Fate decreed that at key moments in Georgia's recent post-independence history I should be actively involved. The same cycle kept repeating itself, and the end was always the same. Each time, the government's authority was catastrophically compromised, each time it had to step down before the end of its term.
But there has been some compensation for this unfortunate turn of events. Civil society has developed rapidly and become the bulwark of the country's development.
This should be good news for Georgia's friends, who have done all they could to help us in every possible way throughout this period. And although we have had a series of unfortunate crises of governance, the strength of civil society gives us strong reasons for believing that we are going to be able to achieve stability in future.
One of the greatest mistakes the West made was to focus support exclusively on Mikhail Saakashvili and his government, ignoring what was needed for the development of civil society and free media in Georgia.
The West believed that helping Saakashvili would contribute to the development of democracy in Georgia. Events showed the opposite - from 9 April to 26 May there were not just protest meetings, but active attempts by civil society to push the government towards democracy. In this way the Georgians themselves set about correcting the West's mistakes. They demonstrated that Saakashvili can no longer guarantee the stability required by the international community.
Mikhail Saakashvili enjoyed considerable authority in his country and unprecedented levels of trust throughout the world when he came to power. At the time of the Rose Revolution a team of four people - Zurab Zhvania, Nino Burjanadze, Mikhail Saakashvili and the author of this article - were not afraid to take on responsibility in order to change the country's future for the better.
A great deal has changed since then, but not for the good. The government has regressed and society has progressed. Zurab Zhvania is dead, and Nino Burjanadze is an active member of the opposition coalition. As the last Georgian ambassador to Russia, I witnessed the President's tragic choice to go to war; later at open parliamentary hearings I made an official statement about the real motives for the August events.
Mikhail Saakashvili has betrayed us all to the same degree. His friends. His own people. His reliable and faithful allies in the West. His partners in Russia. He has turned the clock back a long way. This process began when he allowed the "National Movement" (the political party of which he is the leader) to influence him and the government by attacking civil society.
Saakashvili had won the right to govern at competitive elections. But his political union's ability to govern was seriously undermined by manipulation at the next elections. Last November there were mass protests at the government's abuse of power. He defused the crisis by proposing the democratic solution pre-term elections. The result of these elections demonstrated that people had lost faith in the government. But they assured voters that they knew what needed to be done. Their main priorities were social and economic. Their legitimacy had been considerably weakened by their suppression of rallies and demonstrations. But they did try to build bridges with society, and they developed a comprehensive strategy to provide support for the socially disadvantaged.
The government tackled this with great enthusiasm. But it concentrated only on the interests of one group in society. At the same time, the increasing pressure being exerted on civil society was pushing it outside the law, in defiance of both moral authority and Georgian tradition.
Faced by a sharp fall in its credibility, the government chose the only remaining path. It fell back on the head of state's unique gift for demagogy, which he pulled off because he is still able to command unwavering personal devotion and trust. The entire state system - the defence and law enforcement agencies the machine of state and the media - had to swing behind this in order to protect the interests of a small section of society. This elite had itself fallen hostage to an ideology of lies.
The reward of loyalty to such an unpopular leader was unlimited material gain. The fear of losing this became the only common ground between the administrative staff and their leader. Things had reached an impasse. Those in power had no way out and were terrified of losing power.
At the same time the most competent, highly professional and moral section of the civil service proved unfit for purpose. Business efficiency and working by the established rules, as understood by the modern "civil servant", proved incompatible with the need for personal loyalty and unquestioning obedience. The result was that the most competent officials resigned. Soon catastrophic mistakes started being made in all spheres of government. The events of August 2008, diplomatic impotence in the face of Russia's military provocation and fatal military misjudgments resulted in a complete catastrophe for Georgia. This has been ongoing. It has led to the complete collapse of all management structures.
Controlling the media became the only remaining means of maintaining the virtual government. This gave rise to a curious phenomenon in the media. Journalists with no other means of survival were compelled to promote a narrow political point of view, and were well paid for it. This has adversely affected the quality of journalism and set media freedom back many years. Society reacted appropriately, by protesting.
Today there are clear signs of the government's loss of legitimacy. The consequences of the defeat in the war were particularly disastrous. The war could, and should, have been avoided. But as the former Georgian ambassador to Russia, I can aver that the government consciously relegated diplomacy to the sidelines. The provocations of Russia's war party should have been resisted. They consciously, systematically set traps into which the Georgian president naively fell. My efforts to prevent this resulted in my recall from Moscow.
The world has moved on now and diplomacy is the chief means of resolving the crisis. However, our President continues to exploit the war with Russia, using the threat of external aggression as his rallying call. Today this is government's only remaining strategy, and a virtual one at that.
The nation can forgive a lot, but not an insult to its honour, especially when they come so thick and fast. If the President had admitted his mistake to his people, such an action would have served to discredit the military solution for the foreseeable future. But no, once more the government chose another path. This time it was a virtual fantasy involving conspiracy, spies and rebellion. This culminated in the Mukhrovani events. For the home audience Russia was deemed to have been involved. For the world media, it was not. Maybe there was some sort of spontaneous rebellion in the army. After all, it had lost the war with Russia, been accused of insurrection and conspiring with the enemy. Attempts had even been made to use it to suppress meetings of the opposition.
In the end what has discredited this government is not so much the war, but the peace that followed it. This is currently the most serious threat to Georgian society. If thousands of people say without anger or any personal resentment that their trust has run out, this demonstrates the strength of civil society. The government's attempt to hang on and wait until resistance has died down is hopeless. For resistance is increasing. On 26 May, Independence Day over 100,000 people took to the streets of Tbilisi, but they did not get an adequate response to their protest. After this events escalated even further and a picket was set up on the central railway line.
Georgia's fully-fledged, mature civil society has developed under extreme conditions, but this has only made it stronger. Civil society, not the opposition, is leading this resistance. Protest has been gathering momentum since 9 April. The rallies are entirely peaceful. There have been no instances of breaking the law. Given the length of time this has been going on and the violence used by the authorities, this shows an unprecedented degree of maturity.
The international community and friends of Georgia must understand that it is her mature civil society that will be chiefly responsible for the future of the country. I hope that Georgia's friends will not repeat the mistakes of the past, and that they will concentrate on the development of civic institutions and free media. This is the priority of the 2020 Foundation, of which I am the director. But right now the most important task is, of course, to help society by setting up a dialogue with this inadequate government.
Pavel Bardin's film Russia 88 has yet to reach the big screen, but myths and legends have already grown up around it. This film had been eagerly awaited by numerous critics, rights activists, and anyone concerned about the rise of xenophobia in the country. However, it turns out that the authorities are not ready for the release of Russia's first film to portray Russian Nazis. Secretive Kremlin ideologues are putting all sorts of obstacles in the way of this film, and have advised cinemas not to show Russia 88.
Moldova, the poorest country in Europe, has spent a rare few weeks in the news after violent protests erupted on 7 April in the capital Chisinau.
The violence broke out following the ruling Communist Party's apparently clear-cut victory in the nation's April 5 parliamentary elections. This gave the Communists just under fifty percent of the popular vote, and 60 deputies in the 101 seat Moldovan parliament. The result was sufficient to elect the speaker and the government, but was one vote short of the 61 seats required to choose the country's next president.
Three centre-right opposition parties each won 10-15 percent of the vote. After taking into account the distribution of seats for parties that didn't cross the threshold, they gained a total of 41 seats in the new parliament. Bitter at their failure to dislodge the Communist Party (formally the PCRM - Party of Communists of the Republic of Moldova) from its ruling position and angered by the regime's harsh treatment of the youthful demonstrators, opposition parties in the new parliament have so far refused to cooperate with the Communists. This has resulted in a deadlock that could lead to yet another round of elections.
The ongoing crisis in Moldova demands dialogue and reconciliation rather than further militancy and polarisation. Many outside observers (and a number of interested participants) portrayed the recent events in Moldova as a democratic "colour" (what hue is twitter?) revolution mounted by pro-western political parties and youth against the electoral machinations of a repressive old-line communist regime operating under Moscow's tutelage and support. However, it would be a serious mistake to view Moldova through a simplistic East-West prism. Many of the country's ruling communist party aspire to European Union membership and claim to be building "a leftist party of the European type." Whether one believes the hype, the communists clearly have a solid base of at least 30 to 40 percent of the electorate, making them by far the largest and most powerful political party in the country. Yet the vast majority of Moldovans, even those who support the communists, are unhappy with their lot and pessimistic about their prospects.
The protests were largely spontaneous, growing out of a rally organised by some opposition figures and fed by tweeting and text-messaging. These protests reflected increasingly widespread discontent and disillusionment, especially among Moldova's young people, after almost a decade of communist rule. Although basic economic statistics in Moldova have been good over much of the past decade, this is because the Moldovan economy is largely supported by remittances from hundreds of thousands of Moldovans working abroad. In 2007-2008 over 35 percent of the country's GDP came from foreign remittances. For most Moldovans of working age there are no jobs at home; for most young Moldovans there is no future in their native land.
The government's goal - European integration
Given their bleak economic prospects, most Moldovans have fastened upon European integration as the way to ensure their country's future. Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin and his communist colleagues were initially elected on a pro-Russian platform in 2001. But after his 2003 rejection of the Russian attempt to broker a political settlement with Moldova's breakaway Transnistrian region, Euro-integration (with eventual EU membership) has been the official policy of the Moldovan government and the PCRM. Voronin campaigned on a pro-EU platform for the 2005 parliamentary elections. He signed an Action Plan with the EU in 2005, and late that year together with Ukraine he accepted an EU Border Assistance Mission to improve efforts against smuggling and trafficking in the region, in particular around Transnistria.
However, despite the Moldovan Communists' promises and repeated professions in favour of European integration, visible progress and tangible benefits have been disappointing for most Moldovan citizens. The steady increase in remittances spurred a boom in retail trade and construction in Chisinau, the capital city of about 750,000. But the countryside remains desperately poor, without jobs, and increasingly depopulated. An estimated 600,000 or more of Moldova's 4 million people now live and work outside the country, in Russia, Turkey, the Middle East, Romania, Italy, Portugal, and other European countries. Despite massive international assistance efforts over the past decade, in per capita terms Moldova continues to be the largest source country in Europe of trafficked persons.
Moldova's police, correctional, and judicial systems were never adequately reformed after the collapse of the Soviet Union and since 1991 have been a source of continuing human rights abuses, meticulously chronicled by domestic and foreign experts. However, during the 1990s Moldova developed both relatively free (though not particularly professional) broadcast and print media and small but promising elements of an independent civil society. Most important, from the very start of post-Soviet independence, Moldova maintained a commendable record of political pluralism, consistently holding free and fair elections and respecting the results.
Moldova's progress and consolidation as an independent state during the 1990s were beset by two major problems. First, government management of the economic transition was both corrupt and not particularly competent. Agricultural land was privatised in small holdings, not successfully converted to profitable economic activity. A protective, cronyist business culture and absence of rule of law discouraged foreign direct investment, slowing Moldova's attempts at development. Second, the unresolved Transnistrian separatist question left the country divided, and the lack of overall central governance opened opportunities for organised crime on both sides of the Nistru River. The presence of Russian troops and support from Moscow for the Tiraspol separatists also kept alive linguistic, ethnic, and national passions on the right bank and hindered development of a clear national identity for the fledgling Moldovan state.
While communist rule since 2001 produced increased prosperity in Moldova's urban areas, paradoxically it did not increase social or economic opportunity in the country. Paying lip service to market principles and European integration, communist authorities generally acted to consolidate control in major sectors and enterprises among the old-line party faithful, their friends, and relatives. Independent media have been consistently under attack since 2001 from the ruling party; broadcast media in particular have been increasingly under pressure to support the party in power. Elements of the unreformed Ministry of the Interior - that is, the police - and security services have been used by the administration in power to intimidate their most significant political opponents, by either threatening investigations or bringing criminal cases for real or imagined offenses.
Why the protest?
The 2009 parliamentary election campaign in Moldova was arguably not noticeably worse than the 2005 national election or the 2003 and 2007 municipal and local election campaigns. In all of these contests international observers noted the misuse of government institutions and administrative resources by the administration in power. But they ended up judging that the abuses were not sufficiently severe to disqualify the results of the voting. As for the disorganised, inaccurate electoral rolls, OSCE election observation missions since the early 1990s have been warning Moldovans that their electoral lists are out-of-date, inaccurate, incomplete, and/or incomprehensible. After every election Moldovan authorities have duly promised to correct these deficiencies; they have yet to do so. Therefore many of the inconsistencies and inaccuracies noted by the opposition in the 2009 voting in Moldova have been present for more than a decade. It is difficult, if not impossible, to determine with certainty whether the ruling party this time took greater unfair advantage of these flaws than did other candidates and administrations in earlier elections.
Several factors in the 2009 campaign made the communist victory much harder for the opposition to swallow than in previous elections. Firstly, after the PCRM won an absolute majority in the 2001 vote, its percentage of the electorate shrank steadily in the 2003, 2005, and especially 2007 Chisinau elections. Opposition activists and supporters, especially among the young, expected this trend would continue.
Secondly, President Voronin and his party have loudly proclaimed a policy of European integration for Moldova since 2003. But tangible results of this policy have been disappointing. The apparent victory of the PCRM was thus taken by many in the opposition to signify that this chasm between stated goals and real progress in Moldova might continue indefinitely.
Third, as a result of the global economic crisis, remittances to Moldova from workers abroad have been declining and an undetermined number of Moldovans of prime working age have been returning to Moldova. There are no accurate statistics yet for the scale of this phenomenon, but these Moldovans return to a country with no jobs for them and - after the elections - little apparent prospect for fundamental political change.
Spontaneous protest, excessive response
The demonstration and protests following the April 5 elections seem to have been largely unplanned and undirected. Judging by the police presence in the capital on April 7, Moldovan authorities clearly did not expect serious trouble. In fact, over the past fifteen years, Moldova has a history of intermittent but fairly regular political protests that have rarely if ever involved violence of any sort. However, government and opposition responses and follow-up to the protests have hastened and deepened polarisation of the country's major political forces.
The response of government authorities after the violence on April 7 has clearly been excessive. There are numerous, detailed, and credible allegations of serious violations of basic human rights by police, prison, and security authorities. Despite the generally poor record of Moldova's police, prison, and court authorities since the fall of communism, the behavior of security and Interior Ministry forces after the elections has pretty clearly descended below the lamentably low level observed in Moldova over the past decade and a half. These abuses need to be investigated for their own sake and as part of Moldova's living up to its commitments to the OSCE and the Council of Europe. Identifiable culprits on all sides need to be brought to justice, and the structural factors that lead to such abuses need at long last to be addressed and corrected.
Reactions of many Moldovan and external actors have been unhelpful. President Voronin blamed provocateurs from Romania - inter alia - for inciting the violence, an allegation gleefully echoed by separatist authorities in Tiraspol and some of their supporters in Moscow. While generally refusing to rise to Voronin's bait, Romanian authorities have unhelpfully offered to expand and speed up issuance of Romanian passports to as many as a million Moldovan citizens. Some observers have tried to cast events in Moldova as yet another "colour" revolution, similar to those in Serbia, Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan. This allegation was bolstered by Voronin's tactical appeal during the election campaign to Russophone and pro-Russian segments of the Moldovan population.
Voronin's recent flirtation with Moscow and Moldova's internal political disputes have highlighted Romania's ambivalent relationship with its eastern neighbor and former territory. Romanian President Traian Basescu recently likened the division of Moldova from Romania to the two Germanies - East and West - before reunification. Such statements exacerbate existing paranoia in Chisinau's ruling circles about possible Romanian territorial designs. These fears are exacerbated by careless statements by some prominent officials in Bucharest, such as public speculation by a sitting parliamentarian and former foreign minister that Moldova might be better off (i.e. more inclined to reunification with Romania) without the Russian-dominated Transnistrian region. Moldovan mistrust of Romanian intentions has also been stoked by Bucharest's reluctance to sign a formal treaty with Moldova on their mutual border. Basescu says such a pact is unnecessary; Voronin interprets this as a threat to Moldova's independence.
Moldovan authorities also interpret recent changes in Romanian citizenship and passport policy in a sinister light. While almost all recent polls indicate that only a small minority of Moldovans would actually wish to join with Romania, the tightening of border controls after Bucharest's entry into the EU led many Moldovans to seek a Romanian passport as a means of ensuring access to European travel. During most of the past decade, Romania maintained a very restrictive policy on granting citizenship to Moldovan residents. However, with political relations deteriorating and an increasing swell of Moldovan applications (as many as 800,000 by some estimates), authorities in Bucharest, including President Basescu, have implied an easing of passport issuance. Moldovan authorities in turn have clamped down on Romanian consular activity in the country, and there are no reliable public statistics on how many passports have actually been distributed. However, any visitor to Chisinau will see every day a mob of passport applicants outside the Romanian mission, as Moldovan residents seek to preserve an avenue of escape to western Europe.
Issues of national identity
It would be a serious mistake to blame either Bucharest or Moscow for the recent events in Moldova, or to view the situation there as simply another east-west confrontation. Surveys and elections since 1993 have consistently shown that some 90 percent of Moldovans prefer independence and are not ready to sacrifice their sovereignty simply to gain access to the European Union.
The same might be said of Moldova's attitude toward Russia. Romanian and Russian speakers in Moldova actually get along remarkably well, even if the leaders in Bucharest, Chisinau, and Moscow do not. While many Moldovans are willing to have good relations with Russia, they wish to be ruled from Chisinau, not Moscow, a fact not always well understood in the Kremlin. Pro-Russian elements, particularly in breakaway Transnistria, use pro-Romanian sentiment on Moldova's right bank as a red herring to justify their separatist agenda.
Most worrying, the recent elections and ensuing violence provide evidence of increasingly deep, serious political, economic, linguistic, and especially generational divisions in Moldova that prevent the country from addressing its real existential questions - developing a broadly accepted national identity in its ethnically and linguistically diverse population, building a viable economy that can end outmigration and brain drain, and restoring the country's territorial and political integrity through a lasting political settlement in Transnistria. Moldova lies on the fault line between the Slavic and Mediterranean worlds, and attempts to make the country wholly "western" or "eastern" will most likely tear it apart. For centuries the territory of the modern-day Republic of Moldova has been multi-ethnic and multi-lingual, and will remain so for the foreseeable future. Attempts to achieve or ensure domination for one segment of this diverse population are recipes for failure.
Time for reconciliation
The crucial task now for Moldova if it is to have a European future - indeed any future at all - is to overcome the country's internal divisions through determined efforts at reconciliation and cooperation. Moldova desperately needs a broad process of dialogue and reconciliation between the ruling communist party, the major opposition parties, and their supporters in Moldovan civil society. Major European figures, such as EU President and Czech Prime Minister Topolanek, EU High Representative Solana, and Council of Europe General Secretary Davis have visited Moldova to assess the situation and encourage such a process, but these efforts so far lack organisation and focus. In addition, while the State Department and U.S. Embassy have issued laudable statements, the U.S. has so far been largely absent, in part due to key personnel positions yet to be filled.
Without cooperation between the ruling party and opposition, Moldova is likely to repeat the experience of April, 2009, with similar results. As the new Parliament convened on May 5, PCRM leaders forged ahead with the process of choosing new officers, heedless of opposition wishes and sensibilities. The communist party elected outgoing President Vladimir Voronin as Speaker of the new legislative body, and nominated former Prime Minister Zinaida Grecianii as their presidential candidate. According to a 2000 amendment of the constitution making Moldova a parliamentary republic, the legislature has two attempts to choose a head of state. If no candidate obtains the required sixty percent of the vote (61 deputies out of the 101 in the parliament), new national elections are required.
The three opposition parties in Parliament announced they will boycott election of a new President in the legislative body. If they persist and succeed in forcing repeat parliamentary elections, there is little prospect of a different or better result the next time. On May 20 all 41 opposition deputies absented themselves from the first round of balloting for president, in which Grecianii received all 60 votes from the PCRM deputies present. A second vote is scheduled for May 28; opposition leaders vow to continue their boycott. If the Moldovan parliament fails to elect a chief of state, Voronin (as Speaker) will remain acting president, and new national legislative elections must be held sometime this summer. Such a vote would take place in a nation already deeply polarised by recent events, with the poorest economy in Europe increasingly beset by the effects of the global economic crisis. Apart from dedicated opposition activists, many observers expect a new election to produce no substantial change in the distribution of power in Moldova, thus simply deepening the country's political polarization and economic woes.
A role for outside parties
The U.S., the EU, and other European institutions such as the Council and Europe and OSCE should work in concert to establish a comprehensive reconciliation process in Moldova. They should insist that the ruling communist party and the opposition participate without reservations in this process. For example, there should be real reform of the police, security organs, and courts - no empty promises and no excuses. Similarly, opposition activists need to work with the ruling party to develop mutually-acceptable programs and accept the result if they are outvoted legitimately in legislative bodies. With major assistance in the works from the Millennium Challenge Corporation, the U.S. may have some fairly effective leverage at this time with all sides in Chisinau.
Without national reconciliation, fundamental political reform, and economic development, Moldova faces a future of providing the region and wider Europe with an increasing flow of migrants and trafficking victims, while increasingly offering a safe haven for smugglers and criminals of all sorts. The resultant poverty, instability, and possible conflict will cause ripple effects that can spread far beyond the immediate region. At some point, instability in Moldova could become more than just a footnote in the dialogue between Washington and Moscow. However, U.S. involvement, with relatively limited resources, can help Europeans address, avert, and resolve the problems facing Moldova. The key is to direct the U.S. effort at resolving Moldova's real internal problems and promoting genuine reform and tangible economic development, rather than simply seeking the will of the wisp of another colour revolution that never was.
William H. Hill, currently Professor of National Security Strategy at the National War College, served two terms as Head of the OSCE Mission to Moldova. David J. Kramer, currently a Senior Transatlantic Fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, served in several senior positions at the U.S. State Department, including as Deputy Assistant Secretary responsible for Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Moldova, in the George W. Bush Administration. The opinions expressed are entirely their own.
The danger of another open war in the Caucasus - one much worse than the August conflict between Russia and Georgia - is all too real. Frustration in Azerbaijan with a seemingly endless multilateral mediation effort has led opposition factions and, more recently, even the government to speak openly of a military option to restore Karabakh to Azeri sovereignty. The country's oil and gas earnings have reequipped its military, although with untested results. Russia recently sent a massive arms shipment to Armenia, while the Karabakh Armenians reportedly interpret the failure of Georgia's military last August as proof that Azerbaijan's army would fare no better in an assault on Karabakh or in a preventive war launched by the Armenian side. These views are dangerous and are riddled with error. The prevention needed is diplomatic, from Washington and Moscow working in tandem.
The apparent reconciliation between Armenia and Turkey announced on April 23, while very positive in itself, has largely ground to a halt. Ankara is unwilling, and politically unable, to move substantively in its ties with Yerevan without at least the appearance of movement on Karabakh. Unfortunately, the positive atmospherics of the meeting of the Armenian and Azeri presidents in Prague May 7 quickly dissipated in mutual accusations of bad faith. Experienced observers have seen this on-again, off-again process many times. Without progress on Karabakh, progress between Turkey and Armenia will be limited to symbolism at best.
This is not the place to review the origins or grim chronicle of the Nagorno Karabakh conflict (Thomas de Waal's "Black Garden" of 2003 is the best and most objective study in English). The problem is that the fifteen-year no-war-no-peace standoff is increasingly fragile, and its failure would entail huge costs for the two countries, for the broader region and for the interests of the United States.
The Karabakh dispute has territorial, ethnic, and confessional content, but is also a product of Stalinist divide-and-rule nationality policy which produced open war when the Soviet system collapsed. The three-year war was by no means one sided, but its outcome was. The 1994 ceasefire left Armenians in control not only of Nagorno (mountain) Karabakh but of large surrounding territories and a secure corridor to Armenia. Beyond the claims to Karabakh itself, the fate of the lowlands and their former Azeri residents - refugees for almost a generation - are key to any settlement.
Mediation and working-level diplomats have not been lacking. The so-called Minsk Group co-chairs (the United States, France, and Russia) of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe have several times produced a draft peace framework. In each case, the political environment in the warring countries was unfavorable. Occasional political-level interventions by one or more Minsk Group capital also could not achieve the transition from negotiation to realization.
An inherent deficiency of the Minsk Group is that the three are not neutral mediators; they are themselves interested parties and at times partisan. In different ways, Washington, Paris and Moscow all tilt in their domestic politics toward Armenia. Their economic interests tilt toward Azerbaijan. To oversimplify, Armenia has an effective diaspora, while Azerbaijan has oil and gas. In Washington, the Congress loves Armenia but the Pentagon loves Azerbaijan. At the outset of the Minsk Group, Washington and Moscow had roughly common agendas, but in recent years have increasingly operated at cross purposes.
The alternative to multilateral mediation is direct negotiation, which in truth has proceeded episodically all along. Leaders of Azerbaijan and Armenia (though not of Armenian Karabakh) have met repeatedly under a variety of auspices, and more than once were near an agreement. The obstacle was the same as for the Minsk Group: any workable deal is anathema to much of the population and political establishment of each.
Doomed hopes of settlement
The outlines of a settlement have been clear for fifteen years and reflect both the realities of war and the needs of peace. These realities transcend the standard rhetoric of "sovereignty and territorial integrity" as well as that of "national self-determination". In a settlement, Armenia will get Karabakh and a land corridor to Armenia, while Azerbaijan gets back the lowland surrounding territories. This is not about justice, nor right and wrong, but is the inescapable and necessary formula for peace. To be sure, there are a multitude of details (where the devil always lurks) and implementation problems (where the costs for outside powers will be substantial). The alternative is war, which is far worse and more costly.
Clearly, the greater burden of compromise is on Azerbaijan, whose people must confront truths about diplomacy and war at odds with their hopes and expectations. Diplomacy - even that of great powers - is not itself a force in international affairs but a mechanism. Diplomacy formalises and even rationalises reality, but does not alter basic reality. Diplomacy can promulgate peace and avoid war, which are its prime goals. However, diplomacy ratifies the battlefield, it does not reverse the battlefield. In any competition between war and diplomacy, war wins.
In history there have been a few instances when concerted great power diplomacy compelled a victorious smaller power to give up its battlefield gains for the broader interests of the great powers. In the case of Karabakh, such an outcome would require the United States, Russia, Europe (basically France), Turkey and perhaps even Iran to combine against Armenia in favor of Azerbaijan. The chances of this happening are nil. America and France have powerful domestic Armenian lobbies, Russia has a centuries' long strategic partnership with Armenia, and Iran has much better ties with its Armenian neighbour than with Shi'ia, but Turkic, Azerbaijan. Of the relevant outside parties, only Turkey is clearly on the side of Azerbaijan, and Turkey is wholly unable to reverse the policies of Washington, Paris, Moscow and Tehran to conform to its own. Thus, Azeri hopes that outside diplomacy will compel Armenia to give up its wartime victory are a chimera. The Azeri people need to taste this bitter cup.
Warning to Azerbaijan
Unfortunately, in Azerbaijan the tendency has been toward resumption of the sword rather than acceptance of an unpalatable peace. In the increasingly bellicose rhetoric across much of the political spectrum, a significant detail is missing. In a renewed war, Azerbaijan would almost certainly again lose, and with even worse consequences than its defeat in 1994. How can this be true, they ask in Baku, when we have shiny new weapons purchased with our gas exports? To begin with, if money equated to military capability, neither Saudi Arabia nor the Gulf Arab states would require the military protection of the United States.
To retake Karabakh by military means, Azerbaijani forces would need to overcome five objective factors which give the Karabakh Armenians immense defensive strength in depth. First is ground or terrain, in that Karabakh is a natural highland fortress currently surrounded by the wide depth of field of the occupied territories. Second is firepower, in a man-made fortress of multiple overlapping fields of fire, employing the heavily-mined occupied territories as killing zones before any attacker could reach the edge of Karabakh itself. Third is reserves of ample weaponry and munitions so the attackers would run out of young men before the defenders would run out of ammunition, while Karabakh can call on extensive manpower reinforcement from Armenia. Fourth is operational art in which the Karabakh Armenians have a clear record of superiority they would exercise in the inherently advantageous role of defenders of a skilfully prepared position. Fifth is strategic depth in Russia, which in a showdown would support its permanent security partner, while the American military would no more come to the aid of a failing Azeri offensive than it did in Georgia.
This panoply of obstacles should persuade any rational Azeri not to resort to war. Even the most favourable battlefield outcome would leave Azerbaijan immeasurably worse off than before. Beyond the toll in blood, the country's export pipelines and foreign revenues would be cut.
Indeed, it is not out of the question that the existence of an Azeri state could hang in the balance, as in a major renewed war it might be in the combined interests of Armenia, Russia and Iran to redraw the map of the eastern Caucasus. Unlikely, but history is replete with precedents.
Warning to Armenia
Caution should also be the watchword for Armenia and its cousins in Karabakh. Even a successful war would be pyrrhic and leave Armenia immeasurably worse off than before, while victory is often a bitterly relative term. Karabakh and its people would doubtless suffer greatly from modern Azeri long-range bombardment weaponry, and there is some evidence that Karabakh's edge in operational skills has eroded. In both instances, the price would be paid in blood.
In addition, Armenia's prospects for economic development would be retarded by years if not decades, its border with Turkey even more effectively closed than now, and its Metsamor nuclear power station a potential target of enraged Azeri bombing. Thus, Armenia proper might pay a greater long-term price for a Karabakh victory than would Karabakh itself.
After another war, both Armenians and Azerbaijanis could abandon any prospects their children will live better or their countries enjoy greater rule of law or participatory government. War would empower the worst sort of people in the politics of both countries. The opportunity costs for both nations would endure for generations, with real peace a lasting casualty.
Alternatives to war
What are the alternatives? Most obvious is continuation of the status quo, along the lines of Cyprus or Kashmir (neither much of a recommendation). Karabakh remains a small garrison state. Armenia remains critically limited by its landlocked geography and closed frontiers to west and east. Azerbaijan remains a kleptocracy with its finite oil and gas wealth dissipated in corruption and malfeasance. Talented young people migrate if they can or retreat into alienation from the tasks of building attractive modern societies. These prospects are pretty much what is currently on offer on both sides. Surely, there is something better?
There is, it is acceptance of peace. Peace requires compromise, in an environment where both terms are spoken on both sides with revulsion. Azerbaijan must accept the consequences of defeat in war, while Armenia must abandon expansive territorial ambitions. Partisans will argue that a return to arms somehow "cannot be worse" than giving up national aspirations and "rights". They are wrong. A renewed war will be worse than the most distasteful compromise.
Historians have judged that halfway through the First World War all the contending parties would have been better off accepting the peace demands of the opposing side than by continuing the struggle. That is certainly true for Armenia and Azerbaijan. A renewed war would be Verdun in the Caucasus.
Great power collusion needed
As noted above, the basics of a peace settlement have been on the table for years. Peace will reflect the outcome of the war, as peace almost always does. The solution will involve de facto and ultimately de jure redrawing of international borders, the resettlement of many but not all refugees, compensation where resettlement is not an option, assistance in the returned territories for extensive de-mining and rebuilding, and an international peacekeeping force of indefinite duration.
The peacekeeping effort will be a major challenge. The manpower and money will need to come principally from North American, European and Eurasian governments. The job will not be easy. In addition to difficult logistics, there will certainly be vengeful violence when the returnees see the condition of their former homes. Lasting peace will be long in coming, but the international effort is far preferable to the current illusory stability of no-war-no-peace.
What is needed is old-fashioned great power collusion by Washington and Moscow. Mediation is not enough. Armenian and Azeri political leaders will need outsiders to blame for giving up the "national dream" and accepting reality. Even if the two great powers cannot entirely impose a peace, they can certainly move the parties away from the status quo decisively in favour of compromise and settlement.
Washington and Moscow today have far too few mutual interests; their relationship is often zero sum, in that Russian diplomacy succeeds where American fails, and vice versa. There are people in both capitals who view Karabakh as zero sum. With a thoughtful and disciplined approach by the new US Administration, this need not be the case. Washington can accomplish nothing - nothing - on this issue without Moscow, so true partnership is both a necessity and a benefit in its own right. Karabakh could be a success story not just for peace in the Caucasus but for renewed great power co-operation between America and Russia.
Danger signs in the Caucasus include an escalating arms race, mutual misperceptions of intentions, a belief on each side that time is on its side, and dreams that renewed war would "solve" the dispute. Great power diplomacy is never easy, but the benefits in this case justify the effort. It is time for the outside powers and the combatants in the Karabakh dispute to give peace a chance.
A bizarre standoff between the Georgian government and the country's increasingly desperate extra-parliamentary opposition continues. It began on 9 April 2009 - a national holiday, commemorating the killing of twenty pro-independence demonstrators by Soviet special troops on this date in 1989. So far, there is precious little evidence of either side backing down. There are, it is true, signs of division within the opposition ranks; but most of the key leaders are still insisting that the only possible subject of negotiation with Georgia's president, Mikheil Saakashvili, is his resignation. Since he appears increasingly confident that he can outlast them, there is little chance that he will comply.
But where does that leave Georgia? Robert Parsons is international editor of France 24. He earned a doctorate at Glasgow University for a thesis on the origins of Georgian nationalism. He was the BBC's Moscow correspondent (1993-2002), and worked at RFE/RL as director of its Georgian service, senior correspondent and chief producer for multimedia projects
Also by Robert Parsons in openDemocracy:
"Russia and Georgia: a lover's revenge" (6 October 2006)
"Georgia: progress, interrupted" (16 November 2007)
"Georgia's race to the summit" (4 January 2008)
"Mikheil Saakashvii's bitter victory" (11 January 2008)
"Georgia, Abkhazia, Russia: the war option" (13 May 2008)
"Georgia's dangerous gulf" (30 May 2008)
"Georgia after war: the political landscape" (26 August 2008)
"Georgia: the politics of recovery" (24 October 2008)
It is clear that the opposition has failed dismally in its stated aim. On 9 April, thousands of people (estimates range from 20,000-60,000) rallied to their cause in the centre of the capital, Tbilisi. It was a respectable crowd, though nowhere near big enough to sweep the government away. Since then its momentum has ebbed not grown, in part because the police have chosen to keep a discreet distance. Some lessons, it seems, have been learned: in November 2007, Saakashvili turned a protest that was on the point of exhaustion into a steamroller by letting loose his riot police on a dwindling crowd (see "Georgia: progress, interrupted", 16 November 2007).
Today, the opposition brings out a couple of thousand supporters every day - not much, but enough to embarrass the government and disrupt economic activity in the centre of Tbilisi. More dangerously, their daily presence ensures that the city remains a cauldron of tension. People are being forced to find alternative routes to work, some parents have stopped sending their children to school, rubbish collection is being impeded. As nerves inevitably fray, the fear is that one small spark could be enough to start a conflagration.
The Tbilisi tinderbox
If anyone doubted the danger of the current moment, the violence that briefly erupted outside Tbilisi's main police station on 6 May is a warning.
At public television, where the opposition has organised a "picket of shame" for staff members accused of pro-government bias, the anger has been palpable. Journalists turning up for work have run a gauntlet of spittle and insults. When one responded aggressively to the taunts, a crowd of opposition supporters beat him and set off in pursuit when he tried to flee. The incident was shown in all its detail on the privately-owned Rustavi 2 TV station.
In the tinderbox that Tbilisi has now become, the incident brought Tbilisi to the edge of communal violence. When three men were detained at the city's main police-station in connection with the assault, an opposition crowd was encouraged by its leaders to march on the station to secure their release. The enraged crowd tried to batter down the fence surrounding the station, only to be beaten back with truncheons.
Within minutes, rumours were flying around the city. The police were torturing the three men; Saakashvili had ordered a state of emergency; the police were firing into the crowd. None of these seems to have been true - although there is a suspicion that some rubber-bullets may have been fired.
Peter Semneby, the European Union's special representative for the southern Caucasus, accused the opposition leaders of "irresponsibility" and urged both sides to open a dialogue without preconditions.
The spectre of civil war - no stranger to Georgia in the years since the country regained its independence in 1991 - has begun to concentrate minds, and on both sides of the political divide.
For his part, Mikheil Saakashvili - opposition claims to the contrary notwithstanding - is offering a dialogue, and on issues of genuine concern and importance to the majority of Georgians. These include constitutional reform (and with it the prospect of shifting from a presidential to a more parliamentary form of democracy); electoral reform (with the accent on a new electoral code); judicial reform; and continuing media reform.
The fact that the president is making these proposals at all is in part a reflection of the pressure from the opposition. The number of demonstrators on the street may not be large, but they represent an influential part of Tbilisi society and - through inventive use of the media - have ensured that their views are widely and constantly aired throughout the country. (This fact itself rather belies their endlessly repeated claim that there is no democracy and no freedom of speech in Georgia.)
Saakashvili's strategy this time round appears to be to exhaust rather than confront his opponents and try to detach the moderates from the radicals. There is some evidence that this is working. As it becomes clear that the rolling demonstrations in Tbilisi - now well into their second month - are not likely to precipitate nationwide disobedience, the weariness is almost palpable. It may be that Georgians are at last beginning to develop a healthy distaste for street-politics.
The opposition's flaws
The opposition faces five problems. First, there is little indication that society as a whole wants Saakashvili to go. It is not that the Georgian president has a high approval rating; it is merely higher than that of his main rivals. Most most people undoubtedly hold him responsible for allowing Georgia to be dragged into the disastrous August 2008 war with Russia, and many are disenchanted at the country's drift in 2007-09 towards a more authoritarian style of government. His use of the riot police in November 2007 to attack a largely peaceful demonstration was disastrous in public-relations terms as well as counterproductive.
Second, the opposition's claim that it now represents the voice of the people is absurd. There is simply no evidence for this. Several opposition leaders who have claimed to speak on the people's behalf have themselves failed to win more than a few percentage points of the vote in national or local elections. In fact, the lukewarm reaction of the public to the opposition's appeal for mass demonstrations suggests that most Georgians would rather the opposition focused on dialogue with Saakashvili than confrontation. Among openDemocracy's recent articles on Georgian politics, including the war with Russia in August 2008:
Thomas de Waal, "The Russia-Georgia tinderbox" (16 May 2008)
Alexander Rondeli, "Georgia's search for itself" (8 July 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)
Neal Ascherson, "After the war: recognising reality 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: the great-power trap" (19 August 2008)
Paul Rogers, "Russia and Iran: crisis of the west, rise of the rest" (21 August 2008)
Ghia Nodia, "Russian war and Georgian democracy" (22 August 2008)
Vicken Cheterian, "Georgia's forgotten legacy" (3 September 2008)
Rein Müllerson, "The world after the Russia-Georgia war" (5 September 2008)
Martin Shaw, "After the Georgia war: the challenge to citizen action" (22 September 2008)
Katinka Barysch, "Europe and the Georgia-Russia conflict" (30 September 2008)
Donald Rayfield, "Georgia and Russia: the aftermath" (16 November 2008)
Thomas de Waal, "The Caucasus: a region in pieces" (8 January 2009)
Thomas de Waal, "Georgia and Russia, again" (30 January 2009)
Tedo Japaridze, "A Georgian chalk circle: open letter to the west" (12 May 2009)
Plus: openDemocracy's Russia section reports
Third, the ferocity - and indeed vulgarity - of some of their attacks on Saakashvili almost certainly do not help their cause. The demagogic calls by some opposition leaders for their supporters to (for example) march on the police station alarm Georgians as much as the do nervous foreign diplomats stationed in Tbilisi.
Fourth, it may be too that the opposition's fixation with the demand that Saakashvili resign reflects most of all its leaders' inability to agree on anything else. As a whole, the opposition has still to put forward anything resembling a coherent programme for political and economic reform.
Fifth, there is the question of leadership. None of its leaders have yet succeeded in establishing a profile as a genuine presidential contender. The expectation that Nino Burdzhanadze, who defected from Saakashvili's ranks just before the parliamentary elections in May 2008, would give the opposition new drive hasn't happened. Somewhat surprisingly, given her past reputation for moderation and calm, she has metamorphosed into one of the country's most radical politicians and categorically rules out negotiations with Saakashvili.
Burdzhanadze's own self-perception speaks volumes about how far she has moved across the political spectrum. For example, she told the pro-opposition Kavkasia TV station on 13 May: "My statements aren't radical, they're moderate. If I were a radical, I'd be calling for Saakashvili to be hanged".
The longer this struggle goes on, the wider the fissures within the opposition are growing. It is clear that some are not happy at the direction in which the more radical groups are moving. Irakli Alasania, the young former diplomat who leads the Alliance for Georgia, was disturbed enough by the attack on the police station to welcome Saakashvili's offer of negotiations; several others, too, are worried by plans to cut the country's main east-west transit arteries. The consequences of such action could be devastating to an already fragile economy.
The case for sanity
The meeting between the opposition and Saakashvili held on 11 May 2009 broke up without agreement, though the fact that it was held at all may be the first sign of a move towards compromise. Perhaps more importantly for the long term, the talks opened a breach in opposition ranks. Irakli Alasania has emerged as the most outspoken proponent of compromise. He is backed by two other figures: Davit Berdzenishvili of the Republican Party and (more surprisingly, given his past record) Levan Gachechiladze, who ran second to Saakashvili in the presidential election of January 2008.
Those who are now categorically against even talking to Saakashvili - on the issue of his resignation excepted - are Nino Burdzhanadze, Davit Gamqrelidze of the Akhali Memarjveneebi (New Rights Party), Salome Zurabishvili (the former French diplomat and Georgian foreign minister, now leader of the marginal Georgian Way party), and Kakha Kukava, co-leader of the Sakartvelos Konservatiuli Partia (Georgian Conservative Party).
If Burdzhanadze appears now to believe that anything goes bar hanging the president, and Zurabishvili has come to consider him "insane", Berdzenishvili is saying that an "all-or-nothing approach" is bad politics and unlikely to help solve the crisis. Alasania reinforced this view in an interview on the BBC's Hardtalk programme (13 May 2009), saying that there is still room for negotiation with Saakashvili. But the reality is more murk than clean lines, and it would be premature to suggest that sanity is returning to Georgian politics.
The trajectory of Alasania is a case in point. When he returned from his post as Georgia's ambassador to the United Nations, many saw him as the great hope of the opposition. Thus far, however, he has mostly demonstrated his political inexperience. With no organisational base of his own, he is struggling to break free of an opposition that no longer reflects his own views on what the crisis demands. Hence Alasania's repeated insistence that the rumours of a rift in opposition ranks are not true; and Salome Zurabishvili's references to his naivety. (The problem, she told a rally in Tbilisi on 14 May, is that Alasania "does not yet believe what nadziralebi [scum] ‘they' are".)
Alasania's calculation must almost certainly be that if he wants to sustain and build on his reputation as an emerging star in the Georgian political firmament, he must avoid becoming a prisoner of the opposition radicals.
The politics of stalemate
In these difficult and polarised circumstances, what chance does Georgia have of extricating itself from its impasse? The former president Eduard Shevardnadze - replaced by Mikheil Saakashvili in the "rose revolution" of 2003-04 - has voiced his support for a key demand of the opposition: the only way out, he has said, is for Saakashvili to go (see Thomas de Waal, "Georgia and Russia, again", 30 January 2009).
The case for this hinges mostly on the president's failure to prevent the war with Russia in August 2008; but also on the rupture within Georgian society, for which, as president and leader of the largest party (the United National Movement), Saakashvili must take his share of responsibility. At the heart of the problem lies the arrogance of the new ruling elite ‐ and a contempt for alternative opinion (strengthened by the weakness of the opposition and crushing victories at the polls). These attitudes have alienated a large part of the Tbilisi intelligentsia, and more widely generations of Georgians raised and educated long before the collapse of the Soviet Union.
That said, the opposition's case against Saakashvili has very little to do with the August war as such. Its demands ‐ including the insistence on the president's resignation ‐ predate the conflict by at least a year; they led directly to the street-battles of November 2007 that in turn precipitated the snap presidential and parliamentary elections of January and May 2008.
In the former, Saakashvili was re-elected president after a ballot that the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) commended at the time as the most well-conducted in Georgia's history. His United National Movement then went on to win a crushing victory in the parliamentary elections that most felt were another step forward compared to past experiences.
True, neither election was completely fair: the presidential campaign, in particular, was heavily weighted in Saakashvili's favour by his use of administrative resources (see "Mikhail Saakashvili's bitter victory", 11 January 2008). But both elections did show that Georgia's institutions and democratic procedures were improving. A great deal more needs to be done but progress has been and is being made: certainly in comparative terms, as a glance at Georgia's experience with electoral practice in relation to neighbouring Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia will show.
The opposition's argument that the conduct of the parliamentary election has given them no choice but to boycott parliament and take their case to the street is self-serving nonsense and a betrayal of their own electorate. Its logical conclusion is the theatre of the absurd now playing on Tbilisi's streets and the political chaos that threatens to destroy Georgia's undoubted achievements of the last decade.
In any event, if Saakashvili were to go there is no guarantee of improvement in Georgia's political circumstances. Nino Burdzhanadze declares that she would stop short of hanging Saakashvili but there is little chance that Georgia's democratic development would benefit. Yet another victory of the street over political institutions in Georgia would suggest an unbreakable habit and further weaken the state at a time when it is already shaky.
The opposition is such a disparate alliance that, after another regime-change launched from the street, it is hard to imagine it maintaining cohesion in power for very long. The already evident rivalries could very soon tear a new government apart, and there is no guarantee that it would accelerate the course of reform. Indeed, the aggression of some opposition leaders towards the media suggests things could get worse.
That said, it is part of Georgia's crisis that the present standoff clearly cannot continue for very much longer. The opposition is not strong enough to force Saakashvili to go and he is (this time) wary of using the state's coercive power for fear of provoking just the sort of popular response that the opposition craves. In this condition, frustration is growing on all sides - including among those who themselves are not politically engaged.
The path from crisis
What now? There are five possible scenarios:
* The street-protests gain in momentum, the provinces lend their weight to the opposition, the demonstrations bring the country to a standstill. The government orders the police to clear the streets, but both the police and army refuse to get involved. Mikheil Saakashvili is left with no choice but to resign. For the reasons given above, this seems an extremely unlikely scenario at present, not least because the police and army have been among the prime beneficiaries of Saakashvili's reforms
* The street-protests gain in momentum, the police crack down hard, arrests are made. A state of emergency is declared, the media are taken under "temporary" state control; political reform comes to an end. Georgia's western friends express dismay, Georgia will lose all hope of joining Nato, the massive international aid promised in 2008 will be put on hold - and Russian observers will collapse in a fit of giggles
* Exhaustion sets in and the street-protests gradually die out. The government regains control of central Tbilisi, the extra-parliamentary opposition is marginalised, and the government is left with few friends or potential partners. Saakashvili refuses to concede on the demand for early parliamentary or presidential elections. The less radical members of the opposition begin the long process of building up a nationwide political base. The real winners of this scenario could be those opposition parties that did not take part in the street-protests - in particular the K’ristianul-demokratiuli modzraoba (Christian Democratic Movement), led by Giorgi Targamadze, whose ratings have soared in the last few months, and Shalva Natelashvili's Sakartvelos Leoboristuli Partia (Georgian Labour Party)
* Negotiations between Saakashvili and the opposition gain traction. The opposition splits, with the Alasania, Berdzenishvili, and (perhaps) Gachechiladze group prepared to talk in return for evidence of commitment from the government to serious reform of the constitution, judiciary, electoral code and media. A number of key opposition figures are put in charge of the commissions set up to oversee the reform process. This will earn both sides international support and praise, and the gratitude of most Georgians. The street- protests will gradually fizzle out
* Negotiations get underway but Saakashvili acts in bad faith. The reform process drags on endlessly with little sign of progress. The European Union and the Council of Europe express their exasperation (not for the first time); and the opposition leaders abandon the commissions; the street-protests begun in April 2009 resume, but with far more vigour. Everyone's patience with the government is exhausted.
The good news is that the fourth and most positive scenario - of negotiations leading to cross-party operation on meaningful reform - appears to have some chance of success. But several high barriers would need to be surmounted for it to be realised. Saakashvili says - and indeed has been saying for several weeks already - that he is ready for a dialogue without conditions on all issues. But what the opposition is prepared to negotiate about is still not clear, even if there are signs that a significant part of its leadership is moving away from its previous dogmatic and zero-sum approach. A key sticking-point may yet turn out to be early elections: at the very least, the opposition want parliamentary elections by the end of 2009.
The alternatives to negotiations look bleak, although the growing popularity of the Christian Democratic Movement suggests a deeper popular urge for constructive and peaceful change. Georgians want - and badly need - a strong opposition; but they seem to prefer the parliamentary to the street variety. The electorate may be growing up faster than its politicians.
Three questions press on Georgia's wounded polity:
* Is Saakashvili prepared to concede on the issue of early parliamentary elections - elections that his party might well win and that could help heal the wounds opened in the Georgian body politic since 2007?
* Is at least a part of the extra-parliamentary opposition prepared to abandon the street and accept the result of fresh elections, whatever their outcome?
* Even if there is no agreement on early elections, could a consensus nevertheless take shape around a new tranche of political and judicial reforms?
Georgia's survival may depend on the answers. There is little time left to find them.
The president of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashivili, is as busy as ever. In the past week alone he has accused Russia of supporting efforts to overthrow his government, and met with opposition politicians to discuss a way beyond the domestic political impasse in the country. The fact that he made the allegation against Moscow on 5 May 2009, the eve of planned military exercises by Nato in the country, led some to question whether this was a ploy by the Georgian leader (and his many western advisers and lobbyists) to distract attention from the continuing round of anti-government demonstrations. In any event, having survived the apparent coup attempt the president hosted a round of talks with representatives of the opposition on 11 May. The reaction of the opposition spokespersons after the meeting suggests that it went nowhere. Georgia's permanent political crisis continues.
Tedo Japaridze is a Georgian politician and diplomat. He has served as chair of the country's National Security Council; ambassador to the United States, Canada and Mexico; and foreign minister (November 2004 - April 2005). After leaving government service, he was secretary-general of the Organisation of Black Sea Economic Cooperation (BSEC)
An endemic crisis without resolution calls for exceptional action. Everyone does what they can in such circumstances. In this case, as someone with a certain amount of experience of Georgia's internal and external politics since the early 1990s, I decided to write an open letter. The nature of such a letter is precisely that anyone can read it, but its intended recipients are also those friends and colleagues in the United States and Europe with whom I worked so hard during the tumultuous years since Georgia regained its independence in the early 1990s to make my country a functioning and relevant state.
I intentionally focus on Georgia's internal problems and will not touch on our external ones, specifically the relations with our biggest northern neighbour. Why? Because I strongly believe that the sooner Georgia resolves its internal political crisis and emerges from the stalemate, the easier it will be to tackle external challenges and risks.
No one, in the opposition or (naturally) the government asked me to write this letter. I have a certain amount of disagreement with both entities, and moreover I do not know many details and the nuances of the ongoing situation on the ground. But I know enough to feel sure that something of the nature of this appeal is needed.
The revolution's roads
To understand where we Georgia are now, we need to look back a little and consider how we reached this seemingly impossible impasse. The inheritance of the Rose Revolution of 2003-04 which brought a new political leadership to power is an appropriate place to start.
Mikheil Saakashvili, the new president who took office on 25 January 2004, inherited a weak and disorganised country. But in trying to overcome that - and affected by the revolutionary euphoria that surrounded his rise to power - he and many others failed to pay attention to the country's positive and negative achievements alike. Some of the positive ones were won at a great price in the early independence years that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. In part as a result of this inattention, the president and many around him embarked on what has become a traditional Georgian pastime since the 1990s: reinventing the wheel.
There was progress, much of which was achieved in collaboration with and support from Georgia's western friends. Alongside the independence regained in 1990, many actions and programmes - macroeconomic and financial stabilisation, the drafting of a new constitution, the introduction of a new currency, the withdrawal of Russian border-guards and of military bases located on Georgian territory, and the construction of critical infrastructure like the pipelines across Georgia - were vital. I'm certain that had those energy projects (one of the few strategic interests the west has in this part of the world) not been implemented, the August 2008 war could have had even more tragic consequences than it did.
These positive achievements Georgia accomplished long before the 2003-04 revolution were reached despite a civil war, conflicts in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, corruption, and increasing state weakness. But there is something else here as well. What has been crumbling in Georgia over these turbulent years is the survivals of the past, the institutions and mindsets of the Soviet era; and what has been growing has been something entirely new, waiting (as the poet said) to be born.
President Saakashvili made a major contribution to the new by using television to promote his anti-corruption efforts, by reviving the country's tax system and armed forces, and by taking steps that allowed President George W Bush to call Georgia "a regional beacon of democracy". This statement had less to do with any final victory, as Saakashvili and some around him interpreted it, than as an indication of how far Georgia had come and how far it still needed to go on the path of reform to become a capable state.
articles on Georgian politics, including the war with Russia in August
Robert Parsons, "Georgia's race to the summit" (4 January 2008)
Robert Parsons, "Mikheil Saakashvii's bitter victory" (11 January 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)
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)
Neal Ascherson, "After the war: recognising reality 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: the great-power trap" (19 August 2008)
Robert Parsons, "Georgia after war: the political landscape" (26 August 2008)
Paul Rogers, "Russia and Iran: crisis of the west, rise of the rest" (21 August 2008)
Ghia Nodia, "Russian war and Georgian democracy" (22 August 2008)
Vicken Cheterian, "Georgia's forgotten legacy" (3 September 2008)
Rein Müllerson, "The world after the Russia-Georgia war" (5 September 2008)
Martin Shaw, "After the Georgia war: the challenge to citizen action" (22 September 2008)
Katinka Barysch, "Europe and the Georgia-Russia conflict" (30 September 2008)
Robert Parsons, "Georgia: the politics of recovery" (24 October 2008)
Donald Rayfield, "Georgia and Russia: the aftermath" (16 November 2008)
Thomas de Waal, "The Caucasus: a region in pieces" (8 January 2009)
Thomas de Waal, "Georgia and Russia, again" (30 January 2009)
Plus: openDemocracy's Russia section reports, debates and blogs the Georgia war.
In part because of that misinterpretation, the liberal extremism of the Rose Revolution became illiberal, a kind of radical Trotskyism with consequences that have proved far worse than anyone had expected.
The vicious circles
Despite his democratic credentials, President Saakashvili's approach to rebuilding the state increasingly came to resemble the model recognised as authoritarian elsewhere in the former Soviet space, specifically in Russia. After the first post-revolutionary parliamentary elections in which his supporters gained a substantial majority of seats, the president implemented a constitutional change which shifted considerable power from the legislature to the executive; he also seriously diminished the independence and role of the country's supreme court. The result was to create a kind of "super-presidency".
Over time, this new regime also curtailed media freedom and restricted the activities of civil society - which are essential elements of any democracy (in many respects too they made the Rose Revolution possible). As a result, human and political rights (specifically private-property rights) suffered; and there were even increases in the number of politically motivated assaults and killings, many of which remain unsolved.
In November 2007, the government's police forcibly suppressed mass demonstrations by the opposition. The snap presidential (January 2008) and parliamentary (May 2008) elections that were then held increased Saakashvili's personal power further at the expense of other parts of the government and society (rather than rebalancing it, as some European Union and OSCE representatives expected). This trend meant that a country that had been a beacon of democracy in 2003-04 slid into a twilight-zone of trivial authoritarianism and ill-governance.
The situation deteriorated throughout 2008, and after the exhaustion and destruction of the August war people started again to take to the streets in protest - particularly around and since the potent anniversary of 9 April 2009, twenty years since the massacre by Soviet special troops in Tbilisi. A greater number of Georgians now view President Saakashvili's resignation as the only way out of the crisis.
These recent events are not an entirely Georgian concern. On the one hand, what happens in Georgia will inevitably cast a shadow on developments across the south Caucasus, as well as damaging the reputation of those in the west and specifically in the United States who have invested so much in "Project Georgia". On the other, the joint experiences of the period since 1990 have shown that Georgians need the active involvement of friends like the US if we all - I emphasise "all", Georgia's opponents and even enemies as well as its friends and allies - are going to escape from the vicious circles in which we find ourselves entrapped.
It would be wonderful if we Georgians could resolve the current impasse between President Saakashvili and the Georgian opposition on our own. But I fear that without your help, we will not be able to resolve it; and that instead the crisis will deepen, with consequences for us, for the region and ultimately for you that will be far worse. Moreover, I am convinced that the west can help us broker a deal between the two sides in Tbilisi so that we will not have to reinvent the wheel yet again.
The grave problems
In writing this, I know very well that Georgia is not the highest priority in United States and European politics right now. But the situation can change quickly when a country in a key location is as delicately balanced, and dangerously divided, as mine is today. Consequently, it is very important not to give in to the temptation of assuming that if the Tbilisi demonstrations quieten down, things will work out and the west can look away.
We all need to remember that in situations like this, the critical thing is not the number of demonstrators but the problems, frustrations and disenchantments that cause respectful and dignified citizens of Georgia to come to the streets.
After all, when the "revolutionaries" stormed parliament in November 2003, there were no more than 20,000-25,000 demonstrators in the streets of Tbilisi. This is a reminder that we can sometimes concentrate too much on the mechanics of democracy (the outcome of elections which are every so often a bit too "mystic" in our part of the world, or the percentage of support of this or that leader) and too little with the democratic process itself. It is the latter, in which an election and its result may be only the beginning of a never-ending process of perfection and transformation, which is the essence of democracy.
In this light, the current frustration and displeasure with the Georgian system and its style of governance - which, as its ultimate outcome, led to the events of August 2008 - get close to the heart of Georgia's democratic crisis today. I strongly believe that the internal imbalances and flaws of governance I have identified contributed to the severity of Georgia's defeat and dismemberment. In fact, I would claim with a touch of resentment that all of the hard work we undertook since the 1990s to make certain that the west understood Georgia's strategic importance in its own right was washed away by these events. Georgia is once more defined in our strategic galaxy as a small part of the "Russia problem": exactly where we tried to prevent it from landing. That too should be understood by the international community.
The dire situation that has provoked people to protest in Tbilisi is not being addressed because there are no mechanisms or "rules of the game" that can be the foundation for a collective effort to find answers.
Among the grave problems that need to be faced are: constitutional and electoral issues, the rule of law, good governance, the economy, institutional cohesion, political and social imbalances, judicial independence, the resolution of sensitive private-property issues, law and order in general, freedom of the mass media (and specifically of broadcasting outlets), reform of the election commission and electoral code, separation of the law-enforcement structures and the local governors (so called "administrative resources"), and immediate abolition of the so-called "masked street gangs" that have emerged in the streets of Tbilisi to hunt down and beat up dozens of protesters. The list of problems is long and varied - and these are just the beginning.
The missed chances
It makes me relieved that the European Union and other international institutions are actively involved in the resolution of the current Georgian stalemate and urging both sides (including the leaders of the opposition) to show more realism and flexibility. But still I would like to pose a question, albeit rhetorical, to my friends in the EU and elsewhere: were you not aware of the existence of these aforementioned problems in the body-politic of Georgia before the mass demonstrations exploded; or did you learn about their existence only after the rallies and the political crisis itself reached their current dimensions? What else then has to happen in Georgia for you to pay appropriate attention?
When after the visit of President Bush to Tbilisi, and when some negative trends in the methods of governance there had become more or less visible, I asked the same question of one of my most experienced friends in Washington. He answered without hesitation: "If something crumbles down in Georgia, Tedo? We are so busy with so many more-than-urgent problems and issues in the world - Georgia and developments down there are not the main items on our radar screen".
For his part, Georgia's president is taking no real steps to mend the laundry-list of problems. True, there is a lot of talk about "dialogue" - too much, much more than any actions, and the notion of "dialogue" itself has been compromised because of that. This is no way to lay the groundwork for a good-faith discourse. The present approach could in fact result in deeper polarisation with the opposition, and consequent greater anger and mistrust directed against Mikheil Saakashvili.
It is clear that the current Georgian government, if left to its own devices, will not bring stability, peace or democracy to Georgia. I am confident that without those demonstrations, it would have continued to govern in the same "revolutionary", quasi-Trotskyist fashion. It has shown itself to be unwilling to listen to other voices, to govern more inclusively, or even to entertain the thought that those outside its own circles (including in the opposition) might have something valuable to contribute to Georgia - perhaps even more than they themselves currently offer to the Georgian people. This attitude will inevitably, in my view, lead to further instability, conflict and chaos.
The false friends
What we Georgians need, and where you - my American and European friends - can help us, is to reach a consensus about the rules of the game so that we can move beyond the current blockage and focus on the legion of substantive issues.
It does not help in this respect if people abroad say to themselves and to Georgians that Georgia is "democratic enough"; or Mikheil Saakashvili is "not authoritative enough" to resolve them. In fact, we Georgians are neither fully democratic nor authoritarian - we do not have at this moment the capacity to be either. Instead, my country is a "quasi-democratic" or "quasi-authoritarian" state (or, as I would prefer to say, a "manipulative democracy").
All too often, the "democratic bureaucrats" in Tbilisi have learned how to talk so much "like" democrats that our western friends do not recognise - or prefer not to recognise - how undemocratic they truly are. That's why there are many more "newborn" democrats around these days than there is democracy itself, and why these days Georgia resembles a kind of demokratura where decisions are made personally by the president and his coterie of closest associates.
An American friend observed to me recently: "Georgian democracy lies at the intersection of Jonathan Swift's and George Orwell's fiction - the current Georgian minister for the prison and probation system is responsible for dialogue about ‘democratic renewal' with the opposition, and the security minister was declared by President Saakashvili to be the ‘backbone of Georgian society'. As is usual when Swift and Orwell are taken together, the tears trump the laughter."
What should be done? We need to expand the circle and involve not just Georgians but you, our friends, as well. You need to press both sides to come together. President Saakashvili must be told that he has to make meaningful changes, including the promulgation of a new electoral code and a new electoral commission, to change the system and style of governance; and crown that transformation by holding truly democratic and fair elections (or conduct a referendum, as identified by the constitution, in the case of a continued political stalemate). The opposition must be told that it must work within the system, but only if the currently warped system itself is recalibrated fundamentally.
It's obvious that either side will accept these strictures only if they are accompanied by a western guarantee of trust. If the two sides can continue to talk and agree on something feasible, then the west should still monitor the implementation of any accord. Western involvement is in any event essential - not least as there is a Georgian political tendency to agree and instantly disagree.
If the United States and Europe do get involved, they will need to carefully select an appropriate messenger. It should be someone who knows Georgia but who is not connected so closely either with earlier administrations or with President Saakashvili; otherwise the message he or she delivers will be ignored. Fortunately, both Washington and European capitals have many people who are both knowledgeable about Georgia and committed more to the development of democracy there than to the survival of a particular leader. I personally witnessed the arrival of such high-level delegations to Georgia on the eve of the Rose Revolution.
The clear choice
Time is of the essence. Without outside pressure of this kind, I fear that the current standoff between President Saakashvili and the opposition will gradually spin out of control, either toward anarchic chaos or authoritarianism. I urge the United States and Europe to take this appeal seriously, and I propose that in the first instance they send a group of wise observers to Tbilisi to explore what could be done.
The credibility of Georgia's efforts to become a "normal country" - including the accession in some foreseeable future to Nato and/or the European Union - depends significantly on the country making progress in democratisation and capacity-building on a parallel track. Any stalling or regression on these fronts will hold the country back and even reverse what progress has been made in the post-independence years.
With wise decisions and western help of the kind described here, as well as a modicum of luck - something that is always needed in life - then I believe we can look forward to a stable democratic Georgia that will be able to occupy a proud place in international life. Without these ingredients, and in particular if people in the west assume that they can let the situation in Georgia ride along in the absence of clear and active decisions, the situation will certainly get worse - and thus work against your own freedom as well as ours.
This text is dedicated to the memory of Levan Mikeladze (1957-2009)
Attempts are being made in both Georgia and Russia. But the very ideology of these countries rules out the possibility of serious rapprochement. Some proposals have been made which address the symptoms, but these do not resolve the issues both sides have with one another. Those proposals which do have solutions to offer are fundamentally unacceptable to the other side.
Among those proposals which address the symptoms is the creation of an international instrument which could prevent a resumption of military operations in the region. It assumes that until 8 August 2008 there was a system operating in the region whose notional goal was to prevent a renewal of conflict. That system did not work, as we know. Any other configuration of instruments and institutions will carry the same risk, until solutions are found to the most painful problems of bilateral relations.
These are the main issues: the status of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Georgia's integration into Euro-Atlantic structures, the stationing of foreign troops on the territories of Georgia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and finally issues of transport communications. Only the second of these shows some signs of movement, and you have to look very hard to see them.
An example of the second kind of proposal is the federalisation of Georgia. A number of Russian special advisers on the region are working on such proposals. They are putting a good deal of intellectual effort into constructing scenarios which presuppose the development of separatist areas of Georgia inhabited by Armenians and Azerbaijanis. These would supposedly become "subjects" of a hypothetical Georgian federation - perhaps along with Abkhazia and South Ossetia. This proposal is so far removed from reality that it is unworthy of serious consideration.
Through Russian eyes
Let us look at the situation through Russia's eyes. After the war of 2008, Russia was more or less obliged to recognise Abkhazia and South Ossetia. If it had not done so Russia would have lost its foothold in the region completely, such was the logic of international relations at the time. This position came about not just as a result of the war in August 2008, but also because of Russia's peacekeeping operations in Abkhazia and South Ossetia before that. Russia had also invested considerable sums in the economies of these two regions.
By dint of recognising the republics, Russia secured two footholds where it could station troops in a region part of which may join NATO in the foreseeable future, as Moscow strategists see it. What Moscow somehow forgets is that these borders with NATO countries, including those which run through exotic regions like the Bering Straits, have been a model of stability throughout the NATO's history. There are no grounds for believing that NATO will not be able to ensure the stability of the Georgian border for any reason. What is more, so far Georgia's membership in the alliance is far from certain.
For Russia, the outcome of the August war is rather like someone firing a cannon at a flock of sparrows, with added unpleasant consequences for the perpetrator. If it were not for certain indirect but inevitable consequences, it would arguably be no bad thing to have two military bases in a region whose geopolitical future was unresolved. But so real are these consequences that the outcome as a whole is unsatisfactory from Russia's point of view.
Recognizing Abkhazia and South Ossetia has had the effect of blocking any initiatives to restore the use of the railway from Russia to Georgia through Abkhazia, as well as the two highways that run through Abkhazia and South Ossetia. These are three of the six roads that connect Russian with the South Caucasus. Three of the four roads pass through Georgia.
By the end of spring the fourth road may be unblocked, not without efforts from Yerevan. This is the road that passes through Upper Lars, where Russia has for some years been engaged in repairing the customs terminal. But even if the Lars road were opened it would be like trying to drain a huge dam through a small drainpipe. Russia urgently wants to develop its economic presence in the South Caucasus, but this can't be done without these north-south roads. Until there is traffic through Lars, all talk about union with Russia's partner Armenia will remain just that. Not only the military base in the Armenian city of Gyumri, but the whole of Armenia will still be an island connected with its northern patron only by air.
Nor did recognising South Ossetia and Abkhazia bring Russia any closer to controlling, or being involved with, Caucasian projects for the transportation of Caspian oil and gas from east to west. The blockade of Azerbaijan-Georgian communications lasted several days during the war, but even this brief period was enough to cause genuine discontent in Azerbaijan. Russia's proposals to purchase all Azerbaijan export gas could have compensated Baku for this in August - if Russia had been technically capable of making this transaction. Not to mention Russia's inability to substitute the Georgian pipeline with a route through Russia.
Through Georgian eyes
The result of having recognised Abkhazia and South Ossetia has been to make it practically impossible for anyone in Georgia to create a political bloc oriented towards Russia that would have any wide electoral support. Voters' sympathies for Russia decreased dramatically. This was not just because Russia invaded territories which Georgia would like to consider its own. The sight of Russian tanks, military planes and bombs in Georgia itself had a powerful effect.
Georgia's opposition leaders are prepared for pragmatic dialogue on disputed issues. But if any of them came to power Moscow would see none of the strategic changes in Georgian foreign policy it would like to see.
These incontrovertible facts, each of which is enough to upset the Moscow strategists, could unfortunately be enough, if circumstances took a turn for the worse, to trigger the use of force again in Georgia. Clearly, if this pessimistic scenario were to arise, it would lead to the complete destabilisation of the South Caucasus region. It would trigger a chain reaction in the North Caucasus too, and cause any investment projects connected with the Caucasus to collapse. So it would seem that the regional players are primarily interested not in creating more diplomatic missions charged with vague new missions, but in a clear formulation of their own agenda and a swift search for means of carrying out these agendas.
It is possible that considerable progress might be made on the issue of the bloc status of territories and the rules for stationing foreign troops in the region - as long as all interested parties, including those outside the region, are agreed that what they want to achieve is not mutual military containment, but a peaceful Caucasus with a common, free and stable economic space.
There looks as if there is some scope too for a restoration of traffic by road from Russia through South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Georgia to Armenia. This would allow Russia to become a proper party to programmes of regional development, and Armenia too, which holds a vital key to resolving the important problem of Nagorny Karabakh.
Obstacles, subjective and objective
Sadly, a number of obstacles, objective and subjective, make this prospect somewhat utopian at present, however pragmatic, adequate and peace-loving a changed leadership in Georgian might be. The subjective obstacle is Russia ruling elites, whose ongoing rivalry for dominance has no clear endpoint. The politics of the Caucasus sometimes becomes the vehicle of this internal rivalry, and this will remain true.
Furthermore, these ruling elites understand the meaning of the word "overload" very differently from the Americans. In Moscow, they are still inclined to assume a parity in relations with the United States, although in reality this has long since ceased to be true.
Among objective obstacles are the issues of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Georgia, like most post-Soviet nations, is a country where the concept of nationality is crucial. A national agenda for Georgians is barely compatible with the thesis of a Georgia for everyone (i.e. for Georgians, Abkhazians, Ossetians, and for all other citizens regardless of their ethnicity). This is not a problem specific to Georgia. It is characteristic of almost all the post-Soviet nations, including Russia itself in many ways. But it is on the solution of this divisive issue that the chances of real Georgian integration and reliable security in the South Caucasus depends.
Nothing out of the ordinary - a soldier deserts his military unit. For anyone who has any idea what our army is like, there is nothing surprising about this. According to official data, around 2,000 soldiers in Russia leave their military units every year. Human rights advocates say that the real figure is at least double that. Statistics show that most soldiers flee the army because of bullying. Only less than a year ago, the Supreme Court vindicated soldiers who deserted for just this reason. Until now the punishment for leaving a military unit, whatever the reason, was quite strict: up to 10 years' imprisonment.
So there would be nothing unusual about the desertion of 21-year-old national service corporal, Alexander Glukhov from the small Udmurt town of Sarapul... if he had not turned up in a neighbouring country and appealed to the president on central television to grant him asylum. Russian soldier Glukhov fled from Georgia to Georgia, or from South Ossetia to Georgia - the interpretation depends on one's political views. So does the name of the disputed area where his division is deployed - Akhalhori or Leningori (the Georgian and Ossetian versions of the name respectively).
While the politicians cross swords, Russian soldiers and Ossetian armed formations remain in the strategically important area that was occupied after the events of August and local residents continue to leave it.
For several months human rights advocates have been raising the alarm over the catastrophic situation which has developed in this region: the vast majority of the population, which until August last year consisted of ethnic Georgians, is running away. The main danger is not the bands of armed Ossetian looters, who are still roaming the region. A much greater danger comes from the impending mandatory issue of Ossetian passports, currently being talked about by the Tskhinvali authorities. There are also concerns that entry to Georgia - which has now been significantly complicated - will be closed completely by the new Ossetian authorities.
In Ossetia itself, they are saying that this region is needed more by Russia than Georgia, which does not have enough people to settle even the territory that was previously under their control. This is why as early as mid-August Russian troops were sent into the region, which is strategically important from a military point of view. Before the war Russian specialists were building a road to link Leningori with the rest of Ossetia, as the remote region could only be reached via the central Georgian highway. They didn't manage to finish building it, so the soldiers, who were transported here in armed and off-road vehicles, found themselves effectively cut of from the outside world.
In August my colleagues and I encountered occasional Russian checkpoints in Georgian villages which were in the final stages of burning down. Then the soldiers stopped us for only one reason, it seemed - to ask for cigarettes or fuel to cook supper. But that was summer, it was +30° and the local Ossetians were still happy to feed the soldiers of the liberating army. It seemed back then that the war was already over, and it would soon be time to go back to Russia.
But time was passing and many were unable to return. Contract soldiers began to grumble: "I served in Botlikh (Dagestan), and received 14-15,000 roubles a month. Things were normal there: they fed us well and the conditions of service were OK. When we were sent here, they promised to pay us $54 a day, but so far we have only received 8,000 rubles a month. We weren't paid the active service supplement either. They tell us that now we're a checkpoint, and we'll be on duty until the spring. We were sent here without our consent, which is against the terms of our contract. When we were sent here we didn't sign anything - we just came when the alarm was raised, and that's it. I want to move back to Botlikh. I don't want to spend winter here. The conditions are terrible."
As well as complaining about the terms of their contract, the soldiers serving in the Akhalgori region told Memorial employees about the harsh daily conditions.
"Our battalion was deployed here in October. We were stationed on a high point near the village of Mosabruni, by the border with Georgia. There are now 14 of us, including our officer. We live in a tent that we recently set up. We were given one oven, and made the other ourselves. We fetched the hay ourselves and made bunks. There are no beds. Previously we didn't have a tent, we slept in trenches, under our jackets. There were problems with food deliveries. When we were on the way here, we didn't eat for a day. A week after we arrived, the food ran out. We were told: "there's no petrol for transporting food". We don't know whether this is true or not, but there was no food for three days. We went to the villages ourselves - the people who live here are quite reasonable and helped us as best they could. We started getting food delivered to us once a day, usually at 1 a.m. Then things settled down, and for a while we didn't have problems with food, but then there was none again for three days. Over the last month, we've been without food for a week altogether. The local shop only sells things for lari. One lari equals 25 rubles. First they only took lari, then we agreed that we could change rubles for lari at the shop".
And this was already November.
Then the Committee of Soldiers' Mothers hotline began receiving calls that on top of inhuman everyday conditions in a number of divisions stationed in South Ossetia, there had been bullying by officers. Soldiers and their parents complained that soldiers were beaten and humiliated, and that some officers took weapons away from soldiers asleep at their posts, and then demanded 2,500 rubles to give them back. The most alarming reports came once more from the Akhalgori region. Soldiers of the 639th regiment reported that they had been living in trenches for a long time. They had no water, they were hungry and there was no medical aid. The father of one of the soldiers, alerted by his son, came to see him after a drunken officer beat him up and broke his nose. No one had given any medical aid to the son, and no question, of course, of any investigation of the crime. Then the officer broke the jaw of another soldier. Only the father's intervention forced the prosecutor's office to open a criminal case against him and the soldier was taken to the district hospital. The soldiers complained that this officer had once tied a soldier to a tree and kept him there all night.
Visiting the Akhalgori region once more at the end of December, Memorial employees and the organisation "Soldiers' Mothers of St. Petersburg" saw that a division of the 693rd regiment was living in a canvas tent with holes it in. It turned out the soldiers had no documents confirming they were taking part in military operations or the fact that they were stationed on the territory of South Ossetia. Some did not have any documents at all: no passports or military service record cards. Some wrote out statements, applying to terminate their contracts. As the soldiers are in the mountains all the time, they cannot hand them in to command, so they asked the human rights advocates to do it.
Being stationed in a wine-growing region had a very bad effect on the morality of our army too. Everyone brought them wine: from the Ossetian villages in gratitude for help, and from the Georgian villages to establish good relations with the occupying army. My colleagues witnessed scenes from army life in Ossetia: in the Akhalgori region drunken soldiers and their officer were shooting at full bottles of wine - they obviously couldn't drink anymore. They knocked off someone's pig at the same time. At one moment, in an attempt to settle the argument, several people pointed their guns at each other. But everything was resolved peacefully, without casualties.
In this situation, it is no surprise at all that corporal Glukhov ran away from his unit. It is also not difficult to see why he fled to Georgia, rather than home. To start with, it's a lot nearer - a few kilometres on a good road to the nearest police checkpoint, and anyway the soldiers don't consider the Georgians fearsome enemies. While it's difficult to imagine a "federal" soldier in Chechnya taking refuge with the Chechen militants, the average Russian soldier can't immediately distinguish between an Ossetian and a Georgian.
So, Glukhov reached civilisation, and another round of the propaganda war began. Firstly, Glukhov himself spoke:
"We were sent to Tskhinvali in June. My bosses... officers, commanders... said that we were going to Georgia, to South Ossetia, to help the people fight against Georgia. In June we started digging trenches and dug-outs. Then the battle alerts began. We went to the scene of battle. We were there for a week, and then came back - it turned out it had been just exercises. Then I came to Leningori - Akhalgori on 1 December. I served there for a month and a half.
"The conditions there are not normal. I was on bad terms with the battalion commander, Major Fyodorov. The conditions are bad. There is no bathhouse. The food situation is awful - they don't feed you much. We also have military equipment there - tanks, APCs, Grad (Russian for hail) rocket-launchers pointed at Georgian villages... So I ask the president of Georgia to allow me to stay in Tbilisi."
The Russian Defence Ministry reacted immediately. The acting head of the Press Service and Information Department of the Ministry, colonel Alexander Drobyshevsky, announced: "...preliminary investigations have shown that Alexander Glukhov was captured by Georgian security officers in the Akhalgori region of South Ossetia and taken to Tbilisi" - and demanded the immediate release of the soldier. At the same time, Drobyshevsky admitted that the soldier was indeed engaged in military service on the territory of South Ossetia and was supposed to be discharged in the coming spring.
The assistant to the Commander-in-Chief of Ground Forces, Igor Konashenkov, said that after his kidnapping, national serviceman corporal Glukhov had been subjected to brainwashing. This was proved by Glukhov's confession that he had arrived in South Ossetia in June last year: according to Defence Ministry information, it was only on 8 August that his motorised infantry division entered the region.
There are many interesting and contradictory things in the commentary of Defence Ministry officials, as well as in the statement of Glukhov himself. Firstly, representatives of the Defence Ministry are no longer trying to hide something they denied for a long time - that a national serviceman was in a zone of armed conflict. The law prohibits sending national servicemen to "trouble spots" or abroad.
Secondly, as a sign of brainwashing, ministerial officials cite the fact that the soldier claims he came to South Ossetia prior to 8 August. I can't state for a fact that corporal Glukhov arrived in South Ossetia in June. But I personally witnessed at least a hundred armed vehicles and trucks carrying troops passing from the north through the Roki tunnel on 13 July last year. Several days later it was announced that military exercises "Caucasus-2008" were beginning in this region.
Moreover in conditions when neither national servicemen, nor even the majority of contract soldiers, have documents confirming their involvement in military operations, we cannot be sure that the soldiers came to South Ossetia on the exact date named by their superiors.
We can, of course, see that Georgian special services might organise a special operation to kidnap a corporal from Sarapul. But the nagging question must always be - why would they bother taking such a risk? The failure of the operation would completely undermine Georgia's image. A few months ago a cortege of the presidents of Georgia and Poland was fired at on the border of that same Akhalgori region. This has yet to be fully cleared up. A real diplomatic scandal was avoided and everyone tried to hush it up. The other possibility looks just as strange: that corporal Glukhov slipped into Georgian territory intending to emigrate and gave himself up to the authorities. He doesn't look like a dissident.
Another scenario seems more likely. In October, for instance, several drunken Russian soldiers wandered into a Georgian police checkpoint in the village of Nikozi. It's just a few kilometres from Tskhinvali and in their drunken state they could have mistaken their way. An agreement with the police was reached and the soldiers were released. But they might not have been. From the point of view of the Georgian authorities they were representatives of an occupying army and in the country illegally.
The corporal listed all the military equipment and Grad rocket-launchers pointed at Georgian villages; he made the politically correct gesture of saying that Leningori could also be called Akhalgori. This reminded me of another statement to journalists, but on Russian television. When I was working in Georgia with a research group of Russian human rights advocates from the human rights centre Memorial and the Demos centre, I heard the story of a young Georgian who was held hostage for several weeks at a Tskhinvali prison. He was a civilian who was taken prisoner during the first days of the armed conflict, made to wear a military uniform and memorise a short text. He was forced to repeat these words - the only words he could say in Russian - in front of a central Russian television channel camera:
"My colleagues and I - there were 400 of us - gathered on Marjanishvili (Tbilisi - V.P.) Square and went to the Great Liakhvi Gorge (territory of South Ossetia - V.P.). After Tskhinvali was shot at with mortar launchers, howitzers and Grad rocket launchers (they told him not to forget to mention the Grad rocket launchers), we arrived from the Tamarasheni direction on the 8th. In Tskhinvali I saw dead civilians - women, children, and old people. My colleagues were killing women and old people. I started to feel bad, I threw down my AK-47 and ran towards Tamarasheni, where I gave myself up to the militia. Then I was brought here. I am being well treated.
The investigator asked how I felt about Saakashivili's government. I said I thought badly of it.
Why? "Because he killed people, he is a bad ruler."
He asked: "Do you believe in his politics" "No".
Then the journalists forced me to repeat the entire text once again".
In response to the Russian Defence Ministry statement, a representative of the Georgian Interior Ministry Shota Utiashvili said that no one was keeping Glukhov in Georgia by force - he could go back at any time. This evidently means returning to his unit - where else? Sergeant Glukhov may not look like an intellectual, but he is clearly also not a complete idiot - he must realise what will happen to him if he goes back after all this.
In Georgia the Russian corporal is fed, shown to journalists and diplomats and told that he will not be extradited to Russia. He faces a serious jail sentence for leaving his unit and he may also be accused of treason towards Russia. He is undoubtedly a real find for Georgian propaganda. In August Georgians saw Russian soldiers carrying a toilet out of a military unit and they started bringing old fridges, toilet paper and clothing to the Russian embassy. I heard one Georgian diplomat commenting that Russian soldiers wear stolen Georgian uniforms: "the Russian army is roughing it in Georgia". Now they can show the whole world that a soldier from the victorious army is asking the defeated army for asylum.
It's all quite strange. But there are real people behind this case: whatever happens, Alexander Glukhov really is a Russian corporal, who clearly had a difficult time at his division stationed in the Akhalgori region. He is just one of the several thousand soldiers who annually desert from their divisions, but society only learned about corporal Glukhov because he could be a useful weapon in the continuing propaganda war. At the same time it also learned about the leaky army tents and the dwindling population of the Akhalgori region. At least that is something to be thankful for...
On January 23, Human Rights Watch published a 200-page report, Up in Flames: Humanitarian Law Violations in the Conflict Over South Ossetia, summing up its extensive findings regarding the violations of human rights and international humanitarian law that occurred during the conflict in South Ossetia and uncontested Georgian territories. The armed conflict as such lasted only one week in August 2008, but the consequences will indubitably endure for much longer. The conflict and its aftermath have seen lives, livelihoods, homes, and communities devastated in South Ossetia and bordering districts of Georgia. As the conflict broke out, Human Rights Watch researchers immediately began documenting the violations that were committed by all sides. All this data, including more than 460 interviews over several months of field research, formed the basis for the legal analysis presented in the final report.
Human Rights Watch's research documented a number of indiscriminate and disproportionate artillery attacks by Georgian forces on South Ossetia and other attacks, which were part of the ground assault. These attacks caused excessive harm to civilians with respect to the military advantage that was to be gained. In particular, Georgian forces made extensive use in civilian areas of multiple-rocket launching systems, known as Grad (Russian for hail), which cannot be targeted with sufficient precision to distinguish between civilian and military objects - thereby causing indiscriminate harm to civilians. The very use of Grad rockets in areas populated by civilians is just one way in which Georgian forces conducted attacks in South Ossetia disregarding the safety of civilians.
Human Rights Watch found that, in a number of instances in South Ossetia and in undisputed Georgian territory, Russian forces used indiscriminate aerial, artillery, and tank fire strikes, killing and wounding many civilians. Human Rights Watch documented a number of cases in which Russian forces occupying the Gori district in Georgia opened fire on civilian vehicles, killing or wounding civilians.
Russian and Georgian forces both used cluster munitions, causing civilian deaths and putting more civilians at risk by leaving behind unstable "minefields" of unexploded bomblets. The impact of cluster munitions on civilians in the conflict demonstrates why, in December 2008, 94 governments signed up to a comprehensive treaty to ban cluster munitions. This was negotiated just months before the conflict commenced: Russia and Georgia notably failed to sign.
South Ossetian violations
Georgian forces withdrew from South Ossetia on August 10. Over the following weeks South Ossetian forces deliberately and systematically destroyed ethnic Georgian villages in South Ossetia that had been administered by the Georgian government. The South Ossetians looted, beat, threatened, and unlawfully detained numerous ethnic Georgian civilians. They killed several, on the basis of their ethnic and imputed political affiliations, with the express purpose of forcing those who remained to leave and ensuring that no former residents would return. South Ossetian forces also arbitrarily detained no fewer than 159 ethnic Georgians. They killed at least one detainee and subjected nearly all of them to inhuman and degrading treatment and detention conditions. They also tortured no fewer than four Georgian prisoners of war and executed at least three.
The role of the Russian forces
As an occupying power in these areas, Russia failed in its duty under international humanitarian law to ensure, as far as possible, public order and safety. Instead of protecting civilians in the territories under its effective control, Russian forces allowed South Ossetian forces who followed in their path to engage in wanton and widescale pillage, the burning of Georgian homes and attacks on ethnic Georgian civilians. Such deliberate attacks are war crimes and, when committed as part of a widespread or systematic pattern, may also be prosecuted as crimes against humanity. Human Rights Watch concluded that the actions of the Ossetian forces against ethnic Georgians in several villages in South Ossetia, coupled with their intent to ensure none returned, amounted to attempted ethnic cleansing.
In Georgian territory adjacent to the South Ossetian administrative border, which at the time was occupied by Russia, South Ossetian militias looted, destroyed, and burned homes on a wide scale. They deliberately killed at least nine civilians, and raped at least two. Russian forces were at times involved in the looting and destruction, as passive bystanders or active participants, or by providing militias with transport into villages.
More than 20,000 ethnic Georgians who fled the conflict in South Ossetia remain displaced. Ethnic Georgians in the Akhalgori district - a remote area in the east of South Ossetia, currently occupied by Russian forces - face threats and harassment by militias and anxiety about a possible closure of the district's administrative border with the rest of Georgia. Both factors have caused great numbers of people to leave their homes for undisputed Georgian territory. The permanent forced displacement of thousands of people cannot be countenanced, and as long as Russia remains in effective control it should publicly promote the right of all persons displaced by the conflict to return and live in their homes in safety and dignity. It also has an obligation to ensure that this right can be effectively implemented and provide security to all persons living there, regardless of ethnicity.
The Way Forward
Human Rights Watch stresses the need for both Russia and Georgia to undertake an impartial and thorough investigation into abuses committed by their forces. Russia should also investigate the crimes committed by South Ossetian forces, since it exercises effective control over South Ossetia. Russia and Georgia should not only hold the perpetrators accountable for their crimes, but also provide appropriate redress to the numerous victims of the conflict.
The report Up in Flames measures each party's compliance with their obligations under international humanitarian law, not against the conduct of the other party. Exposing violations committed by one party does not excuse or mitigate those committed by another party. Nor under international humanitarian law does a violation by one party justify or mitigate violations by another party. Which party started the conflict has no bearing on their obligations to adhere to international humanitarian law and to hold violators accountable. Those seeking answers to questions about who committed worse, or more violations, or who bears responsibility for starting the conflict, will not find answers in this report. Human Rights Watch is also concerned that focusing on who started the war or who committed worse atrocities, as some observers are, misses the point: the urgent need to hold all who are responsible accountable and to allow displaced people to return home safely.
See the whole Human Rights Watch report:
In the "Atlas" shop on Kuznetsky Most in Moscow, the salesgirl looks down and says that they have no maps of Georgia left. They used to, but not any more: "You understand, this is the situation now. All those events..." When asked if this means that Georgia itself is no longer on the map, the girl smiles: "You could put it like that".
In reality, it's not all as bad as that. Georgia remains on the map, but it will be coloured differently. Radmil Shayapov, deputy head of the Russian Federal Ordnance Survey Agency, recently said that on political maps of the world published in Russia, the territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia will now be coloured differently from Georgia.
However, to be consistent, one must admit that after the war in August, places have appeared on the map which could only be given one colour - grey. The new "grey zones" are territories that are under the de facto control of no one. One of these zones is the Akhalgori region of Georgia, otherwise known as the Leningori region of South Ossetia. The territory is one and the same, but the name depends on what side of the conflict you approach it from. When I inadvertently used the name "Leningori", a Georgian diplomat commented in irritation: "There's no such place as Leningori. Lenin has been dead for so long!"
In the 1920s, when Georgia became one of the Soviet republics, this territory became part of the South Ossetian Autonomous Oblast, and the regional centre received the name of Leningori. The mountain range separating it from Tskhinvali meant that this eastern region was only formally part of South Ossetia. The only road went to the south, towards Tbilisi, and to reach Tskhinvali, you had to take the central Georgian highway. The population was 80% ethnic Georgians, and Ossetians mainly lived in mixed families. So when the city was renamed Akhalgori in the early 1990s, and almost all the territory was transferred to the administrative jurisdiction of the Mtskheti region of Georgia, no one objected: neither in Tbilisi nor Tskhinvali, which had proclaimed its independence.
In 2006, the Georgian authorities tried to resolve the South Ossetian conflict by creating an alternative pro-Tbilisi government in the republic, which had seceded. This was headed by the former prime minister of the separatists Dmitry Sanakoyev. A Saakashvili decree restored the former South Ossetian Autonomous Oblast and the Akhalgori region was included in it, so as to increase the number of voters at the alternative elections,. The temporary administration of the Autonomous Oblast was located in the village of Kurta, six kilometres to the north of Tskhinvali and under Georgian control. After the August conflict, the pro-Georgian officials were forced to move to the centre of Tbilisi, where they were established in the "Chess Palace".
On 16 August Russian soldiers entered the Akhalgori region, which Tbilisi itself had recognised as part of South Ossetia in the internal political game. At the same time, local residents began to leave. Initially only a few left, but by the end of August - when television showed villages in the Gori region that had been burnt down and looted by the Ossetian militiamen following after the Russian soldiers - there were more than 2,000 refugees from Akhalgori. Almost two thirds of the population has left the region where no more than 9,000 people had lived.
With the arrival of the Russian soldiers the region was practically cut off from the rest of Georgia. On the road from Tbilisi, three checkpoints were set up - one Russian and two Ossetian, examining documents and inspecting all the passing cars. Things have been made easier for the residents since the beginning of October: the commandant of South Ossetia, Colonel Anatoly Tarasov, managed to get the number of checkpoints reduced to two, and mass checks were stopped. But international observers and representatives of humanitarian organizations are still not allowed into the region. All the Georgian officials who we talked to before going to Akhalgori said it would be impossible to go there.
A few kilometres after the Georgian police checkpoint, we saw the new sign "Ossetia". In Akhalgori, the Ossetian flag was flying above the regional administration building. However, it turned out that the main currency here is not the ruble, but the lari. The balance was restored by the cell phone operators: we had to change the Georgian "Beeline" SIM cards in our telephones to SIM cards from the Russian "Megafon" operator.
The head of the Akhalgori orphanage Manana Makharashvili was at a loss when asked who was responsible for the orphanage: "The Georgian education ministry, I think - no one has said that we have been reassigned". There had been 73 children from various regions of Georgia at the orphanage before August, but by the end of October there were 56 left - children who had any relatives at all had been removed. Schools started work again on 15 October, but parents are afraid to send their children there - no one trusts the armed Ossetian militia and the Russian soldiers. Not more than 150 children attend the three functioning schools in the regional centre.
Teachers at the orphanage are afraid even to think about what will happen next. Recently, Russian and Ossetian checkpoints refused to let a car with humanitarian aid through, and the current supplies will probably last for no more than a month. The gas that previously came from Georgia has now been cut off, so the orphanage has been left without heating. In the rest of Ossetia schoolchildren are taught using Russian textbooks, but no one knows what to do if the Ossetian authorities decide to introduce Russian books in the regional schools here - almost no one speaks Russian.
No institutions in the city are functioning except the schools, orphanage and post office. The joint Georgian-Ossetian brewery which used to produce beer that was sold all over Georgia, no longer functions. Although this is a mild way of putting it: the equipment was removed by Ossetian militia and Russian soldiers in August - also a kind of international co-operation.
The Akhalgori region is actually the only place where there are many complaints of looting by the Russian soldiers. The federal troops take food and other items from abandoned houses. Local residents say that the village of Kanchaveti, abandoned after August, is almost completely occupied by soldiers: they have their military equipment there and the soldiers themselves live in the abandoned houses. The equipment came here directly from Tskhinvali. Russian specialists had begun to build a road through South Ossetia before the war, but they didn't manage to finish it by August, so the remaining 30 kilometres were passable only for off-road vehicles. Now military equipment has completely ruined the road. The local people are seriously concerned that if the road to Georgia is closed, which is what has happened in other regions of South Ossetia, then they will be left without any connection to the outside world whatsoever.
In the rest of South Ossetia the Russian soldiers are seen as liberators, here they are regarded as occupation troops; but everywhere people clearly distinguish between the politicians making the decisions and ordinary people. Local resident Muraz, who heard by telephone that we were from Moscow, drove at breakneck speed from another village to see us:
"It's great that you've come all the way from Moscow! I recently had guests from Moscow here, they were geologists."
It turned out that "recently" meant during the Soviet period. Muraz's neighbour says that people came here infrequently even from Tbilisi, until Sanakoyev was elected. The neighbour himself, although he is Ossetian, says that he has never been to Tskhinvali - all his relatives are in Georgia.
"In the 90s, even in Georgia almost no one had heard of our Leningori, and now they talk about it everyday on television," says Muraz. "Our town will probably be renamed Putingori now. I recently heard a soldier calling it this on the telephone. There are now a lot of soldiers here: yesterday helicopters arrived again with new equipment. In August, the Russians were stationed in our village, Ikoti. I went to meet them, and asked them if they needed anything for their lads. There was a guy called Dima from Volgograd. He said he didn't need anything but cigarettes, but he'd also like to ring home to tell his mother where he was. I bought him a carton of cigarettes and a top-up phone card, but he didn't have a Georgian SIM card. I was scared to get one in my name - what would people think about me? Now they're saying that we should get Russian passports, or we'll have difficult times ahead."
Passports are not being issued yet, but people are afraid that this will start in the spring and that young people may be drafted into the army. They don't know whether it will be the Ossetian or Russian army, but neither option is attractive. Colonel Tarasov told Russian human rights advocates from "Memorial" and the Demos Centre that in the Akhalgori region there had indeed been cases of the Ossetian militia threatening to drive out the local Georgian population. Although there have not been cases of arson or murder in the region, people are still leaving their homes - first they tried to get some money for their houses and property, but now they simply leave everything behind. Some go to stay with relatives, and some go to temporary shelters for refugees.
The conversation moves smoothly on from refugees to politics. The Medvedev-Sarkozy plan for the Russian troops to return to their positions of before 6 August is not being implemented and now Russian soldiers are 60 kilometres from Tbilisi - just one hour's drive. It is a strategically advantageous place for the soldiers - a mountainous region stretching along the Georgian military road.
As we sit at the table, we raise the traditional toast for Ossetian and Georgians, "to the fallen" - to everyone who has not lived to see this day. Our host recalls with tears in his eyes that Dima from Volgograd died several days ago - he fell off an APC when drunk, and the hospital couldn't save him...
Muraz and his wife spent a long time trying to persuade us to stay the night. All their neighbours have left, and they want someone to talk to. At least we should visit again, they said, and we would really like to come back: the area is stunningly beautiful, and the people are incredibly hospitable. But it's impossible to guess from which direction we will be able to visit next time, what flags we will see here, what SIM cards we will use in our telephones and what currency we will use to pay the driver.
And in fact, we don't even know whether any people will be living here next time. People whose main problem is that both sides want to reprint the maps.
In the Russian republic of Ingushetia people celebrated by dancing and shooting in the air when they heard that their president Murat Zyazikov had been dismissed. The news reached me in Ankara, where I was attending a roundtable on the Caucasus, together with experts from Turkey, Russia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia, as well as Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which were recognized by Russia in August this year.
How to make South Caucasus stable?
The subject under discussion was how to make the South Caucasus region stable after the conflict that broke out there on 8th August. Could Russia, which was at least partially responsible for the regional crisis that followed, become the main peace-broker manager there? It was a unique occasion. It is no easy matter to gather Georgians, Abkhazians and Ossetians round the same table, not to mention Armenians and Azerbaijanis. The only live subject of South Caucasian politics which was not represented was that of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Nagorno-Karabakh was little discussed because everyone was interested in Georgia and the regions seceding from it. As chance would have it, a day after the experts left for their capitals, the Meiendorf declaration on Karabakh was signed in Moscow. With this declaration, which actually changed little, Russia made it very clear to Turkey, the European Union, and other players outside the region, that it intends to continue playing a major role in the politics of the South Caucasian. Indeed, it would like to return with the status of master of the situation, as the sovereign whom the squabbling vassals see as the only possible arbiter for their quarrels.
However desirable this may be for politicians in Moscow, even after the August conflict and the Meiendorf handshake between Armenia and Azerbaijan, it needs hardly be said that this is a deeply unrealistic prospect. Some indicators suggest that recent events have even widened the gap between desire and reality.
For example, it was clear that Azerbaijan was alarmed at Russia's encroachment into Georgia. For it has Karabakh, and other territories in the north which could go the way of South Ossetia, given a certain concentration of forces and support from the Russian side. The situation in Georgia has also complicated the transit of Azerbaijani raw materials through Georgian territory. There is no alternative route, because the Baku-Novorossiisk pipeline could not cope with the amount of oil Azerbaijan exports daily.
Armenia also values Georgia as its only means of access to the outside world apart from Iran. The Armenian president was not happy that Russian bombers took off from the Russian base in the Armenian city of Gyumri. But after Russia's ambitious behaviour in Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan were eager to hear what proposals the Turkish government had on stability and co-operation in the Caucasus.
For the first time in many years, there has been progress in the contacts between these three countries. It is not the Minsk group we have to thank for this, but the unvoiced fear of all three governments in the face of Russia's military reawakening. This is the larger picture, while the achievement of the Minsk Group is so far no more than an episode. Russia's own systemic constraints will make it very difficult for the country to build on its success in the South Caucasus significantly. The most obvious of these is the state of its own territory in North Caucasus. When your own house is not in order, it is at the very least strange to want to bring order in the houses of not one, or two, but three of your neighbours.
Caucasus: North vs. South
However, the North Caucasus factor escapes the attention of Russian analysts studying the problems of the Caucasus as a whole. So blind are they to it that at the Ankara conference they were inviting me to events organized by Zyazikov's team for the day after his dismissal as president of Ingushetia. So certain are they that the situation in the North Caucasus has been stabilised that it does not even occur to them to ask whether the president of the country agrees with them. The blindness of the expert community is not as dangerous as the blindness of politicians who make the decisions. But only one step divides the one group from the other. The act that Moscow ignores the problems of the North Caucasus is symptomatic.
The North Caucasus is also intimately connected with the South Caucasus both ethnically and territorially. For instance, the Abkhazians are related to the Cherkess, Kabardins and Abazins of the Northern Slope. The majority of Ossetians live in Russia. Chechens have a strong and very specific diaspora in Georgia, and a number of peoples of Dagestan are divided by the Russian-Georgian and Russian-Azerbaijan border. In the 1990s, there was a whole range of ethno-separatist movements all along these borders. The leaders of those movements are still alive and kicking. What they are asking themselves right now is this: why does the principle of free self-determination apply to Ossetians and Abkhazians, but not to the highland peoples of the South of Russia?
This question is not often heard only because ethno-separatist ideas have lost much of their popularity. In the early 1990s, the nomenklaturas of autonomies that were formed in the Soviet period strengthened their power, raising the banner of national populism. It is not popular to mention this, but many state officials who are still working in government institutions of the North Caucasus raised toasts to the freedom of Chechnya in 1996-1998 at feasts where Shamil Basayev and Aslan Maskhadov were present. Now these officials are widely hated by the population, with the exception of Chechnya itself, as they are justly seen as thieves, bribe-takers, embezzlers, and sometimes even murderers. There is hatred of the regional authorities, which are seen as a branch of Moscow.
There is no civil opposition. But there is a slowly but surely growing movement of political Islam, which exists in all seven of the Russian Caucasian regions, including Ossetia with its Christian majority. Islamists have proclaimed the abolition of ethnic borders and a war to establish Shariat law all over the Caucasus. In the end, they don't need guns and explosives: they are waging a war for the minds of young people. They have a strong chance of winning this war. When one looks at the South Caucasus, one can say with certainly that if the Islamic movement flourishes in the Caucasian provinces of Russia, then Russia will have far more serious things to worry about than Georgia or Azerbaijan. The probability that this will happen is not inconsiderable: Moscow does not offer young people in the Caucasus any alternative program of development. For those who have stayed at home, there is unemployment and a drop in the quality and availability of even basic education, and for those who go to find happiness and prosperity in the Russian regions, there is growing xenophobia - and a financial crisis.
Ingushetia is a place where the fire virtually started before our eyes. The problem initially lay in the proximity to Chechnya. When the war began in Chechnya in 1999, Ingushetia was ruled by president Aushev, who did not allow Russian law-enforcement structures to fight rebels in Ingushetia in the way they did in Chechnya. The Russians saw this as a sign of separatism and tried to remove Aushev, who was very popular among the people, could act as a negotiator with Maskhadov, and at least provided stability on the territory of Ingushetia. The new president Zyazikov, who was elected in 2002 with the active practical assistance of the Kremlin in the vote tallying, and was re-appointed in 2006, as elections of regional leaders were abolished, agreed to let the law-enforcement structures into Ingushetia.
The result became clear very quickly: in 2004 there was an attempt to blow up Zyazikov's cortege, Basaev occupied Nazran with a large band of fighters in several hours and took control of half of the republic, and rebels entered Beslan from the territory of Ingushetia. Perhaps Zyazikov could have been forgiven for the mistakes of the federal forces in special operations where peaceful citizens died and disappeared, and the ones who survived joined the rebels out of hatred - if he had made any improvements whatsoever to the problem of poverty and unemployment. This did not happen, despite all his efforts, and certainly despite all the reports that he made to the Kremlin. Since the end of last year, demands for Zyazikov's dismissal began to be heard constantly. At the same time, political processes began which were not pleasant for the Kremlin: the assembly of Ingush Teips, for example, delegated representatives to an alternative regional parliament. As soon as Russia recognized the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia from Georgia, this parliament immediately promised to pose the question of Ingushetia seceding from Russia, unless the problem of Zyazikov was solved.
Three quite distinct groups formed in Ingushetia: Zyazikov's group, which could not have been removed without Moscow losing face, but which it was becoming dangerous to keep in power; the civil opposition which demanded his dismissal; and radical Islamists, who increased in number the longer Zyazikov stayed in power, and with weapons in their hands sought not only the replacement of Zyazikov, but the establishment of Shariat law.
The situation was exacerbated by the fact that, since 1992 (and strictly speaking, for much longer than that) Ingushetia and North Ossetia have been in a state of conflict over the border lands. Ossetians to the south of the Greater Caucasus Mountain Range are in conflict with Georgia, and to the north with Ingushetia. It is obvious that if Russia positions itself as the defender and guarantor of the Ossetians, anti-Ossetian feeling (and indeed anti-Russian too) in Ingushetia will increase, as will sympathy towards Georgia. There is no need for any Georgian-Ingush conspiracies,with Pankisi-Chechen involvements, as some people think. It is the logic of several billiard balls lying next to each other: you hit one and another one moves; if you strike at random it is unclear which direction they will go in.
By finally removing Zyazikov, Moscow has chosen the right and most suitable course of action from the few possibilities available. There were in fact three options. The first was to return Aushev to Ingushetia, as the Ingush opposition demanded. The second was to unite Ingushetia with Chechnya and hand them both to Ramzan Kadyrov, so that he could solve the problems there in the way he solved them at home. The third was to replace the President of Ingushetia with someone other than Aushev.
The first option was impossible because of Aushev's relations with the federal politicians who take the decisions. He may not have a relationship with Medvedev, but he had more than enough rwith Putin. His involvement alone in attempts to find a bloodless solution to the crisis in Beslan in 2004 was already sufficient for strong mutual dislike.
The second option would firstly have given too much strength to Kadyrov, whom Medvedev does not see as his man in the Caucasus, evidently understanding that this young and independent leader can only be considered to be Putin's man by a considerable stretch of the imaginagtion. Secondly, if Kadyrov has managed to achieve a general reduction in the level of violence in Chechnya, this happened because he forced out the federal troops and transferred the law-enforcement functions to local structures, mainly comprised of former separatists, who had fought against Russia in one or two wars, but have now declared their loyalty. This Chechenization of Ingushetia would have angered federal generals, who generally see Moscow's Chechen policy as a capitulation. Quarrelling with generals is also not part of President Medvedev's plans. Furthermore, Kadyrov's police in Ingushetia, for all the ethnic kinship of Chechens and Ingush, would not be very different from the federal troops: Kadyrov's men in Ingushetia are also foreigners, even if they speak a comprehensible language. And finally, if Ingushetia and Chechnya were to unite, this would deprive Ingushetia of the formal basis for its territorial claims on North Ossetia. When Chechnya and Ingushetia were one autonomous region in the USSR, the lands of South Stavropol that were handed over to Chechno-Ingushetia in 1957, were considered to be compensation for the territories being disputed with the Ossetians If they became part of Chechno-Ingushetia, the Ingush would be deprived of the formal right to demand territorial rehabilitation (the border lands were taken away from them during the Stalinist deportation in 1944). This unity with Chechnya might solve the Ossetian-Ingush problem from Moscow's point of view. But it would detonate the bomb of Ingush nationalism and inevitably turn the Ossetian-Ingush border into a front line again.
Sensibly postponing the project for uniting Chechnya and Ingushetia - and Grozny clearly tried to breathe life into this project in October - President Medvedev chose the third option. The first steps by the man he appointed, colonel of the Intelligence Division Yunusbek Yevkurov, have already significantly reduced tension in Ingushetia. The civil opposition is satisfied with the appointment. The hated government has been dismissed. Yevkurov has promised an objective investigation of the most high-profile crimes involving security forces, and also to reduce their numbers in the region.
New president Yevkurov, can he succeed?
But this is not even half the problem. These are the steps which any other person replacing Zyazikov would have taken. Future success depends on whether Yevkurov will really be able to influence the quality of work of the federal security structures, or whether everything will remain unchanged, and Yevkurov himself will turn into a copy of Zyazikov, only with a moustache. Zyazikov's experience in the intelligence division bodes well. The leadership of the intelligence division is loyal towards Medvedev and has its own ideas about the need to reform administration in the North Caucasus. But there are security officers who are unhappy with the Zyazikov's departure, as he was a convenient figure for them. They appear to be prepared to go to considerable lengths to stop Yevkurov from strengthening his position. Which faction of the security forces wins depends in many ways on whose position in Moscow is strengthened in the medium-term perspective - Putin's circle, which understood the need for Zyazikov's dismissal, but is still unhappy about it, or Medvedev's circle.
Yevkurov's survival in this battle between Moscow groups (the ‘bulldogs under the carpet') will also be complicated by the fact that from the few reserves on the bench in Ingushetia, he will inevitably choose people from Aushev's group for his staff - if only to distance himself from his predecessor. And he has already been accused of lobbying for Aushev's group interests. To be fair, it should be said that one of the first people to mention Yevkurov as a probable replacement for Zyazikov was the Ingush businessman Musa Keligov, who was close to Aushev at one time. Keligov and the Gutseriev brothers (one of whom, Mikhail, fled Russia after the Kremlin tax police attacked his oil company, whose output ranks it 10th in Russia, are thought to be a source of finance for the anti-Zyazikov opposition. For his own political survival, Yevkurov should refrain from even mentioning these ties. At the end of the day, Aushev's group in Ingushetia from 1992-2002 was mainly valuable because of Aushev himself, and without Aushev it has just as many bribe-takers and opportunists as every other group.
Yevkurov cannot become the Ingush Kadyrov: he is not a field commander, and Ingushetia lacks the unique class of combatants who joined the side of the law. There was no fighting in Ingushetia before, but when it started it was young Islamists that were the backbone of its army. These are not weary veterans of two wars with federal troops, and it is practically impossible to lure them out of the forest. They don't care whether Yevkurov or Zyazikov is in power. And if Yevkurov becomes another Zyazikov, the war will only escalate.
The only alternative path for Yevkurov is to acquire a certain political independence based on the ideological platform of Ingush traditions, and, ultimately, moderate Ingush nationalism. Within Ingushetia, this path is still not closed for him: he belongs to the large and influential Orstkhoi sub-ethnic group, and his first steps received the consensual approval of the main teips. The problem is that this path goes directly against Moscow's preferred way of functioning in the regions: regional leaders are not supposed to be too independent. The Ingush dilemma looks bad for Moscow: a governor who is a pawn means a probable escalation of war, and an independent governor is a serious compromise, a rejection of Putin's concept of administration in the Caucasus and the federal system as a whole.
The Polit.ru and Open Democracy discussion of issues of international relations has inspired me to offer another view.
After watching the first presidential debate between Sen. John McCain and Sen. Barack Obama, one of the only lasting thoughts on my mind was how over-simplified they present the ongoing conflicts in Georgia to the American public, and how dead wrong they both are in seeking to address them.
They are both correct in stating their support for the Georgian people and their young democracy in the face of Russian expansionism, and that the disproportionate (and perhaps premeditated) military actions of the Russian Federation during August must be strongly addressed. Furthermore, they are both correct in promising Georgia assistance for humanitarian and reconstruction purposes. After all, Georgia is an important ally in the region, and her friendship must not be abandoned.
However, that is not whole story.
The conflict that erupted in South Ossetia in August, very well could have started in Abkhazia earlier in the year. These regions have been involved in two very unique secession struggles with the central government in Tbilisi since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The fact that these regions continue to provide sparks of violence in the volatile Caucasus is testament to the failure of international and Georgian policies towards them.
The attempts to reunite Georgia according to its Soviet borders have over the last fifteen years have focused on 1) isolating South Ossetia and Abkhazia from the outside world, 2) refusing to recognize the legitimate concerns of the local populations, 3) incorrectly addressing the conflict as solely and primarily between Russia and Georgia, and by 4) stubbornly following dogmatic policies long after they have already shown themselves to be failures.
The next American president, together with the efforts from European allies, must address these failed strategies of the past in order to prevent the West (and Georgia for that matter) from stumbling into an expanded war in the Caucasus.
During the debate McCain told the American people a story regarding his trip to South Ossetia, where he described a billboard proclaiming Vladimir Putin "Our President." For those unfamiliar with the situation this may have been frighteningly demonstrative of the Russian aggression against the Georgian people. However, Saakashvili must not have explained to McCain that the Ossetians are first and foremost not ethnically a Georgian people, and furthermore, that they endured a horrendous war initiated by the Georgians in 1991. The latter of these reasons especially explains why South Ossetians hold the goal of reuniting not with the Georgian state, but rather with their ethnic brothers in North Ossetia, who happen to lie within the Russian Federation.
Furthermore, McCain-who has never been to Abkhazia-seems to lump together the differing goals of South Ossetian and Abkhaz leadership. In Abkhazia, you will not find posters proclaiming Putin as their president, and you will not hear the similar desires to join Russia. Abkhaz also fought a vicious war with the Georgians, and given their long and complicated past under Georgian leadership (including Josef Stalin) desire nothing less than their full independence. Joining Russia, with whom their past is equally tragic, is not an option for the Abkhaz.
McCain, however, believes that once South Ossetians and Abkhaz get a taste of freedom-which in his mind means living under the Georgian flag-they will realize they were wrong in their own ambitions all along. In his ignorance of history, though, McCain "fails to understand" the constant, perceived threat from Georgia that these territories live under.
An Abkhaz official once wrote to me, "There are two faces of Saakashvili: one is looking West and looks pretty, liberal, and nice. Another face is looking at Abkhazia and it is deceitful and aggressive."
Obama, for his part, twice raised the issue of Russian peacekeepers in the regions. He stated that Russian peacekeeping forces in Georgia prior to the conflict "made no sense whatsoever," and called for their replacement with a more international force. While the internationalization of peacekeepers in the conflict zones is not in and of itself a misguided proposal (although the peacekeepers in South Ossetia are already a mixed force), it has long been clear the Abkhaz and South Ossetians are more comfortable with Russian protection. Proposed changes in peacekeeping formats are seen as a way of removing their only shield of defense against Georgian military action.
He also proclaimed that the Russians must abide by the six-point ceasefire agreement, and pull out from South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The latter statement shows Obama is similar to McCain in not fully examining the conflicts' history, as they fully warrant. In the recent years, Russia has been the only supporting ally of the regions and now they seek to be under a Russian military umbrella-much like Georgia desires to be under NATO.
While the two candidates for president may be seemingly instep with each other on the American relationship with Georgia, their significant differences with respect towards the use of diplomacy would suggest that both would not continue the current approach in resolving the ongoing disputes Georgia holds with South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
McCain mirrors Saakashvili in choosing to deal only with one's allies. On the other hand, Obama is a proponent of inclusion and the utility of talking to adversaries. McCain's philosophy has been amply applied in the Caucasus over the last decade and a half, and the results were seen in August. The impact Obama's would have is, of course, unpredictable and yet to be seen.
Although, after fifteen years of failing to outreach to the Abkhaz and South Ossetians, Georgian dreams of a reunified country may have already been lost. What remains uncertain is whether an Obama presidency would attempt to open up to these regions in order to improve their living conditions-without the preconditions of them rejoining Georgia precipitously.
We are on our way to Avnevi, a big Georgian village in the south west of South Ossetia which over the last three weeks has been burnt to the ground. Or almost. Some of the houses are still standing - or were five days ago. The vineyards along the dusty road, dotted here and there with yellow or red cherry plum, the bridge, the shell of the school and the police station building with its charred red walls. Empty burnt-out houses and fresh fires. Actually there aren't very many new fires - one month after the war in this, as in other, enclave villages almost nothing is left to burn. But there are dozens of elderly Georgians who didn't leave the enclave villages when the population was fleeing before the war. The nights are chilly already and in another month they will be very cold indeed. These people have no homes, no means of getting warm and what is left of their kitchen gardens will soon no longer provide enough food for them. They can't last long. If, however, they are handed over to the Red Cross, they will be sent to Gori and put in hospital. Any relations they may have in Georgia will be located, but if there are none....God knows, they still can't stay here.
On our way from Tskhinvali to Avnevi we are accompanied by Timur. Just recently he was hunting down Georgian tanks at the entrance to the city: he is still laughing at the fact that that he, a respectable man of fifty, should have had to do such a thing. Timur has his own reason for wanting to go to Avnevi: he wants to check if the house of his close friend is still standing. But how can this be? An Ossetian warrior friends with a Georgian, the ‘sworn enemy'? Timur laughs. "I never had any problems with Georgians. Of course, there were shootings and killings...but never any real problems! True, it was kind of difficult to explain things to the children. My youngest said to me recently ‘I hate the Georgians, they can all drop dead.' ‘What about Uncle Mishiko, him too?' I asked him. My boy thought for a bit, then said ‘He's no Georgian, he's absolutely one of us. He loves us!'"
At this point I can't help remembering the story of the boy from the Chechen village of Alkhan-yurt. He was taken as far away from the war as possible, to the Tver region of Russia. When the time came for him to go home again, he was almost in tears. "I don't want to go back. Let's stay here. It's good here - there are no Russians!" The only Russians he knew were drunken soldiers in camouflage uniforms with machine guns; the people he saw around him in this small Russian town could in no way come into that category. They were completely peaceful and kind - friend, not foe.
"Our" Georgian Misha has six children. He took his family to Tbilisi as his wife comes from there and they somehow managed to find a place to stay with her relatives. But they have a big family: there is not enough room for everyone and Misha is embarrassed at adding to the burden. At the very end of August Timur went to see what had happened to Misha's house. It was untouched, although everything around it was burning. Timur wrote on the wall that he house belonged to an Ossetian. He had a word with the local militia and with the looters to ensure that they didn't touch it. He said he was taking over the house himself, and hoped that all would be OK.
A week later, however, only the charred shell remained. Anything with any value at all had been taken and the rest set alight. In the deep, damp cellar Timur found some old rags and a few old cooking pans. The spacious courtyard was hung about with vines. Some of them are burnt: the leaves are black and withered and the fruit baked to raisins. Dark, heavy roses are still blooming by the fence. Timur mutters to himself as he carefully picks the tomatoes that have survived the fire. He brings a couple of jars of cherry preserve from the devastated cellar. Why should good things go to waste? On our departure Timur says over and over again, more to himself than to us, that he has done everything he could, but not managed to save the house. But Misha has so many mouths to feed, how can he possibly find the words to tell him....?
The house was probably set alight yesterday to judge from the greasy soot and the overwhelming smell of burning. Timur feels that it can't just be the looters - he had, after all, come to an arrangement with them! No, he is absolutely sure the authorities issued an order to destroy everything that was still standing. Who knows? In the Georgian enclave villages to the north of Tskhinvali, which have been practically razed to the ground by fire, tractors and bulldozers have already started to clear the charred shells of some of the houses. Here too, in Avnevi, two columns of smoke curl up into the sky at the other end of the village. Whether by design or by chance, it is clear that the last remaining houses have just been torched.
That house over there, for example, is burning so intensely that the heat scorches our faces. The beams are cracking, the roof buckles and collapses before our eyes and a wall of fire flickers in the windows. Behind the house, a bit further down the path, there is a dilapidated little hut. I don't know why we look that way, possibly surprised that it is still standing. Inside, among the buckets, pots, bowls, the carefully arranged squash and potatoes there is a tiny ancient woman with a thin, dark face. Elena Zoziashvili. Elena....her son is in Tbilisi, but she doesn't remember his name. She is half blind and very hard of hearing. She smiles quietly at the group of strangers. There are two grey cats at her feet and five half-grown kittens tumbling about in the corner. "Granny, we'll get the doctors for you and they'll take you to Tbilisi." She keeps smiling and spreads her hands helplessly, looking about her in confusion. At last she grasps what we are saying. "No, I don't want to...." she repeats, stroking the fluffy cat with a hand that is covered with scratches and gnarled with arthritis.
At the other end of the village we find a house that has miraculously survived. Next to it stands an old man of about eighty. He has a tube in his throat from a tracheotomy long ago and can't say a word, but writes on a scrap of paper for us that his name is Vakhtang Durgishvili and he is completely alone. Mobiles don't work properly here and calls to the Red Cross are continually cut off. We go to the edge of the village and suddenly see some more people. Georgians? Not very likely....
A lively Ossetian woman of about sixty is talking incessantly. Zalina is married to a Georgian, but what are they to do? How can they leave for Georgia proper when they have lived all their lives in Ossetia? She clasps her hands together. "All sorts of pro-Georgian officials came here and said ‘You must leave, there is going to be a war. When we are victorious, you can safely come back to your houses.' But my husband and I did not give the idea much thought. The thing is that our house is set apart a bit and I didn't notice that people were starting to leave. I didn't even see our daughter leaving with the children. I went to see her one day, but she wasn't there. There was no one there at all!"
A gaunt, stooped Georgian with a black moustache appears from the back of the courtyard with a pile of small peaches in the hem of his shirt. He smiles timidly and comes up to us. Here, he says, have some of these, you are welcome to whatever we have! "We have had a lot of trouble from looters recently," he admits. "They pester us....they took our cow." "And they almost set fire to the house!" interrupts Zalina. "We were kissing their hands, anything, as long they left us in peace. But they take first one thing, then another. Our neighbour Anna Stepanovna lost all her money to them, down to the last kopek."
Anna Stepanovna is a wizened dark-skinned school -teacher with a white scarf tied over her greying hair. She comes running up to make our acquaintance. She, poor thing, had been saving for a year to pay for crowns on her teeth, which are indeed in a bad state. She had amassed quite a tidy sum, as much as one thousand five hundred roubles ($60), and they took it all, even threatening to burn down her house. Her husband is, after all, a Georgian.
Nearby there live some Ossetian women with Ossetian husbands. The husband of one of them, Tamara, was wounded during the shooting and the Georgians took him with them to Gori, where they apparently put him in hospital. But who knows how he's faring? There are no communication links at all. Electricity is down so you can't charge your mobile, and if you go into the city to make a call, your house will be completely destroyed while you are away. So Tamara has no information at all about her husband. The husband of another woman, Elizaveta, had a heart attack during the shoot-out, so the Georgians took him away too. She was on the point of starting the mourning process, sure that he was dead. But the day before she had nonetheless decided to leave her house and managed to get through to some relatives in Georgia on telephone. They told her he was alive and even getting better. But Elizaveta is so scared on her own, especially at night. She sits and shakes...her daughter's house has already been burnt down. The looters are completely ruthless and the fact that she is Ossetian will hardly protect her.
Zalina insists that we all sit down at the table on her terrace. She has managed find something to offer us, although she has had no flour for a long time and no oil. But on the table are things from better times: homemade cheese with holes, fruit from the garden, nuts and homemade wine. She chatters away. "All the houses were untouched on 10 August, only the school was burning. But after that it really got going and there seems to be no end. I am really sorry that all those Georgians have lost their houses. Many of them were good, simple people who absolutely did not want war. Their sons mostly worked in Tskhinvali. But I can understand the arsonists too. During the first war, in the nineties, Georgians burnt many of the Ossetian houses. Then everything went quiet, of course. But recently, when the Georgian police erected their posts in the area, they really tormented people from the Ossetian villages. To get from town to town you had to go through these checkpoints and they stopped all food bought in Tskhinvali, saying it was smuggled goods and that everything had to be bought in Georgia. They asked all sorts of questions and searched our things. This made life unbearable for so many people. I think that if there had been no Georgian police checkpoints and no harassment, there would have been no pillage and arson. There's a village not far from here, Archnetti, where Georgians and Ossetians still live side by side quite peacefully."
In ethnically mixed villages and even in purely Georgian villages without a pro-Georgian administration the situation is quite different than inside the enclave. Georgian houses in the Leninogorsk district, at the edge of the Dhava district or even here, west of Tskhinvali, are not burning. For instance in the village Zalina mentioned, Archnetti, ten of the sixty houses are Georgian. Here the Georgians sit as quiet as mice, demonstrating their loyalty to the Ossetian authorities, and they have so far been left in peace. In another village, Znauri, local Georgians were also left alone, but now the head of the administration is simply in tears - they are harassed, picked on and soon, if the Ossetian police authorities don't intervene, there could be bloodshed. But they don't seem in any particular hurry to do so.
Zalina insists on giving us a bag of nuts. When we promise to ask the Red Cross to bring her and her neighbours some flour, oil and other humanitarian aid, she suddenly says "My husband and I actually belong to a Christian organisation. Perhaps they might help us. When you go back to Moscow, could you find them and tell them about our troubles?" We ask her which Christian group in Moscow we should look for. She holds out an unusual-looking Bible in a black cover and says proudly "We have been Jehovah's Witnesses for 18 years, since we saw the light!"
Jehovah's Witnesses? God really does move in mysterious ways! The great thing is that it won't take much to find the Witnesses. At least once a month they come knocking at my door - I note cynically that they make a point of coming early on Sunday morning. The next time they come we'll have a good chat about how they should be helping their fellow brethren in a humanitarian catastrophe zone.
But joking apart, what should we actually do? Elena, who has almost lost her wits, and Vakhtang, who has lost his voice, will be taken by the Red Cross to Georgia, of course. But those mixed families, or the Ossetians, left behind in burnt-out villages? There's no one for them in Georgia: they live here. The looters have completely cleaned out the Georgian houses and are now high on arson and robbery, unable to stop. And finally....if in one hour we saw so many helpless people in Avnevi, how many more must there be in other burning enclave villages?
It would seem that if the Ossetian authorities provide no protection in the enclave villages for residents' property and the remaining old people, this should be taken on by the Russian army. After all, Ossetian territory is under their control. And quite recently things appeared to be moving in that direction. When villages to the north of Tskhinvali - Kekhvi, Achabeti, Kurta and Tamarasheni - had been burning for two days, the Russian military set up their checkpoints on 13 August, preventing Ossetian local militia and looters from passing through. The fires and robberies immediately decreased in number; the military found about a hundred old people in these villages and sent them with a convoy of peacemakers to Georgia. The army was really doing something essential and worthwhile. But less than a week later, the checkpoints were dismantled and everything returned to the grim status quo.
Why did this happen? What is preventing the Russian government from tasking the numerous Emergencies Ministry personnel and the military currently in the republic with taking the situation under their control? They should go through all those villages, looking into every courtyard and collecting up the old people who want to leave and have some hope of care and safety in Georgia. They should offer to protect those not prepared to leave and stop the looting, when all is said and done. There could be a solution for this problem and why Russia at the present time is not trying to solve it is a question that needs to be raised.
11 September 2008
Tanya Lokshina is Russia Researcher, Human Rights Watch
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