Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Posts Tagged ‘Georgia’

And Then We Danced ****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 28th December, 2019

3549BA0F-D8AB-4471-A6C2-5A39BE1A3A5FGeorgian traditional dance, truly a form of ballet, is an expression of the nation’s soul, but it it is also a manifestation of the age-old human mating display. The girls glide gracefully, their eyes focused on the ground, in virginal modesty, while the young men stomp and strut their stuff, like peacocks on parade. Just as some families work in circuses for generations, handing down their experience and technique, so sometimes this dancing is also a family tradition, poorly paid but blessed with a certain cultural kudos, rejecting the homogenisation of our contemporary globalised world. This is the case with two brothers in Tbilisi in Levan Akin’s delicate drama, And Then We Danced. One drinks to excess and chases girls, eventually getting one of his conquests pregnant, while the other, Merab (beautifully played by newcomer Levan Gelbakhiani) is a more sensitive soul, in a gently romantic relationship with his main female dancing partner that he is no hurry to consummate. Then a handsome newcomer arrives from Batumi, Irakli (Bachi Valishvili). At first Merab sees him as a rival, but quickly falls under his masculine spell and circumstances lead to a brief carnal relationship. The innate homophobia of Georgian society then swings into action. Merab’s dancing is damned as effeminate but he has by now acquired a new spirit of defiance, accepting that if he is going to be true to his real nature he will have to leave the country, while Irakli opts for “normality”. Levan Akin (of Georgian stock, but based in Sweden), handles this profoundly sad story beautifully and it is given added depth by its non-sensationalised depiction of the poverty of many people’s lives in post-Soviet Georgia; Merab and his brother wait tables in a restaurant at night to help support their mother and grandmother, yet still the electricity in the family’s little flat sometimes gets cut off. There is the camaraderie of the corps de ballet to help sustain the youngsters’ morale, until some of the male dancers hear the rumour that Merab is a fag and his position becomes untenable. And Then We Danced is thus a trailblazer in the Georgian context, but perhaps one that was only possible because its director effectively lives in exile.

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Trump, NATO and the EU

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 15th December, 2016

img_1788Earlier this week I was one of the speakers at a Global Diplomatic Forum event in London on the foreign policy consequences of Donald Trump becoming US President. The other members of the panel were the new Latvian Amnassador to the Court of St James’s and the Conservative MP, Daniek Kawczynzki. By chance, the Ambassador and I were seated on a sofa on one side of the Chair, Andrew Wilson, while Dan Kawczynski was alone on another the other side, and that was exactly how our alignment went when it came to the discussion. Mr Kawczynski set the tone by focusing his opening remarks on why a Trump presidency is welcome and how we should engage more with Russia. It is disconcerting how pro Putin so many right wing Conservative as well as UKIP politicians are. The Ambassador countered with a resume of how Latvia suffered under Soviet Occupation and I spoke of what I had seen of Russian encroachment in Georgia this summer, as well as the assassination of journalists and liberal politicians in Moscow. But I also spoke of my wider concerns of what promises to be greater US isolationism under Trump, regarding international trade, climate change and so on. The appointment of Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State does not bode well, either. I would have liked to discuss things further with Daniel Kawczynski in the coffee break, but he shot out of the event like a bat out of hell.

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Liberal International Executive in Georgia

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 22nd May, 2016

imageLiberal international held its first-ever Executive Committee in the South Caucasus republic of Georgia this week, fortuitously coinciding with the 38th anniversary celebrations for our host party, the Republican Party of Georgia. Security issues were at the fore outside of the purely administrative session, including a trip to the “separation line” — where Geirgian troops face encroaching Russians, who have taken over South Ossetia and occasionally push forward their barbed wire barrier, separating Georgian farmers from their land and cutting them off from friends and family on the other side. On Friday night a fading party came over and killed one young Geirgian man. The Georgian Defence Minister, Tinatin Khidasheli, was a keynote speaker. Slovenia’s former Defence Minister, Roman Jakic — recently one of LI’s Treasurers — made the point that NATO cannot say it has an open door policy and then turn people away, which offers a potentially challenging situation with regard to both Georgia and Ukraine.

imageLooking further afield, there was a debate on whether the world can unite successfully in its fight against ISIS/Daesh. But I was especially interested in a session on the implications of the nuclear deal with Iran. Former Belgian junior Foreign Minister, Annemie Neyts, echoed my feelings by arguing that we need to engage with the Iranians and to recognise their historical importance, while not keeping our eyes off the security ball, whereas Dan Kucawka from Argentina took a much more hawkish position, basically asking how we can trust a country whose forces are helping Bashar al-Assad in Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon. All in all, the world seems a more troubled place than it did a decade ago, though one of the positive developments has been the expansion of Liberal International to take in new member parties, not least from Africa.


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Tangerines or the Children of Death

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 18th February, 2015

TangerinesTangerines 1Abkhazia is, I suspect, a name most Europeans half remember half forget: a breakaway region of Georgia that has been effectively annexed by Russia (despite an internationally spurious declaration of independence) with the consent of a significant proportion of the local populations; it has for years been a favourite holiday destination for Russians from Moscow and St Petersburg who want to enjoy seaside and sun. There was a vicious civil war in the early 1990s, and it is that that provides the context of an extraordinary film which I saw at a screening at the EBRD* this evening — and which is shortlisted for Best Foreign Film in this year’s Oscars. An elderly Estonian, who has stayed behind in his village in Abkhazia when most others have left because of the fighting, is helping a rather timid fellow Estonian bring in his harvest of tangerines (clementines). Suddenly there is an wartime incident, and out of the survivors the old man (beautifully played by one of Estonai’s leading actors, Lembit Ulfsa), finds himself playing host to two wounded fighters: a Georgian, who cannot bear the thought of losing Abkhazia to others, and a Chechen mercenary who is fighting on the side of the Abkhazian separatists. They hate each other, and would happily kill each other, yet as events unfold they recognise their common humanity. I shan’t spoil it by revealing more of the story, but suffice it to say that this is a truly great film, an Estonian-Georgian co-production, with dialogue in (very earthy) Estonian and Russian, with somewhat milder English sub-titles, directed by the Georgian director, Zaza Urushadze, on location in Georgia, with a total budget of just £500,000. I can’t predict whether it will win the Oscar award, though it richly deserves to do so. It is impeccably directed and acted. More importantly, it deserves to go out on general release, all round the world. This is one of those films you will not forget, and there was hardly a dry eye in the EBRD screening room tonight.

*EBRD: European Bank for Reconstruction and Development

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Ukraine and the EU’s CFSP

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 22nd March, 2014

EU three pillarsOver the past few weeks I have been commenting regularly on developments in Ukraine/Crimea for an Arab TV channel, Al Etejah*. And while much of the attention rightly has been on Russia and what exactly Vladimir Putin has in mind from day to day, one of the broader aspects I’ve been mulling over is the implication the whole affair has for the European Union’s Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP), which between 1995 and 2009 was one of the “three pillars” of the EU (see diagram). CFSP is one area of European integration that has not progressed very far, and although the EU 28 usually vote as a harmonious bloc at the United Nations quite strong policy differences often emerge between member states, some of the larger of which (including Britain) still see their foreign policy as a matter of fundamentally national concern and competence. The EU has been united in condemning Russia’s effective annexation of Crimea and in extending the hand of accelerated friendship to Ukraine, but there have been divergent views about what sort of sanctions to impose against Russia, how strongly one should fall in line with what Washington is doing (London’s default position) and to what extent European economies should try to reduce their dependence on Russian energy supplies. There has been agreement that the EU should move faster to embrace more warmly Georgia and Moldova — both of which could eventually aspire to EU membership and are vulnerable to Russian expansionism. But on other international issues — such as how friendly Europe should now be to Iran, and how disapproving of Israel’s activities in the occupied West Bank — there often appear to be irreconcilable divides. Of course, the EU is not a single state and maybe never will be, but if it is to be taken more seriously on the global stage it really needs to present a more coherent Common Foreign and Security Policy. And although the High Representative Cathy Ashton has performed better than I dared hope when her appointment was announced, her successor in charge of the EU’s external action needs to be a figure with more political clout.


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European Liberal Democrats in the Caucasus

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 13th May, 2012

It was daring — even brave — of the Armenian National Movement to invite the European Liberal Democrats (ELDR) to convene a Council meeting in Yerevan this week, only days after general elections were held in Armenia, about which they have cried foul. ELDR has never had a meeting on such a scale in the Caucasus before, but it was doubly valuable for European Liberal Democrat Council members as the Liberal International organised a side-trip fact-finding mission to Georgia beforehand. I was involved in both, as the (UK) Liberal Democrats’ representative on the Executive of Liberal International and an elected member of the ELDR Council. I was in Armenia six years ago, travelling widely around the country, so it was fascinating to see how the capital Yerevan has been rapidly modernising, though the countryside has changed little and indeed gives the feeling of still being back in the Soviet era, only friendlier. But there was also a big contrast between Georgia (a first for me) and Armenia. In Tbilisi, our Georgian hosts — the Georgia Dream coalition — gave a very critical appraisal of how they see democracy fumctioning in their homeland, whereas the government — who looked after us for half a day — put a different spin on the state of affairs. But whoever was right about whichever issues there is no denying that Georgia is a place willing itself onto an upward trajectory, much aided by the abolition of widespread earlier corruption and personal insecurity. Most Georgians are anxious to get into NATO and one day into the EU as well; the 12-Star flag of Europe is prominant everywhere alongside the Georgian red cross. We were taken to the Line of Occupation on the edge of South Ossetia to remind us of just how close and real the Russian occupational presence is. In Armenia, in contrast, there is more of a Russian flavour to the capital, but of course there is also a big influence of the Armenian expatriate community from France and the United States, some of whom are presumably financing the massive amount of reconstruction going on. In the ELDR Council and contiguous special sessions we heard a lot from NGOs and others about alleged irregularities in last Sunday’s poll. But there was also, among other things, a fascinating session on LGBT Rights in the South Caucasus, organised in conjunction with the two Dutch Liberal parties (the VVD and D66) as well as International Liberal Youth (IFLRY). Just days ago a gay-friendly bar in Yerevan was set alight by far right activists, but nonetheless there is a lot of positive conscious-raising on equality issues (even in Georgia, where over 90% of the population say they disapprove of LGBT activism). The black hole as far as the Armenians are concerned seems to be Azerbaijan, but as I know from a visit there not all that long ago, things are modernising apace in Baku, financed by oil money, even if the regime is pretty authoritarian. All in all, the Caucasus is a region with huge political and economic potential, desperate to be seen as European, while at the same time retaining its diverse specificities.

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EU-Russia Relations

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 20th August, 2011

The European Union’s relations with Russia hit a low in the summer of 2008, when Russian troops intervened in Georgia. And the energy crisis triggered by the Ukrainian gas dispute of January 2009 didn’t help. But in the two-and-a-half years since then, there has been a degree of reconciliation, or at least the mutual acceptance of a kind of modus vivendi. As  the Centre for European Studies’ short book, EU-Russia Relations: Time for a Realistic Turnaround (CES, Brussels, 2011), points out, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin wants to see more Western investment in Russia, while President Dmitry Medvedev concedes that Russia will need Western (including European) assistance if it is to modernise. One of the main conclusions of the book is that at the end of the day, Russia needs Europe more than Europe needs Russia. Three authors have provided short essays that form the core of the work: Katinka Barysch (the Deputy Director of the Centre for European Reform), my chum Christopher Coker (Professor of International Relations at the LSE) and Leszak Jesien (EU coordinator at the Polish Institute  of International Affairs). It is good to have a Pole involved, as the Polish-Russian dynamic has often been the most problematic within the overall EU-Russia relationship. A central, stark warning by the book’s authors is that the EU still tries to change not only what Russia does but also what it is. Europeans like to think that Russians should be just like us, whereas in fact they aren’t, and probably never will be. In short, Russia is not a Western society.

Christopher Coker takes a cultural approach to the subject. He draws a valuable distinction between what we profess (values) and what we practise (norms). He pulls no punches: ‘Russia is less a functioning nation state than a collection of vested interests… Russia is still trapped in the old ways of thinking.’ He nonetheless foresees a way of resolving the dilemma inherent in bilateral relations: ‘Only by granting [Russia] a distinctive identity will be able to acknowledge that its norms may not be ours, any more than ours are America’s.’ Leszek Jesien focuses on energy relations and trade. Russia enjoys a faourable balance of trade with the EU, but its exports are mainly gas and steel — commodities that are vulnerable to the whims of the market. Europe, on the other hand, is keen to secure its energy supply, even though the trade is currently mainly bilateral between Russia and EU member states, rather than being coordinated Europe-wide. Russia uses energy supplies as an instrument in its foreign policy. ‘For Russia, energy seems to be more like a chess game than a market game,’ Jesien writes. Europe needs to build up a single energy market, he argues. Finally, Katinka Barysch examines the institutional framework. The admission of central and eastern European states into the EU during he 2000s complicated maters considerably, even driving Russia to argue for compensation because of new barriers to trade with its former satellite partners. The current institutions for EU-Russia relations function badly, she argues. But we need to recognise that a chaotic, angry and unstable Russia is a risk to European security and prosperity, So the EU must continue to offer assistance and advice in helping Riussia strengthen the rule of law, build solid institutions, diversify its economy and develop a vibrant civil society.



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Black Sea Implications of Turkey’s EU Accession

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 11th May, 2009

JF speaking at Black Sea ConferenceI took time out from Euro-campaigning the other day to attend a day-conference in Leicester on the Black Sea, hosted by the Department of Politcs and International Relations at the university there, with the support of a couple of European academic groupings and the British Embassy in Bratislava. The Black Sea is one of the regions in which I have lectured on cruise ships in recent years and the theme of the paper I delivered at the Leicester conference was ‘Black Sea Implications of Turkey’s EU Accession’.

The Black Sea is viewed by most Britons as more than peripheral, though when Bulgaria and Romania joined the EU two years ago, it became the Union’s eastern shore, just as the Mediterranean is the EU’s southern shore, the Atlantic the western and the Arctic the northern. However, if and when Turkey accedes to EU membership (as I believe it will and should, though probably only in about another 10 to 15 years time), the Black Sea will largely become part of the Union, with important implications for relations with Russia and the European aspirations of countries such as Georgia and Armenia.

The EU will suddenly acquire frontiers with Syria, Iraq and Iran and its centre of gravity will move sharply to the south-east. Moreover, I believe its character will inevitably change. When the old Mediterranean dictatorships, Greece, Portugal and Spain,  joined, they were grasping democracy and human rights eagerly. Similarly, when the eight former Communist states of central and eastern Europe joined, they were turning their back on 40 years of an oppressive ideology and were embracing a free market economy. Even though the accession process is already the stimulus for positive economic and political reforms in Turkey, it will not fundamentally change when it becomes part of the EU. Instead, the EU will be even more diverse than it is already — a diversity which I beieve will be stimulating and should be celebrated.

(photo courtesy Carol Weaver)

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Russia in the New World Order

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 6th April, 2009

stephen-dalziel-21This evening, Liberal International British Group (LIBG) held the first in a planned series of four Forums on the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India and China) in the New World Order, being steered through the choppy waters of Russia, past, present and future, at Pushkin House in London by Stephen Dalziel, Executive Director of the Russo-British Chamber of Commerce and former Russian Affairs analyst at the BBC. For me (in the Chair), his most interesting observation was that Vladimir Putin, now Russian Prime Minister, is not trying to usurp the power of the position of President Dmitry Medvedev (his sucessor in that post), in contrast to what one often reads in the Western media. Putin accepts Medvedev’s primacy in foreign affairs (as the constitution stipulates); besides, he has enough on his plate to deal with in relation to Russia’s shrinking economy, which has been hard hit by falling energy prices.

Stephen’s assertion that the Russians must have known in advance about the Georgian attack on South Ossetia last summer as they moved into Georgia the following day brought on a heated reposte from a Russian lady in the audience. But there was general agreement that Georgia had won the propaganda war in that sad affair, and that the Russians are rubbish at PR. I agreed strongly with Stephen’s point that the real trigger for instability and renewed East-West tensions would be if Ukraine is encouraged towards EU and NATO membership. Not only would the ethnic Russian population of eastern Ukraine protest, but Moscow would go ballistic (figuratively speaking).

Link: and

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Russia and the European Liberal Family

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 30th October, 2008

Two Russian opposition political parties, Yabloko and the People’s Democratic Union (PDU), were accorded full membership of the European Liberal Democrat and Reform Party (ELDR) at a meeting of the ELDR’s governing Council in Stockholm this morning. Yabloko has had affiliate membership of ELDR for the past two years, so its upgrade was something of a formality, whereas the move to grant the PDU immediate, full membership was a little more controversial. The case for approval was made by the former Russian Prime Minister, Mikhail Kasyanov, who has had a damascene conversion since he was part of the Kremlin set-up. He was highly critical of the Russian government’s provocation of Georgia earlier this year and the force of the Russian response to the Georgian actions in South Ossetia. There will be a full debate on relations between Europe and Russia at the ELDR Congress (in which Yabloko’s President, Sergey Mitrokhin, is expected to participate) also in Stockholm, tomorrow.

The ELDR Council also granted full membership to the Serbian Liberal Democratic Party, whose leader, Cedomir Jovanovic, received tributes from counterparts in other parts of the Balkans (including Kossovo) for bravely championing liberal values and human rights in Serbia.

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