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, which is slowly encroaching even greater influence on the tiny enclave.


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.


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.


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

The Great Pankisi Cover Up

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

Krokodil Tears: Georgia’s Failed Drug Policy

When Georgia signs the European Association Agreement later this month it will find itself one-step closer to it’s goal of European integration. Yet the country’s repressive drug policy remains in a post-Soviet time warp, far from the standard approach being applied throughout Europe. Failure to implement a well-balanced, humane drug program has put more recreational drug users behind bars and contributed to a rise in popularity of a highly toxic cocktail for the veins, called krokodil.

Protest against urine testing

Two men in their early 40s are explaining the intricate process of preparing desomorphine, a cheap, highly addictive and toxic homemade narcotic that is injected into a vein. Called “krokodil,” it is made from over-the-counter codeine medicines, iodine, gasoline, drain cleaner, hydrochloric acid and the phosphorus from match strikers. This noxious drug can pack a powerful punch but the damage it does to the immune system, bones, muscles and skin have earned it the moniker of “flesh eater.”

“It takes us about 40 minutes to cook up a batch when a few of us work together. We’ll be high for abut an hour if it’s done right, then we start cooking again in 2 hours,” explains D. who only started shooting krokodil a few years ago. Because the Georgian government so successfully cracked down on the illegal import of less toxic opiates like heroin, opium and the methadone substitute, Subutex, which was all the rage in the mid 2000s, people have turned to the flesh eater to get high. “We look okay because we do it right, but if you don’t know what you’re doing you’ll lose your jaw bone or if you cut a finger, it’ll fall off,” he adds.

Desomorphine was patented in the US in 1932 as a morphine substitute, but because it’s effects wore off quicker and caused faster withdrawal, the narcotic was eventually discontinued. In the late 1990s, the drug resurfaced in Russia, which has a rather rich history with homemade intravenous cocktails. According to drug policy advocates, Harm Reduction International, 4 million people in Eurasia inject drugs. That’s one-quarter of the world’s intravenous drug users. And one million of these are living with HIV.

In 2007, when the Georgian government began to earnestly crack down on drug use, a gram of heroin was around $275 while a tablet of Subutex was about $120. Today, heroin fetches around $325 while Subutex is $280. When krokodil arrived on the scene, it cost $5 to get 3 guys high. But because of a new government law on psychotropic substances, which makes it more difficult to get the active ingredients without a prescription, it now costs $80.

While the government’s policy has disturbed the supply of opiates, it has done nothing to reduce the demand. Intensifying drug testing, imposing high fines and imprisoning users has put more addicts in prison but has not affected drug use. A 2012 study by health care advocates, Curatio International Foundation, estimated the number of problematic drug users actually increased by 12.5 percent from 40,000 to 45,000 between 2009 and 2012, when the anti-drug policy was the most punitive. And the drug more people are using today is krokodil.

“I’ve known about krokodil but didn’t want to start injecting it even though it was cheaper than heroin and Subutex,” D. says. But one jonesing day his friend had some krokodil all ready to go.

Drug use skyrocketed during the 1990s, a lawless decade that saw civil war, two separatist conflicts and an economy in shambles. D. and his friend came of age during this time and like so many young men in Georgia, they became hooked on heroin, which was pouring through the country’s uncontrolled borders. By 2007, some estimates claimed that 240,000 Georgians – 5 percent of the population – were addicted to narcotics.

“If you had no gun or drugs back then, you were no one,” D. says.

Nobody understood this better than the police, who had guns, drugs and power.

Georgia in the 1990s was a criminal free-for-all. Chechen fighters holed up in the Pankisi Gorge, near the Russian border, were trafficking everything to fund their war effort. The Ministry of Internal Affairs, complicit in crimes ranging from kidnapping to smuggling, was a domestic drug distributor. Cops played a double game of dealing and extorting money from people to keep them out of prison. Informants were rewarded with drugs.

This changed after the Rose Revolution in 2004, when president-elect Mikheil Saakashvili reformed the Interior Ministry in one audacious stroke. The entire police force was fired, replaced by young incorruptible men and women. The situation in Pankisi was reigned in and the leaders of organized criminal networks were arrested or fled the country. However, the policy of extorting money from drug users and dealers did not disappear – it became institutionalized and continues to be the policy today.

Possession of drugs without a doctor’s prescription is punishable by a first-time fine of $280. The penalty for a repeat offender within a year is $1,125 or 1 year imprisonment. Police don’t need probable cause to shake somebody down and haul them in for a urine test. They just need “reasonable suspicion.” Court judgements for drug use offenses rely mostly on urine tests. And it’s a money-maker. In 2007, the latest year for which data is available, drug-related fines reaped $16.9 million into the state budget.

D. has been convicted 9 times for drug-related crimes and has paid $43,000 in fines. His case is typical in that his family accepted the burden of paying the fines by first selling their car, then their home. He claims his last conviction was a 9-month sentence for use, even though he didn’t have any drugs on him.

On paper, the Georgian government recognizes drug abuse is a disease, yet it continues to treat users as criminals. There is no legal differentiation between possession and trafficking drugs, nor is there a legal distinction between drug types. A few grams of marijuana can land you in prison as a dealer for up to 14 years, compared to a rapist who faces a maximum of 6 years.

While Georgia has been relentless in its persecution of drug users, it has been less zealous in its pursuit of treatment. There is only one detox center in the country and it can only accommodate 23 patients at a time. Few people understand the ramifications of drug abuse and addiction. There isn’t even an alcohol treatment facility, let alone a proper 12-step program. Addiction is an alien concept, something you just quit if you have the will.

Between 2003 and 2006, the Georgian Health Ministry reduced funding for drug treatment from $140,000 to $28,000. The country was reluctant to establish a methadone program because lawmakers couldn’t understand the need to introduce another drug to treat opiate addiction. The first methadone program only started in 2006 in 3 Georgian cities and was financed by the Global Fund. In 2008, the state kicked in some money to expand the program to 8 cities nationwide, covering 1300 patients, but it falls far short of providing the care drug addicts need.

Levan Baramidze, a former director of the Ministry of Health’s drug addiction center, concedes there is little investment in treatment in Georgia. “Policy makers are not public health specialists,” he says. “We need at least double the program.”

For drug addicts, the government policy is criminal. “The police know who we are and wait for us outside of pharmacies,” D.’s friend says. And nobody will call an ambulance if someone were to O.D, because ambulance personnel are required by law to call the police for a drug-related emergency.

“They just want to kill us off,” D, remarks. “They think if we’re dead, the problem will be solved.”

*photo – protest at state chancellery against forced urine testing. 06/09/14

Originally published June 11, 2014 at Beacon Reader

IDAHO, Georgian Style


On May 17, Georgia’s gay rights activists did not mark International Day Against Homophobia with a rally, for fear of being attacked. Instead, the Georgian Orthodox Christian community celebrated IDAHO with demonstrations of its own. As disheartening as it is, having homophobes out of the closet is a victory for LGBT rights activists as sexual orientation and minority rights are now a subject no longer ignored in Georgia.


Gia and I jumped aboard the little outboard motorboat and handed a shirtless, wiry, red-skinned young man of about 25 the equivalent of 5 bucks each. He lit a cigarette, nodded his head and sped off to a flotilla in the middle of the reservoir known as “The Tbilisi Sea.” A .38 revolver was packed in the waistband of his swim shorts. The year was 2001.

We grabbed a couple of beers at the bar and I followed Gia to where girls were splayed out on plastic sun furniture. That’s where I met Mark, who was tanning with two women Gia had introduced me to. Mark was from San Francisco and had come to Georgia a year earlier with his boyfriend, who was the head of an international NGO. When they broke up, Mark suddenly found himself in one of the toughest places in the world to be a single, gay, western man.

Gia summed up the Georgian attitude towards homosexuality one afternoon driving through Tbilisi, listening to Queen in his tape deck, tapping his hand on the steering wheel to the beat.

“Look, Tbilisi. See? No homosexuals. No. In Georgia, there are no gays,” he said like a tour guide pointing out the sights of his city. “I hate gays. They’re sick,” he added.

“But Gia, you like Freddie Mercury, right? Don’t you know he was gay?”

“That’s different.”

In Georgia, men greet each other with a kiss on the cheek and often walk with their arms linked together or over their buddy’s shoulders, unaware of the signals they are sending to the uninitiated. And when people looked at Mark in his short jean cut-offs, they just saw an American who didn’t know you don’t wear shorts in public. Few would have ventured to suspect he was gay and this was his camp style. The absence of open homosexuality in society meant you wouldn’t recognize a gay man unless he had his hand down your pants. I never asked Gia if he knew Mark was gay and certainly wasn’t going to tell him.

Mark spent the better part of six months with a bitter case of blue balls until he met Beso in a pedestrian underpass. If Tbilisi was a sexual purgatory for Mark, it was a refuge for Beso, who came from a tiny village high in the Khevsureti region of the Caucasus. Khevsureti is the kind of place where families still keep the severed hands of their blood feud enemies as souvenirs. They may have been chopped off only a generation ago. Mark helped Beso get sexual refugee status and the pair moved to San Francisco. While Beso must have felt like a hypoglycemic in a candy store there in the Castro, Georgia’s gays remained concealed in the shadows of a society that denied their existence.

It was only a matter of time before cracks began to appear in the country’s heterosexual comfort zone.

Increased access to the world wide web has enlightened a generation of youths who had been culturally confined to a narrow post-communist view of the world. Kids have started embracing the realization that they can be European and Georgian too. The government of Mikheil Saakashvili adopted the same message in 2004 as it steered the country towards European integration. Although Georgians had no problem accepting a European style of law and order, many rejected many of the western liberal attitudes that come with the package.

In July 2007, the European Council sponsored a youth demonstration called “All Are Different – All Are Equal” in an effort to create inter-cultural and inter-religious dialogue. Political maligners and yellow journalists saw an opportunity to exploit the public’s base fears of homosexuality and westernization and they quickly spread the rumor that the event was in fact going to be a gay pride parade. Thus, the country’s anti-homosexual movement was born.

Naturally, no such parade occurred but a few homophobes organized in front of the chancellery and declared with straight faces that Georgia’s declining birthrate was threatened by an increase of homosexuality amongst men. They also accused one of Georgia’s most respected human rights NGO’s, Georgia Young Lawyer’s Association, of being a “pro-homosexual organization” while George Soros’s Open Society, the whipping post for anti-western extremists and nationalistic crackpots, was alleged to have opened a gay bar in a village near the South Ossetian administrative border.

Grassroots opposition to western values soon emerged under the guise of Christian organizations. Some, like The People’s Orthodox Christian Movement are little more than neo-fascist organizations dressed in arm and headbands who brand deluded concepts of tradition, nationalism and religion. In May 2010, this group staged a rally at Ilia Chavchavadze University against perceived academic threats to Georgian Christianity and the ancient cult of virginity. The demonstration turned violent as the Christians attacked students, calling them “faggots.” The Organization of Orthodox Christian Parents is another such group that raided a Georgian Halloween party, believing it to be a satanic western celebration.

The Georgian Patriarchy’s failure to condemn the violence these groups perpetrated was accepted as a silent sign of approval. As the rivalry between the medieval-like Church and the western leaning State increased, these fringe groups began to function more like the Patriarchy’ sword of the Lord foot soldiers for righteousness.

On May 17th, 2012, a little over a dozen gay rights activists attempted a march from Tbilisi’s Philharmonic to Parliament in the center of the city to mark International Day Against Homophobia. They were stopped halfway by a dozen monks and about 100 representatives of these radical groups. A small scuffle ensued and the event ended with police arresting a few activists for obstructing traffic. But it was a victory for Georgia’s gay community and its liberal supporters as it marked the first time in the country’s history that homosexuals came out to challenge the country’s intolerance to sexual minorities.

Emboldened by the previous year’s attempt, activists planned another demonstration on IDAHO in 2013. This time Patriarch Ilia II came out and demanded that authorities prevent the rally, calling it a violation of “majority’s rights” and likening homosexuality to an anomaly and disease. Activists were undeterred by the Church’s opposition and confident in the government’s commitment to protect them. Several dozen held their demonstration while 200 meters away, priests held a counter rally with tens of thousands of viscous homophobes they mustered from Tbilisi’s neighborhoods. Shouting, “kill them!” and “fuck their mothers!” priests broke through police lines and lead the mob on a rampage, chasing activists across the center of the city. Around 30 people were injured, half of them hospitalized. Some lawmakers blamed the activists for bringing it upon themselves. 5 people, including two priests, were charged with the misdemeanor “impeding the right to assembly,” otherwise, nobody was held accountable for the violence.

Abhorred by most of society, homosexuality can no longer be ignored in Georgia. In a survey following the May 17th 2013 travesty, 79% of respondents said they disapproved of sexual minorities protesting against discrimination while 52% believe it’s not important to protect their rights. The priest-lead attack had a 30% approval rating.

This year, gay-rights activists chose not to rally on May 17th because they feel the police cannot guarantee their safety from hostile homophobes. Instead, the Georgian Orthodox Church observed IDAHO for them by creating its own Family Strength Day with a march to the grand Sameba Cathedral for a sermon by the Patriarch about family values. Meanwhile, homophobic religious fanatics held a rally in front of the old parliament building to protest the anti-discrimination legislation passed earlier in May. Gay rights activists responded with flash installation protests to remind people that “you might not see us, but we’re here.”

If Mark were to return to Georgia today he would no longer see men packing pistols in their waistbands like a fashion accessory. While he might not be able to get away with wearing short shorts in public, he would find it easier to meet empathic souls no longer constrained by fear and repressive traditional values, despite the dangers. With homophobia out of the bag, sexual orientation has become a part of social discourse. This is a different Georgia, enduring the harsh growing pains of being a modern country.

*Originally published May 23, 2014 at Beacon Reader

Russia’s 5th Column: The Georgian Orthodox Church

On May 3rd, Georgia’s legislature passed an anti-discrimination bill, which is opposed by the Georgian Orthodox Church for the bill’s protection of homosexuals and transgender people. However, the Church’s homophobia is part of a larger “Europhobia” – a pro-Russian manifestation that aims to destabilize the country from within.


In a video clip making the rounds on social media, armed thugs in eastern Ukraine are sitting around a desk decorated with an icon of the Virgin Mary, garnished with a pair of hand grenades and a bouquet of weeds in a plastic jug. One man is rapping lyrics off his computer to a song that espouses the maxim of the revolutionary pro-Russian movement – Russia is great, NATO is bad and Europe with its gay parades is sick.

If not for the fact the goons have taken over government buildings, are holding people hostage and are plunging the country to the brink of war, the music video could have been made in Georgia, where a vigorous anti-European movement is underway, fused by the zealous propagation of homophobia. At the forefront of the resistance is the Georgian Orthodox Church.

On May 3rd, Georgia’s legislature passed an anti-discrimination bill, a requisite for European integration and essential component of the Visa Liberalization Action Plan, an agreement that will grant Georgians a short-term visa-free regime in the EU. You would think that a bill that protects the rights of every citizen from discrimination would be unanimously applauded, particularly from an institution still recovering from 70 years of Soviet persecution. But the Georgian Patriarchy has a problem that “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” are included on the bill. Clerics warned in the language of fire and brimstone that the bill could provoke “clashes.”

The way the Georgian Orthodox Church sees it, homosexuals and transgender people should be punished for sinning, not protected for being human like everybody else. The Church is manipulating an irrational fear of homosexuality to mobilize its constituency, much like the Nazis targeted the Jews, and it is challenging the government’s moral authority because it wants to be the country’s power broker.  However, the Church isn’t as homophobic as it is Europhobic. The Europeanization of Georgia implies liberalism and freethinking – two concepts that scare the hell out of the Church.

Over 80% of Georgia’s 4.5 million people say they belong to the Georgian Orthodox Church, while surveys put the Patriarch’s popularity rating at 95%, making him the leader of the country’s most trusted institution. The Church practices a medieval dogma that it wraps in nationalism to coalesce its power base. “I am Georgian, therefore I am Christian,” is the national motto, despite the many Georgian Muslims and notwithstanding the fact that this attitude was largely responsible for the breakup of the country in the early 1990s.

Rather than learn from past mistakes and practice Christian principles of love and tolerance, the Church waxes abomination by leading violent manifestations against homosexuals and religious minorities. The aim is to simply keep its flock locked in some mythical past. Russia may be Georgia’s greatest external threat, but nothing poses more danger to Georgia internally than the Georgian Orthodox Church.

In March, the EU Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighborhood Policy, Štefan Füle came to Georgia, where he met Patriarch Ilia II to seek his blessing for Georgia’s EU integration efforts. Füle assured Ilia that signing the Association Agreement will not oblige Georgia to allow same-sex marriages, as opponents have claimed. “This is not an attempt by western countries to impose foreign values on Georgia,” he said. After the meeting, Ilia threw his support behind integration, although he still hasn’t come to terms with basic human rights, and this is worrying.

As Georgia’s efforts to consolidate democracy are acknowledged by its western partners, there is concern that the country isn’t doing enough to protect human rights. Identoba, the organization that orchestrated last year’s rally to commemorate International Day Against Homophobia on May 17th will not assemble this year, because nobody can guarantee the demonstrators’ safety. While we can forgive a cleric’s ignorance when he says “we don’t want a Europe where homosexuality is legalized,” it’s hard to forget the spectacle of raging priests leading a savage mob of thousands of people through the center of the capitol to assault a few gay rights defenders.

Prime Minister Davit Usupashvili stated that the Anti-Discrimination Bill was about choosing between Europe and Russia. Parliament made its choice with 115 votes to 1 and has won the battle, but the Church, which says it must analyze the bill, has made it clear the war is not over.

*Originally published May 3, 2014 at Beacon Reader

(Header image borrowed from the Taburetka Facebook page)