Tuesday, 30 December 2008

Chechens Outraged by Plans for Early Release of Russian Officer Convicted of Murdering Local Girl‏

by Paul Goble - Window on Eurasia

Vienna, December 29 – A decision by a Russian court last week to grant conditional early release to a Russian colonel convicted of kidnapping and killing an 18-year-old Chechen girl in 2000 has sparked a wave of protests in Chechnya and cast doubt on Moscow’s ability to maintain order there by relying on Ramzan Kadyrov alone.Last Wednesday, the Dmitrovgrad city court in Ulyanovsk oblast announced that it had approved the release after January 11 of Colonel Yury Budanov 14 months before the end of his prison sentence, an outcome and his supporters had long sought but that many Chechens and human rights activists say “spits in the face” of justice and the Chechen people.

This is the latest turn in a long-running case. In July 2003, Budanov was convicted of kidnapping and then killing Elza Kungayeva by a military district court which stripped him of his rank and medals and sentenced him to ten years behind bars. Her family members believe that he raped her as well, although the court did not find him guilty of that.

Since that time, Budanov has become a kind of hero for some Russian nationalist extremists who believe that any actions by Russian soldiers against “Chechen terrorists” are justified, and they have pressed for his release, formally appealing to the courts four times before their current success (http://newtimes.ru/teletype/2008/12/24/---204.html).When the Dmitrovgrad court’s decision reached Grozny, family members of the murdered girl, Chechen officials and Chechens from all walks of life were outraged. They noted that Budanov had never expressed remorse for his actions and that, in any case, ten years is too short a term for someone guilty of the crimes he committed.On December 25 and again on December 28, Chechens demonstrated in Grozny. Visa Kungayev, the father of the victim, said he was appalled by the decision especially given Budanov’s threat to kill other members of the family on his release and planned to appeal to the Russian prosecutor general (www.islamnews.ru/news-16517.html).

Such an effort might be successful: Last Friday, Vyacheslav Lebedev, the chairman of the Russian Federation Supreme Court, said he would personally review the case if there is an appeal (www.islamnews.ru/news-16592.html). And other Chechens said they would take the case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

But regardless of whether Moscow does overrule the Dmitrovgrad court, Chechens are outraged. Among those who have taken part in the protests are members of the Chechen parliament, human rights officials, and students, who carried signs demanding that Budanov spend the rest of his life behind bars for his crimes (www.islamrf.ru/news/russia/rusnews/6443).One deputy told the crowd that the court’s decision not only highlighted “the selectiveness” of Russian justice but constituted “a spitting into the face of the Chechen people. And others praised members of the Kungayev family for pressing the case saying that in doing so, they had saved hundreds of other Chechen women from a similar fate.

At the end of the first meeting, the Chechens adopted a declaration saying among other things that “the crimes of Budanov committed while commander of the 160th tank regiment are evidence of the crimes of other ‘Budanovs.’ And they demanded that Russian officials “investigate the crimes committed against the civilian population of the Chechen Republic.”

An article in “Moskovsky komsomolets” shared their outrage and suggested that the court’s release of Budanov is likely to have broader consequences. For crimes like those Budanov committed, ten years behind bars are not too much, but Budanov and people like him – including apparently the court -- think that for killing a Chechen, they are “too much.”

That is a very dangerous message to send, the paper continued, because it shows that Moscow’s understanding of the nature of what has taken place in Chechnya is deeply flawed and its policy of promoting the re-integration of Chechnya into “peaceful Russian life” is “completely hypocritical” (mk.ru/blogs/MK/2008/12/25/society/388050).

Chechnya, the paper continues, “is not only Ramzan Kadyrov, a Hero of Russia and the personal friend of Premier Putin. Chechnya also consists of hundreds of thousands of ordinary people” whom the authorities have failed to show any consideration or respect. Now, the Russian authorities had “spit in their faces,” and the Chechens will not forget that.

The Caucasus: A Broken Region

IWPR Comment

By Thomas de Waal in London

The Caucasus region is a small and troubled place. It should be a common endeavour for its small and diverse nationalities in Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan as well as the Russian North Caucasus to work together to build an integrated region.

Unfortunately, no sense of common purpose is discernible: the sad reality is, that with its tangle of closed borders and ceasefire lines, the Caucasus more resembles a suicide pact.

Nowhere in the world can there be so many roadblocks. The two long borders between Armenia and Azerbaijan and Russia and Georgia are almost permanently closed. Only two neighbours – Azerbaijan and Georgia – can be said to have a genuinely close relationship and even that is based primarily on energy politics rather than common values and does not translate into many tangible benefits for ordinary people.

Yet, given the chance, the ordinary folk of the Caucasus eagerly take the opportunity to do business with one another. A tale of two markets confirms this. The first was the one at Ergneti where, right on the administrative border with South Ossetia, the busiest wholesale market in the Caucasus used to flourish. The Ossetians brought untaxed goods from Russia – from cigarettes to cars – to sell. The Georgians mainly sold agricultural produce. Because it was unregulated, the new Georgian government of President Mikheil Saakashvili argued that the market was knocking a big hole in the state budget and had to be shut down, which they duly did in June 2004.

The closure of the market was a justifiable step on legal grounds, except in the words of former Georgian conflict resolution minister Giorgy Khaindrava, “If Ergneti didn’t exist it would have to be invented.” Ergneti was possibly the widest “confidence-building measure” in the entire Caucasus region, with people of all nationalities doing business. Arguably the day it closed was the day the countdown to war in South Ossetia began.

On the Georgian-Armenian border, the Georgian village of Sadakhlo used to be home to another astonishing spectacle: a mass Armenian-Azerbaijani market on Georgian territory with virtually no Georgians in sight. Azerbaijanis bought Armenian produce, Armenians Azerbaijani goods that flooded the shops of Yerevan. Again, governmental pressures have curtailed the market, although it has not shut down entirely. Again, a magnificent example of inter-ethnic cooperation has been suppressed.

What politics drives apart, common economic and security interests should drive together. The South Caucasus is a delicate mechanism in which the malfunctioning of one part affects what is going in the others.

That became obvious during this August’s war in Georgia. Azerbaijan’s prime revenue-earners, the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan and Baku-Supsa pipelines, were shut down. When the Grakali railway bridge in central Georgia on August 16 was blown up, it also shut the only railway line linking Armenia to the Black Sea coast, thereby cutting Armenia’s entire imports for a week and costing it at least half a billion dollars in revenue.

This sad state of affairs is partly everyone’s fault.

Armenia and Azerbaijan have adopted intransigent positions which mean they have failed to resolve the biggest obstacle to peace and prosperity in the Caucasus, the Nagorny Karabakh conflict. Georgia has generally ignored its neighbours and Russia in its push towards Euro-Atlantic integration. In the words of Georgian analyst Archil Gegeshidze, one reason for Georgia’s problems is that the Saakashvili government unwisely “put all its eggs in the basket of mobilising western support” and did not pay sufficient attention to its neighbours.

Europeans and Americans, though often paying lip service to the idea of regional integration in the Caucasus, have generally pursued narrower goals. Europe’s grand TRASECA project, a communication and transport project linking the Caucasus to Europe and billed as a new “Silk Road”, has received less than 200 million euro of investment since it was inaugurated in 1993 and its effects are negligible.

Instead, projects such as NATO expansion, energy security and the claims of Armenian diasporas have all tended to divide Caucasian policy into different segments. In Washington, it seems at times that the Congress, the Pentagon and State Department all have different policies, with a primary focus on, respectively, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia.

Moreover, several Washington strategists have suggested that Russia could be “contained” in the Caucasus, overlooking the fact that the region has figured in Russian minds and plans for two centuries and that much of the Russian elite has family or childhood ties to places that westerners barely know.

For good or ill, Russia still has a special role in the Caucasus. Its own policies have done it no favours. Russia continues to see the region in colonial terms, seeking to intimidate or control resources rather than use the soft power of trade or – its biggest asset in the region but a diminishing one – the Russian language, to help form a new and friendly neighbourhood.

People-to-people ties are still in place, often despite the best efforts of governments. Russians and Georgians are tied together by innumerable ties of history, culture and business. Hundreds of thousands of Georgians continue to work in Russia, despite the August conflict. “[Russian and Georgians] leaders have tried to wreck a good relationship between two peoples,” said analyst Ivlian Khaindrava.

Previous Georgian president Eduard Shevardnadze – who after all ran the foreign ministry in Moscow in the perestroika years – understood this, even if he was frequently unable to appease the harder-line elements of the Russian elite when he had returned to Georgia as president.

In an interview with IWPR on December 3 in his residence outside Tbilisi, Shevardnadze said – in a rebuke to his successor – that he had always paid the Russians maximum respect. For example, Shevardnadze said, when the decision was made in 2002 to invite American troops to Georgia as part of the ground-breaking “Train and Equip” programme, he had been careful to inform President Vladimir Putin in advance. Putin went on the record to say that an American troop presence was “no tragedy” for Russia.

“I always tried to emphasise that Russia for us is not a secondary country, that it is a great neighbour with big military and economic potential,” said Shevardnadze.

Conflict gives birth to black-and-white thinking, the view that if your opponent is suffering that is a good thinking. In the current crisis, says Ivlian Khaindrava, “many in Georgia are just keeping quiet and waiting for the situation in Russia to deteriorate, the oil price to go down, tensions in the North Caucasus to escalate.”

That approach, he believes, could be a disaster for Georgia, as an economic downturn in Russia will hurt Georgian migrants and the families back home they send remittances to, while new violence in the North Caucasus could spill over into Georgia.

This kind of zero-sum thinking is most acute between Armenians and Azerbaijanis, many of whom seem content to see their country suffer so long as the other side in the Nagorny Karabakh conflict is feeling pain too.

It is hard for locals to transcend these divisions. It is up to outsiders to give the big picture and the broad vision of how the Caucasus could begin to function more harmoniously, as a political and economic entity rather than merely a dysfunctional geographical region.

Ultimately, it seems likely that only one big international organisation – the European Union – has the transformative power to treat these countries as a single region and promise them benefits that make it worthwhile for them to overcome bad habits. The Balkans provides good proof of it.

Sadly, the signs are that the EU is still too distant and too inward-looking to care sufficiently about the Caucasus. A positive development is that European monitors are now on the ground in Georgia. But the reason that they are there is a tragic one and let us hope they become the advance guard of a much broader engagement – not just confirmation for Europeans that this beautiful mountainous region is a permanent headache that can never be cured.

Thomas de Waal is IWPR’s outgoing Caucasus Editor. This is the last edition of Caucasus Reporting Service he has edited, after almost seven years with IWPR.

The views expressed in this article are not necessarily the views of IWPR.

Monday, 29 December 2008

Chechen girl strangler 'released'

The first Russian army officer to be prosecuted for killing a civilian during the conflict in Chechnya is set to leave jail 15 months early.

A court in the south Russian province of Ulyanovsk granted a petition for early release made by Yuri Budanov, who has been in custody since early 2000.
He was jailed in July 2003 for 10 years for murdering Kheda Kungayeva, 18.

Budanov confessed to strangling the woman in 2000, saying he had acted in a fit of rage while interrogating her.

The former officer, who was subsequently stripped of his rank and military decorations, claimed temporary insanity, saying he had suspected his victim of being a sniper.

But the judge at his trial ruled that he had been of sound mind at the time of the killing and found him guilty of kidnapping, murder and abuse of power.

On Wednesday, the municipal court in Dimitrovgrad, where Budanov is serving his sentence, ruled that he should be released because he had repented of his crime. He is expected to be freed within 10 days.

The Russian news agency Interfax reports that the human rights ombudsman in Chechnya, Nurdi Nukhazhiyev, has protested against the court's decision, accusing Russian judges of "double standards" with regard to Russians and Chechens.

The Budanov case has been widely seen as a test of Moscow's determination to crack down on alleged human rights abuses by Russian troops in Chechnya, correspondents say.

Chechnya was brought under Moscow's control again in 1999 after a brief period of separatist rule.

Saturday, 27 December 2008

A Great Loss: Qardenghush Zeramuq Passed Away

A Great Loss: Qardenghush Zeramuq Passed Away

10 January, 1918 - 25 December, 2008

An outstanding Adyghe figure, National Artist of Kabardino-Balkaria, Honored Art Worker Kabardin Balkar Republic and the Republic of Adygheya, winner of Muhadin Quandour international prizes, a veteran of the Great Patriotic War Qardengush Zeramuq passed away on the night of December 25, 2008.

Zeramuq was not just a writer and originator of the collections of ancient and modern Adyghean National folk songs. First of all he was a protector-guard of Adyghean culture. During his life, Qardengush Zeramuk was busy with collecting and systematizing Nart tales, proverbs, sayings and old songs.

Тхьэм хьэдрыхэ нэху къырит! Тхьэм дыкlэлъигъэбыдэ!


Къэрдэнгъущl Зырамыку дунейм узэрехыжа хьыбарыр ди жагъуэ зэрыхъуар псалъэкlэ къытхуэlуэтэнукъым.


Уи гъащlэм гур щыз зыщl, дэрэжэгъуэрэ гукъыдэжрэ къозыт lуэхугъуэхэри, уи лъэр щlэзыуд, афlэкlа умыпсэужыфыну къыпщызыгъэхъу лъэхъэнэхэри хэтарэ пэтми, уэ лъэ быдэкlэ лъэпкъ гъуазджэм ухэтащ, абы фlыгъуэ куэд къыхуэпхьащ. Аращи уи макъ жьгъырур ди тхьэкlумэм къиlуэу, уи lэужхэм ди гъуэгу тхуагъэунэхуу Адыгэр дунейм дытетынущ Къэрдэнгъущl Зырамыку.

Уи жэнэтыр мэчан, уи ахърэтыр нэху Тхьэм ищl. Дунейм къытебна уи lыхьлыхэми я гъащlэр кlыхь ищl, уэ уащызыгъэгъупщэн гукъеуэ Тхьэм къаримыткlэ.

Къумыкъу Уэхьбий, Берлин / Германия


Kabardino-Balkarian Humanitarian Fund by Kardangush

Contact: zk.found@mail.ru - т.(8662) 475-425

Friday, 26 December 2008

Russian Analytical Digest: Chechnya and the North Caucasus


No. 51: Chechnya and the North Caucasus

This issue of the Russian Analytical Digest provides information on the situation in Chechnya and the Northern Caucasus. Specifically, it assesses the implications of the Georgia-Russia conflict for the Northern Caucasus, discusses the role of Ramzan Kadyrov for peace and security in Chechnya and presents the results of opinion polls that address the situation in the region.

© 2008 Forschungsstelle Osteuropa, Center for Security Studies (CSS), Otto Wolff Foundation, German Association for East European Studies (DGO)

English (PDF · 16 pages · 374 KB)

Wednesday, 24 December 2008

Journalist beaten, threatened in North Caucasus

Committee to Protect Journalists

New York, December 23, 2008--Russian authorities should promptly investigate the attack on Zhanna Akbasheva, a correspondent for the Regnum news agency in the republic of Karachai-Cherkessia, in Russia's North Caucasus, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

Akbasheva told CPJ that two men attacked her at around 5 p.m. on Monday when she was walking toward the office of a state-funded Cherkess-language newspaper, Cherkess Heku, in the regional capital, Cherkessk. The men punched her and kicked her, and sustained damage to her abdomen. They also warned her to stop her work. She reported the attack to local prosecutor's office.

Akbasheva covers corruption and press freedom issues in Karachai-Cherkessia. She had recently written about a conflict between the regional government and Cherkess Heku, which began after the newspaper decided not to follow a government order to publish an open letter critical of the minority Circassian population.

"Russian authorities must thoroughly investigate the attack on Zhanna Akbasheva and bring those responsible to justice," said CPJ Deputy Director Robert Mahoney. "It is absolutely unacceptable that Akbasheva has been attacked and threatened for practicing the kind of investigative journalism this region needs."

On the day of the attack, Akbasheva had planned to meet with the Cherkess Heku staff to follow up on the story. The journalist told CPJ that she was late for the meeting and took a shortcut, when the two men suddenly approached and attacked her. "One of them put his hand on my mouth and another started beating me and saying that if I would not stop writing about certain government officials I will feel even worse," she said.

Akbasheva said she could not see her attackers' faces, which were covered. Vigen Akopian, Regnum's editor-in-chief, told CPJ the agency will call on the general prosecutor's office and the Ministry of Interior to investigate the attack.

Akbasheva said she had not received any threats recently but had problems with the regional government after she started covering corruption in the republic. Last summer, she was banned from entering a regional government building and denied accreditation with state agencies. She was denied entry for about a month and is still waiting for her accreditation.

Misreporting the 'New Cold War'

By Mark Ames, December 19, 2008

EDITOR'S NOTE: New York Times Standards Editor Craig Whitney issued this response to questions posed by The Nation about its coverage of the Russia-Georgia conflict in South Ossetia.

From the moment Georgia launched its invasion against the breakaway region of South Ossetia this past August, sparking a wider war with neighboring Russia, the New York Times's news coverage depicted Georgia as an innocent victim of Russia's neo-imperialist evil. In doing so, the Times engaged in the sort of media malpractice that it promised its readers wouldn't happen again after its disastrous coverage of the lead-up to the Iraq War.

Probably no article captures how the Times took on the role of Georgia's public-relations conduit better than correspondent Andrew Kramer's puff piece on Georgia's leader, Mikheil Saakashvili, "Rebuke of a President, in the Boom of Artillery," published just four days after Georgia invaded South Ossetia.

The article glorifies Saakashvili's alleged bravery under fire, claiming that his biggest fault was that he loved America too much, glossing over his widely criticized crackdown on opposition media and protesters; worse, Kramer claims that Saakashvili used only "soft power," while Russia wielded "all the hard power," in the war.

The Times stuck to its version of events for three months. It wasn't until the November 7 front-page story, " Georgia Claims on Russia War Called Into Question," that the newspaper essentially retracted its earlier reporting:

Newly available accounts by independent military observers of the beginning of the war between Georgia and Russia this summer call into question the longstanding Georgian assertion that it was acting defensively against separatist and Russian aggression.

Instead, the accounts suggest that Georgia's inexperienced military attacked the isolated separatist capital of Tskhinvali on Aug. 7 with indiscriminate artillery and rocket fire, exposing civilians, Russian peacekeepers and unarmed monitors to harm.

Indeed. What the Times really should have asked, but so far hasn't, is this: with so many reporters on the ground during the war, why did it take three months for the paper to get to the true version of events?

I can answer at least part of that question, because I was in South Ossetia covering the war for The Nation and Radar magazine. I saw how the Times generated articles from the Ossetian front and how its pro-Georgian slant drove its news reporting. And here is what I can tell you about the way this extremely important foreign story was framed.

Articles don't simply "happen" or "pass through" journalists; they are the product of people and organizations with vested interests, ego interests, ambition interests and, of course, business interests. The Georgia war, and the easy way that the New York Times fell into and actively pushed the neocon line about innocent Georgia invaded by evil Russia, is a product of deliberate decisions and resource allocations that I personally witnessed, much to my horror and frustration.

Disparate Reports

I first started to notice something wrong with the Western coverage shortly after I arrived in Vladikavkaz, the capital of North Ossetia, in Russia proper. The few Western correspondents in Ossetia were gathered around a table at the Vladikavkaz Hotel, gorging on food and beer after a long, miserable tour into South Ossetia's ruins. The A-list Western correspondents were reporting from the Georgian side of the conflict. They all stayed in Georgia's capital, Tblisi, in one of that city's two Marriotts or in the Sheraton Hotel, with its fantastic amenities, food and wine--leaving the squalid, Russian/Ossetian side of the war zone to be covered by the second-stringers or just plain stringers.

That's when our Kremlin minder, Sasha, appeared looking harassed and depressed. He asked us if he could join us for a few minutes. The correspondents grudgingly agreed.

"I don't know what to do anymore, so I have to ask you guys honestly and openly," Sasha said.

"Look, I arranged to take everyone down to [the South Ossetian capital] Tskhinvali. I showed you all of the destruction that the Georgian forces caused to the city. I didn't try to tell you what to think, because first it would be counterproductive, and secondly, why would I need to? It's so obvious what happened. And yet I get back here and now I'm seeing the stories you're filing. It's all about the poor Georgian victims, or that imperialist Russia is invading poor Georgia. You saw it yourselves! You saw what the Georgians did." He slouched forward over the table. "You're going to write what you're going to write no matter what I show you. So what's the point? Maybe I should give up."

Under normal circumstances, this would be a classic Russian guilt trip. But it was clear even to us, even though we weren’t positively disposed to a Russian handler, that Sasha’s frustration was real. It was as if the Kremlin was so excited that for once in Putin’s term, the Russians lucked into being on the good guys’ side of a major news story, and it made no sense that the “free Western media” (which the Kremlin takes much more seriously than its own cowed media) wouldn’t see the truth, that they’d do the Russian thing and twist reality into propaganda. What was so shameful and embarrassing to me, an American journalist whose own Moscow-based newspaper, The eXile, had just been driven out of existence by these same Kremlin bastards, is that Sasha was rightly frustrated. A Kremlin minder right and the Western journalists wrong? What has this world come to when the Kremlin has a better grasp of the truth than the free Western media?

That’s when Matt Siegel, a young Moscow expat who was hired a week earlier by the New York Times to serve as its stringer-correspondent covering the Russian/Ossetian side of the war, spoke up. Siegel complained to Sasha that the real problem was the way Sasha was trying to manage the Western reporters. Siegel charged that Sasha didn’t give us greater access to ethnic Georgian villages in South Ossetia; his Times editor wanted a story on crimes committed against ethnic Georgians, which seemed to be what all Western editors wanted. (Georgian grievances were in big demand from the Western media’s home offices. My first day in North Ossetia, I joined Tom Parfitt of the Guardian and Andrew Osborn of the Wall Street Journal, driving around ethnic Georgian villages on the Russian side of the border, chasing false rumors that we’d heard from another Western correspondent that the Georgian inhabitants there had been attacked and cleansed. All we managed to do by going into those villages was to frighten the poor villagers. Later that day, Osborn and I went to makeshift Ossetian refugee centers to check out their claims of tens of thousands of refugees; their claims checked out.)

“We don’t want to be shown the same Tskhinvali ruins again and again,” Siegel complained. “We’ve already seen them, you know? You’re not giving us anything new.”

A Brit correspondent from ITN–who, like all the TV correspondents, wore a bulletproof vest long after even their own cameramen stopped wearing them–suddenly perked up from his beer: “It’s a cover-up!” he shouted. “You’re trying to cover it up!”

The real problem was this: the editors at their desks in the home countries weren’t interested in Ossetian suffering; they wanted to exaggerate the Georgian suffering and vilify the Russians. To the second-stringers at that table, being shown the awful truth of Georgian culpability was equivalent to being handed a bunch of losing lottery tickets–because Georgian culpability and Ossetian grievances simply weren’t in demand back in New York and Washington. There was a real sense of professional anger and desperation at the table, and Sasha sensed it.

Surprisingly, the Kremlin tour organizer caved. The next day, Sasha arranged for the Western correspondents’ first tour into occupied Gori, traveling in from the Russian/Ossetian side rather than up from the Georgian side–this would provide fresh news. And he gave us much greater access to the ethnic Georgian villages behind Russian lines that had been torched in reprisal attacks following Georgia’s brutal invasion, which leveled buildings and villages and drove tens of thousands of Ossetian refugees into Russia. Sasha figured that it was a worthwhile trade-off: it was so important to show what he thought was the much bigger page-one story–that the Georgians lied when they claimed that Russia had bombed Gori into rubble–that it was worth conceding a story about how Ossetian and Chechen irregulars had torched Georgian homes in order to debunk the Gori-destruction propaganda that had been used so successfully to demonize Russia.

Here is what Siegel’s trip to Gori contributed to the Times article, which made no mention of how Gori was indeed almost completely unscathed:

A Times reporter traveling between Tskhinvali, which is the South Ossetian capital, and Gori saw extensive sections of [Georgian] villages that had been burned.

On the long ride down to Gori via South Ossetia, Siegel loudly and busily counted up the burned houses in ethnic Georgian villages, excitedly telling everyone, “This is what my New York Times editor wants,” running up and down the Hyundai minibus aisle. When we’d pass through Ossetian villages, he was back in his seat, on the phone loudly reporting figures into his cellphone.

When we got to Gori, we saw that it wasn’t bombed to the ground, as we’d expected. Frankly, I was shocked: after what the Russians did to Grozny during the two Chechen wars, I couldn’t believe that they wouldn’t bomb an enemy city into rubble first and ask questions later. But the fact was, compared with the ruins of Tskhinvali, Gori looked like Geneva. Siegel wasn’t interested–or, rather, his Times editor wasn’t–so he went running around looking for evidence that the Russians had dropped a cluster bomb. He thought he found that evidence–we all saw the bombshell–but apparently it wasn’t rock-solid enough for the Times editors.

The production of the final article that appeared on page one, with Siegel’s contribution from bean-counting the burning houses, was almost entirely Georgia-centric: while temp-stringer Siegel was hired to cover the Russian/Ossetian side of the conflict zone, staffers Sabrina Tavernise, C.J. Chivers and Michael Schwirtz were stationed on the Georgian side, along with photographer-reporters Joao Silva and Justyna Mielnikiewicz, who has lived in Tblisi since 2001.

Had Siegel–or, rather, his editor–taken an interest in the really important story that we saw that day–that the Georgian propagandists had wildly exaggerated the destruction in Gori, which should have cast doubt on their entire story all along–the Times would not have had to wait until November 7 to “call into question” Georgia’s claims. The paper could have called them into question right there–or at a hundred other opportunities that I saw in my time in the conflict zone.

Apparently, the editors weren’t interested. And this is where the Times’s reporting–from the editorial decision to base all of its staffers on the Georgian side while leaving the crucial Russian/Ossetian side of the battle zone to a stringer eager to please his US-based employer–went so woefully, recklessly wrong. In Siegel’s defense, he didn’t make the editorial decision to ignore the real Gori story. It seemed clear to me that it wasn’t his decision, but rather that of his editors, to highlight the unbombed parts of Tskhinvali when he reported from there a few days earlier:

Russian statements had likened the Georgian assault to other recent cataclysmic wars in the Caucasus, like the razing of Grozny in Chechnya. But while Tskhinvali sustained significant damage, it was not as widespread or catastrophic as the state-run Russian news media had portrayed it.

Fighting appears to have been concentrated in two neighborhoods, while buildings in the rest of the city stood intact. Entire residential neighborhoods appeared unscathed. Even in the hardest-hit areas, most buildings were left standing.

I’m still shocked today reading this. Yes, most of the buildings were standing. It’s hard to level buildings in just a few days of shelling and tank fire, no matter how fierce and indiscriminate. What the Times’s stringer didn’t include was that the “two neighborhoods” he alluded to were Tskhinvali’s main residential district, nicknamed Shanghai because of its population density (it’s where most of the city’s high-rise apartment blocks are located), and the old Jewish Quarter, which was nothing but piles of rubble. Leaving out those powerful, significant details–and again, this looks like the fault of the editors in New York who hired Siegel–is active propaganda.

To see what I mean, here’s how a more seasoned reporter, Peter Finn of the Washington Post, reported the same scene a couple of days later, when he finally was let into Tskhinvali:

The war between Georgia and Russia was centered on this town of at most 10,000 people, and it cut a swath of destruction, severely damaging many homes and apartment buildings.

The scale of the destruction is undeniable; some streets summon iconic images of Stalingrad during World War II or Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, which was leveled in two wars between Russian and Chechen separatists.

What’s more disturbing is how the Times stuck to its false narrative about an innocent Georgia attacked by a neo-imperialist Russia long after the war ended and evidence started to pour in of Georgia’s culpability. It took whistleblowers, human rights organizations and the Western European media to reveal what happened. In mid-September, Germany’s Der Spiegel published an investigative report drawing on interviews with OSCE monitors who witnessed the war, asking, in its subhead, “Did Saakashvili Lie?”

A Myth Disproved

In late October, the BBC aired a documentary, What Really Happened in South Ossetia, that once and for all destroyed the neocon/mainstream American fairy tale about innocent, democratic Georgia: “The BBC has discovered evidence that Georgia may have committed war crimes in its attack on its breakaway region of South Ossetia in August,” the documentary reported.

The BBC used the results of its investigation to confront Britain’s foreign minister, David Miliband, with these new facts; Miliband conceded that Georgia’s behavior was “reckless,” and he vowed to confront its leadership with allegations that Georgia had deliberately targeted South Ossetian civilians with tanks and missiles.

But while the European media took its politicians to task over Georgia’s culpability, John McCain and his neocon advisers were able to set the agenda and paint the war in South Ossetia in deliberately false and alarming terms, backed by the unquestioning American media, leaving Barack Obama’s team with little choice but to fall in line with the “new cold war” fever or else risk looking like appeasers. Yet because of Team McCain’s close ties to Saakashvili, and the recent unmistakable revelations about Georgia’s guilt in launching the war, one investigative reporter, Gerald Posner, recently asked, “Did McCain Bury the Truth About Russia?

Like so many other serious questions, it’s unlikely that the major American media outlets will bother answering that question.

Meanwhile, the evidence showing that Georgia was no less guilty than Russia of war crimes kept piling up: Human Rights Watch has been releasing reports condemning Georgia’s wartime violations and crimes, including indiscriminate shelling of civilians and use of illegal weapons such as cluster bombs and rockets on civilian targets; Reporters Without Borders denounced Georgia’s deteriorating press freedoms, ranking the country in the cellar with odious Third World dictatorships; and Amnesty International has issued a detailed study accusing Georgia of committing war crimes right alongside Russia, as reported in the Associated Press:

Its sweeping 69-page report cites evidence suggesting that Georgian forces indiscriminately fired on civilian targets in Tskhinvali, the capital of the Russian-backed breakaway province of South Ossetia…and violated international law on the conduct of war.

In light of all this mounting evidence that there is no black-and-white good guy/bad guy reality to square with the dominant narrative, it was only a matter of time before someone in the major American media would get around to reporting the facts.

And yet the Times clung to its narrative. On September 16, just as Der Spiegel published its exposé on Saakashvili’s lies and culpability in launching the invasion and committing war crimes, the New York Times published a front-pager, ” Georgia Offers Fresh Evidence on War’s Start,” which tried to prove yet again that Russia invaded first, unprovoked.

The evidence backing the story consisted of a cassette recording that Saakashvili’s people handed to a Times reporter a month after the war.

Why didn’t the Times question the tape? In the aforementioned BBC investigative documentary about South Ossetia, host Tim Whewell is shown listening to this same tape with a Georgian Interior Ministry official, Shota Utiashvili. But instead of buying it hook, line and sinker, as the Times did, Whewell reacted skeptically:

Whewell: “So even though this tape was so important as evidence of Russia’s actions, you actually lost it for a month?”

Utiashvili (looking embarrassed): “Well we, we hadn’t, we never lost it actually because it was, it was in the files. But we had about 6,000 intercepts at the same time.”

Whewell: “So even one so important to your case, you didn’t keep it specially, separately?”

Utiashvili: “No, no. That was a mistake.”

Utiashvili’s “the dog ate my homework” excuse for why Georgia released those tapes a month after the war made for a great television moment: the triumph of serious journalism over propaganda, the shaming of a government official caught in a bad lie. But for the BBC’s counterparts at the New York Times, that same tape, unquestioned, offered the very opposite: a chance to shore up a crumbling fairy tale that the Times had sold to its trusting readership, even though the consequence of shoring up that fairy tale was a cold war nightmare.

No Apologies

Now that even the Times has reversed itself, the question is: will it do the responsible thing and apologize to its readers for its journalistic malpractice? After all, the consequences of its slanted reporting helped shape a political supra-reality that pushed us to the brink of a new cold war. Will America’s paper of record issue an apology, however feeble, as it did for the Iraq debacle? Will anyone be held accountable?

In May 2004, in the wake of its reporting on the lead-up to the Iraq War, the Times published a feeble mea culpa, “The Times and Iraq,” in which the editors sought to expose their failures:

Editors at several levels who should have been challenging reporters and pressing for more skepticism were perhaps too intent on rushing scoops into the paper….

We consider the story of Iraq’s weapons, and of the pattern of misinformation, to be unfinished business. And we fully intend to continue aggressive reporting aimed at setting the record straight.

Just four years later, the Times repeated those same mistakes in South Ossetia. The paper doesn’t seem to have learned from its journalistic malpractice debacle over Iraq. It promised its readers, and the public at large, that it would try never to make that mistake again. How many more mistakes will it take before the Times delivers on its promises?

I essentially posed this question to the Times when I asked the paper to comment on this critique of its war coverage. I received a lengthy response from Craig Whitney, standards editor for the Times and a former correspondent in the Soviet Union from 1977 to 1980. It began by accusing me of “a perverse distortion of this reporting, nothing less, to say that [the Times] portrayed Georgia as a victim of Russian aggression rather than as an aggressor.” There followed twenty-three pages of article excerpts spanning the last six months or so–revealing a record not of the Times getting the story right about Georgia’s guilt in launching the war but rather one of bet-hedging for journalists, just enough qualifiers slipped into the articles to indemnify the Times from criticism should the conventional wisdom on that war change.

“What we can do, and did, was try our best to sort it out after the shooting started,” Whitney stated. He may believe that–but if he does, it only points to how profoundly unaware major media players can be. Since I was there, I know how the Times created its false slant in this war, misleading its readers and helping create the grounds for a new cold war. It leaves me wondering how many other major stories the Times has been blowing this badly.

On December 3, the Times’s lead editorial about Iraq asked for, in the words of its headline, “At Least Some Accountability“. It’s ironic that what the New York Times rightly asks of others it fails to deliver itself.
Mark Ames is the author of Going Postal: Rage, Murder and Rebellion From Reagan’s Workplaces to Clinton’s Columbine and Beyond (Soft Skull) and The eXile: Sex, Drugs and Libel in the New Russia (Grove). He is a regular contributor to eXiled Online. more…Copyright © 2008 The Nation

Monday, 22 December 2008

Troubled Abkhazia prepares for Winter Olympics

by Apostolis Fotiadis, 20 December 2008 - Helsinki Times

The nomination of the Russian city of Sochi to host the 2014 Winter Olympics is already affecting the sensitive geopolitical balance in the region.

SOCHI and the Adler district are situated on the Black Sea coast, north of the border with the volatile Abkhazia region. The new Sochi-Adler airport and the area where the Olympics village will be located are just a few kilometres from the border checkpoint.

Sochi and Adler are popular summer resorts for Russians. Many leaders and celebrities, including President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, visit the area regularly.

“Last summer more than six million visited the area, which depends greatly on tourism,” says Vladimir Gourelian, a flower store owner in downtown Sochi. Abkhazia was just as popular among Russians for its natural beauty and warm climate, but instability due to the ethnic conflict between Abkhazians and Georgians has reduced tourist flows.

Russia supported Abkhazians against Georgian aggression earlier this summer; its army was already present as a peacekeeping force. Immediately after the conflict Russia recognised the two breakaway republics as independent countries. Its forces remain in the region to guarantee Abkhazians' security, and as a shield to protect Russian interests in the Black Sea.

“The plans announced by the Russian government are really ambitious,” says Gourelian. “If implemented, they will result in nothing less than rebuilding Sochi city centre from scratch.”

Improving infrastructure

The initial budget was expected to be more than 12 billion dollars. But Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Kotzak has said that in view of the international financial crisis “we now have the task of fulfilling our plan while reducing spending.”

Freelance journalist Olga Petrovka is not optimistic. “There is a lot of talk of investment and projects but few real initiatives. Success does not depend only on creating infrastructure, but also whether you create the capacity to host the games. This means a better public transportation system, more people with language skills, an improved services sector.”

Nikolaj Diatchkov, deputy rector of the State University for Tourism and Recreation in Sochi tells IPS that “the nearer we approach 2014, the more money will be poured in.” Tourism students, he says, “are planning ahead in order to provide people with skills for careers as specialists in their field during the Olympic games.”

But the region does not have sufficient workforce to carry out infrastructure projects for the Olympics. Workers will have to be imported, says Gourelian. “Under a bilateral government agreement, up to 60,000 Chinese will come to work in Sochi and Adler during the next few years.”

Security issues

Most guest workers are likely to be asked to stay in Abkhazia, which has a population of 215,472 according to the 2002 census. A region with weak social structures and lack of efficient economic activity might soon face a critical population influx.

“The prospect of such a population movement will offer an unprecedented economic boost, but simultaneously will create a migration challenge for us,” Abkhazian deputy foreign minister Maxim Gountzia tells IPS. “The truth is that there is no stopping them from coming, but it is better if this happens under a well-organised plan.”

Beyond infrastructural development, regional security remains the major challenge for Russia's plans for the 2014 event. Two small bomb attacks in Sochi just days after the war were blamed on “Georgian terrorists”. Such attacks could derail investment and restructuring plans. Violent incidents are reported regularly in villages on the front lines between Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Georgia.

Russia's plans for organising a great event and Abkhazia's aspirations for benefiting from the development will have to get past local insecurities.

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

Russian ambassadors arrive in Abkhazia and South Ossetia

Russia's first ambassadors to newly-independent South Ossetia and Abkhazia have taken up their postings as they formally presented themselves to the two states' Presidents on Tuesday.

Russia established diplomatic ties with South Ossetia and Abkhazia in September.

"The establishment of Russia’s diplomatic missions in Sukhum and Tshinval will undoubtedly contribute to relations between Russia and Abkhazia and Russian and South Ossetia in all fields, including the formation of the legal system and cooperation in ensuring security and stability in Abkhazia and South Ossetia," said a statement released by Russia’s Foreign Ministry.

The move follows the recognition of the two republics by President Dmitry Medvedev after Georgia launched a military offensive on South Ossetia in an attempt to regain control of the region.

Elbrus Kargiev became the Russian ambassador to South Ossetia and Semen Grigoriev took the post in Abkhazia.

The missions are due to open by February next year.

North Caucasus More Unstable Now than When Yeltsin Launched First Post-Soviet Chechen War

Paul Goble - Window on Eurasia

Vienna, December 15 – Fourteen years ago this week, Russian President Boris Yeltsin sent his forces into Chechnya to "restore the constitutional order," an action that not only failed to do that but led to the second Chechen war under Vladimir Putin, to the destabilization of the entire North Caucasus and to increasingly violent acts by Russian security services abroad.

Following a series of efforts to overthrow Chechen President Dzhokhar Dudayev, Yeltsin sent in military units to support Chechens opposed to Dudayev and his efforts to secure the independence, an operation many in Moscow and the West expected to end in two to three weeks but instead lasted two years and continues to cast a shadow on the region.

Chechens and others continue to disagree about Dudayev and Yeltsin's moves against him, but according to Caucasus Knot's Aleksandr Ivanov, most agree that "if there had not been [this] 'first Chechen war,' then there would not have been the 'second' with all its ensuing consequences (www.kavkaz.memo.ru/newstext/news/id/1234882.html).

Aslambek Apayev, a specialist on the North Caucasus at the Moscow Helsinki Group, told Ivanov that Yeltsin and his entourage were to blame for the launch of the first way. "It was possible and necessary to conduct talks, and sooner or later, Moscow and Grozny would have achieved mutually acceptable agreements."

"Instead," Apayev continued, "Yeltsin began the war. What did Russia and Chechnya receive then from this? Only new problems, a new war, new victims and destruction in Chechnya. Now the war has spread practically across the entire North Caucasus," all of which could have been avoided "if the Kremlin in 1994 had displayed wisdom and farsightedness."

After thousands of deaths and the embarrassment of Russian forces, the first Chechen war ended with the signing of the Khasavyurt Accords between Chechen leader Aslan Maskhadov and Russian General Aleksandr Lebed, although these agreements were never implemented and a new war began in 1999 because of the actions of both Moscow and Chechen radicals.

In support of his presidential aspirations, Vladimir Putin set in train the blowing up of apartment buildings in Russian cities, an action he blamed on the Chechens and one that allowed him to whip up the kind of nationalistic fervor that helped him begin his suppression of the rights and freedoms Russians had come to enjoy under Yeltsin.

And what did Putin's actions achieve in Chechnya itself? Ivanov asked rhetorically. The republic is now ruled by the son of the former president who "in exchange for nominal devotion [to the Kremlin] has been able to get from Moscow such preferences and concessions about which neither Dzhokhar Dudayev nor Aslan Maskhadov ever dreamed."

In an essay apparently timed to coincide with the "Chechen anniversary," the Caucasus Times, a research center and portal based in Prague, published the results of polls it has conducted in the capital cities of six North Caucasus republics, results that destroy Moscow's "myth about stabilization" there (www.caucasustimes.com/article.asp?id=18259).

Despite the obvious difficulties of conducting surveys that seek to measure popular attitudes about issues that Moscow would very much prefer not be discussed, the Caucasus Times group has interviewed 4200 people in Russian in these cities over the last 18 months, and the results, a summary of which have been published online, are devastating.

They show that people in these cities not only discount Moscow's claims about the situation there but expect more violence in the future, almost whatever happens. On the one hand, that leads to certain passivity among the population in the face of violence by both officials and organized groups.

But on the other, it shows that people in the places in the North Caucasus thought to be most firmly under the control of pro-Moscow forces are not expecting stability and peace anytime soon but rather the reverse, attitudes that Moscow and its loyalists have not yet found a way of overcoming.

The results are being published in a two-part book. The first section includes polls in each of the republics of the region, and the second is devoted to a functional analysis of the attitudes and behavior of the people there in advance of elections. In addition, the second also treats the broader question of the expectations of the population about the situation in Russia as a whole.

But the anniversary of "the first Chechen," as many now refer to the conflict Yeltsin launched, was marked in another way. On December 9, former Chechen field commander Islam Dzhanibekov was found murdered in Istanbul, Turkey, an action that various media outlets immediately linked to the actions of Russian security services.

In an article in "Yezhednevniy zhurnal," intelligence specialist Andrey Soldatov explains why. On the one hand, the way in which the action was carried out and the fact that it follows three other such murders of Chechen activists abroad over the last four years all point to Moscow's involvement (ej.ru/?a=note&id=8650).

And on the other, because Moscow can count on the understanding of other states as long as it portrays such moves as being part of the global war on terrorism, the Russian government risks little by eliminating its most militant opponents in this way. Indeed, it may even win points in some circles.

As Soldatov puts it, "in 'the global war on terrorism,' where repressive structures of all governments are allied – the more harsh the structure, the more valuable its assistance – there are too few chances that the special services will not engage in murder or will begin to accuse one another of violating the rules of the game."

"And it is not important," he continues, that Russia today is not the most active or essential ally. When a conflict lasts too long, even junior partners obtain guarantees from the main players," yet another development that has some of its roots in Yeltsin's failed effort to "restore the constitutional order" in Chechnya.

But at least the Russian force structures are not yet brazen enough to take public credit for what they almost certainly did. Their spokesmen are saying that Dzhanibekov was killed because he had money, an explanation that says more about those who give or accept it than it does about the event itself (www.kavkaz.memo.ru/newstext/news/id/1234958.html).

Sunday, 30 November 2008

A history erased - Abkhazia's archive: fire of war, ashes of history

Photo: E.K. Adzhindzhal

To whom it may concern,

In addition to the many unspeakable tragedies of the Balkan wars, one act of cultural vandalism caught the world's attention, as it happened as the world's cameras were trained on Bosnia-Herzegovina. This was the destruction of the Library of Sarajevo, which stored manuscripts and other documents recording the multi-cultural heritage of the state, at the end of August 1992. With help from libraries and cultural organisations around the world, many of the losses were made good in the post-war years of reconstruction.

Two months after the Sarajevo library was left in ruins, similar deliberate acts were perpetrated in another part of Europe in a war which was never the centre of media-attention, though the consequences of the war resurfaced in August 2008 with Russia's recognition of the Republic of Abkhazia in Transcaucasia. Georgian troops entered Abkhazia on 14th August 1992, sparking a 14-month war. At the end of October, the Abkhazian Research Institute of History, Language and Literature named after Dmitry Gulia, which housed an important library and archive, was deliberately torched by the invaders, who were bent on destroying the documentary evidence that proved Abkhazians' residence in their historical homeland; also targeted was the capital's public library. Though help to restore the losses has come from institutions and private donors in Russia, no further assistance has been offered by the wider international community. The short film you are about to watch is designed to alert the world to this cultural loss and thereby to encourage all in a position to do so to make the kind of help described above for Sarajevo available also to Abkhazia.

For more information & contact: info@circassianworld.com

A chapter from Sam Topalidis' book: A Pontic Greek History

    Note 2.3 Ascherson (1,1995, pp. 253-4), describes how the State Archives building was destroyed during the civil war in Abkhazia.

    One day in the winter of 1992, a white Lada without number-plates, containing four men from the Georgian National Guard, drew up outside. The guardsmen shot the door open and then flung incendiary grenades into the hall and stairwel. ... Sukhum citizens tried vainly to break through the cordon and enter the building to rescue burning boks and papers. ... The archives also contained the entire documentation of the Greek community, including a library, a collection of historical research from all the Grek villages of Abkhazia and complete files of the Grek language newspapers going back to the first years after the revolution.

    Please note that this story was previously quoted in Agtzidis (Jan 1994). Agtzidis (1994) states on page 27 that, Kharalombos Politidis witnessed the catastrophe described above. Clogg (1999) add that these irreplaceable documents for around 45 Greek communities in Abkhazia included the only complete set of the Pontic Grek newspaper Kokinos Kapnas. This story is distressing, since records of my parent's families in Yiashtoha and Portch, near Sohoumi (Sukhum) could be lost forever.

    Related issues:

Thursday, 27 November 2008

Circassian Congress Calls for Unification of Circassian Republics in North Caucasus

Jamestown Foundation: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 9 Issue: 45

November 27, 2008 By: Fatima Tlisova

An extraordinary congress of Circassian people took place on Sunday, November 23, in Cherkessk, the capital of the North Caucasus republic of Karachaevo-Cherkessia. The congress date had been announced and rescheduled several times. Several days before the event, the leader of the republic’s Circassians, Mukhamed Cherkesov, was summoned by the Russian president’s administration for consultations and negotiations. Cherkesov declined to comment on the substance of his Kremlin meetings, stating it would be premature to do so (http://www.regnum.ru/news/fd-south/kar-cher/1087817.html).

Cherkesov also told the news media about the meetings he had shortly before the congress with the administration of Karachaevo-Cherkessia’s president and one of the republic’s law-enforcement agencies. Cherkesov reported that after the discussion of a draft resolution to be adopted by the congress, he was told about the specific issues that could not be included in the text of the resolution and informed that failure to cooperate would result in criminal prosecution.

According to Cherkesov, an issue that had to be kept away from discussion at the congress and could not be included in the text of the resolution had to do with the proposed merger of Circassian lands to form a single Russian Federation subject. Yet, despite the warnings, it was a proposal to reunify Circassia that became the key outcome of the Circassian congress (http://www.regnum.ru/news/fd-south/kar-cher/1087949.html).

The essence of the reunification project is the administrative merger of three republics and one region of the North Caucasus where Circassians are the dominant ethnic majority. Moving eastward, these include the Shapsug district of Sochi, Adygeya, Karachaevo-Cherkessia and Kabardino-Balkaria. In the latter two republics, which the Circassians share with the Turkic-speaking Karachais and Balkars, the project envisages the separation of Karachai and Balkaria from Cherkessia and their merger into a single republic.

Notably, it was the first time that this proposal, branded “Greater Circassia” during the Soviet period and usually linked to extremist and separatist movements, was openly discussed by the Circassian community in Russia (http://www.regnum.ru/news/fd-south/kar-cher/1087196.html).

Evidently, the older generation of the Circassian leaders planned to limit the agenda of the congress to a discussion of the problems of Circassians in Karachaevo-Cherkessia. The republic’s Kremlin-appointed president, Boris Ebzeyev, has frustrated Circassians by denying them the prime minister position, which is traditionally reserved for an ethnic Circassian.

The general content of the congress’ keynote address, which was delivered by former Communist party functionary Umar Temirov, was limited to internal issues faced by Circassians in Karachaevo-Cherkessia.

However, these attempts to limit the agenda of the congress were thwarted by the younger attendees. Approximately 1,500 young Circassians from a number of republics came to the congress uninvited and with no approvals granted by their elders. An independent youth forum they organized was held prior to the congress commencement.

The young attendees entered the congress hall decked out in national garb and carrying Circassian banners. Following the ancestral tradition of blowing the horn to call people to assembly in times of great danger, the youth Khasa, or council, opened the congress with the call of the horn.

After Umar Temirov’s address, the floor went to Ruslan Keshev, the leader of the Circassian Congress youth movement from Nalchik. Keshev read out a resolution of the Circassian Youth Congress that called for forming a united republic of Circassia. “The proposal put forward by Circassian youth does not contradict the Russian constitution; on the contrary, it follows the strategy of regional consolidation launched by the administration of former President Putin and continued by the current president Medvedev,” Keshev said. He added that “it is not acceptable to reduce the challenges faced by our people to a handful of ministerial portfolios, and we won’t allow it. If Moscow does not respond, then it should be aware that we, the Circassians, can no longer put up with such a situation for our people in Russia” (http://www.regnum.ru/news/1088089.html).

The youth leader’s address received a standing ovation.

It is difficult to predict the Kremlin’s reaction to the burgeoning nationalistic sentiment of the Circassian community. Two opposite scenarios come to mind.

The first option is a traditional one. It can be expected that a wave of anti-Circassian sentiment stoked by Russia will rise up inside the republics that Circassians share with other ethnic groups. It is quite possible that the Karachai, Balkars, and Cossacks will announce their opposition to the project of unifying Circassia. In the best-case scenario, this will end with only threatening rhetoric from the different parties; in the worst-case scenario, Moscow will have to deal with a second Ingushetia. If, on this occasion, Moscow has no interest in seeing an outbreak of local inter-ethnic strife, one might see a repeat of 1993–1994, when the Circassians, Karachais, Balkars and Cossacks reached an agreement and announced the establishment of three independent republics: the Circassian, Karachai-Balkar and Cossack republics. The Kremlin then rejected the program, but the parties’ potential for negotiation has not been exhausted.

The second option that the Kremlin may consider is the actual establishment of a Circassian republic as its stronghold in the North Caucasus. The factors weighing in favor of this solution are several high-priority issues faced by the Russian government, including the upcoming Olympic Games in Sochi; the Georgia, NATO and the Black Sea issues; the Caucasus Emirate and the growing separatist trends in Dagestan and Ingushetia; and the relationships with Turkey and other Middle Eastern countries, where Circassian communities have an influence on foreign policy.

Several objective signs point to the possibility that Moscow may be inclined to consider potential concessions to the Circassians in exchange for their loyalty and support from their political elites. Diaspora sources report that the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has had several meetings with members of the Circassian communities in Turkey, Jordan and a number of other countries. While the substance of these meetings has not been made public, soon after the meeting, an ethnic Circassian, Jambulat Khatuov, was appointed mayor of the Olympic host city Sochi. This appointment is an extraordinary step, given that the migration policy of Krasnodar Krai, which includes Sochi, has until now been aimed at limiting the presence of Circassians in the Black Sea cities as much as possible. Perhaps Moscow is hopeful that Khatuov’s appointment will generate investment by Circassians in Olympic construction in Sochi, which is currently being boycotted by Turkey’s construction industry because Circassians view the area as a site of the 19th century genocide.

Russian news media occasionally report that there is a group inside the Kremlin working in conjunction with leaders of Circassian communities abroad on a Circassia unification project. In particular, the Political News Agency (PNA) has written about this (see www.apn.ru/column/comments20886.htm.

If one believes that Moscow, faced with a weakening influence in the Caucasus, really wants to make the Circassians a reliable ally, not a dangerous enemy, then the idea of Circassian unification does not seem so unrealistic. At the same time, the proposal has obvious risks, for instance, the issue of control. How long will a new republic that has access to the Black Sea, kinship links with Abkhazia, a five-million strong overseas community, and an area bigger than Switzerland want to stay within Russia? It is possible that Moscow might even consider the option of a federation treaty with Circassia, which would give the Circassians relative independence while remaining loyal to Moscow? There is certainly a precedent—Chechnya and its pro-Kremlin leader Ramzan Kadyrov.

A Chance to Join the World

by Neal Ascherson - London Review of Books - Vol. 30 No. 23

On the way to the frontier, we stopped the car for a last look at Abkhazia. A new monument stood by the road, the effigy of a scowling, whiskered Abkhaz chieftain with sword and shield. The statue commemorates the war of 1992-93 which routed the Georgian army, cost ten thousand dead on both sides, and established an ‘independent’ Abkhazian state.

All we could hear was the sound of cowbells. Cattle graze on the verges of the highway to Russia or – folding their long legs – snooze comfortably in the middle of the road. Below us, glimpsed through pine woods, was the Black Sea. In front, miles of grassland led up to the coastal sierra of the Caucasus, a wall of rock whose vast ribs glowed in the misty autumn sunlight. There had been a ceremony here recently. Bunches and wreaths of flowers were beginning to wilt around the warrior’s feet, and cartridge cases from a fusillade glittered in the grass. I picked one up. The Armenian driver – a knowing young man whose family came from the Kodori Gorge region, recaptured from the Georgians a few months earlier – fingered it with interest. ‘An M4 round – not one of ours. American. It must have come from the stuff we captured at the Gorge.’

It was ten weeks since the August night when the president of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili, launched his onslaught on South Ossetia, precipitating the punitive Russian invasion which surged through western Georgia and advanced to within a few miles of Tbilisi itself. On 26 August, Russia startled the world – including the Abkhazian government, apparently – by recognising the independence of both South Ossetia and Abkhazia. So far, no other nation has followed Russia’s lead except, for obscure reasons, Nicaragua.

For Western governments, led by the United States and including the European Union, this recognition was a unilateral outrage against ‘the territorial integrity of Georgia’. Our media continue to refer to the two territories as ‘Georgian breakaway regions’. For others, it was a crude proclamation of reality. South Ossetia and Abkhazia effectively ceased to be ‘part of Georgia’ at least fifteen years ago, claiming indeed that they never really were part of it. Since the August war, Georgian chances of reasserting control in either place in the foreseeable future, by conquest or diplomacy, have shrunk to zero.

The South Ossetians may well end up joining their North Ossetian compatriots in the Russian Federation. That seems to be what most of them – having hounded out their Georgian minority – would prefer. But Abkhazia is a different matter altogether. If the outside world were to consent, it could become a prosperous, credible Black Sea micro-state. The Abkhazians have no intention of falling under Georgian control again, but neither do they want to be an appendage of Russia. They know that now, since the August war, there is at least a chance of joining the world and making a reality of their independence. But will either the West or the Russians allow them to do so?

For most people, the where, what and who of Abkhazia are a blank. Physically, it is a 120-mile strip along the Black Sea’s eastern coastline. But for the past fifteen years, the place has been an international oubliette, isolated and gagged by sanctions. Air and rail communications were blocked, ships approaching the coast were fired on or boarded, trade almost ceased and the Abkhazians survived on what they could grow, fish or smuggle for themselves. More recently, though, the dungeon door has started to open. There is now a direct-dial telephone system, internet access and television. Russian holidaymakers arrive in summer, while exports of Abkhazian citrus fruit, vegetables and hazelnuts have revived. Foreign investors – mostly Russian or Turkish – are helping to rebuild the war-shattered towns and beach resorts. But there is still no postal service, internal or external. Nobody has seen a stamp stuck on an envelope since the early 1990s.

For scenery, the Black Sea has nothing as handsome as Abkhazia – not even Crimea. Inland, aboriginal forests reach up to the foothills of the high Caucasus. On the coast, especially in the north where the hills plunge steeply to the sea, you can imagine yourself in the subtropical parts of the French Riviera in the 1880s, before Europe’s plutocracy moved in. After the Russian conquest of the northern Caucasus in the 1860s, a few resorts like Gagra and Novy Afon were laid out by retired tsarist generals with a taste for white Palladian architecture and exotic botanical gardens. Much later, Soviet leaders (Stalin, Brezhnev, and even Gorbachev) occupied grand beach villas at Pitsunda or Sukhum, where they entertained Warsaw Pact satraps and Western statesmen.

The ‘who’ definition is more tangled and contentious. The Abkhaz people, speaking a pre-Indo-European language that is part of the North Caucasian family, have been in the region for millennia. The fertile coastal strip was colonised by the Greeks, and by the 19th century its population was a cosmopolitan mixture of indigenous Abkhazians and Ubykhs with Pontic Greeks, Georgians, Mingrelians, Jews and Armenians.[*]

In the 1860s, imperial Russia invaded and annexed the region. Many Abkhaz people fled, migrating round the Black Sea to settle in Ottoman Turkey (there are still more of them in the Turkish diaspora than in Abkhazia itself). Russian entrepreneurs began to develop the coast, while Mingrelians from western Georgia settled in the south of Abkhazia. After the Bolshevik Revolution, Abkhazia became for a while an autonomous Soviet republic. But after 1931 Stalin – a Georgian – integrated it with the Georgian Soviet Republic. Many Abkhazian intellectuals were shot or sent to Siberia, and in the 1940s Stalin’s henchman Lavrenti Beria – a Mingrelian – launched a policy of wholesale resettlement of Mingrelians and Georgians on Abkhaz land.

By the time the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the Georgians/Mingrelians formed a narrow majority of the population (which was then around half a million). Georgians from ‘Georgia proper’, accustomed to spending their holidays on Abkhazia’s subtropical shores, had come to regard the place as a slightly farouche but much loved province of their own country. In turn, the Abkhaz people felt reduced to a ‘backward’ anthropological curiosity in a land they still firmly regarded as ‘theirs’.

Passions came to a head as the Soviet Union fell apart and Georgia prepared to declare independence. This was a classic post-imperial crisis. As in India and much of Africa, smaller peoples lumped together with bigger peoples by an imperial administration rebelled when the bigger partner declared independence and proposed to rule them directly. The Abkhazians had survived their association with Georgia by relying on the Soviet Union’s divide-and-rule policies to protect their autonomy. Now, it seemed, they were to become a mere minority in a Georgia intent on imposing cultural and political uniformity. Shortly before his fall in 1991, Gorbachev organised a futile referendum on the ‘restructuring’ of the Soviet Union. The Georgians in ‘Georgia proper’, very understandably, refused to take part. But a majority of the Abkhazian electorate, uneasy about the prospect of Georgian independence, voted to stay in the Soviet Union rather than join Georgia. They were ignored.

Demonstrations and riots broke out, and talk about ‘federation’ came to nothing. But in 1992, suddenly and disastrously, Georgia hurled its forces into Sukhum, the Abkhazian capital (the same mistake that Saakashvili would make with South Ossetia in 2008). Open war followed. Supported by volunteers from the northern Caucasus, by other ethnic groups in the territory (especially the Armenians) and by Russian weaponry, the Abkhazians routed the Georgians in 1993. It was a murderous conflict, with atrocities on both sides. Most of Sukhum, along with many other towns, was shelled and burned to ruins. Georgian militia even set fire to Abkhazia’s national archives.

But the Abkhazian victory had another, even more piteous consequence. Most of the Mingrelian and Georgian inhabitants fled before the advancing Abkhazians, some ‘ethnically cleansed’ but more choosing to take flight before the armed men reached them. More than 200,000 people crossed the border into western Georgia, refugees condemned to years of embittered squalor in camps and abandoned buildings.

Abkhazia had lost almost half its population. The Abkhazians were now masters in their own house, but the house was a blackened shell. And all prospects for a reconciliation with Georgia were deadlocked – as they still are – by the question of the refugees and their sheer number. Georgia insists on their right to return to Abkhazia. Yet if they did, would they return peacefully and accept loyalty to the new Abkhazian regime? Or would they come back as avengers, using their numerical strength to overwhelm the ethnic Abkhazians and their allies and reimpose Georgian domination?

One day I went south to the town of Ochamchira, in a region where few Abkhazians had lived before the war. The road ran between fields abandoned to tall yellow weeds, which had once been ploughed by Mingrelian farmers and then sown with mines. Young trees were growing through the roofs of empty farmhouses. Ochamchira itself, once a bright little seaside town with 20,000 inhabitants, now holds only about four thousand people. The pitted streets are lined with small, ghostly houses where persimmons still glow on the garden trees, but the windows and doorways are rents of darkness. The white classical railway station is derelict, its booking hall a pool of rainwater.

After the victory, some Abkhaz families moved into the homes left by Georgians, but many have drifted away again, returning to their villages or seeking work in Sukhum. Since I was last in Abkhazia four years ago, towns in the north and centre of the country have revived sharply, with new private shops and cafés lining the main streets. But here in the south, the desolation left by the great exodus has not been made good.

Off Ochamchira, a grey warship floated: a Russian missile cruiser from the Black Sea Fleet at Sevastopol. Abkhazians watch this presence with mixed feelings. But, at present, relief is still stronger than suspicion. Almost everybody I met had spent the whole night of 8 August staring at the screen, as Russian television carried live the fire and thunder of the Georgian bombardment of Tskhinvali, the South Ossetian capital. One woman said to me: ‘We were all thinking: we are next. So you have to understand the passionate relief we felt when the Russians intervened. To see Russian warships appearing off Sukhum and hear Russian aircraft arriving with troops – that was irresistible. Sure, we all know very well that Russia cares nothing for small countries and was acting only in its own interest. But at that moment we were so grateful.’
The official Georgian line, sold successfully to American and European governments, is that Abkhazia is a Russian puppet enclave run by servile Kremlin nominees. This is disastrously wrong: disastrous, because it walls off paths to new policies which could save the security and the freedom of both Abkhazia and Georgia itself.

It is true that Russia has gone a long way to make itself indispensable: for the defence of Abkhazia, for the rouble-based economy and – by distributing Russian passports – for letting Abkhazians travel, if only to Russia. But a Kremlin puppet? Only four years ago, the Russian-backed candidate in the presidential elections, Raul Khajimba, was defeated by the calm, evasive Sergei Bagapsh. There was an instant attempt to upset the result by force, with a ‘Khajimbist’ mob storming the Supreme Court. But Abkhazia’s tiny democratic elite kept its nerve and stood by the voters. The Russians eventually backed off, and Bagapsh remains the president.

The Abkhazians cannot shake off their dependence on Russia, and as far as defence against Georgia goes, they do not want to. But they want, desperately, to dilute it. Above all, as I found in many conversations with their leaders in Sukhum, they want to knock a hole in their international isolation and make contact with the European Union and with Turkey. Now that Russia has suddenly recognised their independence, can that status be exploited to reach the outside world? Will it be possible for ships to leave Sukhum or Ochamchira and take passengers directly across the Black Sea to shop and trade in Trabzon or Istanbul? When the airport is reopened, could there be flights not only to Russian destinations but also to Turkey or even Europe? One junior minister speculated that direct links with Turkey could persuade thousands of Turkish Abkhaz to return to the land of their fathers and repopulate the empty countryside.

There are many obstacles. Nobody recognises an Abkhazian passport, and even if its passengers carried Russian documents, a ship might have to go first to Sochi on Russia’s Black Sea coast to disguise its starting point in Abkhazia. International air regulations do not accept flights from ‘occupied territories’, which is Georgia’s definition of Abkhazia. And what Russia will say to all these ambitious schemes remains to be seen. So does the Abkhazian response if Russia says no. But the timidity of the EU, which fears Georgian and American outrage over any serious contact with Abkhazia, is already plain.

Earlier this year, before the Russian-Georgian war, several peace missions from Brussels visited Sukhum. As one senior Abkhaz official told me, they got down to discussing in detail the kinds of low-level relation that Abkhazia might develop with the EU.

I said: we could play a role in the EU’s Black Sea Neighbourhood Programme. You can’t recognise us at this point, but why not establish direct contacts at the level of education, sport, youth policy, the environment? We spoke for hours, and it seemed hopeful, but nothing happened. Back in Brussels, they were inflexible. All we got was a proposal to set up an EU information centre here – but only as a branch of the Tbilisi centre in Georgia. Why not a Sukhum centre answering directly to Brussels? The EU could so easily take a small step towards us – for instance, helping us to replace and restore our national archives.

Russian recognition in August seems to have been an impulsive step, prompted by rage over Poland’s decision on 14 August to accept the stationing of American missiles. In theory, it offers Abkhazia a tool to prise open some access to the world, and make its independence more of a reality. But using that tool requires ambition, ingenuity and a readiness to take risks with the Russian relationship. Many Abkhazians are impatient for change. At the top level, however, the Bagapsh regime seems over-cautious, almost lethargic.

It’s the wrong moment to do nothing. In Sukhum, a friend pointed to a balcony in the newly repaired Ritsa Hotel. Here, in a sunny room overlooking the palms and oleanders of the esplanade, Leon Trotsky loitered during the crucial days following Lenin’s death in 1924. If he had rushed back to Moscow, he might have rallied his followers, prevented Stalin consolidating his power, and changed history. But Abkhazia’s indolent charm overcame even that most hyperactive of revolutionaries. Trotsky went on with his Black Sea holiday. The chance was missed.

Abkhazians are self-critical about their own habit of missing chances. The ethnic Abkhaz, now numbering about eighty thousand, have lived as a well-fed village people, and the stresses of urban hard graft have never attracted them. In Sukhum, the young prefer to drink coffee and gossip endlessly on their mobiles; most of the reconstruction work is done by Gastarbeiter labourers from Armenia or Uzbekistan. Unlike their fierce neighbours in the north Caucasus, the Abkhazians have never been fanatical. Religion is supposedly divided between Orthodox Christianity, Islam and ‘traditional’ (pagan) belief. The first two are almost imperceptible, but an easy-going respect for the indwelling spirits of certain trees and mountains is pretty general. More immediately, fifteen years of being bottled up in isolation have left people passive, conditioned to make the best of what they have. Nothing like the exciting but patchy capitalist breakthough which Saakashvili launched in Georgia has reached Abkhazia. But the chance is real, the possibility of an escape into security and lasting prosperity which exists not only for Abkhazia but above all for Georgia. For Georgia is also in a trap, artfully set by Russia and the United States – the ‘great powers’ – as they struggle for influence in the southern Caucasus.

The fangs of this trap are Georgia’s claims to ‘sovereign territorial integrity’, the flat refusal to accept the loss of South Ossetia and Abkhazia which is so eagerly endorsed by European governments and by the United States. But after the disaster of last August (the latest of at least three Georgian efforts to reassert this ‘integrity’ by armed force), three things should have become obvious. The first is that ‘reunification’ cannot possibly succeed in mere military terms. The second is that such attempts achieve precisely what they are supposed to prevent: they actually reduce the independence of Georgia, by increasing Russia’s capacity to threaten and blackmail the Georgian government. The third is that by encouraging Georgia to stick to impossible frontier claims, the West – America, above all – is ensuring that Georgia will remain its helpless client, unable to defuse its own confrontation with Russia and thus ever more reliant on American military, economic and diplomatic patronage.

We have seen this trap before. Well . . . any European journalist of my advanced age has seen it. It was called the Oder-Neisse Problem. It consumed hours of soporific briefings and blackened kilometres of dead paper. It kept West Germany safely hobbled to the Western Allies for just over twenty years.

There are differences of scale and detail, but the similarities are sickening. The Oder-Neisse Problem went like this. After the Second World War, Poland annexed the German provinces of Silesia, Pomerania and East Prussia, and expelled their populations – some eight million people. Most of them ended up in West Germany. Egged on by the Americans, the new West German state refused to recognise the new eastern border on the Oder and Neisse rivers, proclaimed that the ‘frontiers of 1937’ were still in force, and demanded that the rest of the world accept the duty to restore Germany’s ‘territorial integrity’. The enormous expellee leagues gained a stranglehold on politics. For decades, it was assumed that anyone who suggested recognising the Oder-Neisse Line was committing political suicide. West German TV daily predicted the weather, cloudy or sunny, in Silesia as well as in Bavaria.

In public, the Western Allies stoutly supported this position. In private, any French or British diplomat would agree that it was odious and unreal. But that was why they valued it. A West Germany firmly shackled to this impossibilist dogma would never be able to do a deal with the Soviet Union, such as leaving Nato in return for reunification. It was only in 1970 that Willy Brandt decided to lead his country out of the trap by recognising the territorial results of the war and the new boundaries. The expellees threatened to destroy him, but nothing happened. The Allies, who had grown fed up with their own hypocrisy, let Brandt have his way.

When will there be a Georgian Willy Brandt? The notion raises hollow laughter in Sukhum. Georgian politicians still insist that Abkhazia is Georgian, use extreme rhetoric about ‘overcoming separatism’ and walk out of meetings to which Abkhazians are admitted. But as with West Germany, the effect of this ‘impossibilism’ is to make Georgia less independent, not more.

The Russians are happy to be offered one provocation after another, each a pretext to squeeze Georgia and to tighten their grip on other small Caucasus nationalities. And as long as Georgia’s leaders are locked into hopeless territorial claims, the Americans can rely on Georgia’s impotence to maintain their own ‘distant saviour’ ascendancy in Tbilisi. What the European Union gets out of it is harder to say. At the October conference on aid for war-damaged Georgia, the EU contributed $1.1 billion, a third of the huge total of $4.50 billion. But by underwriting the ‘territorial integrity’ claim, they are doing Georgia no favours in the long run.

And yet it isn’t too late to solve the crisis in the Caucasus. The August conflict has opened more gates than it closed, and four actors should nerve themselves to push through them. First, and most difficult, the Georgians should quietly accept realities. South Ossetia is not worth courting. But a ‘small steps’ policy of rapprochement towards Abkhazia – renouncing the use of force, restoring economic and transport links, ending the diplomatic boycott, acceptance of Abkhazian de facto independence as the necessary condition for tackling the problem of refugee return – would help Abkhazia to ease its way out of Russia’s grasp. Second, the European Union should encourage that process, and immediately open its own direct low-level contacts with Abkhazia under its Black Sea Neighbourhood Programme. Third, the Abkhaz government, whose policies have been entirely defensive and reactive for fifteen years, must show more determination to wriggle out of its international cage. And, fourth, the coming Obama presidency must identify the southern Caucasus as a site for creative policy change, and extricate America from its habit of endorsing extreme Georgian nationalism.

Behind the Sukhum government’s stiff hostility, leading Abkhazians are genuinely worried about Georgia’s future. They dread the possibility that the country really might disintegrate, under the pressure of its own internal minority problems and Russian subversion. In spite of the recent past, they still long for a close relationship with a stable, pacific, prosperous Georgia: two small Caucasian neighbours linked by a common interest in Europe, Turkey and the wider world.

They have a lot in common and – given a chance – can feel a special intimacy in matters like culture, food and humour which neighbours outside the south-western Caucasus will never share. An Abkhaz member of parliament told me that he had been forced to travel to Baku in Azerbaijan in order to meet an old Georgian friend. The hotel receptionist, studying their passports, was puzzled. ‘Why are you both here?’ she asked. The Abkhazian wondered how to explain. In the end, he said: ‘Because we are lovers, forbidden to meet in our own country.’

* Ethnic-linguistic definitions here are inflamed but important. The Kartvelian language family includes Georgian, but also Svan, spoken in mountain Svanetia, and Mingrelian. The Mingrelians inhabit western Georgia, bordering on Abkhazia. They use a distinct dialect, but mostly consider themselves as Georgians. Kartvelian and North Caucasian languages – such as Abkhazian – are quite separate and not mutually comprehensible.

Neal Ascherson is the author of Black Sea, among other books. He reported on Georgia in the LRB of 4 March 2004.

Other articles by this contributor:

Imagined Soil · The German War on Nature
On with the Pooling and Merging · The Incomparable Tom Nairn
The Media Did It · Neal Ascherson remembers the Wall
Law v. Order · Putin’s strategy
Diary · Neal Ascherson among the icebergs
Oo, Oo! · Khrushchev the Stalinist
Victory in Defeat · Trotsky
Gazillions · Organised Crime