Leading Reformer Concerned About Drug Trafficking Menace in Georgia
Mikhail Saakashvili has emerged as a leading reformer in Georgia. In September 2001, Saakashvili resigned as justice minister in protest of the reluctance of President Eduard Shevardnadze's administration to implement anti-corruption measures. In October, he won a seat in the Georgian parliament in a special by-election, and since then has sought to strengthen his power base. Some observers now consider him a possible candidate to succeed Shevardnadze as Georgia's president. Saakashvili recently discussed Georgian politics with Jeffry K. Silverman, a Tbilisi-based journalist. Saakashvili expressed concern that narcotics trafficking in Georgia was developing into a serious problem. His comments follow:
Silverman: Your Western orientation is considered controversial; some go as far as to call you nothing but a puppet of the West.Saakashvili: This whole discussion is not about orientation but about human values - we are all about those values such as freedom, tolerance, and securing human rights. The main thing is to cultivate those basic values here, to prepare the ground for long-term cooperation with Western countries, which have been very supportive in terms of humanitarian assistance. Soon there will have to be some pressure applied from the West for Georgia to follow the correct path: the level of organized crime in the country is increasing with money laundering and a booming drug trade. There is a chance that the West might not react soon enough in addressing this problem. Something needs to be done before it gets out of hand.
Our political elites talk about their Western orientation as well, including Shevardnadze. However, communication quickly breaks down when the leadership is asked that all be equal before the law and economic opportunity be attainable for all Georgians. Equality and basic values are important in achieving democracy and meeting the requirements of civil society. Many in Georgia are trying to connect my values and Western orientation as an excuse in defending their own short-sighted activities that are often illegal - they can be heard saying, "Well big houses are part of the Georgian culture" - such high concepts, i.e., "Georgians have their own culture and need not look elsewhere," and so forth on and so on. Shevardnadze has repeated in recent months, if you will remember, that building huge and expensive houses is part of the Georgian mentality, it is genetically determined - [it is a culturally justifiable matter within this reality].
Silverman: Is the West still satisfied with Shevardnadze?Saakashvili: The West is interested in and satisfied with what is a more or less politically stable situation in Georgia; the only thing they don't want to happen here is chaos and to realize that their efforts and support have been in vain. Knowing this, Shevardnadze is manipulating the situation to his best advantage by saying that he is still acceptable for everyone, including the West and Russia; and if he resigns, then there will be immediate chaos and all will have been lost.
Silverman: What about Kakha Targamadze, the former minister of interior who was forced out of government during popular protests in late October/early November? [For background see the Eurasia Insight archives]. Is Targamadze a figure of any political significance any longer?Saakashvili: Targamadze has a lot of money and a solid foundation among various law enforcement agencies of the state, i.e., law enforcement bodies. It will take a very long time to break these connections, and even longer to bring him and his minions to justice - years, perhaps never. Much of the money that Targamadze has at his disposal comes from the illegal trade in the cigarette import business. Together with his key position in the controlling shares of the Aldagi insurance company, he has 60 percent of the Aldagi - the largest insurance company in Georgia. The financial dealings of this company is networked with several offshore companies; David Gamkrelidze - MP, former Director General of Aldagi - was but a figurehead and the actual percentage of shares were not very impressive, somewhere in the range of eight to nine percent officially belongs to him.
Silverman: Is it true that Targamadze had a plan to arrest you and Zurab Zhvania, former Speaker of Parliament and the previous spokesman for the Citizens Union Party in association with a takeover of the government? Saakashvili: Only because of the student protest over the Rustavi-2 TV channel [For background see the Eurasia Insight archives], and the unwillingness of David Tevzadze, Georgian Minister of Defense, was Targamadze unable to pull this one off; many are aware but few want to speak openly of the plans that were foiled by not getting everything organized at the last moment. The Defense Minister may not be the brightest to look at, however, he is basically an honest person and not so cunning - Georgia owes him a great debt of gratitude.
The larger question is, what is Targamadze doing since he is no longer in the government. They still want a palace coup, but one that will not draw international wrath - this can be pulled off in conjunction with some of those that see no place for them in a democratic transition when Shevardnadze is finally replaced.
Silverman: Can you comment on Georgia's role in drug trafficking?Saakashvili: The source of the drugs starts out in Afghanistan, mostly in the region that the Northern Alliance controlled prior to the war with the Taliban. The US and their allies may not want to hear this, but we expect this business to increase in Georgia with the defeat of the Taliban forces. It was the Uzbeks and Tajiks that had the export business under control with their connections with transit points such as Tashkent [Uzbekistan], Osh [Kyrgyzstan] and other Central Asian routes. Also, many of those responsible for enforcing the laws and international agreements to combat the drug trade are directly involved in making substantial money from keeping things as they were.
The current political and economic situation in Georgia is perfect for the drug business to develop without barriers. We have created an ideal situation for drug dealing in terms of territories that are out of control, and our strategically important location. We have immediate access to seaports and thus the shortest routes to the West. Right now the West is more involved with larger issues and drugs appears to be secondary. This is a mistake.
Silverman: Where do you get information about drug dealing? What are your sources? Can you back up your claims with sources? Saakashvili: I have many sources but I can't name any of them directly. Human life means almost nothing in Georgia and especially in the Pankisi Gorge. If I would name a concrete person, then this person would be immediately be killed or, even worse, members of his family [would also be targeted]. There are all kinds of things going on there ... it was ridiculous to claim that the two Spanish hostages were released after a joint operation by Georgian authorities [as claimed in the press]. In reality, a large amount of ransom was paid; only then were the hostages brought and placed at the side of the road.
Silverman: What is your view on press freedom in Georgia?Saakashvili: Compared to Russia and Ukraine, we are relatively free - there is still some room to breathe. The larger question is how long will this last. There are many forces that see press freedoms as something to be destroyed - the sooner the better. The events of Rustavi-2 and the attempted shut down of the TV station by Security forces prove that freedom of speech is something that is very important to Georgians, especially the younger generation - the younger generation is willing to defend it! Georgia is the last remaining CIS country that still has a genuinely free press. Together with a strong civic sector that is joined with at least some honest politicians who are not corrupted, there is still hope of freedom. We are undergoing the same process that already occurred in Russia and Ukraine where powerful oligarchic interests have taken and are continuing to take over all political structures, monopolizing the mass media, and even trying to simulate a satellite NGO activity. In such a situation I believe that it's very important to support an independent press and genuine independent non-governmental organizations.
Silverman: Can you comment on any possible dealings between Shevardnadze and Badri Patarkatsishvili, a businessman with alleged ties to organized criminal activity? Patarkatsishvili is reportedly buying media outlets in Georgia in collaboration with Russian mogul Boris Berezovski. Saakashvili: The connections are not so much in the economic sense but are politically based. He [Shevardnadze] needs everybody who can help him in maintaining a tight grasp on political power. A group of politicians are trying to monopolize not only business, but political structures as well. They say: "yes, Shevardnadze should be replaced," but they actually want a sort of palace coup - a central Asian model. But on the other hand, Shevardnadze doesn't want to give up, he strives to maintain his grasp on power to the very last. Meanwhile, Russian authorities have issued an arrest warrant for the Georgian media magnate who they connect with helping an Aeroflot official escape from Russia that was under investigation for fraud.
Silverman: Please tell us more about Patarkatsishvili.Saakashvili: Badri Patarkatsishvili is a partner of Boris Berezovski, and he has his own political and financial interests that are blended with the media as a useful tool in his business. I don't perceive Patarkatsishvili himself as a danger. However, what is more dangerous is the possibility of a separate group that is trying to link itself to this media baron. Involved are the clique of Vano Chkartishvili, former Minister of Economics and trade; Kakha Targamadze, the ousted Minister of Internal affairs; and "The New Rights" Movement, which represents the cross section of merging interests, [those listed] including MPs Levan Gachechiladze, David Gamkrelidze and other inner circle clans. Together, they are working at taking over and monopolizing the mass media, including English language newspapers, and they are creating a vast financial and media empire.
Actually, they have been very successful and have the opportunity to reach their objectives. They are trying to get control over all radio frequencies, placing pressure on Independent TV Station Rustavi-2. They started out in the print media and jumped over to broadcasting. Starting with the New Year, Patarkatsishvili will launch the new TV channel, "TV-Imedi," which has very good coverage - reaching almost 90 percent of Georgian viewers. They will easily gain the access to the population. We still have to wait and see what positions this channel will take.
A longer version of this interview originally appeared in Georgia Times. Jeffrey K. Silverman is editor of the Georgian Times.