Don’t Let The Chips Fall Where They May

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It was a balmy mid-November 15 degree Celsius afternoon in the Black Sea resort of Sochi and I was walking back to the hotel with the German CEO of a global casino operator from a gambling conference we were attending.

“I don’t like gambling,” he said, walking at a brisk pace. “But people are going to gamble anyway and that’s why you need to regulate it. You can’t make it illegal.”

I thought of the incongruity of profiting off something you were against, like a recovering alcoholic owning a brewery, but he was right. Making things people enjoy illegal only puts these things in the hands of criminals.

Georgia made the first big step to regulate gambling in 2005, when it slapped a huge license fee for casinos in Tbilisi and reduced the fee in Batumi to attract casino development there. Today, however, nobody in government is taking gambling seriously, as if they are afraid to encourage the development of casinos, which contribute to 2 – 3 percent of the state budget. But with Moscow’s decision to permit gambling in Sochi, the Georgian government ought to be reconsidering its gambling policy if it doesn’t want to lose business and tax dollars to its northern neighbor.

My story about the advent of gambling in Sochi for Eurasianet is HERE.

And my story about gambling in Batumi on Beacon is HERE.

 

 

 

The Who Is My Leader Blues

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In 2012, Georgia’s constitution changed and the small South Caucasus country became a semi-presidential republic. The president, who had until this time had been the Big Kahuna in terms of image and ruling by virtual decree, had his powers neutralized, shared between the prime minister and parliament. But because the constitution does not clearly stipulate how these powers are distributed and Georgia inherently mistrusts the office of president, there is a growing rift between Georgia’s two leaders – President Giorgi Margvelashvili and Prime Minister Irakli Garabishvili.

The man responsible for putting these guys in office is multi-billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, who resigned from office in 2013 after handpicking his successor. He technically retired from politics, but Ivanishvili keeps an eye on things from the wings and comes out set the country straight whenever he feels it is straying from the trajectory he assigned it. In March, Ivanshivili told the press how disappointed he was in his “former friend” Margvelashvili, after the president changed his mind and decided to use the presidential palace former President Mikheil Saakashvili had built. The Georgian Dream majority party took this as a queue to give the president the cold shoulder treatment.

In early July, the Prime Minister’s office announced Garibashvili would be addressing the annual United Nations General Debate in September, in addition to a number of undefined sideline UN events. The same day, the President’s office announced Marvelashvili would accept UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s invitation to address the UN Climate Summit also in September, much to the chagrin of Garibashvili, who also wants to attend and has asked Marvelashvili to drop his plans. But Marvelashvili feels it’s his duty and is determined to go.

In steps Ivanishvili, who told the press that President Margvelashvili treats the government like an opponent and is trying to obstruct it. He says that because Georgia is a parliamentary republic, it should be clear that Garabishvili, who sat on the board of Ivanishvili’s bank, should talk to the UN about the climate. However, Georgia is technically a “representative democratic semi-presidential republic” – not a “parliamentary republic.” Ivanishvili, who was Prime Minister should know that. The President was elected by the people and is head of state. The problem is the constitution fails to elucidate their duties. Article 73 states the president negotiates with foreign states and international organizations, while Article 78 states the prime minister represents Georgia in foreign relations within its own competencies.

Ivanishvili hopes that by emerging from behind the curtain and declaring his support of Garibashvili, he will put an end to the bickering between the executive and legislative heads of government. But instead of playing the personality game, the former prime minister would be better to insist as a “concerned citizen” that the government amend the constitution to clearly define the responsibilities of Georgia’s office holders to keep them from squabbling. The rift between Margvelashvili and Garibashvili is more than a personality clash that needs mediating.

My story about the feud can be found on Beacon Reader.

Kazantip Dreaming

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I don’t remember the dreams in the morning, but I know there is music, color and happiness and that I am in the land of Kazantip. It’s been two weeks since I returned from Anaklia, where Kazantip hoisted its freak flag for 10 days, and these reoccurring dreams won’t let me alone.

I first heard about Kazantip when I stumbled across a VICE feature report about the month-long Crimean rave packed with sex, drugs and electronica. Great party, I thought. Then we received the most incredulous news that the gig was moving to Anaklia, Georgia, just across the administrative border of Abkhazia. It was too good to be true, at least for some of us.
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Kazantip presents itself as a hedonistic gathering of young people with a sharp focus on tits and ass.  It was only natural that Georgia’s Orthodox Church and its deranged ethno-nationalists would protest against it, for they live in a medieval past and fear the corruption of their youth by western temptations, like dance music. I gave the government of Georgia a lot of credit for inviting the revelers to Georgia and giving the residents of Anaklia an opportunity to finally cash in on some tourism. Done right, this annual event could be manna from heaven for the impoverished region.

As it turned out, Kazantip was not an orgy. And Georgia’s strict narcotic laws were enough to prevent a large scale overdose of hugs and bug-eyed laughter from happening. Unlike a typical Georgian wedding that ends up in a brawl at some point, there were no fights – at least not between the Ukrainian and Russian visitors, which is quite remarkable considering the massive amount of alcohol that was consumed by people whose countries are at war with each other. I would like to think that the hundreds of police swarming around the nonstop party realized they weren’t needed.

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Sadly, the expected number of Kazantip “citizens” didn’t come this year. Still, Kazantip threw the most studiously carefree event in Georgia’s history. However, instead of throwing its support to nurture it, the ministry responsible for inviting it has called Kazantip an “inferior festival” and “a failure.”

5,000 people is not 40,000, but it is 5,000 more than the government attracted on its own to Anaklia. Instead of mocking Kazantip, the Minister of Sustainable Development and Economics Giorgi Kvirikashvili, should be applauding it. He rented the land, businesses sold the material to build “the city” and the (sole) beverage distributor made off selling more alcohol in 10 days than he had in the past year. Yet Kvirikashvili believes the state can do a better job attracting tourism to the area and can “provide a different kind of assistance to the people;” he just can’t say how or what. Let’s keep in mind that the state already provides assistance to the people – it’s called a “pension” and amounts to about $50 a month. With help like that, what more should the people of Anaklia expect from the state?

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Kazantip is not for everybody; it is not meant to be. It is a gathering of thousands of like-minded people who for 10 days in the year revel in the freedom of drinking and dancing and having fun. It is not forced on anybody and this year was held on an isolated strip of seaside land, separated by a footbridge. If you didn’t want to go, you didn’t have to. But ask each resident of Anaklia what they think and they’ll tell you, they not only want these day-glo colored kids back in Anaklia, they want more of them.

I had the great fortune of writing two stories about Kazantip. One for Eurasianet and the other for Roads & Kingdoms.

The Street Kids of Tbilisi

10 year-old Eric, who divides his time between the street, a day care center and home. Photo: Justyna Mielnikiewicz

A couple months ago, a young woman of about 19 years old asked me for some money in front of an ice cream shop. Just as I was about to say “sorry,” my partner asked if I didn’t recognize her.

Ten years ago my band played at an expat bar in Vake Park and every night an adorable, doe-eyed 8 year-old girl used to beg on the sidewalk in front of the door. Sometimes she brought her 5 year-old brother with her. Her name was Maria and she lived on the other side of town. I never gave her money directly because I’ve always considered that contributing to problem rather than helping it. Instead, I’d buy her a sandwich or pay for her taxi back home. Maria said her parents forced her to beg.

When the government re-privatized property after the Rose Revolution and put the bar out of business, the patrons moved to another expat bar and Maria and I went our separate directions. I never saw her since, until that day in front of the ice cream shop. The streets ravaged the beauty her youth had promised and had stripped the luster of girlhood from her eyes. She was old and wrinkled and not even 20.

World Vision, the international charity organization, estimates there are about 2500 street children in Georgia. Typically, the kids start out like Maria and beg to bring money home to their parents. But by the time they are 14,  all vestiges of cuteness have gone and it becomes more difficult to beg. That’s when boys turn to crime and girls often turn to prostitution. I shiver to think that Maria may have been a child-victim of sexual exploitation, but in Georgia that scenario is more likely the case than the exception.

My favorite photographer Justyna Mielnkiewicz and I put together a story about Georgia’s street children for Eurasianet.

 

 

Return To Pankisi

When I first arrived in Georgia in 2001, there were two remote regions in the Caucasus tourists never ventured uninvited. Svaneti, the untamed region at the top of the world, which derided central authority and robbed unwelcomed visitors out of a kind of ancient custom, and the Pankisi Gorge, which became a lawless region in the mid 1990s after the arrival of Chechen refugees and fighters from the wars with Russia, and with the complicity of Georgian organized criminal networks and government officials. Whereas Svaneti became a safe and popular tourist destination by 2005, Pankisi still cannot shake its reputation for being hotbed of violence, crime and Islamic fundamentalism.

I was in Pankisi last week working on a story about Omar al-Shishani (Omar the Chechen), who has gained renown as one of the fiercest rebel commanders in Syria. But Omar is not really a Chechen. He is a Georgian with the birth name Tarkhan Batirashvili, born in a Pankisi village. The fact Omar has made headlines around the world is not good news for the people of Pankisi, who are trying to put their militant history behind them and forge a new repute as ecotourism hotspot.

Because there is no room in a story about a Georgian-born jihadist to mention how beautiful the river valley is and how kind the people of Pankisi are, I thought I’d do it here and now. 10 years ago, Pankisi was the one of the last places you would dare go. Today it should be one of the first.

 

Velvet Stalin on The Beacon Reader

I’ve just posted Velvet Stalin, my latest story on Beacon Reader about the cult of Stalin in Georgia. Beacon is a really cool new subscription-based platform where journalists and writers from around the world contribute stories and earn money directly from the subscribers. We are our own editors and write what we want about what we want. Subscribers choose which writer they want to support and receive the entire content of the site.

Please check out Beacon and help me write more stories about Georgia by clicking the “worth it” icon at the end of the story.

 

An American Father in Tbilisi: Say No To Darkness

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About ten years ago I was teaching English to a class of Georgian teenagers eager to know more about me with the standard questions of where I was from and do I like Georgian food and wine. Then one lad asked what religion I belonged to. For simplicity’s sake, I said Catholic.

“Is that a cult?” he asked.

I laughed at his witticism, but quickly realized he wasn’t joking.

“No, man. Roman Catholic. You’ve never heard of them?”

“We are Georgian Orthodox,” he said. All the other students had that same smug look on their faces.

“Yes, I know.”

While I can think of a few people in my hometown that don’t know what Orthodox Christians are, even though they have seen The Deer Hunter, I can’t understand how somebody has no idea who Pope John Paul II was.

Georgia is an ancient kingdom that was practicing Christianity while most European nations were still fighting dragons, yet instead of enriching a spiritual, forbearing society, this deeply devotional history has been highjacked by chauvinism and nationalism. People esteem the institution yet they rarely observe the teachings of Christ. That includes priests.

One day a young woman in jeans with a headscarf stopped in front of a church and crossed herself. A priest in a black Landcruiser called out to her as she started towards the door.

“Excuse me miss, but did Mary Magdalene wear jeans?” he asked.

“Did Jesus drive a big black jeep?” she retorted and entered the church.

I had no problems with the paradoxes and hypocrisy of a church I was not a member of. And then, my daughter was born. Suddenly my wife and I, both recovering Catholics, were faced with the religious question. Our daughter will be growing up and going to school in a country that has more faith in an old priest than in anybody else. This man, His Holiness Patriarch Ilia II, says women should wash their husbands’ feet, homosexuality is a disease and in-vitro fertilization makes unhappy babies.

Playground discrimination will be tough for an American-Pole here no matter how fluent her Georgian is. We know some cool priests and mulled over the idea of  getting our daughter baptized to reduce her ignorant peers’s bigoted ammunition. Hell, it would be a fun party too. But then May 17, 2013 happened.

The Church’s acquiescent reaction to that infamous day when scores of priests led tens of thousands of homophobes on a violent attack against a small group of gay rights activists was a travesty and a blasphemy to the name of Christ. I will not have my daughter baptized into a religious institution that preaches hate and condones violence, but if she wants to play religion, I certainly won’t forbid it.

My little girl is 4 years-old and goes to a Georgian preschool. Sometimes she wears a cross around her neck to emulate our nanny, Mari, who is a Georgian Orthodox Christian that has helped teach her such empathetic and compassionate principles that all religions revere. As a lover of symbolism, I have no issues with the cross unless it is worn by somebody who maligns the doctrine it symbolizes. I had also thought it might protect our daughter from the school’s vampires, but I was wrong.

“Why are you wearing a cross?” her teacher asked.

“My godmother wears a cross.”

“Godmother? You can’t be baptized here. You’re Polish!” she snapped.