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)

Mother Nature Weeps Toxic Tears

A battle for cultural preservation is taking place in Georgia between activists trying to protect what archeologists contend is the world’s oldest gold mine and a Russian-owned company trying to mine the site with the government’s backing. The conservationists will likely lose, but the real tragedy is that the government is allowing this kind of mining to happen at all.


In the rolling plains of south-west Georgia is a little knoll known as Sakdrisi-Kachagiani. Archeologists believe that people mined for gold here over 5,000 years ago, making it the oldest gold mine in the world. A protected cultural heritage site since 2006, today the 9 hectare tract is surrounded by bulldozers, waiting for the government’s final OK to obliterate it. RMG Gold, the company with the rights to mine 200 square kilometers of surrounding land, can’t afford to trouble itself with cultural heritage. They are a mining company and care only about profits.

The Rich Metals Group (RMG) is one of the largest single tax payers in Georgia and the leading exporter of gold and copper. The total export of gold was $73.3 million in 2013, while copper ore and concentrates exports tripled to $161.6 million, making it one of the main exported commodities in the country. For the cash-strapped government the value of its cultural legacy is the difference between some old, broken clay pots and millions of dollars. But what of the human cost of mining? How far is the government willing to go to protect its environment and the health of its citizens from the dangers of mining?

Chief Contaminator

In addition to producing some of the greatest export commodities in Georgia, mining is also a leading source of the nation’s pollution. RMG’s open pit copper mine, several kilometers from the Sakdrisi site, has been operating since the 1970s. For 40 years, waste water from the mine has been spilling into the Kazretula River, which feeds the region’s irrigation system. A leaked document prepared by the national environmental agency in 2010 found that the copper concentration of the river is 14 times the norm, while zinc is 5 times higher. A 2011 study by Tbilisi State University found the copper pollutant levels in the soil near many villages to be “very high.” Much of this territory is arable land and used for orchards and vinyards.

Residents of Kazreti, the Soviet-era mining town next to RMG’s pit and processing plant complain of a high rate of illnesses and disease, however, it’s difficult to prove a connection between mining operations to these infirmaries since a proper study of health issues by the region has not been done. A Toxic Time Bomb

However, the town is precariously located under a 200 meter tailings dam, which holds a surface area of approximately 1.6 square kilometers of toxic processing left overs – stuff like arsenic, cyanide, mercury and radioactive materials. It is one of the biggest in Eastern Europe. The dam is an upstream construction, a cheap method of keeping contaminants contained in areas of low seismic activity. It is also the most common design to fail in the world.

The tailings dam is located next to a flowing stream. It the dam were to fail, tailings would spill into the river and contaminate the entire downstream region. Even the most advanced country would find containing such a catastrophe near impossible at best. Moreover, the dam is made of tailings material with a high content of of acid generating minerals, like pyrite, which reacts with water and oxygen to generate sulfuric acid, which in turn helps release other metals in the tailings. This means the dam itself can become a source of water pollution. RMG’s environmental manager does not know what kind of drainage system has been constructed to carry the natural flow of water out to ensure the dam does not become saturated. He believes there may be a single pipe. If that’s the only drainage under the dam, southern Georgia should be concerned. Bear in mind that the epicenter of Spitak Earthquake in 1988, which measured 6.8 and claimed the lives of some 25,000 people, is only about 150 kilometers away.

Ad Hoc Protection At Best

In Georgia, the concept of “significant environmental liability” does not exist. Nobody has ever been known to have sued a company for environmental damage and won. There is no law requiring a company to obtain an environmental impact permit to open a mine, although one is needed for processing minerals. However, the ad hoc requirements were designed during Soviet times, when it was not in the state’s best interests to prohibit state owned companies from mining. Legislation after the Rose Revolution in 2003 jeopardized the environment even further, as the government rolled back regulations to encourage investment in the natural resources sector.

In 2011, the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources lost control over managing Georgia’s natural resources when President Mikheil Saakashvili transferred most of its powers to the energy ministry. The next year, Parliament passed a law that made a license holder free of virtually any ecological responsibility in exchange for paying compensation to the state, and it prevents the state from even challenging a license holder’s intentional emissions of toxic pollutants. In other words, a company can open up shop and legally dump its hazardous waste wherever it wants to for a nominal fee.

“Rather than improve their infrastructure to meet international standards, companies prefer to pay annual fines of 1 to 2 million lari ($570,000 – $1.4 million) and continue to pollute the environment,” says Kakha Bakhtadze, programs manager at Caucasus Environmental NGO Network (CENN).

RMG’s commercial director, Solomon Tsabadze, maintains the company obeys all environmental laws. He should know. Before working for RMG, Tsabadze was an official in the environmental protection ministry.

Local communities like Kazreti are powerless against companies like RMG, who are the major employers of the area. But in February, around 1500 RMG employees went on strike, demanding higher wages and safer working conditions. Dali Mamulashvili, a local union representative complained that workers are not provided with safety equipment or protective clothing from the chemicals they must handle. “We don’t even have a sink to wash our hands in,” she claimed.

RMG said the strike has caused a toxic spill into the Kazretula River, although nobody knows the scale of the accident.

The RMG copper and gold mines are one of three major mining operations in Georgia. The other two are the Chiaturmanganese for ore and the Tkhibuli coal mines – both ecological disaster zones. To solve the environmental problems these three companies cause would take decades, but only after the proper legislation is passed that would force them to comply with the law. By that time, however, it will be too late.

From April 26, 2014 Beacon Reader

*Photo by Merlin

The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming!

On February 28th, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his troops into Ukraine. The west watched dumbfounded and two weeks later has still been unable to form a coherent response. One country, however, was not in the least bit surprised by the Russian invasion or by the west’s feebleness. They’ve seen it all before.


About a month after hostilities between Georgians and Russians had ended in 2008, I was standing in an orchard about a kilometer from the Georgian village of Eredvi watching the glow of its remaining homes burn in the dusk. South Ossetians backed by the Russian army were in the process or erasing the evidence of Georgian existence in the territory they now controlled. Five and a half years later, Eredvi is a Russian military post while a fence delineates a new South Ossetian border right through the orchard I was standing in.

In Soviet times, South Ossetia was an autonomous oblast within Georgia. The line you see on a map meant very little on the ground, even after Georgia lost control of the region following the first war in 1992, when South Ossetia became de facto independent. South Ossetians controlled the capital Tskhinvali, the Roki Tunnel, which links the region to the Russian Federation, and a several villages scattered throughout the territory. An actual map would have looked like a gnawed piece of Swiss Cheese.

In 2012, a new Georgian government was elected that made a point of toning down its belligerent rhetoric towards Russia in an effort to improve relations. Russia responded by lifting a 6 year embargo on Georgian products and by establishing a South Ossetian border with fencing, razor wire and surveillance cameras. They took some liberties with the original coordinates and in some cases moved the border a hundred meters or more deeper into Georgian territory and quite literally sliced Georgian villages in half. While some speculate the Russians are only holding the extra land hostage for future negotiating purposes, the arbitrary border is permanent. Russian President Dmitri Medvev had signed French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s 6-point peace plan in August 2008, which stipulated their troops must return to the prewar positions, but Russia quashed that agreement by recognizing Abkhazia and South Ossetia, who then asked the Russian army for protection. Georgia has effectively lost 20% of its territory and Russian missiles are pointed at Tbilisi, 50 kilometers away. The Russians are here to stay.

While its widely accepted that the Georgians got suckered into the war, it is also acknowledged that the Russians had been preparing the scenario months in advance. They had been passing out Russian passports to Abkhaz and Ossetians, warning they would protect their citizens if attacked. In addition, the Vladikavkaz-based 58th Army had been staging war games near the Georgian border just before Georgia launched its attack on Tskhinvali.

Western response to the conflict was slow. The general line was Georgians started it and the Russians over-reacted. Game over. Nobody, except perhaps Washington’s cold warrior Senator John McCain, is concerned that the Russians have reneged on the peace agreement.

The Baltic nations, however, have long understood that Russia is a threatening bully and that if it doesn’t have a pretense, it creates one. And if the bully goes unpunished, he’ll do it again. You have to be Russia’s neighbor to know this – like the Ukraine.

In 2004, Europe’s largest country tried to cut its Russian umbilical cord when a massive democratic movement protested rigged presidential elections in favor of Viktor Yanukovych and thrust a pro-western coalition into power. But the coalition was doomed by its infighting and Russia’s meddling and it fell apart in September 2008, partly due to Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko’s backing of Georgia. He believed Ukraine was hostage to “Russia’s war” and worried over the fragile nature of the Crimea, particularly since the Russian Black Sea Fleet was stationed there. Yushchenko pressed for the Russian fleet’s withdrawal when its agreement agreement expires in 2017. He also actively pursued a course to forge a partnership agreement with the EU and sought NATO membership. He really should have known better than to try to buck Putin.

Yushchenko’s fate was sealed in the first round of elections in 2010 when all he managed to get was 5.4 percent of the vote. His former ally Yulia Tymoshenko,  had broken away and formed a coalition with the communists and allegedly made a deal with the Russians. She ran against the ex-con Viktor Yanukovych and lost.

“It’s so easy to easy to understand that what happened in Georgia was a prelude to what is happening in the Ukraine,” says Alexander Rondeli, president of the Georgian Foundation For Strategic and International Studies in Tbilisi.

Putin does not tolerate countries in his sphere of influence looking west. This is what it is all about.

First Russia pressured Armenia to withdraw from the west-east cooperation treaty, the European Union Association Agreement. Then Yanukovych backed out. Georgia and Moldova, however, initialed it and aim to sign the agreement in the summer. Many in Georgia expect the Kremlin will try to prevent that. But in Georgia’s case, Russia is already occupying one-fifth of Georgian territory and is fencing off South Ossetia. Georgia has proven it can survive a Russian embargo and unlike Ukraine, a large majority of the population favors European integration, so what leverage does Russia really have?

“Lots,” says Giorgi Tabagari, a coordinator at European Alumni Association Georgia. Reinstating the embargo would hurt significantly he says, as Georgia is suffering from an economic downturn. And Russia can influence people through the Georgian Orthodox Church, which has close ties to the Russian Orthodox Church. The Georgian Church has shown how much power it can wield when Georgian clergy led tens of thousands of people on a violent attack against LGBT rights activists. And Russia continues to provoke Georgia by violating its airspace.

This is why all Georgian eyes are on Ukraine. Nobody in Tbilisi thinks Putin will walk away from the Crimea. It’s well-understood that he is trying to rebuild an empire.

“If they get away with it in Ukraine, then they’ll do it again,” Rondeli asserts. “And Georgians hope that this time the west will wake up.”

*From Beacon Reader March 12, 2014

The Georgian Orthodox Church Takes On Test Tube Babies

Georgia’s Patriarch Ilia II spoke out against surrogacy on Orthodox Christmas, prompting a sharp reaction from human rights groups. But the underlying issue isn’t about family values. It’s about the struggle Georgia is facing in defining its national values.


For his January 6th Christmas Eve epistle, Ilia II, Patriarch of the Georgian Orthodox Church, used the Orthodox commemoration of the birth of Christ to espouse his opposition to assisted reproductive technology and to reiterate his enmity to sexual minorities and his mistrust of the European Union. While the 81-year old Church leader’s stance on homosexuality and the West comes as no shock to us in Georgia, his position against surrogacy and in vitro fertilization struck a nerve among many Georgians who feel the Patriarch should not be condemning a person’s right to have a child.

“How can a family, where a child born by a surrogate mother is raised, be happy? This little (child) is doomed to be deprived of love and is doomed to loneliness from the very beginning,” the Patriarch stated.

The issue here, however, isn’t really about test tube babies or whether a man who has some 16,000 godchildren understands anything about reproduction. It’s about the Church’s fear of losing relevancy in the 21st century.

It is widely accepted that Georgia became the second nation in the world to accept Christianity as a state religion in 337 and gained autocephaly in the 8th century. Despite the waves of invading hordes of Mongols, Byzantians, Arabs, Seljuk Turks, Ottomans and Persians over the centuries, Georgians managed to maintain their faith. It’s a subject Georgians are intensely proud of.

Ironically, the fellow Christian nation of Russia probably did more damage to the Georgian Orthodox Church than any other entity. To protect itself from the Turks and Muslims in the early 19th century, Georgia became a protectorate of Russia, which aggressively Russified the Church and stripped it of its autocephaly. Although it had regained its autocephaly during Georgia’s short-lived independence after the fall of the Czar, communism all but destroyed what was left of the institution of Georgian Orthodoxy. Church leaders were arrested or executed and replaced by a “red clergy” that undermined the Church from within. Following the death of Patriarch Efram II in 1972, David Devdariani, who had received his theological education selling meat pies at a village train station, became the next Patriarch, literally stealing the position from Bishop Ilia Shiolashvili. Under David V, corruption flourished and large amounts of Church treasures were stolen.

At the fall of communism, the Church faced a reality vacuum as clerics sought to revitalize religious life at a time the rest of society was facing an identity crisis. The Church embraced the philosophy of ethnic nationalism Georgia’s first freely-elected post-Soviet president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia had advocated. And it began to grow. When Ilia II became the patriarch in 1977, following David V’s death, there were only about 50 priests. Today there are around 1,700.

Walking the chalkline

As ethnic nationalism took root, so did the notion “I am Georgian therefore I am a Georgian Orthodox Christian.” It’s not that people really started going to church. Even today with over 80% of the country’s 4.5 million people considering themselves Orthodox Christians, only about 15% – 25% actively participate in rituals. But this is a conservative, chauvinistic society deeply tied to its history and its traditions, where a woman is expected to be a virgin before marriage and a homemaker thereafter. In some cases, people still kidnap brides and even perform honor killings in the regions. It’s this folk-mentality that the Church has tapped directly into, so if you criticize the Church, you are criticizing the nation. This is what makes Illia II, the Catholicos-Patriarch of All Georgia, the most trusted person in the country, with a 95% approval rating, according to the latest surveys.

While the constitution stipulates a separation between church and state, a 2002 concordat defined this relationship by granting the Church official recognition in Georgia and a special consultive role in the government, particularly in education. In 2004, when Mikheil Saakashvili’s administration came to power, the government had to walk a fine line between the Church and its goals of western integration. In 2005, authorities arrested Basil Mkalavishvili, a defrocked priest who lead his congregation on viscous attacks against Jehovah’s Witnesses and Baptists in an effort to purge the country of outside faiths. While Mkalavishvili was an extremist, the fact that his attacks had gone with impunity for years reflects the irrational fears and intolerance to “non-traditional” faiths that exist in society.

Meanwhile, Saakashvili was giving tax payer money and property to the Church. In 2009, he awarded the Patriarchy a $15 million grant – 3 times the amount of the previous year – and presented luxury SUVs for each of the church’s 10 archbishops. But this wasn’t enough for many of the conservative elements within the Church, who are also pro-Russian. Examples of the Church’s ultra-conservative eruptions included warnings that the practice of yoga is full of false “charms” which lures people away from God, that having a cafe in Tbilisi called “Buddha” was sacrilegious and that paying homage to the American holiday of halloween was equally blasphemous. Even with Mkalavishvili behind bars, some radical Christian groups continued to fiercely protest “menaces” to the state, like the Tbilisi State University, for publishing a book written by a student that mocked the Church.

The sword of the lord

Although the Church is supposed to remain politically neutral, many priests voiced their displeasure with Saakashvili and openly supported his opponent, Bidzina Ivanishvili, in the 2012 parliamentary elections. As Ivanishvili’s coalition has many bigoted and xenophobic members, the Church found fertile ground to assert its influence on the nation and saw the election victory as a green light to go on the offensive.

On May 17th, 2013, several dozen Georgian Orthodox priests led a bloodthirsty mob of tens of thousands of people through the streets of Tbilisi on a violent attack against a small group of LGBT rights activists who were commemorating International Day Against Homophobia. The day before, the priests cruised the neighborhoods of Tbilisi to mobilize people to fight the evil homosexuals, after Ilia II called on the government to prohibit the demonstration and declared that homosexuality was an “anomaly and disease.” At the end of the day, Bishop Jakob, a contender for the Patriarchy after Ilia passes, boasted in the Holy Trinity cathedral that the Georgian nation showed a moral example of its strength and that the church was a political entity to be reckoned with.

Gays are not the only scapegoats. After the 2012 elections, clerics stepped up their opposition to Georgian Muslims. In several villages across the country, Christian locals prevented their Muslim neighbors from holding prayers. Last June, one local Muslim leader was forced to leave his community in east Georgia because he feared for his life. At one point, Christians went to his house and beat his wife. In September, authorities pulled down a minaret from a village near the Turkish border because they claimed it had been erected illegally. Upon returning it to the village, a group of activists lead by priests blocked the road to prevent its restoration. The move was applauded by Bishop Jakob, who guaranteed the minaret would not be rebuilt (although it has).

Following the Patriarch’s epistle, demonstrators gathered in front of the Patriarchate on January 8th to protest the his statement, including the director of a surrogacy clinic. Representatives of a radical Christian group, People’s Hall of All Georgia, also showed up to defend the Patriarch and attacked human rights activists. Four people were detained and charged with hooliganism.

I can wash my own feet

The Church’s comfort zone is in the isolation it inherited from the Soviets. Rather than reform after communism, philosopher Zaza Piralishvili says the Church chose to pursue an “imitation of medieval rhetoric.” Irakli Chonia, a former government official, once noted how the Church “is resistant to innovations and social changes and is characterized by a disgusting attitude towards other non-Orthodox western churches and the Islamic world.”

It is against this background that His Holiness Ilia II is making his holiday appeal against assisted birth. On his Easter address last year, he called on the government to adopt anti-abortion legislation. The abortion rate has always been high in Georgia. In 2005, women had an average of 3.1 abortions in their lifetime, giving Georgia the highest ratio in the world. Yet, the moral question to the right to life wasn’t the only thing on the Patriarch’s mind. He is also concerned with Georgia’s problematic demographic condition. The rise of sex-selective abortions in Georgia over the years has changed the boy to girl ratio of births from 105 to 100 in 1991 to nearly 114 to 100 in 2011.

In an effort to persuade people to abstain from abortions for economic reasons, Illia II promised, “the Church will take care of the children.” But how capable is the Church of rearing children? The state currently has no legal means to regulate the Church’s facilities for homeless and disabled children and the Church doesn’t even know how many children are in the orphanages it runs. We do know that neither the state nor the Church would be able to afford to care for the 33,801 potential births per year. Jumpstart Georgia, open-source data compilers and advocates, calculated Georgia would need 16 times more money than the current state children care budget to take care of all the children, if abortions became children deprived of parental care, after the first year.

Christian Orthodoxy is part and parcel of Georgian culture, but somehow the teachings of Christ got derailed along the way. While Christ preached love and forgiveness, some Georgian clerics preach hate against sexual and religious minorities because “it’s not Georgian.” When Ilia II says women should wash their husband’s feet and obey them based on God’s commandments, he is fantasizing a bygone era the western world left behind centuries ago. While there are no doubt many Georgian families that would love a life where a man is “the guardian and breadwinner” and a woman is “responsible for housekeeping and raising children,” as Ilia II praises, economic and social realities have changed.

Instead, praise a man that can wash his own feet and a woman that can work and raise a family. Support a couple who want to use science so they can have children and raise them in God’s world. Understand homosexuality is not a contagious disease and that everybody is a child of God regardless of their religion and sexual orientation. Promote birth control and safe sex to reduce the number of abortions. And remember, westernization is not a threat to Georgia, primitive hyperbole is. Some have forgotten that one of Georgia’s greatest virtues is its tradition of tolerance.


*From Beacon Reader Jan 13, 2014

Don’t Let The Chips Fall Where They May


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

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

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

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

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

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