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Behind checkpoints, a look at Russian actions in Georgia

Our correspondent describes a tour led by Kremlin press attaché Sasha
Mechevsky through Russian-controlled villages and the South Ossetian capital
of Tskhinvali.

By Paul Rimple / August 25, 2008

Rich Clabaugh–STAFF


Since agreeing to a cease-fire deal with Georgia Aug. 15, Russia has been under close scrutiny. Is it pulling troops out or not? Is it protecting smoldering villages or pillaging them?

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Moscow has frequently said one thing while eyewitnesses have reported another during the conflict. Even after Friday's withdrawal, US officials said Russia – which left troops at military checkpoints ringing South Ossetia – had not gone far enough. Georgia blamed the weekend explosion of a train carrying crude oil on a Russian-planted land mine.

As someone who has lived in and reported from Georgia for six years, I knew how rumors could fly around here. I wanted to see for myself what Russia was doing.

The only trouble was, I couldn't get access to Russian-controlled areas without a Russian visa and press accreditation. Unless, that is, I joined a Kremlin-sponsored trip. So last Thursday, along with two dozen other foreign journalists, I signed up for a Kremlin-arranged escort to Tskhinvali. The administrative center of South Ossetia, it bore the brunt of Georgia's lightning offensive Aug. 7-8 to retake the breakaway territory. Russia, citing humanitarian concerns for South Ossetians – 90 percent of whom hold Russian passports – swiftly drove out the Georgians, and has occupied the city since.

"Meet under the statue of Stalin at 11 a.m.," Kremlin press attaché Sasha Mechevsky told us, referring to the monument in the Georgian city of Gori. Josef Stalin, revered by many Russians today as a strong leader who made the Soviet Union great – but under whom millions of citizens, many of whom were executed, languished in an extensive prison system – was born there.

Blocked by Russian troops, we waited for hours on the outskirts of Gori, sitting on the Mtkvari River bridge under an indifferent sun. Finally, Mr. Mechevsky arrived in an Army personnel carrier. Some of us were stuffed in the back of the truck while the rest piled in two of our hired cars. Georgians were not allowed to come.

The first stop was Karaleti, a few miles north. The village was mostly intact, although some buildings had been destroyed and shops looted. We were given 15 minutes to wander while Mechevsky explained why we had been barred from entering earlier.

"There is freedom of word and freedom of life," he declared in a rich English accent. "We protect the freedom of life first." He warned that we could be targets of Georgian provocation.

Journalists fired questions about the reported looting and kidnappings by South Ossetian and North Caucasus paramilitaries. Mechevsky retorted that many homes were burned by Georgians themselves.