Georgia and Russia: dance of death

The disturbing and immensely depressing events in Georgia/South Ossetia/Abkhazia have, of course, dominated the news for the entire weekend.

Google News this morning shows 11,111 news items and counting, and even the Beijing Olympics have been driven off the front pages. Saturday’s Guardian actually brought the two stories together, with a dramatic “compare and contrast” pairing of photos: one of the “explosion” of fireworks from the Bird’s Nest stadium in Beijing, the other a burning tank in South Ossetia. Somehow the Olympics didn’t seem quite so compelling at this moment. 

I won’t attempt a complicated political history of the Caucasus (not that I’d be qualified for it anyway; go to Washington Monthly for lots of expert analysis and comment) so will just note the obvious – that, like almost every part of the former Soviet Union, this is a region riven with ethnic, religious and national disputes that aren’t exactly reflected by the lines on a map.

Giving a live update from the Georgian town of Gori during the first part of Broadcasting House on Sunday morning, a BBC correspondent noted that this spot where state troops have been massing is actually the birthplace of Josef Stalin (a Georgian) who is still honoured there with a 30-metres-high statue (notwithstanding the Soviet Union’s millions of political prisoners, torture and killings under Stalin). Oh what a tangled web we weave …

Deciding on the merits of territorial claims and other grounds for conflict is not what Amnesty does, but it seems all too inevitable that within days we are likely to be reporting human rights abuses from this part of the world.

I’m currently following media reports on Georgia from Edinburgh (where I’m here for Amnesty at the Edinburgh Festival), and day after day I’ve been seeing a publicity poster (pictured) for the State Ballet of Georgia on the city centre’s bus shelters. It feels strangely tragic now.

On Saturday the Herald’s Magazine ran a big feature on Nina Ananiashvili, the group’s prima ballerina (apparently an international superstar in ballet circles). In what will have been one of those last-moment “hang-on-minute-haven’t-we-already-got-something-in-the-mag-on-Georgia?” decisions, the editor has provided a print-link from the war report on the front page to the ballet feature in the supplement.

If this seems an almost bizarre linking of ballet and international conflict, then further reading reveals that Nina is actually married to the deputy Georgian foreign minister. Seizing the opportunity, the Scotsman has front-paged an interview with Nina today (and the Today programme featured Nina this morning: listen again to the after-7.30 segment).

And the overlap between the arts and international politics continues. Because, though the ballet troupe’s stint at the Edinburgh Playhouse is officially finished, they’re now doing extra shows because British Airways has cancelled all London-Tblisi flights and the dancers are effectively stranded in the UK.

The situation obviously remains perilous. Amnesty is today warning against any attacks on civilians in South Ossetia, Abkhazia or indeed other parts of Georgia. What we now need to know, though, is whether Russia and Georgia can settle this without further bloodshed. Or, whether we really are in for another of those horrible dances of death in the Caucasus.

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