Michael Totten fell for it. After asserting Georgia didn’t start nuthin’ because those mean South Ossetians were busy attacking those sweet innocent Georgians while those scary mean Russians were already advancing on the Georgian capital, Totten lets us know where he’s getting his information:
Regional expert, German native, and former European Commission official Patrick Worms was recently hired by the Georgian government as a media advisor, and he explained to me exactly what happened when I met him in downtown Tbilisi. You should always be careful with the version of events told by someone on government payroll even when the government is friendly as democratic as Georgia’s. I was lucky, though, that another regional expert, author and academic Thomas Goltz, was present during Worms’ briefing to me and signed off on it as completely accurate aside from one tiny quibble.
Oh God. He forgot “adventurer” and egomaniac. Well, let’s do this.
“A key tool that the Soviet Union used to keep its empire together,” Worms said to me, “was pitting ethnic groups against one another. They did this extremely skillfully in the sense that they never generated ethnic wars within their own territory. But when the Soviet Union collapsed it became an essential Russian policy to weaken the states on its periphery by activating the ethnic fuses they planted.
That’s funny. I thought the USSR maintained cohesion through a Soviet identity in early childhood education, combined with the threat of prison camp or execution if you didn’t adopt it. I also thought most of the ethnic wars in the Caucasus were born of Josef Stalin’s miserable border-drawing (which was to prevent a single unified ethno-nationalist region from declaring independence), and only took off once the Soviet Union naturally fell and newly-independent countries sought simultaneously to maintain their territorial integrity while also becoming ethnically homogenous.
“They tried that in a number of countries. They tried it in the Baltic states, but the fuses were defused. Nothing much happened. They tried it in Ukraine. It has not happened yet, but it’s getting hotter. They tried it in Moldova. There it worked, and now we have Transnitria. They tried it in Armenia and Azerbaijan and it went beyond their wildest dreams and we ended up with a massive, massive war. And they tried it in two territories in Georgia, which I’ll talk about in a minute. They didn’t try it in Central Asia because basically all the presidents of the newly independent countries were the former heads of the communist parties and they said we’re still following your line, Kremlin, we haven’t changed very much.”
Is he talking about the Nagorno-Karabakh War, which began in 1988, some years before the USSR or even the Berlin Wall fell? Last I checked, the conflict over Upper Karabakh had been going off and on for a good eighty years, and, much like the former Yugoslavia, had only ceased hostilities due to the Soviet Union’s suzerainty. I’m curious how “they tried it” in Ukraine, since the Act of Independence had something like a 90% margin when it passed. And I don’t even know what they’re talking about with Central Asia—there weren’t any long-standing ethnic disputes on the order of anything in the Caucasus to exploit there. Really, the only place any existed in any kind of seething form was the Caucasus, and those existed well before the Soviet Union was invented.
I’m kind of surprised Goltz would sign off on a history this slipshod.
He’s right about the massive war between Armenia and Azerbaijan, though few outside the region know much about it. Armenians and Azeris very thoroughly transferred Azeris and Armenians “back” to their respective mother countries after the Soviet Union collapsed through pogroms, massacres, and ethnic-cleansing. Hundreds of thousands of refugees fled savage communal warfare in terror. The Armenian military still occupies the ethnic-Armenian Nagorno-Karabakh region in southwestern Azerbaijan. It’s another so-called “frozen conflict” in the Caucasus region waiting to thaw. Moscow takes the Armenian side and could blow up Nagorno-Karabakh, and subsequently all of Azerbaijan, at any time. After hearing the strident Azeri point of view on the conflict for a week before I arrived in Georgia, I’d say that particular ethnic-nationalist fuse is about one millimeter in length.
Anyway, he goes on at length quoting this paid representative of Georgia, who manages to portray Georgia as a reactionary victim of Russian power politics. That is certainly true, to an extent, as this excellent look at the complicated start of the war shows (Matthew Bryza, the U.S. Special Envoy to the Region, surprisingly strongly decries Georgian attacks on civilian targets—the action that formed Russia’s casus belli to invade the rest of Georgia, though to Bryza’s credit, he also lambasts the Russians or not ratcheting down tensions beforehand).
But then Totten admits he had no idea there were skirmishes between Georgian and South Ossetian forces in the days leading up to the conflict—something that was obvious in the regular news coming from the region, but was curiously lacking from most people’s discussions of the conflict.
Critically missing from this paid flack’s explanation of the war’s origins is Saakashvili’s brinksmanship. Under Shevardnadze (who also seems disappointed with Saakashvili’s recklessness), Georgia had never pompously strutted itself along the border of its far larger and more powerful northern neighbor, blithely assuming the U.S. and Europe would help it out in any conflict that arose. Saakashvili was, in a word, reckless in assuming he could make a lightning strike into South Ossetia and cut off the Roki tunnel right when everyone knew Russia had already massed on the border. Yes, Russia played a role in provoking the conflict, but Saakashvili was just stupid in playing into it.
Remarkably, Totten operates under the assumption that hearing a long presentation by a paid representative of Georgia, along with an escorted tour of a Georgian hospital with Georgian soldiers will tell him anything about the conflict. He doesn’t understand that Georgia’s spy drone which was shot down by a Russian plane was violating the terms of the cease-fire agreement in Abkhazia, nor does he seem to get that more South Ossetians died during the pre-war skirmish than Georgians. But what was this about?
“On the evening of the 7th, the Ossetians launch an all-out barrage focused on Georgian villages, not on Georgian positions. Remember, these Georgian villages inside South Ossetia – the Georgians have mostly evacuated those villages, and three of them are completely pulverized. That evening, the 7th, the president gets information that a large Russian column is on the move. Later that evening, somebody sees those vehicles emerging from the Roki tunnel [into Georgia from Russia]. Then a little bit later, somebody else sees them. That’s three confirmations. It was time to act.
That does not match with what other Georgian officials are saying about the conflict.
Around 2 p.m. that day, Ossetian artillery fire resumed, targeting Georgian positions in the village of Avnevi in South Ossetia. The barrage continued for several hours. Two Georgian peacekeepers were killed, the first deaths among Georgians in South Ossetia since the 1990s, according to Georgian Prime Minister Lado Gurgenidze, who spoke in a telephone briefing Aug. 14…
But by evening, Kezerashvili said, the Georgian side had had enough.
“At 6, I gave the order to prepare everything, to go out from the bases,” he said in an interview Aug. 14 at a Georgian position along the Tbilisi-Gori highway. Kezerashvili described the movement of armor, which included tanks, 122mm howitzers and 203mm self-propelled artillery, as a show of force designed to deter the Ossetians from continuing to barrage the Georgian troops’ positions inside South Ossetia.
Western officials in and around South Ossetia also recorded the troop and armor movement, according to a Western diplomat who described in detail on-the-ground reports by monitors from the OSCE. The monitors recorded the movement of BM-21s in the late afternoon…
At 7 p.m., with troops on the march, Saakashvili went on national television and declared a unilateral cease-fire. “We offer all of you partnership and friendship,” he said to the South Ossetians. “We are ready for any sort of agreement in the interest of peace.”
About 9 p.m., the Ossetians complained to Western monitors about the military traffic, according to a diplomat in Tbilisi.
Totten is being fed disinformation. And he doesn’t know enough to say so, since by his own admission (of not even knowing the context of this war, to say nothing of the others) he went into the country—just like his colleague Brietbart in Baku—knowing absolutely nothing about the place beforehand. He does not understand enough about the hatred in the area that exists on both sides to parse through the endless dissembling (Goltz is an amazing writer, but he is also unabashedly anti-Russian). Nor does he seem to understand the right before president Saakashvili invaded the territory, he called for a unilateral cease-fire in an attempt to roll through Tskhinvali unopposed (Russian-sponsored teenagers reportedly hurled molotov cocktails at Georgian tanks).
For example, the Georgians were still incredibly brutal to the South Ossetians, which makes the complaints about Russian brutality ring a tiny bit hollow. Totten doesn’t get at any of this, because he didn’t do a single jot of homework before heading out to these places.
Which is a real shame. But it’s yet another way in which the “power of blogs” continues to utterly fail us.
Update:Well, Totten has demanded an apology for “lying about him in public.” And told me to get off his blog. I’m happy to oblige, but Totten doesn’t get off that easily. I haven’t misrepresented a thing he’s said, since it is painfully obvious that not only was he presenting an incredibly biased version of events, but that he did not know a thing about the conflict before he arrived. To quote his own entry:
“Can I stop you for a second?” I said. I was still under the impression that the war began on August 7 and that Georgian President Saakashvili started it when he sent troops into South Ossetia’s capital Tskhinvali. What was all this about the Ossetian violence on August 6 and before?
He raised his hand as if to say stop.
“That was the formal start of the war,” he said. “Because of the peace agreement they had, nobody was allowed to have guns bigger than 80mm. Okay, so that’s the formal start of the war. It wasn’t the attack on Tskhinvali. Now stop me.”
“Okay,” I said. “All the reports I’ve read say Saakashvili started the war.”
“I’m not yet on the 7th,” he said. “I’m on the 6th.”
“Okay,” I said. He had given this explanation to reporters before, and he knew exactly what I was thinking.
“Saakashvili is accused of starting this war on the 7th,” he said.
“Right,” I said. “But that sounds like complete bs to me if what you say is true.”
Thomas Goltz nodded.
In other words, he wasn’t reading any actual news—in the New York Times, no less!—about the roiling skirmishes that were reported at least as far back as August 3rd and had taken place for at least a few weeks.
Which, again, is why I feel comfortable in pointing out the man did not understand the conflict he was writing about—now, heaven help us, in the Wall Street Journal, which happily reprints his belief (relayed by Georgian peasant women) that the only thing standing between Tblisi and the Russian tanks were the brave speeches of President Bush and John McCain.
It’s a damned shame—I used to think he was a really nice guy (nice guys don’t sputter in a paroxysm of pure rage when their writing is criticized)—but as Nathan pointed out in the comments, this is sadly common now to the blogosphere. What a loss.