A Midnight Talk With A Murderer

As a registered Republican and a closet conservative, I shouldn't enjoy reading The New Yorker.  But I do.  I guess it's a sort of addiction to the depth and sophistication of their content, the ideology be damned.  And then, there is this language thing: when I go through the Talk-of-the-Town pieces of my favorite Hendrik Hertzberg, I often need an English dictionary — something that I never use when reading, say, editorials and op-eds in the Washington Post.

The other thing that, to my taste, comes sometimes close to Hertzberg's opuses is Profiles: long, meticulous, and sometimes almost boring in their "attention to details", assays about public figures, often politicians — all written by journalists who would spend months being "embedded" in the lives of their subjects.  Some of the profiles have completely changed my prior perception of a person.  The one about Al Gore, for example, helped me understand his somewhat erratic behavior during the 2000 presidential campaign.  I've got tremendous respect for Gore since reading this piece. 

It was therefore with a natural interest that I began reading Wendell Steavenson's "Marching Through Georgia" (December 15, 2008), a profile of Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili.  And, boy, wasn't the beginning of the story great!  Getting straight to business, Steavenson asserts that the August war between Georgia and Russia had a profound personal component:  an open animosity between Saakashvili and Russia's prime-minister, Vladimir Putin.  Reading Steavenson, one would get the impression that Russia decided to attack Georgia because six foot four Saakashvili called five foot six Putin "Lilli-Putin."  And there is no light at the end of the tunnel in relations between Moscow and Tbilisi, because Putin promised to hang Saakashvili "by the balls."

(Putin's name seems to help selling "sophisticated" magazines as well as sex helps sell "consumer-oriented" ones.) 

The New Yorker introduces Steavenson as "a freelance journalist, [who] lived in Georgia in the late nineteen-nineties.  Her second book, "The Weight of a Mustard Seed," about an Iraqi general, comes out in March."  A Google search further identifies Steavenson as a former Time Magazine reporter and the author of the acclaimed book Stories I stole (2002) about Georgia. 

In line with the The New Yorker's demanding standards, Steavenson's piece is quite well researched: there are perhaps fewer people living in Georgia than the pundits she talked to, including such a luminary as Richard Holbrooke.

I would however challenge the academic rigor of Steavenson's claim that "South Ossetia…has been a part of Georgia for centuries."  The truth is that both Georgia and undivided Ossetia have been, for centuries, parts of the Russian Empire.  Even more relevant — and something that Steavenson neglects to mention — is the fact that, in 1922, Ossetia was split and its southern part was attached to Georgia by Stalin's edict. 

(Yes, this Joseph Stalin whose biographies Steavenson spotted in Saakashvili's office when both had a cozy midnight meeting with glasses of Saperavi in hands.)

There are also two notable omissions to Steavenson's narrative.  She only mentions in passing the name of Zurab Zhvania, one of the leaders, along with Saakashvili, of the Rose Revolution and former prime minister.  In 2005, Zhvania died under strange circumstances.  Although an official explanation had been that he died of accidental exposure to carbon monoxide, many Georgians, including ex-president Eduard Shevardnadze, believe that Zhvania was murdered.   More than one is convinced that the murder was ordered by Saakashvili.  

Besides, Steavenson pays unexpectedly little attention to two prominent opposition figures: Nino Burdjanadze, former speaker of the parliament, and Salome Zourabichvili, former foreign minister.  I find it surprising that a female American journalist would pass on opportunity to dwell on the important role these two remarkable women play in Georgia's politics. 

(I suspect that keeping mum on Zhvania's death and not focusing on the opposition had been part of Steavenson's deal with Saakashvili's PR team.) 

But the most troubling aspect of Steavenson's story is that while walking through minute details of Saakashvili's life, political career and personal traits — his upbringing in a middle-class, fatherless, family  in Tbilisi, his marrying to Sandra Roelofs, a Dutch lawyer, his life and studies in the United States; his rushing through the doors of the parliament, in November 2003, with a rose in hand, interrupting Shevarnadze's speech and demanding his resignation, his election as Georgia's president, in January 2004, with 96% of the vote, his driving Georgia's defense budget to a third of all government expenditures, his sending the riot police to disperse, with tear gas and rubber bullets, a protest gathering  in November 2007, his seizing a TV station critical to his government, his paying eight hundred thousand dollars to Orion Strategies, a lobbying firm run by Randy Scheunemann, a close adviser to John McCain, his comparing himself to Obama, his penchant for expensive watches and late-night partying, his fast moving and talking, his vulgar diner-table manners — she fails to call Saakashvili what he is: a murderer. 

A murderer who in the name of "restoring the constitutional order" had sent troops to massacre hundreds of innocent civilians.

It is not always that The New Yorker demonstrates such a restraint.  Once, without presenting a shred of evidence, it blatantly accused Putin in ordering murders of Anna Politkovskaya and Alexander Litvinenko.  And here, we've got Saakashvili sitting across from Steavenson and bragging about what he had done, and all Steavenson can muster in response is to ask this "sophisticated" question: "Has Mikheil Saakashvili overreached?

This morning, driving to work, I entertained myself with another question: would I like Hendrik Hertzberg to write a Saakashvili profile?  The answer came immediately: NO.

Let gods remain gods.  Otherwise, what will be left for me?  The Weekly Standard

About Eugene Ivanov

Eugene Ivanov is a PMI-certified Innovation Management Consultant who helps organizations increase the efficiency of their internal and external innovation programs.
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7 Responses to A Midnight Talk With A Murderer

  1. Alex(Igor) says:

    I do not read the New Yorker, so I don’t know how good Hertzberg really is; but this your entry is very good.

  2. Eugene Ivanov says:

    Thanks Igor!
    Your comment just confirmed that, perhaps, when it comes to Russia, I write even better than Hertzberg.

  3. W. Shedd says:

    A murderer who in the name of “restoring the constitutional order” had sent troops to massacre hundreds of innocent civilians.
    This same title of murderer of civilians could be applied to many, many world leaders – ranging from Abraham Lincoln in the US Civil War to Vladimir Putin in Chechnya.
    Russian claims of thousands killed in early days of the war were found to be exaggerated by ten-fold, which simply makes it appear they are too eager to put the label of murderer upon Saakashvili. In comparison with Putin, the label is not a good fit.

  4. W. Shedd says:

    To be clear – I’m not suggesting that Putin be labeled a murderer either. But clearly, given the thousands upon thousands of civilians that were killed in Chechnya, he has more blood on his hands than Saakashvili.

  5. Dear W. Shedd (do I remember correctly that your first name is Wally?),
    Thank you very much for both of your comments.
    I certainly share you opinion that disturbingly large number of world leaders have blood on their hands. Lincoln would find himself in the company of the current U.S. president and the previous, perhaps, too. On the Russian side, “credit” should also go to president Yeltsin who had launched first of the two Chechen wars.
    I appreciate your restraint in not labeling Putin a murderer. But it’s too late: he’d been already labeled a murderer in this country. And what is most remarkable is that he’d almost gotten a pass for his actions in Chechnya – for reasons, I think, we both understand. No, he was accused – without any evidence – for the murder of Anna Politkovskaya and the death of Alexander Litvinenko (I happen to think that Litvinenko wasn’t’ murdered at all, but that’s a separate issue), and I wrote about that in my post.
    Speaking of the latter, I wasn’t trying to solve all world moral dilemmas. I was just questioning the moral relativism of the New Yorker with its selective “murder” labeling. And, again, we both know why it’s that. Because if you’re “pro-Western” (read, pro-American) and, better yet, speak fluent English, you can get away with almost anything in this country, even with a murder.
    However, I’m not dodging the difficult questions you raise and am willing to explain why Lincoln and Putin are different from Saakashvili – however cynical this explanation might seem to you. Both Lincoln and Putin won wars they fought. Lincoln shed blood for the unity and integrity of this country. So did Putin: he preserved Russia’s territorial integrity, pacified the Chechen conflict (which at the stage of the second war was actually a civil war) by its “chechenization” and bought the loyalty of Chechens and Chechen elites with petrodollars.
    I think you already see where I’m heading. But still let me ask you this question: can you name any single benefit for Georgia and Georgians of Saakashvili’s ordering his “constitutional order” operation? Restoration of Tbilisi’s rule over Abkhazia and S Ossetia is out of the question from now on. Georgia is in shambles and cannot survive without influx of foreign money (which is questionable now, given the circumstances). How would you justify the loss of lives and treasury on both sides that had resulted from Saakashvili’s actions?
    As they say, life is unfair. Victors of wars see blood on their hands disappearing. It’s losers that stay forever with a murderer label.
    I will naturally welcome your further comments on the matter.
    Best Regards,

  6. A very reasoned criticism of the referenced New Yorker piece.
    Some additional points to the discussion:
    Note the number of Iraqi civilians killed since the 2003 attack on Iraq.
    The “murderer” label isn’t mentioned vis-à-vis Bush. I say this while agreeing that seemingly loaded words can serve to oversimplify things.
    The Russian government can’t be exclusively faulted for the carnage in Chechnya. Much fault can be found within Chechnya itself.
    The term “humanitarian intervention” can be used to describe the Russian counterattack against the Georgian government’s strike on South Ossetia. Besides Antiwar.com’s Nebojsa Malic, I recall Andreas Umland acknowledging what was likely in store had Russia not militarily intervened. Specifically, another “Operation Storm” like exercise (this refers to the 1995 ethnic cleansing of at least 150,000 Krajina Serbs, as NATO and Yugoslav forces observed).
    On the referenced trumped up casualty figures, this was previously done by the Serb adversaries to warrant foreign intervention against the Serbs. In Bosnia, greatly exaggerated casualty numbers were uncritically presented as fact. Years later, this was acknowledged. The 200,000-350,000 casualty figure has now been acknowledged to be in the area of 100,000. The Bosnian Muslim nationalist claim of tens of thousands raped was a hoax. Likewise, there’ve been trumped up casualty figures regarding Kosovo, as well as the number of summarily executed Muslim males at Srebrenica. The last point has seen questionable opinion (put mildly) presented as fact. People who got these points right from the get go have generally not been given credit for having been right. In comparison, those who willingly parroted the trumped up numbers continue to be propped by some influential venues.
    The initially reported Russian casualty figures in South Ossetia appear exaggerated. Nevertheless, there’s reason to believe that a significant ethnic cleansing campaign was in store had there not been a Russian counterattack.

  7. Eugene Ivanov says:

    Thanks Mike,
    That’s very good comment. If there are things that you could blame Russians for with regards to their SO operation, then exaggerating the number of causalties is not one of them. Real numbers are simply impossible to come by in the middle of military operation.
    I remember that a couple of days after 9/11, someone suggested that the number of dead in the two towers would be close to 6,000. Once the chaos subsided, the real number of 3,000 had been arrived at.
    Best Regards,

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