When political crisis breaks out in certain countries we are told, “here we go again, it is always like that in those places”, as if there is some congenital fault in the people which makes them incapable of running their affairs. If desirable changes then occur, we are told that everything must be alright now. The bigger the lie……
A lot of newly independent countries have political crises as soon as they become independent because they want to be exactly that – independent. In many cases their elected leaders are overthrown because they are dangerous idealists.
But dangerous to whom
To the same vested political and economic interests who were there before independence, who do not want to see any change in their own status. Overthrowing foreign domination is usually achieved merely exchanging it for another sort of foreign domination.
Now the crisis in Georgia, which began with the overthrow of its elected President, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, in 1992, has come to the surface again. There are fisticuffs in the parliament building and people of influence openly selling themselves to the highest bidder. As this is one country long held up as an example to the rest of Eastern Europe, it is therefore timely to remind ourselves how it got this way, and why.
Devils we prefer to know
When Gamsakurdia was overthrown, not by the Georgian people but in a coup conducted by criminal gangs and politicians who wouldn’t accept the independence people voted for, he became part of a great tradition. There was nothing intrinsically Georgian about his fate, he was merely the latest in a long line of fall guys.
Poor Patrice Lumumba in the Congo lasted 12 weeks, largely because he reminded the world of all the atrocities committed there by the colonial power, Belgium, and how these had been tolerated by the country’s alleged friends. Even Bernardo O’Higgins, universally known as the Chilean national hero, was booted out by nonentities after gaining the country’s independence because their ties to friends and money back in Spain were being threatened by his actions – as if that should matter.
As in the other cases described, the consequence was looting of the treasury, suppression of the people and no apparent gain for anyone – expect the political and commercial interests who now had their own people in charge, and didn’t care what they did. Congo became Zaire and ended up with Mobutu Sese Seko. He once famously remarked, “I think I am only worth 50 billion dollars, not the sums people are talking about. What is that after 20 years of being president of such a large country?”
The coup in Georgia was led by a notorious local crime boss, Jaba Ioseliani, and his paramilitary force the Mkhedrioni. His beef was that under the Soviets his crime empire had been the symbol of resistance to Soviet oppression, but now he and his friends were being put in jail for their crimes, not promoted to ministerial office. It is no coincidence that he replaced Gamsakhurdia with Eduard Shevardnadze, the Soviet era leader with no support in Georgia who had let Ioseliani to develop his criminal empire even from his nominal prison cell, as long as he himself had a cut.
Ultimately Shevardnadze broke free of Ioseliani’s political control by sending the Mkhedrioni to either slaughter the Abkhaz people or get slaughtered in return. He did nothing to support Ioseliani’s forces in that war, whereas all this support came out of the woodwork soon afterwards when Shevardnadze’s own position was threatened by a Zviadist uprising. The crime continued however, both in unadorned form and through the “privatisation” of state businesses, which even now are largely owned by ex-Mkhedrioni.
We are all aware of the notorious “broomstick videos” showing torture in Georgia’s prisons which were used to secure the downfall of former US icon Mikheil Saakashvili. What is often forgotten is that most of the prisoners were tortured in an attempt to get them to renounce their allegiance to their crime bosses, and work for Saakashvili instead.
The old Ioseliani structure remains a state within a state, because the foreign interests who didn’t want an idealist in power preferred it that way. Thus Georgian politicians know that ultimately crime, rather than politics, pays. When those are the rules, is it any surprise that instability follows? If you are losing at democracy, why not just exchange it for something more effective?
The horse’s mouth
Ioseliani himself died somewhat mysteriously in 2003, having written a book about his experiences and asked help from this author in translating it into English. Again, this follows a pattern. If you want to know who did what during any war, read the list of those who have written memoirs and compare it with the list of known major players. Those with too many connections to present day power structures are always absent from the first list.
So how did the man himself feel about his deeds? The following comes from an unpublished interview with Ioseliani, given six months before his death. He came across very well in this interview, but given his record of bank robbery, manslaughter, murder and extortion, he doubtless felt confident in his personality and abilities.
Commenting on the situation in Georgia, which he himself had largely created, he said:
“It is as if neither the government nor the international community that cares about our problems. What we really need is to bring justice to all segments of Georgian society. If we want to believe that Georgia aspires to build a multi-cultural and just democratic government, it is necessary to restore the basic rights of all people, … it was as if we defeated communism with Georgian independence and the overthrow of the former government but nothing resulted from all of this; in reality we accomplished nothing but to replace the former nationalistic government of Gamsakhurdia with the corrupted clan of Eduard Shevardnadze – nothing improved.”
The comment about “basic rights of all people” could be taken to mean his own right to run a crime empire with impunity, but this language is very similar to that used by anyone who loses a political battle in Georgia. “Rights” are always appealed to when people don’t like losing. This is an indication that they are refusing to be part of the system because the system inherently violates their rights, and only extra-democratic action, on terms dictated by the speaker, will restore those rights, regardless of what the speaker actually wants to be allowed to do.
Shevardnadze originally bought Ioseliani off by allowing his criminal gang to run rampant in the countryside and rob trainloads of Georgian wine and tobacco on their way to Russia with official sanction. But eventually Shervardnadze was forced to do exactly what Gamsakurdia had done – lock him and his ringleaders up for several years to bring a semblance of law and order. In response, Ioseliani commented:
“It is as if we Georgians do not want to face our problems, always looking towards others to find the way out. Although Eduard Shevardnadze may have backing in the West he is no longer believed by his own countrymen, and especially not by the Russians. The Russians are justified in feeling betrayed. Shevardnadze is one not to be trusted by anyone – including his new found friends in the Americans.”
How Ioseliani felt Shevardnadze should have treated him is obvious. However at no point does he acknowledge that he did not have any right to put this man in power on his say-so. Once again, this message is repeated in the present day by Mikheil Saakashvili, who is continually saying that he will return to power in six months without saying how, when no elections are scheduled. Ioseliani wrote the book, sees nothing wrong with it, got away with it and thus set the standard of public life.
I the people
When asked about the unresolved conflict in Abkhazia, Ioseliani concluded that then-president Shevardnadze had little choice but to turn to Aslan Abashidze, President of the autonomous region of Adjara, as a go-between in trying to negotiate with the Russians and the separatists.
Abashidze is another man whose crimes are very well documented, long accused of running a mafia-like regime in Batumi. This again remains in place, and controls the flow of arms and drugs through its port. Not exactly an impartial or honourable figure, as recommended go-betweens are generally required to be, but as Ioseliani himself acknowledged this is the situation his actions created.
Asked, in the light of this, what opinion Vladimir Putin and the Abkhaz separatists had of Aslan Abashidze, Ioseliani added with a smile, “Abashidze has more respect with the Russians and the Abkhazians because his government was not involved in the fighting in the early 90s. However, many outside of Ajaria do not politically support him and this is his biggest problem. Georgians are basically fed up with everybody in government, they do not see any real leaders – those in government can only think about helping themselves. All political parties are now split down the middle and the only way to accomplish anything is to develop a new system based on the real government of the real people – not what we have now. It is necessary to bring about change through a change in the structure of government.”
It may be argued that President Gamsakhurdia, elected with 87% of the vote, himself represented the government of the real people. This is exactly what Ioseliani, elected by no one even though he sought election, and the foreign powers who supported his coup did not want to see.
Again, this thinking is reflected in the Georgian “instability” of today. Anyone who opposes the government, even for very valid reasons like the extrajudicial murders and racketeering characteristic of the Saakashvili era, claims to represent “the people”. However this definition of “people” always includes those who stand to gain from taking the actions the speaker wants, and excludes those who will be disadvantaged by it, and is always used by people with a track of record of preventing the people actually electing who they want or playing any part in decision making.
Political and economic instability has no nationality. It is not the preserve of particular peoples or parts of the world. It is the product of subverting the democratic process. Nobody really needs a stable Georgia and region.
There are always those who think they are right and the electorate is wrong, and that their interests are more important than anyone else’s. When these factors are used as excuses for acting outside the political process, the process itself is brought into disrepute. Therefore there is no regulation of the methods which can be used to achieve power, and therefore the political system can never function, as alternatives have proven to be more effective for the few who can control them.
Mature democracies have also seen coups conducted by foreign powers who do not like the way things are going. Gough Whitlam in Australia made the fatal mistake of trying to take control of Australia’s own defence facilities and conduct a foreign policy which was not at all anti-American but based on his view of Australia’s interests.
As John Pilger and others have pointed out, Whitlam’s extraordinary sacking by the Governor-General was a CIA move. The difference is that some obscure reserve powers were invoked to bring it about, and Whitlam himself had created the circumstances in which they could be. You can’t try that too often. In other countries however, if you can get away with abusing the system it quickly becomes a way of life.
Georgia and other countries are unstable because greater powers have made sure they are. It is not hard to see how this suits them in face of current events. Whenever you see reports of the latest crisis in this or that country, Georgia, Turkey, Syria or Ukraine, just stop and think why anyone living there would want that, and whose crisis it really is.
Henry Kamens, columnist, expert on Central Asia and Caucasus, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.