When it comes to coverage of the ongoing feud
and Russia, the Western mass media have a tendency to draw their testimony
from "official" sources – political leaders, think tank analysts and
the representatives of semi-political organizations such as the OSCE
and Western-funded NGOs. However, with only a few exceptions, the voice of the
common people is rarely heard. This tacit media complicity all too often invalidates
the viewpoint of regular Georgians or Russians as being irrelevant, while it
ends up bolstering the policies of their increasingly bellicose governments
or blessing the programs of allegedly populist organizations supported from
Further, media articles featuring miniature maps of the Caucasus tend to be political too. That is, while they reveal the jagged borders of far-flung territories unknown to most outsiders, and the locations of various cities therein, they tend to pay less heed to the geographical realities – something which is unfortunate, considering that the history of the entire Caucasus region has always been shaped by the exigencies of its rugged, mountainous terrain.
Having had an interest in the country and its key problems for several years,
I endeavored on my latest trip to Georgia to visit other parts of the country,
and get a mixture of opinions that would include the testimonies of non-official
people whose lives are being affected by the decisions of their increasingly
A nice place to visit:
Georgia's northern terrain is a joy to see – unless you can't exit.
Into the Mountains
It is less than a four-hour drive north to reach
the Russian border from Georgia's capital, Tbilisi. But the road is winding
and difficult, as it cuts through mountains that reach their peak in Mt. Kazbek
(16,558 feet). Known as the Georgian Military Highway, this historically strategic
route is marred with crater-sized potholes and disintegrates completely into
dirt and rocks at its summit, the Jvari Pass. At many points, the road is carved
out of sheer cliff faces and contains numerous built-in tunneled underpasses
on the sides – a necessity, owing to the massive snowfall this area gets in
winter. Needless to say, the views are magnificent throughout.
I negotiated this route after enlisting the services of one Tariel Tabashidze,
a 40-year-old agronomist by training who now works as a translator for German
and U.S. companies and individuals. Since the journey is definitely too challenging
for the average car, we took his brother's trusty white Lada Niva – the Russian
answer to a Jeep. Along the way, Tabashidze proudly recounted how the very same
vehicle had been hired out a decade ago to BBC reporter Andrew
Harding for his forays into neighboring Chechnya.
Unlike that volatile region, Georgia's Kazbegi region is a sparsely-populated
oasis of tranquility, featuring abundant wildlife and medieval stone churches,
sprinkled with tiny villages that culminate in the small town of Kazbegi itself,
just a few miles from Russia. The proximity of the border means that the dilapidated
shops in Kazbegi and its outlying villages are filled with Russian goods. Georgian
farmers also send the majority of their produce north for export. Unlike claims
of allegiance with Russia voiced by secessionists in Georgia's South Ossetian
and Abkhazian provinces, Kazbegi's Russian relationship has nothing to do with
politics. Rather, the greater distance and geographical difficulties of communicating
with Tbilisi – especially in winter, when the whole area is snowed under – mean
that the locals must rely on their connections with their much closer neighbors
to the north, and especially the regional center of Vladikavkaz.
For remote mountain villages,
having connections with nearby North Ossetia, over the Russian border, is necessary
The Border Swings Shut
However, these connections were instantly severed
by the tragedy of Beslan
on Sept. 1. In the wake of this deadly terrorist attack, Russian President Putin
ordered the closure of Russia's
border with the south as a security measure. Yet by early October, when
I visited, the Kazbegi border (known as the Upper Lars crossing) was still closed.
Any security risks (had there really been any) were long ended.
There was another factor to consider here. Almost exactly two years before,
I had traveled via helicopter to another border point – Shatili – which sits
snug on the Chechen part of the Russian border. Here, young OSCE monitors had,
two days earlier, been stopped in a remote place by a dozen heavily armed Chechens.
Luckily for them, the monitors were released, but with the following warning:
"We know all about your little camp. So if you tell the Russians about
us before two days have passed, we will destroy it."
From this and many other accounts, it thus seemed that Russian charges are
justified. At least on their part of the border, Chechen terrorists did occasionally
slip in and out of the Georgian wilds. However, it was also hard to believe
that any such individual would be found standing in line, waiting to be processed
at an official border checkpoint. Whether or not the Russians decided to close
the border at Kazbegi would thus mean little for state security.
Pressing on to the closed
border checkpoint, this old woman planned to camp overnight until it reopened.
And so even if initially understandable, the Russian border closure simply made no sense. And, as I found, it has meant trouble for both local Georgians and travelers trying to pass through. Elderly Makhvala Sargishvili owns a kiosk located (literally) in a hole in the wall running outside her tiny mountain village. Crammed inside the shop window were dusty boxes of outdated Russian provisions. Almost all of her products came from Russia, but with the blockage at the border she was faced with a real problem. "Life is not so bad, but not so good, either. This problem with the border is really difficult for us."
These comments were shared by three farmers, Giorgi, Emzar, and Vano, pitching
hay in the idyllic mountain village of Kobi. Tomorrow would be dog-fighting
day in the village, they announced; there was simply nothing else to do for
entertainment. "There's no TV," said Giorgi, "and nobody has
enough money to get married. There are now 59 couples from these villages waiting
to have a wedding someday."
Agriculture is the only source of income for these villagers, and a very seasonal
one. Within a few weeks after my visit, they predicted, the snow would start
falling. Now, with the Russian border closed, "we can neither get goods
we need nor export our produce," lamented Vano. Geography, not politics
or ethnicity, had forced these Georgians to throw in their lot with the Russian
Ossetian population to the north.
"We feel like animals.
We have been stuck here for 32 days," said Isak Ogosian (right).
The Stranded Armenians
However difficult the border closure was for ordinary
Georgian villagers, those most affected at the time were 25 Armenians who'd
had the bad luck of reaching the border just as the carnage in Beslan was unfolding.
Some were trying to go to Russia for work, others to return to their adopted
homes in Vladikavkaz. None of them were prepared for the ordeal that would leave
them trapped at the border for almost two months.
"We feel like animals," growled Isak Ogosian, the group's bearded spokesman. "We have been stuck here for 32 days. We have to sleep sitting up in the bus. And, despite our pleas, nobody helps us."
Among the disconsolate bunch were old ladies, young mothers and small children. They had little remaining money and supplies, and subsisted only due to the help of the already impoverished locals. While Georgian media had paid them a visit early on in the saga, nothing substantial had been done to ameliorate their situation. The mountain chasms falling into the river – in any other situation, hopelessly breathtaking – had become a sort of prison.
Indeed, life seemed pretty unhappy for the stranded Armenians. Some people
slept in the rusty old bus, while one old woman prepared some variety of borscht
in a metal pan. A little boy kicked one of the many crushed cans littering the
ground as if it were a soccer ball. Off to one side, a young man snoring in
a sleeping bag competed with a mangy, dozing dog. When they couldn't get him
to wake up, Isak formed the shape of a cross on his back with some grass, sending
the rest into hysterics. It was a rare uproarious moment for a dejected and
powerless group of forgotten travelers.
"All we want is to go
back to Armenia," said Anna, 22, pictured with daughter Angelina.
"Nobody gets to go through [the border] except important people,"
charged Elizabeta Abramovna, a retired doctor who moved to Vladikavkaz 37 years
ago with her late husband, then an official in the Soviet government. "Because
of my complaining, everyone knows about me now, the governments and media. But
still nobody helps us." According to her, the official response to the
travelers' requests was a perfect example of passing the buck: since the Georgian
side gave them permission to exit Georgia, it was no longer their problem when
the Russians denied them entry. The Armenian officials they had consulted said
there was nothing they could do either.
For a month the Armenians had lived with the vague promise that the border would soon be open. Nevertheless, this endless waiting had caused some to give up hope.
"About 12 of them want to just forget it and go back to Armenia [190 km/118
mi. to the south], where they have family," revealed Isak. "All we
need is about $100 to hire a minibus. This situation is hard, especially for
the children," he said, nodding at 3-year-old Angelina, an adorable and
shy little girl hiding behind her mother, Anna. "All we want is to go back
to Armenia, just to get at least to the [Armenian] border," said Anna.
"After that we can find a way, somehow." And that is how we left them,
in the chilly afternoon preceding yet another spectacular Caucasus sunset.
Yet the saga continued. Only on Oct. 22 was the border finally reopened. Armenian
President Robert Kocharian
"hailed" the event as "evidence that tension in North Ossetia
is subsiding after the Beslan events." In other words, not only did his
government fail to help his own stranded citizens, but the president went out
of his way to toe the Kremlin's official line on the reason for the border having
been closed in the first place.
For his part, Georgian leader Mikheil Saakashvili, appearing together with
Kocharian, could only grumble that the border closure "has reminded us
once again that sales markets should be looked for not only in Russia."
Wonderful. Yet unless Saakashvili proposes to detonate hundreds of miles of
mountain range, it doesn't seem likely that the north Georgians of Kazbegi will
change their habits.
A woman enjoys the trapped
bus' spacious sleeping quarters.
The Ossetian Question
And why should they? "We have no problem
with the Ossetian people," said my earnest guide, Mr. Tabashidze. "It
is the politicians who create these conflicts." His opinion was echoed
by villagers we surveyed. "For us, it should not be a problem to visit
a doctor, say, or go in the Russian shops there [in Vladikavkaz]," said
Giorgi the farmer from Kobi. "This is our normal life."
Indeed, though the South Ossetian "government" desires to join up
with its kin on the other side of the border – Russia's North Ossetia, where
the Beslan saga unfolded – there is no wide-ranging ethnic hostility as has
been the case in the Balkans, for instance. The Georgians of Kazbegi, at least,
have long been trading with and visiting the Ossetians just over the border,
and vice versa.
Hostilities often seem to be manipulated by the decisions of powerful leaders
far above and far removed from the areas in question. Indeed, as a Georgian
soldier unlucky enough to be serving in the South Ossetian "neutral zone"
told one recent
visitor, "this isn't between us and the Ossetians. It's between us
"We have no problem with
the Ossetian people," said interpreter Tariel Tabashidze. "It is the politicians
who create these conflicts."
Threats of War
However, the continued brinkmanship between these
two major players is having its predictable local effect. "We will not
wait long," threatened
an unnamed local from the Georgian village of Abasheni, on the edge of the
neutral zone. "We will wait two or three days and then we will also shoot
at [the South Ossetian town of] Tskhinvali." The threat follows weeks of
agitation from Georgians
who claim they are being targeted by Ossetian paramilitaries during overnight
outbursts of violence. The Georgians blame the Ossetian side for provoking the
attacks, while the Ossetians are equally adamant that it's the Georgian army
that is inciting them. For his part, the Russian major general heading the Joint
Peacekeeping Force in South Ossetia told the protesting Georgians that he "cannot
control everybody." The Georgians question whether Russia is even interested
in controlling their Ossetian charges. In this vacuum of responsibility, however,
"both sides are laying mines despite the pleas of OSCE to stop," and
talk has again returned to war.
As if to set an example, Interior Minister Irakli Okruashvili last week started
military training course for army reservists. President Saakashvili – who
wants to ban anyone who hasn't undergone such training from taking up a
civil post – sees the militarization
of Georgian society as indispensable for proving the unity of the "Georgian
nation." These perhaps ominous developments occur at a time when the Georgian
government is beefing up its military presence in the conflict area. The Ossetians
are likewise digging in.
It was the international shock over Beslan that seems to have hushed the Georgian
government's warmongering words in September. After all, the summer months had
been "hot," peaking in late August with Saakashvili's
memorable declaration that Georgians should prepare for imminent war with
Russia. However, if these recent developments are any indicator, it appears
that sufficient time has passed to allow for heated words to once again shape
the political discourse. Unfortunately, this will also mean that foreign media
coverage of Georgia remains obsessed with the breathless statements of officials
– and not the common people they allegedly empowered with last year's "Rose