Sweet Potato Garikula Shepard Pie

IMG_1089Okay, we’re running low on stuff because the government has made it illegal to drive our cars to the store. That poses a problem when you live in a Georgian village. Yesterday, we walked a mile with a couple empty knapsacks to load up at the only produce shop around. Good thing we aren’t senior citizens. We put our masks on and picked through a box of cucumbers, apples and a browning bunch of bananas – the last ones in the box. Good for smoothies or maybe I’ll do a banana bread. Besides some potatoes and three rotting cabbages, that was all she had. No deliveries in over a week, she said. Produce in garage grocers like this comes in mini vans and the trunks of old jalopies. 

I’m having a hard time understanding the logic behind the car ban. I see everybody running to the store the moment the ban is lifted, which seems a tad unproductive during a pandemic, like having the Church invite everyone to Easter mass.

Anyway, I pulled out a kilo of ground beef from the freezer this morning and wondered what to do with it. I checked the veggie basket we leave outside for potatoes. It has been cold and cloudy for four days, perfect shepherd’s pie weather. To my surprise I saw three fat sweet potatoes I had forgotten about. I took the biggest one, about a kilo, I guess. I opened the fridge, grabbed a couple carrots and a bunch of celery that I have been picking at like a miser for three weeks. We have plenty of onions; a mirepoix, not bad. 

You can put whatever you have in the fridge into a shepherd’s pie. Our blender broke yesterday and I had a can’s worth of unblended salsa – whole tomatoes and roasted red Japanese and ancho peppers. The ancho was nice and soft, soaking in tomato juice all night. I minced that up and added everything else into the pan with the meat, leaving the Japanese peppers whole. I didn’t want to blow out our daughter.

 Working at a leisurely pace, you could easily have this on the table in an hour.

Recipe 

2 regular-sized potatoes or one monster, like mine (about a kilo, I guess)

1/2 kilo (ha-ha) ground beef

Salt & black pepper to taste

1 tbs chili powder

1 tbs oregano

2 carrots

1 medium yellow onion

1 stick celery

1 big green/red/whatever color bell pepper.

As much garlic as you like

1 tbs tomato paste (or some salsa).

Peel and cut the sweet spuds into chunks for steaming. Once steamed through, toss them into a big bowl, and add salt and pepper and the chili powder. Mash the piss out of them or put them into a food processor and whip them up.

In the meantime….

Dice all the veggies except the spud, and mince the garlic. Sauté them in a gentle dollop of olive oil to keep them from sticking to your cast iron pan. Season with salt, pepper and oregano. As the veggies begin to get soft, crumble the meat into the pan, add the tomato paste, and fry until meat is browned. Again, salt to taste. If you have no iron pan, use whatever you got and transfer the mixture into a casserole dish or a big ketsi. Top it with the whipped orange spuds like you ice a cake.

Pop it in a preheated oven set at 180 c. for 20-30 minutes.

The Tbilisi Airport Taxi Blues

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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”

Dignity is a Small Price to Pay For a Story

Originally published at the great food, travel and culture site, Roads & Kingdoms.

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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.

And that is how I got my story.

Welcome to the Hotel Galifornia

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.

* Originally published at Beacon Reader Oct. 2014

A Blue Dispatch From the Red Riviera

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.

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*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’s  ethnic 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.

Will Georgia’s Real Head of State Please Stand Up

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.

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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.

convert(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.

convert1(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

Crime Or Punishment: The Case Against Mikheil Saakashvili

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.

 misha

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.”

photo credit: 10b travelling via photopin cc

Originally published August 16, 2014 at Beacon Reader