Friday, March 27, 2009
The release of surveillance tapes by the Georgian interior ministry in recent days - ‘evidence’ which allegedly suggests that opposition activists were buying weapons and making ready to use them to stage a coup during mass protests in early April - has a very familiar feeling to many people here in Georgia. The authorities have repeatedly publicised secretly-recorded telephone conversations and surveillance videos to discredit opponents, most notably in November 2007, during the last major outbreak of civil unrest in Tbilisi, when tapes of journalists’ phonecalls were released alongside footage which incriminated now-dead opposition oligarch Badri Patarkatsishvili. Contrary to public opinion - during those dark times back in 2007, many ordinary people wouldn’t even dare to speak ill of the government on the phone - the interior ministry assures us that phone-tapping is not widespread and is only ever used to amass evidence for potential criminal prosecutions. But the release of the secretly-recorded tapes has undoubtedly heightened the mood of trepidation which has gripped Tbilisi in the run-up to the demonstration on April 9.
As well as the forthcoming protests, more bad news for the authorities could be on its way, suggests Der Spiegel. The German news magazine reports that a European Union inquiry into last year’s war is investigating the possible existence of a ‘secret order’ which allegedly ‘proves’ that President Mikheil Saakashvili started the fighting to seize control over South Ossetia, rather than to parry an invasion of Russian aggressors, as official insist. A government minister has insisted that ‘Order No. 2’ was never given and in fact never existed, and that the German report is “part of a series of lies and misinformation” instigated by Moscow.
Monday, March 23, 2009
A swarm of election officials descended upon us as soon as we arrived at the polling station in Azerbaijan's capital, Baku. These fidgety young men wore shiny suits and long, pointy shoes of the sort considered chic by junior apparatchiks in the former Soviet Union, and were closely trailed by a cloud of pungent aftershave.
Our presence - or more specifically, the presence of our camera - was obviously making them extremely uneasy. They hovered nervously around us as we tried to interview people who were casting their votes in last week’s referendum on whether to abolish Azerbaijan’s two-term presidential limit and consolidate the power of the country’s strongman leader, Ilham Aliyev.
Their conspicuous eavesdropping made it unlikely that anyone would speak to us honestly in a country where people already seem to be afraid of talking to television reporters. But actually, they needn’t have worried. Everyone we spoke to repeated the government line as if they had stayed up the night beforehand memorising it. Ilham Aliyev is our hope for the future, they declared; all we must do is trust in him and he’ll do the right thing for all of us - the sort of opinions that would cause any petty authoritarian to glow with satisfaction. I asked an Azeri colleague if it made her feel depressed to hear her compatriots expressing this kind of cringing obeisance. She simply sighed, nodded, and looked away despondently.
These are not good times for journalists in Azerbaijan. The referendum also approved new restrictions on the media, including an ominous-sounding ban on “showing disrespect” to “state symbols”. This is already a country where reporters have been jailed, Azeri-language broadcasts by companies like the BBC and Radio Liberty have been prohibited, and dissenting voices have been marginalised.
The headlines on many of Azerbaijan’s television news shows tell their own story. Day after day, they begin with a suitably respectful report on a presidential meeting, visit or statement - this, for instance, is a summary from Lider TV one evening during the week before the referendum:
Story 1: President Ilham Aliyev and his wife Mehriban Aliyeva have visited the national museum of Azerbaijani literature to familiarise themselves with repair works there.
Story 2: President Ilham Aliyev has visited the cultural centre of the National Security Ministry to familiarise himself with repair works there.
Story 3: President Ilham Aliyev has attended the opening ceremony of the late Azerbaijani leader Heydar Aliyev’s statue.
The referendum has ensured that people here in Azerbaijan can expect more of the same, for a long time to come.
Saturday, March 21, 2009
This is the trailer for Olympus Inferno, a propaganda action movie about last year's war in South Ossetia that's due to be shown on Russian television later this month. According to Reuters: "The fictional account tells of a U.S.-based entomologist and a female Russian journalist who unintentionally capture evidence that Georgia started the conflict using a special camera night lens as they attempt to film rare night butterflies. The two face obstacles as they try to get through the frontlines of advancing Georgian forces and back to South Ossetia's capital, Tskhinvali with proof of who started the war." Wired magazine has called the film an "awesomely bad made-for-TV movie". Readers of this blog may recall that the renowned Serbian director Emir Kusturica is also due to make a film about the conflict.
Friday, March 20, 2009
Friday, March 13, 2009
Wednesday, March 11, 2009
The fertile Gali district of Abkhazia, which lies on the de facto border with Georgia, used to generate considerable wealth from its tea plantations, citrus groves and hazelnut farms. Now, after years of conflict and enforced neglect, it's a virtual wasteland. Although the Abkhaz rule the area - they won control of it during their war with Georgian forces in the early 1990s - most of the people living there are actually ethnic Georgians. That means it's always been tense (and full of men with guns), but on a recent visit I found the mood to be more oppressive and paranoid than ever.
Now Abkhazia has been recognised as an independent state by neighbouring Russia, many local Georgians are afraid that they might have to leave the area soon because they are being 'encouraged' to take Abkhaz passports, which involves formally rejecting their Georgian citizenship. The planned construction of Russian military bases in the region has also frightened them, as well as the suggestions by the Abkhaz authorities that they intend to build a fortified border and seal the region off from Georgia completely. This is my television report for Al Jazeera, filmed by the inimitable Vladimir Lozinski (all soundbites are in Russian without voiceovers and captions, unfortunately).
Tuesday, March 10, 2009
The political mood has turned poisonous as the opposition seeks to capitalise on discontent caused by economic recession and the disastrous war with Russia. A former prime minister, Zurab Nogaideli, called Saakashvili a “traitor and a coward” and alleged that he had misused state funds. A former speaker of parliament, Nino Burjanadze, described his government as “criminal”. A former Georgian ambassador to the United Nations, Irakli Alasania, accused him of violating civil rights, curbing freedom of speech and recklessly leading the country into an unwinnable war. Such allegations, coming from former insiders, are an indication of how deeply charged with personal animosity Georgian politics has become, although critics have questioned why such principled democrats kept quiet about their strongly-held ethics while they were working for the administration.
One potential flashpoint could be the return from exile of Saakashvili’s former defence minister, Irakli Okruashvili, whose controversial allegations against his old friend helped to catalyse mass demonstrations which ended in a police crackdown in 2007. The hawkish Okruashvili fled to France and was sentenced to 11 years in prison for corruption in his absence. However, he has insisted that he will soon come home to take on Saakashvili, despite the threat of arrest. Fears have been raised that such a confrontational move could seriously escalate tensions.
Saakashvili and his allies have hit back by suggesting that certain opposition leaders have been receiving money from Russia to finance their anti-government campaigns, as part of an alleged Kremlin plan to sow yet more chaos. In other words, the implication goes, the dissenters are doing the enemy’s work. Saakashvili has also pointed out that renewed street protests will do little to help rebuild Georgia’s shattered economy, and that what is needed now is stability rather than civil unrest. But as April 9 approaches, the opposition seems to be in no mood for compromise.
Monday, March 9, 2009
An interesting insight into failed attempts at post-war reconstruction in South Ossetia, from the New York Times. Read it here.
Saturday, March 7, 2009
Against a backdrop of Russian fighter planes bombing Georgian apartment buildings at the height of last August’s conflict, the legendary Georgian singer Vakhtang Kikabidze - 'Buba' to his fans -- speaks of betrayal and "the smell of melancholy" in his controversial new song, You Disappointed Me. A video of the tune, which has appeared on the Internet, shows Russians and Georgians in happier times, interspersed with footage of Georgians wounded in Russian attacks, piling their belongings into cars, or crying for help on rubble-strewn streets. Kikabidze, who performs the song in Russian, says in the chorus, "You haven't betrayed me, you've disappointed me." The song has provoked outrage among many Russians, who consider the Soviet-era crooner to be one of their own.
The video is online here.