In 2001 the Tbilisi International Airport was little less that a glorified minibus station. Arriving passengers too impatient to wait for the indolent luggage loaders would crawl through the plastic flapped window at the conveyor and help themselves to their luggage flopped in a concrete room and crawl back out with their bags. Then we’d hustle with fixed eyes towards the narrow exit and the single antique baggage x-ray machine like trifecta horse race winners rushing to a single payout window, jostling our bags over random feet towards freedom where our friends and family anxiously waited, puffing on cigarettes, some with bottles of sparkling wine and flowers.
If we had no one waiting for us on the outside, there were always ruffled, unshaven men offering us rides in their Volgas and Ladas back to town. As annoying as privateer taxi drivers are – and you find them everywhere – there were few tourists coming to Georgia back then. A foreign visitor was less likely to be ripped off by a car jockey than become a victim of a friendly kidnapping. It was not unusual for a driver to detour to their house for just “one drink” before dropping you off at your destination. A ride back generally cost twenty lari – about eight bucks in 2001 – as I recall.
Flying in and out of the country over the years, it’s easy to forget that people used to burn holes in the temporary plastic sheet windows with their cigarettes to peep inside for their arriving loved ones. In lieu of a Duty Free there was a tiny khachapuri joint with midget stools next to the exit that sold Sarajishvili cognac; anything else in a corked bottle was fortified grape juice. Only the slovenly state of the current washrooms are reminiscent of days past, now that the ceiling leaks have been repaired.
In passing years, we have depended on a small list of reliable drivers to shuttle us to and from the airport, so when the vultures flock on us carting our luggage out the exit, we simply spit out “ara, ara, ara,” without making eye contact. Leave us alone, we don’t need you. And then the day came that we did.
For half a dozen years or so, the airport has employed a fleet of taxis who are supposed to take you to the city center for a fixed rate of 30 lari. It’s a logical step in the grand plan to turn a country (whose taxis have no meters) into the world’s newest, most exciting tourist destination. The problem is that the airport taxi drivers are not on board and no one is monitoring them. There used to be a sign indicating the fixed rate near the automatic exit door (Now that the arrival terminal is being renovated, the sign has disappeared). The drivers would bunch up in front of it to block it from customers.
When we arrived at midnight after 18 hours of travel with 50 kilos of baggage and no friendly face waiting for us, we tightened our sphincters and approached the row of rapscallions buzzing around their white cars like outhouse gnats.
“Thirty lari to Gogebashvili,” we confirmed.
“No, that’s not the center. Thirty-five,” one said.
Now we could have gone along, after all, five lari is barely a couple of bucks. But principle matters. The center of the city is not limited to the Marriott at Freedom Square. We know where we live and if they can squeeze us for a few, what will they do to strangers who don’t know better? We corrected them but they all remained firm and like a union of scallywags on strike, started waving their fingers. And then the shouting started – our shouting.
Taxi apps like Taxify are wonderful to use, but they are no solution to this problem. A friend just related how he stopped his taxi in the middle of the highway when the driver insisted the fixed rate was thirty dollars – not lari. The freelancer we ended up hiring for forty lari told us how he once picked up a guy at Freedom Square who offered him 50 Euro for a ride to the airport. When they arrived the driver informed the man that 50 was way too much. “But I paid one-hundred Euro from the airport,” the man replied, tipping the driver 5 Euro for his honesty.
We’ve heard such stories for years and yet the authorities have done nothing (They even stopped handing out free bottles of wine at passport control). Their seeming indifference to this knavish custom of ripping off the guest is rather perplexing given the amount they have invested in developing Georgia’s growing tourism sector. Back in 2004, Georgia was able to eradicate the endemic corruption of its entire patrol police in a matter of a few weeks. It is a mystery that it can’t control a small group of piratic coachmen and help make a person’s first impression of the country a positive one.Continue reading “The Tbilisi Airport Taxi Blues”→
Originally published at the great food, travel and culture site, Roads & Kingdoms.
Chacha in Gali
I was in Georgia’s breakaway territory of Abkhazia for a story about the language rights of the Georgian population. Children were being taught in Russian and not their native language and I needed to talk to the minister of education, but she had evaded me for three days. Without comment from the ministry I had no story, and nobody to pay the expenses I chalked up. I really needed this story.
I left the capital city of Sukhumi’s gloomy December drizzle despondent, but not defeated. I had one last shot: Beso, the one person who could fix this for me. I just had to head to Gali, a purgatorial dominion of Georgians living in an apartheid state. Some 98 percent of Gali’s population are ethnic Georgians, but they only hold marginal positions in the administration and police force and are not allowed to vote. Beso, a Georgian, is an extremely resourceful and well-connected guy. He picked me up with his brother-in-law and took me straight to the house of the district’s education chairman. I waited in the car while Beso explained the situation from across a wooden fence to the Abkhaz official, who was wearing baggy, gray work clothes and muddy rubber galoshes. The body language did not look good.
“He said he cannot give you an interview without permission from Sukhumi, but he’ll say hi,” Beso said.
The education chairman, Daur, was leaning on a shovel and offered me a handshake without a smile. His front yard was an orchard of persimmon trees, the ripe yellow-orange fruits a fine contrast to the gunmetal sky. “Nice persimmons,” I said. “Do you make chacha from these?” While the Georgians and Abkhaz have property and political differences, one thing they share besides the word for moonshine is the tradition of hospitality. Daur glanced up at his fruit, then at me, and dragon exhaled through his nose. He opened his gate and invited us in.
Daur apologized for not having more to offer us. His wife, he explained, was visiting a relative. Daur arranged a basket of stale bread, a plate of stinky cheese, a bowl of sliced persimmons, and a second-hand plastic liter bottle of chacha on a table covered in a plastic table cloth with a cherry motif. He filled our glasses and made a toast to our gathering and we knocked them back. It wasn’t bad stuff. More toasts from the standard checklist followed—to peace, to our wives, to children, to friendship and so on—but I was the only one matching Daur, who was becoming more fraternal after each toast. Beso’s brother-in-law was absolved from partaking because he was our driver, while Beso carefully slowed down until he was just sipping.
At one point, Daur and I became Vakhtanguri brothers, which is the ritual of draining your glasses with your arms linked. This is followed by a kiss on each cheek. Then he invited me to his office the next morning for an interview. There was lots of love at that table. Things, I thought, were going quite well. I recall leaning over to Beso and remarking how drunk Daur was getting. “Ha! Ha! Isn’t that funny?”
When I opened my eyes I saw a ceiling and two children looking down at me, mystified by a drunken foreigner lying on their kitchen floor. This display of bad manners was definitely not good; horrific, actually. Where was I? “Sorry,” I said, then blacked out again. The next time I opened my eyes I was on a couch in a living room with a family around me watching television. Who are these people? What time is it? What day is it? I sat up, brushed my thighs and smiled. “Hi, I’m Paul.”
Beso had dropped me off at Zura’s house. Zura had fleeced me for what was supposed to be a loan of a couple hundred bucks a year earlier. He used that money to buy a very old Niva, which enabled him to get a job with an international aid organization. Zura said he would give me a ride to Daur’s office but first I had to help him push start his Niva, which could only be done with the gear in reverse. Hungover and cotton-mouthed, I helped him push that heap of iron along the muddy, pot-holed street for an hour until he gave up and found somebody with a tractor to pull him.
I was waiting for Daur outside his office when he came in. He had shaved and changed his work clothes for a rumpled green suit and black loafers. “How are you?” I asked. “Been better,” he said. “And you?” He unlocked his door and invited me to sit next to his desk. He eased into his seat and said with a shrug, “I can’t give you an interview. I still don’t have permission from Sokhumi.” The agony of defeat sunk deep and pinned my shoulders down to my knees. I was too dehydrated to cry, too weak to beg. “But I’ll call them now and get it,” he said smiling.
Welcome to Gali, where Georgians live in a state of apartheid. But at least the Russians fixed the road.
The grumbling drone of a bus’s diesel engine or the squeaky jerks of an old Lada cannot mask the strained, mournful disquiet south of Sukhumi towards the border, past the ruined shells of Georgian houses, occupied now by only a dense canopy of wild verdure. It’s an overpowering tenseness you find only in war zones. It’s been like this since 1993.
Sixty klicks down the road is Ochamchira, once the region’s fourth largest city with a 1991 population of 20,600. Ochamchira was a major front in the Abkhaz war for independence and the scene of many war crimes committed by both sides. Today it’s a virtual ghost village with around 75% of its homes empty. The only Georgians there are the few who fought against other Georgians to protect their homes.
In May 2008, I met Ruslan, an Abkhaz, at a nearby war monument for Abkhaz heroes. The tall, muscular, forty-something took us to his home and opened up his closet to reveal a Kalashnikov and RPG launcher leaning behind a dusty gray suit. Later, another man showed us a similar closet cache in a nearby village.
“But what if Georgia recognized your independence, I asked. “Would you allow them to return home then?”
“I’d kill them,” he spat. “We’d all kill them.”
Up and down the coast of Abkhazia, it’s been the same answer, always.
Twenty-five kilometers south of Ochamchira is Gali, Abkhazia’s southernmost district. Around 40,000 Georgians are allowed to live here. Technically, they’re Megrelian, a Georgian sub-ethos with their own language who have inhabited the region long before borders were drawn on maps. They are tolerated here because they did not fight. They fled in 1993 and in 1998, when Georgia attempted a preposterous, ill-conceived incursion that unconditionally snuffed any chance of synching a federalized state agreement that was supposedly on the table. Many Gali homes were burned twice in that period, yet the Megrelians returned. Of course, the Abkhaz need them here. Gali is Abkhazia’s agricultural heartland providing the hazelnuts, mandarines and other produce that are the country’s chief export commodity. Without the Megrelians, who make up 98.7 percent of the population, the the crops would rot.
On a sunny day, Gali is bearable, almost pretty. On a rainy days it is mud, potholes and tears. People say there used to be city life here. Cows pasture in the central park surrounded by a few kiosk cafes offering Turkish coffee, candy bars, chewing gum and beer. Development has come in the form of a shiny new beef stew and vodka restaurant full of Russian soldiers.
“Nobody gets married in Gali,” my friend Beso said the first time I arrived in 2003. “We just go to funerals.” And he brought me to one – his grandfather’s. I was scrunched in the back seat of an old Volga between several young men on the way to the cemetery and one of them offered me a hit of heroin. “No thanks,” I smirked.
Little has changed in that regard, except junkies now shoot cheap cocktails of codeine, iodine, gasoline and drain cleaner. Others take a more mainlined route to paradise, like my friend Malkhaz. He hung himself from a tree in his front yard.
“Many people kill themselves here?” I asked Zaza, who has a little Malkhaz shrine in his office.
“I wouldn’t say it’s uncommon.”
Not all is death and gloom in Gali, however. After Georgia’s disastrous war with Russia over South Ossetia in 2008 and the Kremlin’s official recognition of the two breakaways, Abkhazia signed a pact with Russia to protect its borders from Georgian aggression. For the Abkhaz, it was a massive burden lifted, for they had been waiting for the saber-rattling Georgians to return at any moment over the past dozen years. For Gali, it meant the repair of the Inguri-Sukhumi highway – a two lane ribbon of chuckholes – and a few thousand Russian troops to boost the local economy.
Several schools have been renovated, although children are taught in Russian and Abkhaz, not their native Megrelian or Georgian. It’s a contentious topic that brings to mind the Abkhaz assertion that Stalin had forced Abkhaz schools to adopt a Georgian curriculum in an effort to wipe out their language entirely. The issue was a major factor in the Abkhaz drive towards self-determination. Although the Abkhaz say they aren’t trying to eradicate Georgian, the fact remains The Abkhaz are restricting the Georgian’s rights to be educated in their mother tongue.
Gali’s Megrelians should be admired for their perseverance to hammer out lives in the perdition that is home, but they are often railed at by Georgians who call them traitors and by the Abkhaz, who see them as a 5th column, even though they refused to take up arms – twice. Rather than try to integrate the Megrelians into society, Sukhumi has imposed an apartheid-like regime in Gali where they only hold marginal positions in the local administration and police force – forget about the judiciary. Administration heads are all Abkhaz.
“Of course we’d like to be united with Georgia – we’re Georgian, but we understand the political reality. We live in Abkhazia, ” My friend Mamuka said recently over a cup of coffee. “But they (Abkhaz) won’t even let us vote.”
The constitution of Abkhazia forbids double citizenship with Georgia. Abkhaz passports are only recognized in a few countries, otherwise, citizenship permits people to own property and to vote; that’s it. Before, Sukhumi issued Gali residents with passports and turned a blind eye to their double Georgian citizenship, which allowed them to enter Georgia to collect pensions and receive various modern services not available in Abkhazia. But Abkhaz opposition, led by ex-KGB man Raul Khadjimba, used the ethnic card as a rallying point against president Alexander Ankvab, who had supported the prevailing status quo until he was toppled in May 2014.
The new interim Abkhaz government immediately stripped Gali’s Megrelian population of the right to vote two months before its presidential elections. With 20 percent of the electorate unable to vote, Raul Khadjimba, who had blamed his 3 previous presidential loses on the Georgians, squeaked by to win the election in September with 51.52 percent.
Failing to see the irony, Khadjimba declared that “these people must continue building the Abkhazian state with us,” and in an effort to make the Megrelians feel more at home, he proposed restricting their freedom of movement across the border by closing four of the five crossings.
I am at the lone crossing called the Inguri. Thanks to the Russians, we covered what had been a 20 minute ride from Gali in five, over smooth blacktop. The Abkhaz have a perfunctory role checking passports at the border, but it’s the FSB who are in control. Georgia has always charged that Russia was behind Abkhazian separatism, it’s pretty clear where it is now. One month after Khadjimba’s inauguration, the Kremlin introduced an “alliance and integration” treaty that makes Abkhazia’s independence as hollow as the Abkhaz border guards’ presence is cosmetic.
Walking across the bridge to Georgia, the edginess of the countryside silence diminishes, but not its woefulness. Behind me on a knoll flies the flag of Abkhazia. The Abkhaz don’t have to worry about the Georgians coming to take it down anymore, but the tension’s still there because they know it’s a Russian breeze that keeps it flapping.
While Russia has forcibly annexed Crimea and is choreographing a separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine, Georgia’s break away region of Abkhazia finds itself struggling to maintain its independence both from Georgia and its patron Russia.
*Originally published in Sept 2014 on Beacon Reader
I’m sharing a funky little toilet/shower arrangement and a makeshift kitchen at a guest house in Sukhum with three Russian “golden girls.” Valentina, still blond and with a thick clown-like circle of blue eyeliner around her eyes, offers me her personal blend of wild herbal tea she picked back home and warns me not to pet the cat that comes to beg the wheat wafers the girls eat for breakfast because it might have toxoplasma, which is dangerous, she insists.
It’s the end of September and the trio are among the straggling vacationers in lush, subtropic Sukhum, catching the last of the Black Sea surf and turf before heading to their less forgiving climates up north. The girls, employees of the Volga automobile plant in Nizhny Novgorod, used to holiday in Crimea but instability there prompted them to try the other budget vacationland for lower-income Russians. Only one of the women was in Abkhazia before, in the 1980s, in the good old days of communism – they say – before there were “narkomen” and criminals around every corner, when the parks were safe at night and apartments were rent-free.
The golden girls don’t have to look far in the capital of Sukhum to see nostalgic remains of that not so long gone era. The problem is that many of the monuments to Abkhazia’s “Red Riveria” past are either bullet ridden, bombed out or decaying. But they try not to notice the vulgar scars of history that make up Abkhazia’s urban (and rural) landscape. It’s the high prices of produce that gets the girls’ attention, for although the countryside is fertile, very little agriculture is cultivated. Even tomatoes at the bazaar come from Russia. This, people will tell you – the war-torn buildings and crippled economy – is all Georgia’s fault.
Georgia was already a basket case when war broke out in Abkhazia in 1992. Georgia’s independence from the Soviet Union in March 1991 was followed by a coup d’état eight months later and civil war in Tbilisi. All of a sudden, Georgia was a country ruled by thugs with guns who decided to settle scores with the Abkhaz, whose issues with Georgia had become increasingly intense since perestroika. When hostilities ended in 1993, some 250,000 Georgians were forced to flee – about half of Abkhazia’s population.
Sukhum is a half empty glass of disarticulate memories. Those old enough to remember the USSR fondly remember a time of peace and cohabitation, but those reminiscences stop abruptly at 1992, when Georgian National Guard leader, Tenghiz Kitovani led a column of tanks to ostensibly protect the railroad from “terrorists.” For the Abkhaz, that was nothing short of an invasion. “Suddenly our own neighbors started killing us. How could they do that?” they say.
The collective Abkhaz memory is one of victimization that goes back to Josef Stalin and his “Georgianization” of Abkhazia, when he stripped Abkhazia of its Socialist Soviet Republic status in 1931 and made it an autonomous republic within Georgia (The history of the makhadjir – the Russian Empire’sethnic cleansing of North Caucasians and Abkhaz is selectively brushed over; after all, Russia is Abkhazia’s official protector from Georgian aggression). There is no room in this narrative for Abkhazia’s role as victimizers. To the perpetrators, Georgians were not ethnically cleansed – they were the casualties of cause and effect. They brought it on themselves.
It’s been twenty years and the war is still an open wound as if the enemy image must be nurtured to legitimize Abkhazia’s right to exist as a state. The war is the core of Abkhazia’s national identity. Turn on Abkhaz TV any given day or open up the newspaper and there’s the war. Walk into any school and in the foyer there are portraits of the fallen hero alumni on the walls. “These men sacrificed their lives so you could live free – of Georgia.” That’s the message and it has been ingrained to every Abkhaz for the past 25 years. A generation has been weened on this violent history, many of whom have never met a Georgian.
“How could I be friends with a Georgian? They killed my father,” a young musician named Gela once said. I’ve heard the same line countless times. On a bus from Gagra to Sukhum a woman shouted a man off the bus for being a fake war veteran.
“I know where you were during the war, you liar!” she shouted.
I’m at a new seaside cafe, owned by an Abkaz from the diaspora in Turkey who is trying his luck in investing in his ancient homeland. With BB King singing from his speakers and a fast wifi connection, I almost forget I’m in Abkhazia. The waitress is also a decedent from the 19th century makhadjir, only her ancestors settled in Syria. Two years ago, Abkhazia opened its doors to Syrian refugees of Abkhaz decent. About 500 came to forge new lives in a foreign land that offers very little prospects in terms of work, but it beats a refugee camp and is safer, even if it still is technically at war with Georgia. A few dozen people, however, found integration impossible and have returned to their war-torn communities in Syria.
I recall reading in a major American newspaper that the war in Abkhazia was fought between ethnic Georgians and Muslim Abkhaz separatists, yet there is only one mosque in Sukhum, attended by Abkhaz, Cherkess and other North Caucasians. There is also a Catholic Church, an Orthodox church and evangelizing Jehovah’s Witnesses. Abkhazia is a multi-national, multi-denominational, religiously tolerant country. Discrimination is reserved only for Georgians.
There are 193 members of the United Nations and on September 23, many of these nations will send their leaders to attend the UN Climate Summit in New York City. The South Caucasus country of Georgia, however, will be distinguished for being the only state to send both of its leaders to make speeches, but not because they are both exceptionally concerned with global warming. Georgia just has not figured out who its head of state is.
He rode into office on a white horse. The people showered him in rose petals, love and respect, believing he would heal their wounds and deliver them to prosperity. And when they realized he was not the savior, they crucified him. The next emancipator found the same fate, and the next.
Georgians have a kind of bipolar disorder with their leaders.
Georgia’s first post-Soviet President, Zviad Gamsakhurdia was elected with 86 percent of the vote and was deposed in a coup d’état less than a year later. Eduard Shevardnadze flew in from Moscow where he had been the Soviet Minister of Foreign Affairs and rescued Georgia from civil war. In 1995 he won elections with 70 percent of the vote. He was overthrown eight years later in the bloodless Rose Revolution, lead by Mikheil “Misha” Saakashvili, who was elected President in 2004 with a whopping 96 percent of the vote. But even Misha was forced to step down in 2007 to appease tens of thousands of angry Georgians demanding his resignation. Although he won with 52 percent, it was clear much of the country had lost faith in his leadership.
The lame duck Misha amended the constitution in 2010, reducing the president’s powers in favor of parliament. Everybody expected Misha would “pull a Putin” and switch chairs in 2012 when the changes came into effect, but his party’s surprise defeat in the parliamentary elections changed everything. Georgia’s new leader was multibillionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, who became Prime Minister. It was an awkward year of so-called power sharing, with Ivanishvili running the country while Misha was the head of state with much less power.
Under the new constitution, the president remains head of state and Georgia’s chief negotiator in foreign relations. He is the commander-in-chief, but needs government agreement to appoint or dismiss military commanders. The Prime Minister represents Georgia in foreign relations has the authority to appoint or dismiss members of the government, including ministers, while parliament directs and executes foreign and domestic policies and also appoints or dismisses provincial governors.
(Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili)
In 2013, college rector Giorgi Margvelashvili became president in the most uneventful presidential election in Georgia’s history. Then, keeping a campaign promise to step down after a year, Ivanishvili handpicked his successor, 32 year-old Irakli Garibashvili, a board member of Ivanishvili’s Cartu Bank.
Ivanishvili’s plan was to end the era of political personalities and have a government run by technocrats, but he forgot that they too possess character and ego.
Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream (GD) coalition came to power hellbent on destroying Misha’s legacy. The logic was because Misha was bad, everything he had built was also bad; like the Presidential Palace. Known around town as “The Egg,” the glass residence towering above Tbilisi’s Old Town cost between $7 million and hundreds of millions, depending on who you want to believe. The GD saw it as a symbol of Misha’s excesses and Margvelashvili had refused to use it. There was talk of turning it into a university until one day the President began hosting diplomats there, much to the dismay of majority party members.
Ivanishvili chose Margvelashvili for presumably being vapid and for lacking ambition. He was just supposed to be Georgia’s ribbon cutting mascot. Nobody had expected he would actually be president and make independent decisions, which might explain why the party only gave him two rooms to perform his duties in. But Margvelashvili, who had taken an oath to serve his country, took it as a slight to political principles.
“The president’s institute is not an institute you can just put in two rooms and leave there,” he told the press.
Ivanishvili, who had been out of office for four months publicly stated his “disappointment” in Margvelashvili’s decision to use the residence, in his choice of advisors, and in his judgement to veto a GD sponsored bill supported by the minority party. After Ivanishvili’s public dressing down, the GD turned on their president.
(Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili)
In May 2014, Georgian state minister for Euro-Atlantic integration issues, Alexi Petriashvili, announced that the prime minister would be signing the landmark Association Agreement with the European Union on June 27 in Brussels. President Margvelashvili told reporters he believed it was his job as head of state to sign the paper. Article 73 of Georgia’s constitution states that the president, with consent of the government, “concludes international agreements and treaties and negotiate with foreign states…”
In an act of humility, Margvelashvili drafted a document granting Garibashvili a one-off signature right for the Association Agreement, although it never became legal because the prime minister refused to sign that. He put his John Hancock on the EU document instead. To add insult to injury, nobody bothered to invite the president to the ratification ceremony, although Margvelashvili crashed it anyways.
Meanwhile, Garibashvili was working to further neutralize the president’s authority. In April, parliament drafted a law that would reduce the president’s power as commander in chief. If passed, the head of the Joint Chief of Staff will be subordinate to the Defense Minister instead of the president.
By early August, it was clear the President of Georgia was being ostracized by the party that had nominated him (Margvelashvili is not a member of a political party) when the GD voted down two of Margvleshavili’s candidates for Supreme Court on flimsy pretenses and Garibashvili snubbed the president’s first session as head of the National Security Council. By mid-month the cold shoulder got downright icy when Garibashvili complained to media that it was taking the president too long to declassify Saakashvili’s spending records for a case the prosecutor was building against the former president. Margvelashvili retorted that nobody has the right to tell the president to “speed things up” and called for a respect of procedures.
At a discussion on Friedrich Nietzsche’s “Beyond Good and Evil” with a group of students, the academic President told the press, “That’s precisely what I disliked about the previous authorities – they did not know where the law ends, where obligations begin and where separation of powers ends.”
For Prime Minister Garibashvili, the differences he has with President Margvelashvili are simply a sign there is now “real democracy in the country.” Yet “real democracy” usually means respecting the roles and responsibilities of your democratically appointed leaders, not undermining the duties they were elected to perform. While the constitution’s lack of clarity can be blamed for much of the confusion, the Georgian Dream majority has plainly revealed it doesn’t want a president head of state, it wants a puppet.
Margvelashvili and Garibashvili have separately announced they will attend the UN Climate Summit on September 23. Both intend to make speeches, but which head of state will speak first?
photo credit: Earth Hour Global via photopin cc,
photo credit: Chatham House, London via photopin cc
photo credit: European External Action Service – EEAS via photopin cc
Originally published September 8, 2014 at Beacon Reader
In a few short years, Mikheil Saakashvili took a failing state and turned it into one of the fastest growing economies. Now, the country he rescued wants to put him behind bars, an act which could have a grave effect on Georgia’s relationship with the west.
Some months after Georgia’s October 2012 parliamentary elections, I was sitting at a conference table in a stuffy room in the State Chancellory with a few other journalists and advisors to the new Georgian Dream (GD) coalition government. The advisors were brainstorming ways to rescue the deteriorating image of the new government, after a series of high-profile arrests of former ruling party members had prompted many of Georgia’s western partners to accuse it of engaging in selective prosecution and backsliding on democracy. The group knew multi-billionaire Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili was targeting President Mikheil Saakashvili and that it would have been impossible to prove that busting the sitting president who is your political adversary is not an act of selective justice.
The decision to prosecute Saakashvili came a year later, on July 28, one week after Parliament ratified its Association Agreement with the European Union. With the Agreement in the bag, the GD majority feels it can make the case that they are merely ending the era of impunity and restoring the democratic principles of rule of law. Many of Georgia’s western partners, however, are unconvinced that the motivations are purely egalitarian and there is doubt that Georgia’s frail legal system can actually guarantee rule of law.
Saakashvili is being charged for “exceeding official authorities” in relation to the brutal crackdown of protesters on November 7, 2007 and the subsequent raid and seizure of Imedi TV station, owned by billionaire and political opponent, Badri Patarkatsiashvili. On August 13, the Prosecutor’s Office announced new charges will be brought against the former president for misspending $5.1 million. More charges no doubt await the man commonly known as “Misha,” of who George W. Bush once said “Because you acted, Georgia is today both sovereign and free and a beacon of liberty for this region and the world.”
From Hero to Zero
Misha became a hero when he lead the peaceful “Rose Revolution” to topple the ineffective and corrupt regime of Eduard Shevardnadze in 2003. At the age of 37, the charismatic western educated lawyer became Europe’s youngest president, garnering 96 percent of the vote in 2004. In his first year in office, he bloodlessly wrested control of the Autonomous Republic of Adjara from Aslan Abashidze, a miscreant “prince” who had run Adjara as his own fiefdom since 1991. But it was Misha’s audacious act of firing the entire police force, which had been the largest organized crime ring in the country, and replacing it with a young team of law enforcers that gained him international fame.
On the surface, the new Georgia was remarkable. In a few years, there were new roads, modern buildings and more foreign investment than the country had ever seen. The World Bank twice named Georgia the top reformer in the world. But the power of Misha’s one-party government became consolidated among a small group of men, who had difficulties discerning state interests from personal concerns. Transparency was anathema to their brand of democracy. The police that Misha so famously reformed were controlled by his right-hand man, Interior Minister Vano Merabashvili, while the courts were controlled by his left-hand man, Zurab Adieshvili. These guys believed they were the only people capable of leading Georgia forward, but they did not operate like democrats. They functioned like state-building gangsters.
Davit Kezerashvili, a co-producer of the Rose Revolution, became Minister of Defense when he was 28 years-old. Before that he perfected the technique of squeezing businesses as head of the tax police, which gained notoriety for storming restaurants with armed squads to perform audits. Kezerashvili entered the private sector after being politely dismissed from his post following the catastrophic war with Russia in 2008. Somehow, he managed to corner Georgia’s oil and advertising markets and by 2012 it was estimated the turnover of just one of his offshore companies, FPC, to be $795 million.
Anyone opposed to Misha faced visits from the tax police, prison time and in some cases murder, like banker Sandro Girgvliani, who was tortured to death by Interior Ministry officials for insulting a ministry bureaucrat in January 2006. The guilty men were sentenced to several years in prison but were soon pardoned by the President. For Georgians, Misha was clearly not the poster boy of liberty the west made him out to be. His coup de grâce was the leaked video tapes of systematic torture in the prison system, weeks before the 2012 parliamentary elections.
A Fugitive in The Making
Misha is somewhere in Europe and will not come to face trial from courts controlled by what he calls a “Russian Oligarch,” in reference to Ivanishvili, who stepped down last year yet is believed by many to still be pulling the strings from behind the scenes. To date, the former Interior Minister, Defense Minister and Mayor of Tbilisi are behind bars. Their party, the United National Movement and its 20 percent support base, believe the arrests are the only campaign promises the GD can deliver and are a smokescreen to the issues the government has failed to address; namely unemployment and the economy. Moreover, Misha’s arrest will be a gift from what they insist is a pro-Russian government to his arch-rival, Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Most Georgians would like to see Misha locked up. They have little concern whether the courts operate independently or not, as long as he is punished. The Georgian justice system has no history of operating impartially. Misha could have reformed the judiciary, but he needed it to serve his ends. Only recently have some reforms strengthening court independence been instituted. It is unclear how freely and fairly the courts can function.
Since independence in 1991, Georgian politics have operated on a violent cycle of retribution. The first President, Zviad Gamsakhurdia was overthrown less than a year after winning a landslide victory in a coup that would explode into civil war. When Eduard Shevardnadze resigned in 2003, Saakashvili promised he would not touch the former President, but he did round up his ministers and some family members. However, rather than imprison them, he gave them the option of paying much more than they were accused of misappropriating and put that money into the state budget. Shevardnadze’s son-in-law, Gia Dzhokhtaberidze, paid $15.5 million to the state budget for allegedly evading around $425,000 in taxes. Some fear the punitive cycle will continue and that the next government will lock up those GD officials considered criminals.
We Do It Our Way
The GD maintains that these high-profile arrests are in strict accordance to the law and they have invited international jurists and human rights experts to observe the process. In a letter to US Senators who warned the arrest of Saakashvili could harm US-Georgia relations, Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili noted the contradiction of not investigating some crimes and ensuring the principles of rule of law and democracy. Some officials wonder why it’s okay for Italy to prosecute Silvio Berlusconi and wrong for Georgia to arrest Saakashvili, but they fail to understand how the West perceives crime. Berlusconi is a sex offender who did nothing to make Italy a better place, whereas Saakashvili may have ordered police to beat a few people and may have stole a little money, but he turned Georgia into one of the world’s fastest growing economies.
Some analysts, like Lincoln Mitchell of Columbia University, argue that instead of condemning Georgia for charging the former President for crimes the west would do better to demand a fair, transparent trial. But the west is not going to do that. Others, like Tom De Waal of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and Anna Dolidze of the German Marshall Fund feel that the best way to diffuse the growing tensions the case against Saakashvili is generating is to “establish a commission that focuses both on egregious cases of injustice and on political reconciliation.” But Georgia is not going to do that. The Prosecutor General will gather more evidence and open more cases against Misha to demonstrate that in the new Georgia, nobody is above the law, even if the scales of justice are rusty. Or to quote a neighborhood taxi driver, “In Georgia, we do things our way.”
It’s been two years since Georgian special forces ambushed a group of Chechen fighters it claimed were terrorists from the Russian Federation. Yet even with a new government, nobody is following up on an investigation into the incident, even though evidence has emerged that the militants had actually been recruited by the Georgian Interior Ministry and deployed from Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge. Was it a heinous political publicity stunt or something more sinister?
The rain has let up and a couple hundred people are milled about an old petrol station, waiting for Beka Baidauri, a local politician to arrive. The women are all covered in headscarves and a couple dozen men sport ample beards and skull caps. I’m in Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge, an impoverished region trying to shake its reputation for crime, militancy and Islamic extremism, and in six days the people here are going to democratically choose the head of their local administration for the very first time in history.
The rally kicks off with seven muddy, young, bareback horsemen racing past the station, the “rider on the horse from Jokolo,” the winner. The race is a tribute to Aslan Margoshvili, who along with Bahaudin Kavtarashvili and Bagaudi Bagakashvili were killed in a military operation three years ago. After his aunt, Natela Margoshvili, gives an impassioned speech about the government’s failure to investigate the deaths, a pair of parliamentarians endorse Baidauri before he makes his way around the rain puddles to the mic. Although not a Muslim, the people know and respect him. He makes a short speech, reiterating his promise to find out why their men were killed and who is responsible for covering up the deadliest clash since the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008.
On August 29, 2012, near the village of Lapankuri, Georgian special forces killed at least seven of some 16 suspected Islamic militants it claimed were Russian citizens from Chechnya and Ingushetia who crossed over from neighboring Dagestan and kidnapped some locals. Three Georgian troops also died in the fight. President Mikheil Saakashvili tried to cork and package a scenario where “terrorists” decided to “test Georgia’s combat readiness” and “destabilize” the country.
This was two months before the most heated parliamentary elections in Georgia’s history, which may have been why nobody initially believed the official version. Saakashvili’s ruling party was facing off against a coalition lead by multi-billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, who was impervious to all of Saakasvili’s unscrupulous attempts to incapacitate him. News of an Islamic militant incursion seemed far too fantastic considering they are known as good guys for fighting Russia, a common enemy. Saakashvili’s spin soon began to unravel.
Three of the foreigners turned out to actually be Georgians from Pankisi, some 20 kilometers from Lapankuri. Relatives of the men claim their bodies were returned under the cover of night and that they were forced to bury them quietly. Locals reported they were warned not to talk about the incident with anybody. Residents in Lapankuri were also ordered to remain silent, but it was soon revealed that there had been no hostages. When Georgian Ombudsman, Ucha Nanuashvili, opened an investigation, he found that the Interior Ministry was actually recruiting and training Chechens and other North Caucasians from abroad with the promise of giving them a free corridor to Russia. If true, it wouldn’t be the first time the government colluded with Chechen militants, however, it would be the first time they killed them.
Pankisi is a 10 kilometer river valley at the foot of the imposing Caucasus range, which separates Georgia from the Russian Federation. It is populated mostly by Kists, ethnic cousins to Chechens, who first arrived to the valley in the 19th century. During the Chechnya-Russia wars of the 1990s, Pankisi became a sanctuary for thousands of Chechen refugees, who soon doubled the population of the region. Chechen and Arab militants also used the area as a haven from which to launch operations into Russia. By the millennium, Pankisi was deemed one of the most dangerous places in the world, as organized criminals and government officials colluded with the militants to traffic arms, drugs and people through the valley.
In 2001, Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze persuaded Chechen commander Ruslan Gelayev to lead a reported 500 fighters into Georgia’s breakaway republic of Abkhazia, which was aborted at the last moment. When it was reported in 2002 that al-Qaeda militants were in Pankisi, the US began a $64 million program to arm and train Georgian troops to rid Pankisi of its “terrorists.” By 2004, the government’s new special forces had mopped up the criminal networks and regained control of Pankisi. Although most of the militants had gone, they left behind an conservative brand of Islam, at odds with the traditional Kist mix of Sufism and old-mountain paganism. Locals began calling them Wahhabists and fretted as their kids converted to the imported faith.
During his first year in office in 2004, President Mikheil Saakashvili pursued a conciliatory stance towards Russia and warned of “the Wahhabist threat in Pankisi.” For the approximate 3,700 Chechen refugees there, Saakashvili’s friendly tone towards Moscow was alarming. Two Chechens, Bekkhan Mulkoev and Husein Alkhanov were acquitted in February 2004 for illegally crossing the border in 2002, but while waiting in Tbilisi to talk with European Commission Human Rights investigators, they were abducted and handed over to the Russians, who imprisoned them.
Delivering Chechens to Russia, however, wasn’t enough to stay in Russia’s good graces, particularly since Georgia was pursuing a passionate relationship with NATO at the same time. By 2006, the party was over. Saakashvili and Putin were bitter foes and Pankisi was in the middle.
A Duisi villager says the Wahhabists used to control Pankisi but they aren’t as dominate in the valley now that Saakashvili is gone. “Misha’s regime was really bad for Pankisi. He put a lot of our people in prison.”
Some 7,000 people inhabit about a dozen villages along the river valley. Everybody knows one another. Because recent history has been so volatile, people live in an atmosphere of intrigue. Personal matters are rarely mentioned on the phone and outsiders – especially journalists – are highly suspect. The previous government depended on informers to keep them abreast of happenings in the valley and because nobody was going to volunteer information, authorities coerced them into ratting.
In September 2011, 25 masked officers arrested English teacher Shorena Khangorshvili as she was walking out of a pharmacy in nearby Akhmeta. In a well-practiced method of entrapment that harks back to Georgia’s worst days of lawlessness, they slipped three packets of heroin into her pocket and a mobile phone into her bag. The Ministry of Internal Affairs (MIA) claimed Shorena was part of a drug network with her brother, a fugitive assumed to be in Russia. Authorities also said “large quantities of heroin were found at her house,” but there was no evidence the police had been to her home in Duisi, as it would have been impossible to perform a house search without neighbors seeing it. Shorena believed she was being punished for refusing to cooperate with the Interior Ministry.
Meanwhile, recorded conversations had popped up on Youtube. One was purportedly between Interior Minister, Vano Merabishvili, and Georgia’s US ambassador, Batu Kutelia, about the minister’s discussions with North Caucasus fighters. Another was claimed to have been between Deputy Interior Minister, Giorgi Lordkipanidze and the Chairman of the Association for Chechens in Georgia, Xazri Aldamov.
According to Nanuashvili’s investigation, in February 2012, “senior MIA officials” negotiated with Chechen war veterans and representatives of the resistance committee of Chechens living in Europe to come to Georgia for training, equipping and passage to Chechnya. About 120 arrived and were given housing, driving licenses and arms. Locals told investigators that in the summer of 2012, they has seen about 100 Chechens from Europe in Pankisi, which they found odd since most Chechens had left Pankisi for Europe several years earlier.
As the months wore on, fighters began to complain about waiting so long for their promised corridor north. On August 26, MIA officials arranged passage for a group of militants to the Lopota Gorger near Lapankuri. The well-armed group of about 16 were instructed to wait for authorization to cross into the Dagestan border. They didn’t know that Georgian special forces had also been deployed to the north, presumably to block their entry into Dagestan. Instead of being granted the promised passage, the MIA surrounded the Chechens and after some negotiations, demanded they surrender their arms and return to Pankisi. The Chechens, naturally, refused and the shooting began.
The few survivors, like Pazul Margoshvili, were escorted to the Turkish border on the condition they never mention the incident to anybody. He went on to fight in Syria, and according to Shota Utiashvili, the former head of the MIA’s analytical department, about 100 others from Pankisi joined him.
As the sun breaks through the clouds and lights up the green meadows along the river, I recall earlier days in Pankisi, when most local men strolled down the potholed roads with Kalashnikovs over their shoulders. The vibe was a menacing tenseness. Now, the guns are gone and people are earnestly talking of democracy. But until they can move on, they need closure. Were Aslan Margoshvili, Bahaudin Kavtarashvili, Bagaudi Bagakashvili and their comrades victims of a political publicity stunt, or something more sinister? Pankisi believes it knows the answer and is just waiting for confirmation.
“The people here say they (the fighters) were asked to kill Ivanishvili, but they said “your politics are not ours,”” a relative of Pazul Margoshvili said. “And they call us terrorists.”
Originally published July 20, 2014 at Beacon Reader