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Monday, November 14, 2011

How Georgian Parliament Votes

In 2003, I was an election observer during the notorious parliamentary elections that provoked the revolution that disposed President Eduard Shevardnadze. I saw a man vote twice while an observer said to him, "Hey! You can't do that!"
He looked at her and replied, "You don't understand, the first time was for my wife. She is ill and couldn't come."

During the Shevardnadze regime, parliament actually had debates that led to fistfights and weapons brandished. Here, we see just how the reform government works. It's a clear case of how the more things change, the more they stay the same.


Don't Step On My Blue NATO Shoes

NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen came and left, patted Georgia on the back for all its democratic achievements and its contribution to the war in Afghanistan and then said, but you haven't done enough yet to be part of our club.

What exactly does it take to qualify for membership into NATO?

Two decades after the transition from communism, democracy fragile. As the country makes further formal steps towards Europe, important democratic deficits remain in the areas of the rule of law; judicial independence; elections; media independence; and control over corruption.

The politicisation of the vote recount following the general election, which led to the opposition to contest the results and boycott the Parliament for six months, clearly demonstrates that democracy should be strengthened and that the country must make urgent progress with its reform process.

No, this is not Georgia the European think tank FRIDE wrote about in its 2010 review, but Albania, which was invited to join NATO in 2008 and was admitted the following year.

When Rasmussen says Georgian authorities need to show "more determination to undertake further reforms" is just a way of buying time because he cannot say Russian relations are more important to us than you are.

My story for The Moscow Times is here

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Live from Bidzina's



I was 30 minutes late, the last hack to enter Ivanishvili's grounds. I expected to be turned away at the door, but a security guard verified my credentials, presented me with my pass and passed me on to the security check, who passed me on to the next guy, and so on, until I was in a Jetson-like atrium full of journalists.

This was multi-billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili's fifth interview in his life and first ever press conference and it was being broadcast live on state TV. Now, I thought, we would find out just why he entered politics and what his platform might be. I thought of what question I might ask. I narrowed it down between the following:

"Every leader since Gamsakhurdia has been the messiah who will rescue the country and turn it into the Switzerland of the Caucasus, until they lose favor with the populace and get disposed (2/3). How are you different?"

"May I come up and use your swimming pool some day?"

I would not even come close to asking either question.

Ivanishvili and his spokesperson, Irakli Tripolski, took their seats at what was probably designed to be a dance floor. It was a peculiar match - the billionaire - neat, trim and confident, and the valet - ruffled, brow-burrowed and sweating. The hum in the room prior to their appearance had been the anxious but restrained vibe encountered before all big pressers. Then it all went to hell. Ivanishvili's freshly constructed team was too green to host 200 journalists, most of whom had been sent not to get answers but to disrupt the entire event.

Here's the situation. You have the richest guy in the country with absolutely no political experience saying he is going to lead Georgia, despite the fact he is no longer a citizen. Instead of trying to trip him up on his platform - or lack of one - or any number of issues, journalists asked caustic questions, mostly related to his perceived Russian connections. Ivanishvili was well-prepared for these and responded calmly and directly. "Please stop cheating each other, smile and tell the truth. You need to ask questions that come from you, not what somebody else is telling you to ask," he said.



One newspaper reporter claims she overheard a TV journalist being instructed to ask particularly pointed questions through her earphone.

It all broke down into a scrum for the microphone, journalists shouted over each other's questions and one Rustavi 2 journalist snatched the mic out of the Rueters correspondent's hand, shouting, "you're not allowed to ask questions, you had your private interview with him!" The same journalist continued to interrupt the proceedings after she had taken her turn. Later, Rustavi 2 news lead with the story of Ivanishvili's chaotic press conference, where their journalist was not even given an opportunity to ask a question.

Tripolski was a caricature of himself, looking at his watch and then somewhere past the milieu at the gods in charge of this mess, begging them to end it all. Ivanishivili assured him it was OK and smiled at the melee of two-bit hacks, as if thinking, "My God, is this the best you can do?"

Even though the 40 minute conference rolled for another 40 minutes, there wasn't much time to get down to issues, as some people like the ludicrous Real TV "reporter" asked him why he hated sparrows. “Is it because your penguin ate one and died?” she asked.

Much of what he said amounted to Misha bashing: Saakashvili won nothing in the WTO agreement, started the war with Russia and failed to create the democratic institutions necessary to join NATO. Ivanishvili added that he intends to impeach the president when he comes to power.


We do know that he doesn't intend to change anything regarding Georgia's contribution to the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan and that he believes ethnic, religious and sexual minorities are equal members of society. “My stance towards them will be the same as to other members of society," which is about the boldest and most progressive statement any Georgian politician has ever made. It's like a US politician telling Bible-belters he's a pro-choice Muslim and pro gay marriage.

This round of the “Who Will Save Georgia Game” goes to Ivanishvili, for showing he’s cool, calm and collected when under siege by a bunch of media lackeys. Like one observer put it, “This was only his fifth interview in his life and it was to two-hundred people. I would have advised him not to do this but he showed that he is in total control of the situation.”

My Deutsche Welle story is HERE.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Tycoon Blues


Georgian billionaire, Bidzina Ivanishvili has announced his plans to pit his business expertise and his 5.5 billion dollar bankroll against the Saakashvili government in the 2012 parliamentary elections.




The news hasn't been so well received by authorities...






Ivanishvili said that he wants to be Prime Minister and that he can transform the country into a democracy that will surprise Europe in two to three years. Then, he said, he will leave politics and return to his quiet life in the village and his Tbilisi mansion.




My Moscow Times piece HERE

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Pankisi Blues


The Pankisi Gorge is back in the news — but this time not for harboring Chechen militants. In a display of Georgian overkill, witnesses say about 25 masked officers arrested English teacher Shorena Khangorshvili for possessing heroin on Sept. 16 as she was walking out of a pharmacy in Akhmeta. The incident risks destabilizing a defensive and traumatized community.

Friday, August 12, 2011

3 years after the Russian-Georgian War

(Liana Lazarashvili inside her damaged house in Gori, Georgia. Photo: Justyna Mielnikiewicz)

It's been three years since the Russians cut the country in half, fire bombed the Borjomi National Park to be spiteful and allowed South Ossetian militia to loot and raze Georgian villages to the ground. Russian president Dmitri Medvedev signed a peace agreement with French president Nicolas Sarkozy, promising to pull back his troops to prewar positions. Instead of doing that, Medvedev recognized the separatist territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and signed agreements with them that allowed Russia to keep its troops on their controlled territory.

If there is one thing I have learned from all this it's that you better check to see if the Russian president isn't crossing his fingers behind his back when he signs a treaty.

My story with Fred Weir HERE
and my MT piece HERE

Sunday, July 24, 2011

HIV/AIDS treatment Abkhazia & Georgia

Here's a link to a story I did with Giorgi Lomsadze about HIV treatment in Abkhazia and how some people come to Tbilisi for treatment too, which is a sign that the two sides can put politics aside for humanitarian reasons.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

IT DIDN'T HAVE TO HAPPEN THIS WAY


(image lifted off www.globalnews.ca)


I was standing under the eave of the Rustaveli cinema with other journalists hoping, like them, that there was safety in numbers and the riot cops, who were on their way, would choose not to beat us. The rain was merciless.

It started like a bolt of lightning. From the opposite side of parliament water cannons and tear gas exploded, sending the 2 or 3 hundred protesters into the batons of riot cops who had come from our side. The tear gas chased many of us down a side street where blood hungry cops glared at us through gas masks. I held my press card out like a crucifix against an army of vampires.

For a week, Nino Burjanadze had been promising the world she would overthrow the Georgian government with a handful of supporters. Then she decided to prevent the independence day military parade from happening by blocking the street. Even the lamest of opposition leaders saw the hopelessness of this entire adventure and sat it out, hoping she would get her butt kicked and Saakashvili would look bad doing it.

The rabble Burjanadze gathered were not on the streets to support her. They were there to voice their disgust with the government. They are the strata of society the Rose Revolution rolled over in its attempts to reform the country. They are old, unemployed and cannot compete in the new system. Their pensions cannot contend with the rising costs of bread, yet they see on TV how the President travels around the world and builds million dollar footbridges and fountains. Burjanadze and other marginal opposition leaders exploit this strata by promising to overthrow Saakashvili and hold “free elections,” and these poor people believe such a ridiculous plan will improve their lives. These were the people I saw bleeding on the streets as Nino Burjanadze and her friends drove off, leaving a dead policeman in their wake.

As the gas cleared, I made my way back up to Rustaveli. Some escaping protesters had got through the cops and received little more than a kick in the ass. Others were not so lucky. Three men were handcuffed, facedown in the doorway of the National Museum. While their heads leaked blood, one cop took random whacks at the back of a guy with his stick and boot. The cop next to him kindly asked us to walk on and take no pictures. A parade of cops marched by wondering if we might be something to beat but my sacred press card and California smile deflected them. Then a protester ran by, chased by a stick wielding cop, who managed to get a few licks in while other cops shouted for him to stop.

By this time ambulances were arriving to scrape up the wounded. I walked into a group of over a dozen handcuffed men face down in puddles of water, the rain washing each man’s blood down the street. They were not moving. A skinny cop, masked, was stepping over these guys beating their backs with a stick.

This brutal show of force was not in the least bit necessary. Tear gas and water cannon was all it took to clear the street so that the military parade could happen the next day, which was the stated goal. But even that didn’t have to happen. As Mark Mullen notes in his fine editorial, the authorities could have held the parade on another street, or pursued any number of alternative options, but instead they took the bait and the whole world saw how predictably inconsistent this regime is.

My Deutsche Welle piece HERE

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Rockin out in Abkhazia


Nobody makes money playing the guitar in Abkhazia, Georgia's breakaway territory, but that doesn't keep people from rockin out. I was in Sokhum(i) last week and was invited to a 3 band concert in a Soviet era "House of Culture" in a village on the outskirts of town. It's great to dig how strong the spirit of rock and roll is in a place that has been totally isolated from the rest of the world for the past 15 years or so. Although I heard Metallica, Nirvana and The Red Hot Chili Peppers numbers, one band, KA-50 (named after a Russian attack helicopter) did not forget to play the ol' Soviet favorite, "Smoke on the Water."

My story for EurasiaNet.org. is HERE.


Chillin out in front of the House of Culture.

Although the crowd cleaned the shop next door of its cold beer, nobody got wasted or out of hand, which is rather odd for rock and roll, but that didn't stop the cops from coming in to try to kick everybody out, even though they were already leaving. This only goes to prove what a successful show it was, as it is never really a party until the cops come to break it up.


Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Nino Burjanadze’s Zombie Apocalypse


"Zombies don't read. They ain't hooked on phonics. So give it a rest."
- Griffin, House of the Dead 2: All Guts, No Glory (2005)


Like a B-movie zombie, Nino Burjanadze is back telling an assembly of disgruntled supporters that a peaceful revolution is needed to force the Saakashvili administration to step down. On March 15th, the former parliamentary speaker and leader of the opposition Democratic Movement-United Georgia party then explained what she meant by peaceful.

“We are not going to raise our hands even against those compatriots, who committed crimes, but if someone dares to raise a hand against us, they will receive a fierce response,” she said.


Instead of promoting democracy with her movement by mobilizing citizens in the regions to organize and develop a functioning civil society, she announced she is setting up “resistance committees” throughout the country “to prepare for a civil disobedience campaign.”


Sowing further seeds of discord she announced she’s ready "to cooperate with "everyone who genuinely aspires setting Georgia free from this regime and who will not make a deal with the authorities." So if you are an opposition leader that believes the best way forward is to actually act like politician by bargaining and compromising instead of organizing yet another doomed protest movement, there is no room for you in Nino’s Zombie crusade.


Nino still believes the best way to attract foreign investors to Georgia, stabilize the economy and create the jobs her supporters really want and need is to overthrow a freely elected government.



(image lifted off facebook)

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Chokha Love


“When you love your chokha, you love your country. When you love your country, you love your traditions,” expounded 60-year-old Rezo Sulava, a leader of the All-Georgia Chokha Society.

The Chokha is the Georgian national costume, a garment some consider sacred and others see as an old-fashion relic of the past. Justyna and I did a story about this surprisingly controversial set of threads for Eurasianet.org. (Just click the photo to follow the link)

Monday, February 7, 2011

Our friend, Somalia

(nerdnirvana.com)

As of January 6th, Georgia has established diplomatic ties to:

A country mired in a civil war for over 20 years;
number one failed state in the world;
no central government control over most of the country's territory;
the world's most famous piracy hot spot;
life expectancy - 50 years (men), 53 years (women);
1.1 million displaced people (IDPs) since 1988;
no permanent national government;
no national legal system;
no political parties;

A humanitarian crisis exists across the country, but hey, at least it's a member of the United Nations. My piece for the Moscow Times is HERE


(chinadaily.com)

To read more about Somalia check out this press release from HRW.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

January Blues

Here's a link to my piece in The Moscow Times about the ironic fate of veterans of the Abkhazia war, who seem to be more valued dead than alive.

image lifted off www.rferl.org

Monday, January 3, 2011

Holiday lights


David the taxi driver is not the brightest light on the Christmas tree, so to speak. Two days in a row he asked me what I thought of the holiday lights strung along Rustaveli Avenue as if he was looking for a consenting negative opinion.

“They’re nice,” I said. And I meant it this time. Last year when we went through the same ritual, my first answer was non-committal as I had aesthetics in mind when he first asked. This year, they have changed the lights and taken away the angels that stood like sentries in front of Parliament. They’re probably in Batumi this year, guarding the Sheraton.

“Do they have this in America?” David asked.

“Yes,” I replied. “Only different.”

“How?”

I forgot to keep my answers to single words with David. How to explain in three kilometers that I have lived abroad for nearly 20 years and in this time have embraced the liberation from the insistent American barrage of carols, advertisements and Xmas sales that start before the Thanksgiving table scraps get tossed in the garbage. This lack of artificial consumer programming has made for a pleasant, stress free and wholesome Christmas experience. At least that was until I walked into the big Populi at Kolmeurmeobis meidani last week and had umpteen different versions of Jingle Bells blasted in my ears.

“There’s more of it.”

The beauty of celebrating the holidays in Georgia is that you do everything twice – there are two Christmases and a pair of New Years. You consume, not by running around shopping malls looking for presents people don’t need and often don’t even want, but by eating and drinking, which is what consuming is supposed to mean. The problem of course is over-consumption as the party really begins December 17th on St. Barbara’s day and continues to binge until old New Year’s on January 14th.

“Do they eat satsivi in Chicago?” David asked. I looked over to see if there was a hint of facetiousness there but it’s hard to tell with David, as half his face is scarred from a childhood dog attack.

“No, no satsivi.”

Nor do we shop at open-air bazaars where tables are loaded with mountains of piglet carcasses and freshly plucked chickens while voices chant, “tskheli hachapuri, shoti, cigareti,” in polyphony.

“What are you doing for New Year’s Eve?” he asked. That was a good question. I usually have to work with my band that night, but so far, no gig was lined up. Normally, I have a scrumptious dinner at my adopted family’s home before going out. This year might be a good one to spend on Rustaveli dodging fireworks aimed at your face and swigging champagne from the bottle.

“I don’t know. I hope I’m working. How about you?”

“Work.”

I gave David a five for a three-lari ride and thirty for 5 liters of chacha. The only reason I put up with him is that he is a reliable chacha connection, and there is nothing that lights you up better over the holidays in Georgia than chacha.

(image lifted off vandrellikariwarrior.blogspot.com)