The Scorching of Georgia

Scorching of Georgia.jpg

The events described in this article took place in late August, 2008.

Last month Russia invaded, occupied, and de-facto annexed portions of Georgia. During that time it was difficult, if not impossible, for reporters to see for themselves what was actually happening. I wanted to see for myself what Russia had wrought, but everything behind the front lines was closed.

The breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia were off-limits to anyone without a Russian visa. It takes months to acquire a Russian visa, so traveling to those areas was out of the question.

“I tried to get into the occupied city of Gori”:http://www.michaeltotten.com/archives/2008/09/from-baku-to-ru.php with Caucasus expert and author “Thomas Goltz”:http://www.thomasgoltz.com/, but even that city was closed to us though it is inside Georgia proper and beyond Russia’s acquired new territories. Occasionally Russian soldiers would let journalists pass, but Thomas and I weren’t among the lucky few.

So I went to Borjomi, an area that by all accounts was bombed by Russian jets, but was never occupied or controlled by its ground troops. Borjomi is a tourist town next to the “Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park”:http://www.borjomi-kharagauli-np.ge/ — the first of its kind in the Caucasus region — and Russian jets had reportedly dropped bombs in the forests and set the region on fire.

I hired a Georgian bear of a man named Alex to drive me in his four-wheel-drive over the mountains. Normally you can get to Borjomi from the capital Tbilisi on the main highway in just a few hours, but the highway passes through Gori, and Gori was occupied and blockaded. The only other route open was over the mountains and across a central Georgian plateau so high that trees cannot grow. That road was hardly in better condition than a smuggler’s path, and it’s only passable during the summer after the snow and ice have temporarily melted.

Georgia Borjomi Map.JPG


Alex and I stocked up on road food — chocolate, cookies, soft drinks, and chips — before we set out. It was going to be a long drive, and there were no good places to eat on the way. He knew the roads well and did not need a map. He drives tourists around Georgia for his regular job, and he likes to travel abroad, too, when he can.

“Were you able to travel during the communist era?” I said.

“I went to East Germany in the 1980s,” he said.

“Was East Germany in better shape than Georgia then?” I said.

Alex Road to Borjomi.jpg


“Inside the East German wall was still the Soviet Union,” he said. “It was the same rubbish.”

Georgia’s president Mikheil Saakashvili’s popularity has declined since the Rose Revolution in 2003, and I wondered how the war was affecting public opinion.

“Saakashvili screwed up,” Alex said. “In June and July these idiots massed everybody on the border and made a big exercise.” He reflexively referred to the Russian soldiers and leadership as “these idiots” and was referring here to the biggest military exercise inside Russia since the Chechnya war. It just happened to take place on the Georgian border immediately prior to the invasion. “In their minds they were planning war. Saakashvili could have done something, but didn’t.”

Trees and Paved Road to Borjomi.jpg

A brief stretch of paved road on the way to Borjomi

The six hour drive to Borjomi taught me to appreciate pavement. Road conditions were fine only for the first thirty miles or so. As soon as we started heading into the mountains, smooth tar turned to gravel.

Trees Gravel Road to Borjomi.jpg

Gravel road to Borjomi, before it got bad

“Is the road like this the whole way?” I said.

“Sometimes it’s worse,” Alex said.

It got worse almost instantly. Gravel gave way to rocks. Alex’s four-wheel-drive handled okay, but I was violently jostled around in my seat during much of the trip. Sleep was impossible. So was taking photographs without stopping. After a while I got nauseated.

“A week ago I took 18 Israeli tourists on this road,” Alex said.

Road and Cows Road to Borjomi.jpg

The road to Borjomi

Israelis are unflappable. Few tourists went to Georgia during the Russian invasion, but I wasn’t surprised to hear that Israelis kept coming. They know from experience that you can travel to a country at war if you stay out of the conflict areas. That’s how it was during Israel’s second Lebanon war. The northern part of the country was abandoned and on fire, but the rest of Israel was unscathed. It was the same way in Georgia.

House and Hill Road to Borjomi.jpg

A house on the road to Borjomi

Vaguely Middle Eastern sounding music from Azerbaijan played on the radio. Static eventually overwhelmed the signal. We were in a remote part of Georgia where hardly anyone aside from nomadic sheep herders live. Alex did, however, manage to find a single station broadcasting news from Tbilisi. After a few moments he angrily turned it off. “The French ambassador was stopped for an hour and a half by Russian soldiers on his way to Gori,” he said. “This is killing my nerves.”

Winding Road to Borjomi.jpg

The road to Borjomi

Russia had effectively cut the country in half. It was possible for civilians in four wheel drive vehicles like Alex’s to cross Georgia’s mid-section over the mountains, but rerouting all the highway traffic from Tbilisi up there would not have been possible. Large semi trucks weren’t able to haul goods over that road, especially not when they were fully weighted down.

At one point we came upon a white van stalled on the side of the road.

White Van Road to Borjomi.jpg

A stalled white van on the road to Borjomi

Alex pulled up next to the van and asked the driver if there was a problem. The driver said his engine didn’t have enough power to get him to the top of the rise, but that he had a tow chain. So Alex attached the van to his truck and pulled the van a few hundred meters up the steepest part of the incline.

The road was even worse up ahead. One stretch was so steep I worried his truck would succumb to gravity and actually flip over backwards. I felt like I was in an SUV commercial.

Lake and Island Road to Borjomi.jpg

A lake on the road to Borjomi

The top of the pass above Borjomi was basically tundra. It was too high for anything but grass to grow. Cold wind whipped around the truck and lashed my ears when I stepped out to take a picture of the valley below where trees could still grow.

High Snaking Road to Borjomi.jpg

High mountain pass above Borjomi

“I was up here in June,” Alex said, “and it was snowing.”

Russians soldiers have since lifted their siege of the highway connecting the eastern and western halves of the country. If they ever decide to close the road during winter, Georgia will truly be cut into pieces.


The Borjomi area looks a lot like my native Pacific Northwest in the United States. And it was still burning. Columns of smoke rose from various scorched hillsides.

“Can we stop?” I said to Alex. “I need some pictures.”

Fires on Hillside Near Borjomi.jpg

Fires on hillside outside Borjomi

The air smelled strongly of smoke from burning wood, and the fires were in a strange state. I’ve seen many forest fires in my home state of Oregon. We get them every year. This is not what they look like. Forest fires, whether they were started by lightning, human negligence, or arson, tend to be large single infernos. Individual fires burned all over the place near Borjomi.

Burned Hillside Near Borjomi.jpg

Burned hillside outside Borjomi

Perhaps these were the remnants of a single larger fire that had been mostly doused, but the fires were oddly spaced as though several really had been started at once in different locations. I couldn’t even see the bulk of the fire damage which was well away from the main highway and deeper into the forest.

Scorched Hillside Near Borjomi.jpg

Scorched hillside near Borjomi

I didn’t notice anything unusual when we reached the town of Borjomi, but Alex did.

“This place is usually full this time of year,” he said. “But now everything is empty.”

Borjomi from Hotel.jpg

The view of Borjomi from my Soviet-era hotel room

That wasn’t surprising. Aside from Alex’s Israeli clients from the previous week, and a handful of Americans I would soon meet, few tourists thought it wise to visit Georgia during Russia’s invasion and occupation. Even Georgians who wanted a break from the stress of conflict had a hard time getting there. Taxi drivers were charging 500 dollars for a one-way trip from the capital because the road did so much damage to their vehicles. Alex charged me far less than that, but even his four wheel drive took a hit when a deep gouge in the road knocked out his front shocks.

Borjomi is small, and it was full of fire trucks.

Firetrucks Borjomi.jpg

Firetrucks in Borjomi

Smaller fires near the town were still burning, and larger fires deep in the forest and out of sight were still blazing, but the worst was over. The air still smelled of smoke, but at least it was breathable.

I had made arrangements to meet Mako Zulmatashvili before Alex and I left Tbilisi. She agreed to show me around town, introduce me to some local officials, translate for me, and put me up for the night in her mother’s guest house. She waited for us at a park across the street from the train station.

“I have some bad news,” she said. “We no longer have a room for you.”

Her brother Giga’s American in-laws showed up unexpectedly from the United States a day early, and they needed the room that would have been mine. Giga had recently married a young American woman who spent a few years in Georgia with the Peace Corps, and her parents were visiting from Connecticut for the first time. They picked a heck of a time to see Georgia, but they were committed and refused to be deterred by even a Russian invasion.

Alex and Rocket Launcher Road to Borjomi.jpg

A Georgian rocket launcher vehicle drives past me and Alex in Borjomi

Alex and I stayed the night in a Soviet hotel so the American family members could have the room.

Soviet Hotel Borjomi.jpg

Soviet-era hotel, Borjomi

The rent at the Soviet hotel was cheap — a mere twenty dollars per night — but it was worth even less. That was obvious long before I even got to my room. There was no front desk in the dark cavernous lobby, so the woman who ran the place greeted guests on the front steps. She fished room keys out of her pocket and led Alex, Mako, and me to an elevator that promptly went dark as soon as the doors closed behind us.

The hotel manager sighed, fumbled for a button on the panel in the dark, and pressed something — I don’t know what — that made the lights come back on.

“This is Georgia,” Mako said and laughed.

I wouldn’t think it was funny if I got stuck in that elevator by myself in absolute darkness, but fortunately that didn’t happen.

The hallway leading up to my room was dark. It was lit only from a single window at the end of the hall with the curtains drawn closed. If I hadn’t used the flash on my camera, I’m not sure I would ever know what the hall looked like. The carpet, ceiling, and walls were filthy. A horrendous stench of mildew, mold, and decay had built up over decades.

Soviet Hotel Hallway Borjomi.jpg

Inside a Soviet-era hotel, Borjomi

“I’m sorry there’s no room at the house for you,” Mako said. “I hope this is okay.”

“It’s fine,” I said.

“It is just for one night,” Alex said and shrugged.

The hotel would not have been fine if we were staying for more than one night, but it was worth sleeping there once for educational purposes. The place was something to see. I will never really know what Georgia was like when it was part of the Soviet Union, but this hotel was a living museum piece.

The usual building materials you expect to see in a Western hotel, or in one of Georgia’s more recently built or refurbished hotels, were not available when it was built during the communist period. The architects and designers had to make do with what little they had. The skeleton was made with poured concrete. Thin sheets of wood were slapped on the walls inside the rooms to soften things up. Cheap red fabric was stapled to these thin sheets of wood and used as a sort of wallpaper. The room made me think of a high-end tree fort.

Soviet Hotel Room Borjomi.jpg

Soviet-era hotel room, Borjomi

The mattresses on the bed were at most one inch thick. There was no tub in the bathroom, and the “shower” was a faucet sticking out of the wall two feet off the ground. I had to sit on the floor next to the sink to wash my hair the next morning. At least the water was hot.

Mako felt bad that I ended up relegated to the communist dump, but I honestly didn’t mind. My normal hotel in Tbilisi just felt luxurious when I got back.

She invited me to her house to meet her family. Marina, her mother, wore an “I (Heart) New York” t-shirt and served cookies and tea. “This town survives on tourism and not much else,” she said. “I don’t know what we’re going to do.”

Old Buildings Borjomi.jpg

Borjomi, Georgia

I spent a few hours sipping tea and chatting with Mako’s family and her brother’s American in-laws.

Another American named Charles joined us. He had booked the other spare room in the guest house and was visiting Georgia as an actual tourist on holiday. He lives in Damascus, Syria, where he’s studying Arabic, and he came to Borjomi by ground through Turkey and Iraq.

“You’re the craziest person in the room,” I said.

He shrugged and didn’t think it was a big deal to backpack around what most people think are two of the world’s most frightening countries.

“On the night the tanks came toward Borjomi,” Mako said, “I couldn’t sleep at all. I thought it was the last days of Georgia’s existence as an independent country. Then smoke and ashes and pieces of burning wood covered the town. We could hardly breathe.”

“There isn’t much food left in the grocery stores here,” her mother Marina said. “We can’t bring food in from the Poti port or from Tbilisi.”

Meanwhile, despite everything, many Georgians insisted they were showing hospitality to their invaders.

Mako Zulmatashvili.jpg

Mako Zulmatashvili

“We’re cooking meals for them,” Mako said, “and letting them use our showers. They have nothing. We have always liked Russians here in Georgia. Do people in Russia even know we’re letting them use our showers?”

“If Russians invade America they aren’t using my shower,” I said. Everyone laughed. Of course hardly any American would let an enemy soldier use his or her shower. But of course that hardly meant Georgian civilians were happy with the Russian invasion.

“They’re playing Braveheart over and over again on TV,” Giga’s American wife said and wryly smiled in satisfaction.


The next morning Mako took me to meet Valerian Lomidze, editor-in-chief of Borjomi’s weekly newspaper. He was able to give me a few photographs taken by his reporters before I arrived.

Turkish Plane Borjomi.jpg

A Turkish plane helps Georgians put out their fires (Copyright Borjomi weekly newspaper)

“The fire started in five places at the same time,” he said. “Obviously it was not started by natural causes. The fires started all along in a straight line, as though they were under a flight path.”

“Why do you suppose the Russians would do this?” I said. “To destroy the tourism industry in this part of Georgia?”

“Russia had a clear plan to do this,” he said. “They did different things in different places to destroy our various industries. We have nothing else to survive on in this part of Georgia except tourism. Russians said they came here for peace. But what peace? They bombed the port, the forests, the cities, and blocked the highway. These regions had nothing to do with the conflict areas.” The only contested portions of Georgia were Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which Russia has de-facto annexed in the meantime. Gori, Borjomi, and Poti were, like Lomidze said, well outside the conflict areas. “Russia is part of the conflict, not bringing peace.”

He worked at the same newspaper since 1974. What was it like during the Soviet era?

“We had more support from the government,” he said. “We could publish three times a week, but now only once a week. But we had no freedom to write. We had to work for the government and the party. Now we can write whatever we want.”

The Borjomi municipality’s Governor Vakhtang Maisuradze said he could speak with me for a few minutes, and two women from his government — Eka Londaridze, head of the local environmental protection agency, and Keti Mandjavidze who worked with refugees in Borjomi displaced by the Russia invasion — sat down with me briefly while I waited near his office. Mako translated again.

“We have been getting help from Turkey,” Londaridze said, “but they’re out right now and we’re expecting help to arrive from Ukraine.”

“What were the Turks doing to help you?”

Eka Londaridze Bojomi.jpg

Eka Londaridze

“They had two planes that they sent to Georgia to help us,” she said. “They brought water to put the fire out.”

The Turkish pilots filled their tanks with lake water in nearby Turkish Kurdistan, dropped the water on the fires, and returned to Turkey to load up on more.

“Are the fires actually inside the park?” I said.

“It’s not the park exactly,” she said, “it’s the wildlife safe area, not where the trails for hiking are. It’s where our ancient trees are.”

The ecological destruction near Borjomi was significantly less than what Saddam Hussein unleashed in the Persian Gulf region when his soldiers ignited Kuwait’s oil wells in 1991. Burning trees are much easier to extinguish than blazing geysers of fuel. But it seemed to me just as militarily pointless.

“Do you know for sure that these fires were started by Russian jets?” I said.

“We cannot say for 100 percent,” she said, “but I have seen pictures of the planes flying over, and an hour or so later there was smoke. On the one hand it’s obvious that the Russians did this, but I don’t want to say 100 percent until we have finished our research.”

“I saw the planes, too,” Mandjavidze said.

“Did the planes also fly over Borjomi?” I said.

Keti Mandjavidze Borjomi.jpg

Keti Mandjavidze

“Yes,” she said. “They flew over this area, and also over the cemetery.”

“Were they flying low or high?” I said.

“Low,” she said.

“It was pretty scary,” Mako said.

“Did you hear any explosions?” I said.

“It was hard to hear anything,” Mandjavidze said, “because the sound of the planes was so loud. Plus it’s around 30 or 40 kilometers from here to where the fires started, so we couldn’t have possibly heard it.”

“Did anyone in town panic?”

Mako had already told me that local people panicked, but it’s always a good idea to ask more than one person.

“Yes,” she said. “There was panic. People thought the Russians were coming into our area. Lots of smoke came into Borjomi. People were helping each other and standing together.”

“It was ridiculous,” Mako said. “For two days it was hard to even breathe in Borjomi.”

Russia’s occupation and de-facto annexation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia are almost certainly permanent, but it seemed unlikely even at the time that the Russian military would maintain its blockade of Gori and the highways for much longer. Still, I wanted to know: how effective was the blockade? Russian soldiers can implement one again at any time, for any reason at all, and no one can do much to stop them.

An 800-pound gorilla can sit wherever it wants. Russian troops are now permanently based so close to Georgia’s transportation arteries that the country could be bisected, again, just a few hours or even minutes after an order is given. That threat will hang over the country for a long time. And a winter blockade would be devastating because the high mountain road Alex and I took would be buried beneath feet of unplowable snow.

“How are the supplies in town?” I said. “Do you have enough food and fuel?”

“We have food and fuel, but there is almost no children’s food or diapers,” Mandjavidze said. “So we’re in a hard situation with our children.”

“There is enough food in the stores?” I said.

“There is enough,” she said. “People are coming from the other side and from Armenia bringing food to the town.”

“If the Russians stay where they are for a few more weeks,” I said, “keep the roads closed, and the port blockaded, will there still be enough food?”

That would be a big problem,” Londaridze said. “After a month people would be starving. We have some ways to get food here, but not enough. The main way is from Tbilisi and it’s blocked. We would need to find some other way. From Tbilisi it’s impossible to get to the Borjomi area.”

“Are the Russians admitting to bombing the area,” I said, “or are they denying it?”

“There was no official information about it from the Russian side,” Mandjavidze said, “but if you watch the Russian TV channels, they say Georgia is a fascist country, it’s run by a Nazi party.” She laughed. “They say everything that happened here we did to ourselves.”

“When you watch the Russian channels,” Londaridze said, “you see pictures of Gori and they say it’s [South Ossetia's capital] Tskhinvali. You see pictures of Tskhinvali and they say it’s Gori. Russian people are getting very mistaken information right now.”

“Why do you think the Russians bombed this area?” I said.

“It’s clear that Russia wants to occupy Georgia,” Mandjavidze said. “Putin recently said it was a huge mistake that the Soviet Union fell down. His main goal is to rebuild everything that was ruined. But this isn’t news. This is old news.”

“This is an ecological war,” Londaridze, the environmental protection head, said. “Borjomi is surrounded by mountains. Everything leads to Borjomi. The air here can’t get out. They didn’t need to bomb the whole area. Of course they wanted to damage Georgia. And of course we were damaged. We had to breathe all this smoke for days. It was pretty bad. As you know, the Borjomi National Park is the first in Georgia, the first in the Caucasus area. And this is the area where they started the fires. It’s obvious that it was planned.”

“Turkey helps us a lot,” Mandjavidze said. “We’re very thankful to Turkey and all the other countries that have helped us and supported us. Every country around us wants to help us, but they are afraid of the situation.”

That did not sound quite right. Armenia borders Georgia to the south and is Russia’s ally in the region.

“What about Armenia?” I said. “Is Armenia being helpful?”

“No,” she said. “Armenia hasn’t been helpful at all. But we understand. Armenia is a small country and will support every country that is larger than he is. Right now we are stronger than Armenia, but Russia is stronger than we are. Armenia, of course, “says that Russia is right”:http://www.iht.com/articles/ap/2008/09/05/europe/EU-Russia-Georgia-Security-Alliance.php.”

Mako and I were summoned to Governor Maisuradze’s office for a few minutes.

“Tell me in your words what happened here,” I said.

“Not until the real answer is out can I specify whether it was Russians,” he said. “But nevertheless, for sure, somebody started this fire. It wasn’t caused by the weather. Many people saw planes flying over and some heard bombing. On the first day the fires started in a straight line at regular intervals in places that people cannot get to by cars.”

He drew five evenly spaced dots connected by a straight line on his notepad. Then he made a plane-in-flight motion with his hand over that line.

“It had to be from a plane,” he continued. “And this is also where witnesses said they saw a plane flying over. But until the experts go into the forest and find out biochemically what happened, I can’t say anything more.”

“Can you guess — and I realize you would be guessing — why the Russians might theoretically want to bomb this area?” I said.

“What did they want to do in Gori or in Poti or anywhere else in Georgia?” he said. “They wanted to cause panic. They wanted to damage the economy. It’s pretty obvious that this was their plan. Of course. People can’t get food in here. This is what they wanted. The main goal for this area is to become ecologically developed for tourism. The most effective way for them to damage us was to burn our forests. The only other thing they could have done was bomb our mineral water plant, but they didn’t, thank God.”

Borjomi Water Billboard.jpg

An advertisement for Borjomi’s unique natually-flavored mineral water

Borjomi is famous in the former Soviet Union for its naturally flavored mineral water. It tastes slightly sour, but only slightly. It tastes mostly like club soda, but with a slight twist that is impossible to identify. Supposedly it’s a love-it-or-hate-it beverage, but I tried a bottle and didn’t have a strong reaction one way or another.

“Russians love our mineral water,” Mako said. “They wouldn’t want to bomb the plant because then we couldn’t make more.”

Londaridze and Mandjavidze didn’t think the blockade was hurting Borjomi too badly so far, but it was still only a few weeks old, and it was during the summer. What if the blockade lasted for months? What if it lasted for years?

Governor Borjomi.jpg

Borjomi municipality Governor Vakhtang Maisuradze

“We survived twenty one centuries,” the governor said. “We will survive twenty one more even though we don’t have anything now. We can’t get food and supplies, but we will survive another twenty one centuries.” He slapped the desk with the palm of his hand. “That is my answer.”

Post-script: If these dispatches are worth something to you, please consider a contribution and help make truly independent writing economically viable.

You can make a one-time donation through Pay Pal:

Alternately, you can now make recurring monthly payments through Pay Pal. Please consider choosing this option and help me stabilize my expense account.

$10 monthly subscription:
$25 monthly subscription:
$50 monthly subscription:
$100 monthly subscription:

If you would like to donate for travel and equipment expenses and you don’t want to send money over the Internet, please consider sending a check or money order to:

Michael Totten

P.O. Box 312

Portland, OR 97207-0312

Many thanks in advance.

Al Qaeda’s Defeat in Iraq

“Senator Barack Obama’s answer”:http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2008/09/17/eveningnews/main4456427.shtml to Katie Couric’s question a few days ago about why he thinks there have been no terrorist attacks on American soil since September 11, 2001, was bizarre.

“Well,” he said, “I think that the initial invasion into Afghanistan disrupted al Qaeda. And that was the right thing to do. I mean, we had to knock out those safe havens. And that, I think, weakened them. We did some work in strengthening our homeland security apparatus here. Obviously, the average person knows that when they go to the airport, because they are goin’ through taking off their shoes … all that. The problem is when we got distracted by Iraq. We gave al Qaeda time to reconstitute itself.” [Emphasis added.]

Jennifer Rubin “correctly noted”:http://www.commentarymagazine.com/blogs/index.php/rubin/31301 that Couric asked Obama why the U.S. has not been attacked, but let’s leave that aside. The notion that “we gave Al Qaeda time to reconstitute itself” is breathtakingly ahistorical.

The U.S. and NATO have never let up in Afghanistan. At no time were American resources redeployed from Afghanistan to Iraq. (CORRECTION: The number of troops were not reduced in Afghanistan thanks to the war in Iraq, but some CIA agents and predator drones were redeployed.)

Obama could, perhaps, argue that fewer resources were available for the fight in Afghanistan because of the war in Iraq. That would be true. But that’s also true of Al Qaeda’s resources. They also deployed manpower and material to Iraq that otherwise could have been sent to Afghanistan.

The Al Qaeda leadership emphatically has not agreed with Obama that Iraq is a distraction. It has been their main event for years.

“The most important and serious issue today for the whole world,” “Osama bin Laden said”:http://www.heritage.org/Research/NationalSecurity/bg2057.cfm on December 28, 2004, “is this Third World War, which the Crusader-Zionist coalition began against the Islamic nation. It is raging in the land of the two rivers. The world’s millstone and pillar is in Baghdad, the capital of the caliphate.”

It’s only natural that an Arab-led and a mostly Arab-staffed terrorist group like Al Qaeda would be more concerned with a strategically critical country in the heart of the Arab Middle East than with a primitive non-Arab backwater in Central Asia.

Bin Laden’s lieutenant Ayman al-Zawahiri “explicitly spelled out”:http://www.heritage.org/Research/NationalSecurity/bg2057.cfm Al Qaeda’s strategy in Iraq on July 9, 2005. “The first stage: Expel the Americans from Iraq,” he said. “The second stage: Establish an Islamic authority or amirate, then develop it and support it until it achieves the level of a caliphate—over as much territory as you can to spread its power in Iraq.”

The war against Saddam Hussein in Iraq can plausibly be described as a distraction from the war against Al Qaeda. But the war against Al Qaeda in Iraq cannot possibly be accurately described as a distraction from the war against Al Qaeda.

“Read the rest in COMMENTARY Magazine”:http://www.commentarymagazine.com/blogs/index.php/totten/31621.

New Web Site Title

Middle East Journal has been removed from the title for its occasional inaccuracy.

Thanks for everyone who suggested new titles. I was persuaded by those who thought my name is all the branding I need. I suspected as much before I even asked, but thought I’d fish for other ideas. None of the other titles quite worked for me, but don’t feel bad. I couldn’t think of anything better myself.

Thanks to “Mary Madigan”:http://whataretheysaying.powerblogs.com/ for designing a new banner for me which you see now at the top.

Blowback in Russia

Russia has a problem. Moscow’s recognition of Georgia’s breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia a few weeks ago has already encouraged some of its own disgruntled minorities to push harder for independence from the Russian Federation. Russia’s semi-autonomous republics of “Ingushetia”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ingushetia and “Tatarstan”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tatarstan have both ratcheted up their demands to secede.

Radical Islamists in Ingushetia, just across the Caucasus mountains from Georgia, have waged a low-level insurgency against the Russian government for some time now, though it has yet to reach the level of violent anti-Russian ferocity waged earlier by their cousins in neighboring Chechnya. A new group calling itself the People’s Parliament of Ingushetia has just surfaced after Russia’s adventure in Georgia “with the stated aim of secession”:http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/0,1518,576962,00.html. More moderate opposition leaders “also recently joined the cause of the radicals”:http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/georgia/2663222/Russia-faces-news-Caucasus-uprising-in-Ingushetia.html. Rebellious Ingush are not only emboldened by Russia’s recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, they’re enraged by the assassination a few weeks ago of prominent anti-Kremlin journalist Magomed Yevloyev.

Meanwhile, an umbrella organization of various nationalist groups known as the All-Tatar Civic Center in Tatarstan “announced that they likewise want out”:http://www.nytimes.com/2008/09/10/world/europe/10separatists.html?_r=1&oref=slogin. They also cite the Abkhazia and South Ossetia precedents. “Russia has lost the moral right not to recognize us,” said Rashit Akhmetov, editor of the Zvezda Povolzhya newspaper in Tatarstan’s capital.

“Read the rest in COMMENTARY”:http://www.commentarymagazine.com/blogs/index.php/totten/30591.

From Baku to Russian-Occupied Georgia

“Russia can have at its borders only enemies or vassals.” — George F. Kennan, United States Ambassador to the Soviet Union

“You must draw a white-hot iron over this Georgian land!…You will have to break the wings of this Georgia! Let the blood of the petit bourgeois flow until they give up all their resistance! Impale them! Tear them apart!” — Vladimir Lenin

Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, looks as though it might never have been a part of the Soviet Union. It is perhaps the least communist-looking capital in the nine post-communist countries I’ve visited.

Baku Center at Night.jpg

Baku, Azerbaijan

So much oil money has been pumped into the city that its revival and transformation is nearly complete. The countryside, though, is much rougher and poorer, and my trip across that landscape to Georgia from Baku felt in many ways like a trip backward in time, as if a year were being subtracted from the date for each of the 18 hours I sat on the train. By the time I reached the outskirts of Gori in central Georgia and ran into Russian soldiers carrying Soviet era equipment marked with the Soviet Union’s insignia, the trip back in time to the days of the empire felt all but complete.

Baku from Caspian Plaza.jpg

Baku Azerbaijan from the Caspian Plaza Hotel

First, though, the journey:

At least I wasn’t in any danger the first time I encountered a relic of the communist era in the Caucasus region. I was merely annoyed. But I was also intrigued: the train link between the two countries has been barely, if at all, reconstructed.

I bought a sandwich, orange juice, muffins, and large bottles of water for the long slog by ground to Tbilisi just a few kilometers from the edge of the Russian occupation zone. At the train station in central Baku I set down my bag of food in front of car number one, which was to be mine as soon as boarding began. Two feral cats crept up to my bag and I gently shooed them with my foot. They returned when I wasn’t looking and in an instant managed to rip open my package of muffins and tear pieces off. I shooed them again, but felt slightly bad. I have cats of my own at home, and these two were hungry. I had six muffins and could spare one. So I broke one into pieces and fed it to them.

Old Baku 1.jpg

Baku, Azerbaijan

A young Azeri boy leaned over and watched the cats eat, but his father told him to stay away from the animals. He turned then to me.

“Where are you from?” he said.

“United States,” I said.

“You are going to Tbilisi?” he said.

“Yes,” I said. “You?”

“Yes,” he said. “I am from Azerbaijan, but I live in Georgia. Now there are no flights.” The airport was shut down at the time because of the Russian invasion. Georgia was only accessible by ground. “It is stupid, but this is Georgia. Comfort is only zero.”

So far he was right. The train had sat all afternoon on the platform in the sun, it was broiling hot when I climbed aboard, and it was even hotter inside my assigned compartment. The climate control is turned off when the train isn’t moving. The air was so humid it practically tasted of water. My clothes almost instantly stuck to my skin. The window in my compartment was sealed up and wouldn’t open, so I stepped into the hall next to one that did open. A Georgian man introduced himself as Levan and joined me next to the window and lit up a cigarette. He beamed when I told him I was a journalist.

“We love you,” he said. “You are doing such a good job showing the truth of what is really happening. They are animals, imperialists. They can’t admit the Soviet era is over. We really appreciate the international media.”

“Thank you,” I said, although I hadn’t yet written a word about Georgia and didn’t deserve any credit for anything he had read.

“Are you going to the region?” he said. I knew what region he met. He meant the region taken over by Russia.

“I don’t know,” I said, which was true at the time. I did, however, venture as far inside that region as the Russians allowed.

“The Russians are shooting at journalists,” he said. “They are shooting at everybody. They don’t care who you are.”

Levan was the only person on the train who smiled at me even once. Everyone else, Georgian and Azeri alike, wore their “poker face” and seemed suspicious of everybody. I adapted and only let myself stare at other people without saying hello or even nodding or smiling.

“Five years ago we had a much better train,” he said. “I don’t know what happened to it.”

“This looks like a Soviet train,” I said.

“It is,” he said. “It was built in East Germany in the 70s.”

I didn’t know it at the time, but the train I took from Baku to Tbilisi is identical to the train you’ll see in the nail-biting thriller Transsiberia currently playing in theaters and starring Woody Harrelson and Ben Kingsley. The film takes place almost entirely on a Russian train from Beijing to Moscow. Whoever wrote and directed the movie is familiar with the train system in the former Soviet Union and took pains to get even the small details right. The film was shot on one of the these trains. I recognized the cheap wood paneling, the formica tray tables, the broken light switches, and the dirty windows that wouldn’t open.

Baku to Tbilisi Train Compartment.jpg

The private compartment I bribed my way into on the train from Baku to Tbilisi

The severe and bullying women who run these trains and watch over the passengers like prison guards are portrayed with precision. They bark orders at every passenger and seem beaten down as if they’re treated the same way by their superiors. They stare holes through you if you smile and act as though your very existence is an offense that may get you thrown off the train at any moment.

Half the compartments in my car were empty, yet I had to share one with an elderly Georgian woman who could not understand what it meant that we had no language in common. She kept speaking to me in Georgian. I kept telling her that I don’t speak Georgian, but she insisted on talking to me anyway as though I might learn her language on the fly if she just kept at it. I leaned back and cracked open a book, but that didn’t help. She just kept talking. “I’m sorry, but I don’t speak Georgian,” I said again and shrugged.

I stepped out of our shared compartment and into the hall as the train left the station. Levan, the English-speaking Georgian, joined me there. He stuck his head and arms outside an open window and lit up another cigarette.

“Levan,” I said. “Can I get you to ask one of the attendants if I can move to an empty compartment?”

“You can move in with me if you want,” he said.

“Thanks,” I said. “I appreciate that. But I’d rather have my own space. I need peace and quiet so I can write.”

“Of course,” he said and did not seem offended that I did not want to share space with him.

He summoned the angry attendant and spoke to her in Russian.

“She wants to know if you have ten manats,” he said. Ten Azeri manats is about twelve American dollars. I sighed, pulled a ten manat note out of my pocket, and handed it over. Then she nodded as if to say I could move wherever I wanted without being harassed.

I walled myself off in my private compartment and edited a long essay that will soon appear in a quarterly magazine. The air conditioning had kicked on and the train was finally comfortable. Then I let myself be rocked to sleep by the wide swaying of the old communist train as we slowly made our way to the border with Georgia.

The attendant shook me awake and hollered at me in the morning.

“What?” I said, momentarily forgetting where I was and wondering who on earth was screaming at me in a language I did not understand. I squinted. Behind her loomed a uniformed man with a rifle. Oh, I thought. This was Azerbaijan’s border with Georgia.

The man with the rifle was an Azeri soldier, and he asked to see my passport. I handed it over. Then he asked me to open my luggage. I did so. He rummaged through it briefly, then left me alone. Another soldier stepped into my compartment with a bomb-detection kit. The attendant glared at me through all this as though I had done something wrong and was about to be punished.

After they finally left me alone I stepped bleary-eyed into the hall. Levan was there in his usual place smoking a cigarette out the window. He saw me cast an irritated glance at the rude attendent.

“Is this your first time on this train?” he said.

I nodded.

“I can read your thoughts,” he said.

“These women act like they had the same job in the Soviet days,” I said. Not much in Azerbaijan made me think of the communist era, but the train experience from beginning to end seemed as though little had changed.

“I’m sure,” he said and laughed. “I’ve taken this train all over the Soviet Union, from Tbilisi to Moscow to Siberia. It’s always the same women.”

The women running the train weren’t the worst of it. The Azeri soldiers were calm and professional when I crossed into Georgia, but when I returned to Azerbaijan for my flight home from Baku I had a very different experience. My luggage was searched by hand just as before, but this time the customs agent — he wasn’t a soldier — completely lost his cool when he found my Lonely Planet book.

Lonely Planet Georgia Armenia Azerbaijan.JPG


“Armenia!” he bellowed and stabbed his index finger at the title. Then he turned to me and narrowed his lizard-like eyes.

“Armenia,” I said and made a thumbs-down gesture to signal my disapproval in sign language.

I have nothing against Armenia or Armenians. Their close alliance with Russia is a bit dubious, especially now, but it’s also understandable in its historical and regional context. Armenians, like everyone else in the geopolitically volcanic Caucasus region, feel threatened and turn to Russia for protection. My thumbs-down verdict was manufactured for my own good to appease the Azeri official who was understandably furious at Armenia but absurdly paranoid about me and my Lonely Planet.

The Armenian military occupies Azerbaijan’s Nagorno-Karabakh region and has de-facto annexed it and the surrounding area to itself. The conflict is morally ambiguous at best, and hypercomplex as ethnic-nationalist disputes usually are. It’s an obscure conflict that I’d rather not get sucked into as a partisan. But I wasn’t about to say or even suggest anything of the sort to this pissed off and armed Azerbaijani official and let him believe I felt any differently about the whole thing than he did.

Not that it helped.

He summoned a half dozen colleagues on his radio, waved the book in their faces when they showed up, and said God-only-knows what about me and his suspicions about what I might be up to.

“Do any of you speak English?” I said.

None apparently did.

“Can you help me?” I said to a nearby Azerbaijani civilian whom I hoped might be able to translate.

“I speak little English,” he said. That was enough.

“That book,” I said, “is for tourists.” I tried to keep it simple. “Hotels. Restaurants.”

“Ah,” he said and nodded. Then he translated for the officials.

The man who discovered the book screamed at him and he backed down.

“For tourists,” I said to the officials, hoping they might get a clue. “Hotels. Restaurants.” I threw my hands up in the air to show I was frustrated with them instead of afraid. I had nothing to hide, and they needed to know that.

They passed the book around, thumbed through it, and paused and stared intently when they flipped to some of the pages with maps. Then they deliberated amongst themselves for several minutes before finally handing the book back to me. “Welcome to Azerbaijan,” said the chief officer as he firmly shook my hand. They departed and left me alone.

“So much trouble,” said the Azeri civilian who witnessed all this, “over that little book.”


“In the Caucasus one could be optimistic in the capital cities, but in the provinces one confronted the hardest truths.” – Robert D. Kaplan, Eastward to Tartary

“Compared to [South Ossetia], rural Georgia was like Tuscany.” – Robert D. Kaplan, Eastward to Tartary

Getting into Georgia on the train was easier than getting out. As soon as the Georgian customs officials stamped my passport and finished hand-searching my luggage, I stepped off the train and into a taxi. “Thomas Goltz”:http://www.thomasgoltz.com/, author of the Caucasus trilogy Azerbaijan Diary, Georgia Diary, and Chechnya Diary, warned me in advance that the train sits at the border for hours, yet an inexpensive taxi ride would get me to the capital in less than 45 minutes. So I took his advice and arrived in Tbilisi long before any of my fellow train passengers.

The taxi ride was my introduction to Georgia, and it wasn’t pretty. Azerbaijan’s countryside beyond the booming capital Baku reminded me of Iraq in some ways with its bad roads, walled off houses, general poverty, and its vaguely Middle Eastern characteristics. But this part of the Georgian countryside was rougher and poorer. It looked brutally Stalinist. It had been thoroughly Sovietized and appeared to have progressed not an iota since the curtain came down on communism. I really did feel like my 18 hours on the train set me back 18 years as well as sending me sideways a few hundred kilometers. Actually, this portion of Georgia might look even worse than it did when Georgia was part of the Soviet Union. Nothing had been fixed up or repaired, and the buildings and cars have had more time to deteriorate. The photos below don’t capture the dreariness.

Communist Blocks Georgia.jpg

Communist era housing, Georgia

Communist Blocks Georgia 2.jpg

Communist era housing, Georgia

Hideous smokestacks made up the skyline. Nothing new had been built in decades. Homes were falling apart. Public housing blocks looked monstrous as they always do and in desperate need of paint, new windows, and general repairs. Many of the factories were shuttered. Very little economic activity was evident as though the area were still operating under a command economy, even though it is not.

Smokestacks Georgia.jpg

Smokestacks, Georgia, near the border with Azerbaijan

More than half the cars on the road were banged up Russian-built Ladas. Nearly all had cracked windshields, including the taxi I rode in. These Ladas are tiny. They have tiny doors, tiny steering wheels, tiny dashboards, tiny seats, and no seat belts. These are among the last cars you’d want to crash in.

A thick film of gray ash from the skyline of smokestacks covered everything, including the leaves on the trees. This blighted region of Georgia looked like an apocalyptic dystopia where everything modern was broken. My heart ached for Georgia.

Smokestacks and Cracked Windshield Georgia.jpg

Skyline of smokestacks from inside a Russian-built Lada, Georgia, near the border with Azerbaijan

The Stalinist apartment blocks were uglier and more dilapidated than any I’ve seen in post-communist Europe, including Albania which was nearly as oppressive as North Korea under its tyrant Enver Hoxha. This barely reconstructed corner of the Soviet Union gave me an idea how nasty and oppressive that system was. You can’t always learn much about a country’s past political system by looking at its current physical infrastructure, but in this part of Georgia you can.

Most Eastern European countries were in no better shape immediately after the communist era ended, but they’ve been able to pull themselves up in the meantime with help from Europe. Georgia is a distant outpost of Europe that is actually located in Asia, too far away to be rescued by the European Union or NATO.

Smokestack Georgia.jpg

Smokestack, Georgia, near the border with Azerbaijan

“I remember how some of the Eastern bloc countries looked just after the fall of the wall,” independent journalist Michael Yon said to me in an email shortly after I arrived in Georgia and told him what I had seen. “East Germany was like zombie land but quickly emerged because of West Germany; Poland was too, but quickly emerged; Czechoslovakia (or now Czech Republic and Slovakia) was nothing like what you see today and was nothing but gray and shortages; Romania was like HELL. Hungary was okay but it had started to emerge ahead of the rest. Any of these countries that you have seen in the last 15 years were nothing like that 18 years ago.”

Tbilisi itself, though, is better.

Main Street Tbilisi.jpg

Tbilisi, Georgia

Aside from its geographic location, Tbilisi could be any European Mediterranean capital — though with an Eastern twist.

Georgian Restaurant Tbilisi.jpg

Tbilisi, Georgia

Aesthetically exquisite in some places, and at least average in most other places, Tbilisi is a pleasurable city to visit despite the fact that it’s still a bit rough around the edges much as Beirut is.

Exotic Building Night Shot Tbilisi.jpg

Tbilisi, Georgia

The post-communist recovery in Georgia’s largest city is far more advanced than the border area I saw when I first arrived. Seeing it was a relief.

Apotheca Tbilisi.jpg

Tbilisi, Georgia

But Tbilisi felt tense, as though the air were electrified. Russian soldiers were decamped just a few minutes drive outside the city. And my stay in the capital didn’t last long.

I emailed Caucasus go-to author Thomas Goltz who arrived in town a few days before I did and hoped to set up an interview. “I’ll be at the Marriott at 6pm,” I wrote, “and if you’re there at the same time we can do this.” He hadn’t answered by a quarter to six, but I took a taxi from my cheap hotel to the expensive Marriott anyway in case he got my message at the last minute.

Marriott Lobby Tbilisi.jpg

Marriott Hotel lobby, Tbilisi, Georgia

My taxi driver pulled up in front of the main entrance at exactly the same moment Goltz’s taxi pulled up in front of the same entrance. Good, I thought. He showed up. I stepped out of my taxi and waved hello as he stepped out of his.

Thomas Goltz Road to Gori.jpg

Thomas Goltz on the road to Gori, Central Georgia

“Let’s go to Gori,” he said, referring to the city in Central Georgia near South Ossetia that was still under Russian occupation. I thought he must be joking. Gori was closed. Russian soldiers rarely let anyone in. “Stay there,” he said before I could shut my taxi door. He came over, motioned for me to get in, and sat next to me in the back seat. Apparently he wasn’t joking about going to Gori. It’s a good thing I had my camera with me because we were off .


Georgia appeared much more prosperous, or at least much less blighted, on the western side of Tbilisi than it did on the eastern side near the border with Azerbaijan. It’s natural that economic development and post-communist repair wouldn’t be geographically even, but for a while there I was worried it might have barely even existed outside the center of Tbilisi.

“How does it feel to be in Free Georgia?” Goltz said.

“Good,” I said, although I was feeling less good by the minute. Traffic was thinning. Gori is only an hour’s drive from the capital, and the Russian occupation began well short of that distance. Free Georgia wasn’t going to last very much longer.

Gori Road Sign Georgia.jpg

On the road to Gori, Central Georgia

We approached a checkpoint manned by Georgian police. Our driver spoke to them for a few moments and told them we were journalists from America. They waved us through without checking our passports or any other pieces of identification.

“What was that about?” I said.

Our driver didn’t speak English, so Goltz asked him the question in Georgian and translated.

Driver Road to Gori.jpg

My driver on the road to Gori, Central Georgia

“It’s the idiot’s checkpoint,” he said. “They asked where we’re going. If we said we’re going to Gori as though we have no idea what’s going on, forget it. If we say we’re going to get as far as the Russians will let us, okay. As long as we know what we’re doing.”

We drove a few minutes in silence. This portion of the highway to Gori hadn’t been cut by the Russians, but we were the only ones on it.

Empty Highway Road to Gori.jpg

Empty highway on the road to Gori, Central Georgia

I hadn’t seen a country so depopulated since I drove with Noah Pollak “in Northern Israel under Hezbollah rocket fire”:http://www.michaeltotten.com/archives/001235.html after more than a million refugees fled south toward Tel Aviv and emptied the cities as though it were the end of the world.

“That hill to the right is the edge of South Ossetia,” Goltz said. I snapped a photo. “That’s how close to Tbilisi the Russians will be permanently based.”

Road to Gori Looking Toward Ossetia.jpg

The edge of South Ossetia, Georgia

We had only left Tbilisi 15 minutes ago. It would take almost no time at all for the Russian military to reach the capital if the order were given. That’s how it’s going to be in Georgia for a long time. Maybe forever.

“There are probably Russian positions on top of that ridge,” he said.

My camera is equipped with a zoom lens which doubles as a small telescope when I need one. I studied the top of the ridge through the lens but didn’t see any Russian positions — yet.

After another fifteen minutes of driving I knew we were near the end of Free Georgia, as Goltz had earlier put it. The first Russian checkpoint must be just up ahead.

Someone planted an American flag on the side of the road.

American Flag Road to Gori.jpg

American flag planted near the first Russian checkpoint between Tbilisi and Gori, Central Georgia

“Look at that,” Goltz said.

It isn’t likely that an American planted that flag. Georgia was one of the most pro-American countries in the world even before Russia invaded. According to “Gallup International’s 2004 survey of global opinion”:http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&source=web&ct=res&cd=1&url=http%3A%2F%2Fextranet.gallup-international.com%2Fuploads%2Fvop%2FFINAL_GALLUP_DRAFT-edited%2520WEF%2520version.doc&ei=ZIbESM7_OKqYoQT5vdTgBg&usg=AFQjCNGzhcEyWANX9x3HSZyXBHWIrtM6-Q&sig2=HsJjNvldIm4IUPZhOFWeRA, the world’s most pro-American countries, in the following order, were Kosovo, Afghanistan, Israel, and Georgia.

That’s it, I thought after we passed the American flag. The Russians should be right up ahead.

Instead a gaggle of journalists and locals congregated on each side of the road just around the next corner.

End of Free Georgia.jpg

Journalists and locals congregate around the corner from the first Russian checkpoint on the road to Gori, Central Georgia

We weren’t interested in joining the herd. We wanted to get as far as we could, so we kept driving. Nobody paid us much mind, but nobody wanted to follow us up the hill and around the corner where we were about to face Russians.

We rounded the corner and saw a roadblock up ahead. Tires were placed in a line across the road. A half dozen armed and uniformed men stood on each side of it.

First Russian Checkpoint Georgia.jpg

First Russian checkpoint on the road to Gori, Central Gori. (Unknown civilian of unknown nationality on the left.)

Tires Russian Checkpoint Georgia.jpg

First Russian checkpoint on the road to Gori, Central Georgia

“Are they Russians or Georgians?” I said.

“Russians,” Goltz said.

It was too late to back out. Whatever would happen would happen.

Our driver slowed and pulled over the car a hundred or so meters before the roadblock.

I stepped out of the taxi and slung my camera around my back instead of over my chest, opened my hands, and slowly turned around so the soldiers could see what I carried. The last thing I wanted to do was make them nervous.

Goltz and I slowly but confidently approached them as though we had already done it dozens of times and had nothing to worry about. He spoke to them in Russian. I flipped open a pack of cigarettes and offered them to whoever wanted one. A young brown-eyed soldier nodded and helped himself.

Russian Soldier First Checkpoint Georgia.jpg

Russian soldier, Georgia

I produced my lighter and lit the cigarette for him. Our hands touched as we shielded the flame from the wind. He softly nodded in thanks and seemed less threatening than he did from a distance. He was relaxed, didn’t seem to mind that we had shown up, and seemed unlikely to point his weapon at me.

I slowly paced back and forth while Goltz spoke jovially to the soldiers in their own language. The Russians joked and laughed with Goltz. They were very nearly the only people I saw in the entire country who laughed or smiled. The Georgians certainly had little to smile about. Honestly, though, the Russian soldiers didn’t have much to smile about either, and I was slightly surprised to see it.

Whether it’s true or not, I have no idea, but I heard from many Georgians that some Russian soldiers were furious when they came upon Georgian military bases and saw that their Georgian counterparts had superior food, clothing, and living conditions. I might be tempted to dismiss this as self-serving propaganda that makes the Georgians feel better, but Russian soldiers really are notoriously underpaid and underfed even inside their own country.

Russian Soldier Scorpion Tattoo.jpg

Russian soldier, Georgia

My sometimes traveling companion Sean LaFreniere visited Russia a few years ago, and he saw uniformed Russian soldiers begging for money and food on the streets. And he met a Russian woman who told him about the ordeal her younger brother endured in the army.

“[She] told me that her little brother had recently returned from his first few months of ‘boot camp’ in the Russian army,” “he wrote”:http://seanlafreniere.blogspot.com/2008_09_01_archive.html#6147992795552048136#6147992795552048136. “When he arrived home for a holiday dinner, his family found him a broken shell. He had been physically, psychologically, and even sexually abused as part of his ‘training.’ His parents and siblings refused to let him return. They have been hiding him for months while trying to acquire papers to get him out of the country. Many Western newspapers have documented similar suffering by Russian soldiers. The BBC and the Guardian recently ran stories on one Private Sychev. He lost his legs and genitals to gangrene after ritualized abuse by the comrades in his unit. Other recruits are forced into pornography and prostitution to enrich their superior officers.”

I never heard any expression of hatred toward the people of Russia by Georgians. I didn’t even hear any complaints about, let alone hatred for, the Abkhaz or Ossetians in the breakaway regions. Georgians are, of course, unhappy with the Russian invasion, but they didn’t seem to be making it personal. I heard much more serious denunciations of Armenians from Azeris every day in Azerbaijan than I heard even once from anybody in Georgia toward anyone. Azerbaijan’s anger toward Armenia is understandable, though a bit unhinged and over the top in some quarters, so the muted reaction toward Russians among Georgians surprised me.

Some even told me that some Georgian civilians took pity on the underfed Russian soldiers and cooked meals for them in their kitchens. I don’t know if it’s true. What I do know is that many Georgians believe it is true and think it a plausible thing for Georgians to do. And I didn’t detect anything in the Georgian character that made me believe the rumors had to be false.

“Go ahead and take pictures of whatever you want,” Goltz said.

“They don’t mind?” I said.

“No,” he said, “it’s fine.”

So I took a few pictures and carefully studied the faces of the soldiers as I pointed my camera at them. None seemed to mind even when I zoomed in.

Asian-Russian Soldier Georgia.jpg

Russian soldier, Georgia

“Want to go to Gori?” Goltz said.

“They’ll let us?” I said.

“Let’s go.”

He summoned our driver who gingerly drove up to meet us from his parking space at a safe distance.

“I guess they’re going to escort us?” I said.

Truck Russian Checkpoint Georgia.jpg

Russian military truck at the first checkpoint on the road to Gori, Central Georgia

“I don’t think so,” Goltz said. “Let’s just go.”

“We can just drive there by ourselves?” I said.

We got back in the car. Our taxi driver slowly drove past from the road block as though he expected us to be stopped at any moment. But nobody stopped us.

After we rounded a corner we had the road to ourselves again and we headed straight toward the occupied city of Gori.

“What’s going on, Thomas?” I said. Whatever he said to those men in Russian apparently worked, but we were really supposed to be driving toward Gori?

I know of at least one journalist who was allowed to “embed” with Russian soldiers for 24 hours in Gori. They drove him around and let him sleep at their base. I would have pounced on the opportunity if it were offered, but almost no journalists from any country were allowed inside the occupied city without a visa from Moscow, as though Gori were now part of Russia.

Russian Occupied Georgia.jpg

Russian-occupied Georgia

“This sure feels strange, doesn’t it?” Goltz said.

Yes, it felt strange. And totally wrong.

“I once walked in the neutral zone between Iraq and Iran,” I said, which is true. Goltz laughed.

There’s a strange little wooded area along a stream in Biara, Iraq, along the Iranian border where no one is really sure where the line is. Walking there felt powerfully wrong even though I had Iraqi guides with me, and I didn’t dare linger in that zone for even a full sixty seconds. I didn’t even know I had crossed into the neutral zone until after it happened. I could have run into an Iranian border patrol at any moment and would have had nothing to say for myself. I quickly retreated back to Iraq.

Driving inside the Russian occupation zone without an escort felt exactly the same, like the atmosphere was crackling with danger. What would we say if we came upon a Russian patrol who demanded to know what on earth we were doing? At least Goltz speaks fluent Russian and isn’t easily cowed by men with guns.

“We’re going to keep driving through as many checkpoints as we can,” he said.

We passed a Russian truck whose driver paid us no mind.

Russian Truck Road to Gori.jpg

A Russian truck on the road to Gori, Central Georgia

I relaxed slightly.

The road was otherwise empty until we came upon another Russian checkpoint. Two soldiers stood next to an armored personnel carrier and a Russian flag they had erected on a pole. The American flag we had passed earlier was perhaps only five miles behind us. An American flag and a Russian flag were planted just a few minutes away from each other inside a third country. Georgia felt like the center of the world.

Our driver approached the checkpoint very slowly, but the Russians waved us through before he even stopped.

I felt better. Apparently it was sort of okay for us to be on that road as long as the soldiers at the first checkpoint had let us pass.

Village Russian Occupied Georgia2.jpg

Village, Russian-occupied Georgia

The countryside still seemed entirely depopulated except for birds overhead and in the trees who carried on as though nothing were out of the ordinary. I found that profoundly eerie for reasons I can’t quite explain. Some think animals have a better sense of danger than humans, but I have my doubts about that. Everything was wrong in this part of Georgia, and it wasn’t just because the only people around were those of us in the taxi and the well-armed foreign invaders. I saw scorch marks in some of the farmland. Trees and ground on the side of the road had been burned.

Scorched Roadside Near Gori.jpg

Scorched roadside, Russian-occupied Georgia

“There was fighting here recently,” Goltz said. “Those burns are from the war.”

We approached a third Russian checkpoint clocking in at 65 kilometers from Tbilisi, nearly at the gate to the city of Gori. The soldiers manning this one were not at all happy to see us. One stepped into the road and fiercely pointed his finger in the direction we came from. He yelled something in Russian. Our driver quickly turned around and got us out of there.

“I guess we aren’t going to Gori,” I said.

“We had to try,” Goltz said.

I carefully studied the landscape using my zoom lens.

A tank perched on a hill in the distance next to some houses kept watch over the road.

Russian Tank Near House Georgia.jpg

A tank on a hill near a house from a distance, Russian-occupied Georgia

The Russians were no longer shooting at people, but they could have shot us at any time if they felt like it. No one would have been able to stop them or save us.

I turned my lens back onto the road and faintly made out a vehicle with a gunner in a turret barreling toward us at top speed.

Speeding Russian Gunner Georgia.jpg

Speeding gunner, Russian-occupied Georgia

“That one has a gunner,” I said and quickly put down my camera before he got close enough to see with his naked eye that I was pointing something long and narrow at him. Unless he was watching us with binoculars, I could see farther than he could.

“No sense getting ourselves shot if we don’t have to,” Goltz said.

Off to the left was a small ad hoc Russian base.

Russian Base Georgia.jpg

Russian army base, Central Georgia

“Did you get that?” Goltz said.

“Got it,” I said.

The driver said something to Goltz. Goltz translated.

“He wants to get back,” he said. “He said it’s especially dangerous out here at night, that the Russians want a provocation so they can take his car.”

It would be dark soon and we were almost an hour outside Tbilisi. The sun was just about to go down.

“I need to get back anyway for a radio interview,” Goltz said. “If you have any other plans in this area, say something now.”

I laughed. “By myself in the dark with no car?” I said. “I don’t think so.”

We passed the second Russian checkpoint without incident, then approached the first one again where we had stopped earlier and I had taken some pictures.

There were more people at the checkpoint this time, and two of them were clearly irregular militiamen. Goltz told our driver to stop.

The irregulars were not wearing full uniforms, but they were armed with rifles and had unsheathed hunting knives tucked into their belts. Unlike the uniformed Russians, these two had blonde hair and blue eyes. They didn’t look remotely Asian like some of the others, nor did they quite look like Slavs. I couldn’t place them ethnically. One had shaved his head over his ears and wore what looked like a wide mohawk. He was built like a heavyweight wrestler.

Both militiamen triggered every one of my danger signals short of actual fear. They were clearly bad news. “Bad vibe” doesn’t quite say it.

Goltz started blabbing at them in Russian. He sounded strangely foolish to me, as though he, unlike me, did not sense we might be in danger. In hindsight, though, I think he did. He just didn’t show it. The only words I understood were “Dagestan” and “Montana.” He kept repeating “Dagestan” and “Montana” and sounded like an awe-shucks oblivious American tourist. What was he doing? I wanted to get out of there. The uniformed Russian soldiers laughed at whatever Goltz said and seemed perfectly relaxed and non-threatening, but the out-of-uniform irregulars looked unimpressed and barely able to contain their aggression.

I did not even think of taking their picture. These men narrowed their eyes and stared holes through me. They looked distinctly like psychopaths, as though they wanted to kill us and only didn’t because they did not have permission. They said nothing and kept back a bit from some of the uniformed Russians, as though they weren’t the ones in charge, but I knew it was time to leave when one of them wrapped his fingers around the hilt of his blade.

Goltz told our driver to go. And so we drove off.

“I was making stupid jokes,” Goltz said, “about how Dagestan means the same thing as Montana.” Dagestan is a Muslim Russian republic in the North Caucasus across from Azerbaijan and next to Chechnya. Goltz lives in Montana. “Both mean country of the mountains. What I was saying was stupid but I did it so we could stall and get a good long look at those Chechen militiamen. It’s one of my tricks.”

“They’re from Chechnya?” I said. “How do you know?”

“I don’t,” he said. “But they probably are. They’re definitely not Russians. I have a bit of a sixth sense about ethnicity in an ethnic-conscious place like the former Soviet Union,” he said. “I know the Chechens. I hung with the Chechens.”

Chechnya Diary.JPG

Chechnya Diary, by my traveling companion Thomas Goltz

“If I could have stalled us just ten more seconds,” he continued, “I would have said I’m a Chechen who lives in the United States in Chechen to see if I could get one of those toughs to fucking smile.”

I had noticed something while stalled at that checkpoint that didn’t even register until after we left. The letters CCCP — the Russian abbreviation for the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics — were written in black ink on the rifle slings the militiamen carried. Of course it didn’t mean much aside from the fact that their weapons and gear were old. But that didn’t even occur to me while I was looking at them and their communist era equipment. It seemed perfectly appropriate at the time. Communism, of course, is over. Yet during our day trip in Central Georgia — and even a bit on my train ride to Georgia — I felt distinctly like the Soviet Empire was back or had never left.

“I can’t imagine a more serious geopolitical situation anywhere in the world than where we are right now,” Goltz said as we reemerged inside free Georgia. “Despite the fact that everything looks calm and we can joke with the Russians, this is as big as it gets.”

Post-script: If these dispatches are worth something to you, please consider a contribution and help make truly independent writing economically viable.

You can make a one-time donation through Pay Pal:

Alternately, you can now make recurring monthly payments through Pay Pal. Please consider choosing this option and help me stabilize my expense account.

$10 monthly subscription:
$25 monthly subscription:
$50 monthly subscription:
$100 monthly subscription:

If you would like to donate for travel and equipment expenses and you don’t want to send money over the Internet, please consider sending a check or money order to:

Michael Totten

P.O. Box 312

Portland, OR 97207-0312

Many thanks in advance.

Help Me Out Here

I should have my next dispatch from the Caucasus region ready within 24 hours. I thought I would finish it today, but this one is a bit longer than usual and I need one more day. In the meantime, I could use some suggestions.

The name of this Web site needs to be changed from Middle East Journal to…something else. Soon I’m heading back to Iraq, but since my last trip there I’ve covered both the Balkans and the Caucasus. Middle East Journal is too limited a name and sometimes is not even accurate.

Can you think of a better one? The title doesn’t have to be hip or edgy, but something not too bland would be nice. And it can’t be geographically limiting. Who knows where I’ll end up after my next trip to Iraq? Possibly Cuba or North Korea. Maybe Iran. Anything’s possible. I’ll definitely get to Afghanistan at some point.

So…titles. What have you got? Brainstorm with me in the comments.

Russia’s Kosovo Precedent

Russia’s Vladimir Putin “darkly hinted”:http://www.tiraspoltimes.com/news/putin_agrees_kosovo_and_transdniestria_are_the_same.html that his country would invade and dismember Georgia months before last month’s war in the South Caucasus region began. “We have Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Pridnestrovie [Transnistria],” he said back in February of this year after Kosovo declared independence from Serbia, “and they say Kosovo is a special case?” Putin has a point, but only a very small one. The overwhelming majority of Kosovars want nothing more to do with Serbia just as the majorities in Georgia’s breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia want to secede. But there the similarities end.

Kosovo is a viable nation state of more than two million people, greater in size than its neighbors Montenegro and Macedonia which also broke free of Yugoslavia recently. (Montenegro’s secession from the Yugoslavian rump state of Serbia-Montenegro in 2006 somehow didn’t produce any hand-wringing about a “Montenegro precedent” in Russia or anywhere else.)

South Ossetia, meanwhile, has a population of around 60,000 people, the size of a small American suburb. Abkhazia’s population is less than 200,000, around the size of a large American suburb. These are not viable nation states.

Nevertheless, last week Russia recognized them as independent. Unlike Kosovo — which is formally recognized by 46 counties, including all of the G7 — no country in the world other than Russia recognizes the “independence” of Abkhazia or South Ossetia. That’s partly because what really just happened is de facto Russian annexation. Before the invasion and dismemberment of Georgia, Russia made the majority in South Ossetia and Abkhazia citizens of Russia and gave passports to anybody who asked. I just returned from a trip to Georgia, and the Russian military wouldn’t let me enter South Ossetia or even the central Georgian city of Gori because I did not have a Russian visa.

“Read the rest in COMMENTARY Magazine”:http://www.commentarymagazine.com/blogs/index.php/totten/27931.

Checking In

I haven’t published anything since early last week for a couple of reasons: it took me three days to get home from Georgia (I had to leave by ground and then fly home across twelve time zones from Azerbaijan), I took two days off with my wife at the beach, and now I’m recovering from a wonderful little virus that I apparently picked up on the plane. As of this morning I’m starting to feel like a normal human being again and can now resume writing.

Stay tuned. I have more dispatches from the Caucasus that will be up shortly, the first about a brief jaunt I took inside the Russian occupation zone near Gori in central Georgia.

The Truth About Russia in Georgia

I Am Georgia Stop Russia.jpg

TBILISI, GEORGIA — Virtually everyone believes Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili foolishly provoked a Russian invasion on August 7, 2008, when he sent troops into the breakaway district of South Ossetia. “The warfare began Aug. 7 when Georgia launched a barrage targeting South Ossetia,” the Associated Press “reported”:http://www.iht.com/articles/ap/2008/08/23/europe/EU-Georgia-Russia-Looting.php over the weekend in typical fashion.

Virtually everyone is wrong. Georgia didn’t start it on August 7, nor on any other date. The South Ossetian militia started it on August 6 when its fighters fired on Georgian peacekeepers and Georgian villages with weapons banned by the agreement hammered out between the two sides in 1994. At the same time, the Russian military sent its invasion force bearing down on Georgia from the north side of the Caucasus Mountains on the Russian side of the border through the Roki tunnel and into Georgia. This happened before Saakashvili sent additional troops to South Ossetia and allegedly started the war.

Regional expert, German native, and former European Commission official Patrick Worms was recently hired by the Georgian government as a media advisor, and he explained to me exactly what happened when I met him in downtown Tbilisi. You should always be careful with the version of events told by someone on government payroll even when the government is as friendly and democratic as Georgia’s. I was lucky, though, that another regional expert, author and academic Thomas Goltz, was present during Worms’ briefing to me and signed off on it as completely accurate aside from one tiny quibble.

Goltz has been writing about the Caucasus region for almost 20 years, and he isn’t on Georgian government payroll. He earns his living from the University of Montana and from the sales of his books Azerbaijan Diary, Georgia Diary and Chechnya Diary. Goltz experienced these three Caucasus republics at their absolute worst, and he knows the players and the events better than just about anyone. Every journalist in Tbilisi seeks him out as the old hand who knows more than the rest of us put together, and he wanted to hear Patrick Worms’ spiel to reporters in part to ensure its accuracy.

“You,” Worms said to Goltz just before he started to flesh out the real story to me, “are going to be bored because I’m going to give some back story that you know better than I do.”

“Go,” Goltz said. “Go.”

The back story began at least as early as the time of the Soviet Union. I turned on my digital voice recorder so I wouldn’t miss anything that was said.

Patrick Worms Map Tbilisi.jpg

Patrick Worms

“A key tool that the Soviet Union used to keep its empire together,” Worms said to me, “was pitting ethnic groups against one another. They did this extremely skillfully in the sense that they never generated ethnic wars within their own territory. But when the Soviet Union collapsed it became an essential Russian policy to weaken the states on its periphery by activating the ethnic fuses they planted.

Peacekeeper Poster Tbilisi.jpg

A poster on a wall in Tbilisi, Georgia

“They tried that in a number of countries. They tried it in the Baltic states, but the fuses were defused. Nothing much happened. They tried it in Ukraine. It has not happened yet, but it’s getting hotter. They tried it in Moldova. There it worked, and now we have Transnitria. They tried it in Armenia and Azerbaijan and it went beyond their wildest dreams and we ended up with a massive, massive war. And they tried it in two territories in Georgia, which I’ll talk about in a minute. They didn’t try it in Central Asia because basically all the presidents of the newly independent countries were the former heads of the communist parties and they said we’re still following your line, Kremlin, we haven’t changed very much.

Nagorno-Karabakh Map2.JPG

He’s right about the massive war between Armenia and Azerbaijan, though few outside the region know much about it. Armenians and Azeris very thoroughly transferred Azeris and Armenians “back” to their respective mother countries after the Soviet Union collapsed through pogroms, massacres, and ethnic-cleansing. Hundreds of thousands of refugees fled savage communal warfare in terror. The Armenian military still occupies the ethnic-Armenian Nagorno-Karabakh region in southwestern Azerbaijan. It’s another so-called “frozen conflict” in the Caucasus region waiting to thaw. Moscow takes the Armenian side and could blow up Nagorno-Karabakh, and subsequently all of Azerbaijan, at any time. After hearing the strident Azeri point of view on the conflict for a week before I arrived in Georgia, I’d say that particular ethnic-nationalist fuse is about one millimeter in length.

“Now the story starts really in 1992 when this fuse was lit in Georgia,” Worms said. “Now, there’s two territories. There’s Abkhazia which has clearly defined administrative borders, and there’s South Ossetia that doesn’t. Before the troubles started, Abkhazia was an extremely ethnically mixed area: about 60 percent Georgian, 20 percent Abkhaz, and 20 percent assorted others — Greeks, Estonians, Armenians, Jews, what have you. In Ossetia it was a completely integrated and completely mixed Ossetian-Georgian population. The Ossetians and the Georgians have never been apart in the sense that they were living in their own little villages and doing their own little things. There has been inter-marriage and a sense of common understanding going back to distant history. The Georgians will tell you about King Tamar — that’s a woman, but they called her a king — and she was married to an Ossetian. So the fuse was lit and two wars start, one in Abkhazia and one in South Ossetia.”

Georgia Map.jpg


South Ossetia is inside Georgia, while North Ossetia is inside Russia.

“The fuse was not just lit in Moscow,” he said. “It was also lit in Tbilisi. There was a guy in charge here, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, a little bit like [Serbian Nationalist war criminal in Bosnia Radovan] Karadzic. He was a poet. He was an intellectual. But he was one of these guys who veered off into ethnic exclusivism. He made stupid declarations like Georgia is only for the Georgians. If you’re running a multi-ethnic country, that is really not a clever thing to say. The central control of the state was extremely weak. The Russians were trying to make things worse. There was a civil war between Georgians and Tbilisi. But the key thing is that here there were militias, Georgian militias, and some of them pretty nasty.”

Thomas Goltz Briefing Tbilisi.jpg

Thomas Goltz

Thomas Goltz then interjected his only critique of Patrick Worms’ explanation of events that led to this war. “It started in 1991,” he said, “but it went into 1992 and 1993, as well.” Then he turned to me. “This guy, [Zviad] Gamsakhurdia, was driven from power from across the street. They bombed this place.” He meant the Marriott Hotel. We stood in the lobby where Worms had set up his media relations operation. “There’s a horrible picture in my Georgia book of this facade.”

“Of this building?” I said.

Marriot Tbilisi.jpg

Marriot Hotel (right), Tbilisi, Georgia

“Yeah,” Goltz said. “That was December 1991. He fled in December 1991.”

“Where did he go?” I said.

“To Chechnya,” Goltz said. “Of course. He led the government in exile until he came back in 1993 then died obscurely in the mountains, of suicide some people say, others say cancer. Then he was buried in Grozny.” He turned then again to Patrick Worms. “1991,” he said. “Not 1992.”

“1991,” Worms said. “Okay.”

So aside from that quibble, everything else Worms said to me was vouched for as accurate by the man who literally wrote the book on this conflict from the point of view of both academic and witness.

“So in 1991,” Worms said, “things here explode. And basically it gets pretty nasty. Thomas can tell you what happened. Read his book, it’s worth it. And by the time the dust settles, there are between 20,000 and 30,000 dead. Many atrocities committed by both sides, but mostly — at least that’s what the Georgians say — by the Abkhaz. And the end result is everybody gets kicked out. Everybody who is not Abkhaz or Russian gets kicked out. That’s about 400,000 people. 250,000 of those still live as Internally Displaced Persons within Georgia. As for the rest: the Greeks have gone back to Greece, the Armenians to Armenia, some Abkhaz to Turkey, etc.

Abkhazia Map.jpg

Abkhazia (upper left)

“When it’s over,” he said, “you’ve got two bits of Abkhazia which are not ethnic Abkhazia. You’ve got Gali district which is filled with ethnic Georgians. And you’ve got the Kodori Gorge which is filled with another bunch of Georgians. So there the end result was a classic case of ethnic-cleansing, but the world didn’t pay much attention because it was happening at the same time as the Yugoslav wars. Ossetia was different. Ossetia also had a war that started about the same time, and it was also pretty nasty, but it never quite succeeded in generating a consolidated bit of territory that Ossetians could keep their own. When the dust settled there, you ended up with a patchwork of Georgian and Ossetian villages. Before the war, Ossetians and Georgians lived together in the same villages. After the war they lived in separate villages. But there were still contacts. People were talking, people were trading. It wasn’t quite as nasty as it was in Abkhazia.

South Ossetia Map.JPG

“Now fast forward to the Rose Revolution,” he said.

The Rose Revolution was a popular bloodless revolution that brought Georgia’s current president Mikheil Saakashvili to power and replaced the old man of Georgian politics Eduard Shevardnadze who basically ran the country Soviet-style.

“The first thing that Misha [Mikheil Saakashvili] did was try to poke his finger in [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s eyes as many times as possible,” Worms said, “most notably by wanting to join NATO. The West, in my view, mishandled this situation. America gave the wrong signals. So did Europe.”

“Can you elaborate on that a bit?” I said.

“I will,” he said. “But basically the encouragement was given despite stronger and stronger Russian signals that a Georgian accession to NATO would not be tolerated. Fast forward to 2008, to this year, to the meeting of NATO heads of state that took place in Bucharest, Romania, where Georgia was promised eventual membership of the organization but was refused what it really wanted, which was the so-called Membership Action Plan. The Membership Action Plan is the bureaucratic tool NATO uses to prepare countries for membership. And this despite the fact that military experts will tell you that the Georgian Army, which had been reformed root and branch with American support, was now in better shape and more able to meet NATO aspirations than the armies of Albania and Macedonia which got offered membership at the same meeting.

Night Shot Tbilisi 3.jpg

Tbilisi, Georgia

“Just a little bit of back story again, in July of 2007 Russia withdrew from the Conventional Forces Treaty in Europe. This is a Soviet era treaty that dictates where NATO and the Warsaw Pact can keep their conventional armor around their territories. Russia started moving a lot of materiel south. After Bucharest, provocations started. Russian provocations started, and they were mostly in Abkhazia.

“One provocation was to use the Russian media to launch shrill accusations that the Georgian army was in Kodori preparing for an invasion of Abkhazia. Now if you go up there — I took a bunch of journalists up there a few times — when you get to the actual checkpoint you have a wall of crumbling rock, a wooden bridge, another wall of crumbling rock, a raging torrent, and a steep mountainside filled with woods. It’s not possible to invade out or invade in unless you’ve got air support. Which is why the Abkhaz were never able to kick these Georgians out. They just kept that bit of territory.”

He paused and looked over at Thomas Goltz as though he was bracing for a critique.

“I’m just doing what I’ve done already,” he said, “but this time I’m getting advice from an expert on how I’m doing.”

Thomas Goltz silently nodded.

Walls and Church Tbilisi.jpg

Tbilisi, Georgia

“Kodori provocations,” Worms continued, “and other provocations. First the Russians had a peacekeeping base under a 1994 agreement that allowed them to keep the peace in both Abkhazia and South Ossetia. They added paratroopers, crack paratroopers, with modern weaponry there. That doesn’t sound a lot like peacekeeping. A further provocation: they start shooting unmanned Georgian aircraft drones out the sky. One of them was caught on camera by the drone as it was about to be destroyed. The United Nations confirmed that it was a Russian plane that did this. It probably took off from an airbase that the Russians were supposed to have vacated a few years ago, but they never let the OSCE [Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe] in to check.

“The next provocation: On April 16 Putin signs a presidential decree recognizing the documents of Abkhazians and South Ossetians in Russia and vice versa. This effectively integrates these two territories into Russia’s legal space. The Georgians were furious. So you have all these provocations mounting and mounting and mounting. Meanwhile, as of July, various air corps start moving from the rest of Russia to get closer to the Caucasus. These are obscure details, but they are available.

Stop Russia Tbilisi.jpg

A poster on a wall in Tbilisi, Georgia

“Starting in mid July the Russians launched the biggest military exercise in the North Caucasus that they’ve held since the Chechnya war. That exercise never stopped. It just turned into a war. They had all their elite troops there, all their armor there, all their stuff there. Everyone still foolishly thought the action was going to be in Abkhazia or in Chechnya, which is still not as peaceful as they’d like it to be.

“The Georgians had their crack troops in Iraq. So what was left at their central base in Gori? Not very much. Just Soviet era equipment and not their best troops. They didn’t place troops on the border with Abkhazia because they didn’t want to provoke the Abkhaz. They were expecting an attempt on Kodori, but the gorge is in such a way that unless they’re going to use massive air support — which the Abkhaz don’t have — it’s impossible to take that place. Otherwise they would have done it already.

“So fast forward to early August. You have a town, Tskhinvali, which is Ossetian, and a bunch of Georgian villages surrounding it in a crescent shape. There are peacekeepers there. Both Russian peacekeepers and Georgian peacekeepers under a 1994 accord. The Ossetians were dug in in the town, and the Georgians were in the forests and the fields between the town and the villages. The Ossetians start provoking and provoking and provoking by shelling Georgian positions and Georgian villages around there. And it’s a classic tit for tat thing. You shell, I shell back. The Georgians offered repeated ceasefires, which the Ossetians broke.

Friendliness Poster Tbilisi.jpg

A poster on a wall in Tbilisi, Georgia

“On August 3, the head of the local administration says he’s evacuating his civilians. You also need to know one thing: you may be wondering what these areas live off, especially in Ossetia, there’s no industry there. Georgia is poor, but Ossetia is poorer. It’s basically a smuggler’s paradise. There was a sting operation that netted three kilograms of highly enriched uranium. There are fake hundred dollar bills to the tune of at least 50 million dollars that have been printed. [South Ossetian “President” Eduard] Kokoity himself is a former wrestler and a former bodyguard who was promoted to the presidency by powerful Ossetian families as their puppet. What does that mean in practice? It means that if you are a young man, you have no choice. You can either live in absolute misery, or you can take the government’s dime and join the militia. It happened in both territories.

“On top of that, for the last four years the Russians have been dishing out passports to anyone who asks in those areas. All you have to do is present your Ossetian or Abkhaz papers and a photo and you get a Russian passport on the spot. If you live in Moscow and try to get a Russian passport, you have the normal procedure to follow, and it takes years. So suddenly you have a lot of Ossetian militiamen and Abkhaz militiamen with Russian passports in effect paid by Russian subsidies.

Night Shot Tbilisi 1.jpg

Tbilisi, Georgia

“So back to the 3rd of August. Kokoity announces women and children should leave. As it later turned out, he made all the civilians leave who were not fighting or did not have fighting capabilities. On the same day, irregulars — Ingush, Chechen, Ossetians, and Cossacks — start coming in and spreading out into the countryside but don’t do anything. They just sit and wait. On the 6th of August the shelling intensifies from Ossetian positions. And for the first time since the war finished in 1992, they are using 120mm guns.”

“Can I stop you for a second?” I said. I was still under the impression that the war began on August 7 and that Georgian President Saakashvili started it when he sent troops into South Ossetia’s capital Tskhinvali. What was all this about the Ossetian violence on August 6 and before?

He raised his hand as if to say stop.

“That was the formal start of the war,” he said. “Because of the peace agreement they had, nobody was allowed to have guns bigger than 80mm. Okay, so that’s the formal start of the war. It wasn’t the attack on Tskhinvali. Now stop me.”

“Okay,” I said. “All the reports I’ve read say Saakashvili started the war.”

“I’m not yet on the 7th,” he said. “I’m on the 6th.”

“Okay,” I said. He had given this explanation to reporters before, and he knew exactly what I was thinking.

“Saakashvili is accused of starting this war on the 7th,” he said.

“Right,” I said. “But that sounds like complete bs to me if what you say is true.”

Thomas Goltz nodded.


I later met wounded Georgian soldiers in a Tbilisi hospital who confirmed what Patrick Worms had told me about what happened when the war actually started. I felt apprehensive about meeting wounded soldiers. Would they really want to talk to someone in the media or would they rather spend their time healing in peace?

My translator spoke to some of the doctors in the hospital who directed us to Georgian soldiers and a civilian who were wounded in South Ossetia and felt okay enough to speak to a foreign reporter.

Kaha Bragadze.jpg

Kaha Bragadze

“Every day and every hour the Russian side lied,” Georgian soldier Kaha Bragadze said. “It must be stopped. If not today, then maybe tomorrow. My troops were in our village, Avnevi. On the 6th of August they blew up our troops’ four-wheel-drives, our pickups. They blew them up. Also in this village — it was August 5th or 6th, I can’t remember — they started bombing us with shells. Two soldiers died that day, our peacekeepers. The Ossetians had a good position on the hill. They could see all our positions and our villages, and they started bombing. They went to the top of the hill, bombed us, then went down. We couldn’t see who was shooting at us.”

Kaha Bragadze Leg.jpg

Kaha Bragadze’s leg wounded by shrapnel from a Russian air strike

“Which day was this?” I said. “The 5th or the 6th?”

“I don’t remember,” he said. “But it started that day from that place when two Georgians were killed.”

“Were they just bombing you the peacekeepers,” I said, “or also civilians and villages?”

“Before they started bombing us they took all the civilians out of their villages,” he said. “Then they started damaging our villages — houses, a gas pipe, roads, yards. They killed our animals. They evacuated their villages, then bombed our villages.”

Another Georgian soldier, Giorgi Khosiashvili, concurred

Giorgi Khosiashvili.jpg

Giorgi Khosiashvili

“I was a peace keeper as well,” he said, “but in another village. I was fired upon on August 6th. On the 5th of August they started shooting. They blew up our peacekeeping trucks. They put a bomb on the road and when they were driving they were blown up. They also mined the roads used by civilians. On the 6th of August they started bombing Avnevi. And at this time they took the civilians out of Tskhinvali and sent them to North Ossetia [inside Russia].”

“I saw this on TV,” said Alex, my translator. “They took the civilians, kids, women, and put them on the bus and sent them to North Ossetia.”

A civilian man, Koba Mindiashvili, shared the hospital room with the Georgian soldiers. He, too, was in South Ossetia where he lived outside Tskhinvali.

Koba Mindiashvili.jpg

Koba Mindiashvili

“When they started bombing my village,” he said, “I was running away and the soldiers wounded me. They robbed me and shot me in the leg with a Kalashnikov. I don’t know if it was Russians or Ossetians. They took my car, took my gold chain, and shot me.”

“They didn’t care if it was a house or a military camp,” Giorgi Khosiashvili said. “They bombed everything.”

“You actually saw this for yourself?” I said.

“Yes,” he said. “I saw it. It was the Russian military airplanes. If they knew it was a Georgian village, they bombed all the houses. Many civilians were killed from this bombing.”

“It was Russians or Ossetians who did this?” I said.

“It was Russians,” he said. “The Ossetians don’t have any jets.”


Back at the Marriott Hotel in downtown Tbilisi, Patrick Worms continued fleshing out the rest of the story. “Let me tell you what happened on the 7th,” he said. “On the 6th, while this is going on, the integration minister who was until a few months ago an NGO guy and who believes in soft power things, tried to go there and meet the separatist leadership. The meeting doesn’t happen for farcical reasons. The shelling intensifies during the night and there is, again, tit for tat, but this time with weapons coming from the South Ossetian side which are not allowed under the agreement. By that time, the Georgians were seriously worried. All their armor that was near Abkhazia starts moving, but they are tanks, they don’t have tank transporters, so they move slowly. They don’t make it back in time. On the 7th, this continues. That afternoon, the president announces a unilateral ceasefire, a different one from the previous ones. It means I stop firing first, and if you fire, I still won’t fire back. That holds until the next part of the story.

Peace Vigil Tbilisi.jpg

Peace vigil, Tbilisi, Georgia

“On the evening of the 7th, the Ossetians launch an all-out barrage focused on Georgian villages, not on Georgian positions. Remember, these Georgian villages inside South Ossetia — the Georgians have mostly evacuated those villages, and three of them are completely pulverized. That evening, the 7th, the president gets information that a large Russian column is on the move. Later that evening, somebody sees those vehicles emerging from the Roki tunnel [into Georgia from Russia]. Then a little bit later, somebody else sees them. That’s three confirmations. It was time to act.

“What they had in the area was peacekeeping stuff, not stuff for fighting a war. They had to stop that column, and they had to stop it for two reasons. It’s a pretty steep valley. If they could stop the Russians there, they would be stuck in the tunnel and they couldn’t send the rest of their army through. So they did two things. The first thing they did, and it happened at roughly the same time, they tried to get through [South Ossetian capital] Tskhinvali, and that’s when everybody says Saakashvili started the war. It wasn’t about taking Ossetia back, it was about fighting their way through that town to get onto that road to slow the Russian advance. The second thing they did, they dropped a team of paratroopers to destroy a bridge. They got wiped out, but first they managed to destroy the bridge and about 15 Russian vehicles.

“The Georgians will tell you that they estimate that these two actions together slowed the Russian advance by 24 to 48 hours. That is what the world considered to be Misha’s game. And you know why the world considers it that? Because here in South Ossetia was the head of the peacekeeping troops. He hasn’t been in Iraq, he’s a peace keeper. What have they been told for the last four years? They lived in a failed state, then there was the Rose Revolution — it wasn’t perfect but, damn, now there’s electricity, there’s jobs, roads have been fixed — and what the Georgians have had drummed into them is that Georgia is now a constitutional state, a state of law and order. And everybody here knows that Ossetia is a gangster’s smuggler’s paradise. The whole world knows it, but here they know it particularly well. The peacekeepers had a military objective, and the first rule of warfare when you’re talking to the media is not to reveal to your enemy what you’re going to do. So they weren’t going to blather into a microphone and say well, actually, I’m trying to go through Tskhinvali in order to stop the Russians. So what did he say instead? I’m here to restore constitutional order in South Ossetia. And that’s it. With that, Georgia lost the propaganda war and the world believes Saakashvili started it. And the rest of the story…you know.”

Night Shot Tbilisi 2.jpg

Tbilisi, Georgia

“Let me make a couple of comments,” Goltz said.

“That,” Worms said, “to the best of my knowledge, is all true.”

“Let’s just start at the ass end,” Goltz said to me. “This is your first time to the lands of the former Soviet Union?”

“Yes,” I said.

The restoration of constitutional order,” he said, “may sound just like a rhetorical flourish with no echo in the American mindset. What it means in the post-Soviet mindset is what Boris Yeltsin was doing in Chechnya. This was the stupidest phrase this guy possibly could have used. That’s why people want to lynch him.”

Goltz was referring to the head of the Georgian peacekeeping forces in South Ossetia. He turned then to Patrick Worms. “Your presentation was deliciously comprehensive. Perhaps it was…we’ll ask our new friend Michael…too much information out of the gate to absorb.”

“I absorbed it,” I said.

“Okay,” Goltz said.

“Am I making any mistakes?” Worms said to Goltz. “Am I forgetting anything?”

“Well,” Goltz said, “there are some details that I would chip in. Who are the Ossetians and where do they live? This is the question that has been lost in all of the static from this story. This autonomy [South Ossetia] is an autonomous district, as opposed to an autonomous republic, with about 60,000 people max. So, where are the rest of the Ossetians? Guess where they live? Tbilisi. Here. There. Everywhere. There are more Ossetians — take a look around this lobby. You will find Ossetians here. Of those Ossetians who are theoretically citizens of the Republic of Georgia, 60,000 live there and around 40,000 live here.”

Cross Outside Tbilisi.jpg

A roadside cross outside Tbilisi, Georgia

“What do they think about all this?” I said.

“They’re scared as shit,” Goltz said.

“Are they on the side of those who live in South Ossetia?” I said.

No,” he said. “One of them is Georgia’s Minister of Defense. [Correction: Georgia's Minister of Defense is Jewish, not Ossetian.] Georgia is a multi-ethnic republic. And the whole point of the Ossetian ethnic question is this: South Ossetia is part of Georgia.”

“Are reporters receptive to what you’re saying?” I said to Worms.

“Everyone is receptive,” he said. “Everyone, regardless of nationality, even those who love Georgia, genuinely thought Saakashvili started it.”

“That’s what I thought,” I said. “That’s what everyone has been writing.”

Putin Hopscotch Tbilisi.jpg

Vladimir Putin’s face used for hopscotch, Tbilisi, Georgia

“Yes,” he said. “Absolutely. We’ve been trying to tell the world about this for months. If you go back and look at the archives you’ll see plenty of calls from the Georgian government saying they’re really worried. Even some Russian commentators agree that this is exactly what happened. Don’t forget, they sent in a lot of irregulars, Chechens, Cossacks, Ossetians, Ingush — basically thugs. Not normal Chechens or Ingush — thugs. Thugs out for a holiday. Many Western camera crews were robbed at gunpoint ten meters from Russian tanks while Russian commanders just stood there smoking their cigarettes while the irregulars…that happened to a Turkish TV crew. They’re lucky to still be alive. Some of the Georgians were picked up by the irregulars. If they happened to be female, they got raped. If they happened to be male, they got shot immediately, sometimes tortured. Injured people we have in hospitals who managed to get out have had arms chopped off, eyes gouged out, and their tongues ripped out.”

Putin Sidewalk Georgia Flag Tbilisi.jpg

Vladimir Putin

Russian rules of engagement, so to speak, go down harder than communism. And the Soviet era habits of disinformation are alive and well.

“You also have to remember the propaganda campaign that came out,” he said. “Human Rights Watch is accusing the Russian authorities of being indirectly responsible for the massive ethnic cleansing of Georgians that happened in South Ossetia. The Ossetians are claiming that the Georgians killed 2,000 people in Tskhinvali, but when Human Rights Watch got in there a few days ago and talked to the hospital director, he had received 44 bodies. There was nobody left in that town. Plus it’s the oldest law of warfare: have your guns in populated areas, and when the enemy responds, show the world your dead women and children.

“Right,” I said. “That goes on a lot where I usually work, in the Middle East.”

“Yes,” he said. “That’s exactly what the Russians were doing.”

Post-script: If these dispatches are worth something to you, please consider a contribution and help make truly independent writing economically viable.

You can make a one-time donation through Pay Pal:

Alternately, you can now make recurring monthly payments through Pay Pal. Please consider choosing this option and help me stabilize my expense account.

$10 monthly subscription:
$25 monthly subscription:
$50 monthly subscription:
$100 monthly subscription:

If you would like to donate for travel and equipment expenses and you don’t want to send money over the Internet, please consider sending a check or money order to:

Michael Totten

P.O. Box 312

Portland, OR 97207-0312

Many thanks in advance.

Report from Tbilisi

(Note: I’m writing a long piece for this Web site called The Truth About Russia in Georgia. I should have it finished by this weekend. In the meantime, here is a short piece I filed for City Journal.)

Russia’s invasion of Georgia has unleashed a refugee crisis all over the country and especially in its capital. Every school here in Tbilisi is jammed with civilians who fled aerial bombardment and shootings by the Russian military—or massacres, looting, and arson by irregular Cossack paramilitary units swarming across the border. Russia has seized and effectively annexed two breakaway Georgian provinces, South Ossetia and Abkhazia. It has also invaded the region of Gori, which unlike them had been under Georgia’s control. Gori is in the center of the country, just an hour’s drive from Tbilisi; 90 percent of its citizens have fled, and the tiny remainder live amid a violent mayhem overseen by Russian occupation forces that, despite Moscow’s claims to the contrary, are not yet withdrawing.

On Monday, I visited one of the schools transformed into refugee housing in the center of Tbilisi and spoke to four women—Lia, Nana, Diana, and Maya—who had fled with their children from a cluster of small villages just outside the city of Gori. “We left the cattle,” Lia said. “We left the house. We left everything and came on foot because to stay there was impossible.” Diana’s account: “They are burning the houses. From most of the houses they are taking everything. They are stealing everything, even such things as toothbrushes and toilets. They are taking the toilets. Imagine. They are taking broken refrigerators.” And Nana: “We are so heartbroken. I don’t know what to say or even think. Our whole lives we were working to save something, and one day we lost everything. Now I have to start everything from the very beginning.”

Seven families were living cheek by jowl inside a single classroom, sleeping on makeshift beds made of desks pushed together. Small children played with donated toys; at times, their infant siblings cried. Everyone looked haggard and beaten down, but food was available and the smell wasn’t bad. They could wash, and the air conditioning worked.

“There was a bomb in the garden and all the apples on the trees fell down,” Lia remembered. “The wall fell down. All the windows were destroyed. And now there is nothing left because of the fire.”

“Read the rest in City Journal”:http://www.city-journal.org/2008/eon0820mt.html.

In Country

I have arrived in Tbilisi, Georgia, after a long slog overground from Baku, Azerbaijan. This country is rougher than I expected. Downtown Tbilisi is wonderfully exotic and charming, but the outskirts and the border region have been much more brutally Sovietized than anything I saw in Eastern Europe, including Albania. It is shocking to see. Georgia aches with past and present oppression from Moscow.

I’ll write something substantive when I can. In the meantime, take a look at my colleague and traveling companion Andrew Breitbart’s dispatch from Baku. “Read it”:http://washingtontimes.com/news/2008/aug/18/baku-to-the-future/print/. Trust me.

On My Way to Georgia

Baku Blue Lights.jpg

Baku, Azerbaijan

I am in Baku, Azerbaijan, and heading to Georgia in two days.

I’ve been here for the better part of a week and have lots of interesting material, but instead of returning home to write I would rather make the short hop over to Georgia and get even better material. Georgia is only a few hours away.

Caucasus Map Georgia and Azerbaijan.JPG

I will write this trip up as soon as I can.

If you have any story ideas that don’t involve me getting shot by the Russians, or if you know someone in Georgia I ought to meet, please let me know in the comments or by email.

If you value independent dispatches from the troubled parts of the world, please consider a donation to help offset my travel expenses.

You can make a one-time donation through Pay Pal:

Alternately, you can now make recurring monthly payments through Pay Pal.

$10 monthly subscription:
$25 monthly subscription:
$50 monthly subscription:
$100 monthly subscription:

If you would like to donate and you don’t want to send money over the Internet, please consider sending a check or money order to:

Michael Totten

P.O. Box 312

Portland, OR 97207-0312

Many thanks in advance.

The Explosive Caucasus

Just as I’m ready to board a plane for Azerbaijan in the former Soviet Caucasus region, Russia invades South Ossetia in Georgia next door.

The Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy invited me to Baku for a week, and I figured I’d be heading to a region that hardly anyone would be paying attention to. That turned out to be wrong. I won’t be flying to the war, but I’m about to fly over it and will land right next to it.

The whole area is a big mess. Chechnya, of course, is the most notorious part of the Caucasus region, but all these countries are dysfunctionally wrapped up in each others’ business.

Azerbaijan has its own “South Ossetia.” The region known as Nagorno-Karabakh is a self-proclaimed independent republic carved out of the middle of Azerbaijan by the Armenian military and ethnically-cleansed of Azeris. No country on earth recognizes the sovereignty or legitimacy of “Nagorno-Karabakh”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nagorno-Karabakh except for Armenia.

Nagorno-Karabakh Map.JPG

The “Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nakhichevan is an Azeri-administered region that looks like it’s more or less inside Armenia. Armenians, naturally, claim it should be theirs, but Nakhchivan is at least internationally recognized as legitimate.


Meanwhile, most Azeris don’t even live in Azerbaijan. They live in Iran, where they make up 25 percent of Iran’s population. (Contrary to popular belief, Iran is only 51 percent Persian.) It sort of begs the question then: if you’re in the Azeri parts of Iran and therefore in the Middle East, shouldn’t the Azeri parts of Azerbaijan (which is to say, most of Azerbaijan) also be considered the Middle East?

Shirvanshakh Baku.jpg

Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan

Yet the top portion of Azerbaijan is technically inside Europe. And Azerbaijan is officially a Caucasus country rather than European or Middle Eastern, at least geographically speaking. It would be considered Middle Eastern if the Persians hadn’t lost it to the Russians 180 years ago, and it would still be “Russian” if it hadn’t broken away when the Soviet Union collapsed.

Azerbaijan belongs to that strange region where the sort-of West meets the sort-of East and is “another Balkan-style tinderbox with ethnic time bombs that tend to explode”:http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/b/b0/Caucasus-ethnic_en.svg. Azerbaijan has lots of oil, too, so it matters to the rest of the world far more than its near absence in the media might suggest. It’s simultaneously being pulled toward Russia, the West, and the Islamic world. No one knows where it will end up, but Russia’s invasion of Georgia next door likely will be a big factor.

Stay tuned. I’ll be there in less than 48 hours.

UPDATE: If you want some solid background reading about the hell that broke loose in Georgia a few days ago, take a look at “this dispatch by Joshua Kucera from South Ossetia”:http://www.slate.com/id/2191588/entry/2191589/ that Slate published a few months ago. You’ll learn a lot more reading that than you will from wire agency reports that focus mostly on tank movements and body counts.

“See also Anne Applebaum”:http://www.slate.com/id/2197155/ in the same publication.

Post-script: The government of Azerbaijan is paying for this trip, so I don’t need money for travel expenses. But I’d still rather not work for free if I can help it. If a couple of dispatches from this strange part of the world are worth something to you, please consider a contribution and help make truly independent writing economically viable.

You can make a one-time donation through Pay Pal:

Alternately, you can now make recurring monthly payments through Pay Pal.

$10 monthly subscription:
$25 monthly subscription:
$50 monthly subscription:
$100 monthly subscription:

If you would like to donate and you don’t want to send money over the Internet, please consider sending a check or money order to:

Michael Totten

P.O. Box 312

Portland, OR 97207-0312

Many thanks in advance.

Help Keep the Dispatches Coming

A significant percentage of my travel expense income has come from those of you who signed up for recurring payments through a Blog Patron subscription. Blog Patron, unfortunately, has now closed. That cash flow has stopped up entirely. If you were one of my Blog Patron subscribers, please consider re-enrolling with a Pay Pal subscription so I will continue to have money for travel expenses. I would write these dispatches for free if I could, but I don’t have a trust fund or any other independent source of wealth to keep me going.

And just so you know what you’ll be paying for: I have a handful of pieces remaining from Kosovo, and I’ll be returning to Iraq shortly, most likely to Sadr City or somewhere else in the Baghdad area. I’ll also have a dispatch or two from the mysterious former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan which lies between Iran and Russia. The trip to Azerbaijan is paid for by the Azeri government, but I still need money for travel expenses to Iraq and for war zone insurance while I’m embedded with counterinsurgency soldiers.

Many sincere thanks to everyone for all your assistance. There is absolutely no way I could do what I do without you.

$10 monthly subscription:
$25 monthly subscription:
$50 monthly subscription:
$100 monthly subscription:

You can also make a one-time donation through Pay Pal:

If you would like to donate for travel and equipment expenses and you don’t want to send money over the Internet, please consider sending a check or money order to:

Michael Totten

P.O. Box 312

Portland, OR 97207-0312

Many thanks in advance.

An Israeli in Kosovo

Prizren and Hills.jpg

Imagine what would happen to a handful of Jewish veterans of the Israel Defense Forces who tried to move from Tel Aviv to an Arab country to open a bistro and bar. In only a few countries could they even get through the airport without being deported or, more likely, arrested. If they were somehow able to finagle a permit from the bureaucracy and operate openly as Israelis in an Arab capital, they wouldn’t last long. Somebody would almost certainly kill them even if the state left them alone.

Kosovo is a Muslim-majority country, but it isn’t Arab. The ethnic Albanians who make up around 90 percent of the population reject out of hand the vicious war-mongering anti-Semitism that still boils in the Middle East. Israelis can open a bistro and bar in Kosovo without someone coming to get them or even harassing them. Shachar Caspi, co-owner of the Odyssea Bistro and the Odyssea Bakery, proves it.

Caspi’s bistro is in the hip, bohemian, and stylish Pejton neighborhood in the city center of Kosovo’s capital Prishtina. A huge number of café bars that look expensive but are actually cheap make up the core of the area. The hyper-local economy in Pejton is apparently based on fashionably dressed young people selling espresso and alcoholic beverages to each other. If you ever visit Prishtina, book a hotel room in that neighborhood.

Pejton Prishtina.jpg

Pejton, Prishtina, Kosovo

An Israeli woman who manages the Odyssea Bakery didn’t feel like being interviewed, so she directed me to her boss Caspi at the Odyssea Bistro around the corner. “He will be more than happy to talk to you,” she said. “He will tell you anything you want to know.”

She was right. I showed up at the bistro unannounced and introduced myself. “Let’s sit at the bar,” Caspi said. The bartender served me an espresso with milk on the house.

Coffee Odyssea Prishtina.jpg

Espresso, Odyssea Bistro, Prishtina, Kosovo

“So how did you end up in Kosovo?” I said.

“It started in about October of 2005,” he said. “I came to work for an Israeli businessman. He has a big company that he wanted me to work for. After a year we thought there was a good potential in the food business, so I contacted a friend in Israel — he is one of my partners — and we started with a small coffee place with two local partners. But we didn’t get along too well, so we went our separate ways and we sold our part. The next thing we got another local partner and another partner from Holland who is a silent investor. And the four of us established this company. And now we have this bistro, and now we have the bakery, and another sandwich bar in the EU building. This concept is very similar to what we have back home, that is why we did it. This looks very similar to places in Tel Aviv.”

Odyssea Bistro Prishtina.jpg

Odyssea Bistro, Prishtina, Kosovo

“I notice that a lot of places in Prishtina remind me of Tel Aviv,” I said.

Though the aesthetic is similar, the building materials in Kosovo are of a bit lower quality than what’s available in Israel. Restaurants in Prishtina — aside from Caspi’s — are not designed to resemble those in Tel Aviv on purpose, but the resemblance is incidentally there nevertheless. (The aesthetic in Serbian restaurants and bars, meanwhile, reminded me of those in Lebanon. And, yes, that is a compliment. The Lebanese have more style than just about anyone.)

The Israeli contribution to the local food and drink scene isn’t a secret. I found Caspi’s establishment in the Bradt Guide which lists Odyssea as Israeli-owned. I knew already that Kosovo is friendlier to Israel than most countries in the world — especially compared with other Muslim-majority countries — but I was still slightly surprised to see this. It only takes one Islamist fanatic to blow up a bistro. And it would only take a small amount of the right kind of threatening pressure to drive Caspi, his business partners, and his employees out of town or at least underground. But nothing like this has happened.

“People know you are Israeli?” I said.

“Of course,” he said. “Of course. Everybody knows we are Israelis.”

Caspi Prishtina.jpg

Shachar Caspi, Prishtina, Kosovo

“Nobody cares?” I said.

“On the contrary,” he said, “people like it. They come to speak to us. They want to be in contact. Here I didn’t see anybody that was negative. On the contrary the people are very warm, very nice. They take Islam to a beautiful place. Not a violent place. When they hear I am from Israel they react very warmly.”

Lots of Kosovar Albanians confirmed what Caspi is saying.

“Kosovars used to identify with the Palestinians because we Albanians are Muslims and Christians and we saw Serbia and Israel both as usurpers of land,” a prominent Kosovar recently told journalist Stephen Schwartz. “Then we looked at a map and woke up. Israelis have a population of six million, their backs to the sea, and 300 million Arab enemies. Albanians have a total population of eight million, our backs to the sea, and 200 million Slav enemies. So why should we identify with the Arabs?”

“Israelis are okay,” said a waiter named Afrim Kostrati at a cafe named Tirana. “The conflict is not our problem. We are Muslims, but not really. We have respect for Israelis because of the U.S. I have good friends from there.”

“Albanians everywhere are aware that Jews want to help them in this conflict,” said Professor Xhabir Hamiti from the Islamic Studies Department at the University of Prishtina. “And Jews are aware and thankful to Albanians for saving their lives during the Second World War. So we have our sympathy for Israel. I don’t think the Muslims here are on the side of the Palestinians.”

When working in other countries I sometimes have to wonder if my interview subjects are only telling me what they think I want to hear. It happens sometimes, especially in the Arab world — not so much because Arabs want to be deceitful but because they want to be polite and agreeable. Caspi’s ability to work openly as a Jewish Israeli bistro owner in Kosovo, though, is strong evidence that the Kosovars I spoke to about this weren’t just telling me what they thought I wanted to hear. Besides, invective against Israel and Jews is not something many Arabs feel they should have to conceal from reporters.

Jews and Israelis in Muslim-majority countries are like canaries in coal mines, as are women in Muslim-majority countries. You can tell a lot about a place by observing how each are treated. The Taliban impose an oppressive dress code on women at gunpoint, for instance, and the Hamas Charter is explicitly genocidal. It’s possible to take the radical Islamist temperature of a Muslim society simply by measuring the misogyny and anti-semitism at both the government level and among the general population. The only country in the entire Middle East that isn’t anti-semitic at the government level, the popular level, or both, is the state of Israel.

Kosovo is clearly well outside the mainstream of the Middle East. At the same time, it is one of the few countries even in Europe that isn’t at least anti-Israel, if not blatantly anti-semitic, at the government or popular level.

“We have very much in common with Israel,” entrepreneur Luan Berisha said. “In Albania and Kosovo we are in support of Israel. I would never side with the Muslim side to wipe Israel off the face of the world. 90% of Kosovo feels this way. The reason why is we sympathize a lot with the people who have suffered the same fate as us. We were Muslims even in the Second World War — stronger Muslims than we are now — but even then we protected them with our lives. Our grandfathers protected the Jews wherever they were in the region.”

Berisha is right. Albanians did shelter Jews during the Nazi occupation, more than any other people in Europe.

Ottoman Style Prizren.jpg

Classical Ottoman-era architecture, Prizren, Kosovo

More than half survived the Nazi occupation of Kosovo because so many Albanians sheltered them from the Nazi authorities. According to Dan Michman, Chief Historian at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, there were three times as many Jews in Albania at the end of the Holocaust than at the beginning. Albanians were well-known at the time as a friendly population that could be trusted. They refused to surrender Albanian Jews, and they refused to surrender Jewish refugees from elsewhere in Europe.

The dark side of the Nazi occupation of Kosovo were the 6,000 or so ethnic Albanian collaborators who joined the so-called Skanderbeg Division of the Waffen-SS. The Germans had serious problems with them, though. Thousands deserted within the first two months, and the rest were disbanded after a mere eight months of “service.”

I met some Kosovar Albanians who were actually somewhat philo-semitic. One woman who gave me the rundown on local culture and politics showed me a book that I would never expect to see in any Muslim country other than Bosnia (though Bosnia is only 48 percent Muslim.)

It was a copy of the Sarajevo Haggadah.

Sarajevo Haggadah.jpg

This book has an interesting history. It’s the text of the traditional Passover Haggadah and was written in 14th Century Spain. It made its way to Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina, possibly when Jews fled the Spanish Inquisition and were welcomed as refugees in the Balkans by the Turkish Ottoman Empire. Muslim clerics saved the book from destruction during the Nazi occupation, and it was hidden in a bank vault during the Serbian Nationalist siege of Sarajevo. It is one of the most valuable books in the world.

It’s hard to describe how startling it was to see any book written in Hebrew in a Muslim-majority country. Perhaps I’ve spent too much time in Lebanon where something like that just would not happen. What ails the Arab world begins to seem “normal,” at least by the standards of the Islamic world, after enough constant exposure. The Kurds are startlingly different. The Albanians are startlingly different. The story behind the Sarajevo Haggadah is especially salient considering where and by whom the original was saved from destruction.

The Arab Middle East has serious cultural and political problems that deeply affect even a large number of Christians who live in the region. Muslim countries elsewhere sometimes reject these derangements entirely. It’s strange that a huge number of Christians in Syria support Hezbollah while so many Muslims in Kosovo sympathize with Israel, but that’s how it is.

I rented a car in Prishtina so I could meet up with American soldiers at Camp Bondsteel for a brief embed in Eastern Kosovo. And I laughed out loud to myself when I found a CD of Israeli music in the car stereo that the previous customer left behind.

Jewish CD Kosovo.jpg

Israeli music left behind in rental car in Kosovo

I was obviously not in Syria, nor was I in Gaza.

“They tell me that in the Holocaust they used to keep the survivors inside of shelters,” Caspi said. “And vice versa. In 1999 the first plane that landed in Prishtina for support was an Israeli plane.”

“To support what?” I said.

“The war,” he said.

“Was it humanitarian?” I said.

“Yes,” he said. “The plane was medical support and doctors and some security, and they took refugees to Israel. I know some Albanians who live to this day in Israel.”

“Muslims?” I said.

“Yes,” he said. “They took them. Most of them came back here. I have talked to more than five people already that lived between 1999 and 2001 in Israel until everything was quiet here. Then they came back.”

Israel accepted Muslim refugees from Bosnia, too. And I know of at least one Bosnian Muslim from a friend in Jerusalem who was rescued from Sarajevo by Israelis and given Israeli citizenship.

“So why did Israel get involved?” I said to Caspi.

“It is like when Israel went to India when they had an earthquake.” he said. “They went to Africa when there was a disaster in Mombasa. This is what Israel does.” He sounded slightly irritated, as though I didn’t know this already. I did know this already, I just wanted to hear what he had to say about it. “They send medical assistance to places that have disasters.”

Destroyed House Kosovo Countryside.jpg

Destroyed house, Kosovo countryside

“Arab countries wouldn’t accept help like that,” I said. It wasn’t a question.

“No,” he said. “Actually after the tsunami they wanted to send it to Indonesia and they didn’t let them because it was a Muslim country. But Israel and Kosovo have a very good relationship. The prime minister visited Israel a few months ago.”

“Why so you suppose it is different for Kosovo?” I said.

“I think that a lot of people in the world think that the war in Israel is a religious war,” he said. “I don’t think it is a religious war. I think it is totally about lands and the occupied territory, and the religion is what leaders try to take advantage to promote their own interests. Like what Yassin did with the suicide bombers and said they will go to heaven. They try to make it a religious war but it is not. It is about lands. I have a lot of friends here. And my girlfriend, she is Muslim, I am very serious about her. And to tell you honestly, most of the Israeli people are not religious people. The last time I was in Synagogue was when I was 13 years old. I had to do the Bar Mitzvah and since then I haven’t gone. If you go to Tel Aviv, 98 percent of the people are super liberal, and they will accept you if are a Palestinian, if you are Chinese, if you are Jewish. If things go well I want to bring my girlfriend back home to Israel.”

“If you are married,” I said, “would she get Israeli citizenship?”

“Here is the big problem in my opinion,” he said, “that the religion and the state are connected. You need to be Jewish to be an important citizen. But now things are changing. Now we have civil marriage in specific places that are recognized in Israel, and she can get citizenship.”

Lebanon also has issues with inter-sectarian marriages. If, say, a Christian wants to marry a Sunni they have to get married in Cyprus or another third country.

“Do you know about the Wahhabis that are coming here?” I said to Caspi. Well-heeled Gulf Arabs set up shop in Kosovo after the 1999 war to rebuild destroyed mosques and convert, so to speak, liberal and moderate Albanian Muslims to the fanatically fundamentalist Wahhabi sect out of Saudi Arabia. If anyone in Kosovo would give Caspi a hard time or worse for being Israeli, it would be someone from that crowd.

Mosque Near Gjilan.jpg

Mosque on the outskirts of Gjlian, Kosovo

“There are people telling me that people from outside are coming here to try to make religion a bit stronger,” he said, “but I don’t have a clue.”

At least they haven’t bothered him yet.

“You don’t have any problems with those people?” I said.

“Since I came here,” he said, “nobody has shown any kind of problems against Israel. On the contrary, because everybody here loves the U.S., and they all know that Israel is like a state of the U.S. That is a good thing. Everybody knows the support that Israel gets from the U.S. You don’t need to be well-educated to know that the amount of money Israel gets from the U.S. means Israel owes them a lot. And that’s how it works. When Israelis wanted to do military business with China, they had to cancel it because the U.S. didn’t like it.”

“So you think the primary reason Kosovars like Israel is because of the United States?” I said.

Kosovo Israeli and American Flags.jpg

Albanian, Israeli, and American flags fly together in Gllogovc-Drenas, Kosovo, on the day Kosovo declared independence. (Photo copyright K. Dobruna.)

“No,” he said. “I think it is many things. They had good relations with the Jewish people back in the old days. If you go back 40 or 50 years you will find that there were good relations with the Jewish people, they lived here happily. Also I think it is what happened in 1999. That showed them that Israel cares and wants to help them. And the people who came back here from Israel say that it was amazing, and they are still in contact with the families in Israel. Nobody here is radical. It is a Muslim country, but I think it is a beautiful Muslim country. I think Israel is a more religious country than here.”

“Have you been to Serbia?” I said.

“Yes,” he said. “I was in a Jewish meeting for all of the Balkans about two years ago. I usually don’t go to these kind of meetings because I feel much more an Israeli than a Jew, but I went because I used to work for this company, and my colleague who was also Israeli and was a bit more religious wanted company. So I went to Belgrade and Novi Sad. But since then I haven’t visited. I can tell you honestly I like it better here than in Bosnia and Serbia. I don’t know why. Maybe because I am living here, and what happened, I was a part of it, I don’t know.”

Two Young Women Prizren.jpg

Young Albanian women, Prizren, Kosovo

Caspi’s Israeli employee at the Odyssea Bakery around the corner thought I was slightly strange for wanting to interview someone in Prishtina for no reason other than the fact that he is Israeli. Caspi, though, understood.

“I know why it is an interesting story,” he said. “An Israeli business in a Muslim country.”

“It just wouldn’t happen in the Middle East,” I said. “I don’t even think it would happen in Jordan.”

“No,” he said. “It won’t. And that’s the whole point. Religion can co-exist. For example, my girlfriend, you know, I am in love above my head. I want us to be together. I don’t think religion should… I think the opposite, I think religion should integrate.”

Post-script: If these dispatches are worth something to you, please consider a contribution and help make truly independent writing economically viable.

You can make a one-time donation through Pay Pal:

Alternately, you can now make recurring monthly payments through Pay Pal. Please consider choosing this option and help me stabilize my expense account.

$10 monthly subscription:
$25 monthly subscription:
$50 monthly subscription:
$100 monthly subscription:

If you would like to donate for travel and equipment expenses and you don’t want to send money over the Internet, please consider sending a check or money order to:

Michael Totten

P.O. Box 312

Portland, OR 97207-0312

Many thanks in advance.


Subscribe to RSS - blogs