September 30, 2008

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.

EU Minister Tbilisi.jpg
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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Posted by Michael J. Totten at 8:37 PM | Comments (3)

September 29, 2008

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.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 2:51 PM | Comments (49)

September 24, 2008

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 with Caucasus expert and author Thomas Goltz, 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 – 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.

Road and Cows Road to Borjomi.jpg
The road to Borjomi

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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;

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Borjomi Water Billboard.jpg
An advertisement for Borjomi's unique natually-flavored mineral water

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

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

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

Governor Borjomi.jpg
Borjomi municipality Governor Vakhtang Maisuradze

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

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

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Posted by Michael J. Totten at 1:10 AM | Comments (34)

September 19, 2008

Al Qaeda's Defeat in Iraq

Senator Barack Obama’s answer 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 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 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 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.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 3:41 PM | Comments (64)

September 15, 2008

Blowback in Russia

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

Radical Islamists in Ingushetia, just across the Caucasus mountains from Georgia, have waged a low-level insurgency against the Russian government for some time now, though it has yet to reach the level of violent anti-Russian ferocity waged earlier by their cousins in neighboring Chechnya. A new group calling itself the People’s Parliament of Ingushetia has just surfaced after Russia’s adventure in Georgia with the stated aim of secession. More moderate opposition leaders also recently joined the cause of the radicals. Rebellious Ingush are not only emboldened by Russia’s recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, they’re enraged by the assassination a few weeks ago of prominent anti-Kremlin journalist Magomed Yevloyev.

Meanwhile, an umbrella organization of various nationalist groups known as the All-Tatar Civic Center in Tatarstan announced that they likewise want out. They also cite the Abkhazia and South Ossetia precedents. “Russia has lost the moral right not to recognize us,” said Rashit Akhmetov, editor of the Zvezda Povolzhya newspaper in Tatarstan’s capital.

Read the rest in COMMENTARY.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 3:04 PM | Comments (33)

New Web Site Title

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

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

Thanks to Mary Madigan for designing a new banner for me which you see now at the top.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 2:55 PM | Comments (10)

September 10, 2008

From Baku to Russian-Occupied Georgia

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

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

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

Baku Center at Night.jpg
Baku, Azerbaijan

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

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Baku Azerbaijan from the Caspian Plaza Hotel

First, though, the journey:

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

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

Old Baku 1.jpg
Baku, Azerbaijan

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

“Where are you from?” he said.

“United States,” I said.

“You are going to Tbilisi?” he said.

“Yes,” I said. “You?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Baku to Tbilisi Train Compartment.jpg
The private compartment I bribed my way into on the train from Baku to Tbilisi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I nodded.

“I can read your thoughts,” he said.

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

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

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

Lonely Planet Georgia Armenia Azerbaijan.JPG

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

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

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

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

Not that it helped.

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

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

None apparently did.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Communist Blocks Georgia.jpg
Communist era housing, Georgia

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Communist era housing, Georgia

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

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Smokestacks, Georgia, near the border with Azerbaijan

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

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

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

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

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

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Smokestack, Georgia, near the border with Azerbaijan

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

Tbilisi itself, though, is better.

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Tbilisi, Georgia

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

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Tbilisi, Georgia

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

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Tbilisi, Georgia

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

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Tbilisi, Georgia

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

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

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Marriott Hotel lobby, Tbilisi, Georgia

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

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Thomas Goltz on the road to Gori, Central Georgia

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


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

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

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

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On the road to Gori, Central Georgia

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

“What was that about?” I said.

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

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My driver on the road to Gori, Central Georgia

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

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

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Empty highway on the road to Gori, Central Georgia

I hadn't seen a country so depopulated since I drove with Noah Pollak in Northern Israel under Hezbollah rocket fire after more than a million refugees fled south toward Tel Aviv and emptied the cities as though it were the end of the world.

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

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The edge of South Ossetia, Georgia

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Look at that,” Goltz said.

It isn't likely that an American planted that flag. Georgia was one of the most pro-American countries in the world even before Russia invaded. According to Gallup International's 2004 survey of global opinion, the world's most pro-American countries, in the following order, were Kosovo, Afghanistan, Israel, and Georgia.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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First Russian checkpoint on the road to Gori, Central Georgia

“Are they Russians or Georgians?” I said.

“Russians,” Goltz said.

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

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

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

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

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Russian soldier, Georgia

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

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

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

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Russian soldier, Georgia

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

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

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

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

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

“They don't mind?” I said.

“No,” he said, “it’s fine.”

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

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Russian soldier, Georgia

“Want to go to Gori?” Goltz said.

“They'll let us?” I said.

“Let's go.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Russian-occupied Georgia

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

Yes, it felt strange. And totally wrong.

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

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

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

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

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

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A Russian truck on the road to Gori, Central Georgia

I relaxed slightly.

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

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

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

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Village, Russian-occupied Georgia

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

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Scorched roadside, Russian-occupied Georgia

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

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

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

“We had to try,” Goltz said.

I carefully studied the landscape using my zoom lens.

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

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

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

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

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Speeding gunner, Russian-occupied Georgia

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

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

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

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Russian army base, Central Georgia

“Did you get that?” Goltz said.

“Got it,” I said.

The driver said something to Goltz. Goltz translated.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Chechnya Diary, by my traveling companion Thomas Goltz

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

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

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

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Posted by Michael J. Totten at 12:18 AM | Comments (56)

September 8, 2008

Help Me Out Here

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

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

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

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

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 9:54 PM | Comments (87)

September 5, 2008

Russia's Kosovo Precedent

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

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

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

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

Read the rest in COMMENTARY Magazine.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 3:07 PM | Comments (43)

September 4, 2008

Checking In

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

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

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 1:41 PM | Comments (7)