Friday, August 22, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Russian Forces Organize an ‘Ecological Catastrophe’ in Georgia

Paul Goble

Vienna, August 22 – In addition to the Russian army’s destruction of lives, housing and infrastructure in Georgia, Moscow has “organized an ecological catastrophe” by setting aflame a centuries-old forest in the Borzhomi nature reserve and blocking efforts to fight it, according to a Georgian now living in Israel who returned to his homeland to help his native land.
In a comment first posted in the Russian blogosphere and then featured on Baku’s portal, David Tsikarishvili, the 66-year-old owner of the Kangaroo Restaurant in Jerusalem, described in detail the various horrors he has seen over the last two weeks (
If most of the Russian actions have been described by others, Tsikarishvili’s remarks about what the Russians have done to Georgia’s natural environment both intentionally and as the result of collateral damage from their other actions are if not unique, at least extremely valuable as personal testimony about Russia’s indifference to ecological concerns.
(There has been some coverage of the environmental implications of the destruction of pipelines, power lines, and ports, but in all these cases, their ecological impact has been a form of collateral damage, although it is clear that the Russian military’s attitudes mean that they have inflicted more harm than most other armies would have in the same situation.)
Writing on Monday, Tsikarishvili said that “the Russians have organized an ecological catastrophe, burning in the course of a few days the centuries-old forest in the unique Borzhomi nature reserve.” Because that park has no military purpose and because it is “located very far from the conflict zone,” the Russians appear to have done this just to be destructive.
After the Russians set the fire, which as of that time had burned through 250 hectares, Georgians came to the assistance of the fire brigades “but considering the extent of the fire, the difficulty of getting into that isolated area, the wind and other problems,” they have not yet been able to put the fire out, Tsikarishvili said.
Worse, he continued, “Russia prohibited Ukraine from taking part in the suppression of the fire,” something that guaranteed the fire would continue to spread, even though the Russian military did allow Turkish planes and helicopters to come in. But their effectiveness was limited because as a result of Russian actions, the planes had to fly back to Turkey to get water.
And when the Georgians and the Turks appeared to be making progress in at least containing the fire, persons unknown but presumably either Russians, South Ossetians or some of the North Caucasus “volunteers” who have been guilty of so much marauding in Georgia threw incendiary devices to keep the fire going and to ensure that it would spread.
Then, on Tuesday (
current_folder=9130000000001632862), Tsikarishvili reported, “Russian planes continued to set fire to the forest and the area in flames “is expanding,” thus destroying a forest which is – or at least was – “a world ecological pearl.”
Three things make this report especially disturbing. First, it suggests that many Russians in both the political and military leadership viewed their intervention in Georgia as a punitive expedition, designed to inflict maximum harm on that country regardless of whether what was destroyed had any military utility.
Second, the unwillingness of Russian forces to allow nearby Ukrainian fire fighters to take part or to give Turkish planes the chance to get water inside Georgia rather than having them make the much longer roundtrip to Turkey indicates that at least some Russian commanders wanted the fire to continue to burn.
And third, these Russian actions in Georgia have the effect of calling the world’s attention to Moscow’s ongoing destruction of the environment around Sochi where it hopes to stage the Olympics in 2014 and in the Russian Far East where such attitudes threaten even sooner the survival of the Evenks, one of the numerically small peoples of the North.

UPDATE for August 25: Officials and sociologists will now survey the Evenks about Moscow’s plan to build a massive hydroelectric dam that will flood their traditional hunting nad fishing areas. Moscow officials say this will represent a kind of public referendum on the project, but ethnic rights groups say that the surveys are confusing local residents and that the Russian government will use the results to justify going ahead as it has long promised to do (

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