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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.

Monday, May 25, 2009

The Devil Makes Them Do It

Last week I walked into the best Chinese restaurant in Tbilisi and it was empty.

“Where is everybody?” I asked the waiter.

He shrugged his shoulders and said business has been bad the past few weeks, since the opposition blocked Rustaveli. Other businesses in the area are reportedly suffering similar losses.

That doesn’t seem to concern the opposition, who blame everything on the Saakashvili administration, including the poor standings of the Georgian football club.

But they are pushing their luck. The same day, the opposition decided to further inconvenience their countrymen for the good of the nation
by blocking another major city avenue.

You can only push a Georgian driver so far. They’ve tolerated the detours inflicted upon them by the opposition barricades but you can’t expect them to put up with more. There are only so many roads in Tbilisi and too many cars.

As one might expect, drivers began honking madly and cursing opposition leaders, like insurance salesman Davit Gamkrelidze, the leader of the New Rights Party. His firm was the first insurance company in independent Georgia and had a nice arrangement with the Shevardnadze government, where new passport holders were obliged to pay an insurance fee to receive their passport. When the Rose Revolution came along, the New Rights chose to sit it out.

Nino Burjanadze claimed the inconvenience was not their decision, according to civil.ge. But what the journalist did not mention was if she said that with a straight face.

“…It was a response to the illegal actions of the authorities,” the Iron Lady said.

Or in other words, “the devil made me do it.”

Later, a group of taxi drivers honked on up to the opposition barricades of cages and tried to open them up, unsuccessfully. The cabbies say the roadblock is bad for business. The opposition says “We shall make you free.”

Tomorrow is Independence Day here in Georgia and the opposition plans many surprises, says Gamkrelidze.

Just what we need.

Ordinarily, Tbilisi has a big military parade every May 26, with lots of flags and tanks and stuff. This year the opposition has saved the government money and intends to hold their own parade instead. A kind of de facto independence day celebration by an imitation government.

Today at the Conservative party headquarters, during a comic press accreditation formality (the first time journalists have needed accreditation for the opposition), a letter on the secretary’s desk invited the ambassador of a European nation to Georgia’s independence celebration at the opposition venue. What we don’t know is if Conservative Party Secretary, Kakha Kukava had a straight face when he was signing his name.

(photo PJR: The front of parliament. As the protests continue, garbage piles and the street becomes increasingly more fetid.)

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Justyna Mielnikiewicz

I just watched a retro clip of Misha's head bashing party from November 7, 2007, when cops destroyed photojournalist Justyna Mielnikiewic's camera. Shortly after watching her camera smash to bits about a minute into the clip, you can hear her expressing herself clearly.

Justyna has finally gotten around to adding some images to her blog, which I recommend ya'll check out.

(from this month's demos)

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Madness or the Art of Thinking Big?

(These people want change. PJR)

You are the president of a small nation with a population half the number of the city of Chicago’s. You engaged your nation in a war with Russia, which was lost in 5 days. The only thing keeping the country economically alive is the billions of dollars western countries donated before the great global economic depression. Thousands of people want your resignation and have blocked traffic on two major streets in the capital and threaten to block the country’s major highway too. What do you do?

If you are Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, then you go to your Black Sea city of Batumi and announce the construction of “Europe’s best opera house.”

This poor nation. On one hand you have a bunch of knuckleheads paralyzing local Tbilisi businesses for their own personal political ambitions and on the other, you have the president telling the people of Adjara an opera house will improve their living conditions.

“Not only we will construct an opera house here, but we will also spare no effort against unemployment and against poverty here on Georgia’s Black sea coast – in Batumi, Poti, Kobuleti, in mountainous Adjara, in Guria and Samegrelo and of course on the next stage in Abkhazia too,” Saakashvili said, as reported in civil.ge.

Abkhazia? Either Misha has lost all sense of reality or he has read The Magic of Thinking Big, by Dr. David J. Schwartz. In this highly rated motivation masterpiece, the reader learns among other things “how to turn defeat into victory” and “how to think and dream creatively.”

Misha demonstrated his acquaintance with these chapters when he said “We will turn Batumi (into) the most bountiful city on the entire Black Sea coast… If today Adjara is hosting 200,000 tourists [annually], exactly in two years the figure will grow to 1.5 million and in five years – from 4 to 6 millions.” (civil.ge)

The first step to being a winner is to believe you can succeed, and you will. This is achieved by looking in the mirror each morning and saying, “I am beautiful. I am smart. I am a success.” Subsequent steps lead to the cure of the fear of failure and how to make your attitudes your allies.

You must think like a leader, Dr. Schwartz writes, for you are what you think you are. What the good author fails to mention is that you are also what other people think you are.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

It's Not Who You're For

(Nino Burjanadze, left; Irakli Alasania, 2nd from right. PJR)

“What do you think, Misha will go?” asked David the cabbie.

“No,” I replied.

David is from Kakheti, the birthplace of wine. He makes his living driving his Ford around Tbilisi, sleeping on couches and sometimes in his car. He delivers his earnings to his family in Kakheti every weekend.

“What are they saying in Kakheti about these demonstrations?” I asked.

“Misha’s got to go.”

“And who should replace him?”

David shrugged his shoulders and maneuvered around a pot hole.

“Burjandaze?” I probed.

David, like most people who responded to this question, said he can’t trust Nino Burjanadze because he remembers how steadfastly she defended the government’s brutal repression of demonstrations in November 2007, when she was Speaker of Parliament.

“What about Gachecheladze?”

“He’s an idiot,” David snapped.

“Alasania?” I queried.

“Who is he?”

Indeed. Who is Irakli Alasania? Nobody outside of Tbilisi’s upscale neighborhood of Vake Park knows who he is. The 37 year-old was once part of Misha’s whiz kid team, first as Deputy Secretary of National Security Council in 2004, and later as the President’s Special Representative for Abkhazia and Head of the Abkhazia Autonomous Republic government of in exile. Back then I asked my local sage Anushkarella who the guy was. She assured me he was a “very good boy.”

In 2006, Alasania became Misha’s advisor on Abkhazian conflict issues and special representative on Georgian-Abkhaz peace talks (Irakli’s father was a general of Georgian forces during the conflict and was one of the many Georgians massacred during the fall of Sukhumi). In June 2006, Alasania was appointed Georgia’s ambassador to the UN, a post he resigned from in December 2008, as a response to the government’s military folly in August. Several weeks later he announced his political ambitions.

Political analysts see him as the moderate radical opposition leader, someone who has joined the ranks of the all or nothing political rebels just to be recognized. He is not an orator or charismatic personality, but does have very good manners.

Good manners are not important to guys like David the taxi driver. He drives a taxi in Tbilisi because there are no jobs in Kakheti. Most people that want Misha to go do so because their lives have not improved since 2004, but David’s beef is more personal. Four years ago his cousin was convicted of possessing stolen property.

“He didn’t steal the gold, his friend did. It was just in his house and they gave him six years… He has two more to go. If Saakashvili goes there will be amnesty.”

I didn’t question his logic, nor where he got the information that prisoners would be set free if Saakashvili were overthrown. We ran out of time. I gave him 7 lari for the ride to Misha’s egg.

There on the street next to the president’s back door a dozen tents are pitched. 32 men have been protest camping for a month and it smells like it. I asked some of them which opposition leader they supported. “None,” they replied. “We are here for our country, not a leader.”

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Back in The Normal

“So what’s the situation like in Georgia now?” I was asked in Amsterdam last week.

“Well, some opposition leaders have organized street protests to demand the resignation of the president, a bunch of people are blocking major roads, traffic is now a major drag, Russia has amassed troops along the new borders and I don’t know, things are pretty normal,” I replied.

“Normal?”

“Yeah. Street protests and rallies are an inherent part of Tbilisi reality. Last September, after the war, President Saakashvili held a national unity rally that looked like a victory celebration. There were tens of thousands of happy people all over the city holding hands and waving flags – you would never have known that the country lost 20 percent of its territory and 40,000 people had just been displaced. The year before there were anti-government hunger strikes and demonstrations that culminated into a head bashing party when the president called in the riot cops to break things up. Before that there was the Rose Revolution; a defrocked monk protesting against “non-traditional” faiths; and there’s always been the Zviadists – supporters of the first president of Georgia, but that’s a long story. When Georgians are impassioned, they take to the streets.”

“But aren’t you afraid of the Russians?” my interlocutor inquired.

“Some people are, particularly those who live near the border with South Ossetia and the refugees. They have a reason to be afraid; they hear gunfire from across the border nightly. But in Tbilisi, Russia has been a threat for so long nobody would know what to do if Russia disappeared. You gotta have an enemy, and let’s face it, few enemies are better than Russia. You ever see a Russian soldier up close? About as bright as lump of mud.”

I had been in Amsterdam for nearly a week. With the exception of the 2 liters of chacha I brought, Georgia was not on my mind. I needed a break from the normality we call Tbilisi life. I wanted Georgia to be un-normal when I returned; that the political crisis would be history; that western countries like Holland would be able to see Georgia as a stable country instead of the schizophrenic nation we try to pretend it isn’t. It’s so haywire that the Dutch are even beginning to doubt the Dutchness of Georgia’s First Lady, Sandra Roelofs.

“She’s not Dutch,” insisted a blond-haired, blue-eyed Dutch photographer. “She used to be, but not anymore.”

I got back to the hotel later and checked my email. There were two notes from Boston.

“What is happening in Georgia?”

So much for my private buffer zone. Mutiny. You can’t leave the country for 5 days without some sort of catastrophe occurring. The May 5th mutiny and alleged coup d’├ętat sounded like big news and made the front pages of several papers around the world, but few people recall that the mutiny was the third that has occurred at the Mukhrovani base since 2001. Even mutiny in Georgia is normal.

***

“A fool’s talk brings a rod to his back, but the lips of the wise protect them.” Proverbs 13:3

We got back to Tbilisi and took the long way home from the airport as the opposition was still blocking the roads with those fake prison cell things. Dinner was interrupted by the news of blood. An angry mob rushed a police station in an effort to free 3 activists who had been arrested for beating a journalist trying to get to work. My neighbor had warned us about this but we were too hungry to care. We didn’t think someone would actually be stupid enough to jump a fence and confront psyched up riot cops, but then we didn’t know the musician, TV personality and Saakashvili hater, Grechikha’s brother Giorgi – better known as Utsnobi (the unkown) – was leading the rabble.

(utsnobi - justyna mielnikiewicz/NYTimes)

Giorgi has his own reality TV show where he has locked himself up in his own prison cell he has decorated with sophomoric collages of people he hates and he interviews people he believes are worthy of his conversation. Giorgi says he won’t leave his cell until Saakashvili resigns, but decided to parole himself to get arrested for real.

There are a couple ways of looking at what happened. The opposition says police cracked down on peaceful protesters with excessive force and shot into the crowd with rubber or plastic bullets, aimed at the face. The government says they were protecting the police compound from being raided and that about a dozen people were lightly injured. They deny shooting into the crowd with rubber bullets, however, two people have reportedly been treated for having their eyes shot out.

One thing for certain is that the mob that rushed the cop shop were not exactly peaceful protesters and were armed with sticks. The police did not retaliate until Utsnobi jumped the fence and the mob became more threatening.

Did the cops use excessive force? If the rubber bullets accusation is true, then yes. The police have warned they will use force if necessary and when confronted by an angry stick wielding mob, police all over the world are likely to respond violently, except maybe in Holland. You can’t expect the Georgian police to react any differently – I’d expect them to respond more aggressively considering how green they are. I’m not justifying the violence, but cops are cops and if you want to keep your skull intact, don’t give them a reason to bust it.

If Utsnobi didn’t lead a riotous mob to the police station with the intention to free three people detained inside for assault, and then jump the fence, nobody would have been hospitalized and I could have ended this entry six paragraphs ago.
(upper photo.PJR)