[T]here was another way in which the world seemed to revolve backward during the Valdai, which was if anything even more disturbing. During two lunches over the course of the conference, the president and prime minister of Russia spoke with us for a total of almost seven hours, answering unscripted questions without the help of aides. The foreign minister, deputy prime minister and deputy chief of the general staff spoke with us for several more hours. The chances of this happening in George Bush’s Washington, or indeed most other Western capitals, are zero.
On the other hand, I was told, several U.S. experts who had been invited refused to come because they were afraid that to be seen to talk with Russian leaders would hurt their chances of being selected for jobs in the next U.S. administration, or even their candidate’s chances of being elected president. In particular, they were afraid of attending a conference including meetings with the presidents of Abkhazia and South Ossetia—even though they had the option of not attending them. The idea that it was their duty as analysts to find out what these people are thinking evidently did not occur to them.
In the course of the discussions, we heard a great deal from Russian participants about Russian national interests, and about international peace, stability and cooperation against global threats; but not one word of ideology. The tone was sometimes harsh, but entirely pragmatic. On the other hand, from the U.S. administration and presidential candidates we’ve heard a flood of ideological clichés from the cold war about defending democracy and spreading freedom—platitudes with absolutely no relevance to the reasons for or the circumstances surrounding the war over South Ossetia.
Of course, taken as a whole, U.S. society is much more open and democratic than Russian society; but this is no longer necessarily true of American politicians or Washington elites when it comes to key issues of foreign policy. As for most of the U.S. media, its response to the war over South Ossetia demonstrated that it can on occasion be every bit as hysterically one-sided and willfully inaccurate as the Russian one. Indeed, in this case it was parts of the U.S. media which told by far the biggest single lie—namely the outrageous suggestion, in the face of all the known facts, that it was Russia and not Georgia that started this latest war.
Over the course of our lunch in Sochi, Vladimir Putin congratulated the U.S. media ironically on this performance—they acted “as if they had been given an order.” This raises the interesting question of what is in fact better: authoritarian control from above or mass hysteria from below. The way things are going, we will get plenty of opportunities to study this question in the years to come.
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By Sean — 9 years ago
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.Post Views: 63
By Sean — 3 years ago
Eliot Borenstein, Professor of Russian and Slavic Studies at New York University. He is the author of Overkill: Sex Violence, and Russian Popular Culture after 1991 and blogs about Russia at All the Russias Blog.
John-Paul Himka, Professor Emeritus in the Department of History & Classics at University of Alberta. He is co-editor with Joanna Beata Michlic of Bringing the Dark Past to Light: The Reception of the Holocaust in Post-Communist Europe. His recent article is “Legislating Historical Truth: Ukraine’s Laws of 9 April 2015” published at Ab Imperio.Post Views: 138
By Sean — 9 years ago
As we all well know, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev did the deed and recognized the independence South Ossetia and Abkhazia. A chorus of condemnation, disappointment, and warning immediately followed.
US Secretary Rice: “I want to be very clear, since the United States is a permanent member of the [UN] Security Council, this simply will be dead on arrival.”
US President Bush: “This decision is inconsistent with numerous United Nations Security Council resolutions that Russia has voted for in the past, and is also inconsistent with the French-brokered six-point ceasefire agreement which President Medvedev signed. Russia’s action only exacerbates tensions and complicates diplomatic negotiations.”
German PM Angela Merkel: “This contradicts the basic principles of territorial integrity and is therefore absolutely unacceptable.”
Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili: “This is a test for the entire world and a test for our collective solidarity . . . Today the fate of Europe and the free world is unfortunately being played out in my small country.”
British Foreign Minister David Miliband: “Russia must not learn the wrong lessons from the Georgia crisis. There can be no going back on fundamental principles of territorial integrity, democratic governance and international law.”
It’s open season on Russia as verbal pellets rain on Medvedev’s head. Dima’s response? Bring it on baby.
“Nothing frightens us,” he said in an interview on Russian television. “Including the prospect of a cold war, but we do not want this, and in this situation all depends on the position of our partners”.
Dima talked tough. He held his ground. He threw the ball back in the West’s court and said, “Do something about it.” Nothing is going to sway him. Not a slipping stock market, not investment flight, not a tarnished international image.
But talking tough was only part of the game. Medvedev seemed to be everywhere today in a press junket blitz. An interview with BBC, an editorial in the Financial Times, a talk with Al-Jazeera, with CNN, Russia Today, and France’s TFI Television. I’m wondering if he’ll make it on Oprah or the View. “Hey world! Meet Dimitry Anatolevich Medvedev the President of Russia! Here’s a memo for you. We’re going to do what we want and you can’t do a damn thing about it.” Funny, no one seems to be calling him a “liberal” now.
The crux of Medvedev’s response focuses on quite predictable points: Russia’s duty to protect its citizens, saving Ossetian victims, Western hypocrisy and their flippant disregard for Russia, and, of course, the K-word: Kosovo, Kosovo, Kosovo. Russians said Kosovo was a precedent and everyone dismissed it. Well, here’s what Dima says now:
Ignoring Russia’s warnings, western countries rushed to recognise Kosovo’s illegal declaration of independence from Serbia. We argued consistently that it would be impossible, after that, to tell the Abkhazians and Ossetians (and dozens of other groups around the world) that what was good for the Kosovo Albanians was not good for them. In international relations, you cannot have one rule for some and another rule for others.
Now others are asking: Is Abkhazia and Ossetia like Kosovo or not? Well, there is no doubt in my mind that the situations will be compared, laws will be examined, victims will be counted, treaties, resolutions, and agreements will be consulted. All the diplomats and politicians will posture in the front of the cameras, using all the predictable code words and phrases. The bones of the dead will be exhumed to construct just the right historical parallel. A pillory of pundits, editorials, and “experts” will swoon at questions that make them and their views relevant. Ah, international crisis, it’s just so good for business.
But there is something missing in all of this. There is a silence or should we call it a deafness pervading all the chatter and pontificating. Do you hear it? Can you feel its vibrations amid the declarations and denials of recognition?
What is this sound? It’s the voice of the Abkhaz and Ossetian.
Well, I sure as hell can’t hear it. It seems that amid the geopolitical spit swapping and tit for tat maneuvers, few have bothered to ask the lowly Abkhaz and Ossetian how they feel about being catapulted into the club of nations. Most articles detail the reactions from the the US, Europe, Georgia and Russia.
Sure, sure the Abkhaz and Ossetians don’t have official recognition by laws they didn’t write or politicans they didn’t elect, but still there must be something said for the act of creation that “recognition” brings. After all, three weeks ago Abkhazia and South Ossetia only mattered to those who gave a rat’s ass. Now all eyes are transfixed. They’re suddenly that little corner of the real life Risk board where, in the words of Mikheil Saakashvili in FT, Moscow is unfolding a plan “prepared over years” to “rebuild its empire, seize greater control of Europe’s energy supplies and punish those who believed democracy could flourish on its borders. Europe has reason to worry.” Little South Ossetia and Abkhazia are the pen from which Russia “redraw[ing] the map of Europe.” Who knew that the utterance of “recognition” could spark such discursive fury.
Saakashvili’s editorial is interesting on another level. It is a veritable denial of Abkhazia’s and South Ossetia’s actual existence. His words are an act of discursive erasure. This is already clear in his statement “This war was never about South Ossetia or Georgia.” He goes farther than this. “Over the past five years [Russia] cynically laid the groundwork for this pretense,” he writes, “by illegally distributing passports in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, “manufacturing” Russian citizens to protect” [Emphasis mine]. The Ossetians are essential phantasmagorias concocted in some Moscow OVIR office.
Real people? Nah . . . unless . . . Unless they are positioned as perpetrators. But even here, the Ossetians silence in favor of the Russians. Saak writes,
Since Russia’s invasion, its forces have been “cleansing” Georgian villages in both regions – including outside the conflict zone – using arson, rape and execution. Human rights groups have documented these actions.
But Mikheil, it was the Ossetian militias extracting some revenge that did these acts. Why deny them the little agency anyone is willing to afford them?
It is only through the agency of violence, retribution, and revenge that the Ossetian is now able to speak. Even from the Russian side the Ossetians are relegated to a passive position of “victims.” The Ossetian as the figure of the perpetrator or victim is his only existence. The Abkhaz too only speak the language of perpetrator. Saakashvili tells us,
Moscow also counts on historical amnesia. It hopes the west will forget ethnic cleansing in Abkhazia drove out more than three-quarters of the local population – ethnic Georgians, Greeks, Jews and others – leaving the minority Abkhaz in control. Russia also wants us to forget that South Ossetia was run not by its residents (almost half were Georgian before this month’s ethnic cleansing) but by Russian officials. When the war started, South Ossetia’s de facto prime minister, defence minister and security minister were ethnic Russians with no ties to the region.
This paragraph is quite revealing. The Abkhaz exist only as ethnic cleansers and the Ossetians, well they don’t even govern themselves. Their cause is merely a plot by “ethnic Russians with no ties to the region.”
Surely the Ossetian and Abkhaz reaction amounts to something? After all, they are fighting and dying, right?
As much as Saakashvili and others try to argue that Russia has “manufactured” the Ossetians or that this crisis is all part of Russia’s larger designs, someone must account for the fact that the Ossetians and Abkhazians are celebrating. Sure the laws, politicos, nations, and others needed for “legitimate” independence are silent, but there is something to be said the act of creation recognition brings.Post Views: 69