- The Washington Times - Monday, January 10, 2000

Events in the former Soviet republic of Georgia are probably distant from the everyday concerns of most Americans. But a business venture that involves the necessary ingredients for spicy scandal could bring developments in that faraway land into sharper focus, especially in the New York political arena.
At issue is a $118 million project, involving the brothers of first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, to grow, process and export hazelnuts. They have been hosted during their travels by Aslan Abashidze, who is identified by the CIA and Interpol as an arms-smuggler and money-launderer for the Russian mob. Mr. Abashidze is a political boss in the port city of Batumi and a rival of Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze a staunch U.S. ally.
This ill-conceived hazelnut scheme has been wreaking considerable political fallout in Georgia. After the Rodham brothers visited with Mr. Abashidze last year, the politician immediately sought to win political capital from the meeting, extolling "the possibility of political support rendered to him by U.S. President Bill Clinton." The hazelnut investment firm would be located "next to the White House," he boasted.
Given the political backdrop in Georgia, this is unfortunate. Many Georgians fear Russia, after it is through with its brutal campaign in Chechnya, could attack the republic. This fear is not unfounded, since the Russians have recently attacked Georgian border posts. Any indication, therefore, that the U.S. supports Mr. Abashidze, who is a Russian ally, is regrettable.
The Clinton administration has said it is in no way involved in the venture and has urged the Rodham brothers for months to drop the hazelnut deal. In September, the brothers said they would honor that request but, according to a Dec. 29 column in The Washington Post by David Ignatius, Tony Rodham acknowledged he is still involved but that his brother, Hugh, has dropped out of the deal. Tony, therefore, has become a liability for Mr. Clinton and could hurt the first lady's prospects for a Senate seat in New York should she decide to run.
But the Clintons have done something to deserve this. President Clinton, presumably willing to use his political stature to enrich a relative, has met with some shady characters that have been involved with the Rodham brothers' business schemes. Mr. Clinton, for example, was photographed at a Democratic Party function with Russian businessman Grigory Loutchansky, who is involved in the hazelnut deal and has close ties with Georgian politician Mr. Abashidze. Mr. Loutchansky's Austria-based company Nordex has been the focus of many probes investigating Russian organized crime and money-laundering.
Also, in 1997, Tony Rodham, while pursuing a different deal, arranged a White House meeting, attended by Mr. Clinton himself, for a Russian delegation that included Moscow's powerful Mayor Yuri Luzhkov. Mr. Luzhkov has been accused of having links to Russian mobsters.
The first lady, who has her own appetite for murky business dealings, has been less than forthcoming on the matter. Her campaign spokesman, Howard Wolfson, said: "It's not a campaign issue," and Marsha Berry, her government spokeswoman, said Mrs. Clinton agreed with a White House statement that the administration disapproves of the venture, reported The Washington Post on Jan. 1.
Voters in New York might not let Hillary off so easy. At the very least, the first lady should independently denounce her brothers' behavior. The first lady should also specify how much she knew of the deals and when and whether she alerted U.S. officials. As long as Tony continues to wheel-and-deal in the strategically delicate Caucasus, this issue won't be likely to disappear.

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