People & Power

Georgia: Corridor of power

Can the Republic of Georgia remain aloof from Russian expansionism or will internal division drag it towards conflict?

Despite its favourable geographical situation at the gate of both Europe and Asia, 23 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Republic of Georgia still struggles to assert itself as a modern democracy.

Recently, the country has grown concerned about neighbouring Russia’s territorial ambitions; not surprising perhaps given what has been happening in nearby Ukraine over the past year and Georgia’s own unsuccessful war with Russia in 2008.

Yet from the outside, it appears that Georgia’s ability to respond strongly to these external events is being undermined by bitter internal divisions.

Filmmaker Glenn Ellis travelled across Georgia for People & Power to assess some of the fault lines running through the country: from anxiety about the dominant political role of a powerful oligarch and allegations of human rights abuses by a former government, to the secessionist pressures of two breakaway regions and the strategic implications of a new Trans-Caucasian gas pipeline.

Filmmaker’s view

By Glenn Ellis

With its striking mix of orthodox churches and galleried houses of a distinctly Asiatic design, the old quarter of Georgia’s capital Tbilisi makes it hard to pin down exactly where you are; Europe or Asia. Sitting at the crossroads of these two great continents, the country’s position on the map has always been a mixed blessing; the famous Silk Road brought wealth, but also invaders – most recently the Russian Army.

“Georgia’s like a toilet,” Nika, my fixer, tells me as we set off for the South Ossetian border, “… it’s always occupied.”

South Ossetia is one of two breakaway republics which lie like open wounds on Georgia’s northern flank, de-facto Russian protectorates recognised by no one but each other and Moscow and consequent of Georgia’s brief and unsuccessful war with Russia in 2008.

In Dvani, Julieta Mekarishvili was ordered to demolish the home she had been planning to pass on to her children [Al Jazeera]

We arrive at the village of Gugutiankari an hour from the capital, which is split down the middle by razor wire. From a dugout a small escort of Georgian soldiers leads us to the red line where they smoke cigarettes and pull plums from a tree in a long abandoned garden. One of them points to Russian video cameras attached to trees beyond the wire and then to a lookout post on a slight rise where a uniformed figure watches us through binoculars. It is like a scene from a Cold War movie.

Gugutiankari is a pretty village in the foothills of the North Caucasus mountains, with small vineyards and apple orchards, a quiet backwater until eight years ago when it became the front line in Russia’s most recent incursion into Georgia. As we wander around, an old man beckons to us from a ruined building. Amiran Gugutishvili wants us to see what used to be his home. It must have been a grand place once, with large gracious rooms, a wide staircase and a porch.

“I wouldn’t wish this on anyone,” he tells us, reliving the day that Russian soldiers torched the place. “I am half the person I was.” He presses apples on me as we leave, so many I can barely carry them. It’s a typically generous gesture, one of the many acts of kindness I’m to experience from ordinary Georgians.

A few miles on we reach Dvani another village on the red line. Not satisfied with the one fifth of Georgian territory they already occupy, last autumn the Russian army began a slow creeping advance, swallowing houses and farmland in its wake, erecting a new security fence far south of the accepted 2008 ceasefire line which has dissected several communities.

We had come to meet Julieta Mekarishvili who had been ordered to demolish the home she had been planning to pass on to her children. “I lived there for many years,” she said. “My family built it.” But Julieta lost the house, two acres of farmland and an orchard in what has been dubbed Russia’s ‘borderisation’ programme, which came to a sudden halt earlier this year as the Ukrainian crisis intensified.

Next on my list is the village of Kirabali where I had heard that villagers were being kidnapped and held to ransom by Russian soldiers. This seemed a little improbable but within five minutes of arrival we had met three locals who said they had been held hostage and released only after their families had paid a ransom. “I was in the forest,” says Shaliko Papitashvili, pointing to wooded hills beyond some empty pastures to the north, “it was in March. I was collecting firewood. And there was a major, who arrested me. I was just going home when he caught me. He took handcuffs and told me to put them on.”

Another adversary

You might think these rather ominous episodes would have been a top priority for the current Georgian government, especially given Russia’s behaviour in Ukraine over the past year. But you’d be wrong. For most of the last two years, its attention has instead been focused on another adversary – the previous Georgian administration; most specifically dozens of senior politicians from that government whom it has accused of human rights violations. These allegations, the authorities say, are backed up by chilling footage filmed by a prison guard showing inmates being tortured, allegedly on the orders of the former regime’s interior ministry.

Following the release in 2012 of this grizzly video, mass protests on the streets of the capital dealt a fatal blow to the then ruling party, the United National Movement, and former President Mikheil Saakashvili. His government was subsequently routed in two elections, one parliamentary and one presidential, by the Georgian Dream Coalition, the brainchild of the country’s richest man, Bidzana Ivanishvili, an oligarch who made billions in Russia and whose wealth is estimated to be equivalent to be half of Georgia’s entire GDP.

Ivanishvili held the post of prime minister for a year before stepping down last November and handing the job to a trusted business associate; but few in Tbilisi doubt he remains in the driving seat. Meanwhile Saakashvili, a darling of the West for most of his 10 years in office, is now in self-imposed exile in the US, a wanted man in his own country and a very vocal critic of his rival’s reaction to Russian ambitions.

The very fact that the country is governed by somebody who is not in official office and therefore lacks any accountability is also a big challenge, because it’s his assistants who are running the country without him being held accountable to the public.

by Giga Bokeria, former secretary of the National Security Council

It is early morning when we arrive at the Tbilisi headquarters of the United National Movement, a curiously futuristic looking structure. Here I meet with Giga Bokeria, former secretary of the National Security Council, one of the few former opposition figures not in jail. He is scathing about the ‘vendetta politics’ of Ivanishvili and the current regime, which he says has left Georgia dangerously exposed to its northern neighbour.

“It’s a threat to our very statehood and sovereignty,” he tells me. “The weaker Georgian democracy will be, the weaker the institutions will be – it’s easier to create trouble from the north.”

But isn’t the current government just as wary of this threat? I ask.

“I’m not sure that the new leadership, or to be more precise the oligarch, accept this as a challenge. And the very fact that the country is governed by somebody who is not in official office and therefore lacks any accountability is also a big challenge, because it’s his assistants who are running the country without him being held accountable to the public.”

As we leave, Bokeria tells me that he too is under investigation; charges against the individuals in the previous administration include torture, corruption and abuse of power.

We go to speak with the government. Alex Petriashvili is the minister for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration, an unwieldy title for a brief which, according to his department’s website, is about “deepening Georgia’s cooperation with the EU and NATO and facilitating the political, legal, military, economic and cultural integration.”

“I don’t want to go into the numbers,” the minister tells me. “But I know that there are 29,000 files in the prosecutor’s office regarding abusing, torture and forceful granting of private properties in favour of other individuals or in favour of the state. The easiest way for our government would be to pardon what has been done before by the previous government and guarantee that whatever we do in government we will be pardoned too when the next political force comes. But we want to stop elite corruption.”

Ironically, his ministry was set up by Saakashvili some 10 years ago, part of his policy to prize Georgia from the Russian sphere of influence. Now some are concerned that the oligarch Bidzana Ivanishvili, the power behind the current administration, is too close to the Kremlin.

It’s a charge the minister is keen to brush aside.

“He is a true patriot,” Petriashvili tells me. “He has proved this by pushing through the Association Agreement with Europe. He has his vision of how Georgia will become part of the European Union and how we can get closer to the Euro-Atlantic community.”

So, I ask, doesn’t the current worsening situation on the South Ossetian border put all this in jeopardy?

“Georgia is considered like Ukraine and other former Soviet republics as the backyard of the Russian Federation by the Russian leadership, so it’s purely a provocation when we see the new barbed wire fences erected on sovereign Georgian territories – I call it an occupation line. They are behaving like Caribbean pirates.”

On the face of it, then both government and opposition seem to agree that a wary eye should be kept on Russian manoeuvring. But the challenges aren’t all to the north.

Heading south

Next morning we leave Tbilisi and head south towards Javakheti, a spectacularly stunning plateau on the border with Armenia. It is cold at this altitude and the only activity in the windswept fields seems to be the harvesting of potatoes by head-scarfed babushkas as we make for Akhalkalaki, the regional administrative centre.

Route of the Baku to Kars railway [Al Jazeera]

I have come to this remote part of Georgia because two massive projects must pass through this region – projects that could potentially worsen relations with Russia still further. First there’s a new South Caucasus gas pipeline which when fully operational will carry gas from Azerbaijan through Georgia directly to energy hungry western Europe, by passing Russia and potentially undermining Moscow’s current leverage over European states.

Secondly, there is the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway, which will follow a similar path to the gas pipeline. Dubbed the ‘Iron Silk road’ this is the first ever trans-Caucasian railway not under Russian control. Set to open in 2015, it will give China direct access to Europe with an estimated $75bn trade flow, again completely sidestepping Russia which has previously had a monopoly on rail freight from Asia to the West.

Both initiatives are welcomed back in Tbilisi, because they will further cement Georgia to the west, but there’s a snag; Javakheti’s predominantly ethnic Armenian population is very pro-Russian and far from happy about either of these new developments.

Off the record, I was told by local leaders that the thought of gas coming from Azerbaijan and passing through Javakheti is an anathema – currently relations between Azerbaijan and Armenia could hardly be worse as a result of the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. And as for the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway: as the name suggests, the new rail link will connect Tbilisi not only with Baku but also with Kars in Turkey.

Next year will be the anniversary of the (1915) Armenian genocide which Turkey still denies. There is a widespread fear here that a rail network giving Turkey access to the heart of a large Armenian community is a strategic blunder.

According to Davit Rstakyan, an ethnic Armenian politician I met, “The Turks have not changed. They still don’t recognise the fact of the genocide. Everyone knows that this happened, but they still don’t admit it and this means that they have not changed; and in future Armenians and Georgians could be destroyed again. Because of this, we have much to fear.”

This may seem a somewhat alarmist view, but it’s a common one. It also plays into wider fears that local culture is being gradually being eroded and the community marginalised. People here point to the fact that all official business is conducted in the Georgian language, though few ethnic Armenians understand it.

Indeed Russian is more widely spoken and consequently many look back fondly on the Soviet Union. Along with the geopolitical undercurrents of the new railway and gas pipeline it is understandable why some feel that Javakheti could be a potential flashpoint in the years ahead.

While amongst the Armenians I spoke to there was no appetite for confrontation with the authorities in Tbilisi, in these febrile times the Georgian government would do well to listen to those concerns – and remember the country’s place on the map.