If you're looking for an example of the Clinton administration's confused response to corruption and political disarray in the former Soviet Union, consider the trip taken last month by Hillary Rodham Clinton's two brothers to the former Soviet republic of Georgia.
Hugh and Tony Rodham traveled to the Ajaria region in late August with the blessing of the local political boss, Aslan Abashidze -- a man who has been linked in intelligence and press reports to a notorious alleged mobster named Grigori Loutchansky.
The Rodhams' Aug. 19-Aug. 27 trip was made to promote their new business venture, Argo International, which plans to invest $118 million over the next six years to grow Georgian hazelnuts and export them to the West. Nothing inherently wrong with that -- the former Soviet republics could certainly use Western investment.
The problem is that in their travels, the rambling Rodhams got involved with a questionable cast of characters, stepped into Georgia's fractious internal politics and caused problems for the government of Georgia, a loyal U.S. ally. And the administration, by its own account, appears to have been blindsided by the visit.
A senior administration official explains that the NSC first learned about the Rodhams' travel plans from the Georgian government -- in urgent contacts in Tblisi and Washington on Aug. 17. That was a few days before the Rodhams were to leave for Batumi, the capital of the Ajaria region. Hillary Clinton also knew her brothers were planning to visit Georgia on business, but the spokesman says she didn't know any details.
What bothered the Georgians was that the Rodhams would be flying directly to Batumi. That's the stronghold of Abashidze, whom they view as a dangerous rival to Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze. The Georgians suggested that the Rodhams stop off in the Georgian capital, Tblisi, where they did, meeting briefly with Shevardnadze and other top officials.
But the Rodhams' real business was in Batumi. According to a Georgian news agency report, they took part in an Aug. 26 rally to kick off the hazelnut project. Abashidze, the local political prince, compared the Rodhams' investment project to the Great Silk Road. The next day, Aug. 27, according to Georgian news reports, Abashidze flew off with the Rodhams to Italy for the christening of his grandson, Ricardo Canistrale. The godfather was Tony Rodham.
All this might simply be colorful Clinton family lore but for several disturbing facts. The first is Abashidze's reported links to Loutchansky. Yes, that's the same Loutchansky who was photographed shaking hands with President Clinton at a 1993 fund-raiser and was later invited to a 1995 fund-raiser. The State Department wouldn't give him a visa to attend that one.
Loutchansky's alleged links to Abashidze were hardly a secret. The Sept. 2 edition of a Russian-American newsletter called "Intercon's Daily" described him as "currently a close friend of Abashidze who describes himself as Abashidze's economic adviser."
Further evidence of an Abashidze-Loutchansky link comes from Paul Joyal, one of the editors of the newsletter and a registered lobbyist for the Georgian government. He says that Abashidze's press spokesman told him earlier this year that Loutchantsky was "an old and very close friend" of Abashidze who has been advising the Ajarian leader on business and economic matters.
Alarm bells began to sound at the NSC in early September as Georgian press reports made clear that Abashidze had used the Rodhams' visit to advance his own political vendetta against Shevardnadze.
Abashidze had issued a cheeky statement Aug. 31 hailing the Rodhams' visit and suggesting it might portend "political support rendered to him by US President Bill Clinton."
Sandy Berger, Clinton's national security adviser, decided to call Tony Rodham to express his concerns on Sept. 8 or 9. "He said he felt that because a business deal was being used to misconstrue our foreign policy, and because [Georgian] opposition figures were clearly trying to take advantage of the business deal for their own political purposes, [the Rodhams] should disengage from the business deal," explains a senior administration official. Berger also advised Rodham that "there were reports of potential links" between Abashidze and Loutchansky.
The Rodhams couldn't be reached yesterday for comment, so it isn't clear whether they have disengaged from the Georgian hazelnut venture, as Berger requested.
What is it about first relatives? Twenty years ago, it was Billy Carter traveling to Moammar Gadhafi's Libya. Now it's the roving Rodham brothers -- the men who would be hazelnut kings. It would be nice, at a time when the president wants to show he's getting tough on the ex-Soviets, if he kept a tighter leash on his own brothers-in-law.