Thursday, October 30, 2008

Another reason I love Tbilisi

TBILISI, Georgia -- I forgot to mention that I wrote my post from a week ago sitting in a friend's office that also happens to be Lavrenty Beria's old apartment. Pudgy and with a dim-looking face, Beria helped Stalin orchestrate the Great Terror in the 1930s. As head of the NKVD -- the KGB's predecessor -- Beria was one of the most feared and powerful men in the Soviet Union; of course everyone lagged far behind Uncle Joe in those two areas.

Both Beria and Stalin were Georgian, but while Stalin is still widely revered in his hometown, Gori, Beria has been disowned by the entire nation.

Beria's former home in Tbilisi.

A brief biographical note on Beria: He didn't join the Bolsheviks until 1917, but quickly rose to prominence by showing his skill at running the original secret police -- the CHECKA. During his early years as a revolutionary in Tbilisi, Beria might have also been working for the British. This claim has never been proven, but it's more than just idle rumor. In the 1930s, he helped Stalin kill millions of peole, and people like Steinbeck showed up and declared it the 'Workers' Paradise.' (Hey, I love the man's writing too, but wow! Talk about being way off.) Beria outlasted Stalin, and was a part of the triumvirate that took over after Stalin died. Within a few years, though, one of the three leaders, Nikita Khrushchev, had pushed aside the other two.

But how many cities are there where you can update your blog from the old apartment of a mastermind of state terror?

Out with the old, in with the new Prime Minister

Eds. Note: This post is a few days old. I meant to post it earlier this week, but had technical difficulties and not much free time. Sorry for the delay.

TBILISI, Georgia – Georgia’s president is reshuffling his government two months after war with Russia and less than two weeks before a large protest planned by opposition parties.

President Mikheil Saakashvili on Monday dismissed the current prime minister and recommended as his successor a largely unknown diplomat, Grigol Mgaloblishvili, the current ambassador to Turkey.

Speaking in a live televised address, Saakashvili did not give a reason for the change in government. He had said earlier in October that a reshuffle was planned. Parliament must still approve 35-year-old Mgaloblishvili’s appointment as prime minister.

A few hours earlier, a new opposition party, Democratic Movement-United Georgia, was announced by one of Georgia’s most prominent politicians, Nino Burjanadze, a former Speaker of Parliament. Once a Saakaskvili ally, she has become very critical of the president since setting up a think-tank, the Foundation for Democratic Development, last June.

Critics of Saakashvili’s government have grown louder since August, blaming the government for provoking a needless war with Russia, rolling back democratic reform and stifling a free media. Burjanadze attacked Saakashvili’s handling of the war and accused the government of misleading the country about the true extent of losses. The country’s Public Defender, Sozar Subari, said in a statement in September Georgia was under “authoritarian rule.”

Georgia’s opposition is divided over tactics, though. Some are calling for a large street protest on November 7, the first anniversary of government repression of demonstrators, and the removal of Saakashvili from office. Others want a moderate approach for now.

Burjanadze publicly called for new elections last Friday, but didn’t specify whether she meant presidential or parliamentary elections.

David Gamkrelidze, leader of the New Rights Party, has called for Saakashvili’s resignation.

“My country has two serious threats, one from Russia and one from Saakashvili,” he said.

He is one of the opposition leaders to have called for a mass protest before Parliament on November 7, a year after riot police turned rubber bullets and tear gas on a large opposition demonstration. Burjanadze was Speaker of the Parliament at the time, and supported the crackdown.

Other opposition leaders don’t want to create instability so soon after the war.

“At the moment Georgia is less sovereign than ever since independence. Part of our sovereignty went to Moscow, and the other part went to the West. So part of our sovereignty is in our enemy’s hands and the other part is in our friends’ hand,” said Dato Usupashvili, a leader of the Republican Party.

Georgia needs free and fair parliamentary, not presidential elections, Usupashvili said. The West will not support calls for Saakashvili’s removal, and Georgia cannot reform without Western support.

If the West makes the $4.5 billion pledged in international aid conditional on democratic reform, and the opposition reaches a consensus on a reform strategy, Georgia’s chances for becoming a democracy are high, he said.

The West turned a blind eye to problems with Georgia’s last parliamentary and presidential elections, but now “they see the danger that an unpredictable Georgia can pose,” Usupashvili said in an interview before the new prime minister was announced.

Large protests on Nov. 7, will only encourage Saakashvili to crackdown more, so the Republican Party will not participate, according to Usupashvili.

Russia might exploit demonstrations as a chance to further destabilize Georgia, he said. In recent weeks, outbreaks of violence have become more frequent along the de facto borders of Georgia’s two breakaway provinces, South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Nevertheless, he is frustrated that Saakashvili didn’t pick a successor to the outgoing prime minister, Vladimir Gurgenidze, who can build bridges to the opposition. The president chose an unknown figure not connected to his inner circle to minimize the negative reaction, but Mgaloblishvili doesn’t have any record of democratic reform, Usupashvili said.

“This is another demonstration that Saakashvili isn’t going to change anything. In the net result, this replacement will be more disappointment for the opposition,” he said.

Giorgi Gigineishvili thinks the choice shows how weak Georgia’s institutions are.

“He wanted to bring in a new guy who didn’t have any baggage, and doesn’t have any real power,” he said.

When Saakashvili came to power after the pro-democratic Rose Revolution of Nov. 23, 2003, Gigineishvili, 28, supported him. Since then, he has become disillusioned with the state of democracy in Georgia.

“Whatever democracy there was has been taken away,” he said. The investment company he works for has been virtually shut down by the government for its supposed connections to a former opposition figure, he said.

Gigineishvili plans to protest on Nov. 7, which he did last year as well. Georgia was on a path to democracy after the Rose Revolution, but self-interest has taken over in the ruling party, he said.

“The country is rudderless,” Gigineishvili said. “If the wind blows one way, it will go one direction, but if it blows another way, it will go in that direction. Georgia’s in a very dire situation right now.”

More Georgians think the country is headed in the right direction than wrong direction, according to a poll conducted at the end of September by the Gallup Organization and Baltic Surveys. Forty-seven percent said it was going in the right direction, as opposed to 41 percent who said the wrong direction. The numbers were nearly the reverse when the same poll was taken in February 2008.

Significantly, people here do not consider democratic reform among the important issues facing Georgia, according to the poll. In the previous poll, four percent considered democracy an important issue for the country.

Burjanadze said she formed her new party because Russian influence has increased, and the country has become more authoritarian rather than democratic under Saakashvili.

In September, she criticized the government’s management of the war. The Georgian Army was defeated in a few days, and separatists gained control of all of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

“Not one official was even replaced by the president. Is it normal for a democracy?” Burjanadze asked in an interview.

The cabinet’s reshuffle was planned before the war, Saakashvili said on Monday.

“There will be some changes, but not major changes,” said Giorgi Kandelaki, a Member of Parliament and Saakashvili’s party, National Movement. The changes were not because of any failures on the job.

Will the Defense Minister be changed?

“I cannot comment on that,” Kandelaki said.

He expects the new cabinet nominees to be announced within a week.

Mgaloblishvili is a Western-educated, career diplomat. He has served in Georgia’s Foreign Ministry since 1995, when Eduard Shevarnadze ran the country. After the Rose Revolution he was made ambassador to Turkey.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Russia increases military presence in Abkhazia and South Ossetia

TBILISI, Georgia -- Russia has officially ended its peacekeeping mission in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Instead 7,400 combat troops will be based in the two regions, and Russia is repairing the defunct Soviet deep-water naval base at Ochamchire and an airfield at Gudauta, both in Abkhazia. There have been reports that Russia is turning Abkhazia's Gali district, which borders the rest of Georgia, into a military district under military law. That would make it essentially Russian territory.

The ramifications go far beyond the Caucasus, though. The move effectively buries the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty, which Russia has been violating since the 1990s. In addition to South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Russia has stockpiled heavy weapons, equipment and troops in Transnistria (Moldova) and Armenia.

Whoever the next president is, he will have to deal with Russia's militarization of its presence in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

South Ossetia to begin military draft

TBILISI, Georgia - The de facto government of South Ossetia is implementing a military draft. The draft will begin October 25 for all people at least 18 years old, who will serve 1 year.

South Ossetia's de facto president, Eduard Kokoity, signed the order today.

Before the war, South Ossetia had a standing army of 3,000 and reserve force of 15,000.

Russian soldiers ambushed in Ingushetia

TBILISI, Georgia -- At least two Russian soldiers died when their convoy was ambushed separatists in Ingushetia. A local opposition web site claimed that around 50 soldiers were killed in the attack.

Ingushetia is a Russian province in the North Caucasus. Moscow has been fighting a low-scale war with separatists there since the 1990s. Based on its experience there and especially in Chechnya, Russia perceives the Caucasus as a source of insecurity that must be controlled. Russia sees Georgia's conflict with Abkhazia and South Ossetia as further validation its attitude towards the Caucasus.

News Wrap-up

TBILISI, Georgia -- Sorry for the silence over the past few days. Here are a few recent headlines on the area.

This weekend Spain's Foreign Minister endorsed NATO membership for Georgia. During the same trip, Spain announced it would be opening an embassy in Tbilisi. Spain takes over the EU's rotating presidency in 2010.

No one can understand the present conflict between Georgia and its breakaway provinces, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, without understanding the role of the country's first post-Soviet president, extreme nationalist Zviad Gamsakhurdia. The poet-turned-politician helped the set Tbilisi and its separatist regions on a path of conflict. Although it must be noted that Gamsakhurdia had negotiated a power-sharing agreement with Abkhazia which Eduard Shevarnadze helped undermine in his bid for power in 1992. (Poets just don't make good politicians, people.)

Self-declared independent Abkhazia is struggling to create its own identity apart from Russia.

Iran has gained from conflict in Georgia, which has made Iranian pipelines more attractive to Capsian Basin energy producers, such as Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan.

Zeyno Baran, a regional analyst at the Hudson Institute, told me she estimates the US and Europe have maybe a year to get serious about starting real pipeline projects to bring Caspian Basin energy to the market before Russia -- and perhaps Iran -- have locked it up.

The war in Georgia has unleashed a rush of new patriotism in Russia. But has eroded respect for Russia in the West.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev asked the Duma yesterday to ratify friendship treaties signed with the de facto governments in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The treaties provide for Russian military bases on the two regions' territory. Russia and Nicaragua recognized the two areas, which declared independence after the war in August.

The Kremlin has appointed a Russian ambassador to Abkhazia, Simon Grigoliev.

US Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Fried said yesterday that Russia did not fully comply with the ceasefire agreement. He said it has not withdrawn its forces to pre-war lines, which the agreement stipulated.

Fried also said Georgia has to strengthen its democracy.

On that note, some in the opposition have called for a one-day rally outside parliament on Nov. 7, the one-year anniversary of mass pro-democracy demonstrations last year. Those demonstrations were broken up by police in riot gear.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Geneva talks break down

TBILISI, Georgia -- Talks in Geneva about the future of Georgia's two breakaway provinces, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, ended on Wednesday almost as soon as they began.

A European Union official said the talks were being delayed until Nov. 18 because of "procedural difficulties."

Russia tried to change the format of the talks several times before they began, said Georgian Foreign Minister Eka Tkeshelashvili. "It was definitely not a helpful approach."

Many experts feared that Russia would exploit divisions among European Union members and prevent any substantive resolution.

The talks already suffered a setback Tuesday when they were downgraded to consultations rather than formal negotiations.

The difficulty was finding a way for representatives from South Ossetia and Abkhazia to participate acceptable to both Moscow and Tbilisi. Russia and Georgia fought a five-day war in August over the provinces.

South Ossetia and Abkhazia delegates were allowed to sit on working groups but not as official representatives of their de facto governments. That was apparently not sufficient for Moscow.

The discussions were called for under cease-fire agreements brokered by French President Nicolas Sarkozy on behalf of the European Union (EU). The organization is co-hosting the Geneva talks along with the United Nations and Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

EU members are divided over whether Russia has complied with cease-fire agreement's withdrawal requirements, which call for "the full withdrawal of Russian peacekeeping forces from the zones adjacent to South Ossetia and Abkhazia to pre-conflict lines." Russian forces left zones adjacent to the provinces but have not returned to pre-conflict lines.

Georgia wants "the full withdrawal of Russian occupiers from Georgia, the return of all refugees and the restoration of Georgia's integrity to its internationally recognized borders," Deputy Foreign Minister Grigol Vashadze told Interfax News Agency.

Zeyno Baran, director of the Hudson Institute´s Center for Eurasian Policy in Washington, expects Russia to drag out negotiations.

"If the talks are ongoing, it allows Russia to keep what it has established on the ground. And what they have on the ground benefits them," she said in a telephone interview.

Russia also benefits because the European Union has not responded to the crisis with a unified front.

"Since the war, Germany, France and Italy are all a lot more eager to get back to business as usual, and to see this Georgia business go away," Ms. Baran said. Each country stands to benefit from continuing lucrative bilateral energy and business projects with Russia.

At the same time, Sweden, Poland, the United Kingdom and Baltic states have demanded that Russia fully comply with the cease-fire agreement.

Russia's strongest weapon in Europe is energy. It supplies 50 percent of Europe's natural gas and 30 percent of its oil, which gives Moscow great leverage over individual countries.

Western Europe wants closer business and energy relations with Russia and is afraid to upset Moscow, said David Smith, a former U.S. ambassador and director of the Georgian Security Analysis Center in Tbilisi.

Azeri president reelected in (rigged) vote

TBILISI, Georgia -- Asking who won today's presidential election in Azerbaijan is a bit like asking if the Hardy Boys get to the bottom of the mystery of Pirates' Cove or Skull Mountain. It was of little surprise when exiting polling showed President Ilham Aliyev ahead with over 80 percent of the vote.

See Moscow Times and Eurasianet for more coverage.

Also, video from Al Jazeera:

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Economist: Georgia going strong for McCain

TBILISI, Georgia -- The Economist has an entirely unscientific look at a world election between McCain and Obama. Georgia and Macedonia are squarely for McCain, but not any other country.

Many Georgians have asked me who I think will win the election. The ones I've spoken with seem fairly evenly split between the two candidates. Of course, they are most concerned with how the outcome of the election will affect their country, especially in terms of military support and providing security from Russia. However, several are also concerned about US economic policy as it affects the world -- and Georgian -- economy. And some want the US to once again step up to its responsibilities as the world's oldest surviving democracy. One woman , Natia, told me today how disappointed she was when the US passed the Patriot Act, because it ceded citizens civil liberties to the state without providing any real check on these new powers of government.

"If young democracies see the oldest one doing this, then their leaders can say 'see, even America does it; it's no big deal'," Natia said.

Georgia's experiment with democracy and civil liberties is less than five years old, and is already come under attack from the state.

Whether or not the US wants to be, it is still the standard for democracy in Georgia -- and perhaps still in much of the world. The Bush Administration actively picked up America's role as the great crusader state of democracy, at least in rhetoric. Georgia, though, is one country that responded with action. The Rose Revolution in Nov. 2003 brought Pres. Mikheil Saakashvili to power and set the country on a pro-Western, pro-democracy and pro-free market path.

However, Saakashvili has heard power's siren song, and has found subtle ways to quiet dissent, as reported in previous posts. Many Georgians who are concerned about the future democratic development of their country feel that the US has not prodded the current government to stay committed to its reform rhetoric.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Lavrov says Russia won't leave Akhalgori district

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov says Russian troops won't leave the Akhalgori district in South Ossetia.

The district has become a point of contention between Georgia and Russia, which have offered different interpretations of the September 8 ceasefire agreement and requirements for withdrawal of Russian troops.

Talks begin in Geneva this Wednesday to discuss the future of Georgia's two breakaway provinces, South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Meet and greet with Russian soldiers still on Georgian land

ODZISI, Georgia -- Boris hasn't been to his home in Krasnodar, Russia in a year. Now, the senior lieutenant is manning a checkpoint one kilometer inside the buffer zone around South Ossetia, which the Georgia says violates the ceasefire agreement.

Boris, the post's senior lieutenant, is on the left.

Russia and Georgia have applied different interpretations of the ceasefire agreement which ended the war in August between the two countries. The agreement says Russian troops are to be withdrawn from "zones adjacent" to South Ossetia and Abkhazia back to "pre-conflict lines" -- which are inside South Ossetia -- by Oct. 10. Russia focused on the former, and said on Thursday it had complied with the agreement ahead of the deadline. Georgia has focused on the latter part of the agreement, and said on Friday that Russia was maintaining four illegal checkpoints inside its territory.

None of that really matters much to Boris. Like a good soldier, he follows orders.

"I go where I'm told to go," he said. His face is weathered, but when he smiles, you can see the boy close behind the 25 year old's face. A wide, jagged scar runs from the left corner of his mouth back across his cheek and onto his neck.

Boris and his patrol are infantry in the Russia's 58th Army. They were never part of the peacekeeping mission in South Ossetia but came here along with several thousand soldiers after war broke out. He wasn't involved in any fighting himself though.

Russia is still not letting EU monitors enter South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Me and several other journalists/friends spent an hour or so talking to Boris and a few of his soldiers, who weren't entirely sure what to make of us. We talked about sports, what they did all day and traded cigarettes. They told us they get paid crap and live in tents.

"I haven't seen my commander for awhile," Boris said, adding that he didn't know when he'd be back around.

The Russian Army was a shambles in the 1990s, and Russian Pres. Vladimir Putin has made military reform a priority, of sorts. To hear these soldiers talk, things sounded better, but like they had a far way to go to having a proper, professional military.

Before we'd left, we'd picked up cha cha -- Georgian version of vodka -- at a market in Tbilisi, but surprisingly, none of the soldiers would toast. I figured I'd be the only one not drinking there, and instead it was only the Western and Georgian journalists who toasted Russia, Georgia, world peace and such.

Even though Georgia says Russia is still illegally occupying its territory, it is not trying to take any drastic actions, according to the Interior Ministry's spokesman, Shota Utiavishvili.

A Georgian police officer not doing anything drastic as
he looks up the road leading to the Russian checkpoint.

The Georgian police manning a checkpoint about 600 meters down the road were definitely not taking any drastic actions on Friday. Instead the ten policemen there were leaning on their cars -- AK-47s hanging down -- eating sunflower seeds and smoking. Two were digging a hole around the small building at the outpost.

EU monitors back at the Georgian checkpoint -- and a puppy.

Javier Solana of the European Union gave way to Russia's reading of the ceasefire agreement, and confirmed they met their deadline.

The EU's decision to not hold Russia to returning to pre-conflict lines of Aug. 7, could lend credence to South Ossetia's and Abkhazia's claims of independence.

However, the same day, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said in Gori that Russia had not fully complied with the ceasefire agreement. France currently holds the EU's rotating presidency.

The EU, OSCE and UN will begin talks in Geneva on Oct. 15 to discuss the future of the situation in Georgia.

Boris said he will be at his checkpoint for the foreseeable future.

"This conflict ended the way it started. What was the point?" he asked.

Like many foreigners, he is not exactly sure why the Georgians and South Ossetians are fighting. He said he can't tell much difference between the two people.

But until he hears otherwise, Boris will continue to check car trunks for bombs and the papers of people on the marshrutkas -- minibuses -- running between Tbilisi and Akhalgori.

Boris and me.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Where are the Russians supposed to leave

TBILISI, Georgia -- With less than 48 hours before the Oct. 10 deadline for Russian troops to pullout according to the ceasefire agreement, it is unclear if they will leave the Akhalgori district and Kodori Gorge, which Georgia expects them to.

Yesterday, Georgia's Minister for Re-integration Temur Iakobashvili said, "In the villages of Akhalgori the troops are digging in, which indicates an attempts to stay there."

The US is consulting with the European Union about whether Russia has complied fully or not.

Other headlines:
Russia, Georgia disagree over troop pullback
U.S. to Consult with EU over Russia’s Withdrawal
Saakashvili Says Pre-War Status Quo Ante Key

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Russia accuses Georgia of terrrorist acts

TBILISI, Georgia – While Russian forces have pulled back from some of their checkpoints inside Georgian territory, Moscow has stepped up its rhetoric against Tbilisi.

Russia’s Foreign Ministry yesterday accused “certain forces in Tbilisi” of deliberately attempting to “aggravate the situation in the region and through a series of terrorists acts attempt to provoke new military actions.”

Violence in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Georgia’s two breakaway provinces, has been increasing with the approaching Oct. 10 deadline for the withdrawal of Russian troops to their positions on Aug. 7.

A bombing on Oct. 3 in Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia, killed seven Russian soldiers. Russia and Georgia accused the other of being behind the bombing.

European Union civilian monitors are observing the withdrawal of Russian troops as part of the ceasefire agreement which helped end the August war between Russia and Georgia.

The Foreign Ministry said Russia is committed to fulfilling its “interpretation” of the ceasefire agreement.

Monday, October 6, 2008

More violence along borders with breakaway provinces

TBILISI, Georgia -- Another explosion occurred along the border of Abkhazia, one of Georgia's two breakaway provinces, Interfax News Agency has reported. No one was injured.

In an unrelated incident, an Abkhaz border guard was killed in a gunfight. No other details have been released.

As the deadline for the withdrawal of Russian troops approaches, several explosions and shootings have occurred in recent days in South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Public Defender: replace "authoritarianism" with real democracy; opposition calls for free press

TBILISI, Georgia -- This country's fractious political opposition got together long enough to issue a joint statement today calling for a free press. President Mikheil Saakashvili has come under increasing criticism from political opposition and neutral non-government organizations over the past year for curtailing the independence of the media, especially television.

The most biting criticism has come from Georgia's Public Defender, Sozar Subari, who delivered a scathing public review of the government's record on democratic reform, civil liberties protection and market reform, among other issues. The Public Defender is essentially an ombudsman for Georgia's citizens with a ten-year term, and Subari is highly respected as a man of integrity. While many critiques of the government have smacked of political opportunism, Subari's seven-page report was an overall balanced view.

Subari called the existing system "authoritarianism" that should be replaced with real democracy. He derided Saakashvili's promise of a new round of reform, which he pledged at the UN, as merely superficial.

Subari called for establishing an independent judiciary and rule of law.

This is the most important next step towards greater reform, but few opposition parties have focused on it, according to Bakur Kvashilava, dean of the Georgian Institute of Public Affairs' School of Law and Politics.

It is evidence that the opposition doesn't have a much clearer concept of democracy than the current government, said Kvashilava.

Saakashvili's political opponents are using public frustration with the August defeat in Georgia's war with Russia to voice attacks on his administration. A former Saaskashvili insider and owner of one of the country's 3 major television networks, Erosi Kitsmarishvili, recently lashed out at his former ally, accusing him of subverting democracy in Georgia. Similarly, the ex-Prime Minister, Nino Burjanadze, delivered a long list of questions for the government to answer, such as: "Why the following documents signed by the Georgian authorities [in the aftermath of the August war] are not publicly accessible for the Georgian population?"

Several of the major opposition parties issued a statement today demanding media reform.

"There is no democracy without independent mass media and media freedom first of all means independence from the authorities. Today in Georgia all TV channels broadcasting countrywide are turned into a propagandistic tool of the authorities; instead of objective information mass media provides society with a virtual reality," the statement read.

The statement was signed by New Rights Party, Movement For United Georgia, Conservative Party, Labour Party, Republican Party, The Way of Georgia and Party of People.

The opposition control fewer than 30 seats in the 150-seat Parliament.

View of Tbilisi

TBILISI, Georgia -- A week ago I hiked up to Narikala Fortress, which overlooks the city. Very beautiful views.

If Russians leaving, why build resupply road?

AKHALGORI, Georgia -- Despite Russian pledges to withdraw to their positions prior to the August war with Georgia by the end of this week, Russian troops are upgrading a dirt road linking this town and South Ossetia's capital, Tskhinvali, which could signal their intention to stay.

Akhalgori is in a valley on South Ossetia's periphery, cut off by thickly wooded ridges from the rest of the de facto independent state. The valley had been controlled by Georgia since fighting began in the early 1990s, but in the aftermath of the August fighting, most of the Georgians have fled.

To resupply and rotate troops in the valley, Russian and South Ossetian forces have had to either drive through Georgian-controlled territory or use helicopters.

In recent weeks, soldiers have arrived using a dirt mountain road connecting Akhalgori to the villages in the adjacent valley to the west. The road requires four-wheel-drive vehicles and is impassable in winter.

"There's no real road there yet, but they're building it," said an elderly woman who gave only her first name, Yevgenia.

Russia is building a road because it and South Ossetia's separatist government aren't going to withdraw, said Alexander Rondeli, president of the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies.

The only Georgians left in Akhalgori are the old and the poor. Everyone else moved south toward the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, when Russian and South Ossetian forces occupied the town in August.

Those remaining have little else to do but stand on the colorless street outside the few shops still open, smoke cigarettes, talk and watch the soldiers pass by every half-hour on patrol.

"There is no economic activity. They destroyed the vineyards, shops closed, nothing," said a middle-aged man who would only give his first name, Shota.

Like the rest of Akhalgori's ethnic Georgians, Shota fears reprisal from the Russian and South Ossetians stationed here.

"They get drunk and aim their weapons at people and shoot in the air. They beat people" for no reason, he said.

"All the young people have left" because they were beating them, said Yevgenia, a short woman with a weathered face.

"We can't go on like this. We're psychologically sick," she said. She began to cry and covered her face with her trembling hands.

"We're in prison here," she said.

Looting and beatings have calmed down in Akhalgori, but have continued in nearby villages since civilian European Union monitors began patrols Wednesday inside the roughly four-mile-wide buffer zone around South Ossetia and Georgia's other breakaway province, Abkhazia, several residents said.

The unarmed monitors patrol by car, talk with locals and try to verify any reported violations of the Georgian-Russian cease-fire agreement. They have no executive authority to enforce the agreement.

According to the French-brokered cease-fire, Russian and South Ossetian forces are supposed to withdraw from territory seized during the August war with Georgia by Oct. 10.

A spokesman for the European Union monitoring mission in Georgia said the EU had heard reports of road work, but had not been able to independently confirm them. It was speculation to assume that improving the dirt road out of Akhalgori means that the Russians are going to stay, the spokesman said. "There's nothing wrong with improving a road."

The EU expects Russia will uphold its commitments, the spokesman added.

Russia won't leave Akhalgori, said a Georgian Interior Ministry official who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to publicly discuss the matter.

"If Russia controls all of South Ossetia, it will be easier to call for its independence. The region [of Akhalgori] is otherwise fully connected with the rest of Georgia," he said.

"The Russians will say it's the Ossetians who are not withdrawing, and that they have nothing to do with it. But they have to be there because the Ossetians can't control the territory by themselves," he said.

Before the war, the area was Georgian-controlled and not part of the Russian peacekeeping mission.

"It's a very small district, which probably nobody had heard of before, that is now part of a big game," he said.

It is a game the area's inhabitants want no part of.

"The Russians want our land, but they don't want us," said Dmitri Rusi, who lives in nearby Odzisi.

(This article ran in the Washington Times, Oct. 5, and a different version ran in the Christian Science Monitor.)

Thursday, October 2, 2008

U.S. crisis clouds aid to Georgia

(The Washington Times ran my article below today, Oct. 2.)

TBILISI, Georgia -- Refugees still occupy former offices in the defunct printing building at one end of Rustaveli Avenue, the central road through Tbilisi. Drying laundry hangs in the hallway, which reeks of the smell of beef cooking and urine.

"Our village doesn't exist anymore. Everything is burned. There are no houses," said Maria Davitashvili, 48. She and her relatives fled from their home in Tamarasheni, near Tskhinvali, the capital of the Georgian breakaway province of South Ossetia, now an "independent" state recognized by Russia.

The single room that Maria Davitashvili has shared with her relatives for the past six weeks. From left to right: Davitashvili; her nephew, Giorgi; her niece's friend; her sister-in-law, Nona; and her niece, Nino.

Giorgi Davitashvili, 5.

Interior courtyard of former printing building in Tbilisi occupied by several hundred refugees.

The situation in Georgia proper has stabilized somewhat as monitors from the European Union arrived Wednesday to patrol the border with South Ossetia. Still, the plight of the Georgian refugees remains acute.

U.S. and Georgian officials are discussing how to dispense the $1 billion in assistance pledged by President Bush at a time when the U.S. financial crisis and ongoing talks of an unprecedented government bailout of the credit industry have some here wondering whether the United States will make good on its promise.

"Headline numbers are made, 1 billion euros or $1 billion for Georgia, and history will show you that those headline figures aren't really followed through," said Jonathan Puddifoot, CARE International's director for Georgia.

Nongovernmental organizations delivering humanitarian assistance to Georgia are largely dependent on foreign-aid money, which makes up 90 percent of CARE's budget in Georgia, he said.

About $430 million of aid promised by Mr. Bush will not be allocated until next year, if then.

"It's clearly a decision that the next administration and next Congress will have to implement," said Richard Greene, the State Department's deputy director of foreign assistance.

U.S. aid will focus on repairing damaged infrastructure, stabilizing the economy and responding to the ongoing humanitarian crisis, Mr. Greene said.

Both major parties' presidential nominees, Sen. Barack Obama, Illinois Democrat, and Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, support the pledged aid.

However, in committee hearings in early September, Bush administration officials faced criticism of their policies toward Georgia and Russia from members of Congress in both parties, who were unhappy about being asked to bail out a country that many thought had provoked a Russian invasion.

Assured by Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Fried that the U.S. had warned Georgia against attacking South Ossetia, Rep. Brad Sherman, California Democrat, asked, "Then why is Georgia going to get a huge amount of funding from the United States for damage it suffered by ignoring the loudest and most specific warnings from the United States?"

With Georgia's economy weakened from the war, the state will need assistance to continue caring for its internal refugees next year, said Nikoloz Pruidze, deputy minister of labor, health and social affairs. Now, aid is going in large part to housing the refugees before winter.

U.S. and Georgian officials are discussing the specifics, but have not made any details public.

Their silence has some watchdog groups concerned.

Closed discussions weaken independent oversight of how the money is used, said Tamuna Karosanidze, executive director of Transparency International's Georgia office.

The petty corruption that flourished under Eduard Shevardnadze's regime has been cleaned up since Mikhail Saakashvili was elected president in 2004. However, there are already widespread charges of high-level officials prospering from foreign investment and government contracts, according to Transparency International.

It is a systemic problem that the government is not addressing, Miss Karosanidze said. And it is at odds with the image Georgia has promoted in the U.S. as a country dedicated to democratic and market reforms.

Mrs. Davitashvili, the refugee from South Ossetia, is confident the money will come.

"We haven't got any money yet, but we know the U.S. is helping. They've shown it on television," she said, as she offered a visitor some apples and candy.

She has shared a room with her brother, his wife and their two children since arriving in Tbilisi in early August. Russian troops and South Ossetian militia burned their houses, she said, and she doesn't know when she will be able to return. They left their village with only what they were wearing, she said.

Like other refugees in the half-gutted printing building, she and her brother's family are making do with donated goods - a handful of dishes and spare clothes, military cots and blankets and discarded office furniture.

There is no heat in the building, and in some rooms, boards partially cover empty windows to keep out the wind and rain. Upstairs, three men found a door and were discussing the best way to put it on the entry of a room for privacy.

"They destroyed many things, and we need money to put it back together," said Mrs. Davitashvili's brother, Dato.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

EU monitors begin patrolling

TBILISI, Georgia -- The EU monitors began patrols today in some areas of a buffer zone around Georgia's two separatist provinces, South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Russia had said yesterday that it would not allow the unarmed monitors into the buffer zone - a four-mile wide zone around the provinces set up under the French-brokered ceasefire agreement. However, the AP reports monitors have entered at some checkpoints.

Russian troops are supposed to pull out of territory controlled by Georgia before August's war by October 10.

As the deadline approaches tensions have been growing between Russia and Georgia over the past weeks. Georgia's Interior Ministry reports an unmanned aerial drone crashed inside Georgian territory on Tuesday. A Georgian policeman was killed and three injured in a firefight along the Abkhaz border on Sunday, September 21. In a separate incident that same day two policeman were injured by a mine blast in the same area.