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.
Anxiety and listless days as a foreign-policy bureaucracy confronts the possibility of radical change
The flags in the lobby of the State Department stood bathed in sunlight and silence on a recent afternoon. “It’s normally so busy here,” marveled a State Department staffer as we stood watching the emptiness. “People are usually coming in for meetings, there’s lots of people, and now it’s so quiet.” The action at Foggy Bottom has instead moved to the State Department cafeteria where, in the absence of work, people linger over countless coffees with colleagues. (“The cafeteria is so crowded all day,” a mid-level State Department officer said, adding that it was a very unusual sight. “No one’s doing anything.”) As the staffer and I walked among the tables and chairs, people with badges chatted over coffee; one was reading his Kindle.
Imagine listening to the president’s address to Congress as if it were the first speech he’d given.
During Richard Nixon’s years as a slashingly anti-Communist U.S. senator and vice president, The WashingtonPost’s famed cartoonist Herblock (Herbert Block) was a relentless critic. His trademark was portraying Nixon with a heavier and heavier five o’clock shadow, caricaturing him as a thug.
Then in 1968, when Nixon returned to Washington as president, Herblock drew a famous cartoon saying in effect, “every new president deserves a clean shave” and began drawing a better-looking Nixon (for a while).
I decided to approach Donald Trump’s speech tonight to Congress in the “clean shave” spirit. During the campaign I was not an admirer. I thought his inaugural address was unique among such speeches in its dark divisiveness, and since the inauguration I’ve considered his actions more rather than less abrasive than even I foresaw.
Glowing reviews of the president’s first address to Congress miss the crucial respects in which he fell short.
President Donald Trump wore a non-sparkly tie last night. His suit fit. He seems to have upgraded his haircut too. After some initial hesitation, Trump found something positive to say about Black History Month and something negative about anti-Semitic hate crimes.
Better still, Trump worked his way through more than an hour of television without insulting or demeaning anyone. He did not mention his crowd sizes, argue about his vote margin, or attack the press. Although he again trafficked in misleading or deceptive statements, he eschewed outright lies.
Different people will have different reactions to Trump’s spotlighting of a Navy SEAL’s widow to immunize himself against accusations that he cavalierly and ignorantly ordered troops into a poorly considered combat mission—but clearly, many TV viewers found the moment inspiring and affecting.
The ride-sharing giant’s full-blown PR crisis is getting worse.
It took eight years and at least as many back-to-back-to-back-to-back controversies to break Travis Kalanick.
After a stunning month of scandals at Uber, Kalanick, its founder and CEO, sent an emotional and uncharacteristically apologetic memo to his employees Tuesday night. “This is the first time I’ve been willing to admit that I need leadership help,” Kalanick wrote. “And I intend to get it.”
Uber has always been controversial, but never like this.
Kalanick’s message came hours after a video surfaced that showed dashboard-camera footage of him arguing with an Uber driver who had just given him a ride. In the video, Fawzi Kamel, who gave a recording of the conversation to Bloomberg, tells Kalanick that he and other drivers suffered as a result of lower fares for riders. “People are not trusting you anymore,” Kamel tells Kalanick. “I'm bankrupt because of you... You changed the whole business. You dropped the prices.”
Calvin College is no fundamentalist Christian school.
GRAND RAPIDS, Mich.—It would be easy enough to drive past Calvin College without giving Betsy DeVos’s alma mater a second thought. Six miles southeast of downtown, the school is a sprawling cluster of nondescript buildings and winding pathways in a quiet suburb. But to bypass Calvin would be to ignore an institution whose approach to education offers clues about how the recently appointed U.S. education secretary might pursue her new job, and about the tug religious institutions feel between maintaining tradition and remaining relevant in a rapidly diversifying world.
DeVos is now Calvin’s most famous alum, and in recent weeks, the school has been painted in some circles both online and in conversation as a conservative, insular institution that helped spawn a controversial presidential-cabinet member intent on using public dollars to further religious education. But that is a grossly simplified narrative, and one that obscures the nuances and very real tensions at the school.
One of the most volcanically active countries in the world is not ready for a devastating eruption.
Thirteen days before Christmas, somewhere in the frigid waters of the Bering Sea, a massive volcano unexpectedly rumbled back to life.
Just like that, Bogoslof volcano began its first continuous eruption since 1992, belching great plumes of ash tens of thousands of feet into the cold sky over the Aleutian islands, generating volcanic lightning, and disrupting air travel—though not much else.
The volcano is on a tiny island about 60 miles west of Unalaska, which is the largest city in the Aleutians. It has a population of about 5,000 people.
Bogoslof hasn’t quieted yet. One explosion, in early January, sent ash 33,000 feet into the air. Weeks later, another eruption lasted for hours, eventually sprinkling enough ash on the nearby city to collect on car windshields and dust the snow-white ground with a sulfurous layer of gray. Over the course of two months, Bogoslof’s intermittent eruptions have caused the island to triple in size so far, as fragments of rock and ash continue to pile atop one another.
In his 1899 book The Theory of the Leisure Class, the economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen wrote that “conspicuous abstention from labor … becomes the conventional mark of superior pecuniary achievement.” In other words, the richer one gets, the less one works and the more likely one is to try to show off one’s ample leisure time.
For a while, Veblen’s theory held, with few exceptions. But no longer. In the U.S., one can now make a good guess about how rich somebody is based on the long hours they put in at work. The wealthiest American men, on average, work more than those poorer than them.
With this workaholic lifestyle, though, comes quite a bit of prestige, a perk that the researcher Silvia Bellezza, a professor of marketing at Columbia Business School, has found Americans to be all too aware of. Bellezza is the author, along with Georgetown’s Neeru Paharia and Harvard’s Anat Keinan, of a recent paper in the Journal of Consumer Research about the prominence of an unusual status symbol: seeming busy.
The president’s focus on crimes committed by members of one particular group singles them out for blame.
Donald Trump is worried about violence by unauthorized immigrants. When he spoke before a joint session of Congress on Tuesday night, he invited three relatives of people that unauthorized immigrants had killed to attend as his guests.
In that speech, he called for the Department of Homeland Security to create an office focused on the victims of immigrant crime. And in a January 25 executive order, he instructed the Homeland Security Secretary to “make public a comprehensive list of criminal actions committed by aliens.”
The company powers much of the Internet, but its cloud facilities are difficult to find.
Once in a while—not quite often enough to be a crisis, but just often enough to be a trope—people in the United States will freak out because a huge number of highly popular websites and services have suddenly gone down. For an interminable period of torture (usually about 1-3 hours, tops) there is no Instagram to browse, no Tinder to swipe, no Github to push to, no Netflix to And Chill.
When this happens, it usually means that Amazon Web Services is having a technical problem, most likely in their US-East region. What that actually means is that something is broken in northern Virginia. Of all the places where Amazon operates data centers, northern Virginia is one of the most significant, in part because it’s where AWS first set up shop in 2006. It seemed appropriate that this vision quest to see The Cloud across America which began at the ostensible birthplace of the Internet should end at the place that’s often to blame when large parts of the U.S. Internet dies.
Moderation seems to be a better approach than greed—for foragers, at least.
One of the grand questions in life is when it’s time to move on. Whether you’re a hunter-gatherer rapidly depleting the berries in your area or an oil company considering leaving one well to start up another, from the point of view of a mathematician, you face the same basic dilemma: “When should you go to where the grass is greener?” says Sidney Redner, a physicist at the Santa Fe Institute. The problem shows up in ecology, where researchers study the optimal strategy for a foragers moving through its environment; in management research, where companies decide between sinking money into innovation or excelling where they are strongest; and many, many other places.
It also turns out to be a fairly thorny one to solve. Think of a tropical forest scattered with groves of banana trees, and imagine some forager who consumes the low-hanging fruit of one grove. After a while, this hypothetical forager faces the decision of leaving to find another grove or climbing the trees to get harder-to-reach bananas. Mathematically, it does not seem to be possible to make generalizations about which strategy is the best if the forager walks randomly until they stumble upon a new patch, Redner says; the forager can take almost any path through the environment, and very quickly the possible routes diverge enormously, so it winds up being very difficult to say anything conclusive.