Jeffrey K. Silverman: A Man Chasing After the Truth
He has lived in Georgia for the last 18 years. He has witnessed and experienced many things, some good and some bad. He has met people, suffering in Ossetia and other conflict zones and believes his reports and article for the Human Rights center in Tbilisi has been helpful for them. Jeffrey Silverman has lost some of his friends here. Among them a British journalist, Roddy Scott, who was killed in Ingushetia, while filming Chechen Boyeviks. He was documenting their story. He knew much, too much. His parents came to Georgia, and I took them to the Pankisi Valley. I introduced them to some of the people who were with their son when he was killed in Russia.
Georgia Today met Jeffrey to learn more about his life in Georgia.
Georgia Today: Jeffrey, why did you come to Georgia in 1991? Why did you choose this country, when you could have gone to any other?
Jeffrey Silverman: Georgia kind of chose me. I was sitting beside a hotel swimming pool in North Carolina on the tobacco market. To make a long story short, there was a Dutch businessman speaking in German to someone, and I started talking to him in German. He asked me what was I doing and I told him I was working for a tobacco company. Three days later I was in Rome, Italy, and a week later in Moscow, and within another two weeks I found myself in Georgia.
GT: What led you to Moscow?
JS: Business, to grow tobacco in Georgia, and the Moscow based contacts were Georgians.
GT: As far as I know, you have worked for Azerbaijan Today, and regularly contributed to this magazine.
JS: I was the editor-in-chief to that for a while, as well as Georgian Times and worked with a few other newspapers here. But that profession started later in life. Originally I came to Georgia solely for the tobacco business. I used to be a regional manager for British Tobacco Company, all through Central Asia, Azerbaijan, Moldova and Ukraine. I exported Georgian tobacco via Dagestan as far back as 1992-93.
GT: How did you become a journalist?
JS: I do many things. It depends on the circumstances.
GT: What did you study at the university?
JS: Originally I did a BS in agriculture and I ended up in diplomacy and international law in graduate school.
GT: Where did you study?
JS: University Kentucky, Patterson School of Diplomacy which is basically a State Department and CIA training school. I was one of their atypical students.
GT: What do you mean by atypical?
JS: I had experience; I had been in a few wars over here
JS: Tbilisi, at the period of Mkhedrioni, a paramilitary group back in 1991-1993. I was in Baku Azerbaijan when Heydar Aliev came to power when Abulfaz Elcibay was tossed away. I am one of the few foreigners who have been in Georgia and the region since 1991.
GT: Jeffrey, you said you were born in Washington. You have spent your childhood there?
JS: Yes, Washington D.C.
GT: Your mother is half Indian half American
JS: Indian. Her grandmother was Cherokee Indian, her grandfather was a Russian Jew married into a mixture of English stock. It is typical American. But my father is basically Polish-Lithuanian, Ashkenazi Jew.
GT: So, you have been living here, in Georgia, since 1991. You have seen many changes here. How did you start your work for the Human Rights center?
JS: I became a victim. I have had my human rights violated a few times. In that context I became involved with the people working at the Human Rights Centre.
GT: Was that after the 7th of November when you were beaten or before?
JS: Before, on and after.
GT: Could you, please, tell me what happened?
JS: I was once kidnapped from the street here by Georgian security .
JS: And handcuffed to a chair and beaten about the head.
GT: Why? What was the reason?
JS: There was a good reason. I had investigated Pankisi Gorge. That was back in 2002-2003. I went into Pankisi to investigate what was going on with the Chechen Boyeviks, fighters and found out that was all but a carefully-staged performance.
GT: During your second visit to the South Ossetia region together with Ian Carver, the photographer .
JS: That was back in August/September of last year
GT: Is it true that you posed as locals?
JS: Basically. I didn't shave for a few days, we wore dark clothes and we got on a bus and went through the Russian lines, and also went into the South Ossetia. I interviewed people for the Human Rights Centre about their houses being burned down, people being summarily executed, etc.
GT: Do you speak Georgian?
JS: I speak some Russian.
GT: Russian is a bit easier.
JS: Much easier and more practical when you work in different republics. Everybody of the older generation speaks Russian.
GT: Which parts of the former Soviet Union have you been to?
JS: Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Azerbaijan, Ukraine, Russia
GT: Great geography, really. Why did you stay in Georgia for so long?
JS: Because this is basically my home now. I have a local wife here.
GT: How did you meet her?
JS: I was sitting in an internet cafe, and one of the people who worked there introduced me to her cousin, my wife. We went to a birthday party. You know it is one of the typical Georgian things.
GT: Was that a long time ago?
JS: That was 6, no, 7 years ago.
GT: Do you feel comfortable living here, in Georgia?
JS: More than I do elsewhere. Even when I went to the US a few times it felt very uncomfortable and I could not wait to get back to Georgia.
GT: And after all those bad things that have happened to you here?
JS: I have had things like that happen to me in the US, as well.
GT: Jeffrey, you said that you do many things. Let s talk about your main work. How would you describe it?
JS: I am what you might call a private journalist.
GT: A freelancer?
JS: No, no, it is even more complicated than that. I do something that is called due diligence. In other words, if you have a company and you want to know what is going on in Georgia, you come to someone like me and give me some questions. You want to buy a bank, you want to invest in Georgia, you want to know what is going on politically, etc
GT: So, you do some research .
JS: Right, but not typical research.
GT: What do you mean by not typical?
JS: [I] find the information that is not public.
GT: Something secret?
JS: Almost like secret, and this is called due diligence. Before companies invest, they should check out who their partners are going to be and their backgrounds, and if their partners are really the people who are controlling the situation or not.
GT: Jeffrey, you do write some articles as well. Do you consider yourself a journalist, a researcher or .?
JS: An investigative journalist, who has fun doing it.
GT: Do you think a journalist should be investigative?
JS: In this country especially, because there is such little amount of transparency and the media is so controlled here.
GT: Don t you think media is controlled in other countries?
JS: Of course it is. But this country is a contradiction. For a country that wanted to throw off 70 years of Soviet occupation, it is hypocritical to have such a controlled media. Prior to 2003 the media was much more open and free than it is right now.
GT: But don t you think Georgian people are freedom-loving. They seek for freedom in every possible way, not only in politics. You see, during the Soviet era Georgian film directors were the most free in the Union.
JS: But the situation now, like I said, is a contradiction. The only thing that s worse than getting what you want in life, is you get what you want and realize you didn't really want it. You don t know what to do with what you have. In other words, they are free but they don t know what to do with their freedom.
GT: Tell me, if there are so many issues here, things you don t like, why do you still live here?
JS: Because this is my country now. I have no desire to go to the US. The US has lost its credibility in the World in the last eight years.
GT: Do you mean that the US is not your home any more?
JS: Yes, is not my home any more.
GT: Have you tried to live in any other countries?
JS: I ve lived in Brazil before. I have lived in Kyrgyzstan for three years. But nothing compares to Georgia. It is very nice in some ways and very bad in some ways. But it s different.
GT: Tell me, what you like about this country.
JS: Mostly I like the family relations. I also like the certain degree of pragmatism that doesn't really exist elsewhere. For a small nation it probably has one of the best educated populations than any other country in the world. I don t necessarily mean academic degrees. But people understand life. They have been through such hell!
GT: Do you think you have somehow changed while being here?
JS: Of course. I was naive when I first came here.
GT: Naive in what way?
JS: I believed what people told me. The first word I learned in Georgian was ikneba will be. Then I learned magram rodis? - but when? There is no value of time, other people s time here. They promise things they can not deliver because they don t want to disappoint you. It is not that they don t want to do things. They just don t know how to manage their time.
GT: Do you think people change?
JS: If we don t change we don't live.
GT: Do you plan to stay here, in Georgia?
JS: Yes. But when I get older I will probably end up living in Israel with my wife.