Michael Totten

The Truth About Russia in Georgia

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TBILISI, GEORGIA — Virtually everyone believes Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili foolishly provoked a Russian invasion on August 7, 2008, when he sent troops into the breakaway district of South Ossetia. “The warfare began Aug. 7 when Georgia launched a barrage targeting South Ossetia,” the Associated Press “reported”:http://www.iht.com/articles/ap/2008/08/23/europe/EU-Georgia-Russia-Looting.php over the weekend in typical fashion.
Virtually everyone is wrong. Georgia didn’t start it on August 7, nor on any other date. The South Ossetian militia started it on August 6 when its fighters fired on Georgian peacekeepers and Georgian villages with weapons banned by the agreement hammered out between the two sides in 1994. At the same time, the Russian military sent its invasion force bearing down on Georgia from the north side of the Caucasus Mountains on the Russian side of the border through the Roki tunnel and into Georgia. This happened before Saakashvili sent additional troops to South Ossetia and allegedly started the war.
Regional expert, German native, and former European Commission official Patrick Worms was recently hired by the Georgian government as a media advisor, and he explained to me exactly what happened when I met him in downtown Tbilisi. You should always be careful with the version of events told by someone on government payroll even when the government is as friendly and democratic as Georgia’s. I was lucky, though, that another regional expert, author and academic Thomas Goltz, was present during Worms’ briefing to me and signed off on it as completely accurate aside from one tiny quibble.
Goltz has been writing about the Caucasus region for almost 20 years, and he isn’t on Georgian government payroll. He earns his living from the University of Montana and from the sales of his books Azerbaijan Diary, Georgia Diary and Chechnya Diary. Goltz experienced these three Caucasus republics at their absolute worst, and he knows the players and the events better than just about anyone. Every journalist in Tbilisi seeks him out as the old hand who knows more than the rest of us put together, and he wanted to hear Patrick Worms’ spiel to reporters in part to ensure its accuracy.
“You,” Worms said to Goltz just before he started to flesh out the real story to me, “are going to be bored because I’m going to give some back story that you know better than I do.”
“Go,” Goltz said. “Go.”
The back story began at least as early as the time of the Soviet Union. I turned on my digital voice recorder so I wouldn’t miss anything that was said.
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Patrick Worms
“A key tool that the Soviet Union used to keep its empire together,” Worms said to me, “was pitting ethnic groups against one another. They did this extremely skillfully in the sense that they never generated ethnic wars within their own territory. But when the Soviet Union collapsed it became an essential Russian policy to weaken the states on its periphery by activating the ethnic fuses they planted.
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A poster on a wall in Tbilisi, Georgia
“They tried that in a number of countries. They tried it in the Baltic states, but the fuses were defused. Nothing much happened. They tried it in Ukraine. It has not happened yet, but it’s getting hotter. They tried it in Moldova. There it worked, and now we have Transnitria. They tried it in Armenia and Azerbaijan and it went beyond their wildest dreams and we ended up with a massive, massive war. And they tried it in two territories in Georgia, which I’ll talk about in a minute. They didn’t try it in Central Asia because basically all the presidents of the newly independent countries were the former heads of the communist parties and they said we’re still following your line, Kremlin, we haven’t changed very much.
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He’s right about the massive war between Armenia and Azerbaijan, though few outside the region know much about it. Armenians and Azeris very thoroughly transferred Azeris and Armenians “back” to their respective mother countries after the Soviet Union collapsed through pogroms, massacres, and ethnic-cleansing. Hundreds of thousands of refugees fled savage communal warfare in terror. The Armenian military still occupies the ethnic-Armenian Nagorno-Karabakh region in southwestern Azerbaijan. It’s another so-called “frozen conflict” in the Caucasus region waiting to thaw. Moscow takes the Armenian side and could blow up Nagorno-Karabakh, and subsequently all of Azerbaijan, at any time. After hearing the strident Azeri point of view on the conflict for a week before I arrived in Georgia, I’d say that particular ethnic-nationalist fuse is about one millimeter in length.
“Now the story starts really in 1992 when this fuse was lit in Georgia,” Worms said. “Now, there’s two territories. There’s Abkhazia which has clearly defined administrative borders, and there’s South Ossetia that doesn’t. Before the troubles started, Abkhazia was an extremely ethnically mixed area: about 60 percent Georgian, 20 percent Abkhaz, and 20 percent assorted others — Greeks, Estonians, Armenians, Jews, what have you. In Ossetia it was a completely integrated and completely mixed Ossetian-Georgian population. The Ossetians and the Georgians have never been apart in the sense that they were living in their own little villages and doing their own little things. There has been inter-marriage and a sense of common understanding going back to distant history. The Georgians will tell you about King Tamar — that’s a woman, but they called her a king — and she was married to an Ossetian. So the fuse was lit and two wars start, one in Abkhazia and one in South Ossetia.”
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South Ossetia is inside Georgia, while North Ossetia is inside Russia.
“The fuse was not just lit in Moscow,” he said. “It was also lit in Tbilisi. There was a guy in charge here, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, a little bit like [Serbian Nationalist war criminal in Bosnia Radovan] Karadzic. He was a poet. He was an intellectual. But he was one of these guys who veered off into ethnic exclusivism. He made stupid declarations like Georgia is only for the Georgians. If you’re running a multi-ethnic country, that is really not a clever thing to say. The central control of the state was extremely weak. The Russians were trying to make things worse. There was a civil war between Georgians and Tbilisi. But the key thing is that here there were militias, Georgian militias, and some of them pretty nasty.”
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Thomas Goltz
Thomas Goltz then interjected his only critique of Patrick Worms’ explanation of events that led to this war. “It started in 1991,” he said, “but it went into 1992 and 1993, as well.” Then he turned to me. “This guy, [Zviad] Gamsakhurdia, was driven from power from across the street. They bombed this place.” He meant the Marriott Hotel. We stood in the lobby where Worms had set up his media relations operation. “There’s a horrible picture in my Georgia book of this facade.”
“Of this building?” I said.
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Marriot Hotel (right), Tbilisi, Georgia
“Yeah,” Goltz said. “That was December 1991. He fled in December 1991.”
“Where did he go?” I said.
“To Chechnya,” Goltz said. “Of course. He led the government in exile until he came back in 1993 then died obscurely in the mountains, of suicide some people say, others say cancer. Then he was buried in Grozny.” He turned then again to Patrick Worms. “1991,” he said. “Not 1992.”
“1991,” Worms said. “Okay.”
So aside from that quibble, everything else Worms said to me was vouched for as accurate by the man who literally wrote the book on this conflict from the point of view of both academic and witness.
“So in 1991,” Worms said, “things here explode. And basically it gets pretty nasty. Thomas can tell you what happened. Read his book, it’s worth it. And by the time the dust settles, there are between 20,000 and 30,000 dead. Many atrocities committed by both sides, but mostly — at least that’s what the Georgians say — by the Abkhaz. And the end result is everybody gets kicked out. Everybody who is not Abkhaz or Russian gets kicked out. That’s about 400,000 people. 250,000 of those still live as Internally Displaced Persons within Georgia. As for the rest: the Greeks have gone back to Greece, the Armenians to Armenia, some Abkhaz to Turkey, etc.
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Abkhazia (upper left)
“When it’s over,” he said, “you’ve got two bits of Abkhazia which are not ethnic Abkhazia. You’ve got Gali district which is filled with ethnic Georgians. And you’ve got the Kodori Gorge which is filled with another bunch of Georgians. So there the end result was a classic case of ethnic-cleansing, but the world didn’t pay much attention because it was happening at the same time as the Yugoslav wars. Ossetia was different. Ossetia also had a war that started about the same time, and it was also pretty nasty, but it never quite succeeded in generating a consolidated bit of territory that Ossetians could keep their own. When the dust settled there, you ended up with a patchwork of Georgian and Ossetian villages. Before the war, Ossetians and Georgians lived together in the same villages. After the war they lived in separate villages. But there were still contacts. People were talking, people were trading. It wasn’t quite as nasty as it was in Abkhazia.
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“Now fast forward to the Rose Revolution,” he said.
The Rose Revolution was a popular bloodless revolution that brought Georgia’s current president Mikheil Saakashvili to power and replaced the old man of Georgian politics Eduard Shevardnadze who basically ran the country Soviet-style.
“The first thing that Misha [Mikheil Saakashvili] did was try to poke his finger in [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s eyes as many times as possible,” Worms said, “most notably by wanting to join NATO. The West, in my view, mishandled this situation. America gave the wrong signals. So did Europe.”
“Can you elaborate on that a bit?” I said.
“I will,” he said. “But basically the encouragement was given despite stronger and stronger Russian signals that a Georgian accession to NATO would not be tolerated. Fast forward to 2008, to this year, to the meeting of NATO heads of state that took place in Bucharest, Romania, where Georgia was promised eventual membership of the organization but was refused what it really wanted, which was the so-called Membership Action Plan. The Membership Action Plan is the bureaucratic tool NATO uses to prepare countries for membership. And this despite the fact that military experts will tell you that the Georgian Army, which had been reformed root and branch with American support, was now in better shape and more able to meet NATO aspirations than the armies of Albania and Macedonia which got offered membership at the same meeting.
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Tbilisi, Georgia
“Just a little bit of back story again, in July of 2007 Russia withdrew from the Conventional Forces Treaty in Europe. This is a Soviet era treaty that dictates where NATO and the Warsaw Pact can keep their conventional armor around their territories. Russia started moving a lot of materiel south. After Bucharest, provocations started. Russian provocations started, and they were mostly in Abkhazia.
“One provocation was to use the Russian media to launch shrill accusations that the Georgian army was in Kodori preparing for an invasion of Abkhazia. Now if you go up there — I took a bunch of journalists up there a few times — when you get to the actual checkpoint you have a wall of crumbling rock, a wooden bridge, another wall of crumbling rock, a raging torrent, and a steep mountainside filled with woods. It’s not possible to invade out or invade in unless you’ve got air support. Which is why the Abkhaz were never able to kick these Georgians out. They just kept that bit of territory.”
He paused and looked over at Thomas Goltz as though he was bracing for a critique.
“I’m just doing what I’ve done already,” he said, “but this time I’m getting advice from an expert on how I’m doing.”
Thomas Goltz silently nodded.
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Tbilisi, Georgia
“Kodori provocations,” Worms continued, “and other provocations. First the Russians had a peacekeeping base under a 1994 agreement that allowed them to keep the peace in both Abkhazia and South Ossetia. They added paratroopers, crack paratroopers, with modern weaponry there. That doesn’t sound a lot like peacekeeping. A further provocation: they start shooting unmanned Georgian aircraft drones out the sky. One of them was caught on camera by the drone as it was about to be destroyed. The United Nations confirmed that it was a Russian plane that did this. It probably took off from an airbase that the Russians were supposed to have vacated a few years ago, but they never let the OSCE [Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe] in to check.
“The next provocation: On April 16 Putin signs a presidential decree recognizing the documents of Abkhazians and South Ossetians in Russia and vice versa. This effectively integrates these two territories into Russia’s legal space. The Georgians were furious. So you have all these provocations mounting and mounting and mounting. Meanwhile, as of July, various air corps start moving from the rest of Russia to get closer to the Caucasus. These are obscure details, but they are available.
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A poster on a wall in Tbilisi, Georgia
“Starting in mid July the Russians launched the biggest military exercise in the North Caucasus that they’ve held since the Chechnya war. That exercise never stopped. It just turned into a war. They had all their elite troops there, all their armor there, all their stuff there. Everyone still foolishly thought the action was going to be in Abkhazia or in Chechnya, which is still not as peaceful as they’d like it to be.
“The Georgians had their crack troops in Iraq. So what was left at their central base in Gori? Not very much. Just Soviet era equipment and not their best troops. They didn’t place troops on the border with Abkhazia because they didn’t want to provoke the Abkhaz. They were expecting an attempt on Kodori, but the gorge is in such a way that unless they’re going to use massive air support — which the Abkhaz don’t have — it’s impossible to take that place. Otherwise they would have done it already.
“So fast forward to early August. You have a town, Tskhinvali, which is Ossetian, and a bunch of Georgian villages surrounding it in a crescent shape. There are peacekeepers there. Both Russian peacekeepers and Georgian peacekeepers under a 1994 accord. The Ossetians were dug in in the town, and the Georgians were in the forests and the fields between the town and the villages. The Ossetians start provoking and provoking and provoking by shelling Georgian positions and Georgian villages around there. And it’s a classic tit for tat thing. You shell, I shell back. The Georgians offered repeated ceasefires, which the Ossetians broke.
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A poster on a wall in Tbilisi, Georgia
“On August 3, the head of the local administration says he’s evacuating his civilians. You also need to know one thing: you may be wondering what these areas live off, especially in Ossetia, there’s no industry there. Georgia is poor, but Ossetia is poorer. It’s basically a smuggler’s paradise. There was a sting operation that netted three kilograms of highly enriched uranium. There are fake hundred dollar bills to the tune of at least 50 million dollars that have been printed. [South Ossetian “President” Eduard] Kokoity himself is a former wrestler and a former bodyguard who was promoted to the presidency by powerful Ossetian families as their puppet. What does that mean in practice? It means that if you are a young man, you have no choice. You can either live in absolute misery, or you can take the government’s dime and join the militia. It happened in both territories.
“On top of that, for the last four years the Russians have been dishing out passports to anyone who asks in those areas. All you have to do is present your Ossetian or Abkhaz papers and a photo and you get a Russian passport on the spot. If you live in Moscow and try to get a Russian passport, you have the normal procedure to follow, and it takes years. So suddenly you have a lot of Ossetian militiamen and Abkhaz militiamen with Russian passports in effect paid by Russian subsidies.
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Tbilisi, Georgia
“So back to the 3rd of August. Kokoity announces women and children should leave. As it later turned out, he made all the civilians leave who were not fighting or did not have fighting capabilities. On the same day, irregulars — Ingush, Chechen, Ossetians, and Cossacks — start coming in and spreading out into the countryside but don’t do anything. They just sit and wait. On the 6th of August the shelling intensifies from Ossetian positions. And for the first time since the war finished in 1992, they are using 120mm guns.”
“Can I stop you for a second?” I said. I was still under the impression that the war began on August 7 and that Georgian President Saakashvili started it when he sent troops into South Ossetia’s capital Tskhinvali. What was all this about the Ossetian violence on August 6 and before?
He raised his hand as if to say stop.
“That was the formal start of the war,” he said. “Because of the peace agreement they had, nobody was allowed to have guns bigger than 80mm. Okay, so that’s the formal start of the war. It wasn’t the attack on Tskhinvali. Now stop me.”
“Okay,” I said. “All the reports I’ve read say Saakashvili started the war.”
“I’m not yet on the 7th,” he said. “I’m on the 6th.”
“Okay,” I said. He had given this explanation to reporters before, and he knew exactly what I was thinking.
“Saakashvili is accused of starting this war on the 7th,” he said.
“Right,” I said. “But that sounds like complete bs to me if what you say is true.”
Thomas Goltz nodded.
I later met wounded Georgian soldiers in a Tbilisi hospital who confirmed what Patrick Worms had told me about what happened when the war actually started. I felt apprehensive about meeting wounded soldiers. Would they really want to talk to someone in the media or would they rather spend their time healing in peace?
My translator spoke to some of the doctors in the hospital who directed us to Georgian soldiers and a civilian who were wounded in South Ossetia and felt okay enough to speak to a foreign reporter.
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Kaha Bragadze
“Every day and every hour the Russian side lied,” Georgian soldier Kaha Bragadze said. “It must be stopped. If not today, then maybe tomorrow. My troops were in our village, Avnevi. On the 6th of August they blew up our troops’ four-wheel-drives, our pickups. They blew them up. Also in this village — it was August 5th or 6th, I can’t remember — they started bombing us with shells. Two soldiers died that day, our peacekeepers. The Ossetians had a good position on the hill. They could see all our positions and our villages, and they started bombing. They went to the top of the hill, bombed us, then went down. We couldn’t see who was shooting at us.”
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Kaha Bragadze’s leg wounded by shrapnel from a Russian air strike
“Which day was this?” I said. “The 5th or the 6th?”
“I don’t remember,” he said. “But it started that day from that place when two Georgians were killed.”
“Were they just bombing you the peacekeepers,” I said, “or also civilians and villages?”
“Before they started bombing us they took all the civilians out of their villages,” he said. “Then they started damaging our villages — houses, a gas pipe, roads, yards. They killed our animals. They evacuated their villages, then bombed our villages.”
Another Georgian soldier, Giorgi Khosiashvili, concurred
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Giorgi Khosiashvili
“I was a peace keeper as well,” he said, “but in another village. I was fired upon on August 6th. On the 5th of August they started shooting. They blew up our peacekeeping trucks. They put a bomb on the road and when they were driving they were blown up. They also mined the roads used by civilians. On the 6th of August they started bombing Avnevi. And at this time they took the civilians out of Tskhinvali and sent them to North Ossetia [inside Russia].”
“I saw this on TV,” said Alex, my translator. “They took the civilians, kids, women, and put them on the bus and sent them to North Ossetia.”
A civilian man, Koba Mindiashvili, shared the hospital room with the Georgian soldiers. He, too, was in South Ossetia where he lived outside Tskhinvali.
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Koba Mindiashvili
“When they started bombing my village,” he said, “I was running away and the soldiers wounded me. They robbed me and shot me in the leg with a Kalashnikov. I don’t know if it was Russians or Ossetians. They took my car, took my gold chain, and shot me.”
“They didn’t care if it was a house or a military camp,” Giorgi Khosiashvili said. “They bombed everything.”
“You actually saw this for yourself?” I said.
“Yes,” he said. “I saw it. It was the Russian military airplanes. If they knew it was a Georgian village, they bombed all the houses. Many civilians were killed from this bombing.”
“It was Russians or Ossetians who did this?” I said.
“It was Russians,” he said. “The Ossetians don’t have any jets.”
Back at the Marriott Hotel in downtown Tbilisi, Patrick Worms continued fleshing out the rest of the story. “Let me tell you what happened on the 7th,” he said. “On the 6th, while this is going on, the integration minister who was until a few months ago an NGO guy and who believes in soft power things, tried to go there and meet the separatist leadership. The meeting doesn’t happen for farcical reasons. The shelling intensifies during the night and there is, again, tit for tat, but this time with weapons coming from the South Ossetian side which are not allowed under the agreement. By that time, the Georgians were seriously worried. All their armor that was near Abkhazia starts moving, but they are tanks, they don’t have tank transporters, so they move slowly. They don’t make it back in time. On the 7th, this continues. That afternoon, the president announces a unilateral ceasefire, a different one from the previous ones. It means I stop firing first, and if you fire, I still won’t fire back. That holds until the next part of the story.
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Peace vigil, Tbilisi, Georgia
“On the evening of the 7th, the Ossetians launch an all-out barrage focused on Georgian villages, not on Georgian positions. Remember, these Georgian villages inside South Ossetia — the Georgians have mostly evacuated those villages, and three of them are completely pulverized. That evening, the 7th, the president gets information that a large Russian column is on the move. Later that evening, somebody sees those vehicles emerging from the Roki tunnel [into Georgia from Russia]. Then a little bit later, somebody else sees them. That’s three confirmations. It was time to act.
“What they had in the area was peacekeeping stuff, not stuff for fighting a war. They had to stop that column, and they had to stop it for two reasons. It’s a pretty steep valley. If they could stop the Russians there, they would be stuck in the tunnel and they couldn’t send the rest of their army through. So they did two things. The first thing they did, and it happened at roughly the same time, they tried to get through [South Ossetian capital] Tskhinvali, and that’s when everybody says Saakashvili started the war. It wasn’t about taking Ossetia back, it was about fighting their way through that town to get onto that road to slow the Russian advance. The second thing they did, they dropped a team of paratroopers to destroy a bridge. They got wiped out, but first they managed to destroy the bridge and about 15 Russian vehicles.
“The Georgians will tell you that they estimate that these two actions together slowed the Russian advance by 24 to 48 hours. That is what the world considered to be Misha’s game. And you know why the world considers it that? Because here in South Ossetia was the head of the peacekeeping troops. He hasn’t been in Iraq, he’s a peace keeper. What have they been told for the last four years? They lived in a failed state, then there was the Rose Revolution — it wasn’t perfect but, damn, now there’s electricity, there’s jobs, roads have been fixed — and what the Georgians have had drummed into them is that Georgia is now a constitutional state, a state of law and order. And everybody here knows that Ossetia is a gangster’s smuggler’s paradise. The whole world knows it, but here they know it particularly well. The peacekeepers had a military objective, and the first rule of warfare when you’re talking to the media is not to reveal to your enemy what you’re going to do. So they weren’t going to blather into a microphone and say well, actually, I’m trying to go through Tskhinvali in order to stop the Russians. So what did he say instead? I’m here to restore constitutional order in South Ossetia. And that’s it. With that, Georgia lost the propaganda war and the world believes Saakashvili started it. And the rest of the story…you know.”
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Tbilisi, Georgia
“Let me make a couple of comments,” Goltz said.
“That,” Worms said, “to the best of my knowledge, is all true.”
“Let’s just start at the ass end,” Goltz said to me. “This is your first time to the lands of the former Soviet Union?”
“Yes,” I said.
The restoration of constitutional order,” he said, “may sound just like a rhetorical flourish with no echo in the American mindset. What it means in the post-Soviet mindset is what Boris Yeltsin was doing in Chechnya. This was the stupidest phrase this guy possibly could have used. That’s why people want to lynch him.”
Goltz was referring to the head of the Georgian peacekeeping forces in South Ossetia. He turned then to Patrick Worms. “Your presentation was deliciously comprehensive. Perhaps it was…we’ll ask our new friend Michael…too much information out of the gate to absorb.”
“I absorbed it,” I said.
“Okay,” Goltz said.
“Am I making any mistakes?” Worms said to Goltz. “Am I forgetting anything?”
“Well,” Goltz said, “there are some details that I would chip in. Who are the Ossetians and where do they live? This is the question that has been lost in all of the static from this story. This autonomy [South Ossetia] is an autonomous district, as opposed to an autonomous republic, with about 60,000 people max. So, where are the rest of the Ossetians? Guess where they live? Tbilisi. Here. There. Everywhere. There are more Ossetians — take a look around this lobby. You will find Ossetians here. Of those Ossetians who are theoretically citizens of the Republic of Georgia, 60,000 live there and around 40,000 live here.”
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A roadside cross outside Tbilisi, Georgia
“What do they think about all this?” I said.
“They’re scared as shit,” Goltz said.
“Are they on the side of those who live in South Ossetia?” I said.
No,” he said. “One of them is Georgia’s Minister of Defense. [Correction: Georgia’s Minister of Defense is Jewish, not Ossetian.] Georgia is a multi-ethnic republic. And the whole point of the Ossetian ethnic question is this: South Ossetia is part of Georgia.”
“Are reporters receptive to what you’re saying?” I said to Worms.
“Everyone is receptive,” he said. “Everyone, regardless of nationality, even those who love Georgia, genuinely thought Saakashvili started it.”
“That’s what I thought,” I said. “That’s what everyone has been writing.”
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Vladimir Putin’s face used for hopscotch, Tbilisi, Georgia
“Yes,” he said. “Absolutely. We’ve been trying to tell the world about this for months. If you go back and look at the archives you’ll see plenty of calls from the Georgian government saying they’re really worried. Even some Russian commentators agree that this is exactly what happened. Don’t forget, they sent in a lot of irregulars, Chechens, Cossacks, Ossetians, Ingush — basically thugs. Not normal Chechens or Ingush — thugs. Thugs out for a holiday. Many Western camera crews were robbed at gunpoint ten meters from Russian tanks while Russian commanders just stood there smoking their cigarettes while the irregulars…that happened to a Turkish TV crew. They’re lucky to still be alive. Some of the Georgians were picked up by the irregulars. If they happened to be female, they got raped. If they happened to be male, they got shot immediately, sometimes tortured. Injured people we have in hospitals who managed to get out have had arms chopped off, eyes gouged out, and their tongues ripped out.”
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Vladimir Putin
Russian rules of engagement, so to speak, go down harder than communism. And the Soviet era habits of disinformation are alive and well.
“You also have to remember the propaganda campaign that came out,” he said. “Human Rights Watch is accusing the Russian authorities of being indirectly responsible for the massive ethnic cleansing of Georgians that happened in South Ossetia. The Ossetians are claiming that the Georgians killed 2,000 people in Tskhinvali, but when Human Rights Watch got in there a few days ago and talked to the hospital director, he had received 44 bodies. There was nobody left in that town. Plus it’s the oldest law of warfare: have your guns in populated areas, and when the enemy responds, show the world your dead women and children.
“Right,” I said. “That goes on a lot where I usually work, in the Middle East.”
“Yes,” he said. “That’s exactly what the Russians were doing.”
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