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Wednesday, April 29, 2009

It's called lelo and is only played in one village in Georgia

(photo: Justyna Mielnikiewicz)

"You can't play it with a hangover and you can't play it sober," said Shukhuti villager, Lena Xvinoishvili. Same thing applies to writing about it....

There is no referee, because there are no rules.

There are no time-outs and no limit to the number of participants, although children are discouraged.

The game is called lelo, and, despite periodic attempts to ban it, it has been played since time immemorial exclusively in this western Georgian village every year on Orthodox Easter Sunday.

"If you fall on the asphalt, we stop the game to help you up – sometimes," says Dursun Abkhadze, Shukhuti's octogenarian blacksmith and a former lelo competitor.

Read More HERE

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Protest update 4/25

I was out of town for the weekend and when I got back, whatever I had brought back, kept me home for a couple days, so I haven't been out to check out my favorite Tbilisi past-time: watching protests.

To compensate for their dwindling number of attendees, the opposition has blocked off key streets with big metal "jail cell" boxes, that are supposed to have people in them for maximum effect, but unfortunately, not enough people seem that committed to being boxed in for a better Georgia. The opposition believes that blocking the roads and inconveniencing people will make Saakashvili resign.

For an update on the situation, I recommend Molly Corso's story on

Friday night the President was eating dinner at a local restaurant. Some opposition activists began rallying and shouting, one thing led to another and flying fists led to the arrest of one of the protesters, while a cop was sent to the hospital with head injuries.

Personally, I'm surprised at the tolerance showed by authorities. What other country in the world would allow protesters anywhere near where their president is dining?

Georgia's Aluminum Lady, opposition leader Nino Burjanadze, was quick to criticize the president for being hungry.

“While half of the city is in the streets protesting, Saakashvili is having feasts, further irritating protesters,” she said, as reported in Nino believes eating is "inappropriate behavior."

On Thursday, the Interior Ministry cameras caught Nino's husband Badri Bitsadze and son distributing long sticks and Lousiville Slugger looking bats to protesters in front of their blockade at the public TV station. This is appropriate behavior for lawful demonstrators.

When confronted by a reporter, Burjanadze's wires crossed: Did anyone ban batons?... And on the other hand these were only handles for flags.” Then she said protesters should be able to defend themselves against Interior Ministry thugs.

At the same time, we have another opposition leader, Grechikha, saying he will slap the face of the director of public TV if he ever sees him, for not giving the opposition enough airplay.

Really, the nuts have not been let out of the asylum. This is how politics are in Georgia, a country that aspires for membership in NATO and the EU.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

South Ossetia Diary

We Tbilisi based journalists cannot enter Tskhinvali, South Ossetia from Georgia. We must go to Moscow and get Russian press accreditation and travel several thousand kilometers south, which makes you wonder what this whole South Ossetian independence thing is all about.

Even before the war South Ossetia was a difficult place to report from, as we were nearly always appointed a minder to shadow us and introduce us to people we could talk to. These people said what a great man their leader Eduard Kokoity was and what animals Georgians were. Tskhinvali was a sad little isolated world trapped in a Soviet time warp that ended in 1991 and would not advance a minute past.

Last month I met with Alan Parastayev, the former head of the South Ossetia's North Military HQ during the 1991 war with Georgia, Minister of Interior in 1994-1999 in the Chiborv government, and Chief Justice of South Ossetia's Supreme Court under Kokoity.

In 2005, Kokoity ordered his arrest. Parastayev states the beef stemmed from the illegitimate party lists Kokoity had submitted for upcoming parliamentary elections that he blocked .

Consequently, Parastayev was asked to resign but he refused until his 25 year-old son was imprisoned on a trumped up charge and sentenced to 8 years in prison. Parastayev resigned on the condition his son would be freed, but his captors reneged and he was arrested, beaten and charged for “committing a terrorist act” against de facto MP Bala Bestaute a year earlier by detonating a bomb near his home.

On the pretense of being released, Parastayev was persuaded, after being tortured and drugged, to read a prepared statement stating that the Georgian secret service had offered him US$220,000 to “commit a terrorist act against President Kokoity.” He insists the last line of the text was “but I refused.” That didn't matter to Kokoity.

After 17 months in prison, much of it in solitary confinement, Parastayev was sentenced to 18 years for betraying his homeland and preparing an act of terror against the president.

“I still don't understand what those charges meant,” he says.

When Georgia began its offensive against Tskhinvali in August 2008, the prison was under constant bombardment and authorities opened the gates and set the prisoners free. Parastayev and his son were in Tskhinvali on the 8th and 9th and got word that Kokoity, who had left Tkshinvali on the 6th, discovered prisoners had been freed and ordered the murder of the two Parastayevs. They fled to Georgia where Parasayev now works as the deputy minister of the newly created Ministry of Corrections and Legal Assitance.

Parastayev compares Kokoity's Tskhinvali to the USSR in 1937 where “you can't say a word against Kokoity, nobody dare says their thoughts,” he says. “Until Kokoity came, the word “terrorist” wasn't heard – we didn't have terrorist acts, they came with him."

I wanted to write a story about Parastayev and another dissident, Dimitri Sanakoev who also had fought against Georgia and then led the alternative unrecognized government of South Ossetia, which had been backed by Tbilisi. But the story didn't pan out. I did, however, stumble upon this story, which I did for Eurasianet with my pal Sophia Mizante.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Who is Giorgi Targamadze?

Everybody that hates Saakashvili is out in the streets, or at home or work sympathizing with the opposition. Or they are just waiting for the next presidential elections. But Giorgi Targamadze, the leader of the Christian Democrats and parliamentary minority is busy trying to convince the “radical” opposition to be a bit more realistic. Standing and sleeping in the streets demanding the president’s resignation is not good for the country, he says.

Targamadze came up with a seven-point proposal to beak down the deadlock and provoke real dialog. But because none of those points demands Saakashvili’s resignation, the opposition has rejected the proposal.

For a 35 year-old, Targamadze has played a lot of ball with an eclectic cast of characters. A graduate of journalism at Tbilisi State University, he became director of Adjara TV-Radio in Batumi when he was just 22 years-old. This was a pretty crazy time in Georgia. Tbilisi’s civil war and two separatist conflicts were still smoldering and everybody was wondering if the Autonomous Republic of Adjara would be next.

Adjara was essentially the person fiefdom of Aslan Abashidze, a Georgian blue-blood, who ran the Adjaran Black Sea region in ways that would have made Al Capone drool. In Adjara, the central government in Tbilisi existed in name only as Abashidze exclusively ran the show, controlling the tariffs on things like oil, drugs, guns and whatever else went through the port legitimately or not.

The young and ambitious Targamadze became Head of Abashidze’s Supreme Court Press Service in 1997 and two years later, MP of the Unified Georgia Party. When Saakashvili was elected in 2004, Abashidze no longer fit in the new picture. As Misha put the screws on Aslan, the feudal lord blew the bridge on the main highway to keep Tbilisi troops out, but his own private army began breaking rank. We woke up the next morning and Abashidze had split for Moscow.

Targamadze was suddenly out of a patron, but knew what side the bread was buttered on. He dropped politics and went back to hacking in Tbilisi for Imedi TV, owned by Georgia’s oligarch gazillionaire, Badri Patarkatsiashvili.

At first Badri and Misha used to show up together to cut ribbons, shovel dirt and shake hands in front of cameras. Then things started to go wrong. Badri’s TV station began competing with Rustavi-2 TV for bad press. Rustavi covered pro-government stuff and Imedi focused on counter views, which were growing. With no system of checks and balances in government, Saakashvili began exercising his Ataturk fantasy, only he had forgotten that this was the 21st century.

It all came to a head on November 7th when opposition leaders began protesting for reform. One thing lead to another and Misha sicked the cops on them and Imedi TV broadcast it all. Targamadze was in the anchor seat as riot cops came into the studio and demolished the station and closed it down.

A couple weeks later the government released a tape of what they said was Badri plotting a coup. That was strike 2 for Targamadze. He quit, put on a chokha (Georgian national costume) and announced his new political party, the Christian Democratic Movement (CDM).

Targamadze got wise. The first two benefactors were rich but expendable. He needed a benefactor with staying power. Targamadze asked His Holiness, Ilia II, Catholicos-Patriarch of All Georgia to bless his party, which became the first political party to be blessed by His Holiness. Nobody in Georgia is going to diss the Pope and calling yourself a Christian party will get you lots of the female vote. It also helps to be handsome, which Targamadze is, in a Michal J. Fox sort of way.

In an interview in The Messenger, Targamadze explained that his party supports traditional and democratic institutions under threat from the present administration. Taking a cue from the late televangelist and conservative commentator Jerry Falwell, Targamadze claims his goal is to restore the moral face of society. When asked how he would go about building a middle class, he said “political actions would bring order to the country.”

As vague as that is, we now know he doesn’t mean action by standing on a platform in front of parliament and saying “dialog is the language of Satan,” like Zourabichvili.

The opposition call him Misha’s puppet, others call him a snake and opportunist, but the fact is, he is one of the only opposition leaders in Georgia that understands what politicking is all about.

“You know, I don’t agree at all with the Christian Democrats, but they participate in the democratic process,” says Giga Bokeria, Deputy Foreign Minister.

And that’s the bottom line. Opposition parties have every right to boycott parliament, but by doing so they are providing nothing for their constituents who want jobs, health care, roads and security. Targamadze may be a snake and opportunist, but then he’s become a politician and may end up smelling better than anybody else, when the smoke clears.

(image lifted from Reuters Pictures)

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Tbilisi Protests Are Not Good News for Georgians Near South Ossetia

"We're afraid here. We sleep in our clothes. We might have to leave at any moment," says Givi Lapach, a Ditsi villager.

No water, no electricity, no work and occasional handouts from the Red Cross, he says. Such is daily life in Ditsi and other villages like it along the South Ossetia border region. But it could be worse. You can see the ruins of the Georgian village of Eredvi in South Ossetia from a neighbor's orchard. It is very unlikely Georgians will ever be able to return there, at least in this lifetime.

And to make matters worse, the demonstrations in Tbilisi have got these people on edge yet again as Russian armor began to mobilize the day the protests started. My story about this is HERE.

Eka Beselia of Movement for United Georgia party stated that after Easter, the opposition intends to "mobilize" supporters in the regions - which means bus them into the city. I guess the opposition needs reinforcements since fewer people are turning up to their rallies. I advise them to save the gas and stay away from the former "buffer zone."

Incidently, Beselia is Irakli Okruashvili's lawyer. He's the guy that told his cops to "crush the enemy" in reference to South Ossetia and said he would spend New Years Eve in Tskhinvali. Then he stuck a knife in Misha's back and went to hide in France or Germany or some place with all the money he swiped from the secret defense fund. Beselia thinks it would be good for Georgia if he came back to steal more.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Salome II: Mirror Mirror

I'd really like to sympathize with the opposition, but these people must understand what a grave responsibility they bear when talking to thousands of tired and angry people. If you are a leader, people depend on you to guide them. If you don't know what you are leading them towards you have no reason to be sitting in the chair.

Salome Zourabichvili, and all the other opposition leaders, have run out of things to say. How many days can you say - he is corrupt, he is non democratic, he is a rabbit he is a...? You have to find another bad guy, create some more paranoia to further disorientate the rabble. The enemy is large and we must remain fighting together to win!

From via T.B.:

""Georgia's Path" party leader Salome Zurabishvili called on demonstrators today to picket the Tbilisi Marriott Hotel and to prevent members of the government from entering.

"Our government has created an international press-center in the Tbilisi Marriott, where Bokeria and Baramidze freely enter and give false information to the world. I advise you to go there and not let them go in," Zurabishvili stated, while not explaining what is preventing her from entering the Tbilisi Marriott and giving interviews to international journalists herself, as her colleague Nino Burjanadze does."

Salome seems to be turning into the same thing she hates.

Grechikha ( Buckwheat): Levan Gachecheladze

(AP photo, lifted off

The other day I went to the Marriott for some opposition meeting press conference sleeper. I turned the corner in the hall and a barrage of cameras were rolling, lights baring. "Why are they taping me?" I turned around and saw no one. I stepped forward, looked back. "What the fuck?" Lights, camera, action. What to do? You shouldn't waste the tape. I danced. I curtsied. Said hi to my mom. Thanked her for having me. And walked through the firing line. I chuckled to myself like a village idiot, joined by nobody. I felt a paw on my shoulder. I turned around and there was Grechikha, one of the opposition leaders.

"Thank you," he said sarcastically in English. I didn't know he had been right behind me the whole time.

That was a bummer. Heaven forbid I steal his show. When I was an irresponsible wise guy writing for an irresponsible local rag I irresponsibly wrote that Grechikha made his fortune selling watered down wine to Russia. But I have never drunk his wine, I don't think, unless it was that watered down vinegar I bought from a kiosk one night in 2002. That was wrong, I admit. Buying that wine and writing what I wrote. I must stick to the facts.

In 2007, when the united opposition of that time needed a candidate for the snap elections, they called on Grechikha to be their front man. He was non-political, insofar as being a guy without a personal flag. The idea was: "lets get a guy not connected to politics to represent us and our platform of a non-presidential Georgian parliament." So Grechikha was the non-presidential presidential candidate.

"Vote for me for president and I promise I will not become your president!"

I dug the logic, but he lost the elections and there is evidence to claim the vote was rigged, but not enough evidence to make the OSCE or EU observers say anything more than "well the elections weren't perfect, there was a lot of improvement especially when compared to the previous ones and since we never go on the record for saying anything remotely offensive..."

I had forgotten about Grechikha until he put his hand on my shoulder. For the past year, he had disappeared from the political arena and all of a sudden, there he was on my coat tail looking for an ashtray.

Grechikha is popular with a certain segment of society:

"The lion's share of responsibility for the world economic crisis belongs to Mikheil Saakashvili. It was after the August events that the big economic crisis began; this was because signs of cold war started appearing in the world and these signs of cold war meant that the shares of various companies and corporations fell many times. After Obama and Medvedev's meeting, the importance and value of our protests have grown significantly. This means that, yes, it is in a sense up to Mikheil Saakashvili to resolve the world economic crisis by resigning and doing away with this hotbed of warlike politicians and tense politicians."

I liked the previous logic better, but I saw how this concept could fly with those knuckleheads that ripped my coat. But Grechikha goes on:

"We control the situation in Tbilisi today from top to bottom, from top to bottom, from top to bottom. There are a few criminal groups that have tried to beat people up, but very soon we will calm them down too - humanely; there will not be any proportionally forceful reaction. They will calm down very soon. We will get the whole situation in Tbilisi under control. Then we will go to the regions, get control over each and every village, each and every district, each and every town in various districts and we will show them that the situation is in our hands."

"I want to issue a very strong warning to the patrol [police]: as long as they have a good name, they should work to preserve that good name. I am very much on the verge of thinking of telling them [protesters] not to obey the police. Certain people [police] are going outside the city and not allowing cars to enter the city. They should not force me to leave the city myself, gather up buses and pass by the police without so much as looking them in the eye. They should stop serving specific people. They should serve the Georgian people and our homeland."

Some people should stick to making bad wine rather than making bad politics. But what do I know? His politics could be better than his wine.

(Thanks to Big John for providing the quote of the day)

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Protest update

Well, Misha did not step down and the opposition started a civil disobedience action which amounts to blocking the road and protesting in front of the public (state) TV station in addition to a simultaneous protest in front of Saakashvili's presidential home, where demonstrators chuck carrots and cabbages over the fence and call the president a "scared rabbitt." Yesterday they released a live rabbit through his fence.

Last night, as the city street cleaners were dispatched to clean up the mess in front of parliament, a scuffle broke out and a group of guys raided the opposition set up and destroyed computers from their press center. The opposition says the government was behind the raid. The government of course denies the accusation. The police cameras installed above parliament caught some of the action.

So, it could have been some pro-government thugs being thuggish. The cops weren't sent out to bust anybody, but then they are under order to remain put and not interfere unless some major happening is going on, as their presence could ignite a riot. Yet why would they take a chance and ruin what they have achieved by being non-confrontational?

It could have also been some opposition thugs creating a scene to blame on the government. The truth lies somewhere amongst the festering rubbish of Georgian events attributed to a long list of characters.

The city has come up with a plan to avoid future incidents.

Today a local journalist from Rezonansi newspaper asked me if it's true the government is paying my bills for me. I asked her to repeat herself. Somebody had called her paper and said us foreign correspondents are getting a free ride from the government to write bad things about them.

I told her no, that's not true. It is one truth I am absolutely certain of.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

The revolution will not be televised

motivated protesters

I was looking as forward to these protests as I was my next visit to the dentist. But sometimes journalism resembles an actual job and you have to go with the flow, regardless.

I had to run home and file my story before the opposition gave the president an ultimatum to step down in 24 hours or else... or else.... or... um... they would... um... protest more.

While the 30,000 or so people that showed up was 70 grand less than the opposition had predicted, it was still good news for the sunflower seed peddlers that profited from the economic crisis the opposition had blamed on the government.

Quotes of the day belong to former Foreign Minister and leader of the Georgia's Way party, Salome Zourabichvili, who revealed openly what we all knew:

""Many of you don't like those who are standing together with us today, and I don't like many of them, but we gathered to achieve a common goal, and our goal is the resignation of Saakashvili and the saving of Georgia," she said, as reported in What apsny didn't report was how Zourabichvili and Nino Burdjanadze the former Speaker of Parliament and leader of the Democratic Movement-United Georgia, eyed each other coldly on the stage.

I asked a supporter of Burjanadze, what would happen if Saakashvili didn't step down.

"There will be civilized war," she assured.

When Burdjanadze addressed the crowd she was greeted with jeers, boos and whistles. If this opposition actually achieves its goals there very well could be civilized war within its own ranks.

I think it's time to call my dentist for an appointment.

My story is HERE
Nino Burdjanadze supporter next to a poster that poses the question: "Misha is cool?" in reference to a pro-Saakashvili song that once got lots of air play. (photos by PR)

Mass protests in Georgia aim to unseat Saakashvili

A coalition of 13 Georgian political opposition parties will take to the streets of Tbilisi Thursday to stage open-ended demonstrations aimed at unseating President Mikheil Saakashvili, whom they accuse of betraying the promise of 2003's "Rose Revolution," building a personal dictatorship, causing mass impoverishment, and leading the country into a disastrous war with Russia last summer.


Saturday, April 4, 2009

Salome Zourabichvili: A non-Dip's Dip

In an April 3rd op-ed in the NY Times, former Georgian foreign minster Salome Zourabichvili shreds Saakashvili and his government and calls for a “fresh start.” Taking her grievances at face value Saakashvili looks like a despot, which he may or may not be, depending on your point of view. But there are a few things people should understand.

The pre-Saakashvili government was a failed state and corrupt to the core. International investment amounted to little more than arms and drug trafficking. More than half the country lived in the dark because the energy ministry was selling the nation’s electricity abroad and pocketing the money instead of investing it in the infrastructure.

When Misha Saakashvili came along, he eliminated a strata of corruption when he fired most of the old-school police and replaced it with fresh young men, who no longer stopped cars randomly to demand pay-offs. Within two years stable electricity was restored to most of the country. Economically, Georgia became one of the fastest growing economies in the world as global investment had finally arrived.

This isn’t to say there have been major screw-ups, war not withstanding. The poster boy for democracy in the making didn’t really make such great leaps in democracy building. “Due process” and “equality before” the law are concepts that in some cases have been more deconstructed than in Shevardnadze’s period. For example, one of the first things Misha did was arrest government officials and businessmen and persuade them to pay more than they allegedly embezzled to be released. A case in point: Gia Dzhokhtaberidze, Shevardnadze’s son-in-law was charged with tax evasion but was released and charges dropped after his wife paid a $15.5 million fine.

There is truly something amiss in the judicial system when a 14 year-old boy can be sentenced to 12 years in detention for attempted murder, while the men who beat banker Sandro Girgvliani to death are sentenced to 7 and then ultimately pardoned, seemingly because they were high-ranking employees of the interior ministry.

The former foreign minister is absolutely right when she states the US shouldn't dump a pile of cash to people who cannot fully account for it, but what she forgets is that it has never been US foreign policy to do otherwise. Compared to the authoritarian regimes the US supports all over the world, Georgia is pretty mild.

Zourabichvili’s beef with the press is legitimate to a degree but a few things must be understood about the standard of Georgian journalism, the first being, it sucks. Objectivity doesn’t just exist because of censorship, but because journalists are poorly trained and more importantly, the editors don’t practice it. Journalists are often lazy and underpaid. Zourabachvili calls Inga Grigolia one of Georgia’s most prominent journalists, which is true in that she is well-known, but that’s only because she has a big mouth. She is a good example of how bad the state of journalism is in Georgia.

The opposition likes to whine about there not being free media when they should be griping about responsible media. They want a TV station to use as a platform, to counter the government’s mouth-piece, Rustavi-2. This is the kind of free media they talk about. Imedi TV functioned as the opposition’s megaphone before Misha sent his goons in to shut it down and destroyed its equipment in November 2007.
Free speech, like democracy, is open to interpretation. On one hand you can find a newspaper with a picture of Misha as Hitler but you won’t find an investigative report that implicates government officials on television. This is a tragedy.

In her op-ed, Zourabichvili says she has called for new elections in Georgia. What she did not mention is that she and a loose coalition of opposition parties is calling for the resignation of the president and will be holding a demonstration on April 9th to demand it. She also failed to mention her group refuses to hold talks with the president.

What is sad about Zourabachvili is that she is perhaps the most experienced diplomat in the opposition and is pursuing the most undiplomatic means to achieve her goals. All or nothing politics leave no room for dialog. When she says “democracy needs a fresh start in Georgia,” what she is saying is that Saakashvili must be overthrown and replaced by a fragmented group of people who can only agree on one thing - that they hate Misha.

(image 1. Zourabichvili, lifted off David Mdzinarishvili/Reuters 2. G. Zerekidze, Justyna Mielnikiewicz 3. I. Grigolia, lifted off