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Analysis, book reviews and photography from Abkhazia and the wider Caucasus — updates when time permits

Book review: Chechnya Diary by Thomas Goltz

chechnya diary - coverChechnya Diary — A War Correspondent’s Story of Surviving the War in Chechnya

Thomas Goltz

Thomas Dunne Books, New York
October 2003
302 pages
ISBN: 978-0-312-26874-9

The village of Samashki was the site of a massacre during the first Chechen war in which more than hundred residents were executed by Russian forces. Chechnya Diary is written around this event. The author, Thomas Goltz, was in Samashki in the weeks before the massacre to film a freelance report on the ‘Chechen spirit’, and documented the fighting that preceded it.

Still, Chechnya Diary is not so much a book about the Samashki massacre, but rather a book about Goltz’s report of the Samashki massacre and everything that preceded and followed it. It is a breathtaking account of war reporting. (Goltz has documented his prior experiences elsewhere in the Caucasus in Azerbaijan Diary and Georgia Diary.)

Throughout the book, Goltz is brutally honest, most of all about his own failings. That while he doesn’t condone their acts of killing, he sympathises with the volunteer fighters, that they have become his friends. That he is courting death, that he is often senselessly risking his life, his primary concern being merely to obtain spectacular shots. And Goltz admits that he is consciously blurring the lines between observation and participation — this is the declared theme of the book, dedicated to the Heisenberg principle.

We do learn things about the Chechen conflict itself, and about Samashki in particular. For instance, the tension stemming from the fact that while Chechen resistance was fueled by a desire to protect traditional society and morality (adat), recently arrived Chechens from the diaspora in Central Asia would at the same time hold a more hardline position regarding armed resistance against and cooperation with Russian authorities and put less value in adat and be generally more modern than local Chechens. In general, Goltz does his best to set the record straight whenever his observations on the ground belie contemporaneous media reports. Most importantly perhaps, he tries to do justice to the Chechens he meets, whether or not they pick up arms. The Chechen wars were largely fought by ordinary villagers with families, who would revert to being just that.

Nevertheless, Goltz somehow does not manage to convey the scale of the Samashki massacre implied by the number of dead. Here the book’s main strength — focusing on Goltz’s personal experiences — is also its principal weakness. Goltz was not present during the worst violence, and most of his friends and acquaintances survive, the fighters having retreated into the forest as a precondition from the Russian army for the ‘peaceful surrender’ of the town.

Chechnya Diary also contains some more minor omissions. Goltz speculates several times whether he might not be killed by either Russian or Chechen forces. In fact, when he returns to Samashki after the first war, his most urgent task is to convince people that he is not a spy, that his filming had not been reconnaissance work for the Russians. It is strange then that he does not mention Nadezhda Chaikova, who died under similar circumstances and who had also filmed in Samashki.

Likewise, when Goltz returns to Samashki, he finds that the commander of the local Chechen forces, Hussein — whose guest he had been — has been forced into exile back to his native village in Kazakhstan. Goltz is initially told that this is because the withdrawal of the fighters left the town defenceless before the Russian onslaught, but then hears that the real reason is that Hussein did not participate in the successful defence of Samashki when the Russians tried to conquer it a second time in March 1996. What is curious is that when Goltz visits Hussein in Kazakhstan, he does not address this rather incongruous development.

That being said, these open ends do not change the fact that Chechnya Diary is both an essential piece of war reporting and an important account of one of the lowest points of the first Chechen war.

Filed under: Book reviews, Chechnya, Media, Russia, ,

Banned in Russia

Or at least so it seems. Eric Lethier was so kind to point out to me on Twitter that Taklama is blocked in Russia:

https://twitter.com/EricLethier/status/313377320851369984
https://twitter.com/EricLethier/status/313852612271304706
https://twitter.com/EricLethier/status/313853172571590656

I must say I’m a bit shocked — call me naive, but I’d have expected such crude measures of Iran, not of Russia.

If this is not some sort of technical mistake, it means two things:

Firstly, the Russian censorship agency has got way too much time on its hands, going after obscure websites like this one.

Secondly, while I don’t know what exactly invoked the ire of the censor, I like to think my writings are neither pro- or anti-Russian. Perhaps this ambiguity is being perceived as a much greater threat than the harsher treatment Russia receives elsewhere.

Filed under: Maintenance, Media, Russia,

Abaza TV gains national coverage

Last week, something happened that has not seemingly attracted the attention of English-language media, but which may turn out to be quite important for the development of Abkhazian society. On 11 November, President Ankvab signed a decree authorising Abaza TV to broadcast throughout Abkhazia, where until now it had been limited to Sukhum only. Abaza TV is Abkhazia’s only private TV channel, and while it is not really independent, it does provide an important platform for political dissent. (Abaza TV is owned by opposition politician Beslan Butba, which is why it is a good thing he lost the 2009 and 2011 Presidential elections.) Until the arrival of Abaza TV, newspapers were the most important media of Abkhazia — State TV is not that relevant, with most viewers preferring Russian TV.

The fortunes of Abaza TV from its founding in 2007 are traced in an article by Vitali Sharia over at Ekho Kavkaza. It had been refused permission to broadcast outside Sukhum for several years now. Ankvab had promised to change this, but reportedly, even after the death of President Bagapsh, Ankvab deliberately waited until after the August 2011 election to make good on his promise.

Filed under: Abkhazia, Media, , , ,

Radical Georgian Orthodox leader flees to… South Ossetia?

What started as a brawl following a Georgian TV talk show has taken a definite turn for the surreal now that one of the central figures in the controversy has fled to Tskhinval , of all places. Even before this latest development, the situation was quite confusing.

The TV station in question was Kavkasia TV – generally sympathetic to Georgia’s opposition. The talk show featured a live debate over recent confrontations between radical Orthodox Christians and their critics.

The person who has now fled to Tskhinval is Malkhaz Gulashvili, co-founder of the radical People’s Orthodox Christian Movement.

More Church influence in society has generally been something advocated for by parts of the opposition.

And indeed on 7 May, Gulashvili had told his supporters that his newly found movement aimed to rid Georgia of the Liberty Institute, cornerstone of Georgia’s Rose Revolution government.

But during the brawl outside the TV studio, sympathisers of Gulashvili not only attacked his secular opponents during the debate, but also TV staff, including the station’s founder Davit Akubardia.

And afterwards, several opposition politicians condemned the attacks, expressing their belief that the authorities were covertly supporting the activists.

And Gulashvili has in the past had business links with the Davit Bezhuashvili and his Georgian Industrial Group, controversial for allegedly controlling large parts of Georgia’s media landscape for the government.

Whatever Gulashvili’s true allegiances, none of them seem to square with fleeing to South Ossetia. The South Ossetian authorities are normally quick to arrest Georgians found trespassing their border, but they will have been very happy to be able to grant him political asylum. Gulashvili said that he had been forced to flee after his son had been assaulted, with the supposed intention of rape. He again accused the Liberty Institute for being directly responsible, and claimed that the fight outside Kavkasia TV had been staged by the station itself, and that it worked for the Interior Ministry.

To top this all off, Gulashvili is the owner of the Georgian Times media holding – the Georgian Times being a major Georgian newspaper.

Filed under: Georgia, Media, South Ossetia, , , , , , , , ,

What to think of Saakashvili and his government?

Most independent observers will agree that President Mikheil Saakashvili and his government have their flaws. No one was happy with the November 2007 crackdown of opposition demonstrations, the attack on Imedi TV and its take-over by government-friendly owners, the unfair advantages enjoyed by government candidates in election campaigns and especially the lack of a pluriform, responsible media landscape. And most people put at least a certain amount of blame for the August 2008 war at Saakashvili’s feet. This slow but steady tarnishing of his image has been accompanied by an equally steady outflow of former allies into the opposition ranks.

But it is also generally felt that Saakashvili and his government have done a lot of good things for Georgia: reducing corruption, modernising its society and, perhaps most importantly, stimulating economic development throughout the country. It is also often pointed out that despite everything, Georgia’s opposition can express its grievances as loudly and as many times as its wants, and that Georgia is anyhow a lot freer than Russia, Armenia or Azerbaijan.

So the question arises: does Saakashvili’s government have the right intentions, despite its flaws, or is it essentially on the wrong track, despite its positive achievements?

A number of incidents from the last couple of months suggest that Saakashvili and his government are fundamentally misguided.

In January it surfaced that in July 2008, the Ministry of Defence-affiliated TV station Sakartvelo TV had run a documentary quoting Hitler:

It must be thoroughly understood that the lost land will never be won back by solemn prayers, nor by hopes in any League of Nations, but only by the force of arms

The choice to quote Hitler reflects a very poor sense of judgement, but as they say, mistakes happen. What is perhaps more worrying is the content of the quote itself, which betrays a deeper misguidedness.

Then on the 26th of January, Saakashvili himself evoked Nazi Germany and Hutu Rwanda, comparing Russia to the perpetrators of two genocides and Georgia to their Jewish and Tutsi victims. Not even by Georgia’s own sanctimonious account of the August 2008 war does this remotely make sense – Saakashvili’s statement can only be qualified as deeply immoral.

And now we have Imedi TV’s absurd fake Russian invasion news bulletin. As with Sakartvelo TV quoting Hitler, it thoroughly discredits the people responsible for its production. What is more troubling is that Saakashvili’s first reaction was that the fake story “maximally reflected reality”. Even if demonising Russia can be explained (though not excused) by misguided nationalism – it is unforgivable that the programme portrayed opposition politicians Nino Burjanadze and Zurab Noghaideli as Russian collaborators.

These are in a way ‘just’ a couple of incidents, but each of them is worrying, and taken together they show that there is a fundamental problem. Saakashvili’s greatest political example is probably Mustafa Kemal ‘Atatürk’, but he may be emulating him in more ways than one. Despite that man’s positive reputation for thoroughly modernising and emancipating Turkish society, his economic and especially his democratic and human rights track record was less than stellar.

Filed under: Georgia, Human Rights, Media, , , , , , , , , , ,

Georgian investigative journalist requests asylum in Switzerland

Three weeks ago, the Georgian investigative journalist Vakhtang Komakhidze requested asylum in Switzerland. Komakhidze worked for the Reportiori studio, which has been responsible for several government-critical documentaries. One documentary revealed that the attack on two buses in the village of Khurcha on the day of the 28 May 2008 parliamentary election had been staged by the government, which had itself accused Abkhazian forces. Another documentary questioned the official account of the death of Zurab Zhvania.

Komakhidze has said that he has come under severe government pressure following his visits to Tskhinval for a documentary about the August 2008 war. To the extend that they are true, the findings of Komakhidze and his colleagues are a disgrace for the Georgian authorities. But the fact is that in many neighbouring countries, they wouldn’t have been able to do their work in the first place, and this speaks in Georgia’s favour. That is what makes this recent development so very sad. It can only be hoped that he will be able to return, and in the meantime, that he is able to finish his documentary.

Filed under: Georgia, Human Rights, Media, Switzerland, , , , , , , ,

The re-election of Sergei Bagapsh – probably the best outcome

On 12 December 2009, Sergei Bagapsh won a second term in the Abkhazian presidential election – Alyksandr Ankvab, the current Prime Minister, will become Vice President. Before the pair will be inaugurated on 12 February, I want to take a look back and argue that Bagapsh’s re-election was probably the best outcome for Abkhazia. I will begin by giving a quick summary of the circumstances that led to Bagapsh being elected for the first time five years ago, then I will discuss his track record during his first term in office and I will conclude by discussing his rivals in the December 12 election.

Bagapsh first came to power in 2004/05. In the 4 October 2004 election, he was the principal opposition candidate challenging then Prime Minister Khajimba, who had the support of out-going President Vladislav Ardzynba. The election resulted in a stand-off between Khajimba and Bagapsh that deeply divided Abkhazia’s society. Eventually Khajimba more or less accepted that Bagapsh had won the election and the two reached a power-sharing agreement: Khajimba would become Vice President and a new election was organised on 12 January 2005 to formalise the deal.

At the time, Bagapsh was the main candidate of the opposition that had arisen from the discontent with the state of the country under Ardzynba. It was inevitable that he would not completely live up to the hope that all would become better. In most areas, his results have been mixed.

Corruption is one of the most prominent problems in Abkhazian society. While there haven’t been any scandals implicating members of the central government, neither have there been many concrete results in the fight against corruption. The most notable case to be uncovered during Bagapsh’s presidency involved the Mayor of Sukhum Astamur Adleiba and the Municipal Housing Department. His removal was a success, but Adleiba had been appointed by Bagapsh upon his coming to power, and the case was made public while Bagapsh was in Moscow for medical treatment – not surpising then that Khajimba claimed the credit.

One of the major achievements of Bagapsh’s government and at the same time an important concern regards the amount of dissent tolerated in society. While even under Ardzynba, newspapers had always enjoyed a certain amount of freedom – only the room for plurality in Abkhazian society already present made Bagapsh’s election victory possible – society is generally seen to have become freer since. The opposition is free to protest, and no one was excluded from running in the recent election (in 2004 Alyksandr Ankvab was excluded on very dubious grounds, although this actually made the opposition’s victory possible, since the popular Ankvab then threw his support behind Bagapsh). Bagapsh also arranged for ordinary citizens to visit him and present their problems in person.

Yet there have been some incidents that are a cause for worry. In February 2009, the journalist Inal Khashig became the centre of a curious controversy. On the 3rd of February, Khashig had published an article in his newspaper Chegemskaya Pravda about the recent congress of President Bagapsh’s party United Abkhazia, which he criticised for lacking a political programme and blind loyalty towards the government. Then two weeks later, it was reported that on the 6th, Khashig had been taken by car to a sub-urban wasteland and threatened the fate of Dmitry Kholodov and Anna Politkovskaya lest he change his tone. Among the three perpetrators was said to be David Bagapsh, a nephew of the President and head of his presidential guard.

The news caused an outcry among opposition politicians, on the 18th a group of 31 journalists petitioned President Bagapsh to address the incident and members of the Public Chamber voiced their concern. Then, after initially refusing to comment Khashig himself essentially defused the story when he issued a statement in which he denied some of the more serious speculations. By Khashig’s account, the three man had merely him to a deserted part of the coastline, and taking into account that he was acquainted with two of them, he couldn’t describe the conversation as improper. Still, the episode left a bitter after taste.

More recently, on the 21st of September, the journalist Anton Krivenyuk was sentenced to a suspended prison sentence for libel. Krivenyuk had written an article for a Russian website, in which he criticised Bagapsh for handing over control of the Abkhazian railways to Russia, and the article had been republished in Abkhazian newspapers. This was the first time a journalist had been prosecuted in Abkhazia’s post-war history, even under former President Ardynba that had never happened.

These and smaller incidents were seen by some as directly related to the upcoming Presidential election. The election itself was generally perceived to have been reasonably free and fair, but far from perfect. One of the greatest problems was the undue advantage presented to Bagapsh and Ankvab through the use of administrative resources – including the participation of government officials in their campaign and the state TV’s extensive coverage of the government’s achievements.

A last area in which Bagapsh can be seen to have performed not as well as hoped is security. On the positive side, the situation in the Gali District is probably more peaceful than five years ago, mostly thanks to the policies of Bagapsh’s government. Furthermore, the capture of the upper part of the Kodor Valley during the August 2008 war and the subsequent recognition of Abkhazia’s independence by Russia greatly reduced the threat coming from Georgia, although it is not clear whether Bagapsh can be credited for this.

But what hasn’t changed is the government’s incapability to solve high level murder cases. Post-Soviet Abkhazia has seen a number of political assassinations which remained unresolved, among which the well-respected academic and Vice Premier Yuri Voronov in September 1995, and the former Mayor of Sukhum and opposition politician Garri Aiba in June 2004. During Bagapsh’s first term in office, Deputy Minister of the Interior Zakan Jugelia was added to that list when in January of 2009 he was shot while sitting on the verandah of café Kiki in Sukhum. Similarly, while it probably speaks in his favour that Prime Minister Ankvab was the target of no fewer than four assassination attempts during his time in office, what does not is that despite all its big words, the government has failed to identify any of the perpetrators. Nor has it been established who was responsible for the June and July 2008 and August 2009 bombings that killed a total of 6 people and injured at least 21 in the middle of the tourist seasons.

The government’s track record thus present a reasonable case that Bagapsh and Ankvab had not delivered enough, and that it was time for a new leader who would bring about the necessary government reforms and continue their work. But for better or worse, none of Bagapsh’s challengers in the election seemed suitable for that role.

Bagapsh had four opponents. Of these, the academic Vitali Bganba and his Vice Presidential candidate David Dasania are little known, and they did not feature at all in the campaign. Consequently, little can be said about them. The other three candidates were the subject of a useful background article written by Ardavadz Melkonian for NewCaucasus.com.

Bagapsh’s principal opponent was Raul Khajimba, who had lost the 2004 election and who had served as his Vice President until he resigned in May of 2009. Khajimba’s rhetoric during the election was good, and it spoke in his favour that Stanislav Lakoba – Bagapsh’s Vice Presidential candidate in 2004 – spoke highly of cooperating with Khajimba while in government and that he gave him his private support. Yet while Khajimba can be excused for not achieving much during his Vice Presidency, he doesn’t seem to have been much more effective as Prime Minister prior to the 2004 election. More damning still was the fact that Khajimba had been partially if not wholly responsible for the attempted election fraud in his favour in 2004. This presented a serious problem for his credibility. If indeed Bagapsh had not managed to resolve all the problems from Ardzynba’s era, and another step forward was required, Khajimba would actually have meant a step backward.

This was also the problem with Zaur Ardzynba, the next candidate, who acted closely in tandem with Khajimba throughout the campaign – the pair almost agreed to run as one team. Zaur Ardzynba’s post-independence CV did not extend much beyond having headed the State Shipping Company since 1994 and being rumoured to having become one of Abkhazia’s richest persons through controlling the fuel market. This firmly linked Zaur Ardzynba to the old system and it suggested a rather unfavourable disposition towards good governance et al.

The remaining candidate was the businessman Beslan Butba, and he was best positioned to claim that he would bring about real change. At 49, Butba was the youngest candidate, and he could already boast of financing a number of philanthropic projects, founding Abkhazia’s first private TV station Abaza TV, starting his own Party for the Economic Development of Abkhazia and presenting a number of concrete political proposals. But this record was seriously tarnished by the fact that he had replaced all of the journalists of his previously independent newspaper Ekho Abkhazii with political activists, and the fact that his campaign had solicited voters to sign a contract that they would vote for Butba. Lastly and perhaps most importantly, while it is a very good development that Abkhazia now has a private TV station, this would be for naught if its owner became President.

There is one more reason why it is probably for the best that these three opposition candidates did not win the election. One of Abkhazia’s greatest challenges in the coming years will be how it deals with the Gali District. The Gali District is inhabited almost exclusively by Mingrelians, and most of these do not hold Abkhazian citizenship (only 3522 passports have been distributed to the District’s 30,000 inhabitants). Now, until a couple of years ago, that did not matter much. But the current government has introduced the Abkhazian passport, which has become the central Identity Document within Abkhazia. This threatens to create a form of apartheid not unlike the situation in Palestine, and to turn Mingrelians into second-class citizens not just ethnically, but also administratively. And like Palestine, this not only presents a human rights problem, it also threatens Abkhazia’s hold over the Gali District. By necessity, at present its inhabitants mostly focus on their everyday survival, but as Abkhazia develops they will inevitably start to voice their discontents. And unless they have a future inside Abkhazian society, they will ultimately demand the secession of the Gali District to Georgia.

Many inhabitants of the Gali District do not want to adopt Abkhazian citizenship, especially since it would force them (by Abkhazian law) to abandon Georgian citizenship. But for many more, it is not even possible to obtain Abkhazian citizenship, since they did not live continuously in Abkhazia since 1993, having fled during the 1992-1993 or the May 1998 wars. Last summer, Bagapsh submitted to the People’s Assembly a law that would have made possible Abkhazian citizenship for those that returned no later than 1999. However, the plan provoked an outraged reaction from the united opposition. Its arguments were apparently the fact that the Mingrelians might come to act like a fifth column within Abkhazia, and/or that they would en masse vote for Bagapsh, as they had done in 2004, when they were still allowed to vote despite lacking citizenship. The government was forced to postpone it until after the election. It is to be hoped that now that Bagapsh has been re-elected, it will be adopted after all. Abkhazia cannot possibly hope to integrate the Gali District without granting citizenship to its inhabitants.

I have argued that there are several reasons why it was a good thing that Sergei Bagapsh was re-elected two months ago. But we have also seen that there is a lot of room for improvement. It is up to Sergei Bagapsh and Alyksandr Ankvab to live up to the renewed trust expressed in them by Abkhazia’s voters.

Filed under: Abkhazia, Elections, Human Rights, Media, , , ,

Georgian Public Broadcaster launches First Caucasian Channel

On 3 January the Georgian Public Broadcaster launched its third channel, the First Caucasian Channel. It will broadcast in Russian, and cover news from the wider region. For the moment though, it is only available on its website.

Given time and enough resources, and if the Georgian government ensures that it covers international events objectively and professionally, I believe this initiative has the potential to develop into a Caucasian version of BBC World.

Filed under: Georgia, Media, Wider Region, , , ,

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