The Washington Diplomat / August 2011
By Larry Luxner
If it weren’t for the Star of David around his neck, Temuri Yakobashvili might not be alive today. So says Georgia’s new envoy to the United States, and the first openly Jewish ambassador ever to represent any former Soviet republic in Washington.
During an interview last month, Yakobashvili recalled the incident that nearly cost him his life back in early 1991, at the height of Georgia’s struggle for independence 20 years ago.
“It was right after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and we were in a civil war. A curfew had been declared by the opposition, and I was visiting friends who lived in the center of Tbilisi,” he told The Washington Diplomat. “When I went out on the street, a group of men with guns saw me. I thought they were enforcing the curfew, so I handed them my documents, but they were pro-regime. They said, ‘Aha, you support the curfew. That makes you our enemy and we’re going to kill you.’
“But in the photo on my identity card, I was wearing a Magen David visible from under my shirt. When one of them saw that, he said, ‘Oh, you’re Jewish. Only because of that we are letting you free. You’re on the wrong side, but you’re good people.’”
To say that this Hebrew-speaking, onetime Zionist youth activist wears his Judaism on his sleeve would be an overstatement. But it’s clearly an important part of Yakobashvili’s identity — along with his fierce Georgian national pride and his outspoken, candid and somewhat undiplomatic demeanor.
“He’s a true force of nature. He’s one of Georgia’s top strategic thinkers, and he’s blunt and frank in a way that’s refreshing,” says Damon Wilson, executive vice president of the Atlantic Council, calling his longtime friend Yakobashvili “the right person to be representing Georgia” on Capitol Hill. “He’s got to build a bipartisan constituency that backs this audacious vision of Georgia in the West, and I think he’s got the fortitude and the intellect to do so.”
Fiona Hill, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, says Yakobashvili has a solid reputation as an intellectual with a tough personality.
“He’s had a very distinguished career in Georgian foreign affairs and he set up one of their first and most important think tanks. As a result, he has the potential to be very effective,” said Hill, predicting that Tbilisi’s new man in D.C. “is not going to be a faceless, colorless diplomat who just represents the Georgian government.”
Colorless he is definitely not. The Washington Jewish Week recently described Yakobashvili, who was raised in a secular Jewish home, as “a broad-shouldered man with the build of an ex-rugby player” who once got himself arrested for dancing “Hava Nagila” in Moscow’s Red Square during Hanukkah. The newspaper’s Adam Kredo says he’s “still seen by some as the consummate political malcontent, an outspoken critic who’s more at home on a picket line than in an embassy.”
On the job less than five months, the 44-year-old diplomat is a physicist by training and comes to Washington with a long resume. A graduate of Tbilisi State University with a degree in physics, he joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs upon Georgian independence in 1991 and held a variety of senior positions, including director of the Department for the U.S., Canada and Latin America. In addition, Yakobashvili is co-founder and executive vice president of the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies, and co-founder of the Atlantic Council of Georgia as well as the Council of Foreign Relations of Georgia.
He’s also a passionate collector of Oriental and modern Georgian art. Hanging on the walls of his spacious office at the Georgian Embassy fronting Massachusetts Avenue are two works by Georgian painter Irakli Sutidze; one depicts a Roman soldier, the other a tax collector. There’s also another painting, “Man on a Horse,” just outside his office — and another 52 pieces of Georgian art on the walls of his residence. “Wherever I work, I have pieces of art from my collection,” the diplomat said.
We asked Yakobashvili how he sees his role in Washington, representing a Caucasus nation of 4.7 million that many Americans tend to confuse with the Peach State of the same name.
“I’m relatively new here, but what I see is that 95 percent of people’s attention are on domestic issues, and only 5 percent on international relations. And within that 5 percent, you have almost 200 countries that must compete for attention,” Yakobashvili explained as he leaned back, enjoying a cigarette.
“These days, the role of ambassador is different than what it used to be. Nowadays, journalists can be much more informed than ambassadors. Since this also allows greater transparency, the notion that an ambassador lies on behalf of his country is not true anymore. You cannot lie. People can check things out very quickly.”
And these days, people are openly questioning whether Georgia’s stridently pro-Western president, Mikheil Saakashvili, is exhibiting some decidedly un-Western governing tendencies.
On May 26, Georgia marked its 20th anniversary of independence from the former Soviet Union with a military parade down Tbilisi’s Rustaveli Avenue attended by Saakashvili, a graduate of Columbia Law School who took power after a bloodless coup in 2003. But the parade took place only after anti-riot police — using tear gas, water cannons and rubber bullets — had dispersed hundreds of opposition supporters from the parliament building after five days of antigovernment rallies.
Saakashvili has said the protesters were instigating violence against the police, while protesters in turn accuse the president of amassing power and trying to silence the opposition. A dominant figure in Georgian politics, Saakashvili remains fairly popular while the opposition remains largely in disarray, leading to speculation as to what will happen in 2013 when Saakashvili must step down as president.
Hill of Brookings said that Georgia under Saakashvili is far from being the “full-fledged democracy” he pledged it would be after the 2003 Rose Revolution that swept him into office.
“A lot of us who have been watching Georgia’s progress have been somewhat disappointed in the last few years,” she told The Diplomat. “Georgia, like the Baltic states, had the potential to really move forward quickly. But in my view, it’s much more difficult than people assume. It’s not just an issue of parties and having elections. They’re building new states at the same time they’re moving toward democracy, and these states — unlike the U.S. or Europe — have become dependent on the personality of the president. Georgia has also been beset by the problems of the last changes of government, which have taken place on the streets and through revolutions. So in many respects, Georgia still has a long way to go.”
In his defense, Yakobashvili says his country is working hard to prove the critics wrong, noting that Georgia now tops Transparency International’s list of countries fighting corruption and is rated the safest country in Europe.
“Seven years ago, the World Bank ranked us 163rd in terms of best places to do business. Now we are in the top 15,” he told us. “Nobody’s immune from mistakes, but we’re also quicker in fixing mistakes. I would seriously challenge the notion that we’re backsliding. I don’t see any indications of that. In fact, our electoral system is improving, and our media laws have significantly improved in the last year or so.”
The ambassador added: “Popularity is a very tricky issue. It cannot increase when you are conducting reforms. You’ll be remembered not by how much you tried to stay popular, but by how much you spent on the population to improve their lives.
“There are ups and downs, but now in postwar Georgia, the government is still popular because the people see how much we’re doing to address their concerns. Obviously, our major challenges are the economy, jobs, health care and education. Our birthrate has increased and we have more people returning to the country than leaving, because they see more opportunities.”
Yakobashvili also offered a philosophical approach to his country’s 20th anniversary of independence.
“Post-Soviet Georgia is, in a certain sense, a classic case of a liberated colony, but unlike the other colonies that were liberated when other empires collapsed, Georgia has had 3,000 years of statehood. We are trying to reinvent ourselves as a modern nation-state and a modern country that has to find itself in a globalized world,” he said. “And a big part of our success is due to U.S. support. I can say without any exaggeration that without U.S. support, Georgia would not be an independent state.”
Yet America’s so-called reset in relations with Russia has left pro-Western former Soviet states wondering if they’ll be left out in the cold. And as much as Georgia tries to reinvent itself into a modern country, it can’t seem to shake the past when it comes to its huge neighbor.
Much of Georgia’s preoccupation — some say obsession — with Russia stems from its brief but bruising war with Russia that killed about 400 Georgians and created some 30,000 internal refugees, although those numbers are disputed by both sides.
According to a European Union-led independent fact-finding mission, the August 2008 war was sparked when Saakashvili ordered an attack on separatists in South Ossetia, one of two disputed territories with Russia (Abkhazia being the other). The president denies instigating the attack, saying a Russian invasion was already under way in the separatist enclave.
But most outside experts agree that Saakashvili probably miscalculated — badly — giving Moscow an opening that it took ruthless advantage of as it quickly routed the overwhelmed Georgian forces and seized control of the two breakaway regions, which today remain under Russian occupation.
The EU inquiry report said that “years of provocations, mutual accusations, military and political threats and acts of violence” on both sides led to the war, which had its roots in the early 1990s, when South Ossetia and Abkhazia gained de facto independence from Georgia after the Soviet collapse.
Moscow though seized on the report to lay the blame squarely on Saakashvili. Pure Kremlin propaganda, counters Yakobashvili.
“Georgia’s war with Russia was a reflection of Russian sentiments to restore the Soviet Union. This war was not about Abkhazia and South Ossetia. It was about attacking Western interests,” he argues. “Those who say Georgia fired the first shots are either naïve, or misinformed, or trying to hide their impotence. It’s very interesting to blame Georgia when Russia attacked a neighboring country by six different means including land forces, ballistic missiles and cyber warfare. So all this talk about who fired the first shot is a spin that Russia is promoting.”
Yakobashvili in fact previously served as deputy prime minister and state minister for reintegration in the Georgian government. In that capacity, he orchestrated Georgia’s “engagement strategy” for improving ties between his country and Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
But the fundamental problem, wrote Guardian columnist George Hewitt in a February 2010 column, is that neither South Ossetia nor Abkhazia “have the slightest wish to be ‘reintegrated’ into a unitary Georgian state.” Reminding his readers that Iosep Dzhugashvili — better known to the world as Joseph Stalin — was from Georgia, Hewitt added that the war was “sparked by Saakashvili’s assault on Tskhinvali” and that “it is precisely because of repeated Georgian attacks over many years that the Abkhazians and South Ossetians have no trust in Tbilisi.”
In the meantime, Russia has been pouring money into the two breakaway republics to solidify its hold on them, while Georgia tries to keep the world interested in an issue that’s long faded from the headlines and settled into a de facto stalemate.
Still, to date, only three countries besides Russia itself have formally recognized the “independence” of Abkhazia and South Ossetia: Venezuela, Nicaragua and the tiny Pacific island of Nauru — an eight-square-mile coral atoll with 11,000 inhabitants that survives on exports of phosphate formed by ancient bird droppings. Since its December 2009 decision to establish ties with the two breakaway republics in exchange for $50 million in Russian aid, not a single country has followed Nauru’s example.
“This is a huge diplomatic blow to Russia,” Yakobashvili said. “Not even the closest allies of the Russian Federation have recognized them.” Georgia and Russia themselves don’t have diplomatic relations, and there’s no Georgian Embassy in Moscow. Rather, the two countries talk to each other through the protection of Switzerland.
The acrimony between the two nemeses is palpable, and since the unresolved 2008 war, tensions continue to flare, with sporadic border clashes and, most recently, Saakashvili accusing Russian military officers in Abkhazia of trying to plant bombs inside Georgia, while Russia denounced Georgian special forces for raids inside Abkhazia. Georgian authorities have also regularly accused Moscow of spying, and last month Saakashvili had his own personal photographer (along with several others) arrested on suspicions of being a Russian agent.
Moscow dismisses the charges as Georgian paranoia, but Yakobashvili counters that Russian money has been used “in a nasty way” to manipulate internal Georgian politics and sow fear in his country.
“This is not homegrown, it’s Russian-instigated. We have solid facts and our public is aware of these facts. I’m not talking about speculation, but court-approved intercepts of telephone conversations and videotaped materials,” he insisted. “We’ve had more than 10 terrorist attacks on critical infrastructure, including the U.S. Embassy last February, and we have hard evidence that Russia is behind this — not some junior officer taking the initiative but coming from Moscow.”
For this reason, one of Georgia’s top priorities — aside from joining NATO, the prospects for which took a severe beating after the war with Russia — is the procurement of defense-weapons capabilities from the United States. Aside from supportive rhetoric though, neither the Bush nor Obama administrations have given Tbilisi what it really wants: air defense and anti-tank systems to protect itself against Russian “aggression.”
Saakashvili recently told Newsweek that “Russia has occupied 20 percent of our territory. Russia keeps embassies not in Tbilisi but in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. They refuse to deal with our elected government. We are willing to talk to Russia at any moment about anything, but they haven’t been willing to get into a bilateral dialogue. Now they’ve deployed S-300 [surface-to-air] missiles to Abkhazia.”
Yet Damon Wilson of the Atlantic Council says Washington has no intention of “opening the floodgates of weapons” to Saakashvili, who some speculate was under the — apparently false — impression that the United States would back him militarily in the South Ossetia conflict.
“The U.S. has never been a leading arms supplier to Georgia,” Wilson told The Diplomat. “Most of our equipment is either too expensive or not compatible. What’s important is a normalization of military relations. This signals to the rest of the world that the U.S. is on board.”
Inaction on the part of the White House, he added, “has had a cascading effect on all NATO allies,” leading Georgia to buy weapons from its more traditional arms supplier like the Czech Republic, Ukraine and Israel.
“At the end of the day, what Georgia wants from the United States is a real sense that we’re with them on this audacious journey. This is a former Soviet republic that wants to join NATO. That entails a lot of risks, and they fundamentally want to know that we want to help them down that path,” said Wilson. “If we want to help it meet NATO standards and fight with us in places like Afghanistan, we need to be in there helping them do that, just as we did for other countries. This doesn’t mean giving them offensive weapons or arming them to the teeth. But Georgia has a right to self-defense like any other country.”
Similarly, Yakobashvili points out that Georgia not only participated in the liberation of Iraq but also ranks as the world’s largest per-capita contributor of troops in Afghanistan, although in the same breath he insists there shouldn’t be any quid pro quo for its contributions.
“Despite our population we have 1,000 troops there, and we’re adding another contingent of more than 200 soldiers,” he said. “We do it for ourselves, not because we expect something from the United States. We have an enormous stake in the success of the Afghani operation, because what’s at stake here is the future of NATO and the West. We look at this from a strategic point of view, not from what Georgia can get in a quid pro quo manner. If, God forbid, the U.S. fails in Afghanistan, that will mean the U.S. will retreat from many areas, exposing Georgia to threats and increasing our vulnerability.”
The ambassador added: “There’s an excessive focus on Georgia trying to buy weapons. What Georgia wants is security, and how this security is achieved, I think, is the larger picture. Weapons are a very marginal part of it, and obviously every sovereign nation needs weapons to defend itself. Unfortunately for us, we are not geographically located in a place like Switzerland that can afford neutrality.”
Yakobashvili scoffed at a May 10 article in The Atlantic titled “Georgia’s Dangerous Quest for American Weapons,” in which Joshua Kucera reported that Yakobashvili’s predecessor, Batu Kutelia, was relieved of his duties “because of his failure to get arms” from the United States.
“My predecessor is now deputy head of our National Security Council, so it’s silly to comment on that,” said the ambassador. “People who spread that kind of information are smoking bad-quality hash or they have illusions — or they’re deliberately inventing stories out of the blue.”
In that same article, Kucera wrote that “Georgia spent about $1.5 million on four top D.C. lobbying firms last year alone, far outpacing comparable countries. Those lobbying efforts include an aggressive press campaign arguing that the State Department is enforcing a ‘de facto embargo’ by quietly blocking Georgia’s attempted arms purchases, although there is no evidence of such an embargo.”
Yakobashvili insists that his government spends “no more than $1 million per year” on K Street lobby shops, and currently employs only two such firms: Orion Strategies and the Podesta Group.
“The good thing about lobbying in Washington is that anybody can check how much we spend,” he said. “Having a lobbyist in the U.S. is not such a strange or bad thing. And if we’re trying to compare things, right after the  war, 11 employees of very prominent lobbyists were laboring for the Russian government on Georgian initiatives. Are we that stupid or naïve that we wouldn’t have our own tools? Can we afford not to react? In the modern world, if you don’t have your voice out there, you do not exist.”
As part of that strategy, the embassy under Yakobashvili has also been trying to highlight other aspects of Georgian life — beyond relations with Russia — and recently held a wide-ranging cultural showcase at the National Portrait Gallery that attracted hundreds of people. The event featured concerts, a performance by the Georgian National Ballet, photography show of Georgians in the American Wild West, a three-dimensional art exhibit and massive wall projections to celebrate the 20th anniversary of independence.
Along those lines Yakobashvili says he’ll also lobby for Georgia to be featured in an upcoming Smithsonian Folklife Festival because it would benefit from positive press — in the same way Colombia, which was featured in this year’s festival, is attempting to erase the drug-related stereotypes of the 1980s by focusing on the country’s biodiversity and rich cultural heritage.
Yakobashvili clearly hopes to tout his nation’s progress in moving beyond its Soviet past — something he sees reflected in his own two children, George and Miriam.
“I’m quite confident that we made a huge step forward and there’s no way back,” he told us. “We all hope that at least our kids will never have to go through what I experienced and what my parents experienced: the oppressive regime of the Soviet Union. I want them to have a free choice.” The tough-talking ambassador added: “I remember one of the very rare occasions I was speechless was when my son asked me, ‘Who was Lenin?’ I was so happy he was ignorant on that issue.”