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Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Sanguine Russia

(17/30 Russian journalists whose murders remain unsolved)

Anatoly Adamchuk is latest Russian journalist to be beaten just short of death, raising the number of attacks against journalists to 32, according to the Glasnost Defense Foundation. The attack comes two days after Oleg Kashin, of Kommersant, was brained by two assailants in an attack which mirrors the 2008 assault of Mikhail Beketov, who like Kashin, openly criticized the plan to build a highway through a forest. Both had their hands smashed and skulls split open, only it is too early to see if Khimki Mayor Vladimir Strelchenko, sponsor of the highway, will take Kashin to court like Beketov, for a criminal defamation suit. Although Russia didn't make the deadliest countries list for 2010 this year, it has been listed as the 4th most dangerous place to be a journalist by the Committee to Protect Journalists, just ahead of Mexico and behind China, Iran and Iraq. Russia is also 8th on CPJ’s Impunity Index, which ranks countries based on how many journalists' deaths go without investigation or prosecution.

Fred Weir of the Christian Science Monitor has an interesting piece linking the beating of Kashin to a possible rift between Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, while the blog La Russophobe makes the case that the bashing exemplifies what a bloodthirsty nation Russia is.

Medvedev, ever the man of the 21st century "tweeted" that the "offenders should be found and punished," which is certainly reassuring.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Svaneti Blues


There used to be a time not long ago at all when the only people that dared to venture to the high mountainous region of Svaneti unescorted were the gutsy or the oblivious. Svaneti was as notorious as the Pankisi Gorge in terms of criminality, the only difference was Pankisi was home to a Chechen-Georgian Interior Ministry cartel while Svaneti was a homogeneous enclave run by local bandits.

Things are different today. The law and order byproduct of the Saakashvili government effectively put an end to the stories of kidnappings, high-jackings and tourists returning to Tbilisi with nothing more than the shirts on their backs. Wander aimlessly into Mestia today and the only waylaying you are likely to encounter is a chacha ambush. This doesn’t mean the criminals are gone, however. They just stopped robbing tourists.

Now the National Movement guys are doing great things in terms of reform and development and have grand plans to turn Svaneti into a Zermatt of the Caucasus. So if you’re on their side, your future is bright. If you’re not on their side, well then, you are surely against them – as they think like American neocons. What this means in Svaneti, the land of legendary blood feuds, is that you will be screwed till you bleed and there is nothing you can do about it because the scales of justice are in their hands.

On May 3, 2010 witnesses backed by video footage implicated Samegrelo-Zemo Svaneti Governor, Zaza Gorozia, regional police chief, Tengiz Gunava, Mestia police chief, Giorgi Shedania, his deputy Joni Belkania, Interior Ministry officer, Anzor Margiani, Mestia ruling party MP Kandid Kvitsiani, Mestia governor, Gocha Chelidze, and others in a pre-election intimidation case in Mestia, Svaneti. Apparently, 8 people from the opposition Freedom Party were forcibly taken to the Mestia administration building and persuaded to sign pre-drafted withdrawals from the elections, in which 4 signed and 4 refused. 5 criminal offenses were recorded: obstruction of expression of will in an election, coercion, act of threat, violence, and abuse of authority.

Unsurprisingly, not a single charge has been brought against any of the perpetrators, despite an overwhelming amount of evidence against them. The three whistle blowers, however, have not fared as lucky.

Neli Naveriani, a local council person and member of the now defunct Alliance for Georgia opposition party, was arrested with three of her relatives for extortion in an allegedly illegitimate real estate deal. Issues over land ownership have been a point of contention between some locals and Tbilisi because Svans have traditionally recognized ownership of property for generations without deeds, while the government aims to quickly buy up land slated for rapid development.

NGOs like the Young Lawyer’s Association (GYLA) and human rights activists see the high profile Naveriani case, which was carried out swiftly and televised, as retribution, particularly when compared to how immobile the coercion cases against the authorities has gone and how her two colleagues have endured similar fates.

Labor Party member, Aleksander Khehrgiani, had also witnessed the May intimidation event and gone public. In August he got into an argument with former Mestia Governor Gocha Chelidze, who supposedly insulted Khehrgiani’s mother and was subsequently slapped in the face. A couple days later, some of Chelidze’s cronies informed him that criminal charges were being made against Khehrgiani’s son for the violent act, however, they gave Khehrgiani the option of serving jail time instead. Both Khehrgiani and his son have reportedly left Mestia to seek support among the NGO and international community.

At 4 am on August 10th, the cops arrested Davit Zhorzholiani at his Tbilisi apartment for assault with intent to harm. Davit is not political and works as a Svaneti region mountain guide, but his brother Kakha was with Naveriani and Khehrgiani on May 3rd and witnessed the way authorities allegedly intimidated and coerced the 8 opposition individuals. Kakha also spoke out publicly about the political motives behind Naveriani’s arrest.

On July 26th, Davit, his father and aunt were driving in central Mestia and were struck by Murtzav Kvitsiani, brother of the Mestia police chief. An argument between Davit and Kvitisiani ensued and Kvitisiani pulled a knife. Some guys hanging out in the center square ran over to help break it up and things got a bit out of hand. There were many witnesses, including two cops and a hotel video camera. Kvitisiani apparently fell and injured his head. Kvitisiani claimed he did not see who had hit him, nobody was questioned or report filed to the police. In the two weeks between the altercation and arrest, Davit had traveled freely in Svaneti. After his arrest, he was taken into custody and held in a typically overcrowded Midnight Express jail cell without bail, or proof of guilt for two months.

The complaint filed against Davit Zhorzholiani, who maintains his innocence, states he hit Kvitsiani over the head with a stone, although Kvitsiani testified in court on October 5 that he didn’t know who hit him. The prosecution based the case on the testimony of two policemen who claimed they saw Davit take a stone and smash it in the Kvitsiani’s head. The hotel video footage could not be used because it self erases every 14 days, which might explain why it took the police two weeks to arrest Davit.

In the appeal case on October 15th, Davit was expected to accept a plea bargain for his release, however, the deal was withdrawn at the last minute, his lame ass lawyer was not prepared with a defense in such a circumstance and Davit was sentenced to 3 years in prison for aggravated violence.

Davit Zhorzholiani is just one victim of Georgia’s kangaroo court system. I have seen how the system (which adopted the international Convention on the Rights of the Child) initially sentenced a 14 year old to 12 years in prison for not killing a man who recanted his testimony 3 times, while sardonically sentencing 4 interior ministry officers eight-year and seven-year sentences for the brutal January 2006 murder of banker Sandro Girgvliani before ultimately being pardoned. Monitor Studio’s Nino Zuriashvili and Alex Kvatashidze documented how a spiteful Irakli Kodua who headed the MoI’s Special Operation Dept. framed Kvicha and Gocha Mildiani and Lasha Khorguani because of a mistaken phone call. No television station would broadcast the documentary.

Despite all the lip service paid to Georgia’s judicial reform, the wheels of Georgian justice continue to steamroll over whoever the prosecutor puts under the wheel, as the country still has a nearly 100% conviction rate. In Georgia, rule of law clearly works in favor of the ruler.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Tbilisi Jazz Festival Blues

(Duke Ellington & Johnny Hodges lifted from

I grew up to the sounds of Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, Duke Ellington and of course Louis Armstrong on reel to reel tapes my father played in his bulky portable player after long days at work and on weekends. His collection of 78s were his pride and joy, only since my mother was a stickler for tidiness they had to be stored in the garage until she decided to tidy that up one day. Shorty after the disappearance of those records and dad's jazz-filled autograph book, my parents divorced. My mom always said Billie was dad’s number one love.

I signed up for the school orchestra in 4th grade and my father took me to the music shop to buy a trumpet. I picked out a ratty old cornet in a frayed tweed case. “Just like Satchmo!” I showed my dad with glee. Even at that young age I could see some instruments possessed more soul than others. My father, however, has always been an ultimately practical man and while he appreciates soul and even got a kick of my attraction to the lovely old coronet, he picked out a shiny new trumpet in a case the color of over-boiled peas.

The valves of my trumpet were assiduously oiled for three years until 7th grade came around and I moved up to RJ Fisher Jr. High School. The orchestra also doubled as a marching band, a gig I had a tough time imagining to handle, as the uniforms were beyond square, like the music. Nevertheless, after weeks of deliberation, I announced myself in the music room with the pea-green trumpet case in hand.

The old bitter music teacher seemed all too happy to inform me there were already too many trumpet players enrolled, although there was a tuba position open. The idea of playing such a ridiculous instrument actually appealed to me for a moment, especially when I thought how much my mother and neighbors would appreciate my practicing. Yet after one rehearsal blowing bass lines, I resigned from music to pursue more engaging activities like smoking dope and stealing bicycles, while my trumpet found a spot in the back of my closet, where it stayed until each New Years Eve when I’d blast the devil out of it at midnight until I was out of breath. I wouldn't touch an instrument again for five years, when I walked into the same music shop my father had taken me to and bought a harmonica.

Dad’s jazz became hoary stuff about the time my voice began to change. My big brother became my next musical influence. He had an extensive record collection, which of course I was not allowed to touch. Each finger print-free album was meticulously stored in plastic sleeves and in alphabetical order, by year of release. His eclectic collection exposed me to some of the coolest rock music to come out of the 1960s and early 70s. To help keep me away from his collection, he would flip through 50-cent record bins and buy me Beatles, Jethro Tull and Humble Pie records, which I accompanied on air guitar in front of the mirror.


By the time Duran Duran had showed up and instigated the worse hairstyles of the past century, I was listening to nothing but the Blues, thanks to the divine providence which led me back to that music shop to spend the six bucks in my pocket on a Hohner Golden Melody harmonica in the key of D. If it wasn't for my serendipitous discovery of Little Walter and Paul Butterfield, I would have probably been a punk, since I always had been in principle.

Blues wasn't my dad's bag, yet he dug it enough to take me to what would be a defining moment in my life – a mini Blues festival featuring Willie Dixon, who I had never heard of. Our plan was to catch Lightin' Hopkins, who I had discovered in my friend's hippie parent's record collection, and my dad had known about because he was acquainted with Lightnin’s record producer, but when we got to the gate, there was a sign informing us Lightnin had died. He was replaced with John Hammond, who didn’t really do it for me, despite his brilliant harmonica playing, but when Willie Dixon came out I was floored. I couldn’t stop dancing. Muddy Waters came out for an encore performance of “Got My Mojo Working” and right then and there I knew what I was going to do for the rest of my life. As the mighty Louis Myers would tell me years later in Chicago, “When the blues bites you it don't let go!”

One way I stayed connected to my father while I was living in Chicago was by going to hear the great tenor player Johnny Griffin when he rolled into his hometown for his annual birthday visit from the Netherlands. Griffin was a buddy to fellow west coast tenor, Chuck Travis, who was one of my dad's best friends. And when the Artie Shaw or Basie band was in town I'd go to the show for my dad and myself.

It's much more difficult staying musically connected with my father in such a way these days in Tbilisi. For one thing, there are too few jazz pioneers alive and moreover, Georgia is way too far off the beaten path of any tour circuit for some hot jazz musician to drop by and dazzle us with their groove. So when I'm in a sentimental mood, I put Johnny Hodges in my player, close my eyes and as the introduction to Jeep's Blues rolls over me, I watch two reel-to-reel tapes spinning in a portable player, bar after swinging bar.


This year’s jazz festival in Tbilisi looks like one of the hottest line-ups since I’ve lived here. McCoy Tyner, Diane Reeves, Joe Sample & the Jazz Crusaders, and even the nearly original Blues Brothers band, will be tearing it up for five short days. If you’re in Tbilisi, do yourself a favor and catch some jazz. It only happens once a year. For more info:

Friday, August 27, 2010

Mouths Wide Shut

(lifted off

Today, the Georgian NGO Coalition for Justice released a press statement calling for greater consideration for the rights of the displaced by the international community, reminding us that 400,000 IDPs were forced from their homes and communities by Russia since 1993. The press release, however, failed to mention that IDP rights are also threatened in Tbilisi.

Seven Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), have gone on a hunger strike in front of the Ministry of Internally Displaced Persons from the Occupied Territories, Accommodation and Refugees, to protest their eviction from the Isani shelter two weeks ago. Four of them are so committed that they sewed their mouths shut. The eviction was ordered by Ministry of Economic Development, which is headed by the former head of the Coalition for Justice and Abkhazian IDP, Vera Kobalia.

IDPs have been abused and exploited since they were first forced to leave their homes in Abkhazia and South Ossetia; we just don’t hear much about it. Take the case of Batalbi Saghinadze, who had the nerve to fight his 2004 eviction and take it all the way to the Strasbourg Human Rights Court, which ruled in his favor on May 27 2010 and ordered the State to pay him 15,752 Euro in damages.

From IDP to Simon Templar

Batalbi Saghinadze was once a high-ranking Abkhazian Ministry of the Interior official until he was forced to flee Sukhumi in 1993. When he arrived in Tbilisi, the Georgian Minister of Interior gave him a job as Head of the Investigative Department and settled him and his family in a Ministry-owned cottage on the outskirts of town, which he improved and cultivated with fruits, vegetables and chickens. Eight additional displaced relatives moved in with him.

In 1998, 59 year-old Saghinadze retired from the Ministry and received a letter two years later confirming the legitimacy of his possession of the cottage and adjacent premises (based on an ordinance issued by the then Minister under the Internally Displaced Persons and Refugees Act of 28 June 1996). Right after the Rose Revolution, the newly appointed Minister of Interior, Giorgi Baramidze, asked Saghinadze to come out of retirement to lead the investigation into the unsolved, high-profile Levan Kaladze kidnapping case.

20 year-old medical student, Levan Kaladze, was the brother of Georgian football hero and AC Milan fullback, Kakha Kaladze. On May 23, 2001, two men in police uniforms snatched Levan after medical classes at university and demanded $600,000 in ransom. It is widely known that during the Shevardnadze administration, Ministry of Interior officials often moonlighted as kidnappers, which likely explains why no headway had been made into the investigation until Saghinadze – now a police colonel - came along and claimed high-ranking officials covering up criminal machinations in Georgian football were involved in the kidnapping.

The Indian Giver

At this time, up and coming National Movement good fella, Irakli Okruashvili, was Prosecutor General. He personally requested Saghinadze to drop the investigation in March 2004 and three months later, when Saakashvili promoted Okruashvili to Minister of Interior, the future wanted criminal removed Saghinadze from the case and fired him.

Most people would probably have just silently gone back into retirement, but Saghinadze, perhaps believing in the revolutionary government’s stated commitment to rule of law, submitted a confidential file, which contained information revealing abuses of power by Okruashvili and other high-ranking officials to the National Security Council, President Saakashvili’s consultative body. He should have known better.


The cops paid Saghinadze a visit and informed him that Okruashvili issued a verbal order to leave his premises. Saghinadze responded by showing the cops his letter of legitimacy and asked them to leave. They returned a few days later without a court order and Saghinadze again put them out. On October 31, 2004, the cops came yet again with around 15 “spetznaz” in black masks to evict the Saghinadze family, saying again that they had an oral order from Okruashvili. Undeterred and livid, Saghinadze argued that they either show a court order to enter his home or leave immediately. Not having the warrant, the cops retreated only to return the next day with around 60 armed men in black masks, who allegedly broke into the house, physically tossed the Saghinadze family out and boarded up their home.

Batalbi Saghinadze filed a civil action suit against the Ministry of the Interior, seeking to recover possession of the cottage under Articles 155, 159 and 160 of the Civil Code, and an injunction to stay in the house, which the court refused to grant. However, on December 30, 2004 the Krtsanisi-Mtatsminda District Court ordered the MoI to hand the house back over, ruling that his possession of the home had been legitimate and the eviction had been unlawful. The District Court also criticized the Ministry for taking the cottage without any legal decision, on the sole basis of the Minister’s oral instruction. The bad news was the court refused to order immediate enforcement of its judgment because the Ministry claimed it had stationed a unit of special forces in the house, which needed time to withdraw. When Batalbi visited his home the next week, local cops told him no special units had ever been stationed there.

The Ministry fought back and filed an appeal in January 2005 and won. Saghinadze challenged the appellate court’s decision in the Supreme Court, and lost again on Sept. 27, 2006. The MoI wasn’t satisfied with just beating him in court. In a method they would repeat on Okruashvili, who was now Defense Minister, the Prosecutor’s office ordered a search of his premises, witnessed only by local municipality officials, and found firearms and documents on criminal cases, including the Kaladze case. The Prosecutor’s Office opened a criminal case against Saghinadze for abuse of power committed by his investigative unit in 2004. Saghinadze was charged with unlawful possession of a gun, misappropriation of confidential official documents, ill-treatment of a person, fabrication of evidence and other abuses of power committed in public office. He was found guilty and sentenced to seven years in prison on 22 February 2007.

Strasbourg Pate

Saghinadze asserts that the criminal case against him was unlawful as there was no reasonable suspicion that he had committed the offences and that his detention had been ordered in retribution for his independent and professional investigation into the Kaladze case. Strasbourg found no evidence to support Saghinadze’s innocence, but it did rule the State illegally evicted him.

“...The Court cannot understand why, after he had lived there peacefully with his family for more than ten years, the first applicant’s (Saghinadze) occupation of the cottage should suddenly have become such a burning issue… What really matters for the Court is that the Ministry took the cottage without a court authorization obtained through fair and adversarial proceedings.”

Justice denied anywhere diminishes justice everywhere*

The Coalition for Justice has issued a press release intended for the international community when in fact it is the international community that funds all major IDP programs in Georgia and the Strasbourg court that ends up protecting the legal rights of IDPs like Batalbi Saghinadze from Georgian iniquity. The Coalition for Justice could press the government to ensure the rights of IDPs are protected, like the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), Georgian Public Defender, Georgian Young Lawyer’s Association, Transparency International, and others, but instead the NGO takes the government’s line by stating the international community hasn’t done enough to punish Russia for causing people to sew their mouths shut in Georgia.

*Martin Luther King

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Those Lucky Internally Displaced People

Last Friday, exactly two years to the day Ossetian irregulars "cleansed" the Tskhinvali region of its last Georgians while Russian troops consumed the spoils, the displaced were again expelled, only this time it was by Georgian authorities who gave them 7 hours to pack up and leave their shelter.

“A coincidence,” said Maka Esaishvili, NGO and donor officer of the Ministry of Internally Displaced Persons from the Occupied Territories, Accommodation and Refugees, “but it had to happen sometime.”

Yeah, and Stalin gave people 15 minutes to pack before he deported them.

It isn’t the fact that these internally displaced persons were evicted from their squalid shelters – they should have been moved long ago - it is the way it was done that was wrong. If the government really cared about the well-being of the people it continually reminds the world are innocent victims of Russia’s aggression, then why not treat them with the minimal respect guaranteed them by law. Coming quietly in the night to tell people they have to leave at sunrise is not just abominable, it is against the law.

The government’s attitude is, we give them houses or $10,000 bucks, what more do they want? Or as Maka says, “They get 10,000 dollars and are luckier than Tbilisi’s regular unemployed.”

Yes, Maka, these lucky people asked Russian and Ossetian troops to come steal everything they owned and raze their homes to the ground. They should be grateful for the government’s collective centers in the boondocks and bags of macaroni and $13 a month in aid, I mean it's a better deal than what the refugees got in 1993. They should be dancing in the streets because you have given them the option of receiving $10,000 in housing compensation – not complaining that you are making them dance through hoops to get the money.

The truth is, the surprise evictions were neither a surprise nor a coincidence. They were conducted in mid-August, a time when the country is on holiday. There were no TV cameras to report how hundreds of people were made homeless again.

“How did you find out about this?” Maka asked.

How indeed.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Sounds of The Caucasus, NYT

A plug for my favorite photographer in a NYT slideshow about Georgian polyphony

And, the story by VIVIEN SCHWEITZER

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Negro is not niggardly and the best offense is defense

(lifted off

I just visited to catch up on some local news and see the president has tasted a bit of his own shoe leather.

Remember the Washington DC mayoral aide David Howard, who had to resign for saying the word "niggardly" when referring to the tight budget he would have to manage? Fortunately, this is Georgia where even losing a war with Russia won't make a president resign, which is why I'm surprised Misha is getting some heat for calling his Prime Minister a "negro."

The deal is, Misha got pissed off when he found out some Spanish tourists got shaken down by some knucklehead customs officers. The article states Misha turned to some Finance Ministry guy and Prime Minister Nika Gilauri and said, “... are we Negroes or what? Explain to me why are we acting like savages?”

The president's press service released a statement regretting the president's comment was misinterpreted, which is not an apology, mind you.

“Words said by the President of Georgia have nothing to do with any race and they were not used in the context of racial discrimination,” the statement also mentioned.

But the word negro
is either a derogatory slur or an old school racial description. It is nothing else. I don't understand why Misha just didn't say "Russian." Nobody would have noticed and it would have been an accurate description.

Speaking of Russia, Misha is on one of his civil defense benders again, going on about how
Georgia should develop a military industry and that every village should be prepared to defend itself against a Russian invasion.

"There should be small, trained teams in each village and each settlement with minimal required arms so that everyone should be able to defend own land, village, street, town and region,” the president said.

If the president had been in a Georgian village during the August 2008 war, then he would have seen that even a large trained team couldn't protect villages from being bombed by Russian planes. If he had actually talked to people in these villages then he would have learned that they are tired of being pawns in a conflict between Putin and Saakashvili, they don't want to be armed with weapons to protect their homes, they want water, gas and jobs.

(lifted from

Yes, Russia is occupying Georgian territory and yes Putin wants to string Misha up by his nuts - you cannot deny the threat is still there. But how many wars must Georgia lose before the president stops saying stuff like, “If the enemy force decides to advance from the ethnically cleansed territories, each and every square meter of the Georgian land should burn beneath [the enemy force] – that is the task.” ?

And if the president was earnest about the plan to win the hearts and minds of the separatists, why would he say "Georgia’s eventual political goal is to liberate our territories and to achieve full de-occupation?" Georgia has been saying that for nearly 2 decades and look what it has achieved. I think it's fair to say that if this talk loud and carry a small stick diplomacy hasn't worked well these past 20 years why would it now?

Friday, July 16, 2010

Dinner of Champions

Back before the fall of Shevardnadze, I went to do research on a story about Chidaoba, traditional Georgian wrestling. It was mid-winter and the Federal Wrestling Association building was predictably unlit and unheated, but dozens of wrestlers steamed the hall with body vapor and broke the chill. The faded cement walls and patchy wrestling mat looked like they had sucked the balm out of every dripping pore of each man that every donned a singlet in Tbilisi for the past 50 years. I don't have to tell you what it smelled like.

Between whistle blows, Coach Otar Tatishvili, a former USSR Olympic champion, introduced me to several current World and Euro champs. Otar was an expert of Greco-Roman wrestling and couldn’t help me with Chidaoba much, but did invite me to a banquet to honor the 50th birthday of his friend the police chief and former Olympic wrestling medalist.

I met Otar outside the restaurant, where bull-necked men in dark suits greeted each other with hand shakes, kisses and smiles. It wasn't just a birthday party, it was a reunion of world champion athletes: wrestlers, boxers, and blackbelt medal winners. I was the only guy whose ears didn’t look like tenderized veal medallions.

A couple hundred people, give or take, filled the room to capacity. The tables were loaded with standard luxe Georgian fare – caviar, roast piglet, etcetera, etcetera. The cop’s parents were sitting at a long table on the stage. They were also celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary.

In the United States, politicians often pop out of the lawyer mold. In the Caucasus, and in Georgia at that time, the mold that forms wrestling champions, forms politicians and prosecutors and the like. I understood why parents sent their sons to Otar to learn the finer points of Greco-Roman wrestling. In America most of these guys would’ve ended up as doormen or bodyguards, here they had bodyguards.

The vibe was what you would expect a banquet hall full of aging athletes to feel like. Laid back testosterone all settled in the gut. The wives, with trounced postures, chain smoked. The Chief’s wife had twelve inches on her husband in high heels. He had about fifty pounds on her, all held up by his belt, rolled under itself. Her two sons looked just like their dad only they popped out of a donut mold, not a wrestler's. Their wives looked like mom.

With a glass full of wine in one hand and microphone in the other, the tamada made long-winded toasts accompanied by the obligatory feedback from the blaring sound system. A former wrestling world champ of 1978 stretched across the table and said in English, “Me world champion wrestling. He, world champion blah, blah, blah.”

I sat next to the Vice President of the Wrestling Federation. He leaned into me and translated each toast in a nutshell. “Gia, Euro Champ 1976… Vaho, World Champ 1980… Tatiana, the first female wrestling referee in the USSR…” It was getting rather daffy.

Everybody stood up for a toast to Konstantin Vyrupayev the first USSR gold medalist in wrestling, in 1956. He was big and bald and kept his glasses on his head with a black shoe lace.

We also stood up for a toast to the Chief's wife, although I was the only person at our table to actually drink. Even when she came up to greet us, all the men stood, put the glasses to their lips but didn’t even wet them.

I saw the Chief again in November 2003. His riot cops were guarding the chancellery as thousands of protesters were challenging them at the foot of the stairs by the Freedom Square metro. When they got the order to let us through, everybody cheered and congratulated the dumbfounded police as they passed by them. Slouched against a wall with a cigarette drooping off his lip was the Chief, as tenacious as an empty bag of potato chips.

“Gamarjoba! Rogora khar?” I said. “Remember me? I was at your birthday party!”

He returned my ironic smile with weak smirk, an expression he hadn’t worn since the last time he was pinned.

(top image lifted off; 4 year-old wrestlers Georgy Bibilauri and Dzhambulat Khotokhov. From, ear from

A story by Brian Bernbaum, CBS July 2003:

"Wrestlers Georgy Bibilauri and Dzhambulat Khotokhov had both hoped for victory, but they settled for ice cream instead. The pair, two of the world's largest preschoolers, proved evenly matched Wednesday in an unusual contest in the Georgian capital Tbilisi. Khotokhov, a Russian weighing 123 pounds with a height of 3 feet 11 inches, is the world's largest 4-year-old, according to the match's organizers. Tbilisi native Bibilauri, who turned 5 on Wednesday is 4 feet tall and weighs 112 pounds. After the boys tied on the mat, they went off to celebrate Bibilauri's birthday with ice cream and chocolate.

Georgian wrestling champion Levan Tediashvili, who refereed the match, said he admired the boys' sportsmanship.“They are fantastic kids,” he said. “These two giants give off such positive vibes. We Russians and Georgians should follow their example.”

The match's organizer, Georgian journalist Tengiz Pachkoriya, said he came up with the idea after reading a newspaper article about Khotokhov.
“They became friends after spending the day together yesterday,” he said. “I hope the friendship will last many years."

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Identity theft Azerbaijan style

A real Eldar Namazov

“As long as this corrupt regime fails to leave the scene, we will stick together,” said a man named Eldar Namazov. But he had no idea how some things would stick.

I came across a hilarious story by comrade Ali I'd like to share about the virtual cloning
of the former aid to Big Daddy Heidar Aliev and current opposition guy, Eldar Namazov.

(image lifted off

Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Twittering president of Russia

Russian President, Dmitry Medvedev, was in my home state yesterday doing some overt corporate spying in Silicon Valley in an effort to recreate кремниевой долины in a Moscow suburb and “diversify” beyond the gas and oil exports that have made the country rich.

While caressing a new iPad at Stanford, Dima told an audience that every American company he talked to expressed an interest in investing in Russia. “Expressing interest” is not “planning on.”

Expressing interest would be like, “Well, Dima, I’d like to invest in your ridiculously bureaucratic and corrupt country but I’d hate to end up like Bill Browder. Certainly you remember him and his investment firm Hermitage Capital, the largest portfolio investor in Russia before your guys raided the company and illegally tried to seize $4.5 billion in assets? Remember his lawyer Sergei Magnitsky? You guys arrested and tortured him and he died in prison from a ruptured stomach because his requests for medical treatment were ignored. When you guys get a handle on rule of law, give me call and we’ll do lunch.”

In addition to his message of wanting to create an improved judicial system, modernize his country and be a "predictable international partner," Medvedev also had a few words to say about Georgia.

The “dramatically bad relations” between the two countries would “take time to heal,” and won’t occur “as long as Saakashvili is president,” which is true enough, but then what credible Georgian politician would tolerate Russia’s occupation on what is still legally Georgian territory and say “ah, let’s let bygones be bygones.”?

Taking the cue from the pot calling the kettle black, Medvedev says he will not deal with Saakashvili “because I think that he did bad thing; speaking on language of law, he committed a crime.”

Speaking on language of law at Stanford University, The Russian President failed to mention the ethnic cleansing of some 20,000 innocent people by South Ossetian and Russian soldiers.

Waxing sentimental on Georgia, Dima said, "We've lived together for centuries and we had very good, the best relations and there was a period when we lived in one state."

Ah yes, those good ol’ days when 15 republics had been forced to live happily together in a single authoritarian state, whose leader for 31 of those happy years was a Georgian. How did relations ever get this dramatically bad?

Dima Medvedev, in the good times when Russia and Georgia were friends!

Images lifted off

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Civil registry blues

There’s about a dozen women sitting behind a glass partition with sections for passports, civil registration and the like. Although new and improved, the room was not designed to comfortably accommodate the human cattle that herd in and cut in front of each other to get their bureaucratic papers straightened out. My mission was to obtain my daughter’s birth certificate; simple enough in theory, but this is the civil registry in Georgia, where if things were easy, it would mean something was terribly wrong.

Our problem begins with not having surnames that end in “shvili” or “adze.” Every Georgian document with my name written on it is an interpretation, lost in translation. My name is Paul, pronounced Pol, and written both ways, depending on who translated it. My last name is Rimple, Rimpel, Rimpli and Rimpe, and with different P's. There is P as in "puh" and P as in "pe". It could be worse. My name could be Justyna Mielnikiewicz.

Having the marriage certificate, translated passports and hospital birth registration jell was no easy task and took several trips to the registry to accomplish. Because Justyna was nursing little Nestan, Big Nestan, her de facto Godmother, was the cultural bridge and guided me through the rigorous process of getting a single piece of green paper with a rubber stamp.

Just when we thought we got the names straightened on a common template, the brutal window woman threw the papers at me and said “ara,” – no – the hospital misspelled my name and put some numbers where there shouldn’t be numbers. Moreover, the knucklehead notary wrote I was born in October instead of September.

Nestan and I went back to the hospital to deal with Nanuli, the Mafioso head nurse we “tipped” with German coffee and Polish chocolate two weeks earlier, when Little Nestan was born. She remembered me of course, as I caused a bit of fuss the day of delivery, but that friends, is another story. Big Nestan batted her eyes, charmed her with sugar coated words and we got a new piece of paper.

Back at the civil registry, the sour puss was gone, replaced by Tea, who checked that everything was in order and typed out a draft of the certificate for us to check. The names matched up except for a little detail. Nestan’s surname was Mielnikiewicz-Rimple. Justyna and I had discussed this. I spent my entire life spelling my surname out to everybody. Why put Nestan through added torture? Mielnikiewicz would be her middle name, like blueblood Americans John Fitzgerald Kennedy and Richard Milhous Nixon. This, however, was not acceptable at the civil registry office.

“That’s a surname, we can’t put it there,” Tea said.

“It’s a name. I could name her “potato,” what does it matter?”

“I don’t know,” she said.

“Haven’t you heard of John Fitzgerald Kennedy?”

Tea got her boss, who told us such a policy had not been written in the legislation. So there was nothing legally preventing us either, but in these cases, civil sector employees always say “no” because it makes things easier. I was getting ready to give in to the hyphen and let little Nestan suffer with a long name all her life, but Big Nestan pressed with JFK again.

“What’s the difference if her name is Nestan Mielnikiewicz or Anna Maria?” she added, at an increasing volume. In Georgia, you press if you want to achieve anything, from standing in line, to driving, to getting a birth certificate. I got into it and pressed as I always do – artlessly and with expletives. Meanwhile, the line behind us grew and pressed. People were irritated, but because Tea and her boss represented authority, they were on our side. “Why can’t you give them the name they want?”

“Georgians don’t do this,” the boss said.

“But they aren’t Georgian,” Nestan insisted.

“But this is Georgia.”

Then Nestan shouted, “Fine, we are journalists and will write how Georgia refuses to allow people to name their children what they want and the whole world will know what stupid people you are!”

That did it. They consented. They made Big Nestan sign a paper stating she understood what I was asking her to translate, to cover their butts. And then Tea, with an ironic smile (who would give a surname as a first name to a child?), typed out the birth certificate as we requested. Then we went upstairs to get the birth certificate translated. I just hope they spell the names right.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Notes from the road: Haikastan 2003

On the eastern outskirts of Tbilisi, near Lilo bazaar, concrete barricades in the middle of the highway bottlenecked traffic to a crawl. This was where the largest organized crime ring in the country extorted money from random people by simply pointing a baton at a given car and ordering it to the side of the road. These law enforcement officers then invented infractions, which were settled on the spot for a modest fee.

Our marshrutka was suspicious, having the letters, Y-e-r-e-v-a-n, spelled out on a sign on the dashboard. We were pulled over.

A fat cop stuck his head in the marshrutka and asked the two foreign men to come outside, away from view. The Armenian was stuffed in the back seat of the cop Jiguli and the fat cop escorted me to the trunk and asked me to empty my pockets. Nothing but lint, as usual. While I stood there palms out the fat cop moved to the back seat and pressed himself inside to bark at the Armenian.

The first thing passengers always ask after a shakedown is “how much?” I shrugged my shoulders. The Armenian returned, spitting and shaking his head, misfortune pasted all over his face.

“How much?”

A woman passed chewing gum around, which kind of bonded us all together. The Armenian told us he had come to Tbilisi with two-thousand dollars in his pocket to buy a new car, but it turned out not to be to his liking. He was returning to his old car parked over the border in Armenia.

“Ten dollars!” he said, refusing a piece of gum. Then he turned to a Georgian footballer who had been purchased by Armenia, but spoke loud enough so everybody could hear. “Georgia, only in Georgia. They don’t do this in Armenia, you’ll see, one hundred meters into Armenia and it will be sunny and clean, everybody nice...”

One hundred meters into Armenia and we were detained by customs. Our Armenian passenger was by this time on his way home in his old car, so he wasn’t able to witness the twenty dollars our driver had to pay the customs official for a concocted fee he had never been charged before.

We wound through the mountain pass on a smooth road, following the Debed River, through Ahlverdi, a large town strewn with rusting, windowless factories and mines, long disused. Outside Ahlverdi we stopped for kabob and shashlik at a roadside cabin. The toilets were constructed on stilts so that all the yuk could conveniently drop to the river below along with the pork scraps the cook tossed into the river as he butchered a pig with an axe.

The kabob was tasty.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Lelo 2010

lelo 2010 - pjr

My buddy Robinzon, a taxi driver and recovering lelo participant, says that you can't understand what lelo is until you see it with your own eyes. But even then it's hard to believe.

Lelo is an Easter Sunday ritual that occurs only in one village in the western Georgian region of Guria and involves drinking, struggling over a 35lb. ball, more drinking, eating and then commemorating the dead at the cemetery the next day by eating and drinking toasts to everyone you remember.

This year's story by Justyna and I can be found here, at Eurasianet.

Here's a clip of a tradition inaugurated this year - drinking wine from the ball before it's full. Father Saba demonstrates before dropping the ball in the middle of the highway where the melee begins:

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Justyna Milenikiewicz's slide show

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Boner of the Year

I heard a story about a TV Rustavi-2 journalist, who during the August 2008 war, had a sign with the name of a village from the conflict zone in the trunk of the car. She planted the sign in some rural spot near Tbilisi and broadcasted a live shot from "the conflict zone." The best part was that she bragged to her fellow Rustavi 2 colleagues about how clever she was to fake a story and they patted her on the back, "Molodets! Why didn't we think of that?"

As base as the Rustavi-2 stunt was, nobody got hurt. The journalist faked a location and made up some story to go with it. For Georgian standards this is low on the unethical scale when compared to what Imedi TV did today (You just gotta wonder, are these producers sniffing glue when they come up with this shit or are they Russian agents?).

From Корреспондент.net:

The Georgian TV station Imedi broadcast sensational news about a supposed start of a Russian invasion and the assassination of President Saakashvili.

As it turned out, the TV station today, March 13, broadcast a false “special report on the possible development of events in Georgia in the case of a Russian intervention.”

In this report, without any warning or explanation, it was reported that “this morning in Tskhinvali there was a terrorist act against South Ossetian leader Eduard Kokoity, after which Russian forces invaded Georgia.”

Later it said that “The Government and President Mikheil Saakashvili were evacuated.” Several minutes later the TV station reported on the death of Saakashvili and the creation of a People’s Government headed by Nino Burjanadze.

The program continued for a half hour, and after reporting “about horrific bombings of Georgian airports and ports” the TV station reported that this was a “special report on the possible development of events.” (...)

There should be a Georgian toast for tact and consequence. Reports have come in about a record number of emergency calls for heart attacks and loss of consciousness. Some bozos forgot this is a traumatized nation where around one out of 11 people is estimated to be displaced.

Don't think the Russian media isn't going to jump all over this. They've been broadcasting fake stuff about Georgia for the past few years and now they have material they could have never made up. Former wrestler and car theif, South Ossetian leader, Eduard Kokoity is soppin' his bicuits all over this. He told Interfax, “The situation is absolutely calm. I’m here myself hunting, shooting wolfs and jackals.”

As for Burjanadze and the floundering opposition movement, this boner of the year has come at a golden moment, two months before local elections. Oh, we'll be hearing plenty about this, but not from the local Georgian media.

*Imedi was the TV station owned by a bizillionare oligarch, Badri Patarakatsiashvili, a guy who didn't like President Misha and was the counter point to pro-Misha Rustavi-2 TV, which also used to be an opposition TV station. Anyway, in 2007, Misha police raided the station, pointed guns at people, busted up computers, stole things and put it out of business. Then Badri dies of a heart attack. The new director, Giorgi Arveladze, is a former ruling party guy and now the station is just like Rustavi-2, except more Felliniesque, by the looks of it now.

Friday, March 5, 2010

The Winehead Blues

Back in the good ol' Shevardnadze days when diesel generators were a common part of the aural Tbilisi landscape, I went to the Tbilisi main bazaar, Bazroba, for wine without my roommate Zaza’s help for the first time. Dusk was falling and I tried to imagine the Bazroba Zaza had described of the early 90s, when the only people down there at night were crazy guys with Kalashnikovs.

You think Bazroba is bad now, it was utter bedlam then. Peddlers and consumers bumped, haggled and shoved while carts, jalopies and minivans plowed through them at rude speeds. The exhaust ridden air was filled with odors of fish, fowl and cheese to the tune of shouts, honks, and the melodious chants of “tseli hatchapuri, shoti, cigaretti...” in polyphony. Hysterical colors screamed, swirled, tangled; oil black, persimmon orange, wet juicy green, plastic bucket red... But as twilight approached, it was as if a big hand slowly dimmed the switch. People, produce and pickpockets faded away while the effluvium had seeped into the ground under puddles of chicken blood, vegetable guts and cigarette butts. Scattered piles of trash burned, lighting the straggling vendors in the darkening night. Companies of cats strolled on top of corrugated roofs as rats darted in the shadows below. I enjoyed the diluted anarchy.

Most wine stalls were closed although a few tables had big glass bottles filled with blood red and amber white. I approached a familiar man.

“Hey, Chicago!” he greeted.

“Hey Kakheti!” I said shaking his thick hand.“Black?” I asked.

“No, no good,” he said in English.

“Ok, white.”

He dipped a greasy glass into a blue plastic barrel and passed it to me. In my best imitation of a Kahketian, I raised the glass to him, mumbled some nonsense and took it down to the bottom.

“Kargat,” I said and asked for three liters with my fingers.

Walking back through the bazaar I was happy there were no Kalashnikovs and that I had a personal wine guy. It was so cheap and good, I was convinced I’d turn into a total wine head in no time.

I went to Zaza’s and was able to pour my wine for a guest before he left. Glasses were filled, a simple toast was made and we took it down.

“Good wine,” I said pointedly.

“Yeah?” Dato, the guest replied. “If it’s so good tell me, why is there water in it?”

Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Compulsory Military Education Blues

Compulsory military education strengthens our defense!

The Georgian educational system sure does look different when you are an expecting parent. That $180 dollar a month salary that teachers make (nearly ½ the national average working wage) looks a hell of a lot more like what it really is – a downright travesty. That’s 45$ a week to teach our children reading, writing and ‘rithmetic. Or 9$ a day to keep a classroom of children motivated and focused, which in Georgia is akin to herding cats.

Before President Misha’s education reform, teachers made even less, so they are supposed to be grateful for the increase in pay. But back in December, teachers hit the streets to protest against the government’s decision to whack the “13th month” bonus, a Soviet-era policy to reward teachers an extra month’s measly pay for their hard work throughout the year.

“Gee,” you ask yourself, “is an underpaid, disgruntled teacher more or less likely to transfer their contempt of the system and situation into the classroom?” You don’t see the president, members of parliament and the education ministry sending their kids to public schools for a reason.

Despite the obvious shortcomings of the public educational system, I feel that if other children have survived the starkly bleak, often unheated classrooms and antiquated methodology, and gone on to higher education in the west, then mine can too. At least that’s what I thought until I read about Saakashvili’s great idea to add military-patriotic training into the curriculum. The president wants school children to defend the country against the Russian air force.

In a meeting with teachers and pupils in Batumi earlier this month the president said, “It is necessary in order to help the children to at least understand many things about their country; and also as we have already seen, everything can happen, and Georgia and Georgians should be able to defend at least their village, their town or their district.” (

Misha’s been on this defend our country bender for a while. Back in November he announced his vision of setting up cadet schools to train kids in the art of warfare at the ripe, pubescent age of 14. In December he stated every home should “become a fortress of resistance.”

So a couple days ago, at the behest of Misha, the education ministry announced it is introducing new curriculum for civil defense and safety classes in general schools, which is part of the second installment of education reform. While the package includes indispensable lessons in road safety and first aid, children also get to learn about the history of the Georgian army and its armaments.

Isn’t this a bit over the top? Here we are ten years into the 21st century and some people are still living in the 13th. Queen Tamara died 800 years ago and Georgia hasn’t been able to defend itself since – not from foreign invaders or from itself. War destroyed the nation in the 1990s and two summers ago the Georgian army lost Abkhazia and South Ossetia for good in 5 days. They would have lost Tbilisi and the rest of the country too if not for the generosity of Russia.

I think it’s safe to say Georgia hasn’t had much luck with guns and stuff. Children cultivated in the evils of warfare are not going to save the country from the next Russian invasion. Might be time to nurture a new strategy, like preventive war.

Let children play army and kill invisible Russians all they want after school, but don’t force my daughter to learn about all the weapons Georgia has bought from the US, Israel, etcetera, etcetera, when the tools she is really going to need for the future are those that help her read, write and avoid pissing off a teacher that gets paid less than a garbage man.

(images lifted off,

Saturday, January 9, 2010

The Ugly American Social Syndrome (UASS)

The Ugly American slammed the ashtray on the bar and shouted repeatedly: “Are you serving here or are you talking?” The veins on his neck were pumping, bestowing a beet-redness to his otherwise pink face. The American was big, inebriated and used to having his way.

Misha, the bartender, turned around and asked the man to wait one moment but that only poured gasoline onto the Ugly American’s flaming deportment. As his screams caught the attention of the patrons throughout the restaurant, the man’s companions attempted to calm their comrade down by pulling him away, which only provoked resistance and made him bellow louder. None of his friends had the guts to tell him he was being extremely rude and perhaps because he was American, with a neck as thick as a Howitzer, the bouncers were nowhere to be seen… and they are always seen.

The most regrettable aspect of this proud moment was that most of this group of fellow Americans were government employees, sent to perform our foreign policy duties here in the hospitable land of Georgia.

“Paul, are these your friends?” Misha asked after serving the goon’s order.

I knew that was coming. Guilt by association. How to explain to a guy that just had his ass chewed out by a guest in his country that you can take the Ugly American out of America, but you can’t take the Ugliness out of that American? It was easier to pass the buck.

“We’re not all like that, really,” I said. “They work for the State Department.”

Thursday, January 7, 2010

New Year's Eve Blues

For the rich and unimaginative, the Radisson Hotel was the place to be on New Year’s Eve in Georgia. The 300$ a head banquet room, that had once been the site of a kiosk stand just a few years ago when Abkhazian refugees occupied the former hotel, was filled to capacity with 30-something year old Georgian men puffing on their annual New Year’s Eve Cuban cigars, while their luxuriously dressed women all scrutinized each other from raised chins. In one corner, a table of maidens sat together exploiting cigarettes for their fashion value, as if they had just learned to smoke minutes earlier.

The wait staff delivered French Champagne, Johnny Walker Blue label and Chivas Regal to the tables. We, the band, got water, upon request. Every 30 minutes or so, we took a break for the raffle. Every New Year’s party in the city has some sort of variety show and gift give-away and the Radisson was no exception. I stood in the wing between the sound guy and a table of blue hairs. An old lady next to me asked when the Brazilian dancers were starting. “I don’t know. After us,” I replied. She sighed and rolled her eyes.

The manager had asked us to dress in white shirts and black slacks. We looked like servants and played like servants. Nobody was listening expect for the token drunk at the end of our third set, who came up to the foot of the stage and teetered to the music. We finished up around 4 to no applause whatsoever. That would come later, when the Brazilian dancers arrived on the dance floor.

(photos lifted off and