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Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Signifying Mud

One year after the Russia-Georgia war and the scum is still floating on the top. In some cases, it is still rising.

The Russian prosecutor general's office is now claiming that “soldiers from Ukraine's regular defense ministry detachments and at least 200 members of the UNA-UNSO nationalist organization took part in the armed aggression against South Ossetia."

This accusation has come one year after the deputy chief of Russia’s General Staff, Colonel General Anatoly Nogovitsyn, held a news conference in Moscow and revealed that Russian troops had found a passport in Tskhinvali belonging to an American named Michael Lee White. This proved without a question of a doubt that the USA was behind the war. Never mind that White was an English teacher based in China and had lost his passport at the airport in Moscow. Nogovitsyn’s revelation came out on the same day Vladimir Putin told CNN that he suspected the war was deliberately provoked by the US, in order to help “one of the candidates” in the US election. And let us not forget the corpses of “dark-skinned mercenaries” found in Tskhinvali Russian news reported.

The conspiracy theorists loved this shit. All over the internet, left-wing nutbags jerked it off for all it was worth. The equation was simple. If Bush’s foreign policy was bad, then Saakashvili was bad. Therefore, his enemy Putin must be good. The man that leveled Grozny during his dirty war with Chechnya had suddenly become a victim of the Cheney doctrine. Blah blah blah.

I have friends in Armenia and Abkhazia that really believe the US masterminded the war, based on Russia’s successful propaganda machine and the logic that the US wouldn’t have armed and trained Georgia otherwise. The US can be blamed for lots of things but not for instigating or taking part in last August’s war. The US had repeatedly told Saakashvili to mellow out on the war drum stuff. Renewed conflict would only crush Bush’s big plan to get Georgia into NATO, which it ultimately did.

People also believe that Georgian troops were doped to kill civilians, as that is what the headlines said. The Moscow Bureau for Human Rights (MBHR) interviewed witnesses who claimed that captured Georgian troops had needle marks in their arms. Think about it. Georgian commanders handing out fixes of heroin to their men to help them run over babies in tanks and shoot grandmothers. The logic is compelling.

And as I have mentioned before, people are still stuck on the number of 2000 civilian deaths in Tskhinvali, a number that was accepted before the smoke cleared in the de facto South Ossetian capital, only two days after the August 8th attack. Later, the number fluctuated between 1400-2100, depending on who was reporting. Numbers are good for news. Even Reuters fell for it. It was too late when head of the Russian Prosecutor-General’s investigative committee, Alexander Bastyrkinet, came out with the official civilian death toll of 162 on Christmas 2008. Yet the number is enough for South Ossetia and Russia to claim “genocide” with a straight face, while marauders amped up on the conviction of 2000 deaths systematically destroyed Georgian villages, by flame and bulldozer, displacing tens of thousands people from their homes.

And today, because the Ukraine isn’t playing ball on Russia’s terms, the country has become implicated in the South Ossetia war. Mud flinging is free and easy when the state controls the media and Russia well knows that mud sticks, if you throw enough of it, often enough.

(image lifted off

Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Postman Blues

In our neighborhood of Zemo Vera the postman never rings twice, he just waltzes into our crib and says “dobry dien, dobry dien.” Most often than not I am either rinsing the suds off my body at the time or privately philosophizing in the porcelain isolation chamber. His timing is impeccable. His kisses (yes, kisses) reek of garlic and/or vodka and although I always offer my cheek as tradition stipulates, it's my lips he's after.

The truth is, we're lucky he barges in to kiss me at all. It used to be that, intimidated by the hill and our next door neighbors' seven-headed beasts, he would leave our mail with a lower dwelling neighbor instead.

One scorching summer day, while I was outside watching our rock garden sweat, a little fireplug of a man wearing an Azeri pancake cap appeared out of the blue, huffing and wheezing with a handful of mail.

“Is this you?” he asked.

He showed me a large envelope postmarked in French to the embassy a couple hundred meters below.

“No, not me. It's for the embassy. See, there's the address.”

He swore, rolled his eyes heavenward and waited for his breath to return. I offered him water. We talked about the weather, although there wasn't much to say except it was bloody hot. Mahmet mentioned he had been delivering mail in Vera for over 30 years and that he made something like three lari a day; about a buck-75.

The next time Mahmet came huffing up the hill he was clutching a worthless KLM frequent-flier notice, but he got our address right. We tipped him a lari. He no longer left our mail with a neighbor at the bottom of the hill after that, although it didn't quite help him remember our names too well as he would sometimes show up with anything addressed in western script, regardless of the street name. For this, Mahmet would not get a tip.

I gotta mention that I never get mail. Nobody sends me anything. My girl gets all the postal attention although I did receive a Xmas card at the end of March one year, to which Mahmet received 3 lari, as I was suddenly overwhelmed with a belated holiday spirit. Otherwise, I am still waiting for a package of harmonicas my brother sent from California 5 years ago.

“I love your view,” he once said between gasps of breath. “But what you need right over there is a fountain.”


“Yes, fountains are beautiful.”

I tried to picture the type of fountain he had in mind, but came up blank every time. But never fail, every time he showed up with our mail, or some other foreigner's, he'd remind us how lovely a fountain would be.

Lip kisses and body odor aside, I like Mahmet. Yet one must wonder if he tries delivering other people's mail to us, what is he delivering them? I don't blame him for being confused as much as I blame the institution he works for. A visit to a Georgian post office is a trip back in time, only things worked better then. The windows at the main post office looked as if they were last washed in the Kruschev era, which was about the last time the employees there smiled.

One day Mahmet showed up in a new uniform. This was about the time Gigi Ugulava became mayor and started his project on reinventing Tbilisi. Mahmet no longer wore his pancake, but was sporting a blue baseball cap instead, along with a white shirt, red tie and blue trousers with a red stripe.

“You like my new costume?” he asked abasedly. “...I feel like a (Soviet) Pioneer.”

Uniforms are supposed to help improve a civil servant's dignity, but in Mahmet's case, it was demeaning. He looked like somebody tried dressing him up like a Cub Scout for laughs.

Fortunately for Mahmet, the uniform regulation was short-lived, but he still comes barging in from time to time with his pancake hat on his head and three-day growth of beard prompted to sand the skin of my cheek as I avoid his moistened lips and give him a mercy hug instead.

"Is this you?" he asks, and sometimes it is.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Substance and Reality: Hollywood on the South Ossetian War

The director that brought us A Nightmare on Elm Street 4, The Adventures of Ford Fairlane and Die Hard 2 announced he is already casting for a low budget “art film” about the 2008 South Ossetian war. What we don’t know is which version of the war Renny Harlin aims to present.

In March, a Russian produced version of the war, Olympus Inferno, has an American entomologist and Russian journalist stumble into the conflict to discover how Georgia and America secretly started it all and committed genocide etc. etc. As a Russian propaganda tool, the made for TV movie has been a great success, as people throughout the former USSR believe the action film is based on proven facts, and take them at face value.

What facts will 5-time Razzie nominee (worst director/worst film) Renny Harlin base his war film on? Let’s hope he doesn’t get his information from the same place Hollywood’s premier source of news, Variety, does:

“The five-day war saw Georgia launching a large-scale military assault on the Russian-backed Republic of South Ossetia: an internationally unrecognized regional government resulting from the Georgian / Ossetian conflict of 1991-2… Russia responded with some force, but recognized South Ossetia's independence in late August 2008, and had officially withdrawn by October, although tensions remain.”

Nice try, Hollywood.

What we do know is that Renny said his film will be about a pair of journalists and how they deal with being impartial and the sympathy they have for the locals they met. The truth is, the only journalists in the war that should have had existential impartiality issues were the propaganda blowhorns, Russia Today TV and Georgian’s own, Rustavi 2. Most everyone else was too busy chasing honest stories and hurrying back to file them in the hopes they wouldn’t get shot or blown up along the way.

"I've waited a long time to find something with substance and reality," the director of the 2009 flop, 12 Rounds, said.

He may be right there. His 30 year career is full of nothing but forgettable movies. But if directors like Ki-duk Kim, Lech Kowalski, Nuri Bilge Ceylan and Mohsen Makhmalbaf have based their lives on directing films of “substance and reality” what’s been Renny’s problem?

I cringed through the first ten nauseating minutes of Olympus Inferno on Youtube before quitting. While some people are excited a Hollywood rendition of Georgian reality will bring mainstream attention to this quirky corner of the world, I can only squirm and expect the worse from a guy whose claim to fame was a sequel to an action film starring Bruce Willis.

The South Ossetian war remains a highly convoluted subject that has been so twisted by the media nobody knows which way is up. Even Variety has its version of the war. It is a subject that demands intelligent treatment, not some superficial Tinsletown rendition directed by a two-bit bum from Palookaville. Georgia deserves better.

(Ford Fairlane "won" the 1990 Golden Raspberry Award for Worst Actor, Worst Picture and Worst Screenplay. It was also nominated for Worst Director and twice for Worst Supporting Actor.)