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Thursday
Aug042011

Bumper Sticker Politics

Imagine coming home from work to find that your TiVo no longer works and you are only allowed to watch Fox News. That’s right – no more Daily Show, Colbert Report, or American Idol – you are completely at the mercy of what your government chooses to air. This was the reality for citizens in Georgia, a small country nestled in between Armenia and Azerbaijan in Eastern Europe. Journalist-at-large Stephen Robert Morse has been traveling the globe, much like myself, and listening to people’s stories. So when he had an opportunity to visit to this often ignored nation he jumped at the chance. Mr. Morse sat down with fellow journalist and editor-in-chief of the country’s only English language newspaper, Zaza Gachechiladze to learn what it is like to report the facts in a place that likes to describe its philosophies in phrases that are better suited stuck on the back of someone’s car.

 

“There’s an old saying that the journalist is the watchdog of democracy. I feel like that,” the subjectsays, before I can take out my notepad, let alone introduce myself.

I stare into one old brown eye; the left lens of his tinted glasses is conspicuously absent. This isn’t a fashion statement: The wearer can’t afford a replacement.

Well into his 60s, Zaza Gachechiladze, Ph.D, is Editor-in-Chief of The Messenger, the Republic of Georgia’s only English-language daily newspaper. I follow him into his office at the ground floor of a residential building in Tbilisi, where we encounter two ancient computers and stacks of paper everywhere, the expected schema of an overworked and underpaid journalist’s lair.

I start to remove my coat, but he warns me not to. He removes neither his oversized, puffy, black ski jacket nor his tweed newsboy cap. Even though it’s January and hovering just above freezing, heat isn’t an option. Too expensive. But I remove my coat anyway, because if I’m bundled up, I feel that the interview is about to end, and it hasn’t even started.

Minimal afternoon light pours into the room on this rainy day, but Zaza doesn’t turn on the light. The reason…guess?

He stares at me skeptically, so I throw him a softball: Tell me about Georgia’s media landscape.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, he says, Georgia has created a competitive media environment, unlike neighboring Armenia and Azerbaijan, which are still heavily dominated by oppressive political regimes. With the increasing prevalence of Facebook and blogging, there’s no limit to the future of the Internet’s role in maintaining a democratic society here. And there is an independent press in Georgia, but TV is much more popular, because it’s free.

“Bread comes first,” Zaza says starkly. “When it’s a matter of feeding yourself or buying a newspaper, living things prefer food over intellectual satisfaction. Here, the difficulties start.”

He pauses and fingers his grey moustache.

“Georgian officials understand the importance of television. Before and during the Rose Revolution, it was Rustavi 2 [the nation’s most widely broadcast channel] that mobilized the population. The station had the burden of distributing anti-government propaganda and spreading ideas in favor of revolution. Rustavi told the people, ‘Go here, gather at this time, say this…’”

The revolution, he says, proved the “power of television.” In this country of 4.3 million, 95% of the population gets its political news from television.

So isn’t it a relief to have a democratically elected, capitalistic, pro-Western government in power?

“No,” he says simply.

Life is no party under Mikheil Saakashvili, despite the propaganda that his regime spreads.

“First, it is unclear who even owns Rustavi 2 or other television channels today.”

The registered owner of Rustavi 2 is a shell company based in the Marshall Islands, half a world away from Georgia. Ownership of Georgia’s three other national television stations is equally murky.

But Zaza knows one thing for certain: “Whoever owns them is 120% government oriented.”

Rustavi 2, once the champion of democracy, has been passed between half a dozen buyers and sellers since the 2004 revolution, including David Bezhuashvili, a parliamentarian from Saakashvili’s party (and the brother of Georgia’s former Foreign Minister and current intelligence chief Gela Bezhuashvili), and Kibar Khalvashi, the long-time business partner of Irakli Okruashvili, Georgia’s former Defense Minister, whose recent personal history highlights the complexities and instabilities of Georgian politics:

A powerful Saakashvili crony and confidant since the Rose Revolution, Okruashvili concluded his alliance with the president when his two-year tenure as Defense Minister ended in November 2006 after a cabinet reshuffle. Only a week after he was named Minister of Economy and Sustainable Development, he abruptly resigned, surprising both the public and the government.

Okruashvili soon formed an opposition party called the Movement for United Georgia. On September 25, 2007, Okruashvili publicly denounced Saakashvili for ordering him to have the exiled Georgian oligarch, billionaire, media tycoon and key opposition figure Badri Patarkatsishvili murdered. Then, Okruashvili accused the president of violating democracy by imposing authoritarian rule. Two days after making these statements, Okruashvili was arrested and charged with extortion and taking bribes. In response to his arrest, thousands of protesters, organized by opposition parties, demonstrated in Tbilisi, demanding his release. But this was only the turmoil's beginning.

On October 8, Okruashvili made a videotaped confession, admitting to bribery, extortion, and negligence, while also recanting his accusations against the president. After posting a 10 million lari ($6 million) bail, an unprecedented sum in Georgia, he was released from custody. Okruashvili soon fled Georgia for Germany.

The drama continued a month later when Okruashvili recanted his confession, claiming that it was made under intense pressure from the Saakashvili regime. This caused opposition protests in Tbilisi to escalate. In a November 6 speech made from Munich, and broadcast throughout Georgia on Patarkatsishvili’s television channel (Imedi TV), including on large screens set up in Tbilisi’s Freedom Square, Okruashvili further castigated Saakashvili, labeling him Georgia’s “most unjust… corrupt…violent president.”

This speech riled up protesters and things turned bloody when the police, strong supporters of Saakashvili (because he pays them well), became violent. Fortunately, no one was killed in the street fights, but the police were accused of brutality by Georgian and international human rights groups.

On November 7, Saakashvili desperately tried to curry public support by accusing Russia of instigating this violence. He claimed that an “alternative government” had already been set up in Moscow. On this same day, mask-clad police officers stormed Imedi TV, shutting down the opposition broadcaster for 34 days. Saakashvili declared a state of emergency on November 9 that stayed in effect until November 16 when the protests subsided.

To appease the opposition, Saakashvili called for early presidential elections in January 2008. He was re-elected with a comfortable 53% majority, defeating 6 other candidates, including Patarkatsishvili, despite some claims of election fraud. (In February 2008, Patarkatsishvili died in London, most likely of natural causes.)

In March 2008, Okruashvili was convicted in absentia and sentenced to 11 years in prison. (Okruashvili claimed that his conviction was timed to make him ineligible to run in Georgia's May 21, 2008 legislative elections.) France has since granted Okruashvili asylum, which one source tells me was the result of a large payoff…C’est la vie!

Back to Zaza. All he says of these incidents is, “There are many stories where the heroes commit crimes together and later split or kill each other because they are not happy with their share of the robbed goods.”

It’s difficult to know who to trust in Georgia, but Zaza makes his integrity clear: “I am unbiased and objective, you must realize. I am the journalist, giving the true picture. I try to be critical to all sides.”

Despite my longstanding opinion that all journalism is subjective, I believe him.

Is there anything praise-worthy to be said about the Saakashvili regime, darling of the West? Sure, says Zaza: Better roads, new motorways, increased tourism, and the near-elimination of low-level corruption, specifically by the police. “The traffic police used to be downright nasty,” he says. “They issued fines for non-existent infractions at will.”

But he emphasizes that Saakashvili’s accomplishments are not extraordinary. “This is normal. This was why we voted for them to begin with. I delegated my rights to them. Now, they must take care of me. In this country, 100,000 people are on state salaries. Of those, 75,000 are in law enforcement: Police, intelligence, security, prison guards. Police officers are now paid very well, so they can live normal lives without taking bribes. But they fulfill orders from the state, and this makes them dangerous. They are taken care of too well.”

The fear in his voice reminds me that he lived two-thirds of his life under Communism. I ask about the 2008 war with Russia, in which two of his journalists were killed. He answers with an anecdote:

“When you drive, you must have enough skills that you don't hit anyone else on the road; and other drivers must have enough skills that they don’t hit you. But when you have a merciless, blunt, neighbor on the road, be careful! So what, this monster doesn't hit you today. Eventually, he will.”

He adds, “The Russians provoked the administration to go to war. As a result, Russia now occupies about 20% of Georgia’s territory.”

Though Zaza dislikes Saakashvili, he hates Russia. “In America, Democrats and Republicans both love their country, even though they may have different visions. It’s no different here.”

Moving on.

I ask, “What do you think of Vera Kobalia?”

Kobalia is Georgia’s current Minister of Economy and Sustainable Development. The 29-year-old Georgian-Canadian — born in the breakaway region of Abkhazia, she immigrated to British Columbia at 15 — is known for her youth, utter lack of qualifications, and a Facebook photo that depicts her — scantily clad — dancing atop a nightclub table (an image that the Russian media seized upon). She is frequently chided because her only business experience was a brief stint managing her father’s bakery in Vancouver. Her political experience is zilch, leading to speculation that, at the very least, she’s one of Saakashvili’s mistresses.

I expect Zaza to respond with sharp criticism of Vera. After all, it was a loaded question. But he answers with yet another anecdote: “Think of humans as rockets launched into space. Each of us will eventually run out of fuel and disintegrate into the atmosphere. Thus, we must launch younger generations into the atmosphere to take our place. Fate is normal.”

“In this country, a judge has been appointed at 27-years-old. It is impossible for this person to be a good judge. Being a good judge requires not only knowledge of laws, legislation, and management, but also about life. I have nothing against Vera. If she’s a good manager, god bless her. But she is, of course, a pawn. And he is the executive. She has no economic education and does what Saakashvili orders her to do. He has funny ideas, and she says that whatever he suggests is brilliant.”

After meeting Kobalia at a luncheon sponsored by the American Chamber of Commerce in Georgia, where she made an obviously well-rehearsed presentation about Georgia’s economy (before dodging many of the audiences follow-up questions), I arranged to interview her in person. But circumstances — she caught the flu and then I had to leave Georgia — prevented this meeting. Since then, she has repeatedly promised, via e-mail, that she will respond to questions that I have sent her. To date, this hasn’t happened.

(Kobalia’s Twitter feed has produced some gems, such as the recently posted, “A Belgian just told me Belgians don't eat waffles. It's a tourist thing. ...to me it sounded like ‘Santa Clause doesn't exist.’")

Zaza pauses to reflect.

“But it’s not like she’s Chairman of the Federal Reserve: This is a small country. During revolutionary times, Fidel and Che were young when they came to power.”

His sudden zeal provides me with an opening: “I apologize if I’m being rude, Zaza, but were you a communist?” I feel like Senator McCarthy.

No hesitation.

“Yes. I was a party member. I don't conceal it. I did it from a careerist point of view. You couldn’t be successful without being a member,” he says.

He explains how his party affiliation enabled him to travel abroad (he earned his PhD from Warwick in England), legally acquire English books, and meet with Westerners who visited Georgia, oftentimes serving as an official translator.

During Soviet times he wasn’t a journalist: He taught English language and literature at Tbilisi State University (he mentions that he has authored books on Dylan Thomas and Geoffrey Chaucer), rising through the ranks to become a full professor and eventually department chairman. He continues to teach at the university.

“Unless you were a loyal Communist, there was no way to achieve anything. But I respected the dissidents who fought them.”

I ask him when and how he made the transition from academia to journalism.

“In the early 90s, the university paid me five dollars a month to teach. That’s not a salary for someone with a family to put food on the table. After independence, I became a pioneer of English language media in Georgia.”

In 1994, Zaza began editing the English language page of the Georgian Times, a weekly created after the collapse of the USSR. Two years later, Zaza founded the Times’ English edition, but its publishers focused on maximizing profits rather than sustaining editorial quality. So in 2001, he decided to strike out on his own. (Today, Zaza scoffs at Georgia’s other English language publications, calling them “advertisements, with a few stories mixed in.”)

I ask Zaza why he’s so critical. Cue another metaphor.

“I continue to criticize my country because I want my country to be really good. When you’re a high jumper, and the bar is set at 2 meters, you want to clear the hurdle. You want to jump at 2.2 meters, not just 2.1. You can never be satisfied. You must always go higher.”

Then, I ask if foreign aid to Georgia is effective, or if this money is misused or lost to corruption.

“There’s an old saying…”

No! Why did I ask? There is no old saying, only a straightforward answer.

“You can give a man to fish, or teach a man to fish…”

His words are lost. The metaphors have progressed from marvelously thought-provoking to mundane.

Though he won’t reveal his exact age (curious for a man who purportedly believes in truth and honesty), he acknowledges that he has taught for more than 40 years. I suspect that Zaza won’t ever retire, because he sees it as his duty to help propel Georgia forward until the bitter end. As I put on my jacket, he confirms this.

“So far, the students want me. I respect the opinions of the younger generation. I let them speak and never impose my opinion on anyone. I say, ‘Give me your opinion and tell me why it’s right. If you can convince me, I will change mine, but be tolerant to me as well. I don't exclude that neither of us is right, so let's ask a third person.’ Students like this approach.”

If only Zaza would run for president, just so he could spread his metaphors — or bumper stickers — to the masses…

 

Stephen Robert Morse | San Francisco, CA

Never lets Black Panthers, ninjas, or extraterrestrials get in the way of reporting the news. 

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