Thursday, January 29, 2009

Russian soldier deserts to Georgia

Russian news sources report of a soldier from the Russian army positions in the Akhalgori region of South Ossetia deserting his post and escaping to Georgia proper. He is apparently seeking asylum, citing horrid conditions in the army - lack of food and bathing facilities and physical abuse.

The latter is interesting because the soldier in question, Aleksander Glukhov, was due to end his stint in the spring. (Incidentally, the NewsRu report talks about the Russian MoD's initial claim that the expeditionary force in South Ossetia and Abkhasia is completely made up of contract soldiers; even though the law forbids sending conscripts like Glukhov into a war zone abroad, they were indeed used in the Georgian conflict, which the MoD eventually had to admit - after long denials.) It is known that the Russian national service has a highly abusive hierarchy, where conscripts move up depending on how much time they've served, and then use violence against their juniors. Glukhov, a young man from the Udmurtia region of Russia, was ostensibly at the top of the food chain, with less than six months before his discharge - and still chose to desert his army and his country.

Reuters caught up with Glukhov in Tbilisi, and their reporter seems to be satisfied that the soldier is in good health and is not being kept against his will. The Russian authorities obviously beg to differ, saying that Glukhov was captured by Georgian special forces, and is being forced to say all these things under psychological pressure and threat of torture. Yet the Georgian authorities have apparently allowed Glukhov to phone his parents, and has invited them to come to Georgia and meet with their son.

Georgian TV channel Rustavi2 has a report on Glukhov, with a video of the man himself (starts at 1.30, in Russian, translation below):



My unit was moved to Tskhinval in June. My superiors said... officers, commanders... that you are going to Georgia, to South Ossetia, to help the people against Georgia. In June we started to dig trenches, firing positions. Also, the combat alerts started. We moved out to our positions. Stayed there for a week, returned - turned out they were drills. Then, after that, I was in Leningori - Akhalgori, on December 1st. Served there for a month, month and a half.

There are no normal conditions there. My relationship with the batallion commander, Major Fyodorov, became bad. Bad conditions. No washing facilities. The food situation is bad - we're fed very little. We also have combat vehicles - tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, artillery units, aimed at Georgian villages... so I am asking the president of Georgia to leave me in Thbilisi.


It's interesting that Glukhov's mentioning of being in South Ossetia in June confirms what was suggested by an earlier slip-up from Russian army captain Denis Sidristy - that Russian army forces were in South Ossetia before the Georgian attack began. If true, it would mean that the war in Georgia was deliberately provoked by Russia.

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Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Too Late, but Maybe Just Enough

Can't find this story on any of the Western newswires, but according to Lenta.ru, the Secretary General of NATO has expressed certainty that Georgia will one day become a member of NATO.

Five days after the start of the war, it seems to have run its course - let's hope - and my prevailing feeling is not one I am especially proud of: At least it happened over there, not here. At least maybe, since we're NATO and EU members, and the first strike that shook the West happened thousands of miles away, we will be spared. Maybe in what Edward Lucas was the first one to publically call the New Cold War, Estonia will be like Finland in the old one: having played Russia to a mutually unsatisfactory stalemate in the propaganda war, we can remain out of reach, the line that the Kremlin will not cross. Maybe.

The West did not come to Georgia's aid when she needed it, and perhaps, in hindsight, it couldn't have. But let's make sure the conscience of Western leaders resonates. This is a test of Europe's feasibility far more important than any treaty referendum. There is still so much we can do in Georgia. Recognize that the Russian forces in South Ossetia and Abkhazia are occupiers. Flood Georgia proper with international peacekeepers, to make the Kremlin's bullshit just that little bit less aerodynamic.

Andres asked me if I had anything to say about Estonia's Russians and their reaction to the war. It's pretty much what you would expect: at best, apathy and wholesale condemnation of everyone involved, at worst, blind support of anything Russia does without the slightest hint of a clue about the history of the region or the conflict.

After the April riots, it was maybe six months until I started talking to my Russian friends again; it took that long for people to learn to mask their true opinions. Like then, today I have to pick a side to stand on - and it's not really any sort of choice. But if I lose my friends, so be it.

Today, I am Georgian.

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Monday, August 11, 2008

Local News

Estonians are buying up Georgian wines in a show of support. Best thing you can do, really - guaranteed to benefit the Georgian nation rather than any political movement, so it is good irrespective of any doubts you might have as to who caused what. In conflicts such as South Ossetia, no side is ever completely innocent. I recommend the Akhasheni Marani, should be available in Selvers - a very good semi-sweet red.

Parliament is about to go into an emergency session to draft a joint statement on Georgia. An emergency session can be called with support from no less than a fifth of the Riigikogu (21 members). The session has been endorsed by all represented parties, except for Keskerakond. Vilja Savisaar's official statement to the press was, let's wait and see and gather information and not rush into things. Wouldn't do to piss off the Russians.

UPDATE 1: Meanwhile, Ansip is trying to get to Georgia. Might just be PR for now, but if he does show up in Thbilisi, that'll be a great move on his part. Compensating for political ineptitude with personal bravery; could be worse, and he's doing the right thing when it counts. A commenter on Postimees: "When the Russians came here, did anybody help out?" That is exactly why we need to be involved in Georgia.

UPDATE 2: There is a humanitarian aid flight being put together by Estonian Air, the Red Cross and various other local relief agencies. The Estonian Reserve Officers' Association is apparently putting together a team of 90 volunteers that will be on the flight and will distribute the humanitarian aid, as well as help out relief efforts on the ground. The email that I saw specifically mentioned that the group would absolutely not be involved in combat, but otherwise should be prepared for anything, including hostile fire. The email also says that perhaps the presense of Estonian reservist volunteers in Georgia will serve as inspiration to NATO. I haven't really heard of the group before, but it is certainly a good sentiment.

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I was away for the weekend, drinking at a friend's place in Narva-Jõesuu. Saw Russia a few hundred yards away.

The war in Georgia hasn't had any conclusive developments. Militarily, the key to the conflict is the Roki tunnel, the only road between Russia and South Ossetia capable of carrying battle vehicles. Without heavy armor, Russia would be unable to do anything substantial in Georgia: dropping bombs on Georgian towns is not the same thing as having troops on the ground.

There has been one interesting moment, which was also the only real help Georgia has had so far from any of its friends and allies. Men-of-war from Russia's Black Sea Fleet were spotted in the ports of Abkhazia and off the Georgian cost, presumably there to enforce a naval blockade of Georgia. However, Russia does not have any serviceable military ports on the Black Sea, and the fleet actually operates out of a naval base in Sevastopol; Crimea. Ukraine said that if a naval blockade is initiated, it will deny the Black Sea Fleet ships a return to harbor within Ukrainian territory. Unlike vague statements of support and threats of diminishing relations from the apparently impotent West, Putin and Medvedev apparently felt like Ukraine bloody well meant it, so the missile cruiser Moscow and its battle group have retreated to Novorossiysk.

Kiev Bravo. For the rest of the West - this is Sudetenland. If you don't protect your friends today, you won't have friends tomorrow. First they came for the Georgians, etc.

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Friday, August 08, 2008

So Much for Peacekeepers

Latest news from South Ossetia: Georgian forces retreating from Tskhinvali ahead of a column of Russian tanks moving down from the border. Russian military aircraft is bombing Georgian forces, including the Vaziani military base, where American military instructors are located.

We're still in the middle of the three-hour window that the Georgians said they would allow for the evacuation of civilians, so the reports might not even be true; but if they are, it does seem like Russia will no longer have any way of pretending it is not a clear and present threat to Georgia, as opposed to an international peacekeeping observer.

Could be a failure by the Georgian military. Could be the successful result of a planned provocation designed to expose Russia's true role in the events. In any case, it is certainly a smart move on Georgia's part to avoid engaging the Russian army.

The question is, are these volunteers, or actual Russian regular forces; and if the latter, was their deployment a kneejerk reaction by one of the theater commanders, or did it come direct from Putin/Medvedev?

UPDATE: RIA Novosti, the official Kremlin newswire, reports that the Russian Defense Ministry has confirmed that regular army forces have been sent into South Ossetia, ostensibly to relieve the peacekeeping forces (which was not allowed under the terms of the original ceasefire).

UPDATE 2: Latest news say Russian tanks from the 58th Army are now in direct engagement with retreating Georgian forces.
Saw some info on the orders of battle. The South Osettians themselves have a decent quantity of armor, but apart from that they are very definitely the weakest force in the conflict. The Georgian military is considered to be the best-trained and best-armed in the entire former Soviet Union, with American training, some American armor and aircraft, and a lot of state-of-the-art battlefield equipment from Israel and other suppliers; but they are not very big in numbers, only approximately 30 thousand regulars with 100 thousand trained reservists. Russia's North Caucusus Military District is about a hundred thousand regular troops, with more armor and equipment than the Georgians.

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Georgia's First Strike

I had no idea.

Georgia has restarted fighting in South Ossetia, a breakaway republic discreetly backed by Russia. At the time of writing, based on reports in the Russian news media, the rebel capital of Tskhinvali has been captured... and levelled. Georgian forces have announced an imminent three-hour ceasefire to allow refugees to leave the warzone through a safe corridor.

Georgia's casus belli, as far as I can tell, is the bombing of Georgian towns by military aircraft originating in South Ossetia. It and Abkhazia have been a source of provocation for Georgia for months now, and there has been some convincing evidence that the Russian military was actively involved. (A Georgian aerial drone was shot down by a MiG-29, and neither the Abkhaz forces nor the Russian peacekeepers within Abkhazia proper have that type of aircraft.) Georgia itself has been the object of much of Russia's ire in the last couple of years, including an economic blocade and persecution of ethnic Georgians living in Russia.

There has been a scarily plausible opinion going around that as the Beijing Olympics kick off and the world's attention is elsewhere, Russia would make a move. Georgia was visibly spooked by the lack of support from the West, including Germany's block of NATO membership for the country.

It seems that Georgia has considered a military aggression on the part of Russia and/or its rebel allies inevitable, and has decided to make the first move.

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Saturday, November 10, 2007

Politically Conscious


Politically Conscious
Originally uploaded by Flasher T
My commenters say the best thing Estonia can do is open up trade with Georgia. Well, I'm doing my part. :)

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Friday, November 09, 2007

Georgia WTF

The pictures of riots in Georgia, being supressed by the police, cannot help but bring up comparisons with the Bronze Night in Tallinn. While our own April riots had a sequence of events building up to them, events that most TV viewers were not aware of, there was at least one cause that the anchors could mention: the unrest followed the relocation of a Soviet-era war memorial.

The Tbilisi riots are far more enigmatic. The official news sources could not quote anything except the opposition's general dissatisfaction with president Saakashvili and his political party. While my esteemed colleague has forfeited attempts to figure out what the hell is going on there, I have the advantage of speaking Russian. As usual with such things, LiveJournal is a good source of perspectives and links to relevant articles. Here's what I've got so far.

Mikhail Saakashvili was elected as president in January of 2004, following the Rose Revolution. Following a long reign of ex-Soviet bigwig Eduard Shevarnadze, he was a welcome Western-minded alternative. He had the support of the people, and some very important allies - the US took a particular interest in Georgia, since its location makes it a useful platform to project power into the Middle East and Central Asia.

The presidential elections were followed by parliamentary elections, which Saakashvili's coalition promptly won. Georgian law states that the President is elected for five years, and the Parliament for four. So Saakashvili's first term would've run out in the winter of 2009, and the cabinet's in the spring of 2008, in other words Any Day Now.

At the end of last year, the parliament passed a constitutional amendment rescheduling the elections. The government was reluctant to hold a campaign at the same time as Russia, which is having an election season extending into next spring as well. It was thought - not unreasonably - that Georgia would be used as a propaganda cause, and it would be a great temptation for the Kremlin to try and destabilize the small country, like it's done before by supporting the separatists in the provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which are still under the control of Russian peacekeepers. So the amendments, which were found to be legitimate, but iffy by the Council of Europe's constitutional monitoring authority, extended the term of the Parliament by six months. This would allow the elections to be held long after Russia had made its decisions, for better or for worse. Saakashvili bought this extra time by voluntarily giving up three months of his own term, thus having the Georgian parliamentary and presidential elections at the same time.

This is what pissed off the opposition. As it stands, Georgia's political system is fairly heavily tilted in favour of the President, and the rescheduling is also an obvious attempt to use Saakashvili's personal popularity to strengthen the position of his supporting coalition*. With a popular incumbent president currently supported by a loyal parliamentary majority, the opposition is completely out of the loop. It doesn't help that the opposition leaders appear to include the sons of Georgia's first democratically elected president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia*.

But the opposition alone couldn't make the riots happen. Why are the common people on the streets? Different sources put the number of protesters as high as 150,000 people, and in a country about twice the size of Estonia with almost three times the population, that's still a huge number. (To compare: the marauding crowds in Tallinn on the Bronze Night are estimated at being up to 3,000 strong, by the wildest counts.) What's got them all so riled up?

Georgia was one of the first Soviet republics to make a serious attempt at independence, and the only one except for the Baltics that is not a member of the Commonwealth of Independent States (a mostly pointless virtual union established after the fall of the USSR to alleviate exposure shock in countries with little experience in self-rule). At the same time, its history has been infinitely more tragic. The early 90s were marred by extensive Balkans-style bloodshed in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and the corrupt government of Shevarnadze impeded the country's economic growth. Saakashvili was supposed to change all that. But Georgians are, for most intents and purposes, Mediterraneans. The country has a long history stretching back to the pre-Roman times - it's known to have been a trading partner of Ancient Greece, and it can be argued that it is part of the same civilization. As Mediterraneans often are, the Georgians are impulsive and impatient. In two and a half years of effective rule, Saakashvili has failed to produce an improvement in living standards as drastic as was expected of him. For all its new foreign markets - you can now buy genuine Georgian wines in Tartu, and they're quite good - the country remains relatively poor. When the people are disgruntled, they blame the leader.

So, this week the protesters took to the streets, and the situation rapidly dissolved into a riot. Police used water cannons and tear gas; in an unfortunate coincidence, the worst of the clashes took place in the same boulevard where the Soviet authorities once harshly suppressed a demonstration of Georgian independence activists, and people can't help but make the painful connection. The president declared a state of emergency, which included an information blockade: foreign TV channels were shut off, the local press was confined to quarters. That is finished now, and it seems that it might have had a point: given a bit of time to catch their breath without having to worry about the media, the government and opposition leaders were able to meet and agree on terms.

Stunned by the riots, Saakashvili has gathered up his bravery and gone all-in. He has proposed a shotgun election in January of 2008, less than two months away. Ideologically, the opposition has lost its footing: they cannot accuse Saakashvili of being a corrupt, power-hungry politician if he is volunteering to cut his own term by a full year to give the people a chance to express their distrust of their leader. At the same time, the president is effectively counteracting claims that the police suppression of the riots signalled an end of democracy in Georgia - in the wake of the crisis, he's doing the most democratic, absolutely textbook thing possible, by effectively resigning. Such a short campaign also leaves the Kremlin with precious little time to influence the elections, especially as the opposition has definitively proven its incompetence by failing to turn a 150,000-strong crowd into any sort of real political advantage.

At the end of the day, despite the sheer amount of balls it took Saakashvili to call an early election, it seems to be a safe move: for all the popular disillusionment with the supposed wonder boy, there does not seem to be any other Georgian politician with a viable chance to get the popular vote. Saakashvili will most likely be re-elected, in a free and democratic poll monitored by European observers and the US advisors already in the country, and the opposition will be silenced.

Most of this analysis is based on the conversations in Georgians' LiveJournals, as well as Russian news sources, including anti-Kremlin ones. I've tried to arrange the information and pick out the scenarios that seemed most plausible to me. We'll see what happens.

Now for the Western perspective. The US seems very interested in having Georgia as a satellite nation; it is at once fervently anti-Islam, having a very strong Orthodox tradition (in fact along with Armenia it is one of the oldest consistently Christian countries in existence), but it is also fervently anti-Russia. For the US's interests in the region, Georgia shows a potential of loyalty second only to Israel. America might be a bit busy with other things in the Middle East/Central Asia region right now, but Georgia would definitely be a very good ally to have. Which is why the Georgian army is re-tooling with US equipment and training with US military instructors, and the government lends an ear to US advisors. There is even persistent talk of Georgia getting NATO membership. If Estonia could join NATO without a border treaty with Russia, Georgia can join NATO without resolving the issue of its breakaway provinces - as long as the US wants it bad enough.

For the EU, Georgia is a sweet piece of property as well, and you only need to look at the map to see why. With the last round of expansion, Europe has the use of Bulgarian and Romanian ports on the western shore of the Black Sea; with Georgian ports on the eastern shore, the EU is only one short skip away from having access to the Kaspian oil reserves - completely bypassing Russia. Hell, if they can extend the pipework to Turkmenistan, it would render Nord Stream redundant!

At the same time, Georgia is a far easier mark than Turkey. The EU is more or less done in the north and its own immediate vicinity; like all the major powers today, it is most interested in Central Asia. If it has a serious interest in access to the Caspian - and it damn well has to - it will have a far easier time integrating little old Georgia, than the enormous, barely secular mess that is the former Ottoman Empire. If the Georgian people's main complaint with the Western-minded Saakashvili is that he's not making the economy grow quickly enough, well, that's easy. The EU has more than enough experience in pulling up destitute post-Soviet economies by the ears. Hell, let's not forget that Mart Laar held an official rank as Saakashvili's advisor!

Estonia could really use a new project, something to make us feel good about ourselves, make us feel relevant as a part of a single Europe, and also make us be seen as relevant, as a useful European force. For about a microsecond there, Estonia had an internal meme of becoming a world expert on Russia, the West's go-to guys on how to deal with our eastern neighbours. That didn't turn out well, but we can still become the world authority on rehabilitating downtrodden small countries, like we've done with ourselves. Estonia is in a good position for taking the lead on a project that has the attention and backing of the entire EU, proving our expertise and establishing ourselves as something more than just the homeland of Skype and cheap beer.

Georgia has a long way to go, but it's still on the right track. Let's see what happens.

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*There's a parallel to be drawn here with Putin and United Russia, or indeed Andrus Ansip and the Reform party. The key difference in the former case is that Putin is directly leading the candidate list for UR - in fact he is the party's only name in a traditionally three-strong federal component, the three candidates that the entire enormous country gets to elect, supplementing the individual lists in each constituency. Saakashvili is not being quite as obvious about it, it's more in the style of George Bush's personal popularity in 2004 helping out the Republicans in the simultaneous Senate/Congress elections. The difference in the latter case is that Ansip is a creature of the party; for all his personal vote record, he ran in a safe constituency, and people who agree with the platform tend to just vote for the top name in the Reform party list. Ansip may have personal ambitions, but he doesn't have the credentials or charisma to drag a party into parliament in the same way that Mart Laar or Marek Strandberg can.

*The opposition leaders seem to include Tzotneh and Konstantine Gamsakhurdia, who seem to be brothers; there have been leaks of their phone conversations with Russian foreign intelligence officers. Zviad Gamsakhurdia's biographies mention that he had three sons, but I haven't found one that lists their names. Correct me if I'm wrong.

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