Only a week ago, Russia's recognition Abkhazia and South Ossetia's independence was regarded as unlikely by most observers. They hoped that the Kremlin today was too strongly integrated into the world of global finance to resort to a drastic escalation of antagonism with the West. Nonetheless, this took place.
Even after 25 August, when both chambers of the Russian parliament voted for recognition, it could still be hoped that this vote amounted to nothing more positioning at the beginning of a potentially difficult and lengthy bargaining process. The chips in this negotiation could have been not only the status of the disputed territories and the peacekeeping operations in the conflict zones, but also Georgia's plans to join NATO, as well as Russia's political and economic interests in Georgia. Now that Russia has decided to recognise the independence of these two states, this bargaining can no longer be used as a means of coordinating the interested parties into relatively sensible positions.
To some extent, Moscow could be said to have been forced into recognising Abkhazia. Once Tbilisi, along with Washington and most of its European allies, made it clear that the territorial integrity of Georgia was its only concern, there was no more place in Medvedev and Sarkozy's plan for international discussion of the future status of the territories. Moscow began to see unilateral recognition of independence as the only way to maintain its military presence in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. In the light of the now seemingly inevitable accession of Georgia to NATO it was bound to want this.
The time has come to abandon the idea that Russia, by its actions in the Abkhaz and South Ossetian conflict, had a decisive influence on Georgia's choice to join NATO. By making its choice Moscow has effectively deprived the unrecognised republics of the possibility of full international legitimacy, or at least postponed it to the medium-term planning. But it has also gained the opportunity of creating a buffer zone on its border, right where NATO is likely to expand.
Once it has signed agreements on military cooperation with Sukhumi and Tskhinvali, it will be able to keep troops in this buffer zone, unrestricted by international peacekeeping controls on the number and quality of these troops. To put it bluntly, it will no longer need to explain why Russian air force planes are stationed at the aerodrome in Gudauta (Abkhazia), which they should have left a long time ago, and why Russian soldiers use their infrastructure in the region of Dzhava (South Ossetia).
If you accept the Kremlin viewpoint of NATO as a military rival and an upholder of alien values, Moscow can be seen as having succeeded. It has finally found the courage to be consistent in its policy towards the two unrecognised republics. They have been rescued from the status of a conditionally controlled ‘gray zone', which they have occupied for the last 15 years. Isolation from the western community, which even leading Russian politicians now admit is a possibility, is seen by them either as an inevitable side-effect, or even as a desirable result.
In August 2008, Russia twice showed that it was not in any way a part of the West. The idea of a renewed confrontation not only does not deter it. It is even popular among Russian voters, however little this may mean in a ‘managed democracy'. Russia's political elite and the majority of the population warmly supported the decisive measures of President Medvedev in the Caucasus. Clearly, they want to believe that Russia has regained its ability to act in a heavy-weight capacity on the international stage, like America. Constrained as it is in its policies towards Moscow by dependence on Russian energy resources, the EU has been relatively compliant. This only strengthens Russia's dangerous and self-satisfied delusion.
Domestic effects of a new ‘cold war'
But the domestic political scene suggests that populist considerations and the desirability of creating a military buffer zone in a region of potential NATO expansion may not have been the Kremlin's main motives for recognising the disputed territories.
The August crisis in Georgia has had an important political effect domestically. It has practically destroyed any hopes that President Medvedev, who was elected in March 2008, would play an independent role in changing the character of the regime formed under Vladimir Putin.
There can be no doubt that the war in Georgia has been months in the planning. Preparations must have begun when Medvedev had not even been in office for 100 days, before he had even had a chance of taking an independent position. After some delay at the beginning of the war, Medvedev started making public statements which showed that his policy towards Georgia was completely determined by the siloviki from Vladimir Putin's circle. As a result, for three weeks in August, Russia's relations with the western community plunged to below freezing point, lower than they have been since the fall of the USSR. They are worse even than during the dramatic moment when Russian paratroopers were about to make a descent on Pristina (Kosovo), when Prime Minister Primakov's plane turned back over the Atlantic Ocean in response to the American bombings of Belgrade in 1999.
Unfortunately, it was no slip of the tongue when Medvedev's used the term ‘cold war' in an interview he gave half an hour after the recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The experience of the last century tells us that a ‘cold war' is more than an exhausting foreign policy confrontation: it costs the economies of the participants dearly.
This war is also a political statement that blocks any attempts at internal reform in Russia. By putting Medvedev up against a ‘cold war', the siloviki and Putin have ensured their own positions within the Russian elite. For them this is undoubtedly more important than the battle for independence of the Ossetians and the Abkhaz. Furthermore, Medvedev has to carry full responsibility for the events, while Putin can stay in the shadows and preserve his image as a politician whose relations with the West, while maybe not rosy, were not as problematic as they have unexpectedly become under his successor, from whom people were on the contrary expecting a thaw.
This may be good for the siloviki, but it is not too good for the country. The relative stabilisation of the elite is perhaps preferable to a new wave of a division of power and property. But the problem is that the regime has stabilised itself while creating a whole number of problems to the system. Quite apart from those posed to the national economy, there are the issue of relations within parts of the Russian Federation, with all the inter-ethnic and religious difficulties connected with this.
At the moment, relations between different parts of the federation come down to the personal relationship between the head of state (and/or Prime Minister) and specific regional leaders, who on the basis of a certain mutually beneficial contract try to control Russian territories. This may work in the traditional Russian provinces or the rich oil and gas regions of Siberia. But in the North Caucasus, it is becoming increasingly clear that this means of managing the regions will not be able to cope with important challenges like the rapid growth of political Islam.
Moscow's relationship with governors in the Caucasus still follows the old model. But the people it appoints in these regions are facing tectonic-scale cultural shifts, to which they have no way of responding. This not only increases the alienation between the government and the country's growing number of Muslims still further. It is grist to the mill of a coming ‘cultural revolution'. None of this bodes well for Russia's influence and presence in the Caucasus. Russia has created problematic ‘buffer zones' for itself in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Moscow's decision to recognise the independence of these two republics may put a dampener on escalating violence in neighbouring regions of the North Caucasus. Refugees from South Ossetia are now unlikely to fuel the old inter-ethnic conflict between the Ossetians and the neighboring Ingush. Furthermore, the decisiveness shown by Moscow towards Abkhazia and South Ossetia may improve the image of federal power in the eyes of North Caucasian elites and the population of the republics. It is at least a more popular step than handing over the unrecognised republics would have been.
But in the medium- and long-term perspective, Moscow will have to face the very danger about which it warned western governments when they insisted on the independence of Kosovo and Metochia. The principle of the territorial integrity of nations has effectively been abolished by Russia on its very own borderlands. These regions are hotbeds for separatist movements. They died down in the mid 2000s for opportunistic rather than ideological reasons. But they may well return. Only this time it will no longer be the naïve separatism of the early 1990s. Now it will be fed by a powerful movement of political Islam common to the Muslims of the Caucasus, one which the muftis controlled by Moscow cannot oppose. Unrest in the Caucasus is bound to increase if the analogy with Kosovo is carelessly applied to the situation in Nagorny Karabakh.
The Azerbaijan factor
The problem of Karabakh (along with the problem of the transit of oil and gas through Georgia that has been disrupted by the war) seriously concerns Azerbaijan. The country is just as important a player in the South Caucasus today as Russia. The experience of two wars in Chechnya suggests that Azerbaijan may become a source of instability for the Russian part of the Caucasus. The communities of divided Dagistani peoples living there - such as Lezgians and Avars - may become new conflict zones. If that were to happen, the echo of these conflicts would inevitably be heard north of the main Caucasian mountain range.
What is more, both South Ossetia and Abkhazia have ethnic relations in the Russian Caucasus. The Northern Ossetians and the Cherkess peoples of the West Caucasus are now bursting with euphoric solidarity for the peoples of the republics just recognised by Russia, whom they believe have achieved their goals. Ossetia and Cherkessia (in the wide sense of this ethnonym, which includes Cherkess, Adygians, Karabdins, Abazins, Shapsugs and other Western Caucasus peoples of common Cherkess origin) are not likely in the short term to demand a special status in Russia by analogy with the status achieved by Abkhazia and South Ossetia. But we should remember that the Beslan hostage catastrophe, where 331 people died in North Ossetia on 3 September 2004, seriously undermined Ossetian trust in Russia. Because of its Christian culture, this region is justifiably considered to be the most reliable ‘outpost' of Russia's presence in the Caucasus. But with instability on the rise north of the mountains, independent South Ossetia and Abkhazia could become poles of attraction for Ossetian and Cherkess separatism. This could in turn be directed against Moscow itself.
I first visited South Ossetia in the summer of 1995, just as the end-game in Bosnia-Herzegovina was being played out. I was ushered in to meet the so-called foreign minister of the enclave and, to my surprise, a large portrait of Radovan Karadzic was prominently displayed on the wall. When I asked him about it, he said that the portrait had been presented to him by the Bosnian Serb delegation at a meeting of Eastern Christians and that he greatly admired the Bosnian Serb independent stance.
Mary Kaldor is professor of global governance at the London School of Economics (LSE), and convenor of the human-security study group that reports to the European Union's foreign-policy chief Javier Solana
Among Mary Kaldor's many articles in openDemocracy:
"Safe democracy" (23 December 2004)
"America's Iraq plight: old and new thinking" (13 February 2007)
"Palestine's human insecurity: a Gaza report" (20 May 2007) - with Mient Jan Faber
The story is revealing because it shows that the Balkan parallel with Ossetia (and Abkhazia) is not Kosovo but Republika Srbska. These two break away statelets were created with Russian support during the break-up of the Soviet Union - probably as a way of maintaining control over the South Caucasus, which Russian traditionalists regard as their backyard. At that time, of course, the Russian state was not unified and so whether this was deliberate policy or part of the jockeying for power among sections of the military, remnants of the KGB, or Russian mafia who want to control Black Sea tourism will never be known.
Like Yugoslavia, the Soviet Union was divided into a hierarchy of administrative units, based on what were known as titular nationalities. South Ossetia and Abkhazia were autonomous provinces within Georgia. In such units, those who belonged to the titular nationality (in this case Ossetian and Abkhaz) were given privileged positions within the administration, which they were loath to lose, with the introduction of elections. When fighting broke out in 1991-2 and 1992-3 (largely started by Georgia but won by the Ossetians and the Abkhaz with Russian military help mainly in the form of North Caucasian irregular fighters) the majority of the population (largely Georgian) was expelled. Even before this latest war, there were still well over two hundred thousand of displaced personsliving in Georgia in tragic conditions. A further 130,000 have been added in August. Cease-fires were brokered by the OSCE (The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, established as a result of the Helsinki Agreement of 1975). Russian peace-keepers were supposed to maintain the ceasefires (along with Georgians and Ossetians in the case of South Ossetia). Both enclaves are isolated, under populated and characterised by fear, lawlessness and poverty, which exacerbate a combination of ethnic polarisation and criminality.
The debate about the future of South Ossetia (and Abkhazia) is rarely framed in human terms. Rather it is framed in terms of status issues and geo-politics. The argument is presented as an argument about national self-determination versus territorial integrity. Expressed in these terms, it is not possible to be for the independence of Kosovoand against the independence of Republika Srpska. If you accept the principleof national self-determination, then you favour independence for both and if you are concerned that the creation of new mini-statelets will represent a dangerous precedent for minorities in other states then you are for territorial integrity.
Among openDemocracy's articles on Georgian politics and the region, including the war of August 2008:
Robert Parsons, "Mikheil Saakashvili's bittervictory" (11 January 2008),
Jonathan Wheatley, "Georgia's democratic stalemate" (14 April 2008),
Robert Parsons, "Georgia, Abkhazia, Russia: thewar option"(13 May 2008),
Thomasde Waal, "The Russia-Georgia tinderbox" (16 May 2008),
AlexanderRondeli, "Georgia's search for itself" (8July 2008),
Thomas de Waal, "South Ossetia: the avoidabletragedy" (11 August 2008),
Ghia Nodia, "The war for Georgia: Russia, thewest, the future"(12 August 2008),
Donald Rayfield, "The Georgia-Russia conflict: lostterritory, found nation"(13 August 2008),
Neal Ascherson, "After the war: recognisingreality in Abkhazia and Georgia" (15 August 2008),
George Hewitt, "Abkhazia and South Ossetia:heart of conflict, key to solution" (18 August 2008),
Ivan Krastev, "Russia and the Georgia war: thegreat-power trap" (19August 2008).
Fred Halliday, "The miscalculation of small nations"
Plus: openDemocracy's Russia section reports, debates and blogs the Georgia war.
If, however, the debate is framed in humanitarian terms, then it is possible to arrive at different answers in different situations. My position on Northern Ireland was that I did not mind whether Northern Ireland was part of Ireland, part of Britain or part of Timbuctoo as long as Catholics and Protestants could live alongside each other in their own homes. That was also my positionon the former Yugoslavia. I did not mind whether Yugoslavia remained one state or became six states (the six republics) or eight states (the six republics plus two autonomous provinces) as long as individuals could live in their communities without fear of violence. In other words the solution to the question of status should be pragmatic rather than principled -- the principle is about human rights not status. Thus I favour independence of Kosovo because there are good reasons to fear for the human rights of Kosovo Albanians, based on past experience, should the province be returned to Serbia, although at the same time I favour an international presence to guarantee the human rights of the Kosovo Serb minority. I am against the independence of Republika Srbska or its annexation by Serbia because there are good reasons to suppose that the return of Muslim and Croat refugees and displaced persons (who represented the majority of the population before the war) would be even more difficult. I would agree to the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia provided all the displaced persons could return and receive compensation, and provided an international presence (not Russia) could guarantee human rights. And of course there are other possible permutations that could be acceptable, provided they were reached through agreement among all the relevant parties.
The difference between a humanitarian approach and a status approach is mirrored in the different security approaches of the EU and the OSCE, on the one hand, and NATO, on the other. The EU was founded as a security organisation; the aim was to prevent another war on European soil and the method was economic and social integration. The EU's securityapproach largely consists in exporting this method - although the European Security and Defence Policy also includes diplomacy and peace-keeping as well as what is known as civilian crisis management. The OSCE reflects the three approaches, or `baskets' of the Helsinki Final Act -- the peaceful settlement of borders; economic, social and cultural cooperation; and respect for human rights. In contrast, NATO is based on a much more traditional geo-political approach where security largely consists of the military defence of territory - even if NATO is adopting new roles in places like the Balkans and Afghanistan. At the end of the Cold War, many hoped that the OSCE would replace both NATO and the Warsaw Pact. Instead, the Warsaw Pact was dissolved and NATO expanded eastwards. While the OSCE was established as an organisation, its role has been marginalised by both NATO and the EU. The expansion of NATO has meant moving what is seen as the Western border eastward, implicitly up till now against Russia, and the rebuilding of the military forces of the new members.
Within the framework of the EU and the OSCE security approaches, the solution to the 'frozen conflicts' of the Balkans and the South Caucasus has to do with dialogue (involving all the parties to the conflict including displaced persons), economic and social assistance to help normalise everyday life, and human rights monitoring and, theoretically, enforcement (though this has been very weak). This approach, which seeks to minimise violence of all kinds, is necessarily slow and messy.But it is thwarted by a geo-politics in which the breakaway statelets are viewed as pawnsin a big power game. Thus the independence of Kosovo is supported by the West and opposed by Russia, while the opposite is the case for Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
In the South Caucasus, the geo-political approach is dominant. The presence of OSCE and the EU are ineffective, largely because of the geo-political competition for control over the supply and transportation of oil. Russian traditionalists argue that they need to control the Caucasus in order to retain control over the oil, while American neo-conservatives, led by Vice-President Dick Cheney, argue that access to oil in the Caucasus and Central Asia is critical in order to reduce reliance on the Middle East. Both sides seem to believe that influence over the states of the region is the way to ensure control of oil supplies.The key factor in this respect is the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline built by BP under American pressure to transport Azeri oil to the West. An uneconomic route was chosen (actually the high price of oil now makes it more economic) in order to avoid both Russia and Iranthat passes through Georgian territory. The enthusiasm of Georgia for joining NATO has to be understood in the context of this geo-political competition. The use of force by Georgia to take back South Ossetia and the exaggerated response by Russia also have to be understood in terms of traditional military and territorial thinking, even though, interestingly, both sides tried to present what they were doing in humanitarian terms.
In a globalised world, where instability is largely a consequence of weak states, religious and national extremism or transnational crime, the geo-political approachis much less effective than in earlier times (as argued hereby Ivan Krastev). The use of conventional military force brings not control but instability as the Americans have painfully discovered in Iraq and Afghanistan. If the aim of the war in Iraq really was control over oil supplies, as Alan Greenspan assumed, it was not very successful as oil production is only now beginning to creep back up to pre-war levels. The same is true of the recent military adventures in the South Caucasus. Indeed the BTC pipeline had to be closed when the conflict broke out.
On that first visit of mine to South Ossetia, the so-called foreign minister explained that he did not have much time because he had to go to the wedding of a relative. Would we like to join him, he asked. The wedding was a raucous street party with delicious food, like everywhere in the region. (I still have the recipe for aubergine in a walnut sauce that I tasted there -- reproduced here). As the bride and groom departed in a revved up grand old Lada, the young men used their guns to shoot out every single street lamp. The result of Russia's (and Georgia's) August military adventures is more displaced persons, more destroyed homes, more criminality and more fear. The street lamps in South Ossetia and parts of Georgia will not be restored for a long time.
As the dust from Russia's tank-tracks settles again over Georgia, the accounting inside the country has begun. For the moment, the accent is on damage- assessment and reconstruction but the focus is already slowly shifting to the role in starting the conflict of Mikheil Saakashvili. Georgia's young president will soon find himself in the spotlight again and it will not be a comfortable place.
Pepsikola blogs from occupied Poti
There were helicopters circling over the port. To keep us out of trouble they told us all to go home about midday. But Tengis and I stayed out there, not because we're particularly brave, but because we didn't panic. We drove round town. It's still working, though lots of the shops have closed, particularly the ones selling household goods. I suppose no one's really going to buy a television or an air conditioner at a time like this. Though I expect the real reason is that the owners are scared. It would easy for a dodgy character of any nationality to take advantage of the situation.
And yes, it's really not a bad idea to keep your money in a sock at the moment. A sort of anti-advert for banks...Good thing I don't work for one, or I'd be in trouble.
Cash machines and cards aren't working. Payments by credit card have been stopped. They're paying wages straight into people's accounts, but they're cancelling credit and overdraft arrangements. Even so, if you're late with your payments you'll still be fined, they told me in my branch. C'est la vie.
My godson Artemy Yurevich Filippov was 4 today. But because of the events I'm not going to get to congratulate him in person.
I've been on the website of my classmates, a fine, peaceful, good bunch from Poti. Tengo and I've taken lots of the photos for it, and the others have worked really hard on it too. We've written all this stuff, had a laugh, remembered how it used to be.
There was hardly a day that I didn't write something there.
What we had in common was the town. Some of us
are still living here. For others it's the town of
their childhood, where they spent their happiest time, where
ice-cream still costs 20 kopeeks, Cafe Argo by the port, the beach at
Plekhanov, dancing at the Officers' Club, Rustaveli
cinema, evenings on the town, and the unforgettable experience of
It used to give me such pleasure to remember the window on the 3rdfloor of `Jeans House' in the so-called Pentagon district, the willow on the river Rioni and the old outdoor swimming pool at our school.
Though we've long grown up, to remember all that used to make us as happy as kids.
-That, that's where I used to walk with my girl.
-And that's where we used to catch fish.
-And that's the table where we used to play lotto.
- Oh, and that's my window, I used to sit there for hours, waiting for Mama to get back from work
-Samira, take a photo of this for me, and that.
-Oh, there's the House of
Pioneers, and there's still a puddle in front of it,
just as there was 20 years ago.
Now war has broken out on the forum. Utter incomprehension, reproaches, accusations, insults. People deserting it like refugees. Today my friend Anna wrote to me to tell me she was leaving it.Yesterday's love affairs and nostalgia -- all gone.
Leaving only a battlefield.
Bloody, dishonoured, utterly destroyed.
God has punished us and robbed us of reason.
When I can't take it any more, I get a book of Fazil Iskander down, put my feet up in an armchair and read. Then I'm a little girl again in a lonely, rundown,Georgian town. Fazil Iskander has helped me get through. I've made friends with his characters, to make up for those who've left whom I most miss. To stop myself dying of loneliness.
That forum was a sort of Fazil Iskander for all of us.
Now it's in ruins.
We've got to stop the violence, challenge it.
But first, it seems to me, each of us is going to have to deal with it in ourselves.
My former neighbour screams at me that we're lackeys of NATO. That she hates us now for that.
But she used to teach me piano once..
There's nothing I want to write
there now, though I haven't taken all the photos I was
In 94 I was 13. One grey, uncomfortable November morning they told us my brother Dima was dead. He was 18. He'd been killed by thieves where he was staying over at Krasnodar. `The body', which had only just been our merry, much loved, beautiful, good, curly-haired Dima, the body had got to be collected, said this indifferent telegram. Mama and Aunt Toma went through Ossetia to collect it. We were afraid. Even back then it wasn't safe. But when they opened the van and saw this zinc coffin everyone was sympathetic and let it through -- Georgians, Ossetians, Russians. Death prompts this sorrowful respect.
Why am I writing this?
Every death is a tragedy. But for a mother it is worst of all, because her child is being buried, while she still has to walk the Earth, dying a little more every day.
I'm being sentimental, I'm afraid. Don't be hard on me.
In this diary I want to express my condolences to all those who've lost people. Whatever `side' they're on.
These days I've had all these people reproaching me, saying that these deaths are partly my fault too.
I refused to accept that.
But I've changed my mind.
If I am to blame, I ask forgiveness. If
I'm not, I still accept the blame. I understand that
doesn't make anyone feel any better. I remember all too
well that when it happens, nothing makes it any better.
I grieve for each death, regardless of their nationality. In Dima's notebook he'd written the words of his beloved Tsoi (Russian poet and musician of the band Kino - ed):
'I knew it was going to be bad, but I didn't know how soon'.
Let's be silent for a minute.
I know how to pay, but I don't want
Victory at any price.
I don't want to plant my foot on anyone's chest
I only want to stay with you,
Just stay with you,
But in the sky there's this tall star calling me
I've just heard that the bridge at Kaspi is burnng and that the Borjomi woods are on fire, following air bombardments.
Yesterday I couldn't bring myself to write anything. Today I checked my mail -- mama mia, what didn't I read. OK, have it your way. You can write that filthy stuff, but it's your own aura you're spoiling. Let's see. What's new?
There's not much news.
Everyone in town's feeling much the same -- we're waiting for the troops to leave.
Whatever people think, whether they're on the left, the right, or somewhere up in the clouds, everyone's sure that once the troops have gone, we'll quietly get back to our ordinary life.
I don't know what'll happen next.
But I'll write about it, whatever.
They were fixing the internet.
Some journalists came from National Public Radio (NPR). We met up and took a turn round the military base. Utterly destroyed.
Here are a few photos.
In one of the rooms in the base there were these flies buzzing over..hm, well, a heap of excrement. I didn't photograph it. If you don't want to believe it, it won't offend you.
I've decided not to allow anonymous comments. It's not censorship. I'm just fed up with being treated like a public toilet. God knows, I've been patient enough.
Don't take this wrong, I just can't bear it any more. I'm the one who's got to read that stuff every day.
You can sign up, and get it filtered out.
I'm sorry if you disapprove.
I set my alarm clock to ring several times, then my darling rings me and forces me to wake up, but even then it doesn't work. Until I've drunk my first cup of coffee, and I'm in the office by that time, I'm barely human.
But today there was so much noise out in the street that I didn't need waking up.
I honestly don't know what the commotion was all about.
Russian troops have taken the port again. Someone says it's because of the boats from America, bringing humanitarian aid. Someone else says that they're unarmed. It's not clear, there's nothing on the news yet, but they didn't let us go to work.
We'll see what we see, as one of my friends says.
When I was a teenager, I remember, in the hungry 90s, they were always drawing up these lists, giving out this humanitarian aid. Sunflower oil, beans, rice, flour. Our mothers were probably delighted, but we didn't understand, we hated `doing the charity run'.
They'd dole out the stuff in this basement place that stank of oil, some sort of fat that made you want to retch. All you could think was fast you could get served and get the hell out.
Then you'd stuffed it all into a trolley and make for home along with all the other `recipients'.
So now when I hear the words `humanitarian aid' I smell spilt sunflower oil.
Though I know that's not fair.
Another big explosion. Probably one of the naval boats.
I don't know whether it's connected to whatever happened in the port this morning, but these armoured troop carriers have been going past full of people in blindfolds. I could see the troop carriers out of the window. Mama told me the rest, she was on the street.
I've been looking through Milan Kundera's Unbearable Lightness of Being.
`When she told her French friends about her experiences, they were amazed: ``So aren't you going to fight against your country's occupation?'' She felt like telling them that it doesn't matter what kind of occupation it is, whether it's communist or fascist, what's behind it is the same evil, profound, overwhelming; and for her the image of that evil would always be people marching, demonstrating, throwing up their arms, shouting slogans in unison.
Do any of my readers think the troops of the Russian Federation should prolong their operation in Georgia? That Georgia is capable of military action, now that it's been almost totally disarmed?
I'd like to hear their opinions.
They haven't brought cigarettes in from Tbilisi. The shops are almost out. Prices for what's left are rocketting. Mothers are complaining that it's hard finding children's food. The word `shortage' has reappeared.
I've been trying to pay by credit card. The bank's closed. They keep sending me these SMSs warning me that this will reflect badly on my credit history. The one thing I do know is that it's going to reflect very badly on my relationship with this bank.
My godson's mother took the children to the village of Karati when things got really tense. I hear she was cursing everything to high heaven. There were these bombs going off the whole time nearby. Tyoma and Maksim kept asking her `Mama, couldn't they stop the salutes now?'
esli_ifsent this photo after what I was writing yesterday. It's from the magazine Der Spiegel.
Eyewitnesses are saying that on the roads in and out of town Russian soldiers are digging trenches and building some sort of blockhouse. No one knows can imagine why. I don't know why either.
And all the time this was going on everyone was out on the streets of Poti begging the Russian armed forces to get out of Georgia.
Here's what I managed to photograph.
I notice that most of my readers don't like my photo of the demonstration.
I know that what I'm about to say is a bit crude.
But think about it. As one of my readers said to me, what Peter says about Paul says more about Peter than it does about Paul.
I always used to hate it when people were rude about the Russians and I hated it just as much when they were rude about the Georgians.
My Georgian grandfather loved his wife very much -- my Russian grandmother. Ever since then their children, grandchildren and great grandchildren have remained true to their view of nationality.
Avto, I know you're reading this. Alyosha would go mad, if he could see what's happening. Look after yourself, we all love you very much.
I'm very proud of the fact that the word `nationality' means nothing to me.
Even in this difficult time. It stinks.
Think about it.
And one more lit-t-t-t-le word. The more comments I read about my journal the more solidarity I feel for the Georgian people. But I do notice that Georgians have nothing to say to me. They write nothing at all.
Unfortunately I didn't manage to catch everything he said. Only the end.
21 August 10.48 am
That's it, I'm fed up with this whole discussion. I'm going for a smoke, or rather I'm going to have a coffee to perk myself up.
I'm going to ask you one more time, just don't get aggressive, I really am paying attention to all of you. Do you really think that if Georgians were abusing Russians I wouldn't stand up for them?
This is not politics. We're just making the gulf between our peoples even wider.
We're being punished for having a leader who doesn't care a damn about us.
If only we could hold out our hands to one another. But no one's holding any demonstrations in support of the love between peoples. If there any, I'd be out there on the street.
These words aren't addressed to everyone. Lots of my readers are fine, they're people I love and identify with. But you'd better think again if all you've got to say is that simple Georgians or Russians deserve everything that's coming to them.
Thanks for understanding.
When I was in 11thclass, my beloved Nelly Levanovna Barkalaya, who taught us Russian language and literature, (sincere greetings, God grant her good health) gave us a poem by Voznesensky to learn for our homework.
Our class couldn't make head or tail of Voznesensky then. I'm really sorry I didn't get him. The only reason I learned his translation of Titsian's poems was to get a good mark (Titsian Tabidze, Georgian poet, 1895-1937 ed) But Nelly Levanovna did say that Voznesensky `wasn't for everyone'. It was that `not for everyone' that got me interested. I've always fallen for that kind of challenge.
We had this book of his poems at home. We always did have a good library.
It used to give me enormous pleasure to take a book off the shelf and open it on a new world. One day I took out this thick little red book and opened it at random.
I sat there reading it till evening.
Ever since then Voznesensky has been part of my life. He's a genius, impulsive, tender, true.
He is everywhere.
Let me read you one of his poems
In my land and yours they hit the sack
and sleep all night flat on their back.
There's the golden Moon with a double shine.
that lights up your land as it lights up mine.
There's this absolute bargain, totally free,
the sunrise for you, the sunset for me.
The wind blows cool at the break of day,
you're not to blame, nor me, anyway.
You have your lies, I have mine.
Behind both is pain and love for our own land.
I wish that in yours and mine some day
We could get our idiots out of the way.
23 August 10.03 am
On top of everything else, I've now come down with a cold. I'm sure it's because of the air conditioning.
It's disgusting being ill in summer.
Yesterday we went to the military base again with the journalist from Kiev, took photos of a smashed cash machine and things like that.
But this time I felt like posting just this photo.
Of the indifferent, condescending, wise sea.
Live peacefully and keep
You can put all these photos
I've been trying not to write about politics, about what this or that minister said, how many men the army's lost, who's right, who's guilty and what should be done.
Not because I'm hiding my head in the sand.
And not because I don't care.
And not because I've got favourites.
But simply because I haven't got the right. Just because I'm writing about what's going on around me doesn't give me the right to start copying down other people's words, posting photos off the internet. All this sensationalism, the bloodier the better -- it's not for me. One woman asks me why I don't post photos of Tskhinvali, as the view I'm giving is one-sided. I haven't put up any photos of Gori either, in case you didn't notice. There are plenty of other places you can go to see those.
It wouldn't be honest. I'm not trying to advertise myself. I'm not into PR. I've don't count the number of visits I get.
I don't mind if I've offended half my readers. I was much more upset when one of my Moscow friends blew out on me. Although of course it was a good thing. That way you can see who's who and who's shit.
As someone dear to me keeps reminding me, my problem is I tend to see people all white and fluffy. Then I get disappointed.
When I do get disappointed, I try and make out that I'm a bit more cynical than I am, a bit meaner, tougher. But it never quite works.
In my life, unfortunately, I've come across people who leave me feeling dirty.
So whatever happens I'm trying to keep calm. So that I'm not seized by an irresistible impulse to spit at them. Even if the face I see is the one in the mirror.
Have a good day.
In the early 90s life was very hard for our family. They weren't just hard for us, but for most people I knew, and those I didn't too. It was like that then. .
There were times, I have to admit, when we didn't have enough to eat. Quite often, in fact.
Mama was working, but by pay day she'd be so exhausted that she'd just dump her wages and ration book down on the table and collapse. All you could buy with those coupons was bread, and not much of that either.
In short, everyone was getting by as best they could.
And in the building next door lived a family which was leaving, for good. One day the head of the family met us in the street and said: `I hate the idea of throwing away these books, they're in Russian so no one's going to want them, I'll bring them round'.
We weren't at home when he came round. And when we got back we saw this huge package of books in the stairwell by the front door and we took them in.
Clearly, the man had missed us and just left them there in the stairwell.
I opened this big bright book about marine life and there was all this money. Notes of five and ten thousand. Big money in those days. A huge sum. Smooth, gleaming, irresistible. Fascinating. Ah, what we could have bought with that money.
Then the man came round. They were just off. And we could have said that the books weren't there in the stairwell. That we didn't see a thing. Didn't know what he was talking about.
When he knocked, for a moment there was this look of panic on our faces.
We were so hungry, almost all the time.
We looked at one another: me, Mama and my little sister.
And Mama whispered to us: `We'd never be able to forgive ourselves'.
And we opened the door and returned the money.
I always thought that Mama was whispering so as not to be heard on the other side of the door.
But now I realise that she was just embarrassed to have panicked like that.
If only for a minute..
Russia says it has started pulling back from Georgian soil, but there are few if any signs that it means business. Therefore, the war is not over yet. Despite this, Neal Ascherson and Ivan Krastev have on openDemocracy already started taking stock of the possible results of the war. I will join them in these attempts - though all of us should understand that while Russia continues trying to change the situation on the ground through military means, any such assessments can only be rather tentative.
Ghia Nodia is minister of education and science of the Republic of Georgia. He was appointed to this post on 31 January 2008. He is also a scholar and adviser of the Caucasus Institute of Peace, Democracy and Development (CIPDD) in Tbilisi. His books include (with Álvaro Pinto Scholtbach) The Political Landscape of Georgia: Political Parties: Achievements, Challenges, and Prospects (University of Chicago Press, 2007)
Also by Ghia Nodia in openDemocracy:
"The war for Georgia: Russia, the west, the future" (12 August 2008)
A humanitarian disaster
The loss of life - in Georgia proper and in South Ossetia - and the humanitarian catastrophe that ensued from the war are obviously the most disturbing results. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has calculated the figure of the displaced people on the Georgian side at approximately 128,000. If the Russians do pull back, the figure will be considerably reduced as most people will return to their homes even if they are looted and damaged. However, at least 20,000 of these Georgians come from Abkhazia and South Ossetia: their return is unthinkable unless a new security regime maintained by the international community is instituted in these breakaway territories.
Even if Russia shows the goodwill to accept such a change (and it would take enormous international pressure to achieve this), this will take time. In addition, there are Georgian villages adjacent to South Ossetia fully or partially destroyed under the Russian occupation, with people there having gone through hell. Under the circumstances, they will be scared to return until very firm international-security guarantees are established: again, a very big if.
This means that, for the time being, Georgia will have to deal with tens of thousands of recently displaced people. This is in addition to the huge numbers of internally-displaced people (IDPs) left after the conflicts in the same territories in the early 1990s. This will be a heavy economic and political strain. Currently, almost all Tbilisi's school-buildings are occupied by the IDPs, and nobody can tell when we will be able to start classes there. As of 21 August 2008, about 42,000 were registered as occupying Georgian educational institutions (mainly schools). Naturally, this is a major concern for this author, who is the minister of education in this country.
Quite a few of the recent IDPs are mad at this government - whom they blame (alongside Russia, of course) for their human tragedy. These people are likely to be used as combustible material by some opposition groups in the future, and Russia - which is unlikely to give up on her ambition to destabilise Georgia internally - will try to encourage that through her proxies in Georgia proper.
For separatist authorities in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the war was a major victory. While Ossetians mourn their dead and start rebuilding with Russian help, they - as well as the Abkhaz - rejoice at their new sense of security. This is because Russians completed for them the task of ethnic cleansing of their territories. The IDPs say that the Georgian villages within South Ossetia are almost erased; Eduard Kokoity, the Ossetian separatist leader, asked rhetorically on 15 August 2008 why the return of the Georgians should be allowed
"so that they can shoot (us) in the back again"; a week later he told the Russian online
news agency that two Georgian enclaves in South Ossetia had been "liquidated". Unless the security regime in these territories changes dramatically, this will be irreversible.OpenDemocracy's Russia section reports, debates and blogs the Georgia war. Its coverage includes:
Evgeny Morozov, "Russia/Georgia: war of the web" (13 August 2008)
Peter Nasmyth, "From South Ossetia's children, Georgian and Ossetian" (18 August 2008)
Zygmunt Dzieciolowski, "Abkhazia: wedded to independence" (21 August 2008)
Boris Dolgin, "Russia: what peace looks like" (22 August 2008)
The spirit of the nation
As I argued in my previous article written for openDemocracy ("The war for Georgia: Russia, the west, the future", 12 August 2008) - and almost all non-Russian analysts agree - this war was for the whole of Georgia, not for South Ossetia. Georgia's general direction, its project of becoming a European nation rather than Russia's satellite, was at stake. This made the moral and psychological aspect of the war no less important than the territorial one.
President Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia said that his country came out of this war as a moral victor. This is not the mere posturing of a politician whom even some observers generally sympathetic to Georgia called "hot-headed" and "irresponsible" for his conduct during the August 2008 war. The genuine theatre of war was the spirit of the Georgian nation and the validity of Georgian political and economic institutions. It should not be forgotten that just a few years ago Georgia was commonly called a "failing state".
While the vast majority of the Georgian people emphatically assert their commitment to western institutions and values, we also understand that these values have not sufficiently taken root in Georgia, as old customs and attitudes based in the Russian and Soviet past die hard. Georgia is an aspiring democracy, but not a consolidated one. This gave Russia hope that Georgia's ambition to become a western democracy could yet be reversed; some Georgians were not sure whether the nation would be firm enough under the Russian pressure, while still others were actually looking forward to returning to the old ways under a new Russian-installed government.
If there is a rational explanation at all for the procrastination of the Russian troops - who continue widening the geographical scope of their destructive actions while their president sets and breaks new timetables for the withdrawal - it is that continuing the state of uncertainty, destruction and humiliation could still allow for the objective of regime change in Georgia. If Russia fails to achieve this objective, than it is justified to speak of Georgia's political as well as moral victory.
The main indicators of such a victory are the sustainability of Georgian institutions and the strength of the spirit of the nation. On both these counts, and despite considerable strain, so far Georgia has stood the test. There were brief moments of panic (such as late on the
night of 11 August, when a rumour spread that Russian tanks were advancing to Tbilisi); but overall, in places which were not directly occupied, life continued as usual. The banking system took only one day off, and there was no mass cash withdrawal. The Georgian currency, the lari, remained stable. Energy supplies were normal in all but the occupied areas, and there were no food shortages. There were no public disturbances. A group of felons escaped from one of the prisons in western Georgia, but most of them are recaptured already. Trains arrived on time - until Russia blew up the main railway-bridge. A flood of new IDPs constituted the major challenge, but all of them now have a roof over their heads and relief efforts have been organised. Even under occupation, the Georgian state did not fail in its main routine functions.Among openDemocracy's articles on Georgian politics and the region,
including the war with Russia in August 2008:
Donald Rayfield, "Georgia and Russia: with you, without you" (3 October 2006)
Robert Parsons, "Russia and Georgia: a lover's revenge" (6 October 2006)
Vicken Cheterian, "Georgia's arms race" (4 July 2007)
Donald Rayfield, "Russia and Georgia: a war of perceptions" (24 August 2007)
Alexander Rondeli, "Georgia: politics after revolution" (14 November 2007)
Robert Parsons, "Mikheil Saakashvili's bitter victory" (11 January 2008)
Jonathan Wheatley, "Georgia's democratic stalemate" (14 April 2008)
Robert Parsons, "Georgia, Abkhazia, Russia: the war option" (13 May 2008)
Thomas de Waal, "The Russia-Georgia tinderbox" (16 May 2008)
Alexander Rondeli, "Georgia's search for itself" (8 July 2008)
Thomas de Waal, "South Ossetia: the avoidable tragedy" (11 August 2008)
Donald Rayfield, "The Georgia-Russia conflict: lost territory, found nation" (13 August 2008)
Neal Ascherson, "After the war: recognising reality in Abkhazia and Georgia" (15 August 2008)
Evgeny Morozov, "Citizen war-reporter? The Caucasus test" (18 August 2008)
George Hewitt, "Abkhazia and South Ossetia: heart of conflict, key to solution" (18 August 2008)
Ivan Krastev, "Russia and the Georgia war: the great-power trap" (19 August 2008)
Paul Rogers, "Russia and Iran: crisis of the west, rise of the rest" (21 August 2008)
A few people in Georgia would probably welcome a Russian-installed government. However, the fact is that no political group publicly voiced support for the Russian position - and most meaningful opposition groups announced that they were suspending political infighting with the government. In the Georgian media, numerous people criticised the government's actions before and during the war, but not from the pro-Russian position. As is normal for any nation, it rallied around its leadership in the face of foreign aggression, while at the same time people voiced criticism of specific government actions.
Everybody understands this moral victory is yet to be consolidated and there lie serious internal challenges ahead. Many people hold the government responsible for the humanitarian disaster and territorial looses caused by the war, and as the situation calms down, the opposition may take advantage of this sentiment to attack the government. If
this stays within acceptable democratic procedures, this will only be normal; but - given the Georgian record of successful or attempted unconstitutional changes of power -
there are always fears that things can get out of hand, and Russia will try to help destabilise the situation through its Georgian proxies. But the resilience that Georgian institutions have shown so far gives solid ground to
believe that this scenario can be avoided
The biggest unknown: Russia
The trajectory of Georgia's development after the war with Russia is not fully clear; but the future of Russian-western relations - a factor which of course has direct implications for the future of Georgia - is the biggest unknown.
The results of the Nato ministerial meeting on 19 August gave some sense of direction: the conflict brought Georgia one step closer to Nato (through establishing a permanent Nato-Georgian commission) and further estranged Russia from the alliance (through suspending the activities of the Nato-Russian council). But these steps are rather miniscule in themselves and nobody can tell how far the process will go.
The main problem is that the west appears to be confused and divided on the Russia issue. In the context of war with Georgia, Russia could only procure the support of countries such as Cuba, Venezuela and Syria. It is logical to deduce from this, that it is close to joining the club of nations commonly called "rogue states" - those who openly defy the international consensus and create conspicuous dangers for international peace. However, western powers will find it difficult to act on this logic: the world cannot afford having a rogue state of such size and significance, so it seems better to deny the reality of the danger. The Russian government knows that and tries to take advantage of the situation. It is true that Russia - as Ivan Krastev has written on openDemocracy - does not have a clear strategy either: it acts on the feeling of resentment rather than rational calculation of its interest. But this does not help.
Energetic and effective western support is vital for the very existence of Georgia at the moment. However, we also understand the strategic complexity of the situation and do not want to be seen to be trying to provoke a new global conflict. Therefore, in conclusion, I want to focus on the moral side of the issue.
Europe has expressed especial moral strictness when it came to dealing with anything smacking of the Nazi legacy. The European Union imposed sanctions on Austria over the inclusion in government of the far-right politician Jörg Haider, who never clearly stated that Hitler's policies were correct or the that the German Reich should be restored, but was nonetheless believed to be a secret Nazi sympathiser. In January 2005, Prince Harry of Great Britain wore Nazi costume to a private fancy-dress party. The news leaked to the media and caused a public outrage; Prince Harry had to apologise. Such rigour stands in stark contrast to attitudes towards the communist legacy. For years, Russia has been is ruled by a group of unrepentant KGB officers - which would be the moral equivalent of a country governed by SS veterans proud of their record. This was considered OK - after all, so many former communists came to power in central European countries and honoured democratic rules and procedures.
But Vladimir Putin and his team are different. As any former Soviet citizen would say: there is no such thing as a former KGB officer. When current Russian action is repeatedly compared to the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, this is not just a historical parallel: there is a direct link. Putin was too young to take part in the invasion, but there is no evidence to suggest that even now he sees anything wrong in it (even though, in answering a question on a visit to Prague in 2006, he referred to it as a "tragic event"). He may have understood the inefficiency of the communist economic policy, but his system of values is hardly different from those of his role model, Yuri Andropov. He has openly lamented the break-up of the Soviet Union as the greatest political tragedy of the 20th century. What would happen had some German-speaking politician suggested that it's a pity Germany is now smaller than it was in 1939?
Putin is not a new Hitler nor even a new Stalin. It is unlikely that the world is on the brink of a new cold war: Russia has oil and gas but no ideological energy needed for that. But just because it is difficult to find a remedy for the Russian problem, it is not right to deceive oneself about the nature of Russian regime and the vitality of the Russian threat. Each nation (including Georgia, naturally) should act on an adequate understanding of it.
In that sense, open confrontation with Russia, however disastrous the human and economic costs, may also have some positive implications for the prospects of stable democracy in Georgia. For this country, Russia has not only been a security threat. It has also been the source from which the infection of illiberal political culture was spreading. Here, cultural closeness to a fellow-Orthodox country was a negative factor. As I said, democratic institutions are yet to fully consolidate in Georgia and the society is still not fully immune to the habits of the Soviet past: cultural and social closeness to Russia was an element reinforcing the power of these habits.
Being in open conflict with a huge and powerful neighbour has its challenges for democracy too - the obligation to consolidate around government does not necessarily encourage openness to political pluralism. However, after this war - whenever it can be said truly to have ended - Russia will have even less leverage for influencing Georgian society than it had before, and Georgia will have even stronger incentives to embrace the values and institutions of the democratic west.
On the second full day of the Georgia-Russia war of 8-12 August 2008, Russian patrol-boats operating off the Black Sea shore of Abkhazia sank four Georgian vessels apparently intent on landing in the territory. The identity of these vessels is not yet clear, but it is interesting to note that a published list of military equipment in the possession of the Georgian government - equipment largely supplied over many years by Tbilisi's western friends - includes a ship called the General Mazniashvili.
Why interesting? Because General Mazniashvili (aka Mazniev) is best known for his role in spreading "fire and sword" through Abkhazia and South Ossetia on behalf of Georgia's Menshevik government of 1918-21. The naming of the ship is a revealing indicator of current official Georgian sentiment about a figure central to the pitiless effort ninety years ago to establish control over these two areas. It is also a reminder to Abkhazians and South Ossetians that their hard-won freedom from Georgian rule in the brutal wars of the early 1990s is part of a longer history of defence of their integrity that deserves the world's attention, understanding and respect.
These peoples, and not just the Georgians - or Russians, or Americans, or anyone else involved in the latest war in the region - have their own history, many of whose artefacts have been deliberately pulverised in this generation (see Thomas de Waal, "Abkhazia's archive: fire of war, ashes of history" [20 October 2006]). The lesson of the short war of August 2008 is that their Abkhazian and South Ossetian voices must be heard and their own choices must be included in any decisions about their future if the cycle of conflict - of which 1918-21 and 1991-93 are but two episodes - is going to be broken rather than repeated.
George Hewitt is professor of Caucasian languages at London's School of Oriental & African Studies (SOAS). Among his many works are "Peoples of the Caucasus" (in F. Fernández-Armesto, ed.), Guide to the Peoples of Europe (Times Books, 1994) and (as editor) The Abkhazians, a handbook (Curzon Press, 1999)
Also by George Hewitt in openDemocracy:
"Sakartvelo, roots of turmoil" (27 November 2003),
"Abkhazia: land in limbo" (10 October 2006).
A political boomerang
The torrent of media commentary on the Georgia-Russia war has been characterised by near-obsessive geopolitical calculation, which - as so often where Georgia and the region is concerned - tends by default to view Georgia's "lost" territories (if they are viewed at all) as nothing more than inconsiderate and irritating pawns on a global chessboard. For this reason - but mainly because Abkhazia and South Ossetia matter in themselves and are central to any resolution of the issues underlying the August 2008 war - it is useful to consider the arguments for taking them and their claims seriously.
A striking feature of the Georgian political landscape even in these desperate days of Mikheil Saakashvili's humiliation is that there is very little recognition in the country of how deep are the scars inflicted by Georgia's invasions of South Ossetia (1990-92) and Abkhazia (1992-93). It is only when Georgia can at an official level come to take responsibility for its own role in this period that progress in resolving these now so-called "frozen conflicts" can be made.
One vital ingredient of this rethinking is to recognise the longstanding residency-claims of South Ossetians and Abkhazians to their respective territories. During the heady days of nationalism that exploded in Tbilisi in 1989, the man who was to become the first post-Soviet president of Georgia - Zviad Gamsakhurdia - even charged that the Ossetians only appeared in Georgia on the coat-tails of the Red Army's invasion in 1921.
It was and is a myth" (see "The North-west Caucasus and Great Britain", Autumn 1992). The late specialist on Iranian languages, Ilya Gershevitch, once told me that in his view the language of the South Ossetians differs so radically from that spoken in North Ossetia that the split must have occurred in pre-Christian times. Moreover, Queen Tamar (ruled 1184-1213), the sovereign under whom Georgia attained its "golden age", was at least half-Ossetian and also took one husband who was Ossetian. But such myths - which are also circulated to deny that the Abkhazians are the indigenous population of Abkhazia - can become truly dangerous in times of tension.
Amid Georgia's late-Soviet disintegration, intellectuals and nascent civil society in both South Ossetia and Abkhazia realised the perils that the chauvinistic rhetoric aimed against them from Tbilisi posed. They formed national forums (Adamon Nykhas in South Ossetia, Aydgylara in Abkhazia) to defend their respective collective and political interests, and created links between the regions that continue to this day.
Zviad Gamsakhurdia - believing his own myths, a self-harming flaw shared by his successor-but-one Mikheil Saakashvili - thought it would be an easy matter to dislodge the South Ossetians from the territory (which Georgians decided to rename Samachablo). The result was war that started in 1990, escalated in 1991, and expired in spring 1992. By this latter date Gamsakhurdia had been overthrown, and a military junta had assumed control in Tbilisi; in March 1992 this junta invited Eduard Shevardnadze - the former boss of Georgia's Soviet-era Communist Party, and later Soviet foreign minister under Mikhail Gorbachev - to lead it.
Gamsakhurdia and his armed supporters resisted the new authorities from his base in the west Georgian province of Mingrelia. Shevardnadze chose to compromise with the South Ossetians, and the two sides (with the involvement of the then Russian president, Boris Yeltsin) signed the Dagomys accords. The provisions of the agreement included a tripartite (Georgian, Ossetian, Russian) peacekeeping force to monitor the ceasefire.
As a result, South Ossetia after 1992 - typified by its quiet capital Tskhinval (Tskhinvali) - became a neglected backwater with little to offer its citizens other than to travel by the Roki tunnel into the Russia Federation's republic of North Ossetia in search of work. This situation continued through the decade of Eduard Shevardnadze's rule in Georgia; it began to change after Mikhail Saakashvili came to power in 2004, with a pledge to restore South Ossetia and Abkhazia to Georgian control (and within two years) high on his nationalistic agenda.
Also on Abkhazia in openDemocracy:
Thomas de Waal & Zeyno Baran, "Abkhazia-Georgia, Kosovo-Serbia: parallel worlds?" (2 August 2006),
Thomas de Waal, "Abkhazia's archive: fire of war, ashes of history" (20 October 2006),
Nikolaj Nielsen, "A small bomb in Gali" (8 July 2008)
The effects of his active - or meddlesome - stance were soon felt. A local market on the border with the disputed territory, where the two sides had no problems cooperating for purposes of trade, was closed down on the grounds that it was part of the "black economy". Then a pliable Ossetian was found to head a pro-Georgian "government" for South Ossetia, based in villages on the Georgian side of the border.
None of this "worked" even in its own terms. A singular aspect of the August 2008 war is that it confounds the long-held expectation the South Ossetian "problem" would prove easier for Tbilisi to manage and solve than that of Abkhazia - the larger, more prosperous and better defended of the two disputed regions. Instead, Saakashvili's reclamation project has come to grief in South Ossetia, which is now more distant from Tbilisi's rule than ever (see Donald Rayfield, "The Georgia-Russia conflict: lost territory, found nation", 13 August 2008).
The folly of war
It all looked different to Georgia's latest myth-maker as recently as January 2008, when Mikheil Saakashvili was was re-elected president. He promised again the two territories would be recovered, during his second term. The months of tension that followed climaxed in the ferocious assault led by Grad-missiles that was launched on an unsuspecting Tskhinval on the night of 7-8 August 2008.
Saakashvili continues to claim that Georgian actions were a response to the introduction of Russian tanks, though he makes no mention of the fifteen Russian peacekeepers killed before heavy weaponry arrived. At least part of Russia's calculation in the febrile months of 2008 has been a desire to hold back in order to let the world see the true nature of the Saakashvili regime. In the event, that stance did nothing to save Russia's peacekeepers, nor did it have any notable effect on western leaders who ignored the fact of the opening attack on Tskhinval in their rush to condemn Russia's response.
But the folly of the decision to attack South Ossetia's capital - whatever its immediate origins - is not Saakashvili's alone. It must be related to the wider pattern of western policy and support for Georgia that has intensified in the Saakashvili era but which was already established in the crucial period of the early 1990s.
The key decision in this respect took place when Zviad Gamsakhurdia's war in South Ossetia was still in progress; when the Zviadist were battling the Shevardnistas in Mingrelia; when threats continued against Abkhazia; when there was no legitimate government in power in Tbilisi; and when chaos reigned across Georgia. At that very moment, the west decided that this was the appropriate time to recognise the country within its Soviet borders.
Among openDemocracy's articles on Georgian politics and the region:
Neal Ascherson, "Tbilisi, Georgia: the rose revolution's rocky road" (15 July 2005),
Donald Rayfield, "Georgia and Russia: with you, without you" (3 October 2006),
Robert Parsons, "Russia and Georgia: a lover's revenge" (6 October 2006),
Vicken Cheterian, "Georgia's arms race" (4 July 2007),
Donald Rayfield, "Russia and Georgia: a war of perceptions" (24 August 2007),
Alexander Rondeli, "Georgia: politics after revolution" (14 November 2007),
Robert Parsons, "Georgia's race to the summit" (4 January 2008),
Robert Parsons, "Mikheil Saakashvili's bitter victory" (11 January 2008),
Jonathan Wheatley, "Georgia's democratic stalemate" (14 April 2008),
Robert Parsons, "Georgia, Abkhazia, Russia: the war option" (13 May 2008),
Thomas de Waal, "The Russia-Georgia tinderbox" (16 May 2008),
Robert Parsons, "Georgia's dangerous gulf" (30 May 2008),
Alexander Rondeli, "Georgia's search for itself" (8 July 2008),
Thomas de Waal, "South Ossetia: the avoidable tragedy" (11 August 2008),
Ghia Nodia, "The war for Georgia: Russia, the west, the future" (12 August 2008),
Donald Rayfield, "The Georgia-Russia conflict: lost territory, found nation" (13 August 2008).
This decision was in line with the international community's arbitrary approach of recognising only the Soviet Union's union-republics (as well as the constituent-republics of Yugoslavia) as separate states. In the case of Georgia, the west had refrained from applying this policy when Georgia was misruled by Zviad Gamsakhurdia; but almost as soon as Shevardnadze returned to Georgia, attitudes changed. A "friend of the west" was in power, and - although no elections were planned until October 1992, and thus even rudimentary democratic legitimacy could not yet be be claimed - western states (led by John Major's government in Britain - an appropriate echo of its equally disastrous policy in former-Yugoslavia) - rushed to recognise Shevardnadze's government and establish diplomatic relations.
Georgia also gained in this period unconditional membership of the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the United Nations. The result was, for Abkhazia - whose people were then pressing a claim of right to independence - disaster. For Eduard Shevardnadze celebrated his country's joining of the UN by launching his own war on Abkhazia, in an attempt to rally dissenters (including armed Zviadists) to this zealous Georgian nationalist cause. The gamble brought untold destruction; its many victims included the thousands of Mingrelians and Georgians living in Abkhazia. For - although it took thirteen months, and the result was long in the balance - the gamble failed, and the humiliating defeat inflicted on Shevardnadze's troops by the Abkhazians and their Caucasian allies on 30 September 1993 meant the effective loss to Tbilisi of the lush and potentially rich republic.
In spring 1994, ceasefire accords - the equivalent of the Dagomys accords over South Ossetia - were agreed in Moscow. By then, the west's attentions were focused on the Balkan mess it had done so much to create, and it was - how times change - only too happy to leave peacekeeping responsibilities to Russia. As a result, Russian forces constituted almost all of the 3,000-strong peacekeeping contingent along the demilitarised zone adjacent to the Ingur river, Abkhazia's traditional frontier with Mingrelia in Georgia.
Thus, a further link between Abkhazia and South Ossetia was made, as Abkhazia too - typified by its quiet capital Sukhum (Sukhumi) - became a neglected backwater with little to offer its citizens except to seek work elsewhere or (for those who stayed) to use whatever Russian help was on offer to restore their destroyed infrastructure and economy as best they could (see "Postwar Developments in the Georgian-Abkhazian dispute", Parliamentary Human Rights Group, June 1996).
The Caucasian satrap
The recognition of Georgia's Soviet borders - echoed again (among other western leaders) by the quite ridiculous statements of Nato's secretary-general and Britain's foreign secretary even as the full effects of Mikheil Saakashvili's misadventure were still emerging - is the source of much of Abkhazia's and South Ossetia's agony; and indeed of Georgia's agony too. For since the early 1990s, and notwithstanding its clear culpability in the wars on the two territories, Georgia has - at any point of crisis or argument around either of these "frozen" conflicts - been able to call upon its fellow United Nations members to insist on the observation of the principle of territorial integrity; in effect, saying that Georgia can do as it pleases with regard to its "internal" problems and nuisance-peoples.
There is more. Georgia in the 1990s looked likely at times to become a "failed state", and a country ruled by Eduard Shevardnadze could call on all sorts of assistance - not just quite understandable and welcome economic investment, but more worryingly an enormous amount of military equipment and associated training programmes (which accelerated in the period after 9/11 and as Vladimir Putin began to establish a coherent government and a firm foreign policy in Russia after the chaos of the Boris Yeltsin years).
Why did Georgia need such a prodigious amount of armaments, and military equipment of this type? Not even the most deranged Georgian leader would consider starting a war with Russia (a judgment that, admittedly, may have to be revised). Azerbaijan shares with Georgia the interest in peaceful oversight of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline which brings both countries considerable wealth. Georgia and Armenia have been rivals for centuries, but there is no hint of any potential military conflict (notwithstanding the disaffection and poverty of the Armenian minority in Georgia's Javakheti region). Georgia and its other neighbour, Turkey, have no grounds for hostility.
The conclusion is clear: the targets of Georgia's military bonanza were South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
The outcome was to fuel not just Georgia's military machine but the self-aggrandisement and hubris of those of its leaders who concluded that the west - especially the United States, its chief supplier - would support an armed effort by Tbilisi to restore control over South Ossetia and/or Abkhazia.
This must have been one factor behind Mikheil Saakashvili's monstrous blunder on the eve of the opening of the Olympic games in China's capital city.
The bonds between Abkhazia and South Ossetia forged in the pivotal early 1990s included a mutual defence arrangement. When Georgian forces attacked Tskhinval on 7-8 August 2008, the Abkhazians had to decide how to put this into effect. The decision was made to try to dislodge the Georgian troops who had - in violation of the ceasefire accords - deployed into the upper Kodor (Kodori) valley (part of Abkhazia) in July 2006, an act followed by the transference there of Tbilisi's already-established (on the South Ossetia model) "Abkhazian government-in-exile".
The move towards the upper Kodor valley was both an attempt to present Georgia with a second front, and to pre-empt any repetition of the new South Ossetian tragedy in Abkhazia itself. Abkhazian ground-troops entered the gorge at daybreak on 12 August to find that most of the Georgian soldiers had fled; by midnight, the whole area was secure.
The aftermath is revealing. The Russians are reported to have discovered in the materials captured from Georgian military personnel in South Ossetia a series of maps depicting Georgia's plans for a step-by-step capture of Abkhazian territory. On their own account, the Abkhazians found in the centre of the Kodor gorge a plaque (in both Georgian and English) stating: sainpormatsio tsent'ri NAT'O-s shesaxeb ("Information Centre about NATO").
Mikheil Saakashvili's televised speeches - including his effective declaration of war against South Ossetia - are accompanied by the parading of a European Union flag in his office. Georgia is a member neither of Nato nor the European Union, and its symbolic actions in relation to both are evidence of an unresolved political dysfunction.
A path in the rubble
The military and political residue of the war of August 2008 is still far from settled. The diplomatic one awaits. When the ceasefire agreement negotiated by Nicolas Sarkozy and accepted by Mikheil Saakashvili and Dmitry Medvedev begins to be fully implemented, the west needs seriously to reconsider its unwise recognition of the country within its Joseph Stalin-set borders. The ground of international law has shifted over Kosovo; it can be moved again to recognise Georgia in its de facto borders and to recognise the republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as two new states (see Neal Ascherson, "After the war: recognising reality in Abkhazia and the Caucasus", 15 August 2008).
An understanding of the history outlined in this article - including, once more, the key events of the early 1990s and all that has happened since - is the only way to lay the foundation for peaceful relations between the various peoples living in this part of Transcaucasia.
The negotiations to come must address the difficult issues that have lain dormant since the post-Soviet wars, such as the resettling of the Kartvelian (Mingrelian and Georgian) refugees who fled or were expelled as the Abkhazian war ended. Many have endured wretched conditions in various places in Georgia since 1993: those housed for years in a dilapidated city-centre hotel in Tbilisi were cleared to allow real-estate development, and those living in a part of Tsqneti (lying above Tbilisi) were reportedly displaced again when the land was given by Saakashvili to his ally-rival and former speaker of the Georgian parliament, Nino Burdzhanadze (also touted in the west as a possible replacement for Saakashvili if and when his western backers tire of him).
One reason for the neglect and/or maltreatment the refugees have suffered under the regimes of Eduard Shevardnadze and Mikheil Saakashvili is a further insight into Georgia's testing politics: most of them are Mingrelians, which makes them fellow members of the Kartvelian language-family but also kept at a distance by many Georgians (even though many, such as Zviad Gamsakhurdia, have been or become Georgian super-patriots). But this is also a possible key to diplomatic, political - and economic - progress: for if a viable peace can be established in an independent Abkhazia, there will be a greater likelihood that at last many of these hard-working people will be able to restart their lives in Abkhazia.
The days after the short, bitter war have been fraught; the period ahead will contain many dangers. A third flawed post-Soviet Georgian leader has brought disaster on his country. The west's foolhardy reinforcement of nationalist vainglory has helped lead Georgia into another crisis, one that only Georgians can resolve. Meanwhile, the South Ossetians and Abkhazians - whatever Mikheil Saakashvili, or indeed General Mazniashvili, might say - have other plans. The world should listen to them.
The Russian soldiers are not the worst. They have won their victory, and now hang about Georgia mopping up. Much more terrible are the civilians and volunteers who come behind the soldiers, the big-bellied men with guns, knives and army jackets thrown over their T-shirts. They are doing the murdering, the looting and burning, the "cleansing" as they drive the last Georgians out of South Ossetia.
To watch Russian leaders and media make the public case for war with Georgia when the conflict was still in its infancy was also to wonder why at that point there was still so little factual evidence - particularly photos and videos - from observers on the ground in South Ossetia's capital, Tshkinvali. The Kremlin's spokespersons wanted the world to believe that the city had just suffered a Stalingrad-like devastation - though there was as yet no visible proof of the thousands of victims claimed.
It seemed a golden opportunity. After all, Time magazine had famously proclaimed "you" - that is, all of us - its "person of the year" in 2006. Surely news of the award, and the technology to act on it, had reached South Ossetia - so that at least one person would produce a conclusive account of how much damage had been inflicted on the city and its inhabitants. Where, in short, were the citizen journalists?
The screen of war
As the Caucasus war unfolded, those traditional media organisations that still had bureaus anywhere near that exotic part of the world struggled to fly in professional reporters. The Kremlin already had a head-start in winning its domestic public-relations battle: in the absence of much evidence to the contrary, its claims of more than 1,500 victims of "Georgian aggression" found a ready, and outraged, audience. Only later did humanitarian organisations such as Human Rights Watch release reports suggesting that the true number of casualties was much lower and that level of destruction had been greatly overstated; few in Russia seemed to be paying attention by that point.
The same pattern was repeated a few days later in relation to the small Georgian town of Gori, this time with the Russians (who had attacked it) playing the opposite tune. They responded to broadcasters' reports indicating that Georgian civilians had been killed by denying they had inflicted such damage, and dismissing the old-media images as "staged". It was a perfect opportunity for citizen reporters to fill in the gaps? The fact that they didn't in the first days of this quick war may reveal that - in war reporting at least - the great promise of citizen journalism is often an empty one.
True, it would be a great injustice to say that Russian and Georgian bloggers ignored the war: the sheer number of posts they wrote on the subject would overwhelm even the most voracious readers. The spectrum of views was wide - support and denunciation of both sides, predictions of an imminent third world war, claims that Russia was regaining its position on the world stage. But amid the outpour of online punditry, hard and facts-only reporting from Tshkinvali or Gori was missing.
There are good reasons, some of them very basic. A simple truth about modern conflicts is that they tend to occur in places without universal access to internet broadband and the low ratios of iPhones per capita. It would be sublimely naive - and condescending - to expect South Ossetians or Georgians to respond to intense shellfire by taking a crash-course in podcasting, even if they did have electricity and and an internet connection. Tskhinvali and Gori were never going to be hubs of user-generated content from a war-zone.
And yet..some "citizen reports" from Tskhinvali and Gori have emerged despite the technological challenge. This is impressive and welcome, but it comes with a further problem: trust. Most were of poor quality, and many appeared on blogs with no reputation, no previous blogging history (some had been registered only a few days before the war), and carried no identification of a real person with a real name who could claim responsibility for or ownership of them.
Beyond the technological and trust limitations, there is a visual one. To report war seriously and well is a subtle and complex task, requiring especial care where visuals are concerned. A house that looks devastated by shellfire may be one of the many such buildings in the neighbourhood, or it may be the only one; if the latter, it may have been damaged in an earlier conflict. The choice of what to show and the interpretation of what is shown can shape the public's attitude toward the war and its perpetrators. The public entrusts reporters to approach these issues fairly; and communicate their findings honestly, comprehensively and ethically. It is usually the venerable names and institutions that are the main repository of this trust, as is evidenced in the way that that even small-scale manipulation by individual reporters (the "smoke in Beirut" image / Andnan Haji case of 2006) tend to backfire on the institution itself.
In this context, the citizen reports from Gori and Tskhinvali that I had seen triggered more questions than answers. How do I know that the many amateur photos circulating in the blogosphere had not been doctored or staged; and whose reputation would a revelation to this effect hurt? In the context of a full-blown information war (and PR war) being waged by both sides in domestic and international media, it is only to be expected that spin-doctors would try to use the blogosphere to spread misinformation.
The blogging balance
The few blogging accounts I did find enlightening were almost exclusively those written by people I had met on earlier trips to Georgia - and whom I trusted. It's probably true that - even if the narratives themselves were identical - I would be predisposed to trust accounts written by such people and not those from a group of anonymous bloggers. Even here, though, my friends' blogs helped me understand the horrors of this war from the (mostly Tbilisi) perspective of civilians caught up in it, and didn't offer details of what was happening around Gori.
Some Russian reporters present in the war-zone also turned to writing blogs, to overcome the self-censorship of their editors and newspapers, and to share the real story of Tskhnivali and elsewhere with their readers - not that of the Kremlin's spin-doctors. But these are still professional reporters representing the traditional media, paid to travel to the war-zone, who embraced blogging out of concern for their reputation and ethics - not themselves citizen journalists.
Thus, it had become clear a few days into the conflict that citizen journalists had in general failed to adequately cover its early and most crucial stages. The many traditional news organisations that had eagerly embraced user-generated content and made it part of their reporting strategy discovered this in a painful way - as (for example) CNN's iReport became a battleground in the propaganda wars between Russia and the west; most online commentators merely uploaded videos (usually recordings of their own pontification in front of a webcam) - with little factual reporting. Moreover, even if they did upload something that resembled even basic reporting, how would I know I could trust them? It's not enough that iReport belongs to CNN; after all, does CNN vet these videos as closely as those that were submitted by their in-house reporters, and if not, is this what can be expected of the " most trusted name in news"?
The democratic faultline
The crisis of citizen journalism revealed by the CNN experience also highlights a crucial but false assumption that such media companies have made: that everyday citizens would take the great risks associated with war reporting for the far-from-obvious benefits of being featured on a site like iReport. In addition, these organisations seem to have believed that the people who watched such reports would trust them as much as (say) Christiane Amanpour's. The satire of the iReport in The Daily Show's Jon Stewart in the United States still packs a punch:
"Yes, CNN wants you to spare them what is currently the most arduous part of what they do - reporting! And not just anywhere - apparently they want you to get as close as possible to an exploding building during a hurricane. 'Gee, this assignment looks dangerous. You know who'd be good for that story? John Q Schmuck'" .
This is not to deny the great value of citizen
journalism in other circumstances - some even having to do
with wars. For example, Iraqi bloggers' performed an invaluable function in reporting Iraq after the United States-led invasion of 2003, the Iraqi insurgency that followed, and daily life outside the Baghdad "green zone". At the same time, these two conflicts are very different. The war in
Iraq had been intensively prepared and discussed in the media for months; news
organisations' choice to have a reporter in or near Baghdad or not by the time the invasion occurred was not related to any expectation that others would do an equally good job with their cellphones.
South Ossetia, by contrast, did not even exist on the radar of many media companies before the conflict of August 2008 (though openDemocracy at least had and has published extensive analysis of the area and of wider conflicts in the Caucasus). The inattention is widely shared - after all, how many people knew about Srebrenica, Mogadishu, or Grozny before these places became known for great tragedy? But it is also damaging - for the world is bound to experience more Tskhinvalis and Goris.
The implication is serious for the future of democracy as well as for the future of media. The more citizen journalists are expected to fill the enormous gaps left by the establishment media as the latter struggle to redefine their business models (part of which means closing their foreign bureaus), the more the media play into the hands of leaders like Vladimir Putin and Dmitri Medvedev. They and those like them will always - as in South Ossetia - take advantage of media blackouts to create narratives favourable to their own political strategies. Citizen journalists are hardly appropriate sparring-partners for the Kremlin couple. But CNN and the BBC still are.
3 August 11:00 am I'm at work
I thought our internet access here was good. But it turns out that our satellite link came through Moscow, so all contact's been broken off and I'm back on dial-up.The dogs are alive and well and have got enough food for the time being.My colleague Giorgy is sitting beside me. A shell splinter got him in the finger.So everyone's laughing, calling him a ‘hero'. The fact that they're laughing means it's all alright.Thanks everyone for the comments, I can't answer them all, but I'm reading them and I'm grateful to you for just being there.And tell me about Kikabidze, I don't understand. (Ed: On 13 August, the singer Vakhtang Kikabidze cancelled his Russian concert tour and refused a ‘Friendship' medal due to be presented to him by President Medvedev.)
13 August 7:03 pm
The internet hasn't been working all day. But I've seen it all today. Here are some photos taken from my study window. Don't ask me what they mean, they are what they are, but it's not every day you see things like this out of your window.
13 August 8:44 pm My Georgian friends don't want war
Some time ago I posted something about Georgian banquets. How the first toast is always for peace. Georgian toasts aren't just an excuse for getting drunk, it's a whole art form. And the first toast they drink is always to peace.
14 August 10:49 am It's unbearable, unbearable!
Zombis everywhere. On the internet, in real life. Everyone yelling, foaming at the mouth! ‘We won' they croak. Even in a peaceful forum of ‘classmates' they're all at each others' throats, defending their governments.
I'm sorry, but they're just morons. There's no justification for a single one of these deaths. None at all.
on this war and on all others!
It's not over, it's just started with new force! In our heads!
I'm afraid we'll never be able to go back to the way it was before
I call on you all, don't trash the world
It's unbearable, unbearable
14 August 2:08 pm War or no, let's have breakfast on time
It's crazy, folks!! I just got this parcel of books sent by the internet shop OZON. While all this is going on!!!
Like a greeting from a past life.
And somehow it made me hopeful. We must, we must learn how to live on this earth of ours.
15 August 10:51 am Poti online
The town's in a state of panic. There rumours of looting, but they all contradict each other. So far no one in Poti knows anything for sure. But people are really worried. Afraid of everyone and everything. Once or twice foreign journalists have rung me to ask what's going on. I told them the same as I've been writing, that people are scared, that there are tanks moving round, but that they haven't touched anyone. They're destroying the military installations.
We keep working as usual.
Today they promised to come and get our internet connection working.
rubbish on cable tv. I turned over to some strange channels in Italian other incomprehensible
Curiosities of war
two women were sobbing in the street, saying they were going to be looted and
raped. A man walking by laughed: ‘In your dreams!'
One of my neighbours, a young guy, died in an explosion at the naval base. They did a couple of operations, but alas..God rest his soul.
15 August 12:07 pm On objectivity
I've said this, in reply to people, and I'll say it here.
I don't write about anything I don't know and haven't seen for myself. If I see it, I'll tell you, believe me. I'm not going to protect anyone, it's not worth it.
Once thing - please keep your comments clean or I'll have to stop all anonymous ones, and I really don't want to have to do that.
In recent months, calls for Russia's expulsion from the G8 have mounted steadily, while opponents of the idea have countered with talk of the need to engage, not confront, Russia. Both sides have advanced cogent arguments. But Russia's recent assault on South Ossetia and Georgian territory, has dramatically altered the terms of this debate. The grounds for expelling Russia from the G8 have never been stronger. But are they, even now, strong enough to warrant crossing such a Rubicon?
Greetings all! I'm back in touch. Phones are bad, everyone's using them. It's quiet in the town. You can just hear some sort of gunfire, but it's a long way away. There are rumours in town that in Senaki and Zugidi the Russian miracle-workers said on tv that there's been no bombing, that there've been no deaths, that it's all disinformation. But we do know that they've knocked out radio stations in Tbilisi.
Column of tanks just went noisily down the street. Tengo says they're BMPs
It's weirdly frightening not knowing
Lord, let them not kill people
Don't know whether they were Russian tanks. Why is it so quiet? Why is there no cross fire?
people are in shock
we keep ringing one another
we don't understand anything
Looked out of the window. If it weren't for the dust on the main street you wouldn't know that armoured troop carriers have just been down it. Outside in the courtyard the guys are sitting round playing dominos. They're no longer even arguing. Someone's come on tv, no news. I think maybe that was the Georgians who just went by?
Don't worry, it's OK, we're all alive, the tanks went round the town and left again. I'm having to use dial-up from the house, which is why I haven't been writing.
All quiet right now. Let's see about tomorrow.
And I'm sorry I can't answer everyone personally, actually there seems to be lots of information around. The internet's bad, keeps breaking up. Huge thanks for being so supportive.
I wanted to post something lyrical, but didn't. It didn't seem right. I'm sure it's going to be alright, and I really will write. It's just as bad in Tbilisi. Keep cheerful, Tbilisi friends.
In Poti it's still quite quiet.
I don't know, what the coming day's going to bring, but in town everything's getting back to normal. We're not working yet, but the banks are open, and the port too. People have calmed down. Of course we'll get through, no one's panicking at the moment, but how long that'll last I don't know. They say that in Tbilisi people are in a real state, that it's just like it was in Poti a few days agao. People are trickling back into the town.
Well, is that it?
It's over, thank God!
People are returning to the town.
I do hope that we can get back to normal. Go back to how it was before the war.
My friend mouss's poem - Maria thanks for this!
Tell me, friends, doesn't all this crap give you the creeps? The cool guy who's got nothing to say about the war isn't cool any more - bye, sorry about that. Right, left, right left, it's the wedding of a bloody bitch. When we were kids they told us people were all brothers. Then we found out what the price of this brotherhood was - a piece of land. 15 sisters rip the earrings out of one another's ears. But where are the brothers, tell me that? Once, our hearts were aflame, but it's all been turned into heaps of money.
Pathos is catching, like gonorrhea, it's alive, and sticks onto you like a cockcroach. No, we've learned nothing over the centuries, just a dusting of wisdom. Some will end up on the black side, some on the white. The map is all scarred with lies. And do you remember how badly Mama wanted you and me to be friends?
Fellow Georgians, let's drink to Russia, to those chicken legs Bush sent by way of aid - it wouldn't be bad if we had some too. And I can't forget Mama begging us not to run over a red light!
People keep on shooting each another, scoring off one another, handing out platefuls of medals, garnished with sweetness. I watch the toothpaste seeping out while they hold the country by its short and curlies. All I've got to say to the puppet masters is this - you know where you can put your war!
Who am I anyway? Maria, Mashka, Pa's a Bashkir, Grandpa's from Ukraine, I buy off the Ossetian on the corner and cook it with my love from the Don.
So fine, we may no longer be brothers. They've divided up our world up into different floors. But on the ward, we lie next to one another, and there's enough room for us all.
9.27pm Little or Big Manifesto
Lord, we really do seem to be getting back to normal. Today I even went back to work. I never thought I'd be so keen to. I've been writing my blog ever since 19 March 2003. Then I used to write it in code, which my friend zvezdad taught me. It was just an ordinary girly blog. I used to write about my life, publish little stories, photos, poems for my own crowd. I suppose about 300 friends used to read it. I made some lovely friends online. It never occurred to me to be worried about privacy, not until a month or so ago. Then some people I know in Poti started taking these bits and pieces about my private life out of context. So I deleted it all. That was a bit sad, as there were interesting bits and pieces there, but I thought ‘let it all go', and pushed Delete. Then, when they started bombing the port I got onto the web from the telephone on the street, and wrote an entry there and then. Again, I did it for my friends.
Now on my cosy little blog I find out that there is no such person as Samira Kuznetsova. That I don't live in Poti at all, don't work in the port. That I'm some sort of invented person, or that my blog's been stolen. They say that the blog's just a piece of slander and propaganda. But what I really don't get is this - do they think I've been writing about politics all this time? Have I been rude about VVP (Putin), or Medvedev or Saakashvili? Have I been saying they've bombed us to smithereens? Have I written about anything that I've not seen with my own eyes? Have I been picking on people for their ethnicity? Setting people against one another? Have I tried to prove anything to anyone? This really hurts. People are saying they've just thrown three bombs, that Tskhinvali's been flattened, and there are you, just sitting there. They say if you'd just publish photos of bloody corpses, that would at least be something. Remember that saying about ‘bread and circuses'.
But I haven't the remotest desire to write about what hasn't happened. I can't do it, I've no desire to make things any worse than they are. I've only written about what's happened. About what I've seen myself. I haven't blamed anyone, drawn any conclusions, I haven't even said who's to blame. Because I'm not looking to blame anyone. I'm just in mourning. My blog's got a lot of attention. They keep quoting from it, republishing it and even translating it into other languages.
I don't need any PR. I've got nothing to be proud of. The blog's only interesting in relation to events in Georgia and Southern Ossetia. I'm not doing it on behalf of anyone. I don't want to prove anything to anyone.
I'm really grateful to everyone for their kind words, for the support, for paying attention. I'm really grateful to everyone, who's been thinking about us and what we've being going through. Not for my own sake, but because of what's been happening. I'm grateful for your ability to empathise. It's a unique quality. It reminds us that there's some point to it all. Just because I'm here, on this side of the border, it doesn't mean I feel guilty that I haven't died and that no one round me has died.
I just want to get back to the normal rhythm of my life, to my family, my loved one, my friends, my work, my animals, my world. I've got all kinds of friends. Each of them has got their own view of what's been happening. But the way I see it, that doesn't make them any better or worse.
The main thing to hope is that the nightmare's over. That it's going to sort itself out. I wish you all peace and understanding. Let's get together all the good people we can. Once more I want to say thank you. I'm not just saying it. I really am grateful. Be well. And pray that there's no more war.
Russia’s propaganda has been clumsy, while Georgia’s has been effective. But both kinds pose serious problems. Anyone who remembers the conflicts of the 1990s will not be surprised by reports of heads being cut off and corpses burned. But the story about black mercenaries looks far-fetched. It is more than likely that there were indeed intelligence agents operating on both sides and isolated saboteurs. Each case needs to be looked into. Experience tells us that when sensational announcements about catching spies are made, some of those caught turn out not to be spies at all. News reports of tens of thousands of saboteurs sent by Georgia to Russia and mythical bullets are all outright fantasy.
Why mythical? Did no one supply weapons to Georgia, train its troops, hold joint exercises and back it in making international initiatives to join NATO for example? Did no one transport Georgia’s contingent from Iraq back to a country at war? This all took place, and quite openly too. But no one encouraged the use of force.
The USA and the European Union did keep sending signals to Georgia that provoked them to rhetoric. But the use of force is unacceptable. The recent Georgian-U.S. exercises were not a rehearsal of a military operation in Georgia. There was an exercise involving military operations in mountainous terrain. But Russian forces also carried out just such exercises, just before the conflict began.
The USA asked Georgia to take part in the operations in Iraq and it had no option but to respond to Georgia’s request to airlift its troops back. To do otherwise would not have been in keeping with the alliance between them. And it is precisely an alliance that the USA has been building with the Georgian leadership.Even friends show bias..
The editor of our partner project, OpenDemocracy Russia, Zygmunt Dzieciolowski, a great friend of Russia, who has spent a lot of time here since the late 1980s, sent a report from Georgia, an interview with Mikhail Saakashivili. He was there on a journalistic assignment when hostilities broke out. His report is indicative of how people beyond Russia, in this case someone sympathetic, see the situation. One section of the report relates directly to the issue of Georgia ‘having the protection of world imperialism’. Saakashvili spends most of the interview explaining that Georgia has chosen the West and NATO. This is an “experiment the USA should be glad to support”, he says: it is so important that Georgia does not follow the same road as Russia.
During the Cold War, developing countries made their own decisions about which development road to follow. Some declared that they were building socialism, others said they were fighting communism. The choices were a sort of badge of identification, which told you who was giving them aid, or from whom they hoped to receive it. You did not need to adopt the Soviet model in order to receive help from the Soviet Union. It was enough to take regular oaths of friendship, support Soviet initiatives and perhaps now and then show the odd bit of ‘socialist spirit’,by confiscating assets from the ‘imperialists and their lackeys’, for instance.
I have no doubts that a large part of the Georgian leadership is sincere in its belief that the Western road is the best choice for Georgia, that a market economy is better than a planned economy and that it is better to fight corruption, or at least bring it under control.
Georgia has been fighting corruption, though, apart from the decision to abolish the traffic police, the campaign has been mostly directed against specific corrupt individuals rather than against corruption as a whole. To this day, different groups among the Georgian elite continue to throw accusations of corruption at one another.
Scotching Georgian fantasies
Georgia has enjoyed some economic successes, too. But the idea that Georgia is building a society based on freedom and the rule of law is fantasy. You have only to look at the Imedi TV company, or the ways the opposition is suppressed (a much milder form of suppression than that practised in Moscow), or even at the typically post-Soviet-style elections. No less problematic are the current measures to block out Russian media, problems faced by Russian and Armenian citizens. There is a lot you could say about these things, but certainly not that Saakashvili has achieved his modestly proclaimed ‘model democracy’.
This war will not be seen more objectively around the world unless the situation in Georgia itself is better understood. For a start, it is important to realise that Georgians have not been in love with their young president, Saakashvili, ever since he took power following the ‘rose revolution’ in November 2003.
People were tired of Eduard Shevardnadze. The fact that Russia dispatched [then Foreign Minister] Igor Ivanov to Georgia to act as a mediator between the authorities and the revolutionaries was no chance decision. It was a sign that Russia had given its blessing to the change of regime. The ‘Rose Revolution’ was no particular cause for concern. The indications were clear: the Russian authorities were interested in working with their new counterparts in Georgia and hoped to establish better relations with them than they had with the old regime. Russia helped Tbilisi settle the problem of Ajaria. Later, after relations had already worsened, they also agreed to withdraw Russian troops from the Vaziani and Akhalkalaki military bases. What is more, they kept this promise.
The problems only really began in the summer of 2004, after Georgia tried to a force through a solution to the South Ossetia problem. That was when it became a ‘frozen conflict’. At that stage worries about ‘colour revolutions’ applied only to events in Ukraine. It was only in hindsight that they were extended to Georgia too.
Zygmunt is also wrong in another of his assertions in that report: ‘For the Russians he is a scary figure’, he declares. ‘A cunning eastern despot whose main purpose is to humiliate and to outsmart them’. Saakashvili was never feared by the Russians, although he sometimes cut a comical figure, yes. His views also made contact with him extremely problematic figure.
Of course, Dmitry Rogozin’s statements about the Georgian president being someone you cannot shake hands with these days look absurd. Even those who move in the same circles as him find it hard to shake Rogozin’s hand these days. It becomes a serious problem, of course, if you’re not prepared to deal with a president in office. Medvedev andSarkozy found a way round this: Georgia and South Ossetia signed the agreement. But the prospect of always having to resort to mediators for any talks will just further muddy the waters.
There is no point in hoping that Saakashvili will step down of his own accord. Whenever his popularity or power have been under threat he has always chosen to escalate the situation. Nor should we hold out any hope that his own people will topple him once the war is over. We can see from the past that he has always been able to turn escalation from outside to his advantage. He is a genuinely charismatic figure and a talented demagogue.
The lies of politicans
People are asking how one can have any dealings with Saakashvili. It’s a good question.
He has lied too often of late. He lied when he declared that he would not use force, while at the same time refusing to sign written commitments. He lied when he said that he was provoked into the attack: both sides had been shooting at each other, and that had already been going on for some time. The decision to attack and the choice of time, means and targets were entirely his. He lied when he said that he was ending military operations - the operations continued. He lied when he said that Russia destroyed the lovely town of Tskhinvali. He lied when he said that Russian troops were advancing on Tbilisi with the aim of occupying Georgia and overthrowing his regime. Against this backdrop of lies it was easy for him to declare that the fact that Russia did not try to take Tbilisi was a victory.
But Saakashvili is not the first politician who is in the habit of lying. You can always tell if a politician is lying: watch his lips closely. Once they start moving, lies will follow.
Aside from the lies there are also accusations of humanitarian crimes. But these remain unproven as yet. It is not entirely clear in what way Saakashvili is any worse than say the Sudanese president. Many countries want to see him brought to justice in the courts, while others (including Russia), say that this would only get in the way of a settlement. In the case of Sudan evidence of genocide really has been documented.
Written commitments backed up by guarantees from influential third parties could properly limit any attempts by Saakashvili to resort to outright deception. In this respect, the fact that changes had to be made to the document agreed on with Sarkozy in Moscow is worrying. Will Russia accept the amended version? International discussion on the future status of Abkhazia and South Ossetia was excluded from the document. The problem here was hardly new. Talks on their future status already featured in the third stage of a peace plan for Abkhazia put forward by the German foreign minister.
This is not the only thing that raises concerns about the future:
- Will Georgians be able to return to their villages in South Ossetia? How will they feel there without the presence of Georgian peacekeepers?
- What format will the peacekeeping operation in South Ossetia take? Will Georgia’s exclusion fundamentally change it?
- What impact will Georgia’s withdrawal from the CIS, following the required 12-month official notice period, have on a potential resolution of the Abkhazia problem? If Georgia does not actually go through with its threat to withdraw from the CIS, then what form will contact between the Russian president and Saakashvili take at CIS summits?
- Is Russia willing to have peacekeepers from other countries taking part in the peacekeeping mission?
I wrote about how the conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia could lead to a worsening in relations with the West. Now we see that this is indeed the case. Although relations with some countries are better than with others, overall there is a noticeable cooling. I have also written about the fact that this cooling in relations could weaken liberal tendencies in Russian domestic politics.
The main reason we have not succeeded so far in explaining Russia’s interpretation of events is not because our propaganda machine is bad. It is because of the way we have chosen, almost by inertia, to shut down communication over recent years. We talk only to ourselves. We try to convince the world that we have hit on some formula for sovereign development road, though no one quite knows what this consists of. We present this as if it is just something that the rest of the world is just going to have to accept. And it turns out that the world does not know what we’re talking about.
If you really want to be understood, it involves looking for a common language and not doing ones’ best to isolate oneself as much as possible. Our attempts at picking out the odd word from this language are bound to look clumsy, as these words hardly feature at all in the language we use for domestic consumption.
Saakashvili speaks a very understandable language and appeals to common values and through them to common interests. He speaks the language of belonging and not of confrontation. This does not mean that understanding his words will give a clear understanding of the real situation. We’re not talking about real understanding, here, but the illusion of understanding.
We, on the other hand, have attempted to take the ideology out of politics and move from values to interests. This has resulted in our language, and consequently our thoughts and intents, being perceived as much more selfish.
The art of creating crocodiles
All of this easily reinforces the idea that Saakashvili’s mission is to deal with Russian threats to Georgia’s very survival. Georgia’s survival does not depend on any Russian threats. Russian challenges could have an impact on certain aspects of Georgia’s existence, but not on the survival of the state. Having Russia on its doorstep is far from being Georgia’s only problem. If Georgia were anywhere else in the world it would soon find new enemies, some easier to fight, some harder. The problem is not whether Saakashvili is a leader who knows how to deal with hungry crocodiles, to use the comparison made by a Georgian government minister, referring to Russia. It is whether he is ready to create such crocodiles in the aim of mobilising external and internal support.
The common culture that Russia and Georgia once shared produced one particularly famous crocodile called Crocodile Gena. Gena worked as a crocodile at the zoo, played the accordion and would get a bit annoyed when Old Lady Shapoklyak would play mean little tricks on him and his weaker friend, Cheburashka.
Life is rather different from Eduard Uspensky’s tales, of course. Each of the post-Soviet countries plays all these roles – that of Crocodile Gena, ever clumsy Cheburashka, and Old Lady Shapoklyak, whose tricks more often end up turning against herself. Each of these countries travels in its own wagon along roads in some ways similar and in some ways different. It would be good if, whether joined together or apart, these wagons did not collide.
When a few years ago Jay Rosen, a professor of journalism at NYU and one of the chief proponents of citizen journalism, tried to describe the fundamental shift in the balance of power between the media and the public caused by blogs and other forms of user-generated content, he famously spoke of "the people formerly known as the audience". "[They] are simply the public made realer, less fictional, more able, less predictable", he stated in a rather solemn tone.
Call me elitist, but I never fully embraced the notion that this great unwinding of reality, fiction, and predictability merited that much celebration. Watching the information wars of the last few months-first in China in the aftermath of the Tibet and the Olympics protests and now in Russia in light of its war with Georgia ands its coverage in the Western media-I couldn't help but wonder if Rosen fully understood all the implications of his otherwise spot-on diagnosis.
My biggest problem with Rosen's optimism is that, when applied in the international context-where "media" are the CNNs and the BBCs of this world, and the public are the Russians and the Chinese angry with their coverage (most often because their governments told them so) - it is not at all clear what those "former audiences" have really morphed into. Rosen is correct: passive they are no more. They-and especially the young people- are all actively producing information on blogs, forums, and comment sections of the sites belonging to some of the most venerable names in the news media. But could it be that the people formerly known as the audience have become the people currently known as the information warriors?
The online spats that have followed the information war between Russia and the West lend much evidence to this claim (notice that Russians don't view this as an information war between Russia and Georgia - it's an information war with the whole of the Western media which, according to the most bellicose of Russians, plays along with Georgia). This information war is the first truly global user-generated conflict: the war of the professional sound bites and the TV imagery has been relegated to the background, with blogs and comments playing the leading role (the most egregious of the professional TV propaganda have found a temporary home on YouTube). Even the conventional cyberwarfare - the hacking of servers and the defamation of sites, while also present in this campaign, seems of very little strategic importance to either side in this conflict.
The Western media conspiracy
Instead, it is the comment sections and forums of New York Times, BBC, CNN, The Guardian and the like - and some of the silliest online polls that they organized (e.g. CNN's "Do you think Russia's actions in Georgia are justified?") - that are the real battleground for the ultimate truth. Russians have taken to these websites in droves, posting links, photos, facts - anything that could only convince their Western counterparts that they live inside an anti-Russian media bubble constructed by complicit Western corporate media advancing political interests of their countries (detailed media analysis of the CNN coverage and the coverage of the conflict in the British media was quick to follow). As most of these sites have a strict moderation policy and don't publish openly extremist comments, many Russians only get angrier: their deeply held suspicions of a big media conspiracy against Russia have been proven again.
Some Russians want to engage with the West so badly that those of them who didn't speak English started posting templates with messages like this one with comments that contained links to inaccuracies in reporting and coverage exhibited by a handful of Western media (Google spotted more than 600 identical instances of this very comment springing up in the last few days). Some Russians may not have fully understood what they were posting, but they were confident that it was a good way to educate their peers abroad and help their country in an unfair struggle with the Western media.
In theory, this sounds wonderful: people whose opinions were badly suppressed for ages have finally acquired a voice and are eager to engage with the world, providing ample material for case-studies in the soon-to-be-published textbooks on intercultural online communications. But, on closer examination, such conclusions ring shallow and, at best, resemble the starry-eyed optimism of utopian visionaries like Nicholas Negroponte, who, back in the mid-1990s, eagerly spoke about the end of nationalism that would happen as the whole world gets online and starts clicking.
But none of that happened; the loud chorus of mouse clicks heard around the world today sounds more like the deeply disturbing nationalist operas of Richard Wagner than the funky world beats of Peter Gabriel. That nations would finally transcend their biases and join in a globalist unison extolling their commonly shared virtues of human rights and liberalism was the never-fulfilled early promise of the Internet. Given the loud and all-pervasive nationalist outcry heard around the Web today, even the truly internationalist online outlets may soon need to qualify their names to reflect this disturbing reality. "Feeble Global Voices" would be a more appropriate way to describe the rapidly shrinking online influence that even the most brilliant among them exercise today.
The fundamental element missing from Jay Rosen's analysis is the difference in the starting conditions between the political situation in the US and places like China and Russia, where the state still plays a key role in most political, economic, and social processes. While the Internet may have diminished the already-dwindling influence of traditional media, it may have done much to augment - often in subtle and non-obvious ways - the influence of the state.
What happened in Russia is that the people formerly known as the audience did not have to wait too long for a new identity; many of them simply got drafted (or volunteered) to assist in state-waged propaganda wars, sometimes even launching and leading guerrilla campaigns of their own. With the advent of the blogosphere, Goebbel's famous line - "if you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it" -- has taken an entirely new meaning. Now, the state doesn't even have to repeat it - they just need to loudly pronounce it once and the digital guerrillas will do all the necessary repeating.
The only important role left for the state then is to convince the netizens that the stakes are high and that there is a real enemy out there that could be fought online. Thus, one of the primary objectives of the Kremlin-funded propaganda machine has been to paint the West - and particularly most of the Western media- as ignorant, biased, and mired in opinion, not reporting. The bet was that as more and more ordinary Russians are convinced that the West is dishonest, it would be much easier to fend off any real and substantiated criticism and accusation from abroad. The eagerness with which many Russians have taken to the Web during the war with Georgia proves that Kremlin's bet has paid off.
One of the chief ways to create such a climate was to fund the proliferation of sites that would selectively pick reports from the Western media, translate them into Russian, and offer ample space for commentary, often resulting in many articles amassing thousands of comments from angry Russians. The primary pillars of this e-smear campaign in Russia have been sites like Inosmi.ru (a shorthand for "Foreign Media", owned by the infamous RIA Novosti agency) and, to a lesser extent, Inopressa.ru (a shorthand for "Foreign Press", it belongs to Newsru agency ).
These sites would typically pick a dozen articles from the foreign media - mostly American and British, but also that of the Baltic states and Eastern Europe - and translate them into Russian. Needless to say, they usually do their best to pick the most heinous articles, most of them full of bad reporting and stereotypes about Russia. This may seem relatively innocent but Inosmi has quickly gained a large following, which particularly delights in commenting on articles, mostly to report on inaccuracies in the articles and ignorance of their authors.
Sites like Inosmi do their best perpetuate the myth of the "great brainwashing" -- that the Western media is either utterly biased against Russia or simply incompetent - and that the Western public and policy-makers are being constantly kept in the dark as to the true nature of things in Russia (this in itself is quite comical, as Russians themselves squandered most of their independent media in the early Putin years; arguably, they are in much greater darkness).
That many Russians don't even consider the possibility that they themselves may have been "brainwashed" only attests to the strength of their convictions and the success of sites like Inosmi in their campaign to perpetuate the myth of the "great brainwashing". It surely the work of such sites - which now even accept voluntary translations of articles done by their readers - that explains why so many Russians all too eagerly engage in "comment warfare" on foreign web-sites: they do feel that they have something to prove.
The asymmetry of this information warfare makes it all the more potent, as, thanks to sites like Inosmi, Russians can now easily point their British and American counterparts to the low quality of BBC or CNN reporting on Russia, but most of the Brits and Americans wouldn't be able to name even a single Russian news channel (for most of them broadcast in Russian and are thus are saved from any external criticism). But reading Russian media's coverage of the West (or, more tellingly, the war with Georgia) would surely produce many more suspicions of media being too closely tied to Kremlin and entirely brainwashed by the state.
Commenting on the Western media's response to the war in South Ossetia, many Russian bloggers asked why the Kremlin wasn't doing anything in the online space and it was up to the individual bloggers to defend the pride of their motherhood. Don't the bureaucrats realise that winning the sympathies of the West is as important? The Kremlin may have been smarter: after all, why bother with artificially constructed narratives, lobbyists, and manipulating traditional media, if there are thousands of bloggers and commentators, eager to advance Kremlin's line for free, and often much more effectively?
In the space of a few days, a conflict over a tiny piece of land has sparked an unfolding catastrophe in the Caucasus. At its heart of this catastrophe is great human suffering - a dimension which is not being given its proper weight as too many commentators muse on the geopolitical significance of the conflict.