Friday, May 30, 2008

Where the streets have no name

Geogrian roads are so bad...


Georgian roads are so bad that when a dog chases a car, he usually catches it...

The scene along one of Georgia's better rural roads

I discovered this first hand, on several occasions, while scouting out the area where my partner Indre and I would be working on election day.

Of course, we weren't left to our own devices - were were given a map of the area and a list of the villages around the central town of Aspindza that we should try to visit, with travel times and notations on road conditions that included comments like:

  • Village Ota - access only by tractor

  • Village Vargavi - behind very steep slopes, consult driver

Fortunately, Indri and I were also provided with a pair of indespensible assistants - our translator Merab and our driver Pavle, who advised us against going to villages "behind very steep slopes" or that required travel by tractor.

This turned out to be a very good plan, since the roads without special notations were rough enough to make poor Indre carsick on our initial exploration of the region...

Merab and Pavle meet us at our hotel in Akhaltsikhe at 10 a.m. the day before the election to show us around. Our plan was to drive upriver on Highway A-360 to the town of Aspidza, around which were located a dozen mountain villages that we would try to visit on election day.

The main highway wasn't too bad - although there were very rough sections with signs that indicated that they were "under repairation."

The fun part was when we left the main road to travel up into the hills on rockstrewn, potmarked cart paths, or to cross the river on bridges that looked as though their structural integrity was questionable at best...

One of several rustic suspension bridges across the Kura River near Aspindza

Better walk across first - just to be safe...

The roads up to the hillside towns were so bad that we could often travel only slightly better than walking speed in many cases, bouncing up and down and being jolted from side to side as Pavle did his best to steer around the worst of the jagged ruts and avoid having us bottom out.

It was such rough going that whenever a stray dog decided to chase us, it easily kept pace for as long as it wanted - which was invariable far too long...

Have you ever wondered what a dog chasing a car does when he actually catches the car?

I'll tell you - he does pretty much whatever he wants!

He barks and snarls as he runs along side, nipping at the tires and snapping at the bumpers.

I swear one of them actually lifted a hind leg and marked Pavle's car as part of his territory while we were all moving down the road at 10 kph...

And when it wasn't stray dogs, we had local traffic to deal with...

Georgian traffic jam

All in all, however, getting there is half the fun - especially in a place like Georgia, with its beautiful scenery and wonderful roadside attractions...

More to come...


Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Georgian Civics 101

The bus trip from Tbilisi to Akhaltsikhe provided enough time to gaze at the passing landscape along the Kura river, and to review some of my briefing material on the election that I would be observing.

European politics can be baffling to Americans, because their flavor of Democracy is based on a different model than ours. Having seen several at work close hand, I can’t say that I think any of them – ours included – is better or worse. They’re just different.

The Republic of Georgia was, until 1990, the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic – one of the republics that made up the former Soviet Union, with a government that consisted of a single political party – the Georgian Communist Party.

Today, Georgia has multiple political parties and a government that consists of a president elected by popular vote and a 150 seat unicameral Parliament in which 75 members are elected by proportional representation and 75 members are elected by majority vote in single-member constituencies- all of them serve for 5-year terms.

Naturally, having a Parliamentary system with multiple political parties is much more dynamic than the two-party system we have in the United States (yes, I know there are Greens and Libertarians and whatever-the-hell Ralph Nader is calling himself this year – but get serious…)

Political parties in Parliamentary systems rarely achieve enough votes in elections or hold enough seats in parliament to govern on their own – so different parties for “coalitions,” “blocks” or “alliances” to work towards common goals. This is especially common among the minor political parties who otherwise can’t gain seats in Parliament unless they combine their votes.

In Georgia, the major political parties include:
  • United National Movement

  • Labor Party

  • Republican Party

  • Christian-Democratic Party

  • Georgian Politics

  • National Movement of Radical Democrats of Georgia

  • Union of Georgian Sportsmen

  • Our Country

I stopped by to say hello, but Newt Gingrich wasn't home...

There are also several minor parties that have combined to form blocs and alliances, including:

  • United Opposition-National Council-New Rights Bloc – includes the New Rights Party, Conservative Party, Georgia's Way, Freedom, On Our Own, Party of People, Movement for United Georgia, Georgian Troupe, and National Forum

  • Traditionalists Party Bloc – includes the Our Georgia Party and the Women's Party
    New Rights Alliance – includes the Industry Will Save Georgia Party, National Democratic Party, and the Ertoba (Unity) Party

  • Christian-Democratic Alliance – not to be confused with the Christian-Democratic Party…

All this - for a nation of 4.6 million people and 3.4 million registered voters.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Lennon & McCartney...Butch & Sundance... Breaux & Segzdaviciute???

There are always two things that short-term election observers on an OSCE mission are most curious about - where will they be stationed once they arrive in-country, and who will their partner be.

The "where" is usually just a matter of logistics - how far they will have to travel from the capital to get there, what will the accomidations be like, and are there any cool sites to see when they get there.

But the "who" can really make a difference in the entire election experience,since our partner will be our nearly constant companion in a strnage environment, working long hours under enormous pressure. Your partner makes the difference between the election observation expericence being an adventure or a nightmare.

The OSCE always creates multinational teams - so the only thing I know going into this is that my partner won't be an American.

During the briefing process in Tbilisi, I discovered that I would be deployed to the region of Samtskhe-Javakheti, in the south-central part of the country along the mountainous boarder with Turkey, and that my partner was named Indre Segzdaviciute.

Indre Segzdaviciute

I'll pay $10 to anyone who can say that last name correctly on the first try, and another $10 who can tell me the entimology without resorting to an internet search...

I first met my partner when a lovely young woman on the bus for Akhaltsikhe asked "Does anyone know who Steve Breaux is?"

Indre works for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for the Republic of Lithuania ("Foreign Service at your service") and, like myself, has served on two previous OSCE election missions.

Unlike myself, she is attractive, charming, and multilingual - all of which are very useful when working as an election observer...

Over the course of five days traveling on the rough roads between polling stations around the town of Aspindza, she would prove to be exactly the kind of teammate that everyone on OSCE missions dreams about - a talented hard worker who also knows how to take advantage of the opportunity to make new friends and explore some amazing local sites.

The circumstances of all of our hard work and the amazing sites we saw will, of course, be the subject of upcoming posts!

More to follow...


Monday, May 26, 2008

Tbilisi - Gateway to Georgia

A crucial first step as a short-term observer (STO) during an election observation mission (EOM) - besides learning all the acronyms and abbreviations - is to get oriented to your new surroundings.

This usually isn't too hard when you first arrive. Most of the STOs have flights routed through a common airport in central Europe - this time, Munich - and make up the majority of passengers on the connecting flights into the capitol city of the country we're working in. We're met at our destination by the logistics team of the OSCE, who have buses waiting to take us to our hotels.

View from my window at the Marriott

Saint George - namesake of Georgia - slaying the Dragon

Members of the mission are usually scattered among the largest hotels in the city - in Tbilisi, the Sheraton and the Marriott - plus a few smaller ones, and our first day is dedicated to overcoming the jet-lag. Of course, this gives us a bit of time to socialize with our fellow STOs and do some local sightseeing.

After getting caught up on my sleep, I decided to go to a local open-air market with my roommate - a retired Foreign Service officer named Frank Crump from Virginia. Neither of us speaks Georgian, but Frank picked up Russian somewhere along the way, which helped us get where we were going.

The open-air market in Tbilisi isn't too different from the farmers markets that I've been to in places like Santa Monica, Gig Harbor, and Olympia - full of goods and produce from local vendors, the sights, sounds and smells of which were a great introduction to the way people live in Georgia...





Frank, buying Georgian cheese - which is quite salty

After exploring Tbilisi, we had a series of briefings on the political environment and election procedures that we would be observing, and received our deployment assignments - which will be the subject of my next post...

More to come...


Sunday, May 25, 2008

There's no place like home

The lack of internet access anywhere except during my brief stay in Tbilisi at the beginning and end of my deployment resulted in me being "off the grid" for a while - but I'm now home and ready to upload my photos and make a few posts to get you all caught up on my most recent adventure.

My assignment in Georgia with the OSCE took me to the out-of-the-way region of Samtskhe-Javakheti, where I was based in the small city of Akhaltsikhe.

Akhaltsikhe, as seen from a nearby hilltop

Located in the southern part of the country, in the mountains near the Turkish border, my duties involved covering election day activities and vote tabulation in the small villages around the town of Aspindza.

It was a beautiful area - situated in the narrow valley of the Kura River, it is home to small family-cultivated plots of land that supply just enough produce for the region, with cows, goats, and sheep grazing on the steep rocky slopes (when they aren't blocking the road along the river or the small, rough cart-paths that lead up into the villages).

Kura River, near Aspindza, running fast and high

There were few luxuries here - though there were some interesting cultural sights, and overwhelming hospitality. Most of the homes were simple cinder block affairs, although many did have satellite dishes attached to their corrugated metal roofs.

Now that I'm home again - and back to a more regular schedule (and reliable internet access) - I'll start uploading my photos and stories - about one a day for the next week - and hope that you will enjoy them...


Friday, May 23, 2008


No need to worry - I'm safe and sound back in Tbilisi after wandering the mountains of southern Georgia, where Internet access was non-existent...

Not that I had any time to write anyway, with a demanding schedule over the past five days that consisted of not enough sleep, plenty of Georgian hospitality, and some amazing sightseeing...

Oh, yea - there was an election in there too! But being an election observer here means not enough sleep and plenty of Georgian hospitality...

The election committee in every precinct insisted on welcoming us with an offer of "tea" - which included a prolonged series of toasts featuring locally home-made wine that had the varrying effects of hard apple cider (VERY hard) to semi-sweet moonshine. The one time I managed to waive off the wine they provided me with bottled water - which, I discovered during a toast, was filled with vodka...

Considering that I traveled along some of the most horrendous roads imaginable repeating this process in a dozen mountain villages, I think I'm holding up fine - and will hopefully shake it off during the 24 hours of flying and layovers that I will be starting at around 2 a.m.

In the meantime, I'm going to get cleaned up...


Saturday, May 17, 2008

Back in the USSR

Well, not exactly...

I'm in one of the former republics of the old Union of Soviet Socialist Republics - this time the Republic of Georgia, just north of where I was last year when I visited Armenia.

I left Seattle at 4:26 on Thursday afternoon, and after flying through the under-renovation Tom Bradley International Terminal at LAX (SUX) and then through Munich (very nice), I arrived in Tbilisi at dawn on Saturday morning - which, after considering the time difference, amounts to 24 hours on-the-go travel...


I've checked into the very nicely appointed Courtyard Marriot Tbilisi - by far the most posh place I've ever spent money on during a mission, even concidering that I've been assigned a roommate and am splitting the cost. I usually prefer to stay in a more modest place and save my per-deim, but far be it for me to break the rules...

Took my morning walk after a brief nap, and time to get out and about with some of my colleagues for this mission.

We start our briefings tomorrow, and then head out into the field on Monday afternoon (Monday? I think? What day is it?)

More Later...


Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Peaches? No, Grapes!

My colleagues on the staff of the Senate Democratic Caucus in Olympia have been very enthusiastic about my upcoming journey to The Republic of Georgia...

They keep telling me to have fun in Atlanta, and asking for me to bring back some peaches and an autograph from Anderson Cooper at CNN...

But I'm going to "the other Georgia" - the one named after Saint George, not King George.

Of course, that begs the question: Exactly what does one bring back as a souvineer from the Republic of Georgia?

For those in the know, the answer is obvious - wine!

Yes, believe it or not, the Republic of Georgia is known for its wine - at least in that part of the world.

In fact, Georgia has a history of winemaking dating back 7,000 years, and is believed to be one of the first places where grapes were cultivated specificially for winemaking.

While it doesn't have the reputation that other wine-producing nations have, I'm definitely looking forward to sampling some of the local product again - many of the meals I enjoyed during my mission last year in neighboring Armenia were accompanied with Georgian wine, and it was quite good if a bit sweet for my taste...

So - I've managed to bring back Albanian Konjak (cognac) and Armenian Ararat Brandy from my prior missions...

How about a nice bottle of Ojaleshi?

Friday, May 09, 2008

Georgia in the News

A colleague of mine at the Senate Democratic Caucus, Mark Rosen, thought he'd do me a favor by sharing with me a link to some stories coming out of the Republic of Georgia on Reuters News Service:

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Not your typical vacation

Next week I'll be leaving for my third mission as a volunteer election observer with the Organization for Security & Cooperation in Europe. With some new friends and colleagues reading this blog for the first time, I've decided to remind everyone about exactly what it is that this involves.

The OSCE is a collection of countries that includes the U.S., Canada, the European Union, and the members of the former Soviet Union. They engage in a variety of activities aimed at improving the security of all members by focusing on conflict avoidance and resolution through a variety of cooperative means, including what they call "democratization."

Part of this involves member nations inviting other members to send election observers to witness their democratic process at work and to provide feedback on the results - which is what I've done on prior missions to Albania in 2005 and Armenia in 2007.

On May 21, the Republic of Georgia - a former member of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) - will be holding elections for their Parliament, and have asked the OSCE to send observers.

I'll be one of 31 Americans joining hundreds of volunteers from other OSCE nations in the process of observing the elections and providing feedback to help the Republic of Georgia in their transition from a one-party form of government to a multi-party democracy.

The process is quite complicated, but fascinating and fun - especially for a political junkie like me. It's not a typical vacation, but I'm not a lay-on-the-beach kind of guy, either...

I get all kinds of question about exactly what this involves, and I've decided to provide you all with some of the FAQs:

Is this safe?
Pretty much...

The OSCE doesn't send election observation missions to nations where there isn't an established government, or where there's open armed conflict.

That being said, many of the former Soviet Republics are experiencing political tensions as the ally themselves either with the Russian Federation or the West, and some of them have separatist regions that don't get along with the central government.

In Georgia, the atmosphere leading up to the parliamentary elections in May is expected to be tense. Casual travelers are also advised to avoid the border regions of Chechnya, Dagestan, North Ossetia, Ingushetia, Kabarda-Balkar and Karachay-Cherkessia due to land mines, civil unrest and a high incidence of kidnapping.

How much do you get paid?
Nothing - I'm a volunteer.

How much does this cost you?
Nothing - the U.S. State Department, through a private contractor, provides my airline tickets and covers my expenses.

How do you know where to go and what to do?
The OSCE makes all of the logistical arrangements - local transportation, accommodations, etc.

What do you know about Georgian election law that qualifies you to do this?
Nothing - the first thing we'll do after arriving in Tbilisi and getting settled in is to receive a crash-course in everything we need to know about their election process. It covers all of the logistical and security arrangements for the mission, the political situation, election law, and the process for us to make our observations and report them for analysis.

When did you learn to speak Georgian?
I haven't. The observers can all get along because the working language of the OSCE is English, I'll be assigned a local driver and translator once I deploy to the area where I'll be working.

Do you get to sight-see while you're there?
Sort of. After the briefings in the capital, teams are deployed all over the country to observe the elections at the local level. Once deployed, we familiarize ourselves with the area by having our driver and translator take us out to visit the polling places ahead of time, as well as to meet local elections officials and candidates. Naturally, we end up seeing some of the local sights along the way - and we always have some off-time in the schedule to explore as well.

Who will you work with?
Each person is paired off with someone from another country as a partner. Each two-person team gets a local driver and translator - the driver is usually just some guy who happens to have a car, and the translator is usually a student from a local university.

What exactly do you do?
On election day, we go to as many local polling places as we can to see if there are any complications. We have forms to track the various events we witness, like what times a polling place opened, whether or not certain procedures are being followed, and if anyone was interfering with the process. We fax reports in to a central OSCE office at various times throughout the day, and when the polling places close we go to the nearest place where the ballots are counted and observe the process there - in my previous missions to Albania and Armenia, they used manual ballot processing that goes on non-stop for days! We usually work the first 24 hours non-stop, and then work in 12-hour shifts until the results are in.

The tentative schedule that I'll be following in Georgia is available online here.

What do you do if you see something suspicious?
We're observers - not referees. We're not allowed to interfere in the election process, so we limit our involvement to asking questions through our translators, noting our observations and reporting them.

What happens when you're done?
A long bus ride back to the capital, a group debriefing, and a reception and all-night party followed by a 4 a.m. flight out of the country.

What becomes of all the work you did?
The OSCE analyzes all the data gathered by observes at dozens or hundreds of sites all over the country on election day to see if there are any specific trends to show how well their election process works. They will issue a statement of preliminary findings and conclusions the day after the election, and a formal report about eight weeks later.

What if I want to know more?
Just post a question to the comment section, and I'll answer it!

Much more to follow...