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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

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.


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.


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.