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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 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

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