I appreciate a sense of humour as much as anyone else. Recently I’ve run across a whole new group of very funny people, who seem to favour the kind of gentle self-mockery I enjoy. They’re called the Jamestown Foundation. If you’re new to this group, you should check them out. A quick skim of current material on the site will invest you with the sense that their logo, “Information without Political Agenda” is quite a bit like Krispy-Kreme printing, “Food without Fat or Sugar” on their doughnut boxes.
Take the article entitled, “Georgia’s Focus on Regional Cooperation: Modernization by Example and Engagement”, for example. Evidence of a certain stubborn mindset is apparent in the opening sentence; “Despite the Russian invasion in August 2008 and the ongoing occupation of 20 percent of Georgian territory, Tbilisi focuses more on the future than anything else.” See what I mean? Does that sound agenda-free to you? After all, the European Union’s specially-commissioned report found “The war…was started by a Georgian attack that was not justified by International law…” a year ago. Both Abkhazia and South Ossetia have been de facto independent for nearly 20 years now. Did the Jamestown Foundation not get the memo? It seems more likely that it – like quite a few blogs that are not interested in politics the way Beethoven was not interested in music – has decided to ignore verdicts it doesn’t like. In fact, the Georgian Daily goes so far as to say, “South Ossetia…has a justifiable claim on the grounds of national self-determination: the idea that any nationality that sees itself as a nation should have the right to rule itself“. It appears to have been forgotten how Georgia achieved its own independence, and that nationalist movements on the part of both South Ossetia and Abkhazia started nearly simultaneously with Georgia’s own.
Well, let’s read on. According to memory-deficient Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili, “…true modernization is always coupled with political freedom…” Is that so? Wasn’t that true in November 2007, when Saakashvili unleashed riot police on demonstrators who posed no threat to public order, leaving dozens in hospital and declaring a state of emergency? Organizations like the Jamestown Foundation would have you believe that that was a long time ago – Saakashvili’s changed; matured, since then. These same organizations never hesitate to bring up Joseph Stalin (another Georgian) whenever they discuss Russia. Stalin died 57 years ago.
Saakashvili goes on to take credit for “spectacular reforms” in law enforcement, public services, education and the economy. The author reports that Georgia’s law enforcement reforms are widely talked-about in Russia; the cited reference does say Russians are impressed with how quickly Georgian-style reform can kick out a new driver’s license. I’d just make two minor observations: with the kind of money that’s been poured into Georgia to whip it into shape, it damned well should have resulted in some technological service-sector improvement. For another, the ability to quickly serve customers at the counter, while extremely welcome, really has little to do with the enforcement end of law enforcement.
Has Saakashvili improved law enforcement, really? Not as of a year ago, when he pardoned four interior ministry officials who were convicted of the torture and murder of banker Sandro Girgvliani – then denounced the pardon system only a week later for being soft on violent crime. Apparently not as of now, either, as USA Today’s “travel tips” section still rates crime in Tbilisi as “disproportionate to the level experienced in comparable European and American cities”. Similarly, Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade warns potential travelers “serious risk of violent crime against foreigners, including robberies, carjacking, sexual assault, home invasions and assaults occur throughout Georgia”. That doesn’t sound like the Georgia Saakashvili was talking about when he boasted (in London) that crime was so low in Georgia that poeople didn’t even lock their cars. Non-Government Organizations (NGO’s) Transparency International, the Human Rights Center, the International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy and the Georgian Young Lawyers Association jointly complained that cases move quickly if there is a high level of state interest; otherwise, they remain stalled for months. They offered as example complaints of intimidation of opposition activists by high-ranking members of the municipal government in Mestia. They pointed out that questioning of witnesses was not commenced until a month and a half following the complaint.
How about education? Doesn’t sound good. Forty-five teachers were recently fired - without cause, according to Human Rights Center - in the Kakheti region. The rectors of Telavi State University, Gori State University, Kutaisi State University and Ivane Javakisvili Tbilisi State University all resigned. Student enrollment shrunk from 700 to 70 pupils in Akhalgori district schools.
The economy? My favourite, not least because of Saakashvili’s wildly hyperbolic predictions. According to the CIA World Factbook, Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in Georgia declined following the global financial crisis, and the country is almost completely dependent on its neighbours for its energy needs. Its exports are heavily agrarian, and its industrial sector small. The slowing regional economy is an emerging risk, and Georgia ranks 121st among 227 countries in terms of GDP purchasing power – behind countries like the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Botswana. In the last few days, Georgia abruptly cancelled a planned visit by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, saying that it simply could not afford the cost of hosting the event.
It might seem that I’m beating up on Misha and the Georgians unfairly, but that’s not the case. I’ve said before that Mikheil Saakashvili is a bright guy, and he is. Unfortunately, he’s also his own worst enemy, because of his tendency to simply spout off crazy predictions which haven’t a chance of coming true – but which his trusting people fully expect him to deliver and which the dozy western media uncritically report as if they were achievable, praising him for his “bold vision”. It isn’t hard to have “bold vision” when it consists only of telling people that things are going to be better than they could ever imagine, any moment now, when you haven’t a clue how that’s going to take place. Examples are his prediction (based on forecast performance that has never been achieved by anyone) that Georgian tourism will grow to 10 million visitors by 2015, and his continued repetition of the claim that Transparency International reported Georgia had made the most progress of any country in the last 5 years at fighting corruption – a claim Transparency International has disavowed and asked him to stop saying.
Of late, Mr. Saakashvili has refused to rule out running for Prime Minister when his term as president runs out. When Vladimir Putin did that, you could hear the gnashing of teeth from the Jamestown Foundation and its sponsored organizations at pretty much any point on the planet. If Saakashvili does it, the western perception is likely to be extremely different. And I have no doubt that he will somehow be elected to that office if he chooses to run for it, despite his support currently running at around 26%.
Update: The Georgian International Media Center has objected to the characterization of student enrollment in Akhalgori district schools, suggesting that enrollment has dropped drastically due to ethnic cleansing and expulsion of Georgian families in the area. There is also the issue of unexploded submunitions in the area, remaining from the use of cluster munitions by both sides in 2008. On follow-up, there appears to be substance to GIMC’s claim. The report by Human Rights Watch is here. In many cases the acts of ethnic cleansing were initiated by South Ossetian militias, but Russia has a direct responsibility as peacekeeper (I object to the term, “Occupying Power”, as the deployment of Russian troops as peacekeepers was agreed with Tbilisi long before the 2008 attack) to ensure such actions result in arrest and punishment as decided by a legitimate court of law, and to guard against their repetition. In some cases Russian forces were alleged to have participated, or to have acted as passive facilitators by failing to intervene or by even providing transport to militias. These acts, if they can be proven, are criminal, and reflect badly on Russia as the presence responsible for law and order. Additional substantiation of GIMC’s claim is here and here.
Both sides used cluster munitions, although only Georgia admitted to so doing. These weapons present a continuing danger to civlians long after conflict has ended, and both countries should be urged to join those who ban their use by their militaries. Although effective for denial of large areas to ground troops, they are a cheap and dirty weapon whose use makes achievement of recognized and acknowledged military victory impossible.
Both initiatives (complaint regarding past and present conduct by peacekeeping forces in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, together with their failure to provide law and order to all inhabitants of disputed territory, and continued use of cluster munitions which threaten the civilian population long after the war is over) should be directed to the attention of the Prime Minister of the Russian Federation. His website is here, but unfortunately does not provide a contact option. If Russia is interested in establishing its credentials as a reliable regional influence in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, it has an absolute obligation to safeguard the lives, dignity and property of residents regardless their nationality, and to permit circumstances to be otherwise is unacceptable.
Update 2: From reader Giuseppe Flavio comes a report that casts doubt on Human Rights Watch’s accusation against Russia of using cluster munitions. Photographic evidence suggests the munitions cited by HRW as evidence are actually Israeli in origin, and were used by Georgian forces. HRW reported that Georgia admitted to using cluster munitions, while Russia did not. Well, one possible explanation is that they didn’t. Even observers with no weapons training can see that the rocket remnants in the photo differ greatly from the Russian free-fall cluster munition delivery vehicle. The Georgian forces received extensive training, assistance and perhaps encouragement from the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) leading up to the Georgian attack; this is a matter of record.
I maintain that both sides should altogether abandon the use of cluster munitions, but it now looks considerably less likely that Russia actually used them in the conflict with Georgia. The other matter of Russia’s responsibility to the civilian population as a peacekeeper remains unresolved to the best of my understanding.