TBILISI, Georgia -- Today, Georgia enters the final week of a parliamentary election campaign that will be decisive for its future. How decisive? A friend of mine here called it "an apocalyptic crisis that squeezes out of every human heart what is deepest in it."
This might sound like an exaggeration, but it's not. The emotional temperature of the contest broke the thermometer last Tuesday night when opposition television showed extensive video footage -- sourced from a Georgian state prison guard who'd fled to Belgium -- of other guards and their superiors torturing, taunting, and sexually assaulting prisoner after prisoner, sodomizing them with broom handles. (Partial footage from Georgian television can be found here, here, and here; discretion advised.)
President Mikheil Saakashvili's United National Movement (UNM) is desperately hoping to get all this off the TV screens by election day on October 1 so that people can go to the polls having slipped back into a previously dominant mode of fear toward Ivanishvili, Russia, and the unknown generally.
The few intelligent voices still trying to defend the government argue that prison brutality occurs everywhere, that it's hard to eradicate, and that appropriate measures are now being taken to remove the "sick" prison officials responsible for the recent abuses. Good arguments, if we limit ourselves to the incidents directly captured on video.
But was something more behind these crimes?
I think Georgians have reacted as intensely as they have to the videos on the belief that they symbolize an underlying reality in the country. What people watched on TV wasn't just isolated acts but a brutal system leading to very a specifically bureaucratic program of violence: prisoners being lined up in an orderly, bureaucratic row, holding their files, to be beaten, taunted, and often defiled.
So what would the purpose of this system be?
Actually, it's not that hard to imagine; it's not unlike hazing or basic-training rituals we're familiar with in the West: The purpose is to control people by showing them that they have no effective rights and no power, and that they're at the disposal of those who do. Georgian prison officials have done this by frightening inmates, humiliating them, and robbing them of their self-respect. (Rape is of course one of the worst human violations. In a culture still characterized by a deep fear of homosexuality, moreover, men sexually assaulted in this way tend to feel especially tainted, outcasts for life.)
In the context of this kind of power abuse, consider what meanwhile happens to many Georgian businesspeople: They're often suddenly visited by the tax police, or the regular police, told they have committed a violation (real or invented) that can be evaded but only by turning large sums of money over to anonymous hands -- or by surrendering a car, or by working on government projects for free, or by granting a majority share in their companies.
Here's an example from personal knowledge, with some details altered to keep the police from tracing the source: A friend of mine was suddenly visited by the tax police, who told her that her company had committed some transgression, one she says they invented, but that the problem could be evaded by turning over to them 125,000 Lari (US$77,000). She remonstrated that she was not guilty and did not have that much money. They replied, "You can borrow it from these relatives," naming which ones and how much to ask from each. They went on, "Don't tell anyone outside your family, and don't even think of going to the media or to foreign diplomats. We know all your sources of income, who your parents are and where they live, your grandmother and her village, where your children go to school and where they play. ... Think about them." No one mentioned going to the courts. (The acquittal rate in the Tbilisi criminal courts is in any event a fraction of 1 percent.) She paid. This is a system of financial terror. It says, "You are an insect. You have no power. What those who do have power say, you will do."
This terror goes beyond the business community, too. I have several first-hand reports from schoolteachers who were told that they will lose their jobs if they fail to vote for the National Movement -- or, in one case, if they fail to board the bus for Saakashvili's triumphal rally in Tbilisi's Sports Palace on September 8. The National Movement has largely slipped into a pattern of ruling by fear.
I have been visiting Georgia since the Soviet era, and there is more public dread here than there was under the aging Politburo of the mid '80s. I'm an American citizen, close to the airport, and I'm honestly afraid of the consequences as I write these words. As a long-term observer of Georgian politics, my impression now is that the government counts on fear as the decisive element in an electoral victory.
The U.S. government, the EU, UNICEF, and others whom you'd expect to condemn the abuse of Georgia's prisoners have indeed done so; but the condemnations ring hollow. To begin with, they all call for an investigation of the abuses by the Georgian government and courts. President Saakashvili met on Wednesday for well-televised instructions along these lines to the new prime minister Vano Merabishvili, minister of justice Zurab Adeishvili, chief prosecutor Murtaz Zodelava, and deputy interior minister Giorgi Lortkipanidze -- all of whom, along with Bacho Akhalaia, recently appointed minister of interior (read: the police) but forced to resign within the last few days, are widely suspected of being key operators in the prevailing terror campaign against businessmen, prisoners, and others.
Whoever turns out to be responsible, they are high up in the Georgian government. Among those actually filmed torturing prisoners were the deputy chief of the penitentiary system, the warden of Gldani Prison, and his deputy. Many reports from human-rights organizations, and from the government's own public defender, have meanwhile complained of prison brutality for years. Merabishvili, who was minister of interior until this summer, directly supervised the prisons until 2008. Dmitri Shashkin, who was appointed defense minister when all these people were promoted over this past summer, was minister for penitentiaries after 2008.
So President Saakashvili's pious calls for investigation may resemble Comrade Stalin's instructions, in November 1938, to Lavrentiy Beria, chief of the Soviet secret police, to find out the truth behind reported violations of socialist legality by the NKVD (the KGB's infamous predecessor).
Wouldn't the Saakashvili of the Rose Revolution have been the first to expose official misconduct and torture and set them right? What happened to brave young Misha, who defied election fraud with an armful of roses, cleaned up feudal corruption, vanquished the mafia, set a failing state on its feet and resolutely defied the Russian tanks?
Yes, Saakashvili and his comrades did all this -- and it intoxicated them with a feeling of righteousness, ability, and power. They believed that they were bringing light into a dark cellar that had been padlocked for 70 years, exterminating the vermin who infested it, and cleaning it like new.
From the very beginning, the Rose Revolution had a punitive spirit; and so, from the very beginning, Saakashvili's project concealed an inner contradiction. The light it was bringing was liberal democracy; but in a place so dark and infested as Georgia was, Saakashvili believed, that required harsh measures.
To cope with the failing state they inherited, the revolutionaries raised revenue by milking Eduard Shevardnadze's corrupt officials without going to court. Through this and other improvisations, they rapidly built a strong state. They now possessed an effective instrument they could employ for whatever task they needed -- or simply wanted. So, for their noble purposes, they began to squeeze normal businessmen when short of money.
They then began to realize that a strong state could yield not just money but votes, as well, by intimidation or fraud at the margins. That came in useful in 2007 when Saakashvili, like many heroes who have come to power before him, began to grow unpopular. He could have left office then, or amid the current scandals. If he did, he might someday return in triumph. But what would happen to him in the meantime? Having had recourse to so many shortcuts and illegalities, and having inflicted so many indignities, he and his friends could lose everything. In this sense, you can see Saakashvili today as a trapped, tragic figure.
None of this is to deny Saakashvili's eminent place in Georgian history as the founder of a real Georgian state under highly adverse conditions. Neither is it to denigrate the fortitude of his resistance to Russian imperialism. Neither for that matter is it to argue that Ivanishvili is a savior on a white horse. His campaign has not been very tolerant -- or even particularly skillful. But Ivanishvili did have the courage, in a system where one group monopolizes power by squeezing "black money" out of the society around it, to make his vast fortune available for the creation of a genuine opposition movement; and he did this at great personal risk.
Some U.S. political leaders, John McCain notably among them, have responded to Georgia's electoral contest with the generous instinct to help Saakashvili in his hour of tribulation. But instinct isn't always the best guide to complicated foreign realities, particularly at a moment when we need to come to terms with the counterintuitive dark side of Saakashvili's rule. However you look at the decisive elections next week, let's be clear-minded in understanding that the methodical torture and rape uncovered last week are not isolated breakdowns of civilization within Georgia's prison system; they're symptoms of a deeper crisis that now permeates Georgia's whole political system.
Charles H. Fairbanks Jr. is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. He was formerly a research professor of international relations at Johns Hopkins' Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies and a director of the Central Asia/Caucasus Institute.
One hundred years ago, a retail giant that shipped millions of products by mail moved swiftly into the brick-and-mortar business, changing it forever. Is that happening again?
Amazon comes to conquer brick-and-mortar retail, not to bury it. In the last two years, the company has opened 11 physical bookstores. This summer, it bought Whole Foods and its 400 grocery locations. And last week, the company announced a partnership with Kohl’s to allow returns at the physical retailer’s stores.
Why is Amazon looking more and more like an old-fashioned retailer? The company’s do-it-all corporate strategy adheres to a familiar playbook—that of Sears, Roebuck & Company. Sears might seem like a zombie today, but it’s easy to forget how transformative the company was exactly 100 years ago, when it, too, was capitalizing on a mail-to-consumer business to establish a physical retail presence.
E!’s 10-year-anniversary special celebrating its flagship family was surprisingly honest and strangely tragic.
On Friday, as Puerto Rico contended with the aftermath of a hurricane that had left much of the island without power, and North Korea threatened to detonate a hydrogen bomb in the Pacific Ocean, the internet-gossip complex grappled instead with the momentous news that an unmarried 20-year-old reality star was pregnant. Kylie Jenner, TMZ reported, the youngest scion of the Kardashian family, had been telling friends that she and her boyfriend, the rapper Travis Scott, were going to have a baby. Unidentified family friends promptly confirmed the news to People. And some fans began to wonder—had Kylie’s mother, Kris Jenner, leaked the news herself to boost the ratings for E!’s Sunday night 10-year-anniversary special of Keeping Up With the Kardashians?
Five days after Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico, its devastating impact is becoming clearer.
Five days after Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico, its devastating impact is becoming clearer. Most of the U.S. territory currently has no electricity or running water, fewer than 250 of the island’s 1,600 cellphone towers are operational, and damaged ports, roads, and airports are slowing the arrival and transport of aid. Communication has been severely limited and some remote towns are only now being contacted. Jenniffer Gonzalez, the Resident Commissioner of Puerto Rico, told the Associated Press that Hurricane Maria has set the island back decades.
The foundation of Donald Trump’s presidency is the negation of Barack Obama’s legacy.
It is insufficient to statethe obvious of Donald Trump: that he is a white man who would not be president were it not for this fact. With one immediate exception, Trump’s predecessors made their way to high office through the passive power of whiteness—that bloody heirloom which cannot ensure mastery of all events but can conjure a tailwind for most of them. Land theft and human plunder cleared the grounds for Trump’s forefathers and barred others from it. Once upon the field, these men became soldiers, statesmen, and scholars; held court in Paris; presided at Princeton; advanced into the Wilderness and then into the White House. Their individual triumphs made this exclusive party seem above America’s founding sins, and it was forgotten that the former was in fact bound to the latter, that all their victories had transpired on cleared grounds. No such elegant detachment can be attributed to Donald Trump—a president who, more than any other, has made the awful inheritance explicit.
When he began taking a knee during the National Anthem, earning the attention of the president and the entire press was the best outcome he could possibly have desired.
Friday morning, things didn’t look great for Colin Kaepernick.
The former San Francisco 49er had made headlines around the world last season for kneeling during the National Anthem. The offseason had seen a raging debate about the fact that he hadn’t been signed from free agency, which boiled down to whether teams were justified in deciding that his controversial protest outweighed his talent. Despite some comically atrocious performances by quarterbacks on NFL rosters in the first two weeks of the season, Kaepernick remained unsigned. A few fellow players said publicly that he deserved a roster spot somewhere, and some had taken up his protest, but it remained a niche question, and the cause to which Kaepernick wished to draw attention—police brutality against people of color—had faded a bit from the headlines, overwhelmed by the onslaught of Trump-related news.
The president has already backed down from his most strident attacks on athletes and adopted a less controversial celebration of the American flag.
After spending the weekend picking fights with the two best basketball players in the world, President Trump woke up Monday morning in a more contemplative, jingoistic mood—shifting both his emphasis and his tone.
The issue of kneeling has nothing to do with race. It is about respect for our Country, Flag and National Anthem. NFL must respect this!
These missives fit with the way Trump often handles his many feuds and crises, starting from an extreme position and then slowly groping toward one where he can find popular support. While the fights that the president picks are often comically unpredictable—if you had “Twitter fight with Steph Curry and LeBron James” on your presidential bingo card for the weekend, step up to the table to take your winnings—but the way that he conducts himself, having chosen a fight, seems to display a pattern.
More comfortable online than out partying, post-Millennials are safer, physically, than adolescents have ever been. But they’re on the brink of a mental-health crisis.
One day last summer, around noon, I called Athena, a 13-year-old who lives in Houston, Texas. She answered her phone—she’s had an iPhone since she was 11—sounding as if she’d just woken up. We chatted about her favorite songs and TV shows, and I asked her what she likes to do with her friends. “We go to the mall,” she said. “Do your parents drop you off?,” I asked, recalling my own middle-school days, in the 1980s, when I’d enjoy a few parent-free hours shopping with my friends. “No—I go with my family,” she replied. “We’ll go with my mom and brothers and walk a little behind them. I just have to tell my mom where we’re going. I have to check in every hour or every 30 minutes.”
Those mall trips are infrequent—about once a month. More often, Athena and her friends spend time together on their phones, unchaperoned. Unlike the teens of my generation, who might have spent an evening tying up the family landline with gossip, they talk on Snapchat, the smartphone app that allows users to send pictures and videos that quickly disappear. They make sure to keep up their Snapstreaks, which show how many days in a row they have Snapchatted with each other. Sometimes they save screenshots of particularly ridiculous pictures of friends. “It’s good blackmail,” Athena said. (Because she’s a minor, I’m not using her real name.) She told me she’d spent most of the summer hanging out alone in her room with her phone. That’s just the way her generation is, she said. “We didn’t have a choice to know any life without iPads or iPhones. I think we like our phones more than we like actual people.”
NFL athletes are protesting on behalf of America’s founding values––and Donald Trump neither loves nor understands them.
Donald Trump, who has a disturbing history of praising brutal dictators, possesses no better than a Twitter troll’s understanding of what it means to be an American patriot. He spent the weekend trolling the NFL over the players protesting police violence during the national anthem, though any other president would have been attending to the millions of fellow citizens suffering in Puerto Rico; and the NFL athletes who defied him by taking a knee Sunday in solidarity with protests against police killings had the high ground, as good students of American history will understand.
When the Founding Fathers affixed their signatures to the Declaration of Independence, the first act of political courage in United States history, the American flag as we know it did not yet exist. And it would be more than a century before the Star Spangled Banner was adopted as the national anthem. Yet the Founders were not deficient in love of country for lacking the Stars and Stripes. In bravely dissolving political bonds with Britain, Thomas Jefferson set forth the premise of the United States, the core ideas around which his countrymen rallied: “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
“This fear is very deeply felt and not understood in the West—and it comes from a real place rooted in history.”
Over the past month, a crackdown by Burma’s military has forced more than 400,000 Rohingya Muslims from Rakhine state to flee to neighboring Bangladesh in what the UN human-rights chief has called a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” The military crackdown was prompted by an attack August 25th by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), a Muslim militant group with reported links to Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, on security outposts.
The international community has condemned the violence unleashed by the Burmese military on Rohingya civilians. It has also voiced sharp criticism of Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel laureate and de-facto Burmese leader, for, in the view of her critics, not doing enough to protect the Rohingya, who have been stateless for more than three decades. But where humanitarian groups and Western nations see the world’s most persecuted minority, the government of Burma (also known as Myanmar) and an overwhelming majority of its people see a foreign group with a separatist agenda, fueled by Islam, and funded from overseas. It’s this difference in perception that will make any resolution of the Rohingya issue extremely difficult.
At a game played in London on Sunday afternoon, many of their fellow Ravens and Jaguars took a knee.
Before the Lions met the Falcons in Detroit on Sunday, Rico LaVelle sang “The Star-Spangled Banner.” And then he took a knee.
They were replicating the gesture of Colin Kaepernick, the former 49ers quarterback who, starting in 2016, had been kneeling during the pre-game singing of the national anthem. “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” Kaepernick explained. “To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.” Kaepernick’s 49ers teammates, Eric Reid and Eli Harold, took a knee. The Beaumont Bulls, a high school team, took a knee. Their collective protests, however, had been limited—deviations from the norm.