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Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Georgians Capture Russian Soldier and Force Him to Eat a Big Mac

Alexander Glukhov, in captivity. (image snatched from Reuters)

It's a case of they said we said. Either 21 yr.old Alexander Glukhov was captured by Georgian soldiers and forced to make a taped statement denouncing his deplorable living conditions and ill-treatment in South Ossetia, then forced to eat a Big Mac; or as Georgia claims, he came on his own free will to seek political asylum and citizenship.

Maybe Georgian troops did capture Glukhov and bring him to McDonalds, which could be considered an act against humanity. Or maybe Glukhov was just one of thousands of Russian soldiers who desert annually.

Several years ago, anywhere between 5000-40,000 young men deserted annually, depending on who you believe.Fred Weir has a good, although dated story about desertion HERE.

The BBC reports that the Russian Defense dept. figures state 471 service personnel died non-combat deaths in 2008, 30 more than the previous year. Non-combat deaths would be from illness, beating or suicide. In June 2005, 46 Russian soldiers committed suicide in a single week.

I'm reading Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya's book: Putin's Russia. She wrote so many stories about the corruption and abuse within the Russian military, she earned a bullet in the head in October 2006.

While no army is a cakewalk, I can't imagine anything more hellish than to be a conscript in the Russian army. That's one thing that could make a Big Mac taste good.

Molly Corso's interview with Glukhov HERE

Monday, January 26, 2009

Russian Allegations against Georgia of Genocide and Other War Crimes

My last time in Abkhazia, everybody talked about the 2000 civilians the Georgians murdered and the babies they ran over in tanks. Many raised an accusatory finger at me for not reporting "the truth."

"What truth?" I replied.

2 days after the Georgian offensive against Tskhinvali, Russian media came up with a round figure of 2000 civilian deaths, which is certainly easy to remember. Although the Russian authorities eventually counted 162 official deaths, the damage had been done, particularly as the lower number had not been widely reported in Russia and elsewhere. All over the net you will find 2000 as the accepted number.

When I asked the Abkhaz if they had heard about the genocide being committed against Georgians, they stared blankly back. In the pause that followed they seemed to be remembering the atrocities committed against them in 1992 by Georgians.

"Action brings reaction," was the response, which is how they justify the fact Georgians no longer live in Abkhazia (Gali excluded).

HRW published their report a couple days ago. Here's a section of the report regarding Russia's genocide allegations:

Political Statements and Russian Criminal Investigation

From the very beginning of the conflict, Russian authorities put significant effort into documenting alleged violations by Georgian forces. An investigation is being conducted by the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation Prosecutor’s Office (Sledstvennyi Komitet Prokuratury, or SKP).

During his August 10, 2008 meeting with the head of the SKP, President Dmitry Medvedev stated that “the actions of the Georgian side cannot be called anything other than genocide,” and ordered the SKP to document the evidence of crimes committed by Georgian forces in South Ossetia in order to create a “necessary basis for the criminal prosecution of individuals responsible for these crimes.” ...

...On September 25 the head of the SKP reported that the evidence-gathering phase of the investigation had been completed and that “[t]he investigative work allowed us to come to an unequivocal conclusion that the goal of the aggressors was the total annihilation of the national group of Ossetians residing in South Ossetia.”

Human Rights Watch does not have access to the SKP’s investigative files and thus cannot assess the evidence gathered and the validity of these allegations. HWR’s written requests to the Russian government to meet with the prosecutor’s office went unanswered.

Russia’s Allegations Not Supported by Available Evidence

Information collected by HRW suggests that while the actions by the Georgian forces clearly violated international humanitarian law, they did not amount to the crime of genocide. This opinion seemed to be shared by the rapporteurs of the Committee on the Honouring of Obligations and Commitments by Member States of the Council of Europe (Monitoring Committee), who visited Georgia and Russia at the end of September and prepared a report to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE).

During the hearing, Rapporteur of the Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights Christos Pourgourides noted, The facts do not seem to support the genocide allegations against Georgia: the number of Ossetian (civilian) victims of the Georgian assault (“thousands” according to early numbers cited by the Russian authorities relying on “provisional data”) seem to be much exaggerated;...Individual
atrocities such as those described in certain Russian media and submissions to the Committee of Ministers would be serious crimes in their own right, but not attempted genocide. Some statements attributed to SKP representatives also raise serious concerns about the accuracy and thoroughness of the investigation. For example, reporting on the findings of the SKP on August 21, Rossiiskaya Gazeta (the main official Russian newspaper) wrote,

In the village of Tsinagar[i], the aggressors executed all civilians in a church where they tried to find refuge. According to Archbishop Feofan of Stavropol and Vladikavkaz, Georgian soldiers were dragging pregnant women out of houses and beating and killing them for delectation of the crowd. One Tskhinvali resident was trying to protect her child from the Georgians, but the baby was shot dead right in her lap.

HWR interviewed a resident of Tsinagari who said that no such thing happened in his village. In a letter to Human Rights Watch, the Russian Foreign Ministry attributed the same incident to the village of Dmenisi instead. However, numerous Ossetian villagers interviewed by HRW in that village said they never heard about, let alone witnessed, such an incident.

HRW researchers were told similar hearsay accounts of atrocities allegedly committed by Georgian troops in other villages of South Ossetia, but our follow-up research did not confirm these allegations. For example, in August, right after the end of hostilities, several people told Human Rights Watch that civilians were burned to death in a church in Khetagurovo. When Human Rights Watch visited Khetagurovo, local residents vehemently denied such allegations. A staff member of the South Ossetia Committee for Press and Information told Human Rights Watch that the incident actually happened in Sarabuki. Our researchers immediately traveled to Sarabuki, only to discover that local residents had not even heard that story.

Similarly, hearsay allegations of rape circulated widely in South Ossetia, but no leads provided to Human Rights Watch produced credible results.

Accusations of atrocities and genocide allegedly committed by the Georgian troops were also widely publicized by the Public Commission for Investigating War Crimes in South Ossetia, a group of Russian and South Ossetian public activists working with the prosecutor’s office of the de facto South Ossetian authorities. The commission was created on August 12, 2008, and immediately went to Tskhinvali and started interviewing witnesses and collecting other evidence of violations committed by Georgia.

A report published by the commission shortly thereafter contained numerous statements by survivors and witnesses of Georgia’s assault against South Ossetia. However, in many cases, especially the ones describing deaths or injuries, the necessary details and analysis were missing that would have allowed determination of whether the victims were civilians or combatants (especially in the cases of male victims), and whether the circumstances of their death suggested violations of the laws of war by Georgian forces.

HWR asked the Public Commission for the names of witnesses who could confirm the stories of specific egregious acts by the Georgian forces, including the burning of civilians in a village church (the alleged Khetagurovo/Sarabuki incident mentioned above). Commission representatives promised to provide this information, but at this writing they have not done so.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Bakuriani, if you dare

(lifted off

Two years ago I had vowed never to return to Bakuriani in winter, but then I never imagined somebody would someday pay me to go. What is more, they would put me up in a room in the newly built Hotel Tbilisi and feed me three times a day. All I'd have to do is play 2 ½ sets of music every night for a week during the post New Year holidays.

Bakuriani is a resort town in-the-making, about 20 kilometers from Borjomi in southern Georgia. The two towns lost out on their bid to host the 2014 Winter Olympic Games to Sochi, Russia, which might have been a blessing in disguise. Transforming Bakuriani into a world class ski resort in a matter of years rather than decades is about as realistic as Georgia ever having an independent judiciary.

This is not say there is potential. The stunning landscape is a ski resort developer's wet dream, with a dozen ski runs begging to be whacked out of the pines in every direction. Training Georgians how to use these facilities civilly, however, could be daunting.

First, Georgians must learn how to drive in the snow, particularly as the roads are not plowed. That snow is slippery stuff, which is why the rest of the world puts chains on their wheels. Most Georgians, however, cannot be bothered with such frivolous acts. This makes trudging along the side of the road exceedingly treacherous as not only must you watch out for cars but there are also horse-drawn sleighs, snowmobiles and ATCs to contend with.

Although I considered putting in a couple runs, one look at the lift line was all it took to send me into the lodge for a cognac. Waiting in a lift line is a universal annoyance at every ski area in the world, but when there are no roped serpentines to assist people in the civilized process of queuing, and the country you are in is Georgia, the lift line becomes the mother of all ski nightmares, unless you're Georgian.

Like tire chains, Georgians cannot be inconvenienced with serpentines. They prefer the funnel method, where people stand on each other's skis and elbow their way to the front of the line. In peace, love and free hugs California, standing on a person's skis is the quickest way to get a pole in the eye, yet Georgians will shuffle and bump all over themselves for an hour without so much as a grunt, get on the rope tow or chair lift and ski down the mountain in a couple minutes only to repeat the inanity. It's quite remarkable, in a way, especially when you consider how short life is.

Another significant difference between Bakuraini and Innsbruck, Squaw Valley or Lake Placid is that the concept of waste disposal has not yet been developed, although this year I saw a garbage truck for the first time, which is no doubt a positive sign. It stops wherever people toss their plastic bags full of rubbish and a guy scoops whatever he can into the back of the truck. The problem is that stray dogs and pigs get to the garbage first, which might be handy for the animal but not so good for the aesthetics and environment. The odd thing is that only foreigners seem to find this detail disturbing.

I promised myself I would not complain on this past trip to Bakuriani. After all, I was getting paid to do what I love and breathing clean mountain air to boot. Being crammed into a room with my four band mates was only a minor exercise in zenmanship, despite the all-night polyphonic snore choir, sopping whisker growing bathroom and general lack of oxygen. Fortunately, I had a three day reprise from the intimacy and stayed at a guest house with my lady and our friends who came up for a weekend. Our hostess stuffed us with her home grown cooked delicacies, and even sacrificed one of her rabbits for our benefit.

The club however, was rasping away at my demeanor. Bakuriani nightlife, like waste management, is a new concept. At the Hotel Tbilisi club, people come hang out, play pool, drink and listen to the barman's selection of death metal and remixed pop tunes at maximum level. We were just the house band and for the most part played to a black hole of an audience. I would not have hired a blues band for such a crowd, if I had been the boss.

As expected, we were asked to play Pink Floyd, The Beatles and Led Zeppelin. On my last night, a drunk came up between every song and asked me to play Tracy Chapman. I told him time and time again we were a blues band and we didn't play that shit. Then he came up while I was soloing and snatched the microphone off the stand. In touchy-feelie California and everywhere else I know of in the world, that's the quickest way to get clobbered by a guitar or tossed out on your can. But this is Georgia I reminded myself, things work differently...