Georgian Reflections

My readers will have observed that I talk about Georgia a lot when ostensibly talking about Russia. There’s a reason: for two decades Georgia has been the favourite stick with which to beat Russia; for two decades we have been told Moscow is trying to eat Georgia; for two decades Georgia has been the contrast to illustrate what Russia could be if it weren’t so Russian; for two decades Georgia has been painted as the victim of Moscow’s worst impulses; for two decades Westerners have believed everything from Tbilisi and nothing from Moscow. A cornerstone of the anti-Russia edifice indeed and the “mine canary” of Russian intentions.

For two decades Russia has been interpreted through memes; assumptions deemed so true as to need no evidence; assumptions that reveal the facts that prove them; assumptions so resistant to reality that they create reality; assumptions that are non-falsifiable. Of the many memes three important ones are: Moscow wants its empire back; Moscow wants to control energy routes; Moscow hates democracies. Georgia was the perfect demonstration: formerly part of that empire, it had a pipeline route and was a stout democracy. QED. Facts were hammered to fit the memes. I have set the larger argument out in The Fire Below ($10 e-book). (Here)

We were told three things about Saakashvili’s Georgia (Shevardnadze, fêted in his day as a great democrat, was immediately forgotten). It was a true democracy improving in all ways, as true democracies should, not least economically; Saakashvili had courageously taken a serious bite at corruption; Georgia was a true ally of the West – worthy indeed of NATO membership and a proud contributor to the War on Terror. These Georgian merits were contrasted with Russian deficiencies: Georgia was a democracy, Russia wasn’t; Georgia was overcoming corruption, Russia was sunk in it; Georgia was an ally, Russia was an enemy, of us but especially of our new Georgian friend. Western media, Western politicians lapped this stuff up.

Until August 2008. Many noticed that Moscow had its chance to do what it supposedly wanted to: its victorious army was on the ground; the Georgian army had fled; the West was flubbing. But it didn’t: didn’t seize Georgia, didn’t seize the pipeline, didn’t drive to Tbilisi and overthrow the government. The memes were shaken. The August 2008 War shattered Saakashvili’s veracity, bona fides and reliability. I and others have written much about this; three references will suffice. As the war changed from the expected victory march into a disaster, Saakashvili’s explanations became ever less credible. The US Embassy, despite a serious clue, swallowed Saakashvili’s story whole. Even the exquisitely precious EU report scoffed at Saakashvili’s stories. Altogether an embarrassing display of the West’s credulity and one better forgotten.

As it pretty well has been forgotten.

But the new government is proving to be a much more effective destroyer of Saakashvili’s cornerstone myths of democracy, anti-corruption and reliable ally. Based on the large opposition Saakashvili created over the years (his adulators seldom noticed how many former colleagues and allies had given up on him), members of the new government know reality better than Western consumers of Saakashvili’s propaganda. And ordinary Georgians, living in that reality, overwhelmingly support the new government and approve its actions as this poll, carried out in April by a Swedish organisation, shows.

Democracy. Objective observers had already observed the improbable turnout figures for Saakashvili’s first election after the “Rose Revolution”. The OSCE described enough finagling in its 2008 report to have given Saakashvili the three or four percentage points he needed to avoid a runoff election against a single opposition candidate. In a case that even the Saakashvili-worshiping media could not ignore, an anti-government demonstration was suppressed with far more violence (and a remarkable array of expensive technology, paid for by whom?) than we have ever seen in Moscow. Critical media outlets were squashed – in one famous case, by armed police in mid-broadcast. The media was tightly controlled. Georgia had political prisoners in its over-stuffed prisons. Not so “democratic” after all.

Corruption. Saakashvili eliminated the Soviet-era traffic police; an organisation that did little but extract bribes from drivers. A good step indeed. However, corruption exists in several forms. There is the low-level highly visible form of a traffic cop with his hand out but there is also the higher, more important but less visible, form of money disappearing at the top power levels. We are now hearing about this in Georgia. Saakashvili’s elaborate presidential palace is hardly appropriate for a poor country; neither are his personal expenses. Charges and arrests are coming: two of Saakashvili’s allies; the Mayor of Tbilisi; a governor. A couple of days ago the former Prime Minister and former Health Minister were arrested; the charges include election-fixing and several other crimes. There is a gigantic disparity between the claimed growth rate and the staggeringly high unemployment rate: the survey mentioned above has nearly 50% claiming to be unemployed and looking for work. I can think of only two ways high growth can be consistent with spectacular unemployment rates: either the growth is a façade of luxury hotels and other fripperies or corruption and cronyism have kept the money locked in a tiny group of connected people.

Ally. There have long been stories that Tbilisi was encouraging, training and/or hosting jihadists. A claimed conference in December 2009, Russian accusations; a former Georgian parliamentarian summing up more assertions. Formerly, I filed these away in the “possible but not proven” file. In August 2012 several Georgian soldiers were killed in a firefight; the official story was that it was an operation against kidnappers who had infiltrated from Dagestan in Russia. But today’s Public Defender has a different theory: he says the “armed group, involved in the clash, was formed, armed and trained by then leadership of the Georgian Interior Ministry, which recruited members of the group mainly from Chechen exiles by promising them to give free passage to Russia’s North Caucasus via Georgia.” Both Prime Minister Ivanishvili and the US Ambassador (made suddenly wiser by the Boston Marathon bombing) think this accusation should be investigated. Just what would such an investigation find? And, more interesting, would any of Saakashvili’s loyal sponsors in Washington have been aware of this?

And there are more questions still. Ivanishvili thinks the August 2008 war should be investigated; Saakashvili, of course, does not. Will the death of Zurab Zhvania be satisfactorily investigated? there are those who think he was murdered. Will we ever find out who paid for the significant number of weapons Georgia acquired under Saakashvili? (From Ukraine 12 2S3 152mm self-propelled guns, 40 BMP-2 IFVs, 23+ BTR-80 APCs, 6 Mi-24P/Mi-35P/Hind-F combat helicopters, 2 Mi-8/Mi-17/Hip-H Helicopters, 16 T-72 Tanks, 1 9K33 Osa/SA-8 Mobile SAM system, 48 9M33/SA-8 Gecko SAMs. It obtained from the Czech Republic, over the same time, 55 T-72 tanks, 24 Dana 152mm self-propelled guns, 6 RM-70 MRLs and 55 guns or large mortars.) None of these (well, OK, maybe the HIPs and BTRs) is appropriate to the alleged purpose of the US training scheme. Will we ever learn the inside details of the “Rose Revolution” that brought Saakashvili to power in the first place? And how about Georgia as a conduit of efforts to de-stabilise Russia? (Fanciful? Read this Dear Reader and ask yourself, if you think it credible: Georgia has no money, from where did it get the sums Lebedev is talking about?) It’s all melting away.

Washington’s schemes for Russia and its neighbours are not looking so good now. The “Orange Revolution” is dead and Ukraine will not be joining NATO (not that Ukrainians ever wanted to in the first place). The “Tulip Revolution” was always DOA. Putin turns out to have been telling the truth when he said Chechnya was a jihadist war. Russians still prefer Putin to the oppositionists by a substantial margin. Moscow has checkmated the foreign N“G”Os by replicating Washington’s own law designed at a time when powerful foreign interests were trying to sway American opinions. The Russian economy is still in business. Latest news suggests Washington has accepted Moscow’s line on Syria; namely that Assad and his government cannot be excluded if there are to be meaningful talks.

And Georgia’s “Rose Revolution” was a sham: not democratic, not incorruptible, not an ally. Believers were manipulated. As were the Georgians, who have had a pretty wretched time of it since 1989.



RUSSIAN MEDIA. Anatoly Karlin has opened a website translating stuff from the Russian media into English. It’s intended to counter the notion that Russian media is drearily pro-Putin and show its actual variety.

DIRECT LINE. Putin gave his annual marathon phone-in session a couple of weeks ago. Far too many questions of the nature “Little Father, my roof leaks, please repair it”. Two conclusions, I suppose. One is that Russians are most concerned with mundane issues (a large portion of which seem to involve unresponsive government structures) The other is that, despite the anti-Russia crowd’s conviction that he controls everything, Putin spends a lot of time pushing on ropes. There was a pretty frank explication of disagreements on economic strategy and a respectful exchange with Kudrin. Those who think these things are staged should read the exchange with Aleksey Venediktov who challenged Putin on “Stalinist control methods”. By the way, Venediktov seems to thrive despite the dark premonitions in this New Yorker piece from four years ago. Ah well, another prediction gone bad; never mind, no one remembers, time for another one.

OPPOSITION. An authorised opposition march on Moscow pulled 20K or so and passed off without incident. The anti-Russia mob likes to see the cause of the decline in protests as machinations of the evil government but a poll gives better guidance. Levada (no government stooge) asked its respondents which of 11 opposition leaders they trusted. 65% said “none” (8 points more than a year ago). None of the 11 got better than 3%. Yavlinskiy and Prokhorov warned them months ago that they had to come up with something more than mere opposition. They haven’t.

NAVALNIY TRIAL. Live coverage in English. Not many watching I’m told. Mind-numbing minutiae.

BEREZOVSKIY. Putin confirmed that he had received two letters. Asked what they said, all he would say is: “he wrote that he had made a lot of mistakes and caused great damage, and asked for forgiveness and the opportunity to return to his homeland… Some of my colleagues wanted me make the letter public immediately. I am very grateful to the Lord for keeping me from doing that.” I wish he had: there’s lots to be learned about Berezovskiy’s influence on a multitude of anti-Putin stories; Litvinenko and Politkovskaya in particular. Maybe if the Litvinenko inquest ever happens we will learn about his (extensive) involvement in that. We are told that the full investigation of his death could take another couple of months, although no suspicious circumstances have been found.

GOLOS. Golos continues to refuse to call itself a “foreign agent”. It has been fined and may be forced to close. Of course it could just agree that it is foreign-funded but evidently its principle seems to be that “human rights” organisations don’t have to obey the laws of the land in which they operate if they don’t want to. I have little sympathy with Golos and I do believe that “foreign agent” is an appropriate descriptor.

CORRUPTION INVESTIGATIONS. Fewer new ones started it seems; but there is a lot to digest already. The law Putin just signed prohibiting certain officials from holding foreign assets is also a move to reduce corruption.

SATISFACTION. A VTsIOM poll shows 77% of Russians satisfied with their lives. A somewhat similar question gets only 21% in the USA. No one would have expected this 10 years ago.

SPIES. True? False? Haven’t a clue. Strange story but the equally silly-sounding “spy rock case” did turn out to be true. Interesting that whatever it was seems to have concerned Chechnya and the North Caucasus. But Washington could have got good information closer to home from my colleague Gordon Hahn: everything he has been saying for years was validated in Boston.

SYRIA. Has Moscow won its point at last? Or is it just a change of command at the US State Department? Moscow has always called for no preconditions, while Washington and its followers have always insisted that Assad must go. Now Kerry and Lavrov have agreed to call for talks with the participation of the government. It won’t make any difference on the ground of course: the fantasy that outside powers have any influence short of joining in on one side is puzzling to me after so many disastrous interventions.

GEORGIA. I’ll be writing about this elsewhere but the question of whether Saakashvili was supporting jihadists against Russia has come up. From the PM no less. Even the US Ambassador thinks an investigation would be good. Of course the Boston bombing provides another learning experience for Washington.

© Patrick Armstrong Analysis, Ottawa, Canada (

What are the prospects for effective US-Russia anti-terror cooperation in the wake of the Boston bombings?

It would be good if the Boston attacks were to lead to serious cooperation. It is possible this will happen. I hope it will. It would also be good if Americans came to understand that almost everybody in Chechnya’s leadership today fought against Moscow in the first war. A fact that shatters the conventional view.

But we have seen this movie before.

Moscow warned the West about the common enemy it was fighting at the Munich Security Conference in 2001, no reaction. Putin told Bush the USA was on the target list, no reaction. Taliban sought an anti-American alliance with Moscow and was stoutly rejected. After 911 Putin used Moscow’s considerable influence with the Northern Alliance to establish cooperation and, it was the Northern Alliance, using weapons provided by Moscow, which actually overthrew Taliban – admittedly with considerable US support. Without Moscow’s influence the swift overthrow of Taliban would have been much harder, if not impossible. The two then tackled another problem: for years Moscow had been saying that jihadists had infiltrated the Pankisi Gorge in Georgia and for years Washington accepted Tbilisi’s claims that this was just another lie. But Moscow was telling the truth; a joint operation drove the jihadists out of Pankisi.

This was Washington’s opportunity to learn that Russia has the two essential requirements to make it an ally: a common enemy and experience and knowledge to bring to the alliance.

But, if learned, this was forgotten as Washington reverted to its instinctive anti-Russian position. Jihadists in Chechnya were called “rebels” as if it was just a revolt against Russian heavy-handedness; Russian elections were excoriated; the “human rights” weapon was deployed; “colour revolutions”, missile defence and NATO expansion continued; Russian concerns were contemptuously ignored or re-branded as “threats” (as in Russia threatens to react to missile defence). American animosity to Russia seems impenetrable to reality.

The “Rose Revolution” was especially hallucinatory: Bush was completely taken in by Saakashvili. (Medvedev tells us the first thing Bush ever said to him was: “You know, Misha Saakashvili is a great guy.” During the South Ossetia war Bush said: “It was clear the Russians couldn’t stand a democratic Georgia with a pro-Western president”. Pretty foolish sounding these days as the new government in Tbilisi reveals the reality of Saakashvili’s regime.) The jihadist centre in Pankisi, Tbilisi’s lies and Moscow’s truth, were forgotten and further chances for cooperation against the common enemy were lost as Washington believed everything Saakashvili told it. The US training program for Georgia’s armed forces – begun when Moscow’s allegations about Pankisi were confirmed – transformed into encouragement for Saakashvili’s military ambitions.

So here we are again: Boston has shown that the North Caucasus is a theatre of the world-wide jihad: after all, the Tsarnaevs may have hated Russia but they actually attacked the USA. Jihadists driven by the familiar ideology from ibn Taymiyya, through al-Wahhab, through Qutb, to Khattab and bin Laden; their Chechen connection is as incidental as the “underwear bomber’s” Nigerian origin or the “beltway sniper’s” American origin. Again Russia’s warnings were dropped; again Putin offers cooperation.

Will this opportunity for improving mutual security be dribbled away again? Perhaps the climate is better in that NATO expansion is dead and Saakashvili is gone.

But I expect little: the causes of these errors – anti-Russia bias and political correctness – are too deeply embedded to be overcome yet and we will never know, therefore, what true cooperation could achieve.

Breaking the code of human rights

Many countries like to think of themselves as a shining example to others but the USA seems more prone to this belief than most. Often present in its foreign policy – “Wilsonian” is a common name for the trend, “a city upon a hill” another – the tendency was given new emphasis by Carter and, since his time, an annual human rights report has been produced by the State Department. The USA is also home to many “human rights” organisations, ever quick to judge. Russia under Putin is a frequent target of these judgements. Russian elections, never mind that they are accurately predicted by numerous opinion polls over time, are always “irregular” and suspect. Although Russian reporters seem oddly free to complain and criticise, the press in Russia is always tightly controlled. Despite the largest anti-government protests for years, protest is always impossible. A Russian version of FARA is unacceptable. Russia is rated by Freedom House ever trending downwards even when it reverses actions Freedom House formerly condemned. Moscow always threatens its neighbours even though they remain independent and some are in NATO, where one would think they were well protected. And so on and on: the details change but the denunciations never do.

But, every now and again someone gives the game away.

The Executive Director of the US branch of Amnesty International when Pussy Riot was declared to be prisoners of conscience was Suzanne Nossel. In and out of US administrations and NGOs, at AI she boasted she was the author of a 2004 article in Foreign Affairs magazine entitled “Smart Power”. “Progressives now have a historic opportunity to reorient U.S. foreign policy around an ambitious agenda of their own… the great mainstay of twentieth-century U.S. foreign policy: liberal internationalism… liberal internationalists see trade, diplomacy, foreign aid, and the spread of American values as equally important.” She now heads PEN American Center and still boasts of “smart power”. She evidently sees no conflict of interest advancing “human rights” inside the US government structure or outside.

Another revealing quotation appeared in April in the Washington Post in a piece on US policy in Africa, specifically Niger. The author mentions several countries in which, notwithstanding certain human rights difficulties, Washington provides the governments with substantial money and keeps silent. Propping up the governments, in fact, as this government critic understands: “There is a need for change in our country, but our government doesn’t want to do what is necessary. Having a foreign military presence protects them”. “Human rights” are not so pre-eminent in these cases. Cynics have long suspected that Washington deploys “human rights” as a tool according to the conceptions of national interest but the author of the Washington Post piece found someone who actually admitted it: “‘The countries that cooperate with us get at least a free pass,’ acknowledged a senior U.S. official who specializes in Africa but spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid retribution. ‘Whereas other countries that don’t cooperate, we ream them as best we can.’”

So, let us see what we deduce from these two statements. Nossel, who happily moves between US administrations and NGOs – the G in NGO is apparently used here in a Pickwickian sense – lets us in on the secret that “human rights” are contingent and the “senior official” tells what they are contingent on. The phrase “human rights” is a code word: follow Washington’s lead and your “human rights” score will be OK, thwart it and the score will be bad. Quite easy to understand, isn’t it? (I can’t help wondering what became of our “senior official” – I don’t think you’re supposed to be that frank.)

Let us apply what we have learned to the case of Russia. Does Russia cooperate? No it does not, or at least not as completely as it apparently should. Therefore its “human rights” performance must be condemned and all Nossel’s N“G”Os will do so. Loudly.

So, Dear Reader, the next time you read a headline, or State Department utterance, saying “Russia’s Human Rights practice is bad” you now know what it really means: “Putin isn’t cooperative”. QED.