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).