Sunday, November 30, 2008

Report: Abkhazia to UN: don't leave us alone with Russians

Abkhaz officials have told Western diplomats they want United Nations observers to remain in some capacity so they are not left alone with Russian troops, according to a report issued recently by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group.

The future of the current UN observer mission is uncertain. Its mandate was extended four months in early October, but Moscow wants a new mission for Abkhazia, which it recognizes as an independent country.

Georgia has cut ties with Nicaragua, the only other country to recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent countries.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Who fired at presidential convoy?

SEATTLE -- Both Pres. Mikheil Saakaskvili and his guest, Poland's Pres. Lech Kaczynski, have said Russia is responsible for the gunfire that their convoy came under. Russia firmly denies the allegation.

Tbilisi has declared the shots to be an act of "terrorism." (The shooting occurred near a checkpoint I reported from in October.)

There is an unconfirmed report that Russia might have orchestrated the shooting. Supposedly Kommersant has printed an admission from a Russian official, but I didn't see anything during a quick check of their website (in Russian or English).

Timeline of August war

This timeline is for the preceding post about the outbreak of the war. It was compiled from news sources and my reporting.


July: Increase in shootings between separatists and Georgian forces across South Ossetia’s de facto borders. Both sides improve military positions. Georgia and South Ossetia’s de facto government accuse each other of escalating the situation.

Aug. 1: Convoy carrying Dmitry Sanakoev, leader of Georgian-controlled South Ossetia, is attacked, injuring 5 policemen.

Aug. 1-2: Intense fighting overnight in South Ossetia leaves at least 6 dead and 22 injured on both sides. Heavier mortars are fired than previously used.

Aug. 3: Sporadic shelling and shooting continues.

Aug. 5: Increased shooting and shelling in Georgian- and separatist-controlled villages around Tskhinvali, de facto capital of South Ossetia. EU and US call for negotiations.

Aug. 6: Georgian combat troops begin moving towards front lines near Tskhinvali.

Aug. 7: Shooting and shelling continue in the morning and early afternoon. Georgian military observers are ordered to leave posts of joint Russian-Georgian peacekeeping forces.

1 PM: Part of Georgia’s National Security Council meets to discuss situation. On Sept. 15, Georgia says it had intelligence that Russians troops had illegally entered South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The Council tells Pres. Mikheil Saakashvili that a “red line” has been crossed, according to several members.

Negotiations between Georgia, South Ossetia and Russia fall apart.

7 PM: Saakashvili announces unilateral ceasefire on television.

Several Georgian-controlled villages are shelled. Russian peacekeepers say separatist-controlled village of Khetagurovo is shelled.

11:30 PM: Georgian artillery opens fire on Tskhinvali without announcing end of cease fire. Saakashvili orders military to stop Russian military units entering Georgia, suppress separatists artillery and protect civilians.

Aug. 8: Additional Russian forces begin moving into Georgia following shelling of Tskhinvali.

Morning: Georgian forces assault Tskhinvali. They control most of city by early afternoon. Russian jets bomb Georgian positions and towns.

10:30 PM: Georgian forces retreat from Tskhinvali after clashing with advance Russian troops.

Aug. 9: Russian military planes bombarded the Georgian port Poti and its military base in Senaki.

Abkhazia started a military operation against Georgia in Kodori Gorge.

Aug. 10: Russian patrols enter Gori, and pull out before city is bombarded by planes and artillery.

Aug. 11: Russian planes bomb outskirts of Tbilisi. Russian troops gain control of Gori.

Aug. 12: Russia and Georgia agree to peace plan proposed by French Pres. Nicolas Sarkozy.

Russian Pres. Dmitry Medvedev declares end of Russian peacekeeping mission in South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Aug. 13: US humanitarian aid arrives in Tbilisi.

Aug. 15: Saakashvili signs peace plan.

Aug. 16: Medvedev signs peace plan. Russian forces enter Georgian-controlled Akhalgori District.

Ex-Monitor: Georgia's response disproportionate

TBILISI, Georgia -- The former head of a European monitoring team in Georgia says the Tbilisi government is responsible for escalating violence in the Caucasus that led to the deaths of hundreds of civilians in August.

Georgia asserts that it began shelling the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali after four villages under Georgian control came under attack after a cease-fire declared on Aug. 7.

Ryan Grist, head of a team of monitors for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), said that while his team members had not visited the villages, they did not hear any shelling in the one closest to Tskhinvali.

"If there had been any provocations, the response from the Georgian side was disproportionate," Mr. Grist said.

A human rights monitor in conflict zones for 16 years, Mr. Grist resigned shortly after the August war. He would not give a reason.

Rights groups have accused both Georgia and Russia of using indiscriminate force that killed and injured civilians.

Both sides said they were aiming at specific military targets, but they used non-precision weapons.

Russia has reported 159 civilian and 64 combatant deaths including South Ossetian forces. Georgia said 220 civilians and 185 soldiers died and 2,234 were wounded, of whom 1,964 were combatants.

The London-based rights group Amnesty International said in a report released last week that "serious violations of both international human rights law and international humanitarian law were committed by all parties."

Human Rights Watch reached a similar conclusion, but has not published its report yet, said Giorgi Gogia, a researcher in its Tbilisi office.

Residents of the region were used to violence after 15 years of intermittent shelling and shooting, but neither Georgians nor Ossetians were prepared for cluster bombs, massed artillery barrages and bombing.

Georgia and Russia disagree over who started the fighting.

Georgia says it broke a self-imposed cease-fire — announced by President Mikhail Saakashvili at 7 p.m. on Aug. 7 — to respond to Russian firing on Georgian-controlled villages from South Ossetian lines.

"Russia started the shooting; Russia started the invasion," Mr. Saakashvili said in a recent interview with The Washington Times.

However, there is no definitive evidence of when Russian soldiers and armored vehicles entered South Ossetia. The Georgian government claims they arrived by midday Aug. 7. Russia says its forces entered on Aug. 8 only after Georgia shelled the South Ossetian capital.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in a Sept. 18 speech, said the fighting began "following repeated violations of the cease-fire in South Ossetia, including the shelling of Georgian villages." But she continued, "the Georgian government launched a major military operation into Tskhinvali and other areas of the separatist region."

The Georgian government has not said that Russian combat troops were in the capital, Tskhinvali, when it began its artillery barrage.

Three OSCE monitors and local staff were in their homes around Tskhinvali when the barrage began. Mr. Grist said they told him over the phone that there were explosions every 15 to 20 seconds.

At 11:40 p.m., "explosions of undistinguishable origin" buffeted Lira Tskhovrebova's house in Tskhinvali. She and her husband crouched in the corners of a hallway until the shelling stopped the next morning.

"I understood that God loves me, because my children were not with us," she said.

Alexandre Lomaia, secretary of Georgia's national security council, told a parliamentary commission that Georgian forces fired at military targets using precision weapons.

However, Amnesty International reported that Georgia used "Grad" multiple-rocket launchers and found damage a quarter-mile away from any military target.

In the week before full-fledged fighting erupted, both sides exchanged light arms and mortar fire. Small skirmishes have kept the conflict simmering since a 1992-93 war between separatists and Georgia.

Kurta, a Georgian-controlled village, was the target of mortar and light arms fire from South Ossetian lines on Aug. 6 and 7, including after the cease-fire had been announced, according to several villagers.

"What cease-fire? It was announced, but there was no cease-fire. There was still fighting," said Gocha Nabardinshvili, 29, who lived in Kurta with his parents and two brothers.

Budiko Kandelaki, a former second secretary of the Communist Party in Tskhinvali, said a mortar shell from South Ossetian lines on Aug. 3 ripped through his house in Nikosi, about half a mile south of Tskhinvali. Nikosi came under heavier shelling from South Ossetia on Aug. 6, he said.

"There'd never been anything like on the 6th before," he said.

A combined patrol by peacekeeping forces and the OSCE confirmed "isolated incidents" of mortar fire on Nikosi before the war, Mr. Grist said.

The Russian government acknowledges that it bombed military targets in Gori and Georgian villages from Aug. 8 to 11.

Kelly Uphoff, a Peace Corps volunteer living in Gori, was on the street when jets passed overhead on the morning of Aug. 8. She heard the whistle of falling bombs, and started running.

"You didn't know which way to run. You couldn't see where the bomb was going," said Ms. Uphoff, 25. She and her co-workers hid in the basement of their office.

Amnesty International found several instances of bombing of civilian areas in Gori. Ms. Uphoff said bombs hit a wedding hall, three apartment buildings and a furniture storage building for Gori University.

"Either their intelligence was off or their aim is terrible," she said. She left before the town was occupied by Russian and South Ossetian forces on Aug. 11.

Russia has recognized South Ossetia and another breakaway enclave, Abkhazia, as independent states. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said in Washington last week that Russia would have nothing to do with Georgia while Mr. Saakashvili is in charge.

The United Nations says nearly 200,000 people were driven from their homes by the fighting. Most have returned, but Amnesty International estimates 24,000 people are still displaced and says the atmosphere along the border remains tense.

Many of these people are ethnic Georgians who had lived in South Ossetia.

In Nikosi, Mr. Kandelaki held a bottle of pills for calming his heart while he showed a reporter the battle scars of his home.

During the fighting, South Ossetian paramilitary fighters tied him to a tree in his yard, and Russian soldiers found and untied him later, he said.

"The ones in uniform were fine. Ossetian, Russians ... in a uniform, they were decent. But the ones in civilian clothes, they were different," he said.

They stole most of his possessions.

"I'd offer you wine, but I have none," he said. "Not even glasses."

Saturday, November 22, 2008

What I learned about Georgia

SEATTLE, Washington -- I returned from Tbilisi late Wednesday night. It'd been nearly two and a half months since I'd seen my wife. Needless to say, it was amazing when I saw her at the airport, waiting at the top of the stairs where arrivals come out. I sprinted up the stairs, and we threw ourselves into each others arms. It's good to be home.

My time in Georgia was incredible. It's an amazing country with wonderful people. Hopefully, one day I'll be able to visit South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and I'm sure I'll be able to say the same about them.

Here are four things I learned about Georgia:

1. The Georgian national anthem is a car horn honking;
2. Restaurants only use bendy straws;
3. Sidewalk = parking lot; and
4. The hardest thing for a visiting foreigner to do in Georgia is pay for a meal.

Georgia is one of the few places where a person can still be a 'Renaissance Man', and nearly anything is possible for a Westerner in Tbilisi.

I have a lot of material to post that I haven't gotten around to, so please stay tuned. I will also do some reporting from here (as much as possible over the phone) and regular news wrap ups concerning Georgia, the Caucasus and Russia.

For the time being I'll be keeping the blog's name - Dateline Tbilisi - and just ignore the geographical discrepancy. Space and time are relative, after all.

Please stay tuned.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

New Tbilisi-NYC flight starting by 2009

TBILISI, Georgia -- An American-Georgian company, Sky Georgia, is planning to begin a direct flight from New York to Tbilisi by the end of the year, according to NewsGeorgia. No details on frequency or price of flights.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Activists entreat Obama to bring change

Opposition activists called on US President-elect Barack
Obama to press for democratic reform in Georgia.

TBILISI, Georgia -- Opposition protesters demonstrated Friday against President Mikheil Saakashvili's government and urged President-elect Barack Obama to help bring political change to Georgia.

The protests were the first since Georgia lost a war with Russia in August and occurred on the first anniversary of a similar demonstration the government dispersed with tear gas, water cannons and rubber bullets.

An estimated 10,000 demonstrators assembled outside the parliament building. Several thousand more joined a rally outside the presidential residence.

The numbers were about a fifth of those who turned out a year ago, highlighting the fractured nature of the opposition. Two opposition parties - the Christian Democrats and the Republican Party - did not participate, citing the need for postwar unity.

Those who did take part accused the Bush administration of ignoring election fixing and media suppression by the Georgian government. Several protest leaders said they hoped Mr. Obama would pressure Mr. Saakashvili into holding early elections next spring.

"In the name of the tens of thousands here, we want to congratulate the American people with the choice of Barack Obama," Conservative Party leader Kakha Kukava told the crowd outside the presidential residence. "It's a new hope for people all over the world,"

"We believe in Obama. We trust Obama," one poster declared in Georgian.

Read the rest at the Washington Times.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Russia: Congrats Obama; look at our missiles

TBILISI, Georgia -- In case you haven't heard, Russia welcomed the new US president, Barack Obama, by announcing it would deploy a short-range ballistic missile, the SS-26 Iskander, in the Kalingrad region between Poland and Lithuania.

The missiles could be used "to neutralize, if necessary, the anti-ballistic missile system in Europe," said Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev, according to RIA Novosti. He was referring to the US efforts to deploy a missile shield in Poland and the Czech Republic.

Medvedev was speaking to Russia's Federal Assembly. He did not congratulate Obama in his speech, but the Kremlin said he sent a congratulatory telegram.

Here is video of the SS-26:

Georgia's opposition hope to catch West's attention

TBILISI, Georgia – The United States’ closest ally in the Caucasus will face its most severe test since losing a war with Russia when thousands of protesters gather today outside Georgia’s parliament to call for democratic and media reforms.

Georgia’s political opposition planned the protest for the first anniversary of the government’s violent suppression of rally with similar demands. Last year’s rally was estimated to have drawn over 100,000 people.

This year’s protest comes as the country is still reeling from its defeat by Russian and separatist forces from its two breakaway provinces, South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Georgia’s economy has been battered by war and the global financial crisis.

Battered by the war and global financial crisis, Georgia’s economy is dependent on $4.5 billion of aid money promised by international donors.

Georgia’s opposition hopes today’s protest catches the West’s attention.

Georgia needs “huge support from the West to push on Saakashvili to hold normal, fair elections,” said David Gamkrelidze, leader of the New Rights Party, which is participating in the protest.

“It’s impossible to reach lasting stability here without real democracy,” he said.

Georgia’s stability is critical to US interests in the region, said Zeyno Baran, a regional analyst with the Hudson Institute.

The US is competing with Russia for access to Caspian Sea and Central Asia’s energy resources, Baran said. The only way for the US to reach those resources is through Georgia.

Outside Parliament, members of the United Opposition tested a sound system and stage for Friday's protest. Louie Armstrong played over the speakers.

"Good or bad, the people will come here tomorrow," said a police officer watching the small crowd from behind a barricade on Parliament's steps. He would not give his name.

"Tomorrow is just the start of the protests, and we're hoping to achieve new presidential elections in the spring," said Kakha Kukava, leader of the Conservative Party.

Like other opposition leaders, Kukava hopes the new US administration will push the Georgian government to institute more democratic reforms.

"The [US] Republican administration failed to promote real democracy in the post-Soviet regions," he said.

Kukava estimated at least 30,000 people would attend the rally.

Makacaria Lia plans to attend. The 45-year-old Abkhaz woman went last year, but doesn't expect the government to crackdown this year.

"I think [the protest] will change things economically. We need property rights," Lia said.

More than democratic reforms, she wants the West to pressure Russia into respecting Georgia's territorial integrity.

Territorial integrity has consistently far outranked democratic reforms in Gallup's twice annual polls.

Nonetheless, democratic reforms is one of the main issues of the opposition. But many say Georgia's territorial integrity can never be guaranteed by current Pres. Mikheil Saakashvili. Some opposition leaders, including Gamkrelidze and Kukava, have called for his resignation.

The West will not support calls for Saakashvili’s removal, said Dato Usupashvili, leader of Georgia's Republican Party, which is not participating in Friday's protest.

Since Georgia cannot reform without Western support, the Republican Party is pushing for parliamentary rather than presidential elections, 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.

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.

Usupashvili and other opposition leaders have already met separately with representatives from donor countries to discuss making aid money conditional on democratic reforms.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Georgian, Russian church leaders hold joint mass in Moscow

TBILISI, Georgia -- Leaders from the Georgian and Russian Orthodox Churches performed a joint mass in Moscow today to honor the arrival of relics.

After the war between Russia and Georgia, orthodox churches in South Ossetia asked to become part of the Russian church. However, the Russian patriarch denied the request, saying that the church didn't want to get involved in a political struggle, and was respecting the territory of the Georgian church.

Headlines on US election from Russia and Georgia

TBILISI, Georgia -- Here is a snapshot of some headlines about the US presidential election from some Russia and Georgia.

Komsomolskaya Pravda writes: Now is not the time for Obama to rest on laurels. Russia's largest newspaper notes that Obama faces more challenges than perhaps any president since either FDR or Lincoln.

RIA Novosti reports that Russian MPs more balanced US administration under Obama. The Russian news agency reports that several leading MPs expect more conciliation from the US because Obama will be focused on domestic issues. However, with the price of oil being cut in half from its former high over $140 a barrel to under $60, Russia might likely have to become more conciliatory as well.

InterPress News Agency writes: Medvedev Hopes Obama Presidency will Strengthen Ties with Russia.

Georgia's television network Rustavi2 reports on Georgian ministers comments on Obama victory. Georgian ministers are sure that the foreign policy of the United States and relations with Georgia will not change after the election of democratic candidate Obama in the U.S. presidential race.

The English-language Georgian Times writes that Prime Minister of Georgia Congratulated Americans with New President. Georgia's new Prime Minister Grigol Mgaloblishvili said he expects US-Georgian relations will be strengthened under an Obama presidency.

The American Experiment

TBILISI, Georgia -- I have never been more proud to be an American citizen than I was this morning when I watched the election returns come in. All Americans should be proud of their country today, not because of any political agenda, but because of what this election represents. This presidential election breathed new life into the ideal on which the United States founded themselves, representative democracy.

"America has showed the world what real democracy is," said my friend, Eduard Atoev.

This election is not only about President-elect Barack Obama. It is also about Gov. Sarah Palin, Sen. Hilary Clinton and even Rep. Ron Paul. The first three are obvious: the first black US president, or if he had lost, the first female US vice-president, and the first woman to be a serious candidate for her party's presidential nomination.

Paul's campaign for the GOP presidential nomination was driven by his supporters, who crafted his message nearly as much as he did. It was a decentralized campaign stripped of the traditional hierarchical power structure. It happened to some degree with every major campaign through things such as viral videos, blogs and Facebook. But Paul's campaign was the only one driven by this dynamic.

This phenomenon is here to stay and represents an opening up of the political system unparalleled in American history. In the past, campaigns set an election's agenda by picking up issues they hoped would resonate with voters. Today, US citizens have the capacity to set the agenda as well. In some ways, Paul's campaign demonstrated a greater fundamental development in American democracy than Obama, Palin and Clinton.

My first reaction to Obama's election was that it signalled the fulfillment of representative democracy in the US. But that is simply not true. It demonstrated that 232 years after it was established, America is still striving to reach the ideals it set for itself. The US has always been an imperfect democratic republic. It exists in an imperfect world in which ideals are inherently unattainable. But the great promise of the American experiment has been that we set high ideals as our goal, and have strove to reach them ever since.

American democracy is flawed, but Obama, Palin, Clinton and even Paul demonstrate that we are still trying to do better.

Music stops halfway around the world

TBILISI, Georgia -- I received some sad news from Seattle via IM this evening. One of Seattle's most beloved and most unique institutions, Tuba Man, had died after being beaten by five muggers several days earlier.

For the better part of two decades, Tuba Man -- Edward McMichael -- has been a regular fixture outside major sporting events and the opera in Seattle, making music for the fans on his contrabass tuba.

I was shocked by how affected I was. It would be impossible not to be affected by such a senseless murder of someone who was so beloved by the community, but I'm usually a fairly reserved person. But not this time.

What made the news so much worse was hearing it halfway around the world. A part of the Seattle I left had died while I was away, and the Seattle I return to will be a little different.

One of the benefits of being a foreign correspondent is distancing yourself from the day-to-day world around you. The minor irritations that might bother me in Seattle, don't affect me in the least in Tbilisi. I can't stand the way many Seattleites drive. They are passive-aggressive idiots. Most Georgian drivers are simply aggressive idiots, but I don't care. Tbilisi isn't where I'm from. I'm just an observer here. Let the people do what they want, and I'll write it down. But many Georgians I know get very frustrated when they see other Georgians driving like idiots.

I suppose the flipside is the distance you feel when you get news like I did tonight. Of course, this probably doesn't apply to the foreign correspondents I've met who wrap themselves in the hard-living stereotype.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Living in no man's land

NIKOSI, Georgia -- The village of Nikosi is less than a kilometer from Tskhinvali, the capital of Georgia's breakaway province, South Ossetia. The area saw intense fighting during the war, and tensions remain high along the de facto border.

Many of the villages inhabitants live beyond the last Georgian checkpoint, in no man's land between South Ossetia and Georgia. I recently went there and talked with several villagers.

Democracy - foiled by snail mail, saved by e-mail

TBILISI, Georgia -- Six or seven weeks after being mailed, my absentee ballot arrived in Tbilisi today, on election day. That definitely qualifies as a day late, dollar short. Fortunately I had been able to get a ballot sent via e-mail, which I mailed through the US Embassy. (Interesting side note, domestic US postage rates apply to mail from the US Embassy to the US.)

So, I got to vote, and play my part. I felt very patriotic dropping my ballot off.

Last night a friend and I went to a hole-in-the-ground (literally) place that serves khinkali, Georgian dumplings. Two drunk brothers decided to sit down and start talking with us. (It's a very informal hole-in-the-ground place.) Turns out both were for Obama.

As the one with the wine bottle noted in broken English and Russian, Pres. George W. Bush loved Georgia, but the US and the world didn't love Bush. McCain loves Georgia, but is too closely associated with Bush to be that popular abroad. Obama will be a much more popular president, assuming he wins, and even if he doesn't love Georgia as much as McCain, his support will be much more effective.

Pretty astute observation from a sloppy drunk, I thought.

Then they showed us pictures of them "bear hunting," which mostly involved the two posing for pictures holding shotguns in front of waterfalls and other wonders of nature. No pictures of bears, though.