Georgia (and Russia and South Ossetia) on my mind. Again

This time last year I wasn’t in a sweaty Amnesty office in London, I was … in a sweaty Amnesty office in Edinburgh.

It comes to mind today because last August I was beavering away PR-ing Amnesty’s presence at the Edinburgh Festival (check out this year’s programme, btw, including the excellent comedy gig) when arguably the most extraordinary foreign story of last summer suddenly burst out. War between Georgia and Russia. Along with everyone else, I was stunned. Desperately trying to empty my head of arts stuff, here’s what I wrote at the time.

It’s still pretty gobsmacking exactly one year on today. How’s it looking now? First, there’s a really febrile diplomatic atmosphere. Remember Vladimir Putin’s typically belligerent snarl that he’d like to “hang” Georgia president Mikheil Saakashvili “by the balls”? (Presumably he’d actually do it himself, while stripped down to the waist, hunting rifle in one hand …). That’s still about sums up relations between Tbilisi and Moscow. Listen, for instance, to Saakashvili politely acknowledging the testicles insult (!) in Ed Stourton’s Radio 4 interview (at about 1.05) this lunchtime; and also listen out for Amnesty’s Nicola Duckworth in the same item.

At the moment it’s war by insult and other means. There are reports, for example, that Russian hackers may have caused yesterday’s Twitter shutdown because they wanted to silence a pro-Georgian Twitter blogger (can anyone keep Twitter out of the news for five minutes by the way!?)

Amnesty’s new report today marks the one-year “anniversary” of war in the Caucasus and it notes that even now thousands of people are still displaced – the majority (around 30,000) are ethnic Georgians, many from the disputed South Ossetia region itself. Many of these presumably still bewildered people are now living in some 36 purpose-built settlements (essentially Georgian “new towns” but not, one gathers, especially similar to our own Milton Keynes-style post-war towns).

Some of the IDPs have taken a one-off $10,000 payment from the Georgian government to try to re-build their lives (money, but no place to live), while another set of people are housed in the rather grim-looking temporary accommodation centre that was once the Georgian military HQ for the South Caucasus in Tbilisi (pictured). On top of the fact that these thousands of seemingly pushed-out-forever people are struggling to get by in improvised circumstances (credit to the Georgian authorities for getting them all accommodated though), there’s that tricky question of justice.

Justice – sorting out who committed which war crimes amongst the very confused fighting last year – is what Amnesty was calling for in a big report in November. In a post then I was asking: are the “numerous crimes” (the house burnings, wanton killing of civilians, abductions) from the five-day war “ever going to get investigated? … Or, am I going to be writing in my next Caucasus post about how even posing the question is hopelessly optimistic?”

Well this is my next post on the subject and guess what? It was too optimistic. Not a single person has been held responsible on either side for the war crimes of the South Ossetia conflict.

Depressing, but true. Excuse the clunky, worn-out pun, but Georgia’s still on my mind and so is the fact that brute force in the wider Caucasus seems to rule supreme (see Amnesty’s recent report on rampant violence in the North Caucasus).

The good news? At least this 7 August we didn’t wake up to a new war in the Caucasus …

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