How many Ossetians died as the result of Georgia’s attack? The numbers have been a constant point of speculation over the last two weeks. In the immediate aftermath of the attack, Russia claimed 1,600-2,000 deaths. By 21 August the Financial Times was reporting that the Russians could only confirm 133 civilian deaths, though Boris Salmakov of the Russian prosecutor’s office warned that the number could climb. Human Rights Watch claimed that only 44 deaths based on an interview with a doctor from the main hospital in Tskhinvali. Nevertheless, the 133 remained the accepted number in the Western press.
Now that accepted number should be revised. According to Teimuraz Khugaev, head prosecutor for the South Ossetian government, the number now stands at 1,692 dead and about 1,500 wounded. However, he added that “Information about new burials come to us every day. It’s difficult for us to confirm all these figures.”
Time will tell if this number will stand or even be accepted.
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In the last few weeks, Georgia has sprung back into the news. Protesters are calling for Saakashvili to resign as more and more people have become disillusioned with the six year old Rose Revolution. Russia is threatening to pull out of a NATO meeting to protest military training exercises outside of Tbilisi, while some are speculating that Russia’s own military exercises near South Ossetia might signal that it’s ready to occupy the Caucasian country if political tensions escalate or if they’re provoked.
Georgian officials are claiming to have prevented one possible provocation this past week when they stopped 20 Nashi activists from “provoking incidents” at the Georgian-South Ossetian demarcation line. The Georgian MVD detained Aleksander Kuznetsov, a Nashi commissar who claimed during his recorded interrogation that he was seeking to get to Tbilisi to hold a Nashi action to support of the opposition. Keznetsov’s detention has infuriated Russian officials. Andrei Nesterenko, a spokesman for the Russian Foreign Ministry said of Kuznetskov’s detention sparked “another feeling – disgust with the methods of Georgian security services – unwittingly adds to the founded indignation. It seems they were ordered to obtain ‘proof of Russian interference in Georgian affairs’ at any cost.”
Such is a day in the life of Russian-Georgian relations.
Lost in the mix are the so-called “internally displaced persons,” or IDPs, the rather cold term applied people driven from their homes when the standoff between Russia and Georgia turned hot last August. However, it’s not easy to become recognized as an IDP and receive the benefits that status confers. There is an estimated 26,000 displaced residents of Tskhinvali, many of which are of mixed Ossetian and Georgian families, who according to Paul Rimple at Eurasianet.org, are “hanging in bureaucratic limbo within Georgia.” They are in limbo because they lack the documentation to verify their residence required to register as IDPs with Georgia’s Ministry of Refugees and Accommodation. Once registered as an IDP, a refugee is entitled to a small stipend ($13-16 a month), resettlement in housing with a piece of land, medical benefits and schools supplies for their children.
Nor can these refugees return to Tskhinvali to get the necessary papers. Movement between the “Demarcation line” is difficult and dangerous. Plus,there is no guarantee that the documents still exist. Many people left their identity papers in their destroyed houses. As one refugee named Nona Hubulova told Rimple, “All my documents, everything was in my house. All I have is my Soviet birth certificate, which was miraculously in Tbilisi, but that is not enough to get me my IDP status.” The only refugees that have been able to register were those from Georgian occupied South Ossetia. Village authorities managed to take many documents with them as they evacuated to Georgia.
While the Ministry of Refugees and Accommodation promises to have a decision by mid-May, and assures that all these people will eventually receive IDP status, the fact that one’s identity must be proven raises the centrality of biopolitics to being recognized as a refugee. As if being displaced, driven from your home, or fleeing ethnic violence isn’t enough, refugees must prove themselves as victims of inhumanity by supplying biopolitical proof of their humanity. Without birth certificates, passports, and other forms of identity documents–all documents recognized, generated, and issued by a state, it is as if these people have no rights, and barely the right to exist. As Ilita Dudayeva told Rimple: “They say they’ll know more in a month, but I don’t know if I’ll be alive in a month. In a way, our humanity begins, and to a large extent ends, with how our condition is categorized, processed and filed, i.e. codified in the law of a distant and faceless bureaucracy.
Where are the human rights in that?
Today, Human Rights Watch released more evidence of what it calls “the widespread torching of ethnic Georgian villages inside South Ossetia.” According to satellite images provided by UNOSAT, the torching of five Georgian villages, Tamarasheni, Kekhvi, Kvemo Achabeti (Nizhnie Achaveti in Russian), Zemo Achabeti (Verkhnie Achaveti in Russian), and Kurta, occurred on August 10, 12, 13, 17, 19 and 22.
For some of the visual evidence collected by HRW, see its photo essay “Burning and Looting of Ethnic Georgian Villages in South Ossetia”
UNOSAT satellite photos are:
- Fires by date (high resolution, 3.3MB; low resolution, 1.6MB)
- Destroyed ethnic Georgian villages (high resolution, 26.7MB; low resolution, 8.5MB)
- Detailed satellite images of destroyed ethnic Georgian villages (10.2MB)
These acts of vengeance and ethnic cleansing were corroborated by Human Rights Watch researchers, Georgian refugees, and Ossetian militiamen “who openly admitted that the houses were being burned by their associates, explaining that the objective was to ensure that ethnic Georgians would not have the houses to return to.”
HRW describes the overall destruction as follows:
The damage shown in the ethnic Georgian villages is massive and concentrated. In Tamarasheni, UNOSAT’s experts counted a total of 177 buildings destroyed or severely damaged, accounting for almost all of the buildings in the town. In Kvemo Achabeti, there are 87 destroyed and 28 severely damaged buildings (115 total); in Zemo Achabeti, 56 destroyed and 21 severely damaged buildings (77 total); in Kurta, 123 destroyed and 21 severely damaged buildings (144 total); in Kekhvi, 109 destroyed and 44 severely damaged buildings (153 total); in Kemerti, 58 destroyed and 20 severely damaged buildings (78 total); and in Dzartsemi, 29 destroyed and 10 severely damaged buildings (39 total).
And here is a selection of Georgian witness accounts compiled by HRW:
“[The Ossetians] had cars outside and first looted everything they liked. Then they brought hay, put it in the house and ignited it. The house was burned in front of my eyes.”
– Zhuzhuna Chulukhidze, 76, resident of Zemo Achabeti
“I was beaten and my house was looted by Ossetian militias three times during a single day. After they took everything and there was nothing more to loot, they brought petrol, poured it everywhere in the rooms and outside the house, and then put it on fire. They made me watch as my house was fully burned.”
– Ila Chulukhadze, 84, resident of Kvemo Achabeti
“They [Ossetians] came several times to my house and took everything they liked. Once there was nothing else to take, they poured petrol and put it on fire. I watched how they burned my house as well as my neighbors’ houses.”
– Rezo Babutsidze, 80, resident of Kvemo Achabeti
“Ossetians first took out everything they could from my house. Then they brought hay, put it in the house and put it on fire. They did not allow us to take even our documents. I saw how my house was completely burnt.”
– Tamar Khutsinashvili, 69, resident of Tamarasheni
Of the many media outlets addressing the crisis, I think Open Democracy‘s Russia page has some of the more interesting articles. I especially recommend Tanya Lokshina’s “South Ossetia: Tskhinvali’s Apocalypse.” Here is a revealing passage about the ethnic situation:
Yesterday in the Georgian villages on this road, these houses were being torched by the dozen. Armed men in fatigues had gone on the rampage stealing furniture, rugs, TV sets, vacuum cleaners and crockery left behind by the owners. Laughing and shouting, the looters piled the stuff into the cars. The road, jammed with armoured personnel carriers and assorted vehicles of the Ossetian militias, was thick with smoke from exhaust fumes and burning houses. Our Niva jeep got hopelessly stuck, and walking along the road with my camera I took pictures half-blindly, almost randomly. A hysterical Georgian woman, flailing her arms beside the burning remains of what had been her home just a few hours ago, was cursing both the Ossetian militia and President Saakashvili. A frail old man with burned hands and singed hair was hopelessly trying to put out the hissing, smouldering boards with water from a small plastic bucket… A dark-haired fighter in camouflage grimacing: “Taking pictures? We’re burning these to make sure people have to houses to come back to. Otherwise, if they come back, there’ll be an enclave here again, and we can’t live with that. We answer blood with blood. What is happening here is an apocalypse. Do you understand? People are turning into animals. And there’s no way back.”
A drunken militiaman prods me with his gun: “Hey, are you Georgian?” Another physiognomist to deal with. Screaming over the roar of the tanks, I launch into a well-rehearsed string of obscenities: “Do I look like a f…ing Georgian, open your eyes, you moron, I’m Russian, f… it” As I expected, swearing works better than any identification document. Ten meters further on there is a ruined bank with the remains of a shiny cash machine – Georgia put loads of money into these enclave villages, clearly trying to show how good life could be if only South Ossetia put itself under Georgia’s wing: modern shopping centres, cafes, tennis courts, even a swimming pool… Today, the vestiges of this former prosperity only seem to provoke the looters even more.
A young guy in a dirty shirt and camouflage pants waves frantically: “Come here!” “What for?” “Come here, I said! I won’t hurt you!” The boy points to a wooden bench by the side of the road and sits down. “Are you a journalist? Take off your headscarf. You look a lot like a Georgian in it. They’ll do you in, and that would be a shame…” Cursing through my teeth, I rip off the scarf wrapped around my hair to keep the soot away. If and when I get back to Moscow, I’ll probably have to shave it all off. But better bald than dead, right? “
All this kind of puts all the geopolitical jabbering and jostling of the “Great Powers” into perspective.
Speaking of the Great Powers, a new set of potential tit for tats were reported today. Apparently, the EU is contemplating sanctions against Russia. The move is apparently being pushed by Poland, Latvia, and Estonia. The rest of Europe isn’t going to go along. French officials were quick to say that “we don’t foresee any sanctions decided on by the [upcoming] European Council.” Translated: someone shut those uppity former Soviet satellites up and get them to learn their place.
Vladimir Chizhov, Russia’s ambassador to the EU, also viewed sanctions as foolhardy and remote. ‘I highly doubt it might ever happen. It (imposing sanctions) would be more to the detriment of the EU than to Russia,’he said in a news conference.
The truth is, the EU and the United States don’t have any power to do anything. They can snarl, show their fangs, and bark but that’s about it. As Igor Lukes, a Professor in Russian and Eastern European Affairs at Boston University told the Christian Science Monitor,
“I just don’t see that the West in general or the United States in particular has any cards left to engage Russia in some strategic game. Cheney may have a well-deserved reputation for being hawkish, but the US is not going to confront Russia to maintain the territorial integrity of Georgia, and the Russians know it.”
All their threats, in Lukes’ words, “ring hollow.” He went on, “The Europeans won’t do anything to encourage a confrontation with Russia. They simply can’t afford to do it.”
No they can’t. According to Kommersant, rumors are swirling around Moscow that if the EU retaliates, Russia will simply turn off the oil spigot. Rumors they may be but does Europe really want to risk it with the winter coming in a few months?
The real question is whether the Georgia crisis really represents an “international turning point” as Seamus Milne suggests in the Guardian.
In my opinion, it’s far too soon to tell. If South Ossetia and Georgia are still an issue in six months, then I’ll give Milne some prescient street cred.
Finally, CNN has released a full English transcript of its interview with Putin. It’s about time.
Bernard-Henri Levy, France’s conservative philosophy guru, is a big fat liar. As soon as war broke out in Georgia, Levy rushed there hoping to reproduce his fabled war zone reporting from Bosnia. It turns out, however, the article he wrote for Le Monde and the Huffington Post about what he saw in Gori was all his imagination. Here’s his description of Gori:
After crossing through six new check points, one of which consists of a tree trunk hoisted up and down by a winch commanded by a group of paramilitaries, we arrive in Gori. We are not in the center of the city. But from where Lomaia has dropped us, before taking off in the Audi to collect his wounded, from this intersection dominated by an enormous tank as big as a rolling bunker, we can see fires burning everywhere. Rockets lighting up the sky at regular intervals, followed by short detonations. The emptiness. The slight odor of putrefaction and death. Most of all, the incessant rumbling of armored vehicles. Almost every other car is an unmarked car jammed with militia, recognizable because of their white armbands and their headbands. Gori does not belong to the Ossetia which the Russians claim they have come to “liberate.” It is a Georgian town. And they have burned it down, pillaged it, reduced it to a ghost town. Emptied.
John Rosenthal writes in the World Politics Review that Levy never got into Gori. “The problem with this account,” Rosenthal says, “is that Lévy appears not to have seen what he reported seeing. In fact, as has since been confirmed by other members of the group and even conceded by members of Lévy’s own entourage, Lévy never made it to Gori.”
Hat tip to SRB commentor Kolya for the article.