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 The agreement says Russian troops are to be withdrawn from "zones adjacent" to South Ossetia and Abkhazia back to "pre-conflict lines" -- which are inside South Ossetia -- by Oct. 10.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.

1 comment:

Kevin Amaya said...

Hey Dan,

Fun to read your posts. Really interesting reading. Seriously liked the shot of you and Boris. Deserves a place on your mantle when you get home.