Monday, September 29, 2008

Georgian opposition stirring

TBILISI, Georgia -- This fledgling semi-democracy has an oftentimes incoherent and fractured opposition, but it has been showing signs of life since Georgia's brief, but disastrous war with Russia in August.

Some of the opposition have accused the government of concealing the real number of casualties suffered by Georgia, which they saw is much higher than the officially reported 370, including 168 military personnel, 188 civilians and 14 Interior Ministry personnel.

I came across a protest the other day outside Parliament -- of its 150 seats, President Mikheil Saakashvili's National Movement party controls over 120. Family of civil prisoners were protesting the long sentences imposed for possessing even the smallest amount of drugs and the harsh conditions prisoners are kept in. Some 30,000 Georgians are in prison in a country of, at most, 4.5 million people. While not as high as the 1 percent of US population which is incarcerated, it is a very high percentage for such a small country.

"They only get 15 minutes of fresh air a day," said Sveta, whose son is serving out a 10 year sentence for drug possession.

Her son needs medicine for a medical condition, but he doesn't receive it, she said.

Originally from Sukhumi in Abkhazia, her family was driven out in the early 1990s when the region first attempted to breakaway from Georgia.

"Our government does not pay attention to what we want," said Tamarika, whose son is serving seven years in prison.

The size and treatment of Georgia's prison population are not new issues. There have been plenty of protests about the matter. But it is surprising that one would come in the wake of the August war because prison reform is not on people's minds right now. It is very likely that it was organized by some in the opposition interested in stirring discontent with Saakashvili's government.

Tensions rise off Somalia; Russian ship en route

TBILISI, Georgia -- The New York Times has reported that a Russian crew member died on the Ukrainian ship hijacked off Somalia has died.

On Friday, Moscow said the Russian Navy would start anti-piracy patrols off Somalia and one vessel had already been dispatched. The patrols are part of Russia's new foreign policy asserting its right to armed intervention to protect Russian citizens abroad, announced by President Dmitry Medvedev.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

News Wrap-up

Earlier this week Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili declared a "second Rose Revolution" before the UN and asked the organization to oppose Russia's actions in Georgia. (As a faculty member at the Georgian Institute of Public Affairs said, this country needs democratic and market evolution, not revolution.)

Russian-expert Stephen Blank writes about Russia's new foreign policy, the central element of which is the right to intervene with force in any country to protect Russian citizens. The idea threatens global stability.

Meanwhile, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs says Saakashvili is a threat to peace in the Caucasus.

Human Rights Georgia has a report that the South Ossetian militia will be further restricting access to South Ossetia, an increase in tension between the two sides.

Paul Goble at Window on Eurasia notes that Russians don't support long-term aid for Georgia's break-away provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

The Messenger, one of Tbilisi's English-language newspapers, reports that the opposition Conservative Party has called for the government to release the names of dead and missing soldiers. Many opposition people believe that the official toll of 370 dead and missing is far below reality, and that the government is concealing the true extent of how many Georgians were lost.

The New York Times reports August's war left Georgia's economy bruised but not broken. There is fear in Georgia that the war will scare away foreign investors, the driving force behind the country's economic boom.

Georgia's very fractured opposition has agreed to produce a plan for the country's survival.

Commentary: neither candidate understands Russia

TBILISI, Georgia -- Sen. John McCain and Sen. Barack Obama further proved Friday night how little American politicians understand Russia and Georgia. They are following a time-honored tradition of American foreign policy.

Neither McCain, R-Az., nor Obama, D-Ill., displayed a nuanced understanding of Russia, its invasion of Georgia or what is at stake in US-Russian relations.

In regards to Georgia, President Mikheil Saakashvili is not the great democratic reformer both candidates make him out to be. The media is controlled here, especially television, and government elites profit from steering no-bid state contracts to businesses they have interests in. Saakashvili did not take part in any of the debates during the last presidential election, which he moved forward by nearly a year, giving the opposition little time to campaign.

Both candidates endorsed Georgia's and Ukraine's desire to join NATO, a key motivation behind Russia's invasion.

Russia perceives NATO as a direct threat to its security, and it is difficult to blame them. With no Warsaw Pact, it is not clear who NATO is aimed at, but in the 1990s the US did tell Russia it could not join the military alliance. It is hardly surprising that they would perceive its creeping towards their borders as an existential threat.

Regardless of the pros or cons of NATO expansion, American politicians who endorse it must acknowledge that it will alter the world's strategic balance, especially in the Kremlin's view.

Obama puts far too much stock in the affect of words on Russia. The country sees America as didactic and hypocritical. It blames the West for the pain and humiliation it suffered in the 1990s. It doesn't want our advice on how to become a market economy and it doesn't want moral lectures about how to behave from us. It is absolutely ludicrous to think we can, as Obama said, "explain to the Russians that you cannot be a 21st-century superpower, or power, and act like a 20th-century dictatorship." Putin's response: "watch me."

Typical of American politicians McCain sees Russia as a one-dimensional stereotype: "a KGB apparatchik-run government." Can the US be so easily summed up? Of course not, but yet Americans insist on seeing every other country in the world in the most simplistic terms. It is a tendency that has led to painful miscalculations, not least of which in Iraq.

Russia is an authoritarian state with a highly controlled political life, but most Russians sincerely support Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and his puppet, President Dmitri Medvedev. Their lives are undeniably better now than in the 1990s, and their country is once again strong.

Russians respect strong authority -- vlast' -- and Putin has returned it to Russia. The country's foreign policy is influenced by the idea of vlast' -- a tradition going back to the Russian Empire, and not simply the realpolitik extension of a cynical strongman determined to hold power at all costs.

McCain's brand of foreign policy is too simplistic to be effective with Russia. The reality is the US cannot strong-arm Russia so long as the US military is over-stretched by Iraq and Afghanistan, or without returning to somehting near Cold War military levels. The country must be handled more diplomatically.

With all due respect to Henry Kissinger and other members of McCain's foreign policy team, Obama has the upperhand here -- that is assuming Madeleine Albright is only window dressing to please the Clinton people. Obama's ace is Michael McFaul, one of the leading experts on Russia, and someone who has a nuanced understanding for its motivations.

As McFaul told the House's foreign affairs committee on September 9:
"Russia’s government actions in Georgia constitute just one front of a comprehensive campaign to reassert Russian dominance in the region through both coercive and cooperative instruments.

"American foreign policy leaders have to move beyond tough talk and catchy phrases and instead articulate a smart, sustained strategy for dealing with this new Russia, a strategy that advances both our interests and values."
Russia sees US interests as diametrically opposed to its own. And the US has done nothing to counter that perception.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Requiem in Tbilisi

TBILISI, Georgia -- The Tbilisi Opera and Ballet Theater held a charity event last night to raise money for children orphaned or displaced by the war. The event was organized in part by Paata Burchuladze, whose bass voice has filled the major opera houses from Teatro alla Scala in Milan to the New York's Met.

Burchuladze was joined by several fellow opera stars to perform Verdi's Requiem along with the Tbilisi Symphony and Choir before several thousand people.

Few things made by man evoke the range of emotions as does Requiem. And war.

From tumult to enduring sorrow to joy to angelic, the music echoed what Georgians had experienced during the previous month.

During the piece's last movement, Libera Me, the audience raised thousands of lit candles. After the music finished, children who had left their homes in South Ossetia and adjacent areas occupied by the Russians were brought on stage.

Tbilisi has a rich operatic tradition, started, ironically, in 1845 by a Russian general. The city has many great classical musicians, although most are better known in Eastern Europe.

Paata Burchuladze with a child from Gori

The opera and ballet's general director, David Sakvarelidze, wants to make Tbilisi a jewel of the international arts community and in doing so -- he believes -- help save Georgia from being swallowed up by Russia. He wants the state to launch a blitzkrieg of cultural diplomacy.

"We can't defend ourselves against the Russians. What can I do?" he asked rhetorically in a cafe behind the opera house. "I can direct performances."

The West has little reason to care about Georgia, Sakvarelidze said.

The overwhelming majority of Westerners know nothing about Georgia, although some do know it exists thanks to the war. Most politicians know little more than that two pipelines run through the country.

Tbilisi's arts community can put Georgia on the map and in the hearts of many Westerners, he explained.

Cultural warfare is not new. During the Cold War, the US spread jazz far and wide. While the Soviet Union could turn out fearsome weapons systems, such as the T-72 tank and multi-megaton ICBMs, the workers paradise never had anything on jazz.

"Art is our weapon," said Sakvarelidze.

The kids are running the show

TBILISI -- The kids are running the show in this ancient city that has outlasted the Byzantines, Persians, Mongols, Ottomans and Soviets. The government is dominated by Western-educated politicians under 50 years old. President Mikheil Saakashvili is only 40 years old.

It is not only the ruling government that is dominated by youth, but the opposition and Georgia's nascent civil society as well. Their age lends them an earnest not found in many of America's executive directors.

The older generations are not gone completely, but they are not at the helm, as in most countries. Most of the Georgia's elders have either not been able to transition from communism to a democratic government with a market economy, lacked the education of the younger elites or were fired when the state swept out former Pres. Eduard Shevardnadze and his corrupt crew.

Sitting in the Tbilisi Marriott's cafe I had a chance to witness the strengths and liabilities of the youth movement. I was talking with a European adviser to the government, PW, when he got a call from one of the country's youngest members of parliament, Giorgi Kandelaki, just a few years out of Tbilisi State University.

Kandelaki needed help preparing for a debate the next day, Thursday, at the London School of Economics, where he'd be going up against five others, including a Russian diplomat and Britain's Lord Skidelsky -- a member of the House of Lords, ardent Keynesian and vocal supporter of Russia, or as the European adviser put it, a British fifth columnist. In other words, fresh-faced Kandelaki was going to get torn apart.

PW went through the better part of a pack of Parliaments while trying to impart his experience in Oxford's debating society to Kid Kandelaki -- who happily soaked up every bit of advice offered. A former US arms control negotiator who was also at the table chimed in as well.

"Don't focus on details," PW told Kandelaki. "It's a trick in debate: don't focus on details and deliver a ringing sentence."

The young MP's natural inclination was to deliver carefully crafted logical constructions spanning from A to B to C to D.

"It's not about going from A to B to C to D. Go from A to D," the American said, punching his fist into his palm to punctuate his point.

Like the vast majority of his contemporaries, both Kandelaki's earnestness and inexperience were quickly evident. Of the government's 17 ministers, two of them were born before 1965. The youngest, Bakur Kvezereli, the Minister of Agriculture, is 27. The country's Foreign Minister, Eka Tkeshelashvili, was appointed last May, shortly before her 31st birthday.

Not only are so many of the ministers very young, but many also share a lack of practical experience in the subject of their ministry. The Defense Minister, who just turned thirty, has never served in the military or had any defense background. Rather, he had been head of Georgia's financial police when he was appointed at the age of 28.

Similarly, Tkeshelashvili's foreign affairs experience had been working as a lawyer for the Red Cross.

As PW noted, they are all very smart and very inexperienced, as was evidenced by the August war with Russia, which could easily have been avoided.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Tbilisi accomodations

TBILISI -- For another night I'm staying with an American who went to the same high school as my wife. He lives in an apartment building on top of the old city walls. The walls were built after Tbilisi was razed in 1795 by the Persians. Georgia became a protectorate of Russia shortly thereafter, and must have figured it didn't need the city walls anymore because the buildings went up on the walls around the same time.

When I first arrived a few days ago my host was disconcertingly suffering from a "touch" of dysentery, but he assured me he contracted it while backpacking and not from the water in Tbilisi. Not long after I arrived, he disappeared into his room and came out with a small library of books on Georgia. Setting them down on the coffee table, he said they should give me decent background on the country and region. No primer, but a dozen books. I've been very busy reading every free moment since then.

Pictures of where I'm staying:

I'm staying in the top right-hand apartment in the blue building.

The front door.

The keys.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Notes from Tbilisi

TBILISI -- Here is a collection of observations since I arrived in Georgia's capital last Wednesday morning.

Most of the movies on television here are American and dubbed into Georgian on the cheap. The sound is basically turned down on the original, and the dubbed voices recorded over it. So you can still hear the original audio to some degree.

No one wears seat belts here, and very few cars seem to have functioning seat belts. But driving is practically a free for all, so they definitely have a much greater need for seat belts than drivers in the U.S.

I finally saw a car accident this evening, well I heard it and got there a minute later. An SUV tried to turn left across three lanes of traffic, which it cleared, but then it t-boned a hatchback as it tried to merge with the traffic headed the direction it was trying to go. The accident shut down three of the six lanes on the road, forcing cars on one side to cross over the double yellow line into opposing traffic to get around the accident.

The police who showed up let the situation be for about five minutes before one of them thought it would be wise to direct traffic in hope of avoiding a head-on collision. It was quickly apparent that the police had no idea of traffic control or securing an accident scene. These are skills that are considered basic, integral skills to police doing their job in the U.S., but apparently not so here.

Furthermore, an ambulance had not arrived when I finally left after ten minutes.

To be fair, only four years ago police forces were largely seen as corrupt services that existed to collect bribes rather than provide for the public safety. They were cleaned up after Saakashvili swept into office in the Rose Revolution.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Views of Old Tbilisi

TBILISI -- Today was a rather slow day. I checked out some possible apartments for rent, and caught up on some reading and background information. Here are some photos I took while walking around Old Tbilisi.

The view of the Sololaki district of Tbilisi from Metekhi Church. Flowing by is the Mtkvari River, which at least looks hideously polluted.

One of the many little, winding streets of Sololaki, the oldest part of Tbilisi and now home mostly to poor ethnic minorities. Some wealthier Georgians have started to fix up some buildings and move back.

One of Sololaki's many street cats, which keep in check what would be an otherwise burgeoning rodent population.

A little dark humor for tourists.

The view from my hotel room, in Tbilisi's Vera district.

Children playing in the fountain in front of the Tbilisi Philharmonic Concert Hall, a five minute walk from my hotel.

The ornately lit radio and television tower overlooking Tbilisi. From sunset to sunrise every night, the tower's lights shimmer.

Moving forward or standing still in Georgia

TBILISI -- While most Georgians want to reintegrate South Ossetia and Abkhazia into the country, there are some who feel Georgia would be better off to cut its losses.

Undoubtedly, the country has no good options for moving forward. Since Russian peacekeepers entered the breakaway provinces in 1992, the separatists and Tbilisi have been unable -- and at times unwilling -- to find a common solution to the conflict. And Russia has not been interested in resolving the conflict either.

The day before open fighting broke out between Russian and Georgian forces, the Georgian government said President Mikheil Saakashvili had offered a ceasefire and promised wide autonomy and amnesty to separatists in South Ossetia, which Georgian military forces were already fighting.

Russia has made it clear it intends to remain in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. It plans to station 8,000 troops for the long-term in the two provinces, well over the 3,000 allowed under the 1995 peacekeeping agreement.

The AP reported yesterday that France's foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, said no one should expect Russia to leave soon. His comments might signal a new sentiment in the European Union that Georgia is unlikely to regain South Ossetia or Abkhazia.

Recovering the areas remains the goal of the government and most Georgians, but some are not sure it is in their country's best interest.

I talked separately with two local journalists who both think the provinces are lost forever and the sooner their country comes to grips with it, the better.

Part of the Silk Road once ran through Georgia, moving goods East and West and making money for many places along the way. Today, Georgia carries gas and oil to the Black Sea from the Caspian Sea. It could also be a major conduit of overland transportation between East and West, if it can repair the railroad line crossing into Abkhazia and maintain an open border with Russia.

But that will be impossible until the present situation is resolved.

At the same time, as one of the journalists said to me, if South Ossetia and Abkhazia are granted independence, they will likely be annexed by Russia. Both depend on their northern neighbor for economic support already. The idea of Russia controlling land south of the Caucasus Mountains frightens many Georgians, even those who question the value of reintegrating the two breakaway provinces.

New roads in South Ossetia?

TBILISI -- An official in the Border Police of Georgia says Russians are reportedly improving roads in South Ossetia to strengthen their position. The reports are however unconfirmed.

Roads in South Ossetia are spotty, at best. The region's infrastructure has not been well maintained since it attempted to break away from Georgia in the early 1990s. Since then South Ossetia's de facto government has refused money from Georgia for infrastructure because doing so would have been seen as acknowledging Georgia's control of the area.

To access several parts of South Ossetia requires going from Russian controlled territory into Georgian territory. The region has very few roads running east to west, and most of these are not passable in the winter. South Ossetia covers three valleys that open into central Georgia to the south, so most roads run north to south.

Before Russia invaded on Aug. 8, Georgia controlled most of the outlying areas that could only be accessed by entering uncontested Georgian territory.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Russians and Georgians agree: other country's leader is crazy

TBILISI – Most Georgians and most Russians agree on at least one thing: the other country’s leader is crazy.

I talked with a few of each during the 30+ hours of airports and airplanes it took to reach Tbilisi. All of them said they had nothing against the people of the other country, but that its leader – either Prime Minister Vladimir Putin of Russia or President Mikhail Saakashvili of Georgia – is crazy.

“I think Georgian people are very good people,” said Stanislav, an engineer, waiting in Munich for his flight to his hometown, St. Petersburg. He would not give his last name.

The 25-year-old man said the war was a surprise for Russia. When it began Putin was attending the Olympic Games in Beijing and President Dmitri Medvedev was on vacation.

Georgia was the instigator, he said.

”Saakashvili is a crazy man,” Stanislav said.

His flight to St. Petersburg had been delayed, causing the airport to change its departure gate to one adjacent to the gate from which a Lufthansa flight to Tbilisi was leaving. The flight to Tbilisi was very quickly moved down four gates. A Lufthansa official at the airport said he did not why the flight was moved.

Perhaps airport officials did not want Russians and Georgians sitting forty feet away from each other.

Katie Khitarishvili, an endocrinologist from Tbilisi, said she could not generalize about Russians, adding that some supported the war, while others didn’t.

For her the war – and Georgia’s relations with Russia – had a significant historical context.

Since Georgia became a protectorate of the Russian Empire in the early 19th century, Russia has felt a right to control the area, the 39-year-old woman said.

Abkhazia and South Ossetia never had a history of independence, Khitarishvili said.

South Ossetia was made an autonomous republic under the Soviet Union by Joseph Stalin, who, like Khitarishvili, was born in Gori, Georgia.

Russians seized Gori shortly after invading Georgia proper in early August. Khitarishvili said she owns a house there, which was slightly damaged.

Thousands of other people in Gori were displaced from their homes, and over 2,000 of them are living in tents in a camp in the city.

“In the 21st century for two presidents to talk in the language of war – this is terrible,” Khitarishvili said.

Nonetheless, she does not want Georgia to give up South Ossetia and Abkhazia, both of which have declared their independence with the Kremlin’s support.

Before the fighting broke out Russia had been issuing Russian passports to inhabitants of the two breakaway provinces.

“One thing I can’t understand is if they want independence, why did they take Russian passports? This isn’t independence, this is going to be with someone else,” she said.

She lived through the country’s civil war in the early 1990s when fighting broke out in the breakaway provinces and a coup d’etat bloodied Tbilisi’s streets. She had never been frightened until the Russian invasion.

“It was the first time in my life when I didn’t know what to do,” Khitarishvili said.

Life in Tbilisi appears more or less normal on the street and in cafes. Most people are going about their normal daily routines, but no one has forgotten that Russian troops still occupy parts of their small country's land.

Thousands of people whose homes have either been destroyed or are in occupied territory are temporarily being housed in kindergarten buildings throughout the city. One official with an international relief organization said there is not proper sanitation in the so-called shelters, where a couple thousand of people have to share ten toilets.

Tbilisi remains a city of contrasts, as it was before the war. New construction abounds, much of it by international hotel chains, while all around are decrepit buildings. The new hotels are clearly aimed at foreigners. A night at the Marriott in Tbilisi costs several times more than what the average Georgian makes a month.