August 17, 2008

In Country

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

I'll write something substantive when I can. In the meantime, take a look at my colleague and traveling companion Andrew Breitbart's dispatch from Baku. Read it. Trust me.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at August 17, 2008 11:30 PM
Good luck with your reporting. I'd be real careful in South Ossetia, though.
Posted by: Edgar at August 18, 2008 4:22 am
Yeah, the per-capita GNP figures for Georgia suggest things are pretty tough outside of Tbilisi. Georgia is about 1/2 of the Ukraine (per capita), which is itself about 1/2 of Russia.
Posted by: rob at August 18, 2008 9:01 am
Nagorno-Karabakh sounds like a Klingon expletive. Please do be careful. If you get yourself killed I will never speak to you again.
Posted by: Lindsey at August 18, 2008 11:38 am
Kommersant has a series of articles. MJT might not get in:
When he hears that we are Russian [journalists], he relaxes and introduces himself as Valery:
Posted by: Solomon2 at August 18, 2008 12:04 pm
Looking forward to reading your reports-Watch your back-The Russians and their buddies don't like journalists at all.
Posted by: mcmill1599 at August 18, 2008 2:05 pm
When Michael was in Iraq, he was (unofficially?) escorted by the US Marines. In Georgia, who will look after him?
Posted by: lee at August 18, 2008 2:51 pm
Don't worry, Lassy taught Michael everything he knows when it comes to guerilla warfare, not to mention how to move and shoot with a rifle that's over 70 years old. I'm sure Michael could take down the Russian, or Georgian or both armies all on his own.
Posted by: JohnDakota at August 18, 2008 7:03 pm
The absolute best situation in an apocalyptic environment is to not be noticed.
If that doesn't work, (1) don't have anything on your person anybody else wants and (2) don't be something that anybody would fear. (3) is be equipped appropriately (this can include arranging escorts) and be ready to do whatever is necessary to get to the next thing...
Independent journalist? You don't have options (1) or (2). Don't know if your government invite extended to credentialing you for or through the Georgian government. You roll the dice.
If you interact with Russian irregulars and they twig that you are American, and you live to write about it, I will be surprised.
Posted by: TmjUtah at August 18, 2008 7:14 pm
In Georgia, who will look after him?
Many journos have reported from there, but then, maybe they stayed in the safer areas. It's true that the criminal gang ruling Russia right now does no like journalists so be careful and watch the soup too, the Ukraine's Prez wishes he did ;)
IIRC, Arkan, too, had a reward for the journalist that got the first pictures out of Bosnia. Good luck Michael and be safe.
Posted by: nameless-fool at August 18, 2008 7:23 pm
Some parts of this country are extraordinarily dangerous. Some are slightly dangerous. Some aren't dangerous, at least not at the moment. It depends, and I am on top of the situation.
I am not going to sneak into Gori, and I certainly am not going to sneak into South Ossetia.
Posted by: Michael J. Totten at August 18, 2008 8:47 pm
Mike... thanks for your tip on Andrew Breitbart's piece on Azerbaijan. It is superb. I hope that American's will tune into that important message.
Good luck!
Posted by: AcadiaJoe at August 19, 2008 5:41 am
It goes without saying, of course, that you should also give Abkhazia a wide berth. But I'm gonna say it anyway.
There are very few people who can report on Muslim hotspots with the acumen, insight and objectivity that you can. I still am looking forward to your engaging in Afghani reportage. Besides the fat that I like and respect you and don't want to see anything adverse happening to you anyway, you are too valuable a resource to lose in the Georgia mess. Or in the trans-dniester. Or in any place where the Russians, who have zero respect for the lives of journalists, are causing trouble.
I found this article to be quite interesting and informative:
Posted by: Salamantis at August 19, 2008 6:41 am
I'm looking forward to your next post. I'm sure it doesn't need to be said, but be carefull over there.
Posted by: NYC Financial Planner at August 19, 2008 9:57 am
Georgia aches with past and present oppression from Moscow.
Right. Because Stalin and Beria were Russians from Moscow.
Oh wait, they were Georgian!
Don't let people pull the wool over your eyes. Georgians are charming, fascinating wonderful people, but as a nation they are just as complicit in the crimes of the USSR as the Russians. During the heyday of the USSR Georgia was the most free and least oppressed of all the Soviet Republics. And to this day you will still find statues of Stalin in Georgian towns. Don't offer them your pity, they don't really deserve it. It's rather like the way Austrians pretend to ignorant outsiders that Nazism was purely a German phenomenon.
Posted by: Dyadya Vanya at August 19, 2008 10:01 am
Vanya: Right. Because Stalin and Beria were Russians from Moscow. Oh wait, they were Georgian!
I knew you would jump in here with a bunch of anti-Georgian crap. I would have bet my house on it. But surely you can do better than that. Who gives a fuck if Stalin and Beria were from Georgia? Should we just let Russia dismember Germany and Austria in 2008 while we're at it because they produced Hitler and the Nazi Party?
Try again.
No, actually, don't. You are boring and predictable. Arguing with you about this subject in particular is a complete waste of time.
Posted by: Michael J. Totten at August 19, 2008 11:17 am
MJT: I am not going to sneak into Gori, and I certainly am not going to sneak into South Ossetia.
Sneak in?
Is access now completely forbidden to journalists? I've seen a few reports from Gori and South Ossetia and it seems like reporters are having an extremely tough time, to say the least. But do you mean that they have to infiltrate these areas without permission?
Posted by: Edgar at August 19, 2008 1:52 pm
Abkhazia and South Ossetia have been annexed to Russia. No one can enter without a Russian visa.
A Russian visa is even required now to visit Gori, which is supposed to be the sovereign territory of Georgia.
Russia has dismembered the country.
Posted by: Michael J. Totten at August 19, 2008 2:11 pm
In first hours of Georgian offensive Kokoiti (Ossetian leader) claimed 1400+ dead and Russians moved in under this pretext.
Later HRW could not find confirmation to Kokoiti/Medvedev/Putin claim.
So, I imagine Russians will try to do something about for damage control. My guess they will restrict access for time long enough to claim that all dead were collected and berried and all we will have will be Russian word.
Not much to trust in but it will create situation ambiguous enough to not being able to continue with any kind of investigation. In the mean time Russians will still try to push this 1400-dead story and in time many will start believing it.
Posted by: leo at August 19, 2008 2:13 pm
Thanks MJT. Here is praying that you stay safe. Andrew Breitbart's dispatch is quite good. Unfortunately none of it is surprising.
We Americans are amazingly provincial, uninformed about others, self absorbed, and insufficiently curious about others. (We also tend to stab our friends in the back when they were down, although this aspect was not covered in Andrews piece.) Unfortunately this description is valid for the large majority of people from countries around the world.
When someone from Luxemburg behaves in this way it is cute. But we Americans (and increasingly Chinese) are held to a higher standard than the rest because we are more high profile, and because we affect everyone else more in our interdependent world.
Oh, I have a great response on Nagorno-Karabakh for you ;-)
"Nagorno-Karabakh is a terrible tragedy, and its terrible that no one in the world seems to care. The same can be said about many other conflicts around the world. We Americans should do much more to help. May God bless Azerbaijan."
Abstract. Pro Azerbaijan. Not anti Armenian. Not anti-Russian. Cool answer :lol:
All the fuss about Nagorno-Karabakh reminds me about the many times I have tried to discuss Palestine in Asia. Indians know little about it, and would love to know even less about it than they do. Palestine puts them to sleep (although the close relationship with Israel is quite popular in India . . . "MOST" but not all Indian muslims seem to admire Israel's high tech economy and skill in managing terrorism.) Malaysia seems similar to India (although they put up a vaneer of being pro Palestinian, they like Israelis.)
In Singapore, Taiwan, China, South Korea, Hong Kong, you could be asking about Nagorno-Karabakh, for all they care about Palestine.
And some Americans actually think Palestine is a big part of the prism through which the world views America. :lol: The na
Posted by: anand at August 19, 2008 6:03 pm
leo: they will restrict access for time long enough to claim that all dead were collected and berried
The Georgians making pies out of Ossetians?
I guess a story like that would make half-decent propaganda, something to feed the gullible media. You could claim massive civilian casualties, have an explanation for why their bodies are missing, and make the Georgian army out to be a bunch of savages.
I don't think most people will buy it, though.
Posted by: Edgar at August 19, 2008 6:13 pm
Yasmin, with your permission, I would like to respond to Moy
Posted by: anand at August 19, 2008 6:31 pm
MJT, please keep asking about China in your travels. China has quietly supported the right of former Soviet republics to form independent relationships with each other and other countries, including America, without having to defer to Russia. China is likely to be the largest customer of natural gas and oil from the former Soviet republics and Russia going forward, and is also expected to be the largest foreign investor and trading partner of most of the former Soviet republics.
China perceives much of the region in ways more similar to Americans than most realize. China has so far tried to maintain a low profile in Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia. However, they seem to be open to a much deeper relationship with these countries, including with respect to Hydrocarbon/pipeline development contracts, and selling military equipment.
Georgians and Azerbaijan should try much harder to court China. China is quietly displease with the precedent that Russia has established in Ossetia (China doesn
Posted by: anand at August 19, 2008 6:32 pm
"I don't think most people will buy it, though."
and that's why they'll repeat it over and over and over again. They are very busy bees the "Lockstep Orthodox Brotherhood Brigades," as you see them in every Kosovo /Greece /Armenia /Russia /Cyprus thread. One already started to make Georgians (Orthodox too, but Western leaning, thus traitors) into Stalinists, right in this blog.
It takes guts, considering the state of affairs in Russia, but they'll keep trying. By the end of the end month expect them to be "Soros stooges," "genocidal," and they might even throw a Bin Laden in the mix eventually. All to protect Pootie Poot, the "defender of Orthodoxy," the one "who wont take cr-p from the West."
Posted by: nameless-fool at August 19, 2008 6:35 pm
'buried', not 'berried'.
Thank you, Edgar.
Posted by: leo at August 19, 2008 7:16 pm
Personally, I imagine it would be a very bad idea to go near Russian occupied areas. At this point various reports have them Russkies occupying the coast from the North through Poti and all the big highways and rail up past a little village halfway between Mtskheta and Gori.
So Les Russes control the Western 2/3 of the long valley between the Greater Caucasus (North border with Russian North Caucasus) and the Lesser Caucasus (South border with Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan) that cuts Georgia in half on an East West line.
Georgia defined in 10 words:
"The land route between the Caspian and the Black Sea."
In the middle of that trans-Caucasian route is a huge gorge leading into the Lesser Caucasus from Kashuri to Borzhomi where it splits and penetrates the Southern Caucasus toward South-East (vast highlands of Turkey and Armenia) and South West (to Batumi on the coast via the Goderzdi Pass).
The Russians are obviously diggin' in for a long occupation because they are reported to have occupied Borzhomi and begun burning the forests in the mountains around Borzhomi, a less toxic method than Agent Orange, one supposes.
Georgia cannot survive without land routes from Batumi on the Black Sea to the mountains around or above Marneuli. Marneuli is a three-way rail junction to 1) Tbilisi airport, 2) the Armenian valley & gorge to the Russian base at Gyumri, and 3) the gorge to Kazreti at the edge of the highlands.
BTW, it might be a good idea to identify alternative paths lying well East of Marneuli offering hasty egress to Azerbaijan.
After routes in the Lesser Caucasus skirting Borzhomi, my armchair suggestion is the most famous and militarily most immediately crucial point, the Mtskheta Pass, the great barrier to invaders from the West.
The forward defense for Mtskheta is Kashuri, which apparently the Russkies haven't yet tried to occupy [?]. Kashuri has the Eastern-most flatland communication between two East-West valleys. The Southern valley ends abruptly at Mtskheta, a real choke point and turkey shoot for invading armoured turkeys.
Kashuri and Mtskheta are the shield of Tbilisi. One would presume a massive move against Mtskheta could only mean teh roooses are going for the whole enchilada, [or chyeburyek, as it were].
The Northern valley past Kashuri goes further East than Tbilisi, but it is a steep climb and has no easy exit for armor. The Russians might want to occupy it, not to launch attacks against Tbilisi, but to cut communications between Tbilisi and Eastern Georgia's great wine-growing region which runs up to Akhmeta.
Akhmeta, BTW, is located at the opening of the Pankisi Gorge which climbs up toward Chechenya and was famously attacked by Russian troops to remove alleged Chechen bases some long time ago ('first' Chechen War?)
So much for geopolitics. If some Georgian wine seems a tad astringent to you, try it with Chyebureki (Georgian national convenience food of spiced lamb in deep-fried bread pockets, someone correct me if I'm wrong)...a perfect combination of intoxicating sensory pleasure and concentrated nutritional goodness! (At least I can say that about the examples one can obtain in a certain North American city.)
If you are looking for a truly great wine with neither astringency nor much sugar, Kindzmarauli is a Saperavi varietal grown in a sub-region around Kvareli. It's a "semi-dry" red that has the richness and fruit of a very good young Port, but much lighter and only lightly sweet.
If you get to Mtskheta or Borzhomi, I will admire you greatly. If you get to Kvareli (just North-East of the valley to Azerbaijan) and raise a wine horn to Georgia's freedom there, I'll envy you!
Be safe. If they haven't nuked Georgia by mid-Fall, them poor little Russkies sure won't be!
Posted by: jeefurt at August 19, 2008 8:24 pm
For the little town just West of Mtskheta, I should have written "Ksani", not "Kashuri". Sorry.
BTW, the river through Murkani and Ksani is also the river that marks the Eastern extent of South "Ossetia" to the North.
Posted by: jeefurt at August 19, 2008 9:13 pm
The Russians are not in Borjomi. They did, however, use incendiary bombs to start massive forest fires in the region.
Posted by: Michael J. Totten at August 19, 2008 9:54 pm
what do the Russians really want?
Send a message that "we must be taken seriously now"
Expand Empire
Warn the West regarding spheres of influence
All of above?
Do they even know their main goals yet, or they're just taking it one day at a time?
From what I have read, they have gone out of their way to destroy and punish GA, and it's not "we'll do this until you stop," Georgia isn't still attacking Ossetia now, or anyone for that matter. Many speculate that a port will stay with Russia to eventually make up for Sevastopol, given that Ukraine is much tougher militarily, and probably a bad move for Russia's drunken hordes to attack them.
I can't wait for the final report/s. Stay safe.
Posted by: nameless-fool at August 19, 2008 10:23 pm
Here is a report with excellent photos by British photo-journalist Onnik Krikorian who was able to sneak into Gori:
Posted by: Eliot at August 20, 2008 8:15 am
That guy Krikorian has got a lot of balls. Great report.
I'm actually very impressed by the MSM's coverage of this war. Whatever your feelings about the content they're providing, nobody can deny they're taking incredible risks to get the story.
A BBC crew coming under fire, an Israeli journalist getting carjacked, a Turkish reporter getting shot in the face--these people are displaying a huge amount of courage.
Posted by: Edgar at August 20, 2008 8:32 am
Edgar: these people are displaying a huge amount of courage.
Yes, they are. No doubt about it. (Some of them anyway. Most do not leave Tbilisi)
I tried to get into Gori today. Occasionally the Russians let journalists in. A Swiss guy got in ahead of me.
The Russians turned me back. But I was with a guy who speaks Russian, and I got closer to the city than most thanks to his excellent language and social skills.
The insignia on the Russian rifle slings says CCCP.
Oh, and the Russians had militiamen with them from Chechnya.
Posted by: Michael J. Totten at August 20, 2008 10:05 am
Michael, We tried two times to get into Gori -- and both times we were led to believe we could. In the end we decided to go the back route in via Kaspi. You should check that there are no reports of South Ossetian militia operating the same day on that route, but it appears to be safe and also, a guaranteed way in.
You might also try to contact the head of the Georgian National Security Council, Alexander Lomaia, who apparently takes some journalists in and can even arrange for them to stay the night there. However, you should know that a curfew is in place at seemingly random times. When we were there we were told 6pm, but others report 10pm.
I think they make it up as they go along, basically.
Posted by: Onnik Krikorian at August 20, 2008 10:21 am
If by militia men from Chechnja you mean battalion 'Vostok' (East), so called 'Jamadajevtsi', this guys are probably on par with AQI cutthroats if not worst. Definitely worst because they are supported, protected and managed by state.
Posted by: leo at August 20, 2008 11:00 am
MJT: Most do not leave Tbilisi
Well, in all fairness, most of the bloggers writing about Georgia haven't left America, let alone Tbilisi.
Posted by: Edgar at August 20, 2008 11:23 am
Michael, darling... remember: eyes up, head & umm, Gluteus maximus down. thank you for the link to Breitbart's dispatch... looking forward to your dispatches as well. I am in awe of those who have offered such (hopefully) useful intel to MJT.
Posted by: Some Soldier's Mom at August 20, 2008 7:18 pm
Ok, since making the comment about the back route I've just received this:
There's some semi-word that our back door route to Gori has now been blocked. xxx from xxx said that the guys at the checkpoint we used said they'd let him in yesterday, but to forget about it today.
So, don't try it without checking with other journalists there.
I'd recommend going to the Marriott Tbilisi and keeping up to date on such things.
There's a media center for this crisi in the lobby.
Posted by: Onnik Krikorian at August 21, 2008 8:16 am
Thanks for your civil response Michael.
Everyone gives a crap that Stalin was Georgian - he's a big part of the reason Ossetia and Abkhazia were put under Georgian control in the first place. His legacy is very alive in Georgia in a way Hitler's is not.
Do some research. If you just regurgitate Georgian propaganda you aren't doing yourself or your readers any favors. These aren't fights that started yesterday or even 100 years ago.
And no matter how much you hate Russians, you simply cannot ignore the idiotic role Saakashvili played in starting this mess. Georgia has been an aggressor in the region, so has Russia. There's no "democracy" on either side, the whole thing is better understood as different mafia bosses jockeying to control their territories. Sorry if that sounds cynical.
Posted by: Dyadya Vanya at August 21, 2008 9:42 am
And no matter how much you hate Russians, you simply cannot ignore the idiotic role Saakashvili played in starting this mess. Georgia has been an aggressor in the region, so has Russia. There's no "democracy" on either side, the whole thing is better understood as different mafia bosses jockeying to control their territories. Sorry if that sounds cynical.
actually it sounds like Russian propaganda, nit cynical. You're trying to make both sides equally guilty. We saw the same propaganda in the Balkans: 'they are no angels,' 'Everyone did bad things,' as if all 'bad things' are equally bad. It muddies the waters and people tune out with 'we'll let them deal with it.' Sorry to say but very few people are buying it.
Posted by: nameless-fool at August 21, 2008 3:08 pm
Honest to say I was really surprised ,at least twice.
First : Saakashvili went to Tskhinvali ,ok destroyed houses,and killed women and kids,but I don`t understand why his army killed 10 russian peacekeepers there.What `s for?Why does he started this war?
Second: CNN,Fox News,BBC - unfortunately only those foreign channels in my TV set.And all of them shows same picture."Russia is agressor","Russia invaded to independent Georgia","Chekhoslovakia 68".It`s like Soviet Union TV on the contrary, I was really surprised.
I don`t believe that Saakashvili went to Tskhinvali and didn`t ask US for it,he prevented OSCE,and didn`t say mr. Cheeni.Propaganda works.May be better to look at Tskhinvali pictures and may be you will understand
I have a friends who are georgians and we are still friends,or may be better to read georgians what they say about Saakashvili,he called himself as DAVID-BUILDER,and put him self on one line with Iosif Stalin and Beria,but I don`t think so.
My best regards from Russia,I am not agent of KGB :)
Alexander Nemtyrev
Posted by: at August 27, 2008 1:39 pm
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