Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Gori story: Russian troops stall in Stalin’s birthplace

Russian troops remain stationed in the eastern Georgian city of Gori despite agreeing to a ceasefire on the weekend. Russia seems in no hurry to carry out its part of the bargain and leave. Gori is not Ossetian territory, it is Georgian. Nevertheless the Russians don’t appear to be in a hurry to leave the town of 60,000 people. Russia is ignoring the protests of NATO as “biased” saying they won’t withdraw, at least back to Ossetia, until Georgia fulfils its commitments in the ceasefire plan.

But with the ceasefire terms favouring Russia, Georgia will baulk at fulfilling its commitments first, ensuring a continuation of this game of ‘chicken’. The short term six-point plan brokered by French President Sarkozy involves Russia ending its military operations, returning behind the line where the war started and not using force again in Georgia. In return, Georgia would return its armed forces to their permanent locations. The plan doesn’t address the longer-term issue of Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. But it is unlikely that Ossetia will be part of Georgia in any longer-term plan.

Gori should be safely Georgian under such a plan though it doesn’t seem that way at the moment. Situated just 75km upstream of the capital Tblisi on the Mtkvari River, Gori is Georgian heartland. It is also the birthplace of Joseph Stalin. The town is home to one of the few remaining extant monuments to the 20th century Soviet dictator. The number of visitors to its Stalin museum was recently on the rise, though the museum gave a carefully edited account of his life omitting such events as the Great Terror that killed millions. The museum is closed at the moment as a new terror of sorts surrounds Gori.

Journalists from the British newspaper The Independent reached the city on Monday by taking back roads. They say Russian soldiers gathered outside the front of the badly damaged Stalin museum and took cell phone pictures of each other. Underneath Stalin’s statue in the town square was where Georgian troops mustered before attacking the South Ossetian capital Tskhinvali. Now the Georgian troops have fled, leaving only Russians and the world’s media to freely roam the streets.

Al Jazeera’s Alan Fisher is also in Gori at the moment. Like the team from the Independent, Fisher sees little sign of a Russian withdrawal in the wings. On the contrary, he says more men and machines are heading further into Georgia than those coming out and sees Gori as a Russian base for further action. He says the Russians are laying out defensive positions to the road to Tbilisi. Fisher quotes Alexander Lomaia, a Georgian national security adviser who has been in the town since the Russians arrive. “Last night the Russian general promised that they will start pulling out at 10 this morning,” said Lomaia. “But I've just seen him again [and] he said that the pullout is not a major issue he is dealing [with], right now".

But while journalists flock to the danger zone, locals have fled. Four out of every five people in Gori fled the city when it came under Russian land and air attack. Some have drifted back but food is scarce. The town is physically dominated by the medieval fortress of Goris-Tsikhe, which was greatly damaged in a 1920 earthquake. But it has not, to my knowledge, been further damaged in this conflict.

Some say it likely the Russians may now stay in Gori until at least 26 August. On that date, the Russian parliament is set to meet to discuss the South Ossetian and Abkhazian independence recognition requests. Some analysts think that the emboldened Russians may simply ignore these requests and annex the two states, though it is possible that could create a rod for their own back. However Radio Netherlands has also reported Russian puppet President Dmitry Medvedev saying all Russian soldiers will have left Georgia by Friday at the latest. How true that statement will turn out, depends on whether it has been cleared by the real Russian power: Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

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