Killing a Crocodile

Last week the United States military “conducted a raid inside Syria”:http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/6eea3c6a-a44f-11dd-8104-000077b07658.html and killed Al Qaeda leader Abu Ghadiya in a shootout in the village of Sukariyeh. Syria’s government raged against the violation of its sovereignty and staged “a massive anti-American protest”:http://www.nytimes.com/glogin?URI=http://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/31/world/middleeast/31syria.html&OQ=_rQ3D2Q26scpQ3D1Q26sqQ3DdamascusQ26stQ3DcseQ26orefQ3Dslogin&OP=60203e2eQ2FQ25EjkQ25X0GQ7De00rQ7CQ25Q7CuuNQ25Q2BuQ25CQ2BQ25E0exXQ25qDXXxjjWQ7DrQ25CQ2BQ7DweDW4hrqx in downtown Damascus. But, according to the Times of London, the Syrian government itself may have “quietly green-lighted the raid in advance”:http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/middle_east/article5062848.ece.

No one should be surprised if that turns out to be true. It makes perfect sense.

“Syria’s interest is to see the invaders defeated in Iraq,” Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Shara said in 2003. And so, for years, Bashar Assad’s government supported the flow of Al Qaeda terrorists into Iraq. The reason should be apparent enough. Syria is a state sponsor of terrorism and does not want to be “next.” The last thing either the Syrian or Iranian governments have wanted to see was a quick, easy, successful, and locally welcomed regime change in Iraq. The Iraqi insurgency was their life-insurance policy. It kept American troops busy somewhere else and hollowed out any potential American appetite for the demolition of another belligerent dictatorship in the Middle East.

Assad’s support for Al Qaeda is mostly cynical, though. He hardly shares the group’s ultimate goals. Another reason he helps them make their way to Iraq is because, in all likelihood, he’s delighted to watch them impale themselves on American forces.

Syria’s ruling Baath Party is a secular nationalist regime made up overwhelmingly of minority Alawites, whom the likes of Al Qaeda would like to see murdered en masse. Alawites are one of the Middle East’s relatively obscure religious minorities–like the Arabic Druze and the Kurdish Yezidis–who exist well outside the theological mainstream of the region. They’re a secretive and heretical offshoot of Twelver Shiism, and their beliefs are fused with Christian and pagan elements. Some of their rituals resemble those of the indigenous and ancient Phoenicians. They drink wine in a rite that resembles communion. They believe women do not have souls. Unlike Christians and Muslims, Alawites do not proselytize. Outsiders are not even allowed to convert. They make up around ten percent of Syria’s population, and can only rule the country through the brute force of an oppressive police state.

They aren’t at all well-liked by Syria’s Sunni Muslim majority, which considers them “infidels.” Stirring up sectarian tensions is, not surprisingly, a serious crime inside Syria. The last thing Assad wants is Lebanonization or Iraqification inside his own country. Those kinds of political problems are strictly for export.

“Read the rest in COMMENTARY”:http://www.commentarymagazine.com/viewarticle.cfm/killing-a-crocodile-13279.

Lebanon’s Enemy Within

Israel is floating the idea of “a non-aggression pact with Lebanon”:http://dailystar.com.lb/article.asp?edition_id=1&categ_id=2&article_id=96967. It isn’t at all likely to work. The odds are minuscule that Syria, Iran, and Hezbollah will go along. But Lebanon will hold an election in a couple of months, and the offer of a non-aggression pact should play well with Lebanese voters who are uncomfortable with or hostile toward Hezbollah’s vision of perpetual war with the “Zionist entity.”

Negotiating with implacable and inflexible enemies is foolish. No sensible person suggests that the United States negotiate with Al Qaeda, for instance. Peace talks with Damascus won’t get Israelis anywhere either. Syria’s tyrant Bashar Assad needs a state of cold war with Israel to justify the oppressive policies against his country’s own citizens, and bad-faith negotiations yield him some measure of international legitimacy he doesn’t deserve.

Hezbollah is “moderate” compared with the worst jihadist groups out there, but it simply cannot survive in its current form if it isn’t engaged in at least a low level of conflict. Almost every militia in Lebanon relinquished most, if not all, of its weapons at the end of the civil war in 1990. Hezbollah’s rationale for refusing is that its fighters are the only ones in the country willing and able to prevent another Israeli occupation of Lebanon. Without the perceived threat of another Israeli invasion, the justification for Hezbollah’s very existence collapses.

Israelis would therefore be naïve in the extreme if they tried to establish a pact with Hezbollah itself, or a pact with Beirut that required Hezbollah’s cooperation. Hezbollah doesn’t stick to agreements and is less trustworthy than even Yasser Arafat turned out to be, when the Oslo peace process fell apart with the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000. “Hezbollah doesn’t even pretend to want peace”:http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/967830.html and will almost certainly gin up another shooting war on the border. “See?” Hezbollah will say to fellow Lebanese after violently provoking the Israelis to cross the border again. “We told you. You need us.”

The successful negotiation of a genuine non-aggression pact that every party in Lebanon would adhere to is not going to happen any time soon. Just listen to Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Seniora: “Lebanon will be the last Arab country to sign a peace agreement with Israel.” He may be right, but not for the reason some people might think.Eli Khoury, Lebanese political consultant and founder of the excellent online magazine “NOW Lebanon”:http://www.nowlebanon.com/, “explained it to me this way last year”:http://www.michaeltotten.com/archives/001380.html: “The last Arab country,” he said. “This is the statement of those who want to make peace but know that they can’t. They don’t want to get ganged up on by the Arabs. We are the least anti-Israel Arab country in the world.”

Lebanon probably really is the least anti-Israel Arab country in the world. It is certainly the most liberal, democratic, and cosmopolitan of the Arabic countries — at least the non-Hezbollah parts of Lebanon are. It is by far the most demographically diverse; roughly a third of its people are Christians, another third are Sunnis, and most of the rest are Shias. Iraq is the only Arab-majority country that can compete with Lebanon when it comes to ideological breadth. There are more opinions there than people, and more political movements and parties than even most Lebanese themselves can keep track of.

If you look at Lebanon’s population outside the Hezbollah bloc — the majority of Christians, Sunnis, and Druze — you will mostly find people who are nowhere near hostile enough to Israel to be a serious threat. The Israel Defense Forces and the Lebanese Armed Forces have had an unofficial non-aggression pact in place for decades. The Lebanese government does not and will not pick fights with Israel. Most Lebanese have negative opinions of Israel, but that doesn’t mean they’re interested in going to war. As a whole, they are much more hostile than, say, Europeans, but they’re a lot less hostile as a whole than Palestinians.

Most were furious at Hezbollah for starting the last war in July, 2006, and they didn’t get around to (grudgingly and temporarily) supporting Hezbollah until they felt Israel over-reacted by bombing Lebanese targets outside Hezbollah’s strongholds. Some even supported Israel’s initial counterattack–at least before the air force bombed Beirut’s international airport. A huge number of Lebanese Christians were Israel’s allies during the civil war, and even a large number of Shias from South Lebanon volunteered to fight Hezbollah and joined the Israeli-backed South Lebanon Army until the year 2000. “Last time I visited Lebanon with my colleague Noah Pollak”:http://www.michaeltotten.com/archives/001359.html, I found, for the first time, billboards and signs with messages like “Wage Peace” and “No War” throughout the country in regions Hezbollah doesn’t control. As soon as the 2006 war ended, the Lebanese government pushed back hard against Hezbollah and refused to back down until Hezbollah mounted an armed offensive against the capital in May 2008.

“Read the rest in COMMENTARY Magazine”:http://www.commentarymagazine.com/viewarticle.cfm/lebanon-s-enemy-within-13216.

So Much for Azerbaijani Democracy

Last week Azerbaijan conducted “another rigged election”:http://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/16/world/asia/16azeri.html?_r=2&ref=world&oref=login&oref=slogin just a few short months after several government officials “said to my face”:http://www.michaeltotten.com/archives/2008/10/the-forgotten-w.php that this time things would be different.

Advisors to President Ilham Aliyev insisted that observers from the European Union, the Council of Europe, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe would fan out all over the country to monitor the election and even stop the process entirely if they detected fraudulent activity. All this was confirmed by the Israeli ambassador. Yet Aliyev was just “re-elected” with 89 percent of the vote in an election boycotted by the opposition.

Aliyev’s opponents say it was impossible for them to compete, which sounds about right. “The choice of candidates was skimpy,” Sabrina Tavernise “wrote last week”:http://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/16/world/asia/16azeri.html?_r=2&ref=world&oref=login&oref=slogin in the New York Times. “There were six, aside from Mr. Aliyev, but they were political nobodies, and few voters interviewed in Baku on Wednesday could identify any of them.” Imagine how free and fair our own presidential election would be if only Senator Barack Obama or Senator John McCain had name recognition.

It’s no wonder the president’s political opponents are almost completely invisible. Azerbaijan’s television stations are controlled by his government. Eight journalists were arrested for “libel” in the past year. Three are still in jail. Several citizens told me privately that they’re afraid to say anything critical of the government in public. It may make little difference if European election observers ensure ballots are processed and counted fairly in this kind of environment, but the OSCE and the U.S. State Department “did see some improvement”:http://www.voanews.com/english/2008-10-16-voa53.cfm compared with the last election.

“Read the rest in COMMENTARY”:http://www.commentarymagazine.com/blogs/index.php/totten/39341.

Fasten Your Seatbelts

Vice Presidential candidate Joe Biden apparently didn’t know reporters were in the room when he said “this”:http://www.commentarymagazine.com/blogs/index.php/pollak/39261 at a fundraiser in Seattle.

It will not be six months before the world tests Barack Obama like they did John Kennedy. The world is looking…Watch, we’re gonna have an international crisis, a generated crisis, to test the mettle of this guy. I can give you at least four or five scenarios from where it might originate… And he’s gonna need help. And the kind of help he’s gonna need is, he’s gonna need you – not financially to help him – we’re gonna need you to use your influence, your influence within the community, to stand with him. Because it’s not gonna be apparent initially, it’s not gonna be apparent that we’re right.


A Compromise Solution

A few days ago I asked all you readers how I should spend my working hours during the next month before I return to Baghdad. The quandary was this: should I write and publish my remaining two dispatches from the Balkans, or spend a full month working on my book From Beirut to Baghdad? I have only written one chapter so far, and there will be nine or ten in the end.

A small majority voted for me to work on the book, and a large minority want the two dispatches. So I’m going to compromise and write and publish one of the dispatches. I’ll spend the rest of my time, as much as I can anyway, on the book.

I’ll still publish this and that on the blog, I’m just going to slow down on the epic-length feature articles for a few weeks. The book needs to be written, and I have to find the time somewhere. If only I could put off sleep for a month.

By December, though, I should have a large fresh batch of pieces from Baghdad. I haven’t been there in over a year. Everything I remember is now out of date. It should be very interesting indeed when I return and take a fresh look after the surge.

Sending Iran’s Regrets

Senator Barack Obama hopes to be the first American president to engage in diplomatic negotiations with the Islamic Republic regime in Iran. He even says he’s willing to meet with Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad without preconditions. Surely he must understand that what he’s proposing is a radical departure from foreign policy as practiced by both parties. Franklin Roosevelt didn’t meet with Adolf Hitler or Emperor Hirohito, Harry Truman didn’t meet with Kim Il Sung, Ronald Reagan didn’t meet with any Soviet leader until after glasnost and perestroika were in place, Bill Clinton didn’t meet with Saddam Hussein or Iran’s Mohammad Khatami and Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, and no American president met with Fidel Castro.

In any case, whether Obama’s wish to engage Ahmadinejad is mainstream or radical, and whether it’s foolish or wise, may not even matter. It isn’t likely to happen. Obama may not care about preconditions, but the Iranian governmentcertainly does. Mehdi Kalhor, Iran’s Vice President for Media Affairs, told the Islamic Republic News Agency that “as long as U.S. forces have not left the Middle East region and continues its support for the Zionist regime, talks between Iran and U.S. is off the agenda.”

“Read the rest in COMMENTARY Magazine”:http://www.commentarymagazine.com/viewarticle.cfm/sending-iran-s-regrets-13179.

A Serious Question

Some of you have signed up for recurring donations to help me pay for the dispatches I publish on this Web site. I’m working for you, and I need to consult you about something. I’m going back to Baghdad in a month or so and I need to figure out the best way to spend my working hours between now and then.

There are still a few dispatches that I haven’t yet written from my recent trip to the Balkans. I went to the Balkans because I’ve been personally interested in the region for a long time and because I needed a break from the Middle East, but reader interest in the region seems to be lower than mine. I could write those remaining dispatches from Kosovo and publish them even though they’re a bit less exciting than those from a place like Baghdad or Russian-occupied Georgia.

Alternately, I could spend the next month working on the book I’ve finally started to write. The working title is From Beirut to Baghdad, and it’s a first-person narrative eye-witness account of revolution, terrorism, and war in Lebanon and Iraq. I don’t have a publisher yet, but I do have an agent, and the book will be written and published one way or another — even if I have to self-publish it. So far I have finished one chapter out of ten. If I spent the next month working almost exclusively on the book, I can easily finish two or three more chapters.

So: how would you rather me spend my time during the next month? Should I put my nose to the grindstone and finish as much of the book as possible? Or should I write my remaining dispatches at the same time and make some, but less, progress on the book? The book won’t be finished until late spring at the earliest, so I don’t want to mislead you into thinking I can finish it before Thanksgiving if I take the month “off.”

If I do take the month “off” to work on the book, I’ll still put content on this Web site. The blog won’t go dark. I just won’t have any epic length dispatches to publish until December or so.

Let me know. I work for you and will do what you prefer.

How should I spend the next month?
Publish your remaining dispatches and make a modest amount of progress on your book.
Set the dispatches aside and make a massive amount of progress on your book as long as you don’t neglect the blog entirely.
Free polls from Pollhost.com

Resisting the United Nations

In Front of the Gate Vetevendosje.jpg

There is no love for the United Nations in Kosovo.

Kosovo is the fourth country I’ve visited where the UN has or has had a key role, and in only one of them — Lebanon — is the UN not despised by just about everyone. In Lebanon the UN has so little power to make a difference one way or the other that any anger at the institution would largely be pointless. In Bosnia, though, UN “peacekeepers” stood by impotently while genocide and ethnic-cleansing campaigns were carried out right in front of them. The UN’s Oil for Food program was thoroughly corrupted by Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq at the expense of just about everybody who lives there. Kosovo, meanwhile, declared independence from Serbia on February 17, 2008, but the elected government is still subordinate to the almost universally despised UN bureaucrats who are the real power. Many Kosovars insist the United Nations Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) is actually a dictatorship.

Vetevendosje — “self-determination” in Albanian — was formed as a non-violent civil resistance movement against UN rule in a country that is supposed to be sovereign. Recently the European Union, which announced its own mission in Kosovo without being invited, was added to the list of opponents, but the UN remains the primary target. I attended one of Vetevendosje’s rallies as an observer which began as a long march through the streets of Kosovo’s capital Prishtina and ended at the United Nations headquarters where activists dumped a truckload of garbage inside the gate and hosed down the walls of the compound with sewage.

I spoke to Vetevendosje leader Albin Kurti and activist Alex Channer in their office the day before the rally in Prishtina’s bohemian Pejton neighborhood.

“So basically you are opposing the UN rule here, and the EU,” I said.

“Yes,” Kurti said, “because they are going to be installed here from above without having the previous consent of the people.”

Alvin Vetevendosje.jpg

Vetevendosje leader Albin Kurti

“There was no referendum?” I said.

“No,” he said. “No referendum for their installment here, and also no referendum for the UN mission. And they are going to be above the law which they will by applying on us. Ironically the EU-elects will deal with the rule of law and will have the rule of law as their priority, but they themselves will be above the law.”

“Who decided that they are going to come in here?” I said.

“It was Martti Ahtisaari’s plan, this Finnish diplomat who mediated between Prishtina and [Serbia's capital] Belgrade, he together with Javier Solana. Solana is in charge of security and Foreign Policy of the EU. They prepared a draft back in July of the year 2006, and that was included in a more detailed form by Ahtisaari in his proposal.”

“And Serbia agreed to this?” I said.

“No,” he said. “Serbia did not. But the Albanian politicians did. They don’t ask because then they would have to ask again later on, and then we could change our mind. It is a mission that would be totally unaccountable to us. There is no watch dog, and in this civilian group that is going to supervise us, the ICO, the International Civilian Office, has this Peter Feith, he is there as well. So basically he is going to watch himself.”

“So should I assume that if Kosovo is invited to join the EU the way the other countries have, you would say no?” I said.

“We wouldn’t say no,” he said. “We want Kosovo to be included in the EU because we are part of European soil. But as things stand now, they wouldn’t ask us at all, they would have to ask themselves because this is the EU mission. Even so, UNMIK is still here.”

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Young Albanian activists in support of Vetevendosje

UNMIK is the United Nations Mission in Kosovo. It has been the de-facto government of Kosovo since the Serbian government of Slobodan Milosevic in Belgrade lost control at the end of the 1999 war. Kosovo has its own nominal government, but it has little power.

“So you have UN rule,” Kurti continued, “which is not leaving, and you have the ICO and EU-elects about to come. They are doubling the bureaucracy here. And we are stuck because we depend on their consensus. That means we depend on their lowest common denominator. What they care about is stability, never development or progress. For them, a crisis is only an explosion of crisis. If there is huge unemployment, poverty, they don’t care.”

“So if the EU is administering Kosovo’s government,” I said, “what does that mean for Kosovo’s government? Will they be subordinate to the EU or operating in parallel?”

“They will be subordinate,” he said, “because Peter Feith will have the right to sack our ministers and change our laws. So he is going to supervise the government. Peter Feith hopes he will not be challenged to use his powers where he can simply dismantle the parliament, call new elections, change a certain minister, or say this law is not good after it has been passed in our assembly. They are hoping for self-censorship from our government in order not to be challenged and not to use those powers which would unmask them as the dictatorship they really are. It is a dictatorship, but they do not want to be seen as one, so they say we are here only to supervise. They talk a lot with our prime minister and ministers, do this, do that, in order not to be seen in the background as a sort of monarchy.”

Angry Girl Vetevendosje.jpg

“What is their reason for wanting to do this?” I said.

“They mediate between Prishtina and Belgrade after overthrowing Milosevic,” he said, “and they simply don’t use any more sticks, only carrots. Serbia is very aggressive, and in order to make sure that Serbia is not going to be indignant, they say Yes, Kosovo is independent, but don’t worry, it is us there. That is one reason I think they are here.

“Second,” he continued, “every bureaucracy seeks self perpetuation. A lot of people here have very high salaries, and they are like big fishes in a small pond. And they are more or less all of them into this process of privatization. Because we cannot touch them legally, they have free hands to do whatever they want. Many of them got very rich. 80 percent of the money from the international community that was poured onto Kosovo in these nine years went for technical assistance, seminars, conferences, and so on. A lot of money is in their hands this way. They direct it. It’s an authoritarian law. So I think this is another reason why they’re here.”

“Does the US have any position on this,” I said, “or has is been decided only by Europe?”

Alvin Interviewed While Walking 2.jpg

Vetevendosje leader Albin Kurti interviewed at a rally

“Well,” he said, “the US recognized Kosovo as an independent sovereign country, but here you have a foreign office, and I don’t think this American office is really in line with the policy of Washington. It is another small king here, and I feel that it is not that different from the European perspective because the focus has been shifted elsewhere. The US focus was here during NATO intervention and so on, but later on somehow, especially after 9/11, the focus is elsewhere, and I don’t think George W. Bush and the State Department know very well what goes on here. I think in Kosovo all of their diplomats over time don’t get better, but worse, because they see that they can be very powerful here. They have no one to balance them. Our government is very submissive, obedient, and weak. On the other hand I think there is a great deal of interest to buy into the economy of Kosovo, with its assets and resources because they have no real constraints here. We have been defined as a special case, which means they can experiment, and everything is going to be fine. It’s heaven on earth for these kinds of diplomats.”

“What kinds of things have the EU and the UN done here that are bad, specifically?” I said. “I get your general point, but what are the practical results of all this?”

“No economic development at all,” he said. “Zero. No factories. No industry. Nothing. The fiscal policy is terrible. They promised us a market economy, and we ended up in a market without an economy. Then there is the internal division of Kosovo. The North is divided from the rest. The red is Serb areas, and here are new municipalities about to be created by Ahtisaari’s plan where the soft partition is strengthening itself.”

Kosovo Wall Map Vetevendosje.jpg

Vetevendosje’s Kosovo map. Serb enclaves are in red.

Kurti had a rough map of Kosovo on the wall behind the table we sat around. The Serb areas are shown in red, as Kurti said. The northern Serb areas are adjacent to Serbia.

“UNMIK has tolerated this,” he continued. “Now UNMIK is tolerating the elections of Serbia, so in a way UNMIK is tolerating Serbia’s intrusion and Serbian obstruction in Kosovo.”

Serbia held elections inside the Serb enclaves of Kosovo. These Kosovar Serbs did not elect representatives to send to Kosovo’s capital Prishtina. They elected representatives to send to Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, which is now, whether they like it or not, a foreign country. To get a handle on how strange this is, imagine if American citizens of Mexican descent in the formerly Mexican Southwestern United States voted for candidates to represent them in Mexico City.

“Why don’t the EU and UN say no to Serbia?” I said. “Is it because they are trying to lure Serbia into the EU, or is it because they are afraid of more fighting?”

“I think they know very well that Serbia has not really been punished for the wars,” he said. “Serbian police and army forces killed around 200,000 non-Serbs. If one person killed 5 people, you have 40,000 serial murderers walking around inside Serbia. They are in the power structure, in the political parties, in the police, in the army. I think they are afraid of that. Instead of dealing with the principle of justice in Serbia, they are just playing this game of markets, who makes more pressure, who is more powerful, it is absolute real politics, and I think they care only for really short term stability. They don’t think any further than that. And they deal only with emergency situations. They don’t really see how structural is the cause of the conflict here. When they think about the security issue, stability, these are the words they use. Not freedom, liberty, development, and so on. They think in terms of troops they have and politicians they control, rather than in terms of the well being and situations of the ordinary citizens.”

Albin and Wall Map Vetevendosje.jpg

The biggest problem with the UN and EU missions in Kosovo, as many locals see it, is that there is no proper government that is actually in charge of the country. There is no fully sovereign entity in Kosovo. The country’s sovereignty is parceled out piece by piece to different bureaucracies.

“Of the things UNMIK did wrong here, and the most damaging for Kosovo, was two-fold,” Kurti said. “Apart from UNMIK’s very existence, and now the EU’s mission, it creates this duality of institutions. And this duality makes vague the address of who is responsible for the people. So currently a Kosovo citizen, like myself, is not able to know who is responsible for a bad social position, for example, or a lack of money. If you ask UNMIK they say it’s your institution, if you ask our government they say Oh, it’s UNMIK. This duality makes no institutions be or feel responsible for anything that happened or did not happen in Kosovo. And secondly, when UNMIK was installed here, they took in their hands all the mechanisms for controlling the states. They control the police and all the judicial systems as well, and they tolerated corruption, and they blame us for being a corrupt society. It was they who should have acted against corruption because they have the mechanisms in their hands. I as a citizen have no mechanisms to control the government. In normal democratic countries, as a citizen you are able to punish your leaders for not defending your interests. Here we don’t have that mechanism.”

“Does the EU and UNMIK have a base of support here?” I said to Kurti.

“The popularity of UNMIK is bad,” he said. “But people link UNMIK with NATO intervention which is another issue. And they think okay, it is like an extended intervention of the world. NATO intervention saved us from Serbia, and now it is UNMIK. When people think of this they think of the first year of UNMIK, the reconstruction of buildings and houses, the emergency phase.”

“Was UNMIK better then?” I said.

“That was better,” he said, “but also due to circumstances. Now the vast majority of people think very poorly of UNMIK. If you talk to a person from Kosovo about UNMIK they might say it is not that bad, but if you drink a beer with that person they will tell you what he really thinks.”

I didn’t have to drink beer with Kosovars to hear uniformly and relentlessly negative opinions of the United Nations. I didn’t meet a single person who approves of the performance of the UN. Anti-UN and anti-EU graffiti is common, and it sharply contrasts with the pro-American graffiti that is almost as common.

Thank You America Vitina Kosovo.jpg

All the graffiti I saw about the UN and the EU was negative. All the graffiti I saw about the US was positive, without exceptions.

No EU MIK LEX Vetevendosje.jpg

This graffiti appears on nearly every street in the capital opposing the EU Mission in Kosovo (MIK) and the imposed EU law (LEX).

Still, not everyone in Kosovo agrees with the folks at Vetevendosje about the European Union. Some are glad the European Union is stepping in.

“Part of our problem is we have no respect for the law,” said one Albanian man. “We haven’t had laws worth respecting. We need European law here.” For more than a half-century, laws were imposed on Kosovars first by communists, then by Milosevic’s nationalist-socialists, and finally by unaccountable international bureaucrats with no base of support. At least EU bureaucrats exclusively hail from competent Western democracies.

The same man later criticized Vetevendosje. “They make good points,” he said, “but they don’t do much else. They criticize, but they don’t have any positive suggestions for what we should do instead.”

The activists at Vetevendosje are honest, though, about the fact that not everyone agrees with them about the EU.

“Sometimes you hear the argument about the EU mission that you don’t hear about UNMIK,” Alex Channer said. “You hear You know, we need them because our politicians are so corrupt we can’t trust them, and the Europeans are somehow better than UNMIK.”

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Vetevendosje activist Alex Channer

“UNMIK is not leaving because Resolution 1244,” Kurti said, “which established UNMIK here, is still in place, and it couldn’t be changed due to obstruction from Russia.”

“Why did Russia obstruct?” I said.

“Because Russia is with Serbia, and Serbia wants the UN to stay,” he said. “They like the UN very much.”

“So neither Serbia nor Kosovo want the EU here?” I said. “You are in agreement on that at least?”

Kurti and Channer laughed darkly.

“Serbia wants Kosovo,” Kurti said.

“So they want as few obstacles as possible,” I said.

“Right,” he said. “but in order to make it worse here. We are contesting it in order to make it better. They want to send us back into the 1990s.”

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Kosovo citizens at Vetevendosje’s rally against the United Nations

“Because both the EU and the UN are divided about Kosovo’s status,” Channer said, “some states have recognized it, some states haven’t, that means these two themselves are divided inside Kosovo. They are divided outside in the orders they are getting for what to do. So what this means is you will only ever get the lowest common denominator. If they ever do get to a consensus what to do, they will just be treading water.”

“The main reason we oppose these kind of missions is because of the principle that we oppose being ruled by a foreign institution or mission,” Kurti said. “It doesn’t matter whether they are from the EU or the UN, the US, or Great Britain. Kosovo needs to govern itself. That is what we fight for. The international community can help Kosovo through missions, and I think Kosovo needs help from them, but it should be in the form of assistance and advisory boards, not rule. Currently what has happened with UNMIK, and what is going to happen with the EU law, is direct rule over Kosovo and direct control over Kosovo’s political and social and economic life. That has not produced any good results, and is not going to produce any good results in the future”

“The government of Iraq has more sovereignty than you do,” I said.

That shocked them. Iraq is in vastly worse shape overall than Kosovo. And yet Iraq regained much more of its sovereignty in a shorter amount of time, even while fending off a ferocious insurgency and civil war.

“Do you have any kind of strategy to work against this?” I said. “Is there anything you can do?”

“Prevent the implementation of Ahtisaari’s plan on the ground,” he said. “Because this plan includes total ethnic decentralization. Ethnic decentralization will turn Kosovo into another Bosnia. Condoleeza Rice, three or four months ago, said that Bosnia is a failed state. It is dysfunctional twelve years after the Dayton Accords [which ended the war]. If you divide people according to their ethnicity, they will remain divided. UNMIK has always said amongst its declarations and press releases that they want a united Kosovo multi-ethnic society. But they always started from ethnicity. Albanians, Serbs, Turks, let’s unite them, but first let’s label them with their ethnicity. So they actually strengthen it. They don’t look at you as a student if you’re a student, or as a professor, or a housewife, or whatever, they have these ethnic lenses, and it is impossible to build multiethnicity if you start from what is different among people.”

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Vetevendosje leader Albin Kurti

“I’m not saying that UNMIK should leave tonight,” he continued, “but let’s have a timetable. In one month’s time, two month’s time, they should bit by bit depart from Kosovo.”

“Do they have any intention of slowly phasing out or are they just saying We’re here and we will stay until we feel like leaving?” I said.

“They have no deadline,” he said. “They say We are an interim mission, provisional, but this provisional has no deadline. No time limit. And actually it is they who extend the duration of the mission, always. It is no one else deciding but them. We know they will be staying here at least two years. They have a minimum for their stay here, but no maximum. And the majority of them are not good experts back home.”

“Well,” I said, “it’s more of a mess than I expected.”

“Maybe I should add another reason why I think the EU is taking over,” he said. “The EU, or at least some of the people in Brussels, see themselves as a rising empire. The US is an empire, and you have three more empires — China, Russia, and the EU. Maybe in the future India and Brazil, but let’s leave that for now. If you are a rising empire, you must prove that you can manage a crisis outside yourself. So they send them in Darfur, they send them in Bosnia, they are now going to land with a parachute in Kosovo.”


I wanted some different opinions. Albin Kurti and Alex Channer are activists. That’s fine as far as it goes, but I knew already that at least some local people are in favor of the European Union mission even if they don’t like the United Nations.

I didn’t actually meet any Kosovar Albanians who had anything nice to say about the United Nations, but it’s possible that everyone is wrong and overreacting. So I asked some American soldiers based at Camp Bondsteel in Eastern Kosovo what they thought about the United Nations Mission in Kosovo.

“The people here want them to leave,” Captain Joseph Christenson said.

“Yes,” I said. “I know about that. But what is your opinion of UNMIK?”

No American soldier felt comfortable answering that. US military personnel rarely discuss politics on the record, and that’s probably for the best. So they artfully dodged the question without fully dodging it.

“Do you remember the guy who came in and talked to us about UNMIK and why the citizens don’t like them very much?” said Specialist Yaw to Captain Christenson.

“Yes,” Captain Christenson said. “What citizens have told us is that part of the reason they don’t like them is that UNMIK has people in leadership positions who come from countries that are worse off than Kosovo.”

“I guess what I’m really asking,” I said, “is are the locals right?

“I know a lot of people are excited for the EU to come,” Lieutenant Meyer said.

I’ll let you read between the lines of that conversation.

I heard a complaint similar to the one Captain Christenson described from entrepreneur Luan Berisha.

“I was going to go to Macedonia,” he told me, “and a UN guy from Ghana on the border asks for papers. I gave him random papers that weren’t documents, just to joke with him, and he said Thank you sir, good day, you can go. I said give me your supervisor. So a guy from Germany comes up and says can I see your papers. I said those are my papers in your hand. He said These papers are nothing! I said I know, and this guy was going to let me go through with just a ‘good day!’ The German guy went crazy. When you send a mission to a troubled country, you have to send people who are educated, who will create the rule of law. But to send idiots — I swear to God, I was so mad. They came from Africa and got their drivers licenses in Kosovo. There were several kids who were killed by these guys crashing into them. Nobody cares. The UN is mad.”

“Would you accept being part of the EU?” I said.

“Of course,” he said. “Everybody would. If there was a referendum everybody would vote for it.”

Even the activists at Vetevendosje want to join the European Union. They just want European Union laws implemented democratically. They don’t want an EU dictatorship.

The day after I met Kurti and Channer, thousands of Vetevendosje activists marched through the streets from the Pejton neighborhood to the United Nations headquarters downtown.

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Three Vetevendosje rally organizers

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Vetevendosje fills the streets of Prishtina

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Vetevendosje activists

Several leaders delivered thunderous speeches from the tops of trucks as citizens rallied around.

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The rally had a destination and purpose. Hundreds of bags of garbage filled with the usual urban refuse — discarded paper towels, empty potato chip bags, banana peels, candy wrappers, aluminum cans, crumpled cigarette packages, etc. — were loaded into a truck. That truck was driven to the gate of the UN headquarters and parked facing away from it. A surging crowd gathered around the truck. Volunteers donned face masks and rubber gloves and prepared to hurl the bags of garbage over the front gate and into the compound.

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The crowd gathers around the garbage truck at the gate to the United Nations headquarters

UN policemen guarded the gate itself. There wasn’t much they could do to prevent demonstrators from throwing trash into the compound, but they weren’t going to let anyone into the compound themselves.

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UN policemen protect the UN’s headquarters in Prishtina

The crowd roared its approval when the truck’s tailgate was lowered and bags of trash were exposed for the UN policemen to see.

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Vetvendosje’s masked garbage hurlers faced down the police. Everyone seemed tense on each side, but violence was not in the air. This wasn’t a riot. It was theater. Vetevendosje activists were genuinely angry at the corrupt and incompetent officials, and the UN police were angry at the rabble-rousing civilians, but they weren’t at war.

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Near-bursting bags of garbage were efficiently unloaded from the truck bed and handed from person to person until they reached the hands of activists standing ready at the gate. When the garbage started flying, it really flew — at least a dozen bags of trash were hurled into the air every second. Some of the bags landed with sickening splats. The smell of rotting refuse was horrendous.

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The activists brought out a tank of sewer water with a hose attached. God only knows where they got it, but they got it. Then a masked and gloved activist sprayed reeking raw sewage onto the outer walls of the UN headquarters building. The police watched stoically and did not interfere.

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Garbage Inside UN Compound Vetevendosje.jpg

Albin Kurti explained himself and his movement to United Nations officials in a written statement a few days after the rally. “For a long time you have been truly creating trash,” he wrote. “This time you are stinking.”

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Coming Soon

Russia’s invasion of Georgia disrupted my summer and fall schedule, so some of my dispatches are appearing a bit out of order. I still have three remaining from the Balkans. One is about my brief embed with the U.S. Army in Kosovo. Another is about the fate of Jews in the Albanian regions during the Holocaust. The first, which should be published later tonight, is about local resistance to the United Nations.

After these three are published, I’m going back to Iraq.

Stay tuned. The next dispatch is just about ready.

A Free Georgia Can Only Be Democratic

by Michael Cecire

Editor’s note: I recently returned from a trip to Georgia where my reporting was necessarily focused on the Russian invasion. Russia’s occupation and de-facto annexation of the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, though, aren’t the only serious problems the country faces right now. The following guest column by Michael Cecire, whose knowledge of and experience in Georgia are much more extensive than mine, should fill in some of the rest of the story. — MJT

On September 15, speaking in a press conference in Georgia’s capital Tbilisi, Secretary General of NATO Jaap de Hoop Scheffer voiced NATO’s support for Georgia, a recent victim of Russian militarism, while urging the nascent democracy to push forward with reforms. Scheffer’s suggestion could not have come at a better time. For while Georgia’s war wounds still fester, its government is rapidly approaching a crisis of legitimacy.

In November of 2007, large-scale opposition protests broke out in the streets. Demonstrators demanded President Mikheil “Misha” Saakashvili’s resignation. The government responded by forcibly dispersing the protesters and shutting down the independent television station Imedi, effectively monopolizing state control over the country’s television media. Snap elections were called in January. The opposition, passionate but fractious and incoherent, lost to Saakashvili’s ruling National Movement. Although significant evidence exists that Saakashvili’s victory could be at least partially attributed to a blurring of state and party apparatuses, the election was eventually deemed reasonably free and fair.

Still, the November events stood in stark contrast to Saakashvili’s own meteoric rise through people-power protests against the corrupt administration of Eduard Shevardnadze, an old USSR party apparatchik. Despite gradual democratic and economic improvements since Saakashvili’s 2003 Rose Revolution, the November repressions marked a sharp reversal in Georgia’s upward trajectory. Freedom House revised down Georgia’s political rights and civil liberties scores a full point each.

Since then, there has been no evidence that Saakashvili’s government intends to make real amends for its mishandling of the November protests and subsequent restrictions it placed on the opposition and independent media. The courts and commissions continue to be packed with National Movement operatives, the political structure continues to favor enormous presidential power, and in a bizarre Putin-esque scheme, a landowner in Borjomi was jailed for refusing to transfer property to the government. Eerily reminiscent of Russia’s Yukos affair — an apparent harbinger of Russia’s slide into authoritarianism — the landowner was coerced into withdrawing claims on his land after his family was threatened and after suffering medical complications from rough, extrajudicial imprisonment.

Georgia is not Russia — not even close. Nor does the Saakashvili government’s democratic deficit absolve the West’s shame for inaction or Russia’s blame for the recent conflict, which was only the latest chapter in a long narrative of Russian aggression. Even so, discussions of Georgia’s security, Russian revanchism, and future U.S.-Georgian relations cannot be divorced from the quality of Georgia’s own democracy, often lovingly and cynically cited by Saakashvili himself. NATO’s Secretary General was right to remind Georgia that its accession into the Alliance will largely depend on successful and sustainable democratic reforms which are desperately needed to reverse the country’s seeming plunge down a path trail blazed by none other than Vladimir Putin.

Although the opposition message has been generally inchoate, frustrations are building and patience is thinning. Sozar Subari, a Parliament-appointed public defender and outspoken critic of Saakashvili, recently issued a powerful statement decrying the autocratic tendencies of the government and its role in the August War. “The government that is locked within it,” he said, “which listens only to itself and respects only its own judgment, has lost the capacity for proper decision-making. Russia took advantage of this and has executed its long plotted perfidious plan of conquering our territories.”

Even one-time Saakashvili ally Erosi Kitsmarishvili, who once co-owned Rustavi 2 — a private television station with extremely close ties to Saakashvili and his government — denounced the creeping absolutism in Georgia. Even if the opposition is far from ready to directly challenge the National Movement in the political marketplace, cracks are forming in Saakashvili’s political monopoly. But those weaknesses must be exposed before they can be exploited, which isn’t easy in the long shadow cast by critical questions of Georgian national security.

Last Wednesday, Saakashvili announced a slate of reforms for a ‘Second Rose Revolution’ in direct response to Scheffer’s statement. Eyebrow-raising branding aside, Western observers should be unimpressed. On the whole, the reforms appear cosmetic and fail to address many of the structural democratic deficits rigged by Saakashvili himself.

Georgia does not need another Rose Revolution. Just as the color revolutions have exposed the inherent frailty of authoritarianism, the limitations of revolutions has been exposed, no matter how peaceful or well-intentioned they may be. From the fraying coalition in Ukraine and the growing weight of the Georgian state to the short-lived 2004 ‘Arab Spring’ in Lebanon, Iraq, and the Palestinian Territories, it is clear that democracy is rarely the product of revolution. It is more often conceived from political evolution.

Is Georgia capable of regaining its footing under Misha’s presidency? Possibly not. Ironically, it is Russian aggression that may well prove to have prolonged Saakashvili’s tenure. Still, American policymakers should demand Georgia live up to the stirring rhetoric Saakashvili so often employs. Pointing out Georgia’s obligations to its people is not uncourteous or poor form. Failing to do so would be a disservice to America’s commitment to democracy, the sacrifices of so many Georgians against authoritarianism, and those ‘certain inalienable rights’ that live within us all.

Michael Cecire is an economic development practitioner from Virginia working in the Philadelphia-South Jersey region. A former Peace Corps Volunteer in Georgia, he currently works in urban redevelopment and researches international public policy. He is a regular contributor to the Democracy Project Web log and has his own Web log. Michael has also published articles in the London Telegraph, TCS Daily, and Bacon’s Rebellion.

Joe Biden’s Alternate Universe

In Thursday night’s vice presidential debate between Senator Joe Biden and Governor Sarah Palin, Biden said the strangest and most ill-informed thing I have ever heard about Lebanon in my life. “When we kicked — along with France, we kicked Hezbollah out of Lebanon, I said and Barack said, “Move NATO forces in there. Fill the vacuum, because if you don’t know — if you don’t, Hezbollah will control it.” Now what’s happened? Hezbollah is a legitimate part of the government in the country immediately to the north of Israel.” [Emphasis added.]

What on Earth is he talking about? The United States and France may have kicked Hezbollah out of Lebanon in an alternate universe, but nothing even remotely like that ever happened in this one.

Nobody — nobody — has ever kicked Hezbollah out of Lebanon. Not the United States. Not France. Not Israel. And not the Lebanese. Nobody.

Joe Biden has literally no idea what he’s talking about.

It’s too bad debate moderator Gwen Ifill didn’t catch him and ask a follow up question: When did the United States and France kick Hezbollah out of Lebanon?

The answer? Never. And did Biden and Senator Barack Obama really say NATO troops should be sent into Lebanon? When did they say that? Why would they say that? They certainly didn’t say it because NATO needed to prevent Hezbollah from returning—since Hezbollah never went anywhere.

“Read the rest in COMMENTARY”:http://www.commentarymagazine.com/blogs/index.php/totten/35261.

A Warning from Eastern Europe

In August, while covering the Russian-Georgian war in the South Caucasus, I sat down with Dr. Mátyás Eörsi, Deputy Floor Leader of the Hungarian Liberal Party and President of the Liberal Group in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. He has been particularly concerned with Georgia’s troubles for some time now, and he flew from his native Hungary to Tbilisi as quickly as he could as soon as the fighting broke out.

His view of Russia’s great game is a dark one, informed as it is by having lived much of his own life under the boot heel of Moscow in Eastern Europe.

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Dr. Mátyás Eörsi, Member of Parliament in Hungary, President of the Liberal Group in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe

MJT: What is the Council of Europe’s role in this particular crisis?

Dr. Eörsi: The Council of Europe is a pan-European organization. It’s most important mission is to protect human rights, the rule of law, and democracy in its member countries. This is the first time since the Turkish-Greek war, which was quite long ago, that two member countries were at war. When we speak about human rights, and when we speak about democracy and the rule of law, all of our principles are breached when one of our member countries occupies another one.

The Council of Europe has three organizations. One is the small diplomatic committee of ministers, the secretariat, which is at an inter-governmental level. It has the most important legal instrument, which is the European Court of Human Rights. This is important because every country that joins the Council of Europe accepts the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights. The third is the parliamentary assembly. They meet four times a year. In between we have some committee meetings where we discuss the most important European issues. The next meeting will be the first week in October, and I’m sure this war in Georgia will be eclipsing everything else.

MJT: What is the Council of Europe able to do about this?

Dr. Eörsi: The weakness of the Council of Europe compared with NATO is that we have no military. The weakness compared with the European Union is that we have no money. But all of those weaknesses, in my opinion, can be our strength because then we can speak up honestly. We can be more straightforward in our messages and to keep a more united European standpoint on what is right and what is wrong.

So what we can do is speak up very clearly that what is happening here in Georgia is fully unacceptable from a European democracy viewpoint. And Russia should be aware that though they have certain tools to divide Europe, when it comes to war, Europe cannot be divided. Our goal is to work on this to maintain or create a united European position on this war.

MJT: Do you have any leverage over Russia?

Dr. Eörsi: Not at all. We can sanction them in the parliamentary assembly, we can decide not to recognize the credentials of the Russian delegation if the Duma doesn’t put enough pressure on the Russian state to stop this war. And, of course, we can also make a recommendation to the Committee of Ministers to expel Russia if it totally disobeys. That’s all we can do. But if you keep in mind that the Council of Europe is the only pan-European human rights democracy organization to which Russia acceded, and I think it will result in quite a serious loss of confidence in Russia.

MJT: Do you think that because Russia is a member of the Council of Europe that the human rights situation there, while bad, is better than it might otherwise be if Russia had been shut out entirely all along?

Dr. Eörsi: There are many opinions within our assembly. Some say Russia should not have acceded to the Council of Europe. I’m not sure it is a good argument because you need to maintain dialogue, and as much as Russia would like to be a democratic state, then through this dialogue we can help them come to solutions which prevail in all of our member countries. It’s a gradual process. You cannot expect a country to change in a fortnight. Russia acceded to the Council of Europe during Yeltsin, and at that time there was hope that Russia would like to be a part of the European political family. As long as it decides not to, then we can be expected to make a very tough decision.

MJT: Do you think it would be better, in your personal opinion, if Russia were thrown out, or if Russia stays in?

Dr. Eörsi: I think they should not yet be thrown out. Because from the moment Russia is thrown out, then we can no longer put pressure on them. We will have no more remaining leverage. We should give them a very serious warning.

Here’s how I see this Russian problem. There is the imminent need for Russian troops to be withdrawn immediately. After they withdraw, we need to change the peacekeeping structure because this war is very clear evidence that a country that is part of the conflict cannot, at the same time, be a peace keeper. This will be maybe more difficult. And we will need a decision from the member countries like France, Germany, United Kingdom, the most important ones. Maybe we will pay a price if we send a very strong signal to Russia, but it will be a smaller price compared to not signaling anything and making Russia believe they can return to the Cold War.

I hesitate to draw a parallel with 1939 and 2008, but this is a lesson for Europe…

MJT: You mean Germany’s invasion of Czechoslovakia?

Dr. Eörsi: Yes. And, by the way, if you look at the arguments they are very similar. Germany was calling for protection of the Germans in Sudetenland. It is very similar. It’s not an exact parallel, but I see some parallels. Protection of minorities is a legitimate goal, but a country must be very careful in choosing the proper tools. I think there are many more Russian living in Brooklyn than in South Ossetia.

MJT: Certainly.

Dr. Eörsi: If something is wrong, if there is a pogrom, an ethnic conflict, Russia will, what, attack the United States? You know what I mean. They should be more careful.

MJT: Have you been here during most of this conflict, or in Europe?

Dr. Eörsi: I am a member of parliament in Hungary, so I cannot afford to stay away for too long. But any time there is conflict in Georgia, I show up immediately. I came here last November when Saakashvili called for a state of emergency, now I am here trying to speak very clearly about the European position. And I think as a member of parliament I enjoy more freedom in speaking up than many heads of states or governments.

MJT: Because you don’t speak for the whole government.

Dr. Eörsi: I don’t speak for the whole government. I speak for myself. I speak from my beliefs and my convictions.

MJT: Can you tell me about the mood in Europe right now, or at least in Hungary?

Dr. Eörsi: The European public mood, in general, is to avoid any conflict and try to reconcile. It could be different in countries that were earlier under control of the Soviet Union. When I hear, for example, that Saakashvili was provoking Russia, immediately it occurs to me that Soviet troops came to Budapest in 1956 and it was claimed that Hungarians were provoking Russia. The same thing happened in 1968 with Czechoslovakia. So, again, I see this parallel.

MJT: It has been argued recently that Georgia may not have started this conflict, that Russia was moving its troops into Georgia before Saakashvili supposedly provoked the Russians. But you’re telling me that you instinctively assumed Russia started it.

Dr. Eörsi: It was not clear to me when I was in Budapest because of what the international media was reporting. It was not very clear to me. Now I understand more facts. It is very important for European public opinion to understand more about what happened here, and also what is at stake. Yes, Georgia was provoking Russia. I agree. Georgia was provoking Russia by deciding its future, by deciding its alliances, by deciding its democratic structure, deciding for its leaders. Russia perceived all this as a provocation. If so, then Georgia provoked Russia. But I fully disapprove that a country can be provoked by democratic decisions about where a country would like to go.

What is at stake in Russia…Russia lost the Baltic countries that were part of the Soviet Union. There was a huge fight in Ukraine and in Georgia whether the leaders of these countries will remain under the umbrella of Russia. Russia punished them for their decision not to remain under their sphere of influence but to run an independent foreign policy. Russia doesn’t want to approve this, and I find it totally unacceptable.

MJT: Russia has behaved this way toward its neighbors for a very long time.

Dr. Eörsi: I think it is true for this present Russia. It is true for the current Russia. During the first NATO enlargement, when lots of European leaders were running to Moscow and saying “we don’t want to harass you or provoke you,” [President Jimmy Carter's National Security Advisor Zbigniew] Brzezinski said there is some democratic progress in Russia in terms of internal politics, but Russia’s external politics are not democratic at all. You can see that Russia is opposing the Baltic countries, Central European countries like Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Poland. This is not a democratic foreign policy. Brzezinski concluded that, because of this resistance by Russia, if NATO is not enlarged it will not calm down Russia. It would be the other way around. It would feed the radicals in Russia who say “this is the language we have to use toward the West” because then they will shut up and stand back.

Brzezinski concluded that if you want to have a more democratic Russian foreign policy, then a sovereign country that wants to join NATO and meets the criteria should have access to NATO. It may result in the short run a radicalization of Russian foreign policy, but the mainstream Russian approach says it’s better to avoid conflict, otherwise more and more countries in Russia’s neighborhood would increase their desire to join NATO because of their fear of Russia.

MJT: Why do you suppose Russians care if nations on the border belong to NATO? Are they worried that NATO is moving on Russia to take Russia over? Do they actually feel threatened?

Dr. Eörsi: I think their psychology is different. They used to be a world power. Countries they used to control they cannot control any more. There are millions of Russians who lived in poverty in the Soviet Union who said yeah, but we are a superpower. They lost this feeling. And Vladimir Putin is delivering this feeling to them that Russia is again becoming a superpower.

MJT: There’s a lot of talk here — and I was just in Azerbaijan and there’s a lot of talk there…

Dr. Eörsi: About energy.

MJT: Yes, about energy. About the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline.

Dr. Eörsi: Absolutely.

MJT: Do you think that’s…

Dr. Eörsi: Absolutely.

MJT: It sounds like a conspiracy theory. But it also really is the only way oil can get from the Caspian region to Europe without passing through Russia.

Dr. Eörsi: If Georgia falls, Azerbaijan falls. It would be totally cut off from the Western markets. All the energy which Azerbaijan can produce can only go to Russia. And Russia will become the sole distributor of energy for all of Europe. This is one point. I think it is very important. And Russia is very vulnerable. This Baku pipeline enables Europe to buy from sources other than Russia.

A third item here — it can be controversial, but I think it is not — this is an internal Russian political fight between [President Dmitri] Medvedev and Putin. Putin became president of Russia twice, accompanied by two wars in the Caucasus, Chechen War One and Chechen War Two. And I would also like to remind you that when the first Chechen War started, a terrorist attack in Moscow, when a housing block was destroyed, it was supposedly done by Chechen terrorists. A war was started against Chechnya. But since then, not one person was taken to court. Nobody was caught. It was allegedly Chechen terrorists, but not one single person was caught.

So what I feel, but it’s my feeling, that when Putin became president he needed another war in the Caucasus.

What I see today is that [French President Nicolas] Sarkozy is negotiating with Medvedev about a peace plan, Medvedev agrees, it is very favorable to Russia, and yet it is not implemented. So what I feel is that the message Putin wants to send to Russia, and also to the world is, I’m the boss. Medvedev is the president, but you had better negotiate with me.

MJT: In the U.S., at least among foreign policy professionals, it was already understood that Putin was still the real power. Was this less obvious in Russia?

Dr. Eörsi: I don’t know. It was under discussion everywhere. If my theory is true, this war was needed to demonstrate where the real power is. Until then, it was only speculation. And we have lots of Kremlin stories about the different branches that fight one another, but this war made it absolutely obvious where the power lies. Medvedev was humiliated. Medvedev told Sarkozy they would withdraw. And they didn’t.

If they didn’t have this experience with the two Chechen wars, I would hesitate to go public with this analysis. But I find it extremely alarming.

MJT: We’re all going to be thinking about Ukraine differently after this.

Dr. Eörsi: Absolutely.

MJT: What do you suppose Europe can do to shore up the defense of Ukraine in advance?

Dr. Eörsi: I think a Membership Action Plan for NATO should be given to them immediately. I also think it’s time to say that the 2014 Winter Olympic Games should not be held in [the Southern Russian city of] Sochi.

MJT: Let’s say for the sake of discussion that a Membership Action Plan were given to Ukraine tomorrow. How long would it take for Ukraine to be formally inside NATO and under its military protection?

Dr. Eörsi: Any short amount of time.

MJT: Two days? One day?

Dr. Eörsi: One day.

MJT: So Ukraine could, theoretically, be in NATO by the end of the week.

Dr. Eörsi: You remember how Turkey became a member of NATO? It took one day. Greece? One day. It was a different geopolitical situation, with a big Soviet Union and Greece having gotten rid of the [military dictatorship]. It was just like letting them into the European Union. Greece never met the criteria of the European Union. It can be done at any time.

MJT: Do you think there is any chance that Georgia could be admitted to NATO after this?

Dr. Eörsi: I hope.

MJT: Correct me if I’m wrong, but when this was discussed earlier some European countries were worried about exactly this scenario and didn’t want to get involved in case it did happen.

Dr. Eörsi: That is true, but somewhat more complicated. When [former French President Jacques] Chirac visited Beijing, Martin Lee of Hong Kong said something very nice. He said he has always admired the great French principles of liberté, égalité, and fraternité, and that he was sad to see that they were all gone for the sake of Airbus.

These countries would like to maintain a very good business relationship with Russia. And I think many European countries — and, by the way, sometimes also America — will say they will do something in order to have this or that business transaction. This is another worry, losing markets in Russia.

I think, however, if Europe could be more united, Europe would not lose any markets. On the other hand, that was a worry for, especially, France and Germany. And NATO expansion is never, of course, about importing possible conflicts into NATO. That’s an understandable worry. However, because Georgia was not given the Membership Action Plan, I think it encouraged Russia to be more aggressive.

MJT: Do you suspect that if Russia actually gets what they want here, that Azerbaijan would be next or Ukraine would be next?

Dr. Eörsi: My very sad conclusion is that there would be no need for a second one. Because everything will fall automatically.

MJT: In this region, you mean?

Dr. Eörsi: Yes. And even Ukraine. If Russia wins, then the pro-Russian faction in Ukraine will win because of the fear that it could be done to them at any time. And the same applies to Azerbaijan. Aliyev tries to find the room to maneuver for himself, but if Georgia falls there is no more room to maneuver. It’s finished. There’s no need for any other military action. Look at Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan and all those countries. Totally finished. They’ll lose access to Europe.

MJT: Do you have a sense of what percentage of the population in Ukraine currently would be willing to go along with being in the Russia orbit?

Dr. Eörsi: That is a big problem. The population is divided almost 50 percent.

MJT: But ethnic Russians are a much smaller percentage of the population.

Dr. Eörsi: Yes, but politically Ukraine is divided almost 50/50 whether to follow a pro-Russian or independent foreign policy. Georgia had a referendum on NATO membership, and it was over 80 percent. Ukraine is different, and it’s a specific problem for Ukraine to join NATO when almost half the population opposes such a step. And what would happen if someone were elected who doesn’t share the basic principles of NATO? That would be a problem.

MJT: Is there anything you’d like to say that I didn’t ask you about?

Dr. Eörsi: No.

MJT: Well, if you could speak in front of a thousand foreign policy professionals in the United States, what would you say to them?

Dr. Eörsi: America today is pre-occupied with the presidential elections. So when John McCain is writing an article about Georgia, it’s all bullshit. It means nothing. Everything is embedded in the campaign.

I don’t want to criticize Saakashvili by saying that now it’s about American values, because I think even more is at stake. This is a new world order. And under this new world order, Russia feels it is entitled to make any aggressive military actions without fear. George W. Bush says the United States is fully in favor of Georgia’s territorial integrity, but the next day [U.S. Secretary of Defense] Robert Gates said American troops will not be needed. This was a very clear message to Russia. I wouldn’t have expected Washington to say they wanted to intervene, but I certainly don’t think they should have said that they won’t.

I think it’s very important to have some American forces here, not to get involved, but to have a presence.

MJT: There are some US soldiers here for humanitarian…

Dr. Eörsi: Not enough. Not enough. There should be more.

I heard a very sarcastic comment yesterday, that the Americans were training Georgians how to check homes, which is typical in Iraq. [Laughs.] It’s not very useful here.

You have my mobile number. Call me anytime.

MJT: Thank you. Can I take your picture?

Dr. Eörsi: Sure, sure. Do you want me to smile or be serious?

MJT: Look serious.

Dr. Eörsi: Yes, this is serious.

MJT: I’ve noticed that not many Georgians are smiling. Is that normal?

Dr. Eörsi: Why would they? They have no reason to smile.

MJT: You mean because of the war.

Dr. Eörsi: Well, it’s also a national trait. In America when someone says how are you, you say I am fine. In Hungary, in Eastern Europe, the best you can say is I am surviving. That’s the most optimistic response possible.

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The War Won’t End in Afghanistan

Senator Barack Obama said something at the presidential debate last week that almost perfectly encapsulates the difference between his foreign policy and his opponent’s: “Secretary of Defense Robert Gates himself acknowledges the war on terrorism started in Afghanistan and it needs to end there.” I don’t know if Obama paraphrased Gates correctly, but if so, they’re both wrong.

If Afghanistan were miraculously transformed into the Switzerland of Central Asia, every last one of the Middle East’s rogues gallery of terrorist groups would still exist. The ideology that spawned them would endure. Their grievances, such as they are, would not be salved. The political culture that produced them, and continues to produce more just like them, would hardly be scathed. Al Qaedism is the most radical wing of an extreme movement which was born in the Middle East and exists now in many parts of the world. Afghanistan is not the root or the source.

Naturally the war against them began in Afghanistan. Plans for the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States were hatched in Afghanistan. But the temporary location of the plotters of that strike means little in the wide view of a long struggle. Osama bin Laden and his leadership just as easily could have planned the attacks from Saudi Arabia before they were exiled, or from their refuge in Sudan in the mid 1990s. Theoretically they could have even planned the attacks from an off-the-radar “safe house” in a place like France or even Nebraska had they managed to sneak themselves in. The physical location of the planning headquarters wasn’t irrelevant, but in the long run the ideology that motivates them is what must be defeated. Perhaps the point would be more obvious if the attacks were in fact planned in a place like France instead of a failed state like Afghanistan.

Hardly anyone wants to think about the monumental size of this task or how long it will take. The illusion that the United States just needs to win in Afghanistan and everything will be fine is comforting, to be sure, but it is an illusion. Winning the war in Iraq won’t be enough either, nor will permanently preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons or resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict. The war may end somewhere with American troops on the ground, or, like the Cold War, it might not. No one can possibly foresee what event will actually put a stop to this war in the end. It is distant and unknowable. The world will change before we can even imagine what the final chapter might look like.

Most of the September 11 hijackers were Saudis. All were Arabs. None hailed from Afghanistan. This is not coincidental. Al Qaeda’s politics are a product of the Arab world, specifically of the radical and totalitarian Wahhabi sect of Islam founded in the 18th Century in Saudi Arabia by the fanatical Muhammad ibn Abd-al-Wahhab. He thought the medieval interpretations of Islam even on the backward Arabian peninsula were too liberal and lenient. His most extreme followers cannot even peacefully coexist with mainstream Sunni Muslims, let alone Shia Muslims, Jews, Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, secularists, feminists, gays, or anyone else. Their global jihad is a war against the entire human race in all its diversity and plurality.

“Read the rest in COMMENTARY Magazine”:http://www.commentarymagazine.com/blogs/index.php/totten/34001.

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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.


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