This article first appeared in The eXile on November 11, 2003
TBILISI, GEORGIA – If you want to understand what’s really going on beneath the current election crisis in the former Soviet republic of Georgia — a struggle that threatens to push the country back into the kind of civil war which killed tens of thousands from 1989 through 1993 – then you need to pull the camera back. Way back, to the global level.
That’s because Georgia is a battleground not just between local political factions vying for power, but also between the geostrategic interests of America and Russia, between competing Big Oil interests, and between the forces of globalization and the forces which defy globalization (chaos, tradition, isolation).
Georgia, in other words, is one of the world’s key battlegrounds on every level that matters, and that is why so much is at stake in the election crisis. Most tiny nations — Georgia has a population of about 5 million — would relish the thought of being so important; the opportunity to play off powers and up one’s price would seem to be limitless. In Georgia’s case, its location and its importance have been its curse.
Bad luck not just because it means the Georgians are surrounded by venal, war-like Caucasus states or brutal, imperial Russia, but also because, thanks to the Caspian Sea oil, the Americans have been no less deeply involved in Georgia…with the usual destruction that comes with American aid and regime support in this part of the world. In Russia, American-backed aid and loans were a crucial factor in creating one of the most corrupt regimes on earth and its subsequent default.
In Georgia, the situation is even worse. America has given more aid per capita to Georgia over the past ten years than to any other country besides Israel. The corruption is correspondingly worse: Georgia ranks far below Russia on the Transparency International corruption rating, below all CIS countries, below even Papua-New Guinea, and ahead of only five other nations, including such illustrious examples as Haiti and Nigeria. You won’t see a single result of all those hundreds of millions of dollars in aid grants — everything was stolen, every last penny. So you have to assume that the aid served another purpose besides establishing democracy or helping the Georgian people — and that purpose is the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline, the Frontera oil company, and NATO and U.S. Special Forces access.
The result is that Georgia, which just 15 years ago was considered the Soviet Union’s wealthiest republic, is today one of the poorest and most corrupt nations in the world, with huge chunks of its territory in the hands of separatists or local petty despots, hundreds of thousands of internally-displaced refugees, an infrastructure in such disrepair it makes Russia look like Switzerland, a ghost town when it comes to attracting foreign investment and capital. Its impoverished citizens, who are lucky to receive their wages or pensions, are also weighted down by a crippling external debt.
And yet somehow, in spite of this, Georgia is one of the most charming places on earth.
In order to untangle the web that connects Georgia’s election crisis to global politics, keep in mind four things: James Baker III, Ambassador Richard Miles, Caspian Sea oil, and Russia.
When James Baker was sent out to Georgia this past July to lecture its President, Eduard Shevardnadze, about the need to ensure that the upcoming parliamentary elections were “free and fair,” it must have raised a lot of eyebrows. Eyebrows of the “you’ve got to be shitting me” variety.
James Baker? This is the same guy who Bush Jr. hired in 2000 to steal the Florida vote, handing the U.S. presidency over to a tool who lost by half a million votes. The way Baker railroaded Bush into the presidency has done more damage to American democracy than anything since Nixon and Watergate. Sending him into corrupt Georgia to demand that they have “free and fair elections” is like sending Yegor Gaidar into Iraq in order to advise them on privatization and the transition to a market economy — which Bush also did.
So what the hell was Jim Baker doing in Georgia playing the role of some Jimmy Carter bleeding heart? After all, Bush didn’t send him to Azerbaijan, which became the former Soviet Union’s first official dynasty after its pro-U.S. leader handed power to his son in a rigged election. Nor have we raised much of a fuss about free and fair elections to our other new friends in the region. Fuss? Tchya, right. Uzbek strongman Karimov must have received about 100,000 dollars in aid for every American soldier he allowed to be based in his police state (assuming we have about 5,000 soldiers there). Or you could say that we gave about $1,000,000 in aid to Karimov for every political opponent he’s got rotting in jail, boiled skin melted onto busted bones. And Kyrgyzstan — which just started getting its big Santa packages from Uncle Sam after it gave us an air base – has actually slid backwards into deeper authoritarianism ever since Bush started stuffing its leaders’ pockets.
So why was Baker playing the knit-capped human rights hippie in Georgia? The obvious answer is that he wasn’t. When James Baker wades into an oil-soaked, unstable region full of corrupt despots, points at one and tells him he has to play fair this time, it means only one thing: “You’re out, we’re backing new people, and we expect you to go peacefully or else.”
Baker is more than just the man responsible for engineering the closest thing America has ever had to a coup d’etat. He’s also Mr. Oil. Specifically, Caspian Sea oil. His law firm, Baker Botts, boasts on its web page, “Baker Botts has been and continues to be the leading international law firm involved in the reemergence of the oil, gas and related hydrocarbon transportation industries in the Caspian region and has one of the most active practices of any U.S. law firm with respect to other types of investment in the region.” The Caspian Sea oil is set to be pumped out of Azerbaijan and transported via Georgia to the Turkish Mediterranean sea port of Ceyhan. Former President Clinton had labeled the oil route a “vital national interest” while Vice President Dick Cheney named the oil region a vital strategic interest for the first half of the 21st Century. The U.S. oil firms with Caspian Sea interests seamlessly tied their interests to America’s via their lawyer, James Baker. Among notables with interests in the Caspian Sea oil are Brent Scowcroft, Bush Sr.’s National Security Advisor; John Sununu, Bush Sr.’s Chief of Staff; and Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter’s National Security Advisor. Then there is Frontera Oil, a company set up five years ago specifically to exploit Georgian oil. Its board includes former Clinton CIA chief John Deutch and former Texas senator Lloyd Bensten. Frontera’s chairman is former Clinton deputy energy secretary Bill White, who was in charge of formulating Clinton’s Caspian Sea policy.
As you will see, it’s the oil transnationals who decided on regime change in Georgia, using a sudden interest in Jeffersonian democracy as the pretext, while indulging the the anti-democratic but stable Aliyev dynasty in nextdoor Azerbaijan.
By the way, if you think that Baker is just a dedicated patriot doing his job for God and country, remember this: Baker Botts is also the lead counsel for Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz, the Saudi defense minister, defending him in a lawsuit filed by the families of the victims of 9/11 — that’s right, Baker is defending Saudi terror-financiers against American terror victims. Which shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise, considering that Baker is also the senior counsel to the notorious Carlyle Group of investors. On September 11th, 2001, Baker was reportedly with members of the bin Laden family – his business partners – in the Ritz Carlton in Washington D.C.
So let me repeat it again: James Baker getting sent to Georgia by President Bush in order to demand that Shevardnadze hold free and fair elections is tantamount to a push for a coup.
Which brings us to Richard Miles, the U.S. ambassador to Georgia. Miles, who served in the Marines and studied Russian at the U.S. Army Institute in Germany (read: U.S. intelligence), is a career diplomat specializing in military-strategic issues and Eastern Europe. Not surprising then that he played a key role in at least one U.S.-backed democratic coup and military takeover just a few years ago.
Ambassador Miles was the chief of mission (effectively ambassador) to Yugoslavia from 1996 to 1999. He was one of the key instruments in America’s drive to push the Kosovo crisis towards war and eventual occupation by NATO forces. If you go back and read accounts of Miles’ service, he was first involved with the Serbian democratic opposition in the 1997 elections and drive to get Milosevic thrown out of power. Miles’ biography hilariously cites his speeches to opposition leaders in which he tells the Serbs about his alleged hippie days and sit-ins at the Pentagon in the 60s. I dunno, call me a sin-ic and all, but somehow I have a hard time seeing Ambassador Miles beating a tambourine and denouncing the pigs…
Despite his and America’s efforts, the Serbian opposition failed to unseat Milosevic in 1997. So American policy moved to undermine him by backing a different opposition group — the KLA — and pushing for war in Kosovo. The following year, in 1998, Miles took a leading role in the Western “observer” convoys which oversaw cease-fires in Kosovo. After the war, a BBC documentary revealed that the OSCE mission in Kosovo was a front for the CIA to gather intelligence on the Serbs, then prepare for and trigger the war against Serbia.
In 2000, Milosevic was thrown out of power in circumstances that look a lot like today’s in Georgia: a rigged election leading to street protests by the U.S.-backed democratic-nationalist opposition and a powerful youth group; their refusal to recognize the results; and a stand-off which threatened to spill into civil war. American funding, propaganda, and the war in Kosovo were all key to getting rid of Milosevic, and it worked, with Richard Miles running the whole American-engineered coup. The result was that Milosevic was thrown out of power, a pro-U.S. government took power, aid started to flow, and American bases in Kosovo look secure for a long time to come. Miles wasn’t there to oversee the final stage of the coup and takeover that he spearheaded — in 2000, he moved to the ambassadorship in Bulgaria, speeding this tiny “New Europe” nation into NATO’s orbit, a move effected, some allege, by funneling aid through friendly yet corrupt Bulgarian politicians.
Miles was named U.S. Ambassador to Georgia in March of 2002. Roughly ten years earlier, he had been named ambassador to Azerbaijan, the first leg of the Caspian Sea oil pipeline, and he served there long enough to watch approvingly as Haidar Aliyev established his decidedly anti-democratic dynasty.
Miles was named ambassador to Georgia last year at a crucial moment. America had just introduced its first units of Special Forces ostensibly to train special Georgian battalions to rid the Pankisi Gorge of supposed Al Qaeda terrorists. It caused an uproar in Russia and was one of the key moves which drastically cooled relations between Russia and America. The Al Qaeda rumors were generally recognized as a bogus excuse to introduce American forces, thereby pulling Georgia deeper into America’s grip. Not that the Georgians minded — most welcomed the arrival of the American Green Berets, naively believing that they would protect Georgia from the Russians and reconquer lost territory. This move backfired and the Russians now have more control over Georgia than any time since the collapse of the Soviet Union, but more on that later.
In his Senate confirmation hearings in Washington that year, Miles began his statement, “President Shevardnadze will retire in 2005. As you well know, three years is the blink of an eye in the world of politics. A top priority of U.S. policy on Georgia during this critical period will be to help Georgian political leaders and Georgian society to prepare for a peaceful and democratic transition of power in 2005.”
Sounds nice on the surface, but what it means in the local context is this: America is not only going to make sure that this “transition of power” takes place, but how and to whom. Here’s how: “As we engage with a new generation of leaders, we will also maintain a partnership with President Shevardnadze in his commitment to advancing democratic and market economic reform and fighting corruption.” Leaving aside the black humor — America partnering up with Shevardnadze to fight corruption is about as insane as Hitler partnering up with the Iron Guard to fight anti-Semitism in the Balkans — his mission was clear: to put into power younger, more pliant Georgian politicians. Shevardnadze was bad for stability: he is 75 years old, grossly unpopular, too wily to control.
And this is where the global/local connection gets confusing.
Russia. What the hell was Russia’s role in all of this?
Any Georgian will tell you that Russia’s role has been purely destructive, an attempt to keep control. Russians will answer that the Georgians brought it all on themselves through their hostile, often brutal anti-Russian behavior which drove out hundreds of thousands of ethnic Russians.
Russia was behind the carving up of Georgian territory, supporting separatists who control Abkhazia in the northwest and and South Ossetia in the north (which have been practically annexed by Russia) as well as a de facto breakaway region in Adjaria, whose capital, Batumi, is now the site of an annual August Love Parade for Russia’s rich techno youth. Russia has military bases in Georgia that it wants to keep. In other words, Russia has been holding a gun to Georgia’s head, telling it that if it tries to leave Russia’s orbit, it will do so in rags. Georgia has defiantly resisted even to the point of self-destruction — if you know the sense of pride and self-worth Georgians have, you’d understand it.
Russia and Georgia have been in a kind of war of attrition for the past decade now, with Russia intermittently applying its instruments of torture (separatism, cutting off gas supplies, closing off markets) and Georgia vainly trying to rapidly absorb itself into the West in the naive belief that somehow they can escape their geographic fate. The war of attrition’s balance was seriously upset last year with the introduction of American Green Berets. That, combined with the recent groundbreaking on the Caspian Sea pipeline, seemed to radically shift things in Georgia’s favor.
The Russians, however, reacted quietly, brutally, and efficiently. Last year, Putin calmed down the hysterics over the American Special Forces in Georgia by proclaiming that it was “no big deal.” The White House and Big Oil companies must have been giving each other high fives over that facing of Russia, right in their own back yards! But by this summer, there was no joy in Texasville .
Russian energy monopolies Gazprom and RAO-ES managed to essentially take over the natural gas and much of the energy grid networks in Georgia. On July 1st of this year, Gazprom, which had just bought out Georgia’s gas pipelines, signed a secret 25-year agreement to be the sole supplier of gas to Georgia, while at the same time, Tblisi’s energy grid was secretly sold to RAO-UES, headed by self-described “liberal-imperialist” Anatoly Chubais.
Washington was, to say the least, not pleased. After the sale, the White House issued a statement expressing its regret that the power grid had been sold off by its American owners, AES. The news caused protests in Tblisi, and the opposition parties slammed Shevardnadze. He reacted dismissively, calling his critics “incompetent.” Shortly afterwards, he started to show his anger by attacking AES as “robbers and cheats.” This wasn’t so much an attack on AES as on the American government which backed AES’s investment as part of a national strategic interest.
In fact AES probably had no choice: massive corruption kept AES from even hoping to turn a profit, Russian energy supplies played havoc with its network, and finally, some old-fashioned pressure was applied: AES’s chief financial officer was found dead in his Tblisi home.
This not only dramatically increased Russia’s control over Georgia, but it raised questions as to how Russia gained control. Who sold it all to them? Which country owned which politician? Could it be possible that Shevardnadze had joined with his old enemies Russia against his closest friend, America? Why would he do it? The oldest reasons of all: power and money. Shevardnadze, and the small clan around him which has stolen nearly everything of worth in Georgia for going on a decade, needs to stay in power at all costs. At some point they must have decided that it was in their best interests to side with the Russians.
Washington must have sensed that it was losing control over Georgia and its leadership. In early June — about 6 weeks before Baker flew to Tblisi to give his famous civics lesson to Shevardnadze — President Bush sent his top energy advisor, Stephen Mann, to Tblisi to warn him that “Georgia should do nothing that undercuts the powerful promise of an East-West energy corridor.” He added, “Support for any competing gas export pipelines at this stage would be destructive for Shah Deniz,” a separate U.S.-backed gas pipeline that will travel from Azerbaijan to Turkey via Georgia. In other words, the Americans were losing Georgia, and Bush sent Mann in to warn Shevardnadze not to let it happen. Clearly the US had word of what was going on with Gazprom and RAO-UES. But they were unable to stop it.
Now the menacing appearance by James Baker one month later in Shevardnadze’s office, lecturing him about free and fair elections, makes more sense. America was losing Georgia to the Russians. Goodbye Caspian Sea oil, the world’s last untapped ocean of fuel. Goodbye NATO bases and forward momentum. Sure, Shevardnadze had done a lot for America in the past — Baker still talks about their warm personal friendship – but that was then and this was now. One can see the chairman of ExxonMobil saying to Baker, like Jeff Goldblum in Deep Cover, “I know you like Shevardnadze and so do I, but…[sharply wipes right palm of hand over left palm]…he’s gotta go.” By sending Baker, the Vladimiro Montesinos of the Bush Administration, to tell Shevardnadze to make sure his elections were exactly the kind of elections Baker had denied to his own countrymen, Bush was sending a message: he had declared war on Shevardnadze.
This article first appeared in The eXile on November 11, 2003
Still like to know more? The eXile: Sex, Drugs and Libel in the New Russia co-authored by Mark Ames and Matt Taibbi (Grove).
Got something to say to us? Then send us a letter.
Want us to stick around? Donate to The eXiled.
Twitter twerps can follow us at twitter.com/exiledonline