Georgian Foreign Minister Maia Panjikidze meets with NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen (photo: NATO)
At this week's NATO foreign ministerial meetings in Brussels, the alliance's secretary general had effusive praise for aspiring member Georgia. Praising recent "free, fair and inclusive" elections, Anders Fogh Rasmussen said that "Georgia serves as a model for the wider region." And in his mostly widely quoted comments, he said that "In the five years since we created the NATO-Georgia Commission, Georgia has moved closer to NATO."
As one wag on twitter put it, Rasmussen's statement could as easily have been made in 2005 or 2007 as today. And indeed there is a bit of the Zeno's paradox to Georgia's NATO progress, continually getting "closer" while seemingly having to way to actually arrive.
And trying to play the spoiler, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was in Brussels as well. And in a press conference there he described NATO expansion as a continuation of the Cold War. Via Civil.ge:
Lavrov said that NATO enlargement, not only in the context of Georgia but in general, represents “continuation of Soviet-old inertial logic of the ‘cold war’.”
“It implies not only preserving the dividing lines, which we have all committed to remove, but it’s also implies moving them [these lines] further to the East, which fundamentally contravenes commitments that we have undertaken at the highest level on indivisibility of security,” Lavrov said. “No one should take steps creating risks to the security of partners.”
Scores of former drug addicts and rights activists holding symbolic urine test cups gathered in front of the interior ministry in Tbilisi on November 24 to protest Georgia's practice of mass roundups of citizens for drug tests.
Since 2007 as many as 200,000 Georgians have been taken straight from the streets to police stations and requested to urinate in a cup, according to the Harm Reduction Center, a non-profit involved in advocacy for addicts. The NGO alleges that police had little more than probable cause to haul in these individuals. "Two-thirds of these people tested negative for drugs, but all were subjected to that humiliating procedure,” said Paata Sabelashvili, a programs manager at the Harm Reduction Center.
Those who tested positive paid a fine of 500 lari ($297) . The protesters argue that the fines have become a drug tax and an effective revenue source for the state without doing much to solve Georgia's problems with substance-addiction.
To make that point sink in, protest participants emptied test cups, filled with beer, into a giant container that read “The Georgian Budget.”
By comparison, President Mikheil Saakashvili’s first inauguration in 2004 was more akin to the set for a Hollywood epic, complete with an all-out military parade and an oath delivered kneeling on an ancient king’s grave.
Yet for all the fresh emphasis on ceremonial modesty, the points made by Margvelashvili may not sound far different from those of his predecessor.
As his paladin, Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili listened from the bleachers, the onetime education minister vowed to press for integration with the West and reconciliation with the North. He promised to guard the special status of the Georgian Orthodox Church and to defend the rights of religious and other minorities. And he invited the separatist Abkhaz and South Ossetians back home, to Tbilisi's embrace.
"European-style" democracy has arrived, he underlined, and, henceforth, the “post-Soviet” adjective can be dropped from Georgia. As proof, he cited the country's allegedly pluralized media and the largely clean transition of power in the 2012 parliamentary and 2013 presidential elections.
The U.S. ambassador to Georgia has sparked controversy with comments that criticized Georgia's policy, in the early days of independence, toward the minority populations of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Ambassador Richard Norland was speaking to a group of students at Tbilisi State University on November 15, and was asked about the possibility of Georgia regaining control of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. His comments, apparently recorded by someone at the event, included the following:
If you ask me about my personal opinion I can tell you that when I was in Georgia 20 years ago I saw that Georgians were treating Abkhazians and Ossetians the same way as Russians were treating Georgians and Georgia will have to apologize for the mistakes of the past.
This isn't an especially controversial statement; Georgians frequently express similar sentiments as they rue the mistakes that were made in the 1990s that contributed to the loss of those territories. But it's apparently too sensitive for the U.S. ambassador to say such a thing in public. In American politics Norland's statement would be called a "gaffe," which is when a political figure accidentally tells the truth. And the predictable result was that Georgian officials lined up to criticize Norland's remarks, and Norland was forced to backtrack.
Some of the Georgian responses, from a report on Georgian television station Rustavi-2 (via BBC Monitoring):
The cell phone dings in the middle of a meeting. Expecting an important message, you carefully reach for the phone, trying to keep eye contact with your interlocutor. Out of the corner of your eye, you read: “Phenomenal news: buy four Japanese tires and get two brake pads for free!”
In two minutes, the phone beeps again: “A refrigerator and laundry machine for just 888 lari . . .” Just as you apologize and switch the phone to silent, another SMS buzzes in: “We know you are doing repairs and we know just what you need . . .”
To stop the barrage, you turn off the phone and miss the single SMS you need.
Carpet bombing cell-phone users with unsolicited SMS ads has become the thing in Georgia and the wider region. Anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International Georgia* recently published a list of 29 of Georgia's top SMS-spammers.
According to the organization, the spam is not just a nuisance, but is against the law. Georgia’s privacy laws do require companies to obtain customers' consent for such advertising and to provide a mechanism for opting out of it, but that usually does not happen.
It is not fully clear how companies get hold of the numbers. Most cell-phone operators claim they do not give out the data, but customers are not convinced. Companies which offer SMS-advertising services refuse to disclose the origin of their large databases of phone numbers.
How to stop the spam-flow remains an open question. Georgia recently introduced the office of a personal-data ombudsperson, but, for now, the office can only send warnings to companies that use SMS spam.
Still, in this highly image-conscious culture, bad PR can play a role. Sort of.
Georgians long have claimed that their calls were monitored for political-control assurance, but turns out they have Swedish telecommunications-technology giant Ericsson partly to thank.
Following an October 30 report by Swedish public radio, Ericsson told Agence France Presse (AFP) that it had sold phone-surveillance technology to Georgia’s Geocell, a privately owned cellular operator, back in 2005. The company maintained, however, that the equipment was meant as an anti-crime tool, though acknowledged that the Georgian government "allegedly use it" for illegal wiretapping.
Publicizing tapped private conversations has been a tried political weapon in Georgia. In the heyday of outgoing President Mikheil Saakashvili's era, everytime the political temperature went up, secretly recorded conversation were dumped online or aired on TV. In 2007, when police clashed with protesters in Tbilisi, tapped phone calls became a soundtrack to the authorities’ claims about a Kremlin-orchestrated conspiracy to bring down Georgia's pro-Western government.
While still a government opposition leader, Mikheil Saakashvili addresses supporters after storming the Georgian parliament building on Nov. 22, 2003, to demand the resignation of then President Eduard Shevardnadze.
Nearly ten years ago, Mikheil Saakashvili, with crowds of supporters in tow, forced his way into the Georgian parliament in Tbilisi, brandishing a red rose and screaming “Resign!” at his former benefactor, President Eduard Shevardnadze, who, ignoring the revolution happening outside, was busy welcoming in a questionably elected parliament. Since then, Saakashvili, known to friends and foes alike as Misha, has kept storming into places.
An indefatigable modernizer, Misha ran around the country, busting corrupt and loafing officials, driving race cars and tractors, opening and closing enterprises, and bulldozing over everything that stood in his way, be it enemies or buildings. And he went about it with his trademark goofy giggles and out-of-control forelock. His outsized personality dominated Georgian politics for a decade, making for what might be called the Age of Misha.
To remember this era, we have, with contributions from readers, compiled a list of what might be termed the top-five styles of Misha. Even with a new president to be elected in Georgia's October 27 elections, he will not easily be forgotten.
Russia's food safety czar has again claimed that a U.S.-funded biological research lab is in fact a secret bioweapons facility, and has warned that imports of Georgian food to Russia could be in danger if Georgia does not shut down the facility.
This is of course not the first time that chief sanitary inspector Gennady Onishchenko has made such a claim, issuing a similar threat in July. In between then and now he's been busy warning of the health dangers of other products like Moldovan wine and Lithuanian cheese. But he hasn't forgotten about the biolab -- known formally as the Richard G. Lugar Center for Public Health Research -- and the grave threat it poses to Russia. He addressed the issue again on Monday:
"We are pointing out again that we are extremely concerned about the activity of the laboratory that the Georgian authorities are not in control of," Gennady Onishchenko said.
"According to our estimates, the laboratory is an important element of the offensive part of the US military-biological potential," the Head of the Russian Service on Surveillance for Consumer Rights Protection said...
Georgian soldiers disembark at the Manas Transit Center, in Kyrgyzstan, after a charter flight from Tbilisi. They will spend about two days at the airbase before deploying to Afghanistan on a US Air Force jet. With over 1,500 soldiers on the ground, Georgia is the largest non-NATO contributor to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).
David Trilling is EurasiaNet's Central Asia editor.
Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili meets NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen in Tbilisi in June, 2013. (photo: NATO)
Since the election last year of Bidzina Ivanishvili as Georgia's prime minister, the Kremlin seems to have taken a wait-and-see approach to Georgia's new government. Ivanishvili came to power with a promise to repair relations with Russia by changing the tone -- but not necessarily the substance -- of Tbilisi's foreign policy. Specifically, Ivanishvili and his government have sworn that their dedication to gaining NATO membership -- the crux of Moscow's conflict with Tbilisi -- remains unchanged. Russian officials have been relatively quiet about that for the year since Ivanishvili's election, but in an interview with Russia Direct, Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin made it clear that it does not see Ivanishvili as an ally, and remains concerned about Georgia's relations with NATO.
The ongoing discussion of Georgia's accession to NATO causes legitimate concerns for us, and political changes in Tbilisi do not give any reason for the softening of our position in this issue. NATO perspective would lead to increased tension in the South Caucasus and would have serious consequences for geopolitical stability in the region.
Besides this, Georgian membership would have a negative impact on the entire range of relations between Russia and the alliance. We hope that NATO members take the most responsible approach to the issue. In relations with Tbilisi, they should focus their efforts on promoting stability and security in the region, including, of course, peaceful coexistence of Georgia with its neighbors, especially with Abkhazia and South Ossetia.