Georgia Update: The Not-So-Great Game

Mark Ames


When I was in Georgia two weeks ago, as the "Velvet Revolution" was just building momentum, one thing that amazed me was how accessible all the opposition players were. Part of the reason they were so accessible was thanks to Shalva, a well-connected Georgian whose son is a friend of mine in Moscow. He seemed to know everyone, from shopkeepers on Rustaveli Prospekt to senior members of the opposition. Among the many interviews he helped arrange was one with EU postergirl Nino Burdzhanadze, who took over as acting President of Georgia on Sunday. She spoke to me on the steps in front of Parliament, where the opposition had just started its sit-in. She preferred to speak in Russian over English.

Otpor or Kmera? Ask Richard Miles.

Otpor or Kmera? Ask Richard Miles.

The only interviewees whose mouths I was unable to pry open were the flag-waving youths who acted as the opposition's Marines. Any time I approached one of the youths -- most were in their late teens -- they would tell me that they had nothing to say, and point to a kind of flag platoon leader. This flag platoon leader would be in charge of handing out flags (different opposition flags, some with symbols, others with slogans) to the kids, then arranging them so that the flag-kids were placed strategically within the crowd, color-coordinated accor-ding to flag type. The platoon leader would yell out when to raise the flags, when to wave them, and when to put them down. Unfortunately, none of the flag platoon leaders would talk to me either.

If you watched the storming of the Parliament building on Saturday, you saw these same guys. That was them.

On the streets, I noticed another type of flag -- a stencil-shaped clenched fist in black and white with a slogan in Georgian. The design of the fist was the exact same as the youth organization in Serbia which helped overthrow Milosevic in 1999-2000. That organization was called "Otpor" or "resistance," and its slogan was a clenched fist with the words "Gotov Je" meaning "Enough." Milosevic's people accused Otpor of being CIA-funded, and after the successful coup to overthrow him, Otpor admitted that they had received heavy funding from the United States. Indeed a Newsweek article after Milosevic's overthrow, headlined "Madeleine's Victory," claimed that the United States was deeply involved in orchestrating the coup, including the pacing, funding, timing and the defections.

The kids with the Otpor-like flags were much more forthcoming than the flag-waving kids from Burdzhanadze's Democratic party.

"Our organization is called 'Kmera,'" one of them told me. "It means 'Enough.'"

"That reminds me a lot of Otpor in Serbia," I told him.

"Yes, we are the same as Otpor," he said. He handed me a pen, which I still have, with the clenched fist symbol and the slogan "Kmera!"

As I wrote in the last issue, the coup in Georgia was shaping up remarkably like the coup in Serbia. The order of events, including the storming of parliament, were nearly identical, while the circumstances were roughly the same. Shevardnadze may not have been as blood-stained as Milosevic, but he was far less popular at home, far more corrupt by Transparency International standards, propped up by nothing more than American aid and troops. Tactically, the two "democratic" coups were effected quite similarly, and as I said in my last article, both occurred under the tutelage of Ambassador Richard Miles, who looks set to earn a post-season coup berth with his 2-0 record.

But there are also some major differences. While America considered Milosevic an enemy for years before his ouster, we backed Shevardnadze, dollar-for-voter, more than any leader in the world besides Rabin/Barak/Sharon.

And then there is the Russia factor. While Russia's interest in Serbia/Milosevic is more sentimental than strategic, its interest -- and influence -- in Georgia is treated more as a matter of life or death. In a seemingly-bizarre late-in-the-game twist, Shevardnadze clearly switched sides and was backed by the Russians. Which means that it appears the Russians have suffered a huge setback with their man out.

However, Russia still has four military bases in Georgia and control, via proxy, of vast swathes of their territory, not to mention control over Georgia's energy supplies. Life is not going to be easy for Burdzhanadze and the more popular opposition leader, Harvard-trained Mikhail Saakashvili, who are going to try to move Georgia even more forcefully and rapidly into the West's orbit. As Shalva told me, the Russians will be patient, tightening and loosening screws until the Georgians cave. They're in it for the long-haul.

What's next? If you take the example of Serbia, then what's next is this: in about six to nine months, vast disappointment and disillusionment with the Velvet Revolution will set in. Burdzhanadze will be too weak to control the brutal politics, and Saakashvili, a nationalist who at one time was compared to Zhirinovsky (not apt, but he's definitely a populist), will find that the struggle to maintain and expand his powers will take up all of his energies and enmesh him into all the ugly tactics used by his predecessors: corruption, corruption and more corruption.

I don't mean to take anything away from the Georgians or Serbs who bravely ousted their unpopular leaders -- Georgians and Serbs in fact have a lot in common. Their leaders were horrible. I don't have a single friend or acquaintance in either country who supported Shevardnadze/Milosevic. However, I am convinced, after witnessing both coups, that neither could have happened without deep American involvement.

The sad thing is that after the coup in Serbia, the West focused narrowly on one issue: extraditing war criminals to the Hague. The result has been that life has gotten steadily worse for Serbians, corruption has increased and the voters are turning increasingly back towards Milosevic-like nationalists. In Georgia, expect the same: the West, namely America, will focus exclusively on securing the Baku-Ceyhan oil pipeline. All aid, all choices of whom to support, will rest on that oil pipeline, even if it means propping up another round of corruption and increasingly unpopular leaders. And the Russians will do all they can to make the Americans' cronies' job as difficult as possible.

In the end, as always, it will be the Georgian people -- the most charming, proud, cultured people in Europe, in my opinion -- who lose out.

So this is it, The Great Game. As the monobrow wop says to Joe Pesci in Goodfellas: "Nice fucking game."

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