Forbes magazine reports:
I was in Tbilisi recently to report on the Russian anschluss into Georgia. You must not expect me to be impartial on the matter. I have visited Georgia four times in as many years and witnessed the country’s self-transformation after its Rose Revolution. It went from two centuries of asphyxiating “protection” by Russia, followed by a post-Soviet decade of mafiotic corruption, to a kind of light unto nations under its young president, Mikheil Saakashvili. One hesitates to cite Wordsworth’s rather breathless and famously wrongheaded lines on the French Revolution–“Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive/But to be young was very heaven”–but in Tbilisi they seemed precisely right.
No doubt all that was provocation enough for Moscow. Even before the war began in early August, the Russians had prevailed on Georgia’s Abkhaz and South Ossetian separatist minorities to accept Russian passports and thereby to opt “voluntarily” for that same Kremlin protection that Georgia had just shucked off. The Abkhaz and the South Ossetians have a long oblivion ahead of them in the Great Bear’s digestive juices as they disappear out of history along with the Kipchaks, Kalmuks, Ugrians, Gilyaks and the like. Who, you ask? The question answers itself.
Having spent many hours and days in his company, I am not immodest, I hope, in counting Georgia’s President Saakashvili as a friend. In my view, he’s a brave and a patriotic figure in the mold of storied contra-Kremlin refuseniks from Dubcek to Lech Walesa to Vaclav Havel, who tried to end Moscow’s control over their national narrative.
Unlike the others, though, Saakashvili chose to fight and, in the eyes of all too many Western journalists, thereby committed his inexpiable sin. A score of colleagues e-mailed to tell me that he provoked the Russians inexcusably, or let them provoke him into provoking them, or stupidly miscalculated the West’s resolve, or that the West had already provoked Moscow by recognizing Kosovo. This, as Saakashvili promptly told me, is the language of appeasement, of Chamberlain shuffling ever backward to avoid provocation over the Sudetenland, over World War I reparations, the Treaty of Versailles or whatever.
As the world’s press has generously noted, Moscow conducted its military-strategic maneuvers with great competence. So why on earth don’t they acknowledge that the whole thing was planned meticulously ahead of time, including a highly effective disinformation campaign to suggest that Georgia provoked the action gratuitously? Strangely, no one seems willing to acknowledge the Kremlin’s successful propaganda offensive, as carefully prepared and executed as the rest.
Thus we had the campaign of the adjectives as applied to Saakashvili’s character (“hotheaded,” “unstable,” “provocative”); the absurd and destructive video of Georgia’s president chewing his tie (he sometimes chews on napkins instead of smoking); rumors that he takes pep pills (he drinks Red Bull); the references to NATO’s provocative (that word again) encroachment on Russia’s periphery; and other nonsense.
On the ground in Russian-occupied Gori, Stalin’s birthplace, one could see first-hand how precisely Moscow had shaped its actions with regard to propaganda. I wasn’t the only Western journalist there, though I was possibly the only one without accreditation from Moscow, having sneaked in past the armored checkpoints with help from Georgian friends. That the Russians allowed in only those foreign journalists with previous permission from Moscow should tell you a lot; this was now an extension of Russian territory. They didn’t hide any destruction they’d wrought in town–a salutary lesson to other ex-colonies. They rolled their tanks out during the day and back in at night after the journalists left.
I spoke with a Russian check-point tank commander Lt. Col. Vladimir Vassiliyevich as he sat at a rustic table under a tree eating his bread, cheese and tomatoes, all provided by locals, washed down with Georgian beer, which he told me was “very fine.” He was a cautious, intelligent fellow in his mid-30s. A copy of Dostoevsky’s Poor Folk sat on the table. “The young don’t read anymore,” he lamented. Dostoevsky was a fine writer because he cared about the poor man, he said.
He went on about the poor and helping the workers and I got the impression that the Soviet-era military manuals on propaganda hadn’t been updated. The old line–“pass the bottle Gyorgi, we’re just here to help the downtrodden folk like you and me (not like this fancy American here)”–seemed to suffice for now with the locals. He almost had me charmed, but he told me that he’d served in Chechnya throughout the ’90s–and we all know how they helped the common man in Chechnya.
Later, I walked through a residential neighborhood of solid two-story Stalin-era houses, with incongruous facades of rose marble, now partially and senselessly demolished by aerial bombardment. The area was first built to house the employees in a nearby, long-since defunct factory. No doubt Stalin had intended the world to see how luxuriously workers could be housed in the Kremlin’s dream world. Most of the inhabitants had fled with the bombing. Cracked water pipes gushed through broken walls. Old drunks railed at each other amid the rubble. One haggard man stumbled over to us in a daze and asked if we’d seen his daughter anywhere. A bomb had struck near his house. One daughter was in the hospital and the other had simply disappeared, he told us in a daze. He stumbled away, shouting her name into empty buildings. Perhaps she was one of the disappeared “poor folk” being helped by the marauding “kontraktniki” looters that the tanks allowed in at night, when the accredited journalists had left.