/ 17 August 2008

A dirty little war in Georgia

It began when five men stole into the rustic village of Tkviavi. With its plum trees, walnut groves and vines, Tkviavi was one of a jigsaw of picturesque villages beneath the hulking mountains of central Georgia. Up the road was Tskhinvali — the grim Soviet-style capital of the backward rebel statelet of South Ossetia. Down the road was Gori, a town once more famous for its association with an unpromising cobbler’s son, Josef Stalin.

The men arrived outside Elene Maisuradze’s modest cottage. Waving guns and speaking rapidly in Russian, they wanted to know where Elene had hidden her Lada. One of them was Ossetian; the others had come from Russia.

”I told them I had sold it,” she said. ”They asked me, ‘Where are the boys?’ I said my sons were away. They took everything from my house, turned it upside down and left.”

Soon more paramilitaries, armed with Kalashnikovs, turned up. ”They wanted to know where my basement was. I told them and said, ‘We have plenty of wine. Please take it.’ They went to the basement, shot it up and came back. I was crying. They said in Russian, ‘Rastreli, rastreli [Kill her, kill her].’ My neighbour, a Russian woman, told them, ‘Don’t do this.’ They shot into the ground and said, ‘Fuck Saakashvili.”’

Murderous wave
The militia gangs were part of a murderous wave unleashed by Russia last week on Georgian civilians. The Russian army has now advanced deep into Georgian territory, capturing at least one-third of the country, including Gori, the Black Sea port of Poti and the western towns of Senaki and Zugdidi. On Saturday they were within 20km of Tbilisi, the capital.

At the same time, gangs of Chechen and Ossetian irregulars have been busy carrying out their own private ethnic cleansing. All week fires burned in Tkviavi, Karaleti, Eredvi and other looted villages along the South Ossetian border; smoke plumed across the valley and into the hazy Upper Caucasus.

Survivors described how the irregulars roamed from house to house. They sifted out villagers with Georgian surnames, immediately executing all teenage boys. Nugzari Jashashvili (65) was returning home across the fields when he saw gunmen approach the house of his neighbour, Gela Chikladze (50). ”They cut his throat,” Jashashvili said. The same five-man gang looted his house and stole his generator.

Jasashvili said the gunmen killed his cousin Koba (40) and another man. They took two other local men hostage. After watching his neighbour’s murder, Jashashvili hid in a cornfield.

Once they had gone, he escaped, fleeing for three days across the fields towards Gori. ”We lived off peaches, apples and plums,” Jashashvili said. ”There wasn’t any water. We drank very little.”

Those spared were mainly the elderly. After gunmen came to her home, Maisuradze (73) also fled, packing an icon and other possessions in two plastic bags, and leaving the village on foot. ”The gunmen were laughing at us,” she said.

One of her group — a 93-year-old woman — died on the road. ”We had to leave her,” Maisuradze said. She passed through burning villages full of corpses. ”There were bodies everywhere. I saw two dead women from my village lying on the ground. Everything was on fire.”

Global order
Russia’s war in Georgia is about more than just punishing Mikheil Saakashvili, Georgia’s pro-American President, whose doomed military incursion into South Ossetia 10 days ago caused the most serious crisis between Russia and the West since the Cold War.

The objectives of Russia’s Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, are much bigger: to create a new global order in which the United States and Russia are equal partners again. Putin has frequently lamented the demise of the Soviet Union. He has described it as the greatest geo-political catastrophe of the 20th century.

For Putin, the 1990s under Boris Yeltsin was a period of national humiliation in which a weakened Russia was forced to accept Western economic help and which saw former members of the Warsaw Pact embrace Nato, the West’s military club.

Over the past two years, Putin has given ample warning of his intentions to overturn the status quo in international affairs. Last year in Munich he launched a vituperative attack on the US, denouncing its ”unilateralism”. The Kremlin has criticised Nato’s westward expansion and the Bush administration’s deal with Warsaw last week to site missile defence systems in Poland and the Czech Republic. Nato membership for Ukraine and Georgia would, Putin made clear, be the final straw.

Putin’s aim, it appears, is to rewrite history, in particular the narrative that suggests that Russia lost the Cold War. Over the previous eight years as president, he has fashioned Russia into an advanced postmodern authoritarian state, governed by former KGB officers whose attitudes to the West were forged under communism. Putin has apparently never been reconciled to Russia’s new boundaries, which left millions of ethnic Russians living outside the borders of the Russian Federation in Ukraine, Georgia, the Baltic states and Central Asia.

Russian views
Nor is there any doubt about ordinary Russians’ views about the war in Georgia. ”Suck it and cry,” announced one piece of graffiti on a Moscow wall, an opinion echoed by most Muscovites.

”The Georgians were absolutely in the wrong,” said Igor Pavlov (23), a driver. ”They got what they were asking for.”

Andrei Teryoshin (35), a businessman, agreed: ”We were fighting to defend the people of South Ossetia, and I am proud of that.”

Anatoly Pavlov, a theatre director, went further: ”I want to complain about the one-sided reporting from the West. Your reports are not correct; they are not right. The West has been reflecting only the Georgian point of view.”

Nor was there any doubt about who was the initial aggressor. ”It’s perfectly obvious — Georgia, of course. And it’s not the first time either,” said pensioner Felix Bezik.

”This Saakashvili bloke, it’s clear he’s just an American puppet,” added Ivan Sidorov (63), a sports instructor. ”That’s how I see it: either he’s sick or he’s evil, the way he’s treated Russia.”

At the same time analysts at the Kremlin have given free rein to conspiracy theories. Sergei Markov put the Caucasus crisis down to a dastardly plot by Dick Cheney, US Vice-President, and Republican presidential candidate John McCain.

A confrontation with Russia would be extremely useful just before the US presidential election, exposing Democratic candidate Barack Obama’s inexperience in foreign and security policy and boosting McCain’s chances. Such is the paranoid world view of an analyst well connected to the entourage of Putin, who guarantee that such scenarios get an extensive airing on the Kremlin-controlled TV channels.

Strong position
With such views being expressed at home, Putin clearly feels he is in a strong domestic position as he presses to get back some of Russia’s old territory. Georgian observers expect Putin swiftly to absorb Georgia’s secessionist provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which broke away from Tbilisi during the 1992-1993 civil war. Both regions are likely to hold popular referendums on a formal or semi-formal union with the Russian Federation. Russia will justify this de facto annexation by pointing to the need to protect Abkhaz and Ossetian citizens from Georgian aggression.

”I expect this to happen within a couple of days,” said Zaza Gachechildaze, a Georgian analyst who predicted a war between Russia and Georgia in August. South Ossetia would vote to unify with Russian North Ossetia, while Abkhazia would declare itself independent and then associate with Russia, he said. Nor will this bring an end to Putin’s ambitions, he said. His next target is likely to be Ukraine — in particular, the Crimea, home to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet.

For Nana Tetsladi (35), there were no doubts last week about Putin’s ruthlessness, or his nonchalant defiance of world opinion. Russian Sukhoi SU-25 bombers pulverised her five-floor block of flats last Sunday, targeting the residential suburb of Verxvebi, on the outskirts of Gori. They bombed for three consecutive days.

”We fled 15 minutes before the bombs hit,” Nana said. Not everyone managed to get out, she added. Her pregnant neighbour, Marca, was killed, she said, together with her husband. Their seven-year-old son was injured. The twisted remains of Marca’s car still stood outside on Saturday, a blackened ruin, smelling of burnt flesh.

The bombs also fell on Gori’s Stalin Square, next to the grandiose Soviet-era museum to Stalin and the green railway carriage in which the dictator travelled to the 1945 Yalta conference. At least five civilians, including a Dutch journalist, were killed. With no discernible military target, it seems clear that the Kremlin was effecting its own form of collective punishment on the town, 27km from the border with South Ossetia.

Tanks in Gori
Two days after Russia’s President, Dmitry Medvedev, announced he was halting military operations, Russian tanks rolled into the centre of Gori, parking outside its sandstone church. This swift action took residents by surprise.

”I saw a soldier on the street. I assumed he was Georgian and asked him in Georgian for a light. He turned round and spoke in Russian,” Giorgi Maraneli (48) said. ”He gave me a match and we shook hands.”

Russian tanks took up positions just outside Gori, chopping the road that connects the east and west of the country and dividing Tbilisi from its Black Sea holiday coast. On Saturday, Georgia said Russia bombed the last rail link between the two divided halves, dismembering the small nation still further.

The mood on this new front line has sometimes been friendly. Young, multi-ethnic Russian soldiers posed for photographs as armoured personnel carriers clattered through the undergrowth, noisily squashing small fir trees and leaving swirling patterns on the grey tarmac.

One Russian officer, Major Nail (30), from Dagestan, turned out to be both witty and philosophical. Why had he invaded Georgia? ”There isn’t any difference between Georgia and Russia,” he suggested. This was his first trip to Georgia, he said, adding: ”The landscape is beautiful. But we also have big mountains in Dagestan.”

This innocuous mood is clearly illusory. On Thursday, a drunken South Ossetian general arrived at the Russian checkpoint in a stolen white Lada. He got out, puffing and red-faced, removed his pistol and started firing in the air. One of his henchmen fired into the ground; he then hijacked a United Nations Jeep. A battered mini-van carrying South Ossetian paramilitaries and flying the Russian flag careened down the road to Tbilisi. One was wearing a black balaclava; all were heavily armed; their mood was exuberant. Asked what they were doing, one joked: ”We’re on holiday.”

After fleeing for three days, Elene Maisuradze began trudging along the dusty road from Gori back to Tbilisi, 64km away. Five other villagers had come with her — an old woman dressed in black; a vigorous woman in her 70s and a couple with a young son wearing a green tracksuit. They had clearly come together in a collective struggle to stay alive. A Russian armoured column approached. The group dived into fields and hid behind a mud embankment. After five minutes they emerged — keening and weeping.

”My husband died 14 years ago. I wish I’d died soon after him. I can’t walk any more,” Maisuradze said, halting under a tree next to a petrol station. She put down her stick and showed off the few possessions she had salvaged — black-and-white photos of her as a young woman, a Bible and her icon of the Virgin Mary. ”My generation grew up during World War II. We were always crying. It was a terrible situation,” she said, adding: ”Now I’m old and I’m in a war again.”

Approaching Tbilisi
With Georgia’s army beaten off the field of battle, the Kremlin has sent columns of armoured vehicles trundling through the scenic countryside. Every day the Russians get closer to Tbilisi; on Saturday they were blocking a junction 20km away.

These advances have caused panic in Georgia’s shattered military. The Georgians have modern kit and American-style Toyota Jeeps, but they have no air force left and no tanks, and are no match for the Russian war machine.

These theatrical Russian advances have a clear purpose: to menace Saakashvili and to underscore the irrelevance of European and US diplomacy. Nobody doubts that Putin wants to overthrow Georgia’s pro-Western government. It is also personal: Putin’s loathing for Saakashvili is boundless, Georgian officials say.

”The idea is to punish Georgia and the Georgian government. And Misha [Saakashvili]. They hate Misha,” said Irakli Batkuashvili, the head of Georgia’s military planning division.

Call for withdrawal
On Friday, the US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, condemned Russia’s invasion of Georgia and called for an ”immediate withdrawal” of Russian troops. She also said the ”free world” needed to start a debate about the ”profound implications” of Russia’s actions.

”You can’t be a responsible member of institutions that are democratic and underscore democratic values and on the other hand act in this way against one of your neighbours,” Rice said, after holding almost five hours of talks with Saakashvili at his unfinished hilltop palace in Tbilisi. As she spoke, nine Russian armoured personnel carriers rolled towards her press conference.

So far, however, the US assistance to occupied Georgia has only comprised moral support and humanitarian aid. The Bush administration has no plans to offer its ally military assistance with which to take on the Russians. Moreover, the ”free world” has found few levers with which to punish Putin.

Rice’s comments about the need for the West to re-evaluate its relationship with Moscow appear to be a hint that Russia could soon be excluded — formally or otherwise — from the G8 and other international institutions. The West’s most stinging gesture would be to take away the 2014 Winter Olympics from Russia: they are due to be held in Sochi, 20km from Abkhazia.

None of this is likely to bother the Kremlin much. As Saakashvili pointed out on Friday, the Kremlin has tested the West’s reactions with a series of provocative steps, discovering each time that the Europeans generally don’t do anything.

Dubbing Russia’s leadership ”evil” and ”21st-century barbarians”, Saakashvili lambasted the European Union for its feebleness. The Russians had dispatched agents to murder Alexander Litvinenko in a ”nuclear attack”, poisoned Ukraine’s President, Viktor Yushchenko and — last month, during Rice’s last visit — sent jet fighters into Georgian airspace. The Europeans did nothing, he said. ”Russia has been all the time testing the reactions of the West. It’s going to replicate what happened in Georgia elsewhere,” he warned.

Little outrage
Certainly there was little sign of any strength of European outrage at events in Georgia. Germany’s Chancellor, Angela Merkel, in particular, has said that both sides are to blame, a comment suggesting that Germany’s relations with Russia are more important to her than Georgia’s struggle for survival.

Indeed, it was only until the middle of last week that Europe made any significant diplomatic move to try to end the crisis in Georgia, when the French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, and his Foreign Minister, Bernard Kouchner, exploiting France’s EU presidency, intervened.

Kouchner was dispatched first to Tbilisi, then to Moscow, to explore the prospects for a ceasefire and to gauge whether Sarkozy could profit from heading east. The Russians would be happy to talk to Sarkozy, he reported back to the Elysée, so the French president went to Moscow and spent hours haggling with Putin instead.

The result was a six-point ceasefire plan, essentially on Russia’s terms, which Sarkozy then took to Saakashvili in Tbilisi for a midnight session. The proposed pact was a bitter blow to Georgian sovereignty, curbing the activity of its military on its own territory while giving Russia the right to mount patrols and take ”additional security measures” on sovereign Georgian territory. For its part, the US was alarmed, though supporting the peace bid in public. En route to Tbilisi, Rice stopped off in France to stiffen Sarkozy’s sinews and try to shape the mediation effort.

At first the Kremlin said it was in no hurry to sign a deal and only announced late last week that Medvedev had agreed to the plan. However, Sarkozy could not get Saakashvili to sign at first, and it was only when Rice arrived that the Georgian leader backed down and flourished his pen, bolstered by US emphasis that the Russian security concessions would be limited in time and space.

As Rice headed for the presidential ranch in Crawford, Texas, to brief Bush, it appeared that Putin had gambled and won.

Nor is it surprising that European reaction to the invasion of Georgia has been so limited. The Europeans — quite simply — have more to lose. Like the Soviet Union’s invasion of Czechoslovakia 40 years ago this week, this invasion took place in August. But it is in winter that the Kremlin can exploit Europe’s great weakness — by cutting off its oil and gas supplies. — guardian.co.uk