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:

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 (

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 (

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 (

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” (

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

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

Report - International Crisis Group: 'Georgia: The Risks of Winter'


Georgia: The Risks of Winter

Tbilisi/Brussels, 26 November 2008: A failed war and a worsening economy present severe challenges to state authority in Georgia and make the need for serious reforms ever more urgent.

Georgia: The Risks of Winter,* the latest update briefing from the International Crisis Group, argues that although President Mikhail Saakashvili’s position is secure for the moment, his administration will be severely tested politically and economically in the winter and spring ahead. The opposition is asking pointed questions about whether the August war with Russia, and the ensuing economic crisis, could have been avoided. The global economic crisis and flight of foreign investment are likely to increase social discontent, but it remains unclear who will mobilise these grievances.

“President Saakashvili promised a wave of reforms in September”, says Lawrence Sheets, Crisis Group’s Caucasus Project Director. “But if they aren’t completed and expanded, he is likely to lose international goodwill and some of the $5.4 billion of aid promised at the donors conference”.

Politics and the economy are closely linked in post-war Georgia, and Tbilisi must restore stability to encourage foreign investment and development. The government should implement more effective social assistance, build a truly independent judiciary, eliminate high-level corruption, prevent the abuse of property rights, increase freedom for the broadcast media, make vital changes to the electoral code, and transfer some presidential powers to the legislature and government. President Saakashvili has recently acknowledged the need for deeper and faster reforms, but so far these have been mainly restricted to the judiciary and media.

Meanwhile, the situation in and around South Ossetia and Abkhazia remains tense, with violent incidents and forced displacement continuing. Russia, which has not returned to its pre-7 August positions and is refusing access to monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in South Ossetia, has not fully implemented its commitments laid down in the ceasefire agreements negotiated by Presidents Sarkozy and Medvedev. In areas under its control, it has not done enough to create conditions to allow for the return of displaced persons and to prevent further displacement.

“Ultimately Russia and the EU need to work closer together to ensure security and the return of displaced persons”, says Sabine Freizer, Crisis Group’s Europe Program Director. “The talks that have begun in Geneva should be used to address these issues, but EU member states need to remain unified if they want to persuade Moscow to cooperate with a real international monitoring mechanism for the conflict zones”.

Ex-ambassador of Georgia: Georgian invasion to Abkhazia was prepared in April-May

Caucasian Knot

Back in April 2008 the Georgian leadership was preparing the warfare in Abkhazia, having invited trainers from Israel; this was announced today by Erosi Kitsmarishvili, former ambassador of Georgia to Russia, at a sitting of the ad hoc parliamentary commission, which was set up for studying the August crisis in the Caucasus.

"The operation was finally appointed on the end of May, but subsequently it was cancelled," said Mr Kitsmarishvili, having added that these plans were discussed at his presence by President of Georgia Mikhail Saakashvili.

According to the correspondent of the "Vzglyad" (Outlook) newspaper, the ex-ambassador has also declared that in March Saakashvili announced his plans to move the capital from Tbilisi to Sukhumi in August 2008.

According to the statement of the former ambassador of Georgia to Russia, he also had confirmed information that the Russian Federation was getting ready to attack Georgia, the "Georgia Online" reports.

"In particular, a decision was made to attack the Kodori Gorge to liberate it from Georgian law enforcers," said Kitsmarishvili. In his words, "the attack on the Kodori was postponed after a persistent request of the Abkhazian party related to the approaching tourist season."

Let us note here that Erosi Kitsmarishvili's interrogation takes place in rather tense environment. The "Interfax" reports that they plan to make sittings closed.

Mr Kitsmarishvili is thought to be a rather influential figure. Being the founder of the Georgian TV Company "Rustavi-2", he played a major role in the "rose revolution" of 2003, as a result of which Mikhail Saakashvili took power.

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Ex-Envoy’s Hearing at War Commission Ends in Brawl

TV screenshot of Erosi Kitsmarishvili testifying before the commission on November 25.

Civil Georgia, Tbilisi / 25 Nov.'08 /

A testimony by Erosi Kitsmarishvili, Georgia’s former ambassador to Russia and President Saakashvili’s former insider, before the parliamentary commission studying the August war, was thwarted after a verbal brawl between Kitsmarishvili and commission member, MP Givi Targamadze.

The hearing, which was aired live by the public TV’s second channel and lasted over three hours, was often marred by a verbal sparring between Kitsmarishvili and the commission members, mainly those from the ruling party. The hearings were often growing into political debates between the former ambassador, who in late September lashed out at former allies accusing the authorities for a failure to avert the August war, and the commission members.

The most heated exchange came between Kitsmarishvili and Givi Targamadze, a senior lawmaker from the ruling party; during this exchange of barbs, MP Targamadze was seen in the live televised pictures throwing a pen into the direction of Kitsmarishvili. Just before this Kitsmarishvili was telling something to Targamadze, but his microphone was turned off and it was not possible to hear what he said. Later Targamadze, who apologized before the commission members, said he could not tolerate the word – scoundrel, which, he said, Kitsmarishvili told him. Read more...


Georgia war hearing marred by angry exchanges

By Margarita Antidze and Matt Robinson - Reuters

Erosi Kitsmarishvili, Georgia's former ambassador to Russia, told the parliamentary commission he had received information "from high-ranking Georgian officials" that Tbilisi was preparing to "militarily storm" the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali.

"Russia was ready for this war, but the Georgian leadership started the military action first," he said.The chairman of the bi-partisan commission, opposition lawmaker Paata Davitaia, said the former ambassador's statements were "irresponsible."

Kitsmarishvili told reporters: "They don't want to hear the truth." Read more...


Tbilisi responsible for South Ossetian tragedy – Georgian diplomat / RT News

The former Georgian ambassador to Russia, Erosi Kitsmarishvili, says that Tbilisi bears the main responsibility for starting the war in South Ossetia last August.

”It was the Georgian government that launched the military action, it doesn’t matter whether it was provoked or not,” Kitsmarishvili stressed. ”

As for the fact that Russia was prepared for it, Moscow was ready to perform the actions it did, because they were part of Russia’s overall plan. I am not saying Georgia is to blame for everything, because Russia was not an innocent lamb either,” he added. Read more...

The ex-defense minister of Abkhazia Sultan Sosnaliev (Kabardian) passed away

After a severe illness on the night of Sunday in Moscow, passed away on the ex-defense minister of Abkhazia, Lieutenant-General Sultan Sosnaliev.
Abkhaz President Sergei Bagapsh expressed his condolences to the family Sosnalieva reported in the press service of the Abkhazian government.

Sultan Sosnaliyev (Kabardian) was born in Baksan in Kabardino-Balkaria. He graduated at the Syzran aircraft school and from the Zhukov anti-aircraft military academy and served in the Soviet anti-aircraft forces for 29 years. He retired in 1990 as rank of a colonel and worked in Kabardino-Balkaria's construction industry till 1992.

Sosnaliyev became the head of the military department of the newly-formed Confederation of Mountain Peoples of the Caucasus. After the beginning of the War in Abkhazia he arrived to Abkhazia with the group of Kabardin volunteers through on 15 August 1992. He was appointed the head of the staff of the Gudauta-based State Committee of the Defence and was one of the planners of the victorious Battle of Gagra.

He was appointed the minister of defence in April 1993 and later awarded the rank of major general. Sosnaliyev and Sergei Dbar planned the July and September Sukhum offensives. On 24-25 March 1994 Sosnaliyev was in charge of the last operation of the war - capture of the village of Lata in the Kodor Valley.

Sosnaliyev resigned in July 1996 and returned to Kabardino-Balkaria. After Sergei Bagapsh had been elected the President of Abkhazia he offered the office of the minister of defence to Sosnaliyev as "reforms were desperately needed" in the Abkhazian army. The latter agreed and served in the Abkhazian government as a minister of defence and a vice-premier till May 2007. He was ex vice-president of the International Circassian Association.

Circassians Call for Single Circassian Republic in North Caucasus‏

by Paul Goble, Window on Eurasia

Vienna, November 26 – A Circassian youth group is calling for the unification of their nation into a single republic in the North Caucasus, a proposal that immediately challenges Moscow's divide and rule policies in the region and ultimately threatens Russian control of that community and its neighbors.

Last week, a forum of Circassian youth in the North Caucasus adopted an appeal to their nation, denouncing the splitting up of that community in the early years of Soviet power and Moscow's decision to combine Circassian groups with fundamentally different Turkic groups

That decision, the authors of the appeal say, not only continued the victimization of the Circassians that the Russian state began in the 19th century when many of them were killed and far more deported to the Ottoman empire but also "laid the foundation for permanent conflicts" in the region.

Now, the appeal continues, "the positive experience of strengthening Russian regions" by combining them can be applied "in relation to the divided Circassian people. Such a new federal subject will be economically more productive, politically more controlled and stable with regard to inter-ethnic relations, and this undoubtedly will strengthen Russia on its southern borders."

Moscow "must understand," the authors of the appeal insist, "that the Circassians cannot continue to tolerate the current situation and that they consider a lawful and timely resolution of the problem to be [the establishment of a new] single subject of the Russian Federation, Circassia."

When this declaration was read out to the 500 delegates at Extraordinary Congress of the Circassian People, which took place in Karachayevo-Cherkessia at the end of last week, the overwhelming majority of them greeted it with enthusiastic applause, agreeing that something has to be done now to unite a nation currently split among six different regions and republics.

Nal'bi Guchetl', the vice president of the International Circassian Association, said that he was "very grateful for the Circassians of the Karachayevo-Cherkess Republic that they were the first to raise the question about the unification of the Circassians into a single subject of the federation."

Arambiy Khapay, the president of the national movement Adyge Khase, said that in his view "there is no alternative to the unification of Circassian territories into a single republic," given that the current Russian state relations divide the Circassians not only within the North Caucasus but from those who now live "beyond the borders of their historic motherland."

And Ruslan Keshev, the president of the Circassian Congress of Kabardino-Balkaria, added that "at present it is obvious" that what is destabilizing the situation in the North Caucasus is "not the formation of a new subject [of the Russian Federation] but the preservation of [the existing] administrative divisions."

"When a people in its historic motherland is divided among six subject, of which two are double [that is, combined with another and non-Circassian nationality]," the Circassian activist continued, "this is a deeply abnormal phenomenon and it will be a major destabilizing factor in the immediate future."

What are the Circassians likely to do next to try to achieve their goal? One answer was the formation of the inevitable committee to make an appeal to Moscow to respect their rights, a necessary but clearly insufficient and probably hopeless by itself enterprise. But another and potentially interesting one was provided by Khapay.

While many Circassians – and especially the Shapsug sub-ethnos – oppose the holding of the Olympic Games in Sochi n 2014, Khapay told "Nezavisimaya gazeta" that the games could be the occasion for turning the tables on Moscow and advancing the Circassian cause nationally and internationally

"It is insulting to listen when the Russian president declares in Sochi that this was a place where Greeks lived earlier. I consider," Khapay said, that the entire world must know that Sochi is the land of the Circassians. During the Olympics, guests must become acquainted with our history and culture."

That is all the more appropriate because "the Olympics [in Sochi] will take place on the 150th anniversary of the end of the Russian-Caucasus war, as a result of which took place the almost complete deportation of the people" which took place precisely from where the games will be held. "That must be remembered for the sake of peace."

Not only is the Russian government opposed to such a move and interpretation of the past – it tried to block the forum and congress last week by calling in its organizers for "conversations" with police and prosecutors and will certainly take additional steps now – but many Circassians are unsure as to whether the time is ripe to pursue this goal.

Circassian bloggers are actively debating this issue now, with some insisting that Moscow's policy of amalgamating regions and its recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia make this the best time to act while others say that the whole idea is premature and calling for caution

That this debate is taking place almost exclusively at meetings of unofficial groups and on the Internet may lead some to conclude that the Circassian cause is marginal, but in today's Russia, such spaces are some of the few free ones left. And consequently, what the Circassians are saying now points to more challenges ahead for the central Russian government.

Monday, 24 November 2008

The Signature Campaign for Trabzon-Sukhum marine and Istanbul-Sukhum flight transports‏

Lift the transportation embargo on Abkhazia!

Presidency of Grand National Assembly, Turkey,
The Office of the Prime Minister, Turkey
The Office of Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Turkey
The Office of Ministry of Transport and Communication, Turkey.

We, the undersigned; who have family, friendship and business relations with the Republic of Abkhazia; request reopening of Trabzon - Sukhum marine transportation and enabling of Istanbul - Sukhum air transportation in order to facilitate our travel to the country.

As it is known, Trabzon - Sukhum navigations started in 1991 but were interrupted as a result of the Abkhazian-Georgian war “between” 14 August - 30 September 1993. The transportation was resumed immediately after the war finished but again ceased with the embargo in 1995 and is still inactive today.

As it is also known, Russia has lifted its embargo on Abkhazia in 2007. Abkhazia had been a “de-facto” independent country since 1993 and has legally became a “de-jure” independent country since Russia and Nicaragua’s recognitions respectively on 26 August 2008 and 4 September 2008.

Trabzon-Sukhum marine transportation and Istanbul-Sukhum air transportation will not only facilitate our visits to Abkhazia, it will also make a great contribution to Turkey’s relationship with Abkhazia and other North Caucasian states. Abkhazia, which currently consists of only the Russian border gate, wishes to improve its relations with Turkey and to diversify its contacts with the rest of the world. It is beyond doubt that enabling direct transportation between Turkey and Abkhazia is the most effective way to ally both countries economically, politically, socially and culturally.

We believe that the Republic of Turkey will immediately hear our voice, lift the embargo on Abkhazia and provide us with direct transportation opportunities to Abkhazia. We affirm that we will be following up the steps taken toward this end.


In order to sign the text please send your name to:

Targeting Saako!

by Peter Lavelle

The “Warlord of the Caucasus” – Mikhail Saakashvili – claims his motorcade was fired upon by “Russians” close to the new international border of South Ossetia. Polish President Lech Kaczynski was part of the Saakashvili assembly. The motorcade turned around and later Saakashvili held a presser with Kaczynski and again almost broken down in tears relating his tale.

What is wrong with this picture? Well quite literally the “pictures” tell us nothing. The Georgians released video footage that only shows confusion and emotion, but for all we know the commotion was over a flat tire – not an assassination attempt. Sadly we have all gotten used to Saak’s media manipulation. He is the Georgian boy who can’t help but call wolf to stay in the media spotlight.

Oh, by the way, it is the fifth anniversary of the so-called “Rose Revolution.” For those of us who have seriously followed events in Georgia, we are reminded all that is left of this revolution are thorns, lies, repression, and willful Western conceit. (The commentariat is too slow and lazy, too stupid, or too ideologically driven to look at the larger picture of this country and region).Ok, let’s consider Saak’s claims. Why now? And who gains what?

Because of the lies and disinformation generated over the years by Tbilisi and Western PR firms in its service, the whole thing most probably is a hoax. The only thing “shot” was a bad “wag the dog” video.

Let’s assume shots were fired close to the motorcade. There is no evidence proving who fired. Given the Saak’s flip-flops related to the South Ossetian conflict, Tbilisi’s word means nothing. But if shots were fired, I believe they were intended to impact public opinion.

Keep in mind that the EU-brokered ceasefire is still in effect – there are EU monitors on the ground. Why did Saak have a large motorcade and security detail move so close to South Ossetia’s border? Obviously the South Ossetians (if they are the ones who fired) interpreted this as more than a provocation. They have no reason to trust anything coming out of Tbilisi after experiencing almost two decades of ethnic cleansing at the hands of the Georgians.

Also, why would Saak have the Polish president with him on this dangerous visit? Again, was it all a hoax? Or was Saak willing to put the life of the Polish at risk to generate political capital? Well Saak has done far worse – he attacked and killed South Ossetians in cold blood as they slept. (Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t miss Lech Kaczynski for a second if he suddenly departed from the world).

My sense is that Kaczynski was part of the hoax – if this was the plan. He likes to speak like a lion defending “European values,” but in reality he is a small-minded Polish nationalist mouse. In every Polish election since 1991, he has played the anti-Russia at home and continues to do so to divide the EU to his advantage. It is no coincidence he was the sole EU leader standing next to Saak during the fifth anniversary of the Rose Revolution in Tbilisi.

Then there is another variant to all this – it was the Georgians who accidently fired at the motorcade. Georgian lawmaker Marika Verulashvili told the Associated Press as much. This sounds like folly. But, then again, this is very much part of the storyline in what is part and parcel of Saak’s regime.

As for any Russian involvement in the bizarre affair, give the following a thought: Russia’s political establishment despises Saak – he murdered Russian peacekeepers and Russian passport holders. As far as the Kremlin is concerned, he is a political corpse. But the Kremlin has no interest in killing him. It is a lot more interesting to watch him commit suicide.

I have upgraded or downgraded Saak, depending on how you want to look at it, to “Saako.” Is there no limit to insulting our intelligence? The answer is no – just watch RT’s competitors! Crapping Network News still takes Saako seriously……

Friday, 21 November 2008

Learning from John McCain's Mistakes: Supporting Aggression in the Caucasus

by Dough Bandow - - November 21, 2008

John McCain's defeat has set off a scramble to control the Republican Party's ideological soul. The GOP should learn from Sen. McCain's mistakes. Despite his reputation as a foreign policy guru, his neoconservative instincts invariably led him astray. His embarrassing embrace of Georgia's unstable Mikheil Saakashvili highlighted McCain's poor judgment, though the Republican Party's problem runs far deeper than policy toward any particular country.

Conservatives once opposed international social engineering, but transforming other societies at gunpoint became GOP gospel under President George W. Bush. Sen. McCain was even more belligerent, over time backing war in the Balkans, Mideast, and Asia. And he preferred invasions. In 1999 he demanded a ground war against Serbia, arguing that the Clinton administration's bombing campaign, undertaken to achieve an objective utterly irrelevant to American security – the de facto independence of Kosovo – was insufficiently aggressive. (The result of US policy is a nominally independent statelet that depends on the West for its survival, is shunned by the majority of nations, treats human rights as an afterthought, and has become precedent number one for countries to intervene in the affairs of other nations.)

Nor does neoconservatism view nuclear confrontation as something to avoid. When the crisis in the Caucasus erupted in August, Sen. McCain enthusiastically backed "Misha," as he called his friend Saakashvili. McCain advocated supporting Georgia against Russia and called for bringing Tbilisi into NATO, thereby committing the US to go to war against nuclear-armed Russia should hostilities again erupt. Sen. McCain mixed the rhetoric of resisting appeasement and promoting democracy to justify taking sides in a red-hot conflict along Russia's border: "we are all Georgians now," he proclaimed.

Intervening on Georgia's behalf obviously was madness then. It has become increasingly obvious that it was unprincipled madness, for Georgia actually was the aggressor. Allied support for Tbilisi has made the world a more dangerous and less democratic place.

Georgia has a convoluted history typical for Central Asia. Once independent, it eventually was absorbed by the Russian Empire. Georgia enjoyed short-lived independence after the Russian Revolution, before falling to a Bolshevik invasion. Abkhazia and South Ossetia long enjoyed autonomy or independence, including a special status within Georgia while part of the Soviet Union. Soviet law gave them a claim to separate from Georgia when it seceded from the Soviet Union. Newly independent Georgia ran through multiple presidents amid extensive violence, while Abkhazia and South Ossetia, backed by Moscow, defenestrated their Georgian overlords, as well as many ethnic Georgian citizens. Saakashvili was elected Georgian president after leading the "Rose Revolution" in 2003; one of his election promises was to reconquer the two lost provinces.

There is no obvious right or wrong outcome to the region's multifarious disputes. Nor was there any obvious reason to support either side when hostilities erupted in August.

The Georgian government never was much of a friend, let alone an ally worthy of inclusion in NATO. True, Saakashvili is American-educated and took power with US support. Sen. McCain met "Misha" while chairing the International Republican Institute, when he apparently gazed into Saakashvili's eyes and saw a democratic champion. But Saakashvili's record looks very different to more objective analysts.

After taking power Saakashvili exhibited a brutal edge, threatening to "liquidate" bandits and fire on tourist ships that violated Georgia's territorial waters. His wide-ranging "anti-corruption" campaign appeared to be directed more to securing his power. Human Rights Watch reported that his policies seemed "to fuel rather than reduce abuses."

Today Georgia is a "semiauthoritarian" state, argues Lincoln A. Mitchell of Columbia University. He contends that "the Saakashvili government is the fourth one-party state that Georgia has had during the last 20 years, going back to the Soviet period." Saakashvili's wife favorably compares the supposed democratic champion to other Georgian "strong leaders," such as Joseph Stalin and Lavrenti Beria.

Several groups, including Penal Reform International, have pointed to poor prison conditions, including substantial overcrowding, under Saakashvili. Despite supposed government reforms, Amnesty International reported that it "has continued to receive reports about torture and ill treatment in Georgia. Many cases still do not come to light because police cover up for their crimes and detainees are often afraid to complain or identify the perpetrators for fear of repercussions. Impunity for torture is still a big problem."

After being accused of murder in September 2007 by his former chief prosecutor, interior minister, and defense minister Irakli Okruashvili, Saakashvili had Okruashvili arrested and, many think, tortured, after which the latter recanted his charges. The case led to large public protests, causing Saakashvili to crack down on the opposition. The police brutally broke up demonstrations, using what Human Rights Watch termed "violent and excessive force." And the problems continue. Earlier this year the State Department pointed to "government pressure on the judiciary" and "law enforcement offices acting with impunity."

The Saakashvili government also targeted journalists. Last year's state of emergency banned broadcasts by CNN and the BBC. Most dramatic was the on-air police raid and closure of Imedi television, owned by an opposition (and business) leader – and a Fox affiliate. The Saakashvili government claimed that the station's broadcasts were part of a coup plot by opposition leaders. Investigative journalist Nino Zuriashvili contends that "there was more media freedom before the Rose Revolution." Sozar Subari, the independent human rights ombudsman appointed by parliament, says that the image of Georgia proceeding down the road to democracy with a free press is a "myth." Even today Freedom House gives Tbilisi poor ratings for press freedom.

Then came the war. Whatever the merits of Georgia's and Russia's respective positions over the status of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which had long sought an existence separate from Georgia, the West's attack on Serbia left the US and Europe ill-positioned to intervene. In 1999 the US and other NATO members launched an aggressive war against Serbia, which had neither attacked nor threatened to attack any alliance member, to support ethnic-Albanian secessionists in the territory of Kosovo. Then last February, in violation of international law, the allies formally dismembered Serbia, backing Kosovo's independence. Washington's claim that Kosovo was unique was too obvious a case of special pleading to be taken seriously by anyone other than the US and a few members of NATO. The intensity with which the allies insisted that they and they alone were entitled to decide what was and was not international law merely highlighted the weakness of their claim.

Of course, Moscow may have been more interested in punishing Tbilisi than in supporting Abkhazian and South Ossetian self-determination when it deployed the Kosovo precedent. But Russia's cynicism doesn't change the character of Georgia's actions. Tbilisi's claim to rightfully rule the territories is no better, and actually less compelling, than that of Serbia to govern Kosovo.

Moreover, it has become increasingly obvious that Georgia struck first in August, lighting "a match in a roomful of gas fumes," as former secretary of state Colin Powell put it. The German publication Spiegel online recently reported that "One thing was already clear to the officers at NATO headquarters in Brussels: They thought that the Georgians had started the conflict and that their actions were more calculated than pure self-defense or a response to Russian provocation. In fact, the NATO officers believed that the Georgian attack was a calculated offensive against South Ossetian positions to create the facts on the ground."

The war began with a Georgian assault on Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia, on the night of August 7. Such an attack long had been planned, admitted Okruashvili, defense minister from 2004 to 2006. In May 2006 former Foreign Minister Salome Surabishvili complained of the government's "enormous arms buildup." Col. Wolfgang Richter, who serves with Germany's General Staff and as an adviser to the German mission to the Organization for Security and Cooperation (OSCE), reported that Georgia began amassing troops on the South Ossetian border in July. None of this is surprising: After all, recapture of the two territories was a longtime Saakashvili objective.

But Saakashvili claimed that Georgia acted only after separatists shelled Georgian villages. New accounts suggest border clashes did not trigger Tbilisi's attack. The Georgians and South Ossetians had routinely fired on one another yet, reports Spiegel online: the Georgians "coolly treated the exchanges of fire in the preceding days as minor events. Even more clearly, NATO officials believed, looking back, that by no means could these skirmishes be seen as justification for Georgian war preparations."

Yet Tbilisi would still have been criminally irresponsible if it had invaded in retaliation for separatist attacks. Georgia's claim to the territory was contested. An uneasy truce reigned and war would offer Russia a perfect excuse to strike. Beneficent acquiescence by Moscow was unlikely, since Russia had backed the two territories in their fight against Tbilisi, garrisoned both with "peacekeeping" troops, recently conducted military maneuvers across the border, not yet withdrawn the extra forces, and viewed the Saakashvili regime as hostile.

Yet despite these circumstances, admitted Georgia's Deputy Defense Minister Batu Kutelia, his government didn't expect the Russians to strike: "We did not prepare for this kind of eventuality." He added that "I didn't think it likely that a member of the UN Security Council and the OSCE would react like this." Wishful thinking is dangerous for anyone, but to bet the survival of one's nation on Russian forbearance in the face of such an obvious provocation was reckless beyond imagination. Perhaps "Misha" counted on his friendship with Washington to protect him, but if so, he badly miscalculated.

However, even this theory gives Saakashvili too much credit. Evidence continues to accumulate that Saakashvili engaged in premeditated aggression rather than reckless retaliation. Tbilisi charged that South Ossetia initiated hostilities and Russia sent troops into South Ossetia before Georgian forces advanced: both claims appear to be false. The only impartial military observers in South Ossetia were from the OSCE. Newly publicized reports indicate that they witnessed no South Ossetian attacks on Georgian villages. Rather, the initial bombardment came from Georgian forces on Tskhinvali.

For instance, Ryan Grist, a former British soldier serving as an OSCE monitor, told the New York Times: "It was clear to me that the attack was completely indiscriminate and disproportionate to any, if indeed there had been any, provocation." Another British military officer, Stephen Young, who headed the OSCE mission, stated: "If there had been heavy shelling in areas that Georgia claimed were shelled, then our people would have heard it, and they didn't."

Moreover, the Georgian attacks began before Russian tanks were reported in the Roki Tunnel, the passageway between Russia and South Ossetia that Tbilisi apparently hoped to block as part of its plan to overrun the territory. Russian forces did not respond to the Georgian bombardment for several hours – estimates of the delay range from seven to fifteen hours. Spiegel online observes: "This sequence of events is now seen as evidence that Moscow did not act offensively." The publication adds that after Col. Wolfgang Richter briefed Bundestag members on the conflict one parliamentarian observed "It is clear that there was more responsibility on the Georgian than the Russian side."

Tbilisi's response to the recent report from the OSCE monitors was characteristic: it claimed that the OSCE monitors had been bought off by the KGB. Saakashvili also reiterated his claim that a failure to back him threatened to result in "a never-ending story of Russian aggression." The Bush administration was equally unwilling to accept responsibility for its blunders. State Department Deputy Spokesman Robert Wood said: "I think we need to get away from looking at who did what first, because, as I said, I don't think we'll ever really get to the bottom of that." In short, argues the administration, so what if we – yet again – misled the American people and made the US less safe while pursuing neoconservative fantasies? Why should the facts matter in intervening around the world?

Not only was Tbilisi the likely aggressor. Georgia apparently targeted civilian areas in its initial assault. Admittedly, Russian claims of genocide were silly and Moscow's military response was excessive – Vladimir Putin was ready to use any excuse to punish the Saakashvili regime. However, Human Rights Watch (HRW) has concluded that the Georgian government, contrary to its public claims, not only used cluster bombs (as did Russia) in populated areas, but used them on Georgian territory, where they malfunctioned on an "absolutely massive scale," according to Marc Barlasco of HRW. Georgian civilians died as a result.

Even worse, Georgian forces may have committed war crimes. Reported the BBC: "Eyewitnesses have described how [Georgia's] tanks fired directly into an apartment block, and how civilians were shot at as they tried to escape the fighting." HRW's Allison Gill complained of "the misuse, the inappropriate use of force by Georgia against civilian targets." Ryan Grist says that the Georgian assault "was clearly, in my mind, an indiscriminate attack on the town [of Tskhinvali], as a town."

While Saakashvili might be the most culpable party, his American backers were no less irresponsible. The Bush administration resolutely backed Tbilisi's unprovoked aggression. Sen. McCain proclaimed that "We're all Georgians now" even though Saakashvili's forces opened their assault by attacking civilians.

While both the administration and Sen. McCain, despite their bombastic rhetoric, stepped back from direct military confrontation with Russia, Washington did send troops and ships into a war zone along Russia's border to provide aid. And with administration backing Congress voted to send $1 billion to relieve the Saakashvili government of the cost of its recklessness.

Even worse, the administration continues to press (as Sen. McCain advocated) for Georgia's membership in NATO. The Europeans are skeptical, so US officials are trying to concoct a substitute embrace for the Saakashvili government. One possibility would be to finance and upgrade Georgia's military. This is a foolish and even dangerous strategy.

Having previously embraced Saakashvili, it was embarrassing for the US to step back when Russia pummeled Georgia, but the latter was not officially an ally and did not possess a formal security guarantee from Washington. Bringing Tbilisi into NATO would commit the United States to defend Georgia from Russia in any renewed conflict.

Apparently "Misha's" friends believe that such a guarantee would be costless. Merely threaten the Russians with intervention, and nothing would happen. But Moscow already has proved that it believes its border security is important enough to defend with force. Russia is not likely to find America's threat to risk war to support Tbilisi's territorial ambitions to be credible. Moreover, even if Moscow perceives a threat of US intervention, it is likely to view the consequences of not acting to be even more costly. For the Putin government to "appease" America by allowing Washington to ring Russia with hostile states would be about as likely as a McCain administration standing idly by as the Soviet Union concluded military alliances with Canada and Mexico.

While NATO membership might not deter Russia from confronting Tbilisi, it almost certainly would embolden Georgia. If Saakashvili was willing to start a war in the hope that the West, in the absence of any formal alliance, would rescue him, imagine what the impetuous, irresponsible demagogue would do if he thought he could count on Article 5, which proclaims that an attack on one member of NATO is an attack on all members.

The scenarios go from bad to worse. For instance, NATO member Georgia initiates another attack on South Ossetia (or Abkhazia). Russia responds even more forcefully than before, perhaps aiming to occupy Tbilisi. The US demands that Moscow withdraw and … does something. Intervene with ground forces? Bomb Russian forces? Send ships into the Black Sea?

Russia not only has local conventional superiority, but a large edge in tactical nuclear weapons, which Moscow might see no choice but to use if Washington escalated with naval or air power. If Washington responded by going on full nuclear alert, Russia could play the same game. And then what? American involvement in a war along Russia's border likely would be as dangerous as the Cuban missile crisis.

For alleged conservatives to advocate such a policy demonstrates how neoconservatism has perverted traditional conservative notions of foreign policy. NATO was created for defense, not offense. The US believed that it was inimical to America's national interest for the Soviet Union to dominate Western Europe. There was never serious consideration of inaugurating World War III to liberate Eastern or Central Europe – which is why Washington uncomfortably but correctly stood by as Moscow crushed East German demonstrations in 1953, the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, and the 1968 Prague Spring. And people focused their sympathies on victims of the Soviet Union, not imperial Russia. When Americans talked about the Captive Nations, they meant the Baltic states, not Georgia.

The claim that the US government suddenly has discovered vital interests at stake in the Caucasus two decades after the close of the Cold War is bizarre. In Georgia the energy interests are small and the security interests nonexistent. A controversy over the status of two small pieces of the former Soviet Union, located within a slightly larger piece of the former Soviet Union, sitting next door to the dominant part of the former Soviet Union, is not worth $1 billion in aid, let alone a promise to go to war. One can readily sympathize with the Georgian people – though not the Saakashvili regime – but that sympathy offers no basis for potential US military involvement in a war with Russia.

Indeed, the Bush/McCain policy towards Georgia demonstrates an almost complete lack of balance so valued by traditional conservatives. Warned President George Washington in his famed Farewell Address: "a passionate attachment of one nation for another produces a variety of evils. Sympathy for the favorite nation, facilitating the illusion of an imaginary common interest, in cases where no real common interest exists, and infusing into one the enmities of the other, betrays the former into a participation in the quarrels and wars of the latter without adequate inducement or justification."

What could be more true in the case of the aggressive and authoritarian Georgian government? Washington's passionate attachment to "Misha" risks involving the US in Georgia's quarrels and wars. In return the US has received no adequate inducement. To the contrary, present policy could prove to be costly beyond measure.

Washington's ties to Tbilisi are an international makeweight. In contrast, relations with Moscow really matter. Most importantly, Russia is the one nation that, despite all of its setbacks since the end of the Cold War, still possesses the military capability to destroy the US. Its aid is important in promoting nonproliferation in Iran and North Korea. Its acquiescence on the United Nations Security Council is necessary to win UN support for US priorities. Its energy supplies keep Europe warm and well-lit. Its attitude towards the West will help determine whether Central and Eastern Europe enjoy reasonably uncomplicated and stable development in the years ahead.

The conservative movement has gone badly astray over the last eight years. It's not just the idea of preventive war and nation-building in Iraq. It's the arrogant assumption that Washington can dictate to any nation in any circumstance in any region and the foolish unwillingness to balance competing interests. Even more fundamental, the US government's principal foreign policy objective has gone from defending America to engaging in social engineering. Bush/McCain conservatives have exhibited the sort of arrogant delusions so characteristic of Wilsonian liberalism. As the conservative movement regroups from its well-deserved defeat, it needs to rediscover America's more restrained foreign policy tradition. The Right should meet the likely interventionist liberalism of Barack Obama not with the warmongering neoconservatism of the last eight years, but the republican detachment, focused on both peace and prosperity, of the more distant past.

Thursday, 20 November 2008

New website allows South Ossetia war victims to speak out

The conflict in South Ossetia in August may have been short, but the consequences will continue for a long time. A website has been set up by those affected by the fighting to allow fellow victims share stories and make sure no one ever forgets the tragedy and suffering of the people.

The website shows the war in the republic through the eyes of its people: of the civilians who suffered the Georgian bombardment late at night when most of them were sleeping.

On August 7 Georgian president Mikhail Saakashvili stated on television that his country is for peaceful negotiations with South Ossetia and wouldn't fire a single shot, but according to the peacekeepers, Georgian troops had already surrounded the South Ossetian capital preparing for an attack.

When the fighting started, thousands of Ossetians were fleeing to Russia trying to save their lives. Many civilians were deliberately killed in their attempt to escape.

Some of those who survived the onslaught have shared their stories on the website.

My wife was killed when our car was caught up in the shelling. I was wounded in the leg and my son received a serious head injury,” says Tskhinval resident Pyotr Petoev.

Some other reminders of the war on the site are equally horrifying.

Here is the grave of my brother. Every morning when I come out of my house I see the grave. It's very hard for me,” Zalina Kabisova from Tskhinval region says.

One family ravaged by earlier conflicts was wiped out during the summer war and their story has been told by their neighbours.

The whole family, the whole house, suffered at the hands of Georgian fascists. A 26-year old girl and her mother died this way. The father and the son were killed during the previous conflicts in the 90s and in 2001,” says eye-witness Alla Gasieva.

Lira Tskhovrebova, who runs the website, collected the stories.

One should do anything they can to prevent what happened in August from happening again. And to achieve that goal, the world should know the truth about the war in South Ossetia!” emphasized Lira Tskhovrebova.

Lira says an Ossetian bias doesn’t affect her coverage as her own mother is Georgian. New stories are constantly being added to her site – the new voices eager to be heard by the rest of the world.


Tim Cavanaugh, columnist for Reason magazine, discusses the efforts of activist Lira Tskhovrebova to tell the South Ossetian side of the Georgian invasion, the numerous accounts of Georgian soldiers deliberately killing civilians, the U.S. media failure to accurately portray the conflict and the mixed signals Saakashvili received from U.S. neocon agitators and the State Department.

MP3 here. (34:08)

Tim Cavanaugh represents Liar Tskhoverbova, chairwoman of the Association of South Ossetian Women for Democracy and Human Rights. He is a columnist for Reason magazine and former web editor for the Los Angeles Times.

Georgia's shameful attack on South Ossetia
- By Lira Tskhovrebova - Los Angeles Times