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Monday, March 30, 2009

Georgian - Russian Rugby Diary: Pt. 2 The Match

The Georgian national team had been psyching themselves up for days. Two days earlier, they received an intense pep talk on how important the match was for the country by a veteran Georgian rugby star. On the flight to Mariupol, players passed around a laptop with pictures of Georgian casualties from the August war. This was not going to be an ordinary rugby match.

“There's a lot of pressure on their shoulders to win for the nation,” their Australian coach Tim Lane had said.

Athletically, a win meant moving up a notch in the international standings as well as step towards securing the European Nations Cup again, but for the nation, a win meant defeating their enemy and the rugby pitch was an extension of the battlefield. These guys carried that burden into the locker room and the nervous hum permeated out of every pore, a distinct buzz that echoed off the cement walls and floor.

Team captain Irakli Abusseridze brought an icon of the Virgin and set it in the corner of the locker room. One player lit a candle and knelt before it. Others would follow. Irakli Machkhaneli paced back and forth in his zone, listening to Pavarotti on his iPod. Others were silently taping limbs and digits and in one case, an ear. “Discipline, communication, defense!” coach Lane firmly stressed.

Tension has always been high whenever Russia and Georgia appeared together on the playing field. The previous year, two brawls broke out at the beginning of the match. But when the two teams hit the field this time, blood lust seemed restrained, despite the highly combative contest. Yes, there were flare-ups and dirty play, but the aim was to score and defend, not to kill.

The Russians took an early 6 point lead with two goals, but Georgia dominated the pitch and soon countered with two 6 point tries. At half-time Georgia had a firm lead of 19-6.

The Georgians dominated the stands too. Many Georgian ex-pats were reportedly bused in from Kharvov, Donetsk and other distant regions. An enormous Georgian flag was unfurled in the stands and throughout the match fans chanted “Lelo, Lelo, Sakartvelo!” (try, try, Georgia). Russia's fans, meanwhile, put up quite a banter themselves and yet despite the proximity of Georgian fans and Ukrainian vodka, confrontations were playful and light-hearted.

The Georgians were playing into the wind the second half and lost their comfortable lead well into the period. Some concentrated defensive play, meters from the goal, prevented Russia from scoring on several occasions, but wasn't enough to prevent them from coming within 3 points of the lead with only several minutes left in the game. Georgian fans were stunned. Kowalski and I were nervous. A loss would definitely mean no filming, as no Georgian would allow a camera to be pointed in their face. The airplane would be so heavy with the agony of defeat it would undoubtedly crash if it got off the ground at all. And the option of missing the flight and staying in Mariupol was as equally lethal.

With seconds left in the game, Georgia scored a try, securing their victory. Georgian fans went wild as Russia's sulked off the stands. A few Russian players congratulated their adversaries as they all hobbled off the pitch. The locker room was a mix of jubilation and exhaustion as players iced head and knee injuries, congratulated themselves or sat alone to confront their emotions.

Gia Nizaradze, president of the Georgian Rugby Union was beaming. “This is the best the Russian team has been in fifteen years, which makes it a better win for us,” he said.

Back at Hotel Druzba, Georgians were feasting the victory celebration. We all had about an hour to make it to the airport. When we got there, you could divide the passengers into those who felt no pain with those who did. Players sat like sacks of potatoes, while fans passed bottles of spirits and shouted “Sakartvelos gaumarjos!” (Georgia's victory!) and pounded a drum one gentleman had brought. It was bordering mayhem as one drunk tried to grab the hat off a Ukrainian customs officer while another took his shirt off and tried to climb the railing over the rubber stamp box. It seemed, though, that the Ukrainians wanted us to stay despite the noise, as it was taking quite some time to get a bus to fetch us to our plane.

A barrel of monkeys is a plane of happy Georgians. Airline rules were bent as men pulled out plastic pop bottles full of chacha (grape vodka) and opened boxes of wine. Men crawled over seats and condiment carts to the tune of Sakartvelos gaumarjos shouted through the plane's emergency megaphone. One and a half hours of this.

I was starved and had never, ever, looked so forward to airplane food before. Salisbury steak? Pasta? Chicken ala airplane? No, on this special charter, which had also stayed overnight in Mariupol, the food I was served and devoured was pork tongue and chicken cold cuts. Kowalski was jealous; his ambiguous portion of meat had turned green.

The player with the laptop was no longer looking at war casualty photos, but recently uploaded pics of the game. Another laptop was playing live rugby highlights from previous matches. Ilia Zedguinidze was standing in the aisle stretching his long legs. Like the other 18 of the 25 players, Ilia plays for a professional French rugby team and is one of the several 2nd division champs on the plane. If your stereotype rugby player is a thick skulled meat head, Ilia will break your mold. He speaks 5 languages and studies international law in France.

“But after school I think I'll get into business,” The 2 meter tall star said in English. “I don't want to be a bookworm.”

Only one player on the national team plays for a Georgian club. Georgia is to European rugby what Latin America is to American baseball – a farm for up and coming players. Short on sponsors, no stadium, let alone practice field of their own, the Georgian game is pure passion. Nobody plays for money because there isn't any. As for the national team, Coach Lane said they lost 600-800,000 lari this year from sponsors pulling out.

As the plane approached Tbilisi the bruised, scratched and dog-tired players began to gather their second wind while liquored up fans were losing their first. Waiting for the team at the gate were a couple hundred proud Georgians, waving flags and shouting Sakartvelos gaumarjos! For those of us who had been in Mariupol, the victory had sunken in, but back in Georgia the party had just begun.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Georgian rugby photo essay by Sophia Mizante

My pal Sophia has a great essay.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Georgian - Russian Rugby Diary: Pt. 1 Welcome to Mariupol

(image lifted from

The plane touched down on the rutty tarmac of Mariupol domestic airport, the first Boeing here in ages. Rusty Russian two-prop clunkers were parked at the end of the little runway. The gray Ukrainian sky was as colorless as the customs officer's faces, with the exception of a lovely brunette, amused at the sudden arrival of a plane load of Georgians. Ukrainian women are always the exception.

“Back in the USSR!” One Georgian exclaimed as we packed into the small customs room where two rubber stampers sat, helping everyone fill out their Soviet-era registration forms. It took over an hour for the group to make it through. The Georgian rugby players loaded into one bus and went off to their hotel, while us fans were bused separately to Hotel Druzba (Friendship), a recently remodeled Soviet-era “tourist house.”

Because the International Rugby Union had decided to hold the Russia-Georgia match on neutral ground, Russia, the host team this year, chose Mariupol, where nearly half the population of ½ million are Russian. The Georgians were quite impressed with the city's retro-charm, especially when we passed the statue of Lenin.

“Wow! They have trolley buses and tramvais!” One of the Gia's on the bus shouted.

Mariupol makes Gary, Indiana look like a botanical garden.The Azovstal and the Ilyich Iron and Steel Works turned Mariupol into one the largest steel producing regions in the country, and one of the most polluted cities in the Ukraine. A city of blackened high-rise block flats, the one thing it has going for it besides the Cleopatra discotheque is the Sea of Azov, but everybody is afraid to swim in it.

“I went to the Carpathians on holiday, but the air was so fresh I had a terrible headache that wouldn't go away,” our taxi driver Vladimir said earnestly. “Aspirin doesn't work on those headaches.”

Suspicious of Hotel Druzba fare, Kowalski and I strolled around the avenue looking for a restaurant while people stared at us. Slot machine clubs, kiosks, people selling buckets of fish, fruit, vegetables and anything else worth a grivna lined the streets. It's a very primitive capitalism you find in much of the former USSR, like Poland 1990. One look at this place and you can't help but wonder - in the vast expanse of the Ukraine, how many other twilight zone cities like this are there? Nowhere to run, you live here, drink here and if you're lucky you work here, then die here.

There was no restaurant anywhere near our hotel, so we ate hotel food. Two Georgians disdainfully rejected their orders of mashed potatoes, while another group had brought their own bread, cheese and wine and had the waiter serve it to them.

The next morning we went to look for the team. Somebody had told us they were staying at Hotel European, a class joint for Mariupol, but we were misinformed. So we stayed for breakfast. Two elderly gentlemen walked into the dining room. “Georgian?” we wondered. They walked up to the buffet table and the contemptuous way they regarded the food confirmed our suspicions. 'Sakartvelos gamarjos!” we said.

Vladimir gave us a tour of the steel plant environs. The wind was favorable as it was blowing all the crud billowing out of the smokestacks north, towards Russia. But I still had a film of muck on the roof of my mouth.

At 10, we had to get our press accreditation from the stadium administration. Stadium director Vitaly Pregoda was very proud of his little stadium. He brushed aside questions of how the economic crisis was affecting his city. “That's a political topic,” he said. As for the Russia-Georgia match, he was confident there would be no trouble – all the necessary precautions were being taken.

About an hour before the match a hundred or so police arrived, including young riot cops and a half dozen women cops in ice-pick-heeled boots clutching leopard patterned hand bags. Surprisingly, they had no problems being filmed and let Kowalski point the camera wherever he wanted.

Friday, March 20, 2009


(image lifted from

As opposition members scramble to define exactly what it is they are all about before the planned April 9th demonstrations, members of the Conservative party have reportedly held a little pow-wow with former defense minister Irakli Okruashvili, a man as trustworthy as the new plastic egg cartons at Populi market. The Tbilisi rumor mill has it that there are even some who would like to see him occupy the egg on the hill.

Ever the philistine, Batano Irakli actually used to be one of the good fellas. At the ripe age of 28, he became deputy Minister of Justice in 2000 and joined Saakashvili's team two years later. Then came the Rose Revolution and Okruashvili's quick rise to notoriety. In 2003 he was appointed governor of Shida Kartli, which includes the region of Gori and South Ossetia. Later that year he became Prosecutor General, then Interior Minister and by 2004 was appointed Defense Minister, where he perfected the technique of being unlikable.

Okruashvili had a knack for making rash comments. At a parade of 4000 Interior Ministry Troops in Gori he reminded the participants that the positions of the enemy were “twenty-nine kilometers away” and said “You are the people who should crush this enemy.” His handlers apparently saw no problem in having a senior administration official talking rubbish.

As defense minister he boasted that he would spend the next New Years's Eve in Tskhinvali and that Russia would lose in a shooting war with Georgia. Perhaps his most famous quote was when he responded to the Russian embargo on Georgian wine by saying “you could export feces there and the Russians would still buy it.” In a weird move, Saakashvili appointed Okruashvili to additionally head a wine export task force, shortly afterwards.

The defense ministry provided Okruashvili with lots of toys to play with, power to exercise and money, lots of money that was difficult to trace. One scandal involved the purchase of broken combat vehicles from Ukraine for ½ a million GEL. But most importantly was the question over the Georgian Army Development Fund, which was set up as an NGO so that it wouldn't be subject to the same public disclosure rules that govern the state budget. Millions of dollars landed in this fund, supposedly by private individuals. Yet the defense ministry never revealed exactly how much they received or what it was spent on.

Then one day in November 2006, Okruashvili had nothing to say, for a while. Saakashvili had demoted his crony to Minister for Economic Development, A week later, he resigned, although Saakashvili insisted Okruashvili was going to America to study. But what he did was start an opposition party (an inherent trend in Georgian politics) and come out to publicly denounce Saakashvili, accusing him of corruption, planning the murder of oligarch Badri Patarkatsishvili and raising questions as to the official version of Zurab Zhvania's death. Unlike most of the noise he made in the old days, this stuff had been carefully ruminated over in advance.

Such accusations were not going to be ignored. It was like instant karma. The cops raided his brand new opposition party HQ and hooked him up without saying why. No Habeas Corpus here. The charges eventually were tax offenses. Most countries audit suspected tax offenders first. In Georgia they arrest them first, a technique Okruashvili honed while Prosecutor General and Interior Minister.

Batano Irakli jumped bail and received political asylum in France. He was sentenced to 11 years in absentia of extortion. In an interview with Reuters in September, Okruashvili said he'd return to Georgia in a year. He made the same promise in 2006, when he vowed to be in Tskhinvali by 2007, or else he'd resign.

Lest anyone forget, Okruashvili led a useless offensive against Tskhinvali in 2004, which not only claimed the lives of some 17 Georgian soldiers and numerous Ossetians, but kept the region in an increasingly heated state of tension for the next four years. While a part of the presidential administration, Okruashvili accomplished nothing legitimate, unless you consider the Kodori operation legal (the UN didn't). When he was Prosecutor General, he implemented the process of legal extortion, where people accused of crimes were “persuaded” to pay “fines” before they had been proven guilty or innocent. Some 45 million GEL was generated in the early days of the practice, but nobody knows exactly where that money went.

Such is the man hoping to make a political comeback. Georgia has enough used car salesmen with political ambitions. Does this country really need another?

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Zhvania said:

From a Zurab Zhvania lecture, 2002-2003..

"Several weeks ago, during my visit to the US, I discussed Georgian problems with Mr Brzezinski, a friend of long standing. His comment was telling in many ways:

"“Compared to other east European counties, your main problem is your unbelievable inability to compromise with each other, your inconceivable fragmentation. You prefer to waste your time scheming and plotting against each other, rather than finding ways of consolidating around the major national idea, the common state interest.”

"I would say that the fatal mistake of Georgian politics always was and unfortunately still is, the dominance of private, specific interests over the common national ones," Zhvania stated.

In case you don't know, Zurab was a major player in Georgian politics; one of the architects of the Rose Revolution and in his career served as Speaker of Parliament and Prime Minister, until his tragic death in 2005, which of course, this being Georgia, means few believe the official cause of his death - by carbon monoxide poisoning, due to poor ventilation from a cheap gas heater. (image lifted from

Friday, March 6, 2009

Unification: Abkhazia and South Ossetia

Justyna sent me a link to a very good slide show by Russian photographer Valery Nistratov. Please take the time to check it out - he understands the tragedy deeply.