Georgia on my mind

When I raised my glass to toast Georgian tolerance and the lack of anti-Semitism that I sensed, my hosts had no idea what I was talking about.

Saakashvili 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
Saakashvili 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
News item: The president of Georgia introduced a 15-day state of emergency in early November 2007 after riot troops used clubs and tear gas against opposition protesters in the capital, Tbilisi. Walking down the broad Rustaveli Boulevard in Georgia's capital city of Tbilisi, I sensed a political upheaval in the winter air. Groups of energized young people were moving hurriedly and with purpose to demonstrations; there was excitement in their conversations and actions. I went back to my hotel on Freedom Square and told my partners, "I think it's time we met with some people in the opposition." The incident did not take place this month. It took place four years ago, after the Georgian population rejected the results of rigged parliamentary elections. Within months, the government of President Eduard Shevardnadze would be replaced in the Rose Revolution with a new generation of government officials, led by the newly-elected President Mikheil Saakashvili. Fast-forward to November 2007. At the height of the anti-government demonstrations and clashes with the police, Saakashvili declared a state of emergency and announced new elections in early January 2008. Saakashvili was criticized by his western allies for the crack-down on the opposition, and within days the emergency measures were lifted. According to Georgian law, Saakashvili must resign his office at least 45 days prior to an election. He did just that on Sunday. Several days earlier he had pledged, "The authorities will do their best to ensure that the election is held in a democratic, peaceful and transparent manner. The opposition," he continued, "will have all conditions to express its views freely and hold peaceful actions in accordance with the existing laws," the president said. MY TEAM and I had been invited one evening to dinner in Tbilisi four years ago with the minister of defense, a tough general and veteran of the Soviet war in Afghanistan. Demonstrations were taking place a few blocks away, and I told my colleagues that I thought our dinner would be cancelled. No, the Georgian minister insisted. Throughout the sumptuous dinner, the general was taking phone calls and barking orders, which we did not understand. After one call, he sighed heavily and with tears in his eyes, he said, "I was just asked if I'll call out the army to put down the demonstrations. I said, 'By no means. Our army serves to protect our people, not attack them.'" The peaceful course of the Rose Revolution was set that night. At that dinner and at subsequent ones with Georgian military officials and officers we followed Georgian customs. Throughout the multi-course dinners, toasts were made to peace, country, hosts, armies, fallen friends, wives and children, etc. Amidst all the drinking I remembered: in vino veritas. My antennae were on the alert for signs of anti-Semitism. There were none. Nothing, not even among the coarse and inebriated military men. In fact, when I raised my glass to toast Georgian tolerance, the comfort with which I wore my kippa throughout Georgia and the lack of anti-Semitism that I sensed, my hosts had no idea what I was talking about. They admired and respected Israel, its army and the Jewish people. The Jewish community of Georgia has dwindled to some 10,000-15,000, with perhaps 80,000 moving to Israel in the last 25 years. But Jews of Georgia make their mark, and without much fanfare. Saakashvili's early political ally, prime minister Zurab Zhvania, was Jewish. (Zhvania died under mysterious circumstances in 2005.) Saakashvili's current Defense Minister, David Kezerashvili, lived in Israel when he was younger and speaks Hebrew. In a meeting with the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations right after his election, President Saakashvili confided that his special appreciation for the Jewish people and his understanding of the Holocaust was conveyed to him by a law professor. Saakashvili studied law at Columbia and George Washington Universities. At the latter, he attended a seminar with Prof. Thomas Buergenthal, today a judge on the International Court of Justice. One day, Saakashvili related, Buergenthal let his hair down and spent four hours describing how he was a survivor, growing up in the Jewish ghetto of Kielce and later an inmate in the Auschwitz and Sachsenhausen concentration camps. IN THE first month of Saakashvili's presidency my partner and I set up meetings for him with Washington opinion-makers and with the Conference of Presidents in New York. For the next two years we worked - all pro bono - to warn American and NATO officials of major radiological stores and conventional weapons stockpiled in Georgia that had been abandoned by the Soviet Union. On our first visits to Georgia we always brought along a Russian translator, but suddenly, that was a thing of the past. The new ministers and officials were fluent English speakers, many educated in the West. Virtually every Georgian could speak Russian, but they wanted to speak to the West in the West's language. Today, Georgia seeks to become a member of NATO, much to the fury of Russia. American military personnel train the Georgian army, and, if the soldiers I saw on guard duty four years ago were a motley, rag-tag bunch, today they take pride in their spit-and-polish uniforms and demeanor. Today, 2,000 Georgian soldiers are serving in Iraq, the largest contingent after Britain. While other contingents are pulling out, Georgia's may actually grow. I VISITED Tbilisi two months ago after a two year hiatus. Construction is going on everywhere, the potholes on the major streets are filled, the old decrepit Ladas have been replaced by Audis and Mercedes. Much of the spiffying-up was in preparation for President George W. Bush's visit in 2005. But a walk a few blocks parallel to Rustaveli Boulevard showed that the potholes were still there, that tilting tenements with their cracks from a 2002 earthquake were somehow still standing, and that maybe some of the country's new wealth still needed to trickle down some more. Five years ago, you couldn't drive 500 meters without a cop pulling you over for his payoff. One of the first steps taken by Saakashvili upon taking office was to put a stop to the police corruption. Today residents complain that the corruption may have been eradicated at the street level, but that it has grown at the upper levels of government. The protests and demonstrations may be fed by legitimate complaints by impatient citizens who want their corruption-free democracy and reforms now. Or they may not. GEORGIA is making some nasty people unhappy. The government's democratic, pro-American and anti-Russian policies - and its anti-jihadi military commitment - has not pleased everyone. Russia continues to stir up tensions, using its separatist proxies in Georgia's regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The latest demonstrations and anti-Saakashvili protests may well have some Russian fingerprints. Today, oil flows west from Azerbaijan through Georgia to Turkey via the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, one of the world's longest, costliest and most vital pipelines. Several international players - states and non-states - may have an interest in stopping the BTC flow. There is virtually no Islamist presence in Georgia, but situated between Turkey and Chechnya, Georgia has served as a transit route for al-Qaida terrorists, according to American intelligence sources. It is clear that the bad guys have a motive to undermine Georgia's stability. The goal of my dozen visits was to make sure that they didn't have ready access to the means. We were invited to Georgia to explore whether foreign funds could be found to provide security for army bases and arms depots. We crisscrossed Georgia visiting bases and arsenals. I was shocked, even terrified, to see massive amounts of bombs, missiles, mines, rockets, and shells of all types. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the broken fences and minimum security meant the arsenals were one-stop shopping malls for thieves, black marketers and terrorists. Most ominous were the strewn-about shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles. In many bases radioactive cesium-137 was stored. Why? Heaven - and, maybe, old Soviets - knows. The local Georgians didn't. Cesium was a perfect ingredient for terrorists' dirty bombs. I met with US military officials in Tbilisi and in the Pentagon, and showed them the condition of the depots and their contents. I briefed American and Israeli security officials. I met a dozen officials in the US Department of Energy's Nuclear Security Administration. Last year, our efforts began to pay off. A June 2006 Report to the UN on The Accumulation of Conventional Ammunition Stocks includes an accounting from Georgia listing the destruction or demilitarization of an array of weapons. The project, financed by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, just may make it a little more difficult for terrorists to secure weapons or for a truck bomber to blow up the BTC pipeline, particularly as Georgia enters its latest exercise in democracy. The writer served as Deputy Chief of Mission in the Israeli Embassy in Washington. Today he is an international consultant. He blogs at