, for he was an enemy of the people. It is said they fractured his skull and broke his bones in 17 places, and he lay unconscious for a month.

The priest was imprisoned for several years and after his release, the Church wouldn’t have anything to do with him for a decade or more. He lived with his mother on a pension he was allotted as a certified lunatic, of 17 rubles a month. People were afraid of Fr. Gabriel and his mother and would often sic their dogs on them. Sometimes he would beg in front of a church until the priests threw him out. When his mother died he moved into a cave.

Today Fr. Gabriel is venerated as a Holy Monk and people pray at his grave at Sveti-Tskhoveli Cathedral in Mtskheta.

People are fickle. The children of those who hated Fr. Gabriel now believe the church is the most trusted institution in Georgia. Today, diss the Georgian Patriarch, His Holiness Illia II, and you could get beaten to a pulp. Such is the combative nature of Georgian Christians.


My comrade of the quill, Mathew Collin, has written what happened to pro-government think tanker, Tea Tutberidze, who posted a satirical video of the Patriarch on her Facebook page. While she probably should have known what was coming, Tea is now Georgian public enemy number one and has become The Caucasian answer to Sinead O’Connor, who burned a picture of Pope John Paul II on American TV in 1992. In Georgia, the cops had to prove they were Christian by catching up with the kids who created the clip. Now they must decide on how to punish them for dissing the Pope, which is almost against the law.

The problem with many self-declared Christians is they forget what it means to be a Christian. Here, there are people who believe being a component of one of the first Christianized nations in the world is like having a Pass Go card for the pearly gates. You don’t have to work for it. Heaven is free for Georgian club members.

A lot is said about Georgian tolerance to other religions, which is fairly accurate, unless you are a Jehovah’s Witness, Seventh Day Adventist, Mormon, or some other uninvited proselytizing faith. Otherwise it's okay to even "belong to that cult, the Roman Catholics," but celebrating Halloween here is taken as a threat to the nation.

Some people in Georgia believe the Church has become politicized and are afraid to criticize it, less they be figuratively or literally mauled. They worry the line that separates church from state is being erased by a growing fundamentalist tendency in the populace. This forces the government to act Christian from time to time, because nobody sees ministers cross themselves when they pass a church in a Landcruiser with tinted windows.

*Other versions place the date at 1953

Monday, October 19, 2009

Dental Chair Blues

Rati hipped me to my first Georgian dentist shortly after I arrived in the country. His cousin spoke English and she drilled in a storefront around the corner from the school we worked at. Rati's teeth weren't exactly pearly, but the filling I needed was in the back of my mouth where no one could see it and I had procrastinated long enough.

"She has all the latest equipment," he assured.

The cabinet consisted of one blue patient's chair and a plastic table, with moist stainless steel instruments scattered about, as if oral surgery on a two-headed beast had just been performed minutes before. The little spit sink was full of bloody spit. The little rubbish box next to it was overflowing with bloody wads of kleenex and cotton. Salome came in from a dark, dusty looking room, lit by the glow of a small television and put on a white lab coat. "Sit down," she said.

I thought of how lucky I was to be living in the 21st century, having dental work done.

I didn't get hepatitis from that visit and the filling is still where it should be, but rather than push the luck, I decided to try a new, modern dental clinic in my neighborhood to replace an ugly old filling Dr. Lude drilled in 30 years ago.

The new micro-financed clinic was equipped with a new X-ray machine, which is much smaller than the clunkers I recall from the previous century. I suppose that's why I wasn't given a lead vest. My bet was that the assistant had never operated the contraption before.

"Sit down," Dentist Rusa said. What the blue chair lacked in comfort, it made up for in sanitation. There was no blood anywhere. She arranged her tray and plugged in a device that began to billow more smoke I have every seen any electrical gizmo emit. "What's this?" she said. The funk of burning electrics filled the room.

Rusa ordered me into another room. I was not deterred, even after I noticed the X-ray picture next to her workstation was of a molar, not the incisor I was paying her to work on. Dentists never look at X-rays anyway. Besides, her job was to simply drill some gunk out of a tooth and fill it back in with tooth spackle, much like a house painter fixes a wall.

"Sit down," Rusa said again. I wiggled in and tried to find a comfort zone, which would never be there.

"Do you have any allergies?" she asked.

"Only to pain. I suffer from a childhood dental trauma. My dentist, Dr. Lude, was a Nazi war criminal," I said.

Rusa coldly ordered me to lay back and open my mouth as she pulled out one of her torture tools and sprayed me in the face with water. It wasn't until she actually started drilling that she first laughed. I admit feeling slightly ill at ease at that moment.

The job set me back 225 lari - 130$, which was no great deal, although included were the X-ray and a fluoride cleansing I didn't ask for. After the Novocain wore off I realized Rusa had also shaven off a part of a good tooth, for practice or something, I'm not sure. I have another old filling that needs to be replaced, but under the circumstances, I may wait for pain before I venture to the dentist's again.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Knucklehead Brigade

Among the minions of nutters on the net with misguided notions of last year's war over South Ossetia, are the photo savants, who behind their computers, can judge whether a war image has been faked or staged. Most of these conspiracy theorists are neither photographer nor journalist and therefore know nothing about optics and perspective, let alone what a war zone or humanity is like.

The iconic images of the Gori apartment bombing on August 9th became a prime target for pro-Russian websites and blogs, like russia_insider, that insisted the photos were faked to serve some propaganda agenda. Then the story was picked up by some smarty-pants western journalists and exploited, like David Axe's story in Wired, in which a photographer of insects analyzes the images. Next thing you know, every left-wing Bush hating blog has an opinion. As if it weren't enough to show what Russian aircraft really did in Georgia, Tbilisi and its big western brother had to create it. These experts know. They were at their computers when the bombs were flying.

"I thought these pictures were fake the moment I saw them. What bullshit. I am so disgusted to be an American right now. This is what they want though, to make u s so sick that we give up. Fuck the corporate media," says Meathook on uruknet.




From russia_insider:

"Now on this picture we see a crying man and a body in his hands. But look closely! This is the same checkered shirt, same trousers and shoes, the same person. So does it mean that the crying man took the body brought it some place else? Hardly so, this is just one of the participants of the show. And again if you look close enough you can notice that the guy crying is the person in black from the previous picture."

He's calling the tragic death of Zviad Razmadze "a show." Zaza Razmadze is holding his brother, and is clearly not the man in a black shirt in the previous photo. Fools like russia_insider are supposed to have us believe that Zaza found his dead brother Zviad among the rubble, minutes after the airstrike and a Reuters photographer came along and asked Zaza, "Hey, could you move that body over there, for a better picture."

Then some joker Gregory Freidin from the Stanford Department of Slavic languages & literatures posts one of Justyna Mielnikiewicz's war images and calls it faked based on this brilliant observation:


"The photo shows a large framed poster of George W. Bush hanging askew in a Georgian house apparently damaged by a Russian bomb. What makes it appear staged is that the poster is hanging above a sliding glass door, not a wall."

Yes, Georgian villages are full of sliding glass doors, just like in the Bay Area. And I thought only smart people went to Stanford. The Slavic language academic and interior decorator goes on to imagine what Georgians must be thinking:

"The message, perhaps the dominant view in Georgia today, is that conflict in Georgia represents a personal humiliation for George W. Bush and a national humiliation for the US for allowing Georgia, a US friend and proxy, to be defeated by the Russians."

Those of us not gifted with transcontinental telepathic powers must rely on actually conversing with people to find out what's on their mind.

Recklessly discrediting the work of respected photographers is witless enough, but when these denunciations involve the victims of the war and the people that continue to mourn them, it is downright obscene.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Substance and Reality Revisited

(image lifted off rottentomatoes.com)

Back in August I questioned which version of the Russian-Georgian war over South Ossetia Hollywood action director Renny Hartlin would portray. While we knew Georgia wouldn’t let anybody in the country to shoot a pro-Russian film, the question was, would it be Hollywood’s or Georgia’s version, and the answer of course is “both.”

Razzie winning director Renny Harlin has begun shooting his film of substance and reality, which Executive Producer Papuna Davitaia said in an interview with Georgia Today is “based on real facts.” The Russian drama, Olympus Inferno was also based on real facts, for that matter, just as it was based on real fiction. What we the viewers love to figure out is how many facts and how much fiction is packed into such a movie.

Davitaia co-wrote the story with David Imedashvili, who may be the same fellow that made this little film. Davitaia is also a United National Movement Member of Parliament and Head of the cultural department.

So it’s like this:
Davitaia and his friend wrote a story about an American journalist and his cameraman who suddenly find themselves in the middle of a war (not too different than Olympus Inferno plot, actually). They took the story to Hollywood to find someone to make the film for them. Call it serendipity, but they somehow got a veteran maker of schlock action movies to film their tale and a guy named Micheal Allen to write the screenplay. If it’s the same Allen who worked with Halprin on Die Hard II, then to his credit are two television screenplays – Tales From The Crypt and something called Fitting Punishment.

So on one hand we have Russia’s celluloid action-packed version of the war and now we have Georgia’s action-packed version a year later. As a cinema buff I’d expect more substance and reality from an Andy Sidaris film. I understand the patriotic motivations behind the Georgian produced project, but wouldn’t it be better to invest in the rejuvenation of Georgian cinema instead of handing over some cash to a two-bit bum from Palookaville, California to make a propaganda film for you?

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

London Mayor's Aid Runs Over Georgian Man: Will he keep his promise?

On August 27th, Tariel Ivanishvili and his friend Nikolaz Gwenitadze were about to cross the Batumi-Tbilisi highway to buy a pack of cigarettes in the village of Nakhshirgele, just outside Kutaisi when Kulveer Ranger, transportation aid to London Mayor Boris Johnson, hit Ivanishvili on a BMW motorcycle and sent him flying into the highway where two other motorcycles ran over him.
When the story hit the English papers, the accident occurred in Tbilisi and Ivanishvili had suffered a broken leg "but is not believed to be seriously injured," the Daily Mail wrote, while the BBC stated "The pedestrian is thought to have suffered a broken leg." I remember the headlines in Mid-September: "Boris Johnson's Aid Held by Georgian Police."

The truth, however, is a bit different.

Tariel Ivanishvili is not a market vendor, like the Evening Standard originally reported. He worked at the LTD Chiaturmagnum Georgia plant in Nakhshirgele, where he earned a whopping 270 lari ($160) a month. He suffered not one broken one leg, but two - the right femur was stripped of meat and skin to the bone, which was fractured in half, while the left leg, broken in two places, had snapped up behind his back. He also had his hip broken and skull fractured.

The most amazing thing, besides the fact that Tariel survived the accident, is that he has nothing bad to say about Ranger - no hard feelings whatsoever. We won't know for 11 months whether he will be able to walk; he spends his days and nights in bed where the slightest movements incite intense pain as he has 7 steel pins sticking out of one leg, freshly grafted skin and a recently implanted steel brace in his other leg, not to mention the hip pain.

"It was a total accident. Bad luck for both of us," he said.

Ranger suffered a few bruises when he dumped his bike after hitting Tariel. Today he is back at work. I'd call that good luck.

Tariel has no idea how he is going to support his family and get his two young daughters (5 & 9) through school. Like the vast majority of families in Georgia, the Ivanishvili's have no insurance.

To his credit, Ranger visited Ivanishvili twice after the accident and according to the family, promised to pay for all medical expenses, including rehabilitation and compensation for the loss of work. Then he suddenly disappeared.

It was Bagrationi Sparkling Wines, sponsor of the charity rally Ranger was taking part in that actually picked up the bill for the first operation of 17,000 lari ($10,200). They didn't have to do it as nobody was held liable for the accident. The family lawyer says they have committed to covering the rest of the costs, but there is no legal document binding them to the agreement. Furthermore, nobody has mentioned compensation for the loss of work.

The Ivanishvili family maintain Mr. Ranger is "a very nice man," although they haven't heard from him since his abrupt departure and don't know if he will live up to his gentleman's promise to help the family out.

The Ivanishvili's aren't making a big deal out of the accident for fear they will appear like knavish fortune seekers. "We don't want a scandal," they said. When I interviewed them for a story they made it very clear they didn't want me to smear Ranger's name. I hoped though, that the story might trigger the Englishman's memory.

Could Ranger be a louse? According to the BBC story, Ranger said of the accident: "To be honest, it was an interesting experience. Not one you would want to repeat, but it added to the adventure... To be honest, what was just as alarming was an earthquake one night. 6.6 on the Richter scale."

My story for the London Evening Standard is HERE.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Batumi's Playground for Adults

Good luck finding a good watering hole in Batumi, Ajara's grand Black Sea port city. There was a pleasantly sleazy little pool hall a few years ago but it has since vanished. There are, however, several stimulating plastic table cafes along Gogabashvili Blvd, just across the street from the harbor, that serve cold cheap beer and girls.

Some time ago, I stumbled into one of these places for a cold one with a Ukrainian friend. The proprietress introduced us to a young woman she said worked at the cafe, also Ukrainian. It didn't dawn on me then that she wasn't exactly a waitress. Later that night we returned, but my friend was cursed with the wretched constitution of not being able to hold his liquor, which I only discovered after watching him drop to the ground like a bowling pin.

His brain basket hit the pavement first with a disturbing, cracking thud, but nothing leaked out. The thick skulled Ukrainian was coherent. With no blood anywhere, several other men came over and helped put him on his feet. I grabbed his little camera bag from the table and stuffed him in a taxi. The camera of course, was not in the bag.

It was no accident that I found myself at this establishment again. Seedy joints might sometimes be boring but they are rarely dull. An elderly woman had come to find her husband slouching with his friend at the table next to me. She wouldn’t cut him any slack. She stood there for half an hour, reminding him what a drunken, worthless man he was. He did the noble thing and ignored her while sipping his beer. She sat down and looked at him in disgust, got up to yell again but just smacked him on the bean instead and walked away.

A prostitute clutching a wad of cash showed up with an entourage of liquored wharf rats and decorated the plastic table with peanuts, juice and rotgut cognac. They were having fun, much like the tourists across the street, only differently.

One woman, however, was not having fun. She was a pretty redhead, sitting inside the booze hut, worrying about her boyfriend. Her birthday had been the day before and he never called her. She asked to borrow my phone since he no longer answered her number. She called and the boyfriend predictably hung up on her. She called again, again, again and again, but he wouldn’t answer. Then she called his mother.

“No wonder he dissed her,” I thought, but the poor thing was desperate. She began to cry.

“Buy her a drink?” the owner said.

Sonia looked like she could use one.

She asked for a little bottle of vodka. The owner, a large unkempt woman whose sleepy disposition is just a facade, wanted something to drink too. She had been waiting for a sucker like me to show up since the last time I dropped in there. Sit me down next to pretty girl and hustle me for vodka, juice, champagne, cognac, shashlik – the whole works - and then give me the fat bill, that’s the gig. The best part was that my “date” was in tears. I flipped for a bottle of mercy vodka for each of them.

Sonia’s story was not uncommon. Born in Batumi some 30 years ago, her husband left as soon as their daughter was born. She has no job other than hanging out at this hustler’s oasis getting whatever crumbs the owner throws her. With no education and very little prospects for legitimate work, Sonia's only hope is to wait for Mr. Right to come along and rescue her while she's still pretty.

Needless to say, in a cafe designed for the Wrongs, Sonia won't be meeting Mr. Right anytime soon, but I do give her credit for not being cynical enough to stop dreaming. A single dream at this sad playground for adults is worth more than all the dreams in all the booming nightclubs for the young and beautiful put together.

Walking home that night I thought about the road less traveled and how it did make a difference, especially to the owner of the dive and to Sonia, who didn’t go home in tears, or hungry.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Notes from the Theater of Life archives

Instead of going to the ticket window and being told that tickets for the Tbilisi-Baku train had been sold out, I went straight to the conductor of wagon 3 and arranged a berth from him directly.

“Where you from?” he asked.

“Chicago.”

“Yes, I’ve seen it on television… England?”

“No, America.”

He lit my cigarette and we filled the gaps between puffs with small talk before he popped the inevitable question some cultures actually find boorish.

“How much you make?”

“About five-hundred dollars a month,” I decided to say.

“Only?”

“I don’t need much.”

He responded with a greasy laugh, barring an impressive investment of gold and said, “In Baku Americans make much, much more.”

The odor of European trains get denser and more viscid the further east you get. The Tbilisi-Baku train is a box of solid impurity threatening to contaminate the body with its suffocatingly fecal permanence. You sit and wonder why the windows have to be sealed shut and then stop thinking.

I was escorted to an empty compartment, sat and adjusted my zen. I could hear the jolly conductor tell some colleagues a couple of doors down how there is an American on his wagon that makes four-hundred dollars a month. They all laughed. Then two Georgians entered my compartment with nothing but ten liters of home-made wine as baggage.

After the routine preamble about food, women and wine, the train lurched eastwards and the bigger Georgian asked, “Who is that hocus-pocus American… You know... David?”

“Copperfield?”

“Yes, Copperfield. Jewish. He’s with Satan.”

“Satan?”

“Yes, he can made a train wagon disappear, I’ve seen it,” he said, while his friend nodded his head as if they imagined our train disappearing with us and their wine before arrival.

“No, not Satan. He does it with mirrors,” I said.

Fifteen hours later we entered the dry beige suburbs of Baku. Stepping off the train, before you can take your first breath of fresh Caspian air, dozens of mustached men envelope you with sky-scraping stacks of manat for sale. Behind them are a barrage of taxi drivers and entrepreneurs offering their cell-phones for rent. This friends, is the end of the line.

In 2006, Azerbaijan introduced new manat - national currency - with far less zeroes. 5000 old manat = 1 new. This increases the life span of wallets and reduces the "happy to meet you" bulge in the pocket.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Gali, One Year Later

Greetings from the Galiwood Hills, the story should be. Here's last week's Eurasianet story about that bright lights, big city of Gali.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Abkhazia, one year later

Abkhazia celebrated the first anniversary of Russia’s 2008 recognition of its independence with its borders guarded by Russian soldiers and its seaside resorts packed with Russian tourists...

You can read the rest of last week's story HERE

Friday, September 4, 2009

Showcase: Neighborly Hatred. photos by Justyna Mielnikiewicz

Justyna’s Caucasus project is the result of documenting nearly 10 years of life around her. It is not a mere collection of “decisive moments” caught while traipsing around the region but is a compilation of decisive stories, captured in each image, which together tell the larger Caucasus story. The quality of her work is a testament to her deep understanding of the vast complexities that comprise the region and her instinctive abilities to document these complexities from the gut, the epicenter of the soul.

Once again, it is my great pleasure to link ya'll to another Justyna Mielnikiewicz slide show. This one is from James Estrin at the NY Times about her long term work in the Caucasus.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Signifying Mud



One year after the Russia-Georgia war and the scum is still floating on the top. In some cases, it is still rising.

The Russian prosecutor general's office is now claiming that “soldiers from Ukraine's regular defense ministry detachments and at least 200 members of the UNA-UNSO nationalist organization took part in the armed aggression against South Ossetia."

This accusation has come one year after the deputy chief of Russia’s General Staff, Colonel General Anatoly Nogovitsyn, held a news conference in Moscow and revealed that Russian troops had found a passport in Tskhinvali belonging to an American named Michael Lee White. This proved without a question of a doubt that the USA was behind the war. Never mind that White was an English teacher based in China and had lost his passport at the airport in Moscow. Nogovitsyn’s revelation came out on the same day Vladimir Putin told CNN that he suspected the war was deliberately provoked by the US, in order to help “one of the candidates” in the US election. And let us not forget the corpses of “dark-skinned mercenaries” found in Tskhinvali Russian news reported.

The conspiracy theorists loved this shit. All over the internet, left-wing nutbags jerked it off for all it was worth. The equation was simple. If Bush’s foreign policy was bad, then Saakashvili was bad. Therefore, his enemy Putin must be good. The man that leveled Grozny during his dirty war with Chechnya had suddenly become a victim of the Cheney doctrine. Blah blah blah.

I have friends in Armenia and Abkhazia that really believe the US masterminded the war, based on Russia’s successful propaganda machine and the logic that the US wouldn’t have armed and trained Georgia otherwise. The US can be blamed for lots of things but not for instigating or taking part in last August’s war. The US had repeatedly told Saakashvili to mellow out on the war drum stuff. Renewed conflict would only crush Bush’s big plan to get Georgia into NATO, which it ultimately did.

People also believe that Georgian troops were doped to kill civilians, as that is what the headlines said. The Moscow Bureau for Human Rights (MBHR) interviewed witnesses who claimed that captured Georgian troops had needle marks in their arms. Think about it. Georgian commanders handing out fixes of heroin to their men to help them run over babies in tanks and shoot grandmothers. The logic is compelling.

And as I have mentioned before, people are still stuck on the number of 2000 civilian deaths in Tskhinvali, a number that was accepted before the smoke cleared in the de facto South Ossetian capital, only two days after the August 8th attack. Later, the number fluctuated between 1400-2100, depending on who was reporting. Numbers are good for news. Even Reuters fell for it. It was too late when head of the Russian Prosecutor-General’s investigative committee, Alexander Bastyrkinet, came out with the official civilian death toll of 162 on Christmas 2008. Yet the number is enough for South Ossetia and Russia to claim “genocide” with a straight face, while marauders amped up on the conviction of 2000 deaths systematically destroyed Georgian villages, by flame and bulldozer, displacing tens of thousands people from their homes.

And today, because the Ukraine isn’t playing ball on Russia’s terms, the country has become implicated in the South Ossetia war. Mud flinging is free and easy when the state controls the media and Russia well knows that mud sticks, if you throw enough of it, often enough.

(image lifted off www.davno.ru)

Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Postman Blues

In our neighborhood of Zemo Vera the postman never rings twice, he just waltzes into our crib and says “dobry dien, dobry dien.” Most often than not I am either rinsing the suds off my body at the time or privately philosophizing in the porcelain isolation chamber. His timing is impeccable. His kisses (yes, kisses) reek of garlic and/or vodka and although I always offer my cheek as tradition stipulates, it's my lips he's after.

The truth is, we're lucky he barges in to kiss me at all. It used to be that, intimidated by the hill and our next door neighbors' seven-headed beasts, he would leave our mail with a lower dwelling neighbor instead.

One scorching summer day, while I was outside watching our rock garden sweat, a little fireplug of a man wearing an Azeri pancake cap appeared out of the blue, huffing and wheezing with a handful of mail.

“Is this you?” he asked.

He showed me a large envelope postmarked in French to the embassy a couple hundred meters below.

“No, not me. It's for the embassy. See, there's the address.”

He swore, rolled his eyes heavenward and waited for his breath to return. I offered him water. We talked about the weather, although there wasn't much to say except it was bloody hot. Mahmet mentioned he had been delivering mail in Vera for over 30 years and that he made something like three lari a day; about a buck-75.

The next time Mahmet came huffing up the hill he was clutching a worthless KLM frequent-flier notice, but he got our address right. We tipped him a lari. He no longer left our mail with a neighbor at the bottom of the hill after that, although it didn't quite help him remember our names too well as he would sometimes show up with anything addressed in western script, regardless of the street name. For this, Mahmet would not get a tip.

I gotta mention that I never get mail. Nobody sends me anything. My girl gets all the postal attention although I did receive a Xmas card at the end of March one year, to which Mahmet received 3 lari, as I was suddenly overwhelmed with a belated holiday spirit. Otherwise, I am still waiting for a package of harmonicas my brother sent from California 5 years ago.

“I love your view,” he once said between gasps of breath. “But what you need right over there is a fountain.”

“Fountain?”

“Yes, fountains are beautiful.”

I tried to picture the type of fountain he had in mind, but came up blank every time. But never fail, every time he showed up with our mail, or some other foreigner's, he'd remind us how lovely a fountain would be.

Lip kisses and body odor aside, I like Mahmet. Yet one must wonder if he tries delivering other people's mail to us, what is he delivering them? I don't blame him for being confused as much as I blame the institution he works for. A visit to a Georgian post office is a trip back in time, only things worked better then. The windows at the main post office looked as if they were last washed in the Kruschev era, which was about the last time the employees there smiled.

One day Mahmet showed up in a new uniform. This was about the time Gigi Ugulava became mayor and started his project on reinventing Tbilisi. Mahmet no longer wore his pancake, but was sporting a blue baseball cap instead, along with a white shirt, red tie and blue trousers with a red stripe.

“You like my new costume?” he asked abasedly. “...I feel like a (Soviet) Pioneer.”

Uniforms are supposed to help improve a civil servant's dignity, but in Mahmet's case, it was demeaning. He looked like somebody tried dressing him up like a Cub Scout for laughs.

Fortunately for Mahmet, the uniform regulation was short-lived, but he still comes barging in from time to time with his pancake hat on his head and three-day growth of beard prompted to sand the skin of my cheek as I avoid his moistened lips and give him a mercy hug instead.

"Is this you?" he asks, and sometimes it is.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Substance and Reality: Hollywood on the South Ossetian War



The director that brought us A Nightmare on Elm Street 4, The Adventures of Ford Fairlane and Die Hard 2 announced he is already casting for a low budget “art film” about the 2008 South Ossetian war. What we don’t know is which version of the war Renny Harlin aims to present.

In March, a Russian produced version of the war, Olympus Inferno, has an American entomologist and Russian journalist stumble into the conflict to discover how Georgia and America secretly started it all and committed genocide etc. etc. As a Russian propaganda tool, the made for TV movie has been a great success, as people throughout the former USSR believe the action film is based on proven facts, and take them at face value.

What facts will 5-time Razzie nominee (worst director/worst film) Renny Harlin base his war film on? Let’s hope he doesn’t get his information from the same place Hollywood’s premier source of news, Variety, does:

“The five-day war saw Georgia launching a large-scale military assault on the Russian-backed Republic of South Ossetia: an internationally unrecognized regional government resulting from the Georgian / Ossetian conflict of 1991-2… Russia responded with some force, but recognized South Ossetia's independence in late August 2008, and had officially withdrawn by October, although tensions remain.”

Nice try, Hollywood.

What we do know is that Renny said his film will be about a pair of journalists and how they deal with being impartial and the sympathy they have for the locals they met. The truth is, the only journalists in the war that should have had existential impartiality issues were the propaganda blowhorns, Russia Today TV and Georgian’s own, Rustavi 2. Most everyone else was too busy chasing honest stories and hurrying back to file them in the hopes they wouldn’t get shot or blown up along the way.

"I've waited a long time to find something with substance and reality," the director of the 2009 flop, 12 Rounds, said.

He may be right there. His 30 year career is full of nothing but forgettable movies. But if directors like Ki-duk Kim, Lech Kowalski, Nuri Bilge Ceylan and Mohsen Makhmalbaf have based their lives on directing films of “substance and reality” what’s been Renny’s problem?

I cringed through the first ten nauseating minutes of Olympus Inferno on Youtube before quitting. While some people are excited a Hollywood rendition of Georgian reality will bring mainstream attention to this quirky corner of the world, I can only squirm and expect the worse from a guy whose claim to fame was a sequel to an action film starring Bruce Willis.

The South Ossetian war remains a highly convoluted subject that has been so twisted by the media nobody knows which way is up. Even Variety has its version of the war. It is a subject that demands intelligent treatment, not some superficial Tinsletown rendition directed by a two-bit bum from Palookaville. Georgia deserves better.


(Ford Fairlane "won" the 1990 Golden Raspberry Award for Worst Actor, Worst Picture and Worst Screenplay. It was also nominated for Worst Director and twice for Worst Supporting Actor.)

Monday, July 27, 2009

Joe Biden on the Good Foot


Back in 1999, James Brown came to Tbilisi with the message to "Get on the Good Foot" and performed a concert people still talk about today. Last week, another JB arrived with a message that people may not talk about 10 years from now, but is highly significant for its timing and place.

US Vice President Joe Biden came to reaffirm “We stand by you.”

For Georgians, it was a much welcomed dispatch, as nobody knew where the US stood since last year’s war with Russia. Many people erroneously thought Uncle Sam was going to jump in and help out Georgia’s retreating army, after all, Tbilisi had named a street after Dubya; but the calvary did not arrive. When Hilary Clinton brought her little yellow restart button and presented it to Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, everyone thought the well had dried up.

“Who is Obama?” all the taxi drivers have been asking.

Now they know.

When Bush visited in 2005, he shook his booty to traditional Georgian music and praised Georgia’s commitment to democracy in his aphasic way, while Condi Rice sat nearby holding her thumbs lest Dubya stick his good foot in his mouth. Biden, however, was cool, calm, down-to-earth and straightforward.

Naturally, the VP paid lip service to the significance of the Rose Revolution, but also said in an address to parliament “your Rose Revolution will only be complete when government is transparent, accountable, and fully participatory…

“There are significant, concrete steps that need to be taken to deepen any democracy. Success requires the involvement of everyone in this room, of those who were elected outside this room. It requires every Georgian citizen, regardless of their political affiliation or their ethnicity, to take part in their government,” Biden stated.

Joe met with opposition leaders with the same message. They in turn behaved like real diplomats. Even Grechikha shaved and wore a suit and tie; and it was a hot day. When Joe left, the opposition removed their “city of cells” which had been an eyesore around parliament and blocked the main drag, Rustaveli Blvd, for nearly 4 months.

In his parliamentary speech, Joe said all the right things. He explained what last month’s charter of strategic partnership was all about; thanked Georgia for sending troops to help out in Afghanistan and highlighted the significance of providing an alternative energy route to the west; he stressed that the US will never recognize the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and supports the country’s bid for NATO; he reassured US commitment to help develop the military (much to Russia’s ire) and even quoted the eminent Georgian writer Ilya Chavchavadze: “My heart burns with a holy flame that all my strength I may employ, to serve my people faithfully in sorrow and in joy. O let my people's suffering be branded on my soul I ask, and let my heart, through good and ill, be equal to its task.” - not bad considering Joe had just been turned on to the great author only hours earlier.

Joe’s intimate meeting with a group of select refugee kids had an even more definite impact. He told them “the US does not like what Russia did at all,” and later said that the only chance Georgia has at getting Abkhazia and South Ossetia back is by working hard to create a better environment. “When they see the prosperity of Georgia and look north to Russia and see how there aren’t changes…they’ll want to come back to Georgia.”

Well, hell may freeze before any of that happens, but it’s the thought that counts. Georgia has no other alternative now but to do what it should have done from the beginning – focus more on creating a stable economic environment instead of recklessly spending millions of dollars on an army that, sorry to say, could never be a match to Russia’s massive military machine. This only pushed the separatists further away from Tbilisi, as if Russia had written the script exclusively for Georgia, but I digress.

Joe came to Georgia with a message and proved to be sincere, respectful and highly competent delivering it. US policy here hasn’t really altered with the changing of the guard, but you no longer have to cringe every single time someone from the new administration opens their mouth. Here in Georgia Joe Biden proved he is no chump and that he can stand on his good foot.

(photo Reuters/David Mdzinarishvili, lifted off indepth.news.sky.com)

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Dniepr Blues

(Khevsureti Pass)

Early last August, Beso and I put a borrowed plate on my bike, loaded the sidecar with gasoline, chacha, our sleeping bags, half a dozen cans of sardines, and at Beso’s suggestion, 5 kilos of potatoes.

“Why the potatoes, Beso?”

“We might get hungry,” he replied.

Beso walks like a cowboy for a reason. His beat to hell Dniepr is not just his means of transportation but an extension of his body, which he knows inside and out. Live to ride, ride to live is what Beso is all about, but here in Georgia, particularly on a 400 lari (240$) a month salary, the closest he’ll ever get to a Harley Davidson is in his dreams. So Beso dreams and rides an old Soviet-made motorcycle.

(Beso)

This road trip was a long time coming. I bought my ’91 Dniepr for 350$ in 2003 from a guy who had a few stashed away in his cellar. He had been the director of a collective farm back in the day, and when that day collapsed, he suddenly found himself with around 10 brand new Dnieprs on his hands. I got one of his last ones.

The Dnepr is a Ukrainian version of the Russian Ural, which is a copy of the pre-WWII German BMW that Russia licensed in 1940. It is a rugged bike, well-suited for Georgian roads and has lots of guts for a 650 cc motor.

I took my Soviet documents to police HQ to register my bike but nobody knew what to do with them. I offered to grease a palm or two, but no one seemed to want my money – particularly strange for that period in Georgian history. I was sent from office to office until finally, one cop tore my Soviet owner’s slip into pieces.

“This is illegal. You could be fined!” he shouted.

“How much do you want?” I asked.

And he sent me out of his office.

But it was still 2003 and possible to ride around without documents with minimum risk. Most cops were satisfied with a 5 lari tip, although I was once stopped by two motorcycle cops, who threatened to confiscate my ride.

“But I know Gela, your mechanic!” I said.

“Who is Gela?”

“Your mechanic. My friend.”

“But who is he?”

One cop got on my bike and took it for a spin. He did a couple tricks. I tried not to look pissed off.

“Can you do that trick?” the other copper asked.

“No, I’m an amateur, but he is a real expert!”

They let me go with a warning, reminding me that I was a guest in their country.

“But next time we’ll take your motorcycle.”

After that I only rode on Sundays with the Camelot Biker Club, which provided good camouflage until the club’s leader humiliated himself by breaking a leg doing a motorcycle stunt. He disappeared after that and the club disintegrated. While I’ve been passively figuring out how to get proper documents, my bike has been sitting in my neighbor’s garage, collecting dust.


We left for Kazbegi on August 4th. It’s a fine ride. There is a stretch of road up on the Kazbegi plateau, long and smooth, until you get to the potholes in town. We opened up our bikes, which for a Dniepr hauling a loaded sidecar at that altitude, means 90 km an hour, but it still gets the adrenaline flowing since you never know when that front wheel may come flying off or when the motor might seize, as the bike is, first and foremost, a “made in Soviet Ukraine” machine, assembled at the end of the communist era by a vodka swilling proletariat class.

Late the next morning we headed to Shatili, via a Beso shortcut that abruptly ended where the side of the mountain had fallen. The detour had taken a few hours off our schedule and my fork stabilizer had broken.

“You don’t need these anyway,” Beso said as he pulled it out and flung it in the bushes. “I don’t have one either.”

With the exception of a dozen kilometers of unexpected pavement, the road through Khevsureti is as smooth as a river bed. Hours of riding and maneuvering over a dirt road, through puddles, creeks, waterfalls and up hairpin turns, takes a toll on a guy. My hands were cramped and forearms and shoulders on fire when we rolled into Shatili at about 10 PM.

Throughout Georgia, there are many villages that welcome strangers with open arms. A simple enquiry at a market as to where one might find a bed for the night will typically produce an unforgettable experience of Georgian hospitality. Shatili is not one of these villages. For one thing, there is no market. A single bed costs 50 lari a night and may not include a cup of tea.

A kind Kakhetian man offered his ambulance for shelter. Beso declined, preferring to sleep under the stars. When I awoke, Beso was snuggling with a Caucasian sheep dog that had joined him in the middle of the night.

After exploring ancient Shatili, we checked our oil and topped off our tanks with the gasoline we had brought. I discovered the two front bolts holding my sidecar to the frame had fallen off. The sidecar rattled madly over the bumpy road and I had to continually kick it aside to prevent it from squashing my leg. Then my transmission began to whine. Somehow, the oil had vanished. I scrounged about a shotglass worth out of an empty bottle. We had about 180 kilometers to go.

I rode slowly and shifted carefully. Beso passed a Jiguli that was crawling along the road. I made my move when all of a sudden my bike didn’t respond because the throttle cable had snapped. Beso took a look.

“Ooh. Not good. Problem. Big problem. Ukrainian machine, ha-ha!”

Beso scratched his chin and noticed a key ring hanging from my pack.

“Do you need this?”

He slipped one end through the hole in the cable, crimped it, and wrapped the other end around the throttle. If I managed to hold it down and keep it from unraveling, I’d get home.

(MacGyvershvili)

I made it to Heroes’ Square in Tbilisi before the key ring began to slip. It discombobulated just as I pulled into my neighbor’s garage. Home! We began to unpack the sidecar.

“Ha! The potatoes! I forgot all about them,” I said, pulling the sack out. Just then the sidecar flipped up in the air. The spuds had been ballast that kept the sidecar from flying off as the two rear bolts had fallen off as well.

The ride was a giant kick in the pants. I was more determined than ever to solve the registration problem, once I managed to put the bike back together. My plans, however, were postponed indeterminately, for later that night I got a call informing me Georgian troops were firing on Tskhinvali.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Relativity

Three Georgian English teachers were passionately talking politics during a coffee break. Saakashvili had to go, they said. And as usual, I asked who should replace him.

"Alasania," one teacher said.

"And what has he proposed?" I asked.

She answered by explaining what was wrong with Saakashvili.

"So if suddenly Saakashvili disappeared, everything would be fine?"

"We'd have elections," she responded.

"And if Alasania wins, two years later everyone will come out on the streets and demand his head because he didn't deliver. Don't you think this pattern should end? Everybody talks about democracy but you Georgians cannot let an elected official finish his term. Your opposition should be working on developing legitimate platforms and then challenging the ruling party at the next elections."

The English teacher responded by telling me that this isn't the United States with a long history of democracy and that Saakashvili hasn't repented for his sins and continues to sin.

I understand her anger but Saakashvili's disappearence and new elections are not going to improve the country until a viable alternative exists. This stuff takes time. Three years ago there was no opposition to speak of. Today there is a hysterical, misguided group of rabble rousers. This is progress.

Across the border in Azerbaijan, there is no opposition. The Azeri government routinely intimidates, jails, and even murders, anyone that opposes it. The president abolished term limits, giving himself a life-long job, which Aliev will inevitably pass on to his son, like is dad did before him. Meanwhile, in Armenia, the electoral process is a total farce (a good story about it here, in IWPR). Neither of these countries would tolerate an hour of the kind of civil disobedience Tbilisi has allowed for 2 months.

I asked the English teacher if she remembered how rosy things were before 2004, when there was virtually no difference between the 3 South Caucasus nations, but the coffee break was over and we had to get back to work.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

"Merrily We Roll Along"

"Our “radicalism,” if that is the right word, is intended to end the instability our country faces rather than exacerbate it." Nino Burjanadze, from the National Interest.


It’s been relatively calm in Tbilisi. The first tomatoes of the season have arrived, as have the strawberries and cherries. The opposition released Freedom Square from occupation, but is still holding a portion of Rustaveli Avenue hostage for the sake of democracy.

Timur Taxi can’t take much more of the opposition inflicted detour down Revaz Laghidze str. Ordinarily a silent driver, Timur flipped his wig yesterday, cursing everyone and their mothers, as he tried to maneuver ahead of everybody, who were doing exactly the same thing. It’s a Tex Avery cartoon come to life.

Then again, the entire political scene in Georgia is lifted entirely from Looney Tunes episodes.

(episode Nov.7, 2007)


On May 6, when Utsnobi led a mob to police HQ to ostensibly free some criminals, the Ministry of Interior denied rubber bullets were fired into the crowd, despite the fact that 2 people each had an eye shot out and scores of people at opposition rallies had bullet sized wounds on their heads, including the rabble leaders.


Now, the MoI says they did fire projectiles into the crowd, but if they had admitted it then, the situation may have gotten tenser. Perhaps, but they could have reduced the risk if they had read the instructions of their launchers before handing them out to the cops: “An operator should avoid firing a target into the head.”


The ministry said they missed that part of the instructions and besides, the incident occurred in the dark, when only people’s heads were visible to the riot cops. It wasn't their fault.


Upset with the bad press her and her cronies are getting, Nino Burjanadze hit the inkwell and came up with this lead for her article in the National Interest on June 2: “The hardest thing for opposition groups to do is to criticize their governments while supporting their country.”



Ask Nino Burjanadze one thing she has done for her country besides stand in front of a microphone and say “No dialog! Saakashvili will step down! Blah blah blah.” Ask Burjanadze what she did to support her country when she backed Saakashvili’s decision to send the riot cops to bust up demonstrations in 2007. Ask her own Kutaisi constituents what she has ever done for them and see what they say.



As if things couldn’t get more ridiculous, the president of World Congress of the Peoples of Georgia, Russian businessman, Alexander Ebralidze, announced his intention of being Georgia’s next president, despite the fact he is not a citizen of the country. But that’s a minor detail for a man who also plans to open World Congress of the Peoples of Georgia offices in Georgia and set up a newspaper, radio and TV station.


The banker’s CV includes an eight-year degree at Con College for armed robbery. The year after he graduated with honors on parole, Big Al received another invitation to return for 5 more years to finish a master’s in disorderly conduct and resisting arrest.


...and that's not all folks!

Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Finacial: The Georgian Economy Under Saakashvili

Saakashvili's record economic growth a myth?
Saakashvili's western democratic principles PR fluff?
Georgian citizens mislead, cheated and abused by their government leaders?

Irakli Rukhadze and Mark Hauf explain why they think so many people continue to be out on the streets, despite ineffectual opposition leaders, in this piece from The Financial.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Airbag Nation

People filed into the Boris Paichadze National Stadium from all over Tbilisi. Unlike the sour grapes that had been standing on Rustavli Avenue for the past month, these people were smiling and light-hearted, at first.

One man in his 50s walked by and gave me the wooden eye treatment, stopped, deliberated for a moment, came back and let me have it.

"Where are you from?"

"America."

"Bandits," he said. "A nation of criminals. Bryza has support of only two percent, two percent of the people. He's a faggot and a liar. And Saakashvili, the faggot; he's got to go."

It was the first time I had heard Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, Matthew Bryza's name mentioned on the streets of Tbilisi and had no idea what 2 % the gentleman was talking about.

"So if Saakashvili goes, who should replace him?" I asked. But Jemal, the gentleman I had the pleasure discoursing with, is not a listener of questions.

"Burjanadze is better," I rephrased.

"What? She's just like Saakashvili!"

"Alasania is better," I said.

"Eh, Alasania is American. A faggot."

"Natelashvili, Shalva," I said.

"Oh, yes, there's a man. If he ran for president right now he would win thirty, forty percent; he'd be president!"

Questioning Jemal's numeric logic or anything else was out of the question. He just was one of 55,000 people that showed up at the opposition's Independence Day rally to listen to them bitch about Saakashvili under the guise of celebrating the national patriotic holiday.

"But where is he?" I asked. With the exception of a brief appearance at the April 9th rally, Natelashvili, leader of the Labor Party bowed out of the opposition coalition.

"Oh, he'll come."

Jemal, like many, were not here to support a particular leader, but a cause, which is fair enough, but the problem is that nobody has bothered to look further than their nose.

"Saakashvili - go!" a young man said to me. "Then we will have democratic elections!"

"And who should replace Saakashvili?" I asked.

He acted like he didn't hear me.

"Who will you vote for?" I rephrased.

"I don't know, I haven't decided yet," he said with a cynical smirk.

In 2001, Speaker of Parliament, Zurab Zhvania told a group of university students that when he and his friends dared think of the future in the 1980s, the equation was black and white.

"We always deeply believed that as soon as communism ends, as soon as we are separated from Moscow, Georgia will automatically become a country like Switzerland or Belgium," he stated.

The late Rose Revolutionary said that such a concept was an illusion that cost the country a lot. It is an illusion that continues today as the opposition sends the same message to thousands of dissatisfied people. Vote for us and everything will be OK before the next wine harvest.

Jemal was right, Natelashvili did come, and the people cheered him as he walked a victory lap around the pitch. As my comrade M.C. Alexdaddy so rightly observed: “You can say what you want about these guys, but they’ve been out here everyday and where has Shalva been?”

(Shalva Natelashvili, lifted off www.daylife.com)

Like every party needs a drunk, every country needs a blabber-mouthing populist. Jemal didn’t come up with that crack about Bryza all by himself.

Back in 2005, Shalva said Bryza’s biased reporting on Georgia and support of the Saakashvili administration undermined both the promotion of democracy in the region and ties between the U.S. and Georgia. He called on the US State dept. to sack him. When he failed to get a visa to Great Britian in February this year, he said UK Ambassador Denis Keefe had conspired against him with Saakashvili, and also demanded Keefe’s dismissal.

"We are suspending all contacts with the British Embassy until apologies are made and the ambassador and consul recalled from the country," Shalva said, as reported in civil.ge.

What I like most about Shalva is that he’s about as lazy as I am and has the gall to lead a political party called Labor. Guram Chakhadze, a parliamentary minority leader, claims that Natelashvili, and MPs of his party, are boycotting parliament but have failed to tear up their membership cards like others have done in protest.

“He enjoys all the benefits of being an MP, including the salary, which is substantial, but he doesn’t work,” Chakhadze said.

Although Natelashvili received a generous ovation, the show stealer was Utsnobi, who entered the stadium on the shoulders of his disciples. After his teary-eyed victory lap, the rock and roll political activist ran out to the giant Georgian flag on the middle of the pitch, prostrated himself and kissed it, to the cheers of the crowd.

The opposition had the crowd in the palms of their hands, and with this momentum announced they would collectively march to Sameba, the largest church in Georgia to ask the Patriarch Ilia II, Holiest man in the country, for advice, before marching to the opposition HQ in front of parliament.

Who knows what they figured he would do, but they obviously didn’t expect His Holiness would be so Christian and recommend they talk and not be so reactionary.

Burjanadze decided to ignore the leader of the Georgian Orthodox church’s advice, stating he wasn’t going to say anything that was going to please her anyway. “Our actions should be very harsh but full of responsibility,” she added (civil.ge).

Ever the attorney, Eka Beselia, of the Movement for United Georgia stated “he didn’t tell us we shouldn’t struggle; we should do our deed ourselves.”

Utsnobi, however, had all the answers. “He (the Patriarch) has been taken hostage by Saakashvili!”

At one point the rabble began to boo the opposition leaders, for it was getting dark and Saakashvili was still president. Creating expectations and not delivering got Saakashvili in this mess; you’d think the opposition would have learned the lesson. Instead they announced, as they always do, “we’ll keep protesting and get back to you with the next action plan,” verifying that they have no plan – it is a make it up as you go along pseudo-revolution. Then somebody came up with the great idea to march on over to the train station and prevent trains from departing, which they did.

It is like a runaway car careening downhill without a driver. Airbags aren’t gong to help when the car crashes. In fact, the airbags are responsible for the whole mess.