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Georgia: Another Messiah

30 October 2013

Georgia: Another Messiah

By Gwynne Dyer

“My work here is done,” said the masked man, as he mounted his horse and rode away. But he didn’t go very far away.

Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili of Georgia doesn’t actually wear a mask, but he is mysterious enough without one. It’s never been quite clear how he got so rich – his fortune is estimated at $6.4 billion, about a third of the entire country’s annual GDP – but the real puzzle is his motives and goals. Why did he bother to become prime minister at all if he was planning to quit after only one year?

He returned home only ten years ago, after twenty years in Moscow. He built a huge and spectacular mansion in the hills above Tbilisi, the capital, and began doing good by stealth. The small Transcaucasian republic was near economic collapse at the time, and he quietly subsidised beloved Georgian artists and actors who could not make ends meet.

At one point Ivanishvili even paid the salaries of state employees when the government could not, and it has recently emerged that he paid for the massive new cathedral that now adorns the city centre. He clearly disliked the country’s president, Mikheil Saakashvili, but he shunned politics and mostly stayed out of sight on his secluded estate like a James Bond villain, stroking his tame zebras in lieu of the statutory evil cat.

Then, eighteen months ago, he formed a political party that quickly combined with others to form the Georgian Dream coalition. Last October it won a sweeping victory in the parliamentary elections and Ivanishvili became prime minister. On Monday his candidate, Giorgi Margvelashvili, replaced Saakashvili as president and his triumph was complete. So now he is going to quit.

Two months ago Ivanishvili announced that he would retire as prime minister as soon as Margvelashvili was installed in the presidency. Some other member of the Georgian Dream coalition will take over as prime minister, while Ivanshvili devotes himself to “strengthening civil society in Georgia as a private citizen.” Georgians must not think of him as a messiah, he says.

There have certainly been too many messiahs in Georgia’s recent history. After the old Soviet Union broke up in 1991 the first president of independent Georgia was Zviad Gamsakhurdia, a former dissident and ethnic nationalist who led the country into a civil war. Georgia lost control of the ethnic minority regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia under his rule, and he ended up shooting himself when surrounded by hostile militia troops.

Next came Eduard Shevardnadze, an old Communist apparatchik (he spent six years as the Soviet Union’s foreign minister) who had once gained fame as an anti-corruption crusader. Back home, however, he presided over one of the most corrupt regimes in the world. His inner circle wound up controlling about 70 percent of the country’s economy, while most ordinary Georgians continued to live in wretched poverty.

The last messiah was Mikheil Saakashvili, who launched the non-violent “Rose Revolution” and restored democracy to Georgia in 2003. But Saakashvili also started and lost a war against Russia over breakaway South Ossetia in 2008.

The Georgian economy more than doubled in size during his decade in power, but at least a quarter of the population lives in extreme poverty and unemployment remains above 15 percent. When people protested about his policies, they were met with violence and repression – so when Ivanishvili gave them a plausible alternative, they flocked to his banner.

Ivanishvili has never offered a coherent plan for Georgia or even very distinctive policies; Georgians appear to have chosen him as the next messiah simply because he has a lot of money and seems to be generous with it. And it doesn’t bother them where it comes from.

Ivanishvili made his fortune in the chaotic decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and like all the other “oligarchs” who emerged in Russia at that time the exact route he took on his rise to great wealth remains obscure. All of them did it by privatising former state companies or property into their own pockets at derisory prices, but just how they managed that is rarely explained, and would usually not bear close inspection.

Never mind all that. Ivanishvili is the only Georgian billionaire, and his wealth and wisdom will save us all. In Monday’s election, his presidential candidate got 62 percent of the vote, compared to only 22 percent for the candidate chosen by the last messiah. (Saakashvili could not run for president again himself, having served two full terms.)

Ivanishvili’s decision to retire from high political office himself is less quixotic than it seems. He’s not actually relinquishing power: with loyal placemen in both the presidency and the prime minister’s office – president-elect Giorgi Margvelashvili said that he would always listen to his “authoritative friend” – he can continue to dominate affairs without having to take any personal responsibility if things go wrong.

Money doesn’t talk; it gives commands. And it doesn’t really do democracy, either: Ivanishvili’s government has already begun arresting Saakashvili’s former ministers on various charges, and the ex-messiah himself can probably expect the same treatment once he leaves the presidency. Salvation for Georgia is still not at hand.


To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 7, 8 and 12. (“There have…poverty”; and “Ivanishvili made…inspection”)



Here Come the Islamist Nuclear Terrorists!

8 November 2010

Here Come the Islamist Nuclear Terrorists!

By Gwynne Dyer

You probably noticed reports recently about the secret trial in Georgia of two Armenian men who tried to sell highly enriched uranium (HEU) to a man purporting to be an Islamist terrorist. The apparent buyer was actually an undercover policeman and the whole thing was a sting operation from start to finish, but it offers some interesting insights into the current state of play in the world of counter-terrorism.

The would-be sellers of the HEU were two naive losers, a 63-year-old failed businessman called Sumbat Tonoyan who had gambled his money away and a 59-year-old physicist named Hrant Obanyan who was chronically ill. They both wanted to score a big win in order to finance their retirement, and they fell right into the Georgian police trap.

A petty criminal called Garik Dadayan first approached Obanyan in 2002 with a packet of metallic powder, asking whether it was highly enriched uranium. Obanyan, a scientist at the Yerevan Physics Institute, confirmed that it was uranium though he could not say how enriched it was – and Dadayan was subsequently arrested trying to cross the frontier into Georgia with 200 grams (about 7 oz.) of HEU.

Dadayan was out of jail again by 2005, so Obanyan knew where to go when his friend Tonoyan suggested that they could make a fortune by peddling HEU to terrorists. Dadayan told them that he had friends in Russia who could supply them with unlimited amounts of HEU, and suggested that they start by finding a buyer and selling him a sample amount of, say, 100 grams. The poor fools believed him.

It’s almost certain that Dadayan was working for the Georgian intelligence service by this time (how else would he get out of jail so fast?). The fact that in the end he only gave them 18 grams (half an ounce) of HEU to take to Georgia reinforces that suspicion. And of course it was the Georgian police who supplied the “buyer”, a Turkish-speaking undercover policeman who said he was in the market for nuclear material on behalf of “serious people.”

Last March the two mugs took the night train from Yerevan to Tbilisi, with the 18 gms. of HEU hidden in a cigarette box that was lined with lead strips to fool the American-supplied radiation detectors at the border. When Tonoyan showed up at a Tbilisi hotel the next day to close the sale (he was asking $50,000 per gram), the police filmed the whole transaction and then arrested him and his partner-in-crime.

Georgia’s motivation in all this is clear. Prime Minister Mikheil Saakashvili is trying to rebuild the close relationship he used to have with the United States before his rash failed attempt to seize South Ossetia by force in 2008. He will do anything he can do to make himself useful to the American intelligence services, and this serves that purpose.

Why do the US intelligence services want to emphasise the risk of nuclear material falling into the wrong hands? Because that would be a bad thing, of course, but also to underline the fact that thwarting nuclear terrorism is entirely a job for the intelligence services.

The alleged threat of nuclear terrorism is used to justify the whole US policy of invading countries that might provide “bases” for such terrorist attacks. It was the main (although utterly false) justification for the US invasion of Iraq, and it continues to be used to justify American threats to attack Iran. But what do the intelligence people want us to conclude from this episode? That the US should invade Armenia? Obviously not.

They want us to conclude that the military should not be allowed anywhere near counter-terrorist operations, partly because the tools they use – infantry, artillery, etc. – are entirely inappropriate for the job, and partly because invading countries tends to radicalise people and turn them into your enemies.

The little show-and-tell in Georgia serves the purposes of the more intelligent American intelligence officers, who know that the military must be excluded from their operations but have trouble in fending them off. It also helps to justify their budgets, although the threat they are seeking to protect us from is smaller than they claim.

It is smaller because it is almost inconceivable that terrorists could assemble a weapon that would result in an actual nuclear explosion. The technologies needed are just too challenging, and the amount of highly enriched uranium needed is too large: around 50 kg. (110 lbs.), or 2,500 times the amount that the Armenian pair were trying to sell.

A “dirty bomb” that just spreads radioactive material over some part of a city is more feasible, but also far less dangerous. It would cause widespread panic and make that district inaccessible for a time, but a well-placed car bomb would probably kill more people.

Never mind. I’m happy to have them play their intelligence games, because it just might prevent something like a “dirty bomb” from exploding in an American city. If that did happen, the popular pressure on President Obama to invade some other Muslim country would be well-nigh irresistible. That’s not what we need right now.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9, 12 and 13. (“The alleged…not”; and “It is…people”)

History and Lies: Russia

27 June 2010

History and Lies

By Gwynne Dyer

The Georgians took down the last statue of Stalin last week. There used to be thousands of such statues all across the old Soviet Union, but the Communists themselves tore almost all of them down after the great dictator and mass murderer died in 1953. They left the one in Gori, in northern Georgia, because that’s where he was born and the locals were still proud of him.

Even after Georgia got its independence in 1991, the six-metre (20-foot-high) statue of Stalin continued to stand in Gori. But now, just when you might think that the Georgians would be starting to approve of Stalin – after all, he was responsible for the deaths of more Russians than any other Georgian, or indeed anybody else – they go and tear his statue down.

They’re planning to replace it with a monument to “victims of the Russian aggression” in the 2008 war, so the history they’re peddling in Gori will still be based on lies. (It was Georgia that started the war with
Russia in 2008.) But the bigger lies will be told in Russia, and they will be told mainly about Stalin.

Two weeks ago, a group of politicians and academics met in Moscow’s main library to discuss how to make Russians proud of their history. The answer? Get an upbeat history book into the schools. “(The book) should not be a dreary look at or apology for what was done,” explained Prof. Leonid Polyakov of the Higher School of Economics.

The politicians were from Vladimir Putin’s United Russia Party, and they wanted the academics to come up with a single history textbook for use in all Russian schools. It should downplay the crimes and
failures of seventy-four years of Communist rule – the purges, the mass deportations, the famines, the gulags – and concentrate on the glorious epic of the Soviet victory in the Second World War. Which means they must rehabilitate Stalin.

Rewriting the history books is not a Russian monopoly. The Texas Board of Education recently caused a great furore by deciding that its history textbooks should show that the founding fathers of the United States, and the authors of its constitution, intended America to be a Christian nation, not a country committed to the separation of church and state. Even that is an easier job than making Stalin look good, but it can be done.

Start with the proposition that the Soviet Union played a key role in defeating Hitler (true), and that the war was a heroic victory against great odds (false). This is the first place where you wind up having to
give Stalin some credit, because he was definitely the man in command throughout the war.

Then, to justify the terrible cost of the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 and the subsequent civil war, and to slide past the purges and famines of the 1930s, you have to argue that those horrors were what allowed the miracle of high-speed industrialisation that laid the groundwork for a Soviet victory in the war. Once again, Comrade Stalin gets the credit, for the industrialisation happened on his watch.

It’s all lies and distortion. The Soviet Union’s population was twice that of Nazi Germany, and its industrial power and technology were not significantly inferior. If Stalin had not murdered most of the Red Army’s senior officers in the purges of the late 30s, and if he had not stupidly let himself be surprised by the German invasion, the war would not have lasted so long and killed so many Russians.

As for the alleged miracle of rapid industrialisation, it was only needed because most existing Russianindustry was destroyed by the revolution and the civil war: industrial output in 1922 was only 13% of thatin 1914. If there had been no revolution and no Stalin, and Russia had just started growing again after the First World War at the same rate as other capitalist countries, it would have been far too strong by 1941 for Hitler to dream of attacking it.

Russia’s history in the 20th century was an unmitigated and unnecessary disaster: the first half tragic and very bloody, the second half merely impoverished and oppressive. Even today, Russia has not
regained the rank among the developed countries that it held a century ago. What can one do with such a history but deny and rewrite it?

One can tell the truth. Germany’s 20th-century history was also terrible, and Germans had to bear a burden of historical guilt for harming others far heavier than anything Russians should feel for the crimes of their own imperial past. If today’s Germans can see their past with clear eyes and still feel pride in their present and hope for their future, why can’t the Russians?

It’s not a lost cause. There have been some encouraging instances recently of Russians facing up to the less proud bits of their history, like Prime Minister Putin’s attendance at the ceremony commemorating the Soviet massacre of Polish prisoners in Katyn forest in 1940, and President Dmitry Medvedev’s condemnation of Stalin for “mass crimes against his own people.”

But the omens are not good. If the Georgians no longer need that statue of Stalin, maybe there’s a market for it in Russia.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 13. (“Re-writing…done”; and “It’s not…people”)

A Year After: The South Ossetian War

1 August 200 9

A Year After: The South Ossetian War

By Gwynne 20Dyer

A year ago this week, Georgia attacked Russia. It was like Jamaica attacking the United States. It was such a foolish and foredoomed act that at first most people believed the Georgian propaganda blaming it all on the Russians. Surely Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili wouldn’t do something so utterly stupid. But he did – and he lost, of course.

There are two hang-overs from the week-long war that still have not cleared up, however. One is the lingering impression in the West, left over from the way that Western media reported the conflict at the time, that the “Russian bear” has turned nasty and expansionist. The other is a promise to Georgia that should never have been made.

In the year since the war, it has become clear that the Georgian attack, which sought to regain control of the breakaway territory of South Ossetia, was planned well in advance. The Russians only responded after their peacekeeping troops in South Ossetia came under Georgian attack, but the Georgians won the propaganda battle.

Saakashvili painted the Russians as evil aggressors, relying on Cold War stereotypes: “Russia’s war on Georgia echoes events in Finland in 1939, Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968,” he told the Washington Post in August, 2008. It fitted Western preconceptions, so the media went along with it.

So did US presidential candidate John McCain, condemning Russia’s “violent aggression” and claiming that “Russian actions, in clear violation of international law, have no place in 21st century Europe.” Barack Obama was more circumspect, but in the midst of an election campaign he chose not to expose his flank to the Cold Warriors of the Republican Party by openly challenging their version of events.

The other problem, from a European perspective, was US President George W. Bush’s push to get Georgia and another former Soviet republic, Ukraine, admitted to the NATO alliance. These countries are to the south of Russia, not between it and Western Europe, and bringing them into the Western alliance would alarm and alienate the Russians. Yet there is no practical way that NATO could defend them if they got into a fight with the Russians.

Indeed, this concern may have been the main motive behind the creation of a European Union commission to investigate the origins of the war. The commission is led by Swiss diplomat Heidi Tagliavini, who has served in the area as an observer, and it has been gathering evidence for almost a year now. If its conclusions blame the war on Georgia, as seems likely, they will not be unwelcome in Brussels.

Some of those conclusions were leaked last spring to the German newsmagazine “Der Spieg el”, and they support the contention that Georgia deliberately concentrated its troops and launched a surprise attack on South Ossetia, with the aim of seizing control of the province before Russia could respond.

Between 16,000 and 20,000 Georgian troops, all equipped with modern US weapons, attacked the South Ossetian militia and about 1,000 Russian peacekeeping troops who were stationed there on the night of 7 August. Even the Georgian “peacekeeping” battalion that was also stationed in the province took part in the attack. The local capital, Tskhinvali, fell into Georgian hands within hours, and dozens of Russian troops were killed or injured.

Moscow responded quickly, and a large Russian force, including heavy armour, was sent south from the Russian province of North Ossetia through the tunnel under the main Caucasus range (which the Georgians had failed to secure) on 8 August. In one more day Georgian troops had been driven out of South Ossetia, and the Russians even followed them some distance into Georgia proper before withdrawing again at the end of the month.

Erosi Kitsmarishvili, Georgia’s former ambassador to Moscow and a former confidant of Saakashvili’s, testified to the Georgian parliament last November that Georgian officials told him in April 2008 that they planned to start a war to recover Abkhazia, one of Georgia’s two breakaway regions, and had 20received a green light from the United States government to do so. He said the Georgian government later decided to start the war in South Ossetia, the other region, and continue into Abkhazia.

Both the evidence of observers on the ground and the testimony of disillusioned Georgian officials like Kitsmarishvili are driving the EU commission towards the conclusion that Russia merely responded to the Georgian aggression. It will be helpful to have an authoritative Western body acknowledge that Russia has not undergone some fundamental change of strategy.

The EU commission, whose report has been postponed until next month, will not formally recommend against Georgia joining NATO, but the implication there will also be clear. Nobody really believed that NATO would ever fight World War Three to save Georgia, even it were the innocent victim of Russian aggression, but by attacking Russia Saakashvili got everybody off the hook.

Retired British army colonel Christopher Langton, Senior Fellow for Conflict and Defence Diplomacy at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, summed it up only weeks after the war. “Georgia’s dream is shattered, but the country can only blame itself for that.”


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 5. (“In the year…battle”; and “So did…events”)