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Ascherson on Abkhazia; Ames on WaPo

There are two new articles of note that concern the Georgian War and the low intensity media war against Russia.  The first is Neal Ascherson’s “A Chance to Join the World” in the London Review of Books on the present and future of Abkhazia. The second is Mark Ames’ “Editorial Malpractice” or more aptly named on the Exiled site, “Freddy Gets Fingered: How I Busted the Washington Post’s Op-ed Page Editor.” Therein Ames unmasks WaPo‘s “incessant demonization [of Russian and Putin] puts more weight on ideology than on journalistic professionalism–or simple fact-checking.”

In regard to Ascherson’s article, the big question is the future of now defacto 120 mile coastal strip called Abkhazia.  Rejoining a nationalist fueled Georgia set on asserting its “sovereign territorial integrity” by force is out of the question.  There appears to be little desire to formally attach to Russia though being its client is inescapable and in many ways desirable.  Is a new Abkhazian nation state in the making?  Interestingly, much of Abkhazia’s fate might fall on the emergence of a Georgian “Willy Brandt” and his ability to avoid the trap of the Oder-Neisse Problem. Here is Ascherson’s take on the issue:

We have seen this trap before. Well . . . any European journalist of my advanced age has seen it. It was called the Oder-Neisse Problem. It consumed hours of soporific briefings and blackened kilometres of dead paper. It kept West Germany safely hobbled to the Western Allies for just over twenty years.

There are differences of scale and detail, but the similarities are sickening. The Oder-Neisse Problem went like this. After the Second World War, Poland annexed the German provinces of Silesia, Pomerania and East Prussia, and expelled their populations – some eight million people. Most of them ended up in West Germany. Egged on by the Americans, the new West German state refused to recognise the new eastern border on the Oder and Neisse rivers, proclaimed that the ‘frontiers of 1937’ were still in force, and demanded that the rest of the world accept the duty to restore Germany’s ‘territorial integrity’. The enormous expellee leagues gained a stranglehold on politics. For decades, it was assumed that anyone who suggested recognising the Oder-Neisse Line was committing political suicide. West German TV daily predicted the weather, cloudy or sunny, in Silesia as well as in Bavaria.

In public, the Western Allies stoutly supported this position. In private, any French or British diplomat would agree that it was odious and unreal. But that was why they valued it. A West Germany firmly shackled to this impossibilist dogma would never be able to do a deal with the Soviet Union, such as leaving Nato in return for reunification. It was only in 1970 that Willy Brandt decided to lead his country out of the trap by recognising the territorial results of the war and the new boundaries. The expellees threatened to destroy him, but nothing happened. The Allies, who had grown fed up with their own hypocrisy, let Brandt have his way.

When will there be a Georgian Willy Brandt? The notion raises hollow laughter in Sukhum. Georgian politicians still insist that Abkhazia is Georgian, use extreme rhetoric about ‘overcoming separatism’ and walk out of meetings to which Abkhazians are admitted. But as with West Germany, the effect of this ‘impossibilism’ is to make Georgia less independent, not more.


Ames’ target is a much easier bird to pick off.  English language media’s bias is well known, and from my unscientific survey the Washington Post and the Guardian tend to be the most vociferous in painting Russian and Putin as a neo-Evil Empire. Noting this may be old hat, but constantly necessary in the trenches of the  information war. The target of Ames’ ire is WaPo‘s recent attempt to pin the “assassination attempt” against Karina Moskalenko on Putin even though French police showed that there was no attempt whatsoever.  When Ames asked Hiatt why the Post didn’t wait for the investigation before charging, trying and convicting Putin, he responded:

“I am aware of newspaper articles in Figaro and the New York Times that quoted unnamed police sources positing the theory that a broken thermometer was the source of the mercury found in Moskalenko’s car,” he said. “These sources were in Paris, where officials may have a foreign-policy reason not to spark a dispute with Russia, and not in Strasbourg, where the investigation was taking place.” He also implied that Moskalenko, who doubted the “broken-thermometer theory,” as Hiatt put it, was more reliable than the investigators. These were incredible charges leveled at Le Figaro and the French political and judicial systems. But was Hiatt right?

Well as Gomer used to say, “Surprise, surprise, surprise” Hiatt wasn’t right.  In fact, with “the magic of a couple of phone calls” to Curille Louis, the Figaro reporter who wrote about the police investigation, Ames discovered the following:

“I am frankly surprised that the Washington Post‘s editorial page editor would say something like this without even calling me to see if what he says was true,” Louis told me, stunned and laughing. “It’s simply not true. I used several sources, but the two main sources were a top police official here in Paris and a top investigator from the prosecutor’s office in Strasbourg.” Louis even named the source in Strasbourg–assistant prosecutor Claude Palpacuer. His sources in Paris are reliable people he has been working with for years. Louis explained that the investigators felt they’d probably solved the case after they tracked down the car’s previous owner, a local antiques dealer who had indeed broken an old barometer (not thermometer) in the car shortly before selling it.

I then asked Louis what he thought about Hiatt’s larger assumption: that Le Figaro‘s sources in Paris could not be trusted because the French might be worried about upsetting Russia. Again, Louis laughed in disbelief: “This sounds like a kind of conspiracy theory. You would have to believe that judges and police officials in two cities conspired to manipulate a Le Figaro journalist in order to plant a story that was not very big news here in the first place. Why would the authorities go through all of this effort for such a small story? I find this idea of a conspiracy completely unlikely.” Louis was disappointed at Hiatt’s accusations: “I suppose I might feel honored that the Washington Post bothers to write about me, but you know, I feel a bit surprised. If he called me I could have explained how I wrote the story. But he didn’t try. Quite often we’re very impressed here by how American journalists work, the high standards they use to source stories…. So it’s disappointing to learn that [Hiatt] came to his conclusions about the way I work without even calling me.”

Kudos to Ames.  And to Louis, don’t worry if you keep reading English language reporting on Russia the disappointment will becoming something of a second nature.  Many of us have become so inured to it that it wears like a second skin.

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