Tag Archives: South Ossetia

‘Georgia for Georgians’ Returns to Tbilisi

This week I was strolling around Hero Square between meetings and saw some fresh graffiti in one of the stairwells adjacent to the zoo.

In English it was scrawled: “Georgia for Georgians.” The whole descent on the stairwell was decorated with swastikas, SS symbols and other phrases like “Fuck Niggers” and “We’ll rise again.”


These Nazi and openly racist statements are likely more shocking to most Western readers, especially Americans, who have a long and painful history with the N-word.

I, however, was struck most by “Georgia for Georgians.” It’s hard to find any European city these days without a bit of neo-Nazi vandalism. Those swastikas and racial slurs could have just as easily been found in Paris or Vienna as Tbilisi.

But, “Georgia for Georgians” has a more specific, dark history in this country. It was one of the loudest cries of Georgia’s chaotic rebirth as an independent post-Soviet state. That slogan and the policy implications behind them played a major role in the young country’s descent into civil war, poverty and anarchy throughout the 90’s. In fact, those words are so iconic that they have their own Wikipedia page.


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News and other stuff you should be reading (when you’re not reading Three Kings)

Remember that country we created? – First of all, Global Post has been virtually the only news organization that has taken a seriously look at the fact that the United States continues to support the Kosovo government, which, as recent allegations allege, is led by mafiosos who are managing drug, internal organ and sex trafficking on the side. I have made my thoughts on this overlooked scandal quite clear in several posts (click here for Three Kings’ past Kosovo coverage). Global Post has done great work pulling together the facts in a three-part series called “Kosovo’s ‘Mafia.’” Everyone should check it out.

Femen protesters in a demonstration against "all forms of patriarchy."

Flashing for feminism – Elsewhere, my friend, Emily Channell, has a very interesting post at Facile Gestures Blog (which you should all be reading as well) about Femen, a fascinating organization of feminist activists in Ukraine. Rightly or wrongly, Femen is most well known for their topless protests in public places. While focusing on that particular tactic belies some of the overarching points Femen is making, it brings about an interesting discussion. By making their bodies — both the subject of objectification by men and submission by the state — into the vehicle for their protest are they successfully appropriating their sexuality and subverting the perversion of the masculine state? Or, as others argue, are they continuing their subordination and objectification through this method and giving the world “a lasting picture what a Ukrainian girl is: beautiful, slim and ready to undress as soon as a camera is pointed at her”? Give it a read.
When diplomats keep it real – And finally, back to Georgia. Last week offered one of the unfortunately rare examples of foreign diplomats in Georgia taking on the role of public truth-sayers. First, French Ambassador to Georgia — and fabulous saxophone player — Eric Furnier slammed the Georgian government in a public forum for failing grasp and implement the EU’s policy suggestions. The CE News Blog had a rough translation:

“It seems like all the efforts of the European Union have been like pouring water in the sand, that we are making absolutely no progress, and that the European Neighbourhood Policy is maybe empty or not European at all, because, what is left of the European values in what we heard? Almost nothing. Lack of freedom of media, total contempt for labour and trade unions, lack of progress in economy. It’s a disaster.”

“I’m afraid after hearing you, I have the impression of getting a description of a neo-bolshevik state with absolutely no freedom. And when I heard that there is now young people for stealing 8 [Georgia lari’s worth of] goods, throw them into jail, it is absolutely scary. [...]”

“[...] So I think it’s about time we maybe organise more seminars of this kind, but maybe putting on the table concrete steps to change the situation. Because what you have just been telling us is – I’m sorry – very depressing for any European citizen. Thank you”

In the middle he was making reference to the story of a teenager in Gori who was thrown in jail after stealing a box of pens. Apparently he was offered to pay an exorbitant restitution amounting to thousands of lari, instead got locked up for several years.
Following on Furnier’s tirade, Hansjörg Haber, head of the EU Monitoring Mission in Georgia (EUMM) — a notoriously quiet and passive bunch — dished out some tough truth at the NATO Parliamentary Assembly’s Rose-Roth Seminar in Tbilisi on March 23. He said the peace process with Russia was “not progressing.” He also agreed that Russia had in the past used Abkhazia and South Ossetia to leverage Tbilisi for more influence, and therefore, Moscow lost what cards it had once it recognized them as independent. Now, the Russians “are at a loss how to re-establish their influence over Georgia,” and so far their approach is “not very imaginative.”

But, Georgia’s policy isn’t much better, he said.

“Basically it consists of using international leverage to demonstrate the continued character of the principle of territorial integrity, which of course we all support and therefore additional confirmations of the principle of territorial integrity tend to demonstrate the principle of diminishing returns,” Haber said. [...]

He cited an example of Georgia’s demand in respect of Russia’s WTO bid, wherein Tbilisi in exchange of its consent for Russia’s WTO entry wants to have some sort of control over the trade at the Abkhaz and South Ossetian sections of the Georgian-Russian border.

“Legally this is certainly justified demand,” Haber said, but added that even if this demand would materialize “what is going to change in terms of ultimate Georgian objective of reintegration of Abkhazia and South Ossetia?”

“I do not see any contribution towards this national goal”.

“So there is really question of whether Georgia wants to win diplomatic battles to underscore again the principle of territorial integrity or whether it wants to promote reintegration,” he added.

After his speech, Giorgi Kandelaki, an MP on the foreign relations committee, spoke and defended the push for customs agents as it would add a “political dynamic” to the issue. But that is exactly what many European diplomats have told me is the problem. Rather than moving towards resolution, Tbilisi remains committed to politicizing and polarizing the peace talks with Abkhazia and South Ossetia in pursuit of small, short-sighted victories.

Haber wasn’t finished. He also argued, like me, that the Georgian government needs to engage directly with Sokhumi and Tskhinvali.

In this context he said that the Georgian authorities’ treatment of Sokhumi and Tskhinvali as mere Russian puppets was further pushing the two regions “deeper into Russia” and such approach was not advancing the cause of reintegration.

He also spoke of “notable differences” between Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

“South Ossetian diplomacy,” he said, “is angry; it’s passionate; it’s exaggerating, but they are still closer to Georgia.”

“Abkhazia is different – they are more moderate, but… they are completely cold with respect to Georgia,” Haber said.

He also said that both Abkhazia and South Ossetia “need strong gestures from Georgia to consider alternatives to the present relationship with Russia.”

It’s a shame these sorts of signals are only sent to the Georgian government publicly when they are coming from the mouths of delegates on their way out of the country.

Just for fun – Not to pile on or anything, but in another healthy sign of political competition from Georgia’s rowdy opposition, two major opposition figures got into a brawl in the Munich airport. Like a lot of things in Georgian politics, you just can’t make this stuff up.

East Timor a model for Georgia? … for Abkhazia and South Ossetia?

Courtesy of wikipedia commons

I’ve been pondering models for peaceful ways forward in normalizing the Russian-Georgian relationship lately and also for the gradual and long-term resolution with Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Most EU people I talk to look at Northern Cyprus as the correct model for engagement and resolution of Georgia’s breakaway territories. While I certainly like what has been done there more than here, it is necessary to point out that the Cyprus situation is in fact, still unresolved after nearly 30 years.

East Timor, or Timor Leste, is another interesting situation. East Timor announced this week that it is interested in increasing its military cooperation with Indonesia, buying patrol boats for $40 million — on loan — and said it hopes to establish military education ties.

Normally, a deal of this size would hardly be noticeable, it’s only interesting because of who is involved. Indonesia brutally occupied East Timor between 1975 and 1999. It is estimated that the occupation cost between 100,000-183,000 Timorese lives — out of a population of less than 700,000. East Timor became officially independent in 2002, and needless to say, there has been no love lost with its former occupier.

Thus, with ties seeming to improve and bilateral cooperation increasing, the two countries represent a good example of how nations with bloody histories can move on peacefully. Frankly, I don’t know enough about Indonesia to compare it to Russia and say definitively whether this example is transferrable at all, but the headline nonetheless left me thinking, “Wouldn’t it be nice if Georgia and Russia could have normal regional collaborative relationships rather than stockpiling weapon systems and warships to fight one another?”

Like East Timor and Indonesia, Georgia, Russia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia have plenty of ugly baggage, but they also have common interests and all would be better off if their respective governments could stop politicizing their situations and get down to real business. I guess this is just my hippy post of the week — you can’t hug with firearms … unless you’re making them together!

Non-use of force agreement: is this a whole new ball game?

The European Parliament in Strasbourg, France

There has been little good news in in Tbilisi’s attempts to resolve its nearly 20-year-old conflicts with its two breakaway regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, practically since they began. If anything, the situation has worsened, particularly after Georgia’s 2008 war with Russia, which ended with Russia and three other countries recognizing the two regions as independent. However, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili may have just changed the paradigm by announcing to the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France Nov. 23, that he was renouncing the use of force against both the separatists and the Russian forces that are currently based within their de facto borders.

If sincere, this is the kind of mentality shift that could go a long way to ending these painful conflicts, but is it too little, too late? To get a better idea, I had a discussion with the Michael Cecire, independent analyst and editor of Evolutsia.net, the most established English-language blog on Georgia.

Michael Cecire:

To begin, why don’t you give me your take on this?

Nick Clayton:

My initial reaction was that this is long overdue. Despite the fact that both parties technically had to reject the use of force according to the 2008 cease-fire, neither side has a been fully following that agreement since the end of the war — Russian forces have not returned to their prewar positions, and Georgia continues to fly drones over South Ossetia. So, while on paper this may seem like small potatoes, it could turn out to be a breakthrough. Continue reading

Organ trafficking in Kosovo: who were the good guys again?

Seven people, including at least one senior government official, were charged Monday Nov. 15, with running an illegal organ trafficking network in Kosovo, European Union officials said.

According to the indictment, the traffickers lured people from slums in Istanbul, Moscow, Moldova and Kazakhstan with promises of up to $20,000 for their organs. Law enforcement officials say many never received a cent. The operations were performed at a private clinic in a run-down neighborhood on the outskirts of Pristina, the Kosovar capital.

While the ring was first discovered two years ago, the global scale of the network and its victims is only now becoming clear.

This article took me back to memory lane, thinking of analyzing the accusations, recriminations and consequences of a war that most people know little about.

At about this time three years ago I was at Hertzen University in St. Petersburg, Russia beginning research into the issue of Kosovo independence, and how that conflict and the debate over Kosovo’s status had become a turning point in the NATO-Russian relationship.

The disagreement between NATO and Russia in 1999 over whether or not to intervene in the Kosovo War led to disturbing close calls where British soldiers were ordered to attack and “destroy” a Russian force that had taken over an airfield, and held serious ramifications for the relationship, leading up to the Russian-Georgian war in August 2008. Continue reading

Saakashvili celebrates victory over Russia

Saakashvili meets with Georgian troops at the Krstanisi military base in February.

Saakashvili meets with Georgian troops at the Krstanisi military base in February.

Apparently I missed a rather odd weekend in Tbilisi.

Throughout the region, local journalists and politicians mark August 7-8 on their calendar for the usual stories and statements about the anniversary of the August 2008 war between Georgia and Russia. The political leaders of Russia, Georgia, South Ossetia and Abkhazia snipe and grandstand and journalists write up something quick about where the two sides stand today.

I didn’t stay for the fireworks and instead marked the war’s birthday by trekking my way through Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park in central Georgia.

Surprisingly, what I missed in Tbilisi was, indeed, fireworks.

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Georgia, Russia move to open border, resume direct flights

It’s still unclear when this will happen or what the exact conditions of the arrangement will be. The only thing that is certain is that both sides have decided it is mutually beneficial to reopen the Zemo Larsi border checkpoint and resume direct flights between the two countries, and therefore they will likely make the move official relatively soon (I’ve been hearing the 25th will be the magic date).

The devil will be in the details. Whether or not Russia will allow Georgian products to be sold in Russia after a three-year embargo is the biggest issue at stake.

Although Russian President Dmitri Medvedev indicated that Georgian products should be allowed to ”legally” enter Russia, this distinction seems to allow Russia to maintain bans on Georgian goods, which were originally embargoed citing impurities and counterfeiting concerns. Previously, Russia was Georgia’s biggest trading partner.

Below is my article in the Washington Times on the various issues surrounding the border reopening. Why it has more to do with supplies to Armenia than peace with Georgia, and why many Georgians fear it could expand the one of the nation’s long-standing ethnic conflicts.

TBILISI | Georgia and Russia appear about to reopen their border and end a four-year trade blockade – a step welcomed by many in the region, but one that some fear could lead to new ethnic clashes nearly a year and a half after a brief war.

Russia cut off all transit with Georgia in 2006, amid souring relations between the Kremlin and Georgia’s pro-Western government. On Dec. 10, however, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev announced in Moscow that he saw “no obstacles” to reopening the Zemo Larsi checkpoint and resuming direct flights between the two countries. The next day, a spokesman for Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili welcomed the move.

The checkpoint is the only legal land passage through the Caucasus Mountains. Before the embargo, it coursed with trade and transit. But, in the ethnically mixed region that surrounds the checkpoint, fears have spread that reopening the border could tip demographic balances and expand one of the area’s long-standing ethnic conflicts.

The Zemo Larsi checkpoint lies on the highway from Tbilisi to Vladikavkaz, capital of Russia’s Autonomous Republic of North Ossetia. On the Georgian side, much of the highway runs just a few miles from the de facto border of South Ossetia. The breakaway former Georgian enclave first declared independence in 1992 and voted for independence in a referendum in 2006, but remained unrecognized as such until the August 2008 war. Since then, Russia, Nicaragua and Venezuela have recognized South Ossetia.

To read the rest of the article click here.

Abkhazia piece in the Washington Diplomat

I also forgot to put up my Abkhazia piece that ran in the September issue of the Washington Diplomat. For those of you familiar with my earlier reporting from Abkhazia, nothing in it should surprise you, but it is a longer and more in depth summation of the situation here since last August.

TBILISI, Georgia — Just over a year after Russia recognized the independence of the Georgian breakaway republics Abkhazia and South Ossetia following a brief war with Georgia, the region is still shaking from the consequences.

The mid-August visit of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to Abkhazia promising to boost the Russian military presence there further rattled nerves, both in Georgia and in the United States.

In Abkhazia, however, one word is on the lips of everyone from government officials to taxi drivers: progress.

“The most important change [since August 2008] is the stability of Abkhazia. People finally know that they can live under a peaceful and independent government, and build their future — through economic development, political development, rebuilding all that was destroyed by the war,” said de facto Abkhaz President Sergei Bagapsh.

Following the 1992-1993 conflict between Georgia and Abkhaz separatists, which drove Georgian forces out of the province, Abkhazia had been economically and diplomatically isolated.

However, that quickly changed last August after a five-day war between Russian and Georgian forces in South Ossetia that left hundreds dead and Moscow firmly entrenched in the two enclaves. Both Moscow and Tbilisi point their fingers at the other for instigating the fighting, and an international fact-finding mission is set to release its report on the conflict at the end of the month.

To read the full article, click here.

Three Kings on KGNU Independent Radio

Continuing Three Kings’ collaboration with John and Jeff from the Colorado Progressive Voice, I talked to those two gentlemen on KGNU Independent Community Radio (88.5 FM in Boulder and 1390 AM in Denver).

The original broadcast ran on Tuesday, but for those of you who missed it or do not live in the Denver area, you can still listen to our discussion about the restless Caucasus and the continuing struggle for influence between NATO and Russia there on KGNU’s site here.

The intro to my interview comes at about the 15:30 mark. Enjoy!


During my first week here I was offered a last minute spot on a trip up to Kazbegi. Apparently some friends of friends were going up to the mountains and only had three people to rent out a four-bedroom room in a bed and breakfast and were looking for someone to join and bring the costs down.

The whole weekend trip was going to cost around 50 lari or $30 including transportation and food, so I gladly hopped aboard.

It ended up being a great time, I am not exaggerating when I say I have never seen such astounding natural beauty in my life.

  Twenty years ago, Kazbegi was a prime tourist destination for Soviet citizens. The small town nestled in the shadow of Mount Kazbek (16,558 ft) even applied to be a site for the Winter Olympics. But, as the Soviet empire disintegrated so did Kazbegi’s prestige.

  Although the natural beauty of the mountains that rise on all sides of the town has not diminished, these towering walls of rock and ice now hold new significance. Kazbegi is now bordered on all sides by the Russian autonomous republics of North Ossetia and Chechnya and the Georgian break-away republic South Ossetia. 
Ilina and Valera

Ilina and Valera

  As Georgia’s relations with its Northern neighbor have plummeted, so too did the local economy. The highway from Tbilisi to Vladikavkaz, the capital of North Ossetia, which used to course with trade in both directions — wine and cheeses from the South, Russian processed goods from the North — now ends at Kazbegi, as the border has now been closed. Hundreds of Georgians who made a living driving truckloads of goods North and South are now out of work. Dozens of old stone homes in the town have been abandoned and gutted.
From the left, Ilina, yours truly and Andro. Not pictured -- Valera, the enthusiastic photographer.

From the left, Ilina, yours truly and Andro. Not pictured -- Valera, the enthusiastic photographer.

  As Russia made war in Chechnya throughout the 1990′s and 2000′s, streams of Chechen refugees flowed into the area. And as the South Ossetia gained de facto independence through ethnic-based conflict culminating in the August war between Russia and Georgia, Kazbegi now faces a new threat.
  Although for years the livelihood of the town depended on trade and tourism with Russian cities in the North, Kazbegi residents today hope the border remains closed.
Andro thinks wearing a pancho in a waterfall will keep him dry.

Andro thinks wearing a pancho in a waterfall will keep him dry.

  Ossetians are a sizable minority in Kazbegi and many of the other nearby towns. Since the August war, these minorities have been clamoring to be incorporated into the territory of South Ossetia, which Russia and Nicaragua have recognized as an independent country. If the border is reopened Georgian residents fear more Ossetians will pour into these towns to constitute a voting majority, and the conflict would spread to their doorsteps.
  Nonetheless, Kazbegi residents continue to run bed-and-breakfast guest houses and charge low fees to drive visitors up to the waterfalls and various other sights around town. In a quiet and cautious way, the residents of this beautiful, yet troubled town continue on.
  Unfortunately I can’t yet post more of the many great photos I got up in Kazbegi, as I’m still trying to pitch a magazine story about the place, and those photos may be end up being used.