Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Behind The Poti Lines

Rolling Up The Razor Wire

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11 a.m. local time (7 a.m. GMT)

I went with a friend from Rustavi 2 television to tour the three Russian checkpoints around Poti this morning.

At all three, the Russians have already removed the razor wire and they're loading their Ural trucks with equipment and supplies. Some people who know more about military affairs than I do suggest that they're loading equipment and arms that they took from Georgian military bases. I would stress that's just speculation at this point.

At Nabada, near the sea, where two of the checkpoints lie just a few hundred meters apart, those Ural trucks are being loaded with timber of some sort. (Note that the UN -- or "UN-style" -- flag is clearly visible above the encampment, part of Moscow's continuing effort to portray their invasion troops as "peacekeepers.")

Nobody here but us 'peacekeepers'!

I don't see any reduction in troop numbers at Nabada, either. But at the Seventh Kilometer checkpoint, there are very obviously fewer troops than in previous days.

There are still tents at all the checkpoints, too -- they haven't been dismantled. And I also saw lots of places still reinforced with sandbag piles.

Mayor Vano Saghinadze seems satisfied at the recent developments, and he says he has no doubt that these steps toward withdrawal are irreversible. He stresses that Poti's police are doing everything they can to avoid hindering the apparent pullout operations.

Police patrols are passing frequently on the roads outside the checkpoints -- in particular at the bridge over the Rioni River.

The closely watched bridge near a main entrance to Poti

They're trying to ensure that the Russians don't wire the bridge with explosives. (Ed's note: Retreating Russian forces in the area around Gori, in central Georgia, planted or otherwise left explosive devices behind that resulted in at least two civilian deaths.)

The excavators finally stopped digging yesterday afternoon. It might be that they simply don't need to dig any more trenches; but another explanation might be that it's been raining steadily here in Poti and, given Poti's famously soft soil, the wet earth simply spills back into whatever's excavated.

It has rained a lot here lately -- heavily this morning -- but the weather has since let up.

Mayor Saghinadze told me that as soon as the troops are gone completely, they'll have to inspect the entire area that the Russian forces have occupied -- to ensure that they're not mined or otherwise rigged with "surprises."

We saw a crew of foreign journalists trying to get closer to the Russian encampment -- they were immediately kicked out by the Russians. I couldn't hear what was said exactly.

Unfortunately my own camera's zoom wasn't strong enough to get good shots of this checkpoint, at Nabada. But my Rustavi 2 colleagues were able to zoom in on the Russian checkpoints with their television cameras, so all these pictures are grabs from their video images.

Here, too, the blue "peacekeeper" flag flies above the Russian tent, consistent with Moscow's assertion all along that its troops are in Georgia to "enforce" peace.

Excavators have fallen silent.

You can see in this next photo how well the Russians have taken advantage of the soft soil to make themselves at home outside Poti. Again, the splash of blue paint near the top of the vehicle is supposed to signal that it's part of a "peacekeeping" operation.

Well entrenched at Nabada

The Moment We've All Been Waiting For?

On the way out?

5:30 p.m. local time (1:30 GMT)

Could this finally be the beginning of the Russian withdrawal? Just minutes ago, two Ural trucks loaded with ammunition and two armored vehicles actually left Poti. Of course, about 16 armored vehicles and as many as 150 soldiers are still here, helicopters are flying overhead, and the three checkpoints are still in place. But the residents will welcome any positive sign whatsoever.

The mood has already changed in anticipation of the start of the withdrawal, and the town seems more hopeful. The authorities are becoming optimistic too. Mayor Saghinadze, for instance, expressed hope that the Russians are indeed beginning to leave.

We can only watch and wait.

Tags:poti, Georgia, blog, Russia

Mired In Poti

3 p.m. local time (11 a.m. GMT)

It's still raining in Poti. One of the three Russian checkpoints is located close to a swamp, and Poti's majoritarian MP, Temur Tsurtsumia, was joking today that the Russians will now have to withdraw -- if only to avoid sinking into the mire.

Several helicopters flew over Poti today. The authorities have no information on the purpose of these flights, because, as I wrote yesterday, there is no contact between the Russian forces and the local government.

Today I also learned that Georgian military sites that have been damaged by the Russian forces -- a marine base, coast guard facilities, and so on -- are open only until 2 p.m., and even during operating hours, the sites are only open to technical personnel who clean things up. The military is apparently being extremely cautious and trying to avoid any potential misunderstandings by restaffing their bases.

Tags:poti, Georgia, blog, Russia

A Lot Of Anxiety In The Air Again

A woman sells fruit in Poti today.

1 p.m. local time (9 a.m. GMT)

It's been raining in Poti since last night. Several people told me they could hardly sleep, waking up at the sound of thunder, afraid it was explosions.

After the recent increase in Russian military forces, there is a lot of anxiety in the air again. Residents of Poti continue to be highly doubtful of the pledge given by President Dmitry Medvedev yesterday -- that he is going to withdraw Russian forces from Poti within a week.

The authorities say four Russian armored vehicles left Poti yesterday. However, the mayor of Poti, Vano Saghinadze, does not think this is related to Medvedev's statement because at all three of the Russian checkpoints, excavators are still working, trenches are still being dug, and tents are still up. The sounds of helicopters could again be heard above Poti today.

Contrary to earlier talk, now there's a feeling that people might not send their children to school on September 15 because  of safety worries.

The authorities say the academic year will resume as planned on September 15, however, despite the presence of the Russian forces.


Russians Not Going Anywhere

Russian soldiers at a checkpoint outside Poti

10 p.m. local time (6 p.m. GMT)

A little earlier on, TV and radio stations, as well as news agencies, transmitted the words of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev -- that the withdrawal of Russian forces, currently stationed from Poti to Senaki, is going to take place within seven days.

This is what Medvedev said after a meeting with an EU delegation, led by French President Nicolas Sarkozy. This, obviously, is very good news for Poti's residents. But many remain highly skeptical as, ironically, just while we were listening to Medvedev's statement, tents were being erected, and excavators continued to dig trenches at the checkpoint that the Russians forces set up only today.

As I wrote in the morning, altogether there are now three Russian checkpoints in Poti. So far, the Russian soldiers don't look like they are going anywhere. Quite the opposite in fact -- they seem to be strengthening their positions, having beefed up their personnel and military hardware.

It's a rainy night in Poti. The weather and the general atmosphere are both kind of melancholic. Let's see what tomorrow brings.

Tags:poti, blog

Russians Set Up New Checkpoint, Bring In Troops

1 p.m. local time (9 a.m. GMT)

I just learned important news -- the Russians have opened a new checkpoint in Poti, their third one altogether. Their new checkpoint is located on the seafront, some 300 meters away from the existing one at Nabada. The Russians have already dug trenches, and put armored vehicles there.

This was preceded by the continued increase of their military forces in Poti. Today, four armored vehicles, and up to 40 soldiers entered the town; yesterday six armored vehicles and, so I was told, up to 60 soldiers arrived. Right now, it is said that there is a total of almost 200 Russian soldiers in Poti. Some of the fresh forces have remained at the checkpoint at the entrance of Poti. The others have crossed the town, and are now spread out at the other two checkpoints -- the old one at Nabada, and the newly opened one nearby.

The Russians are continuing to dig trenches with excavators, and their checkpoints are fenced off with a barbed wire. The armored vehicles display "peacekeepers" stickers. Last night, a helicopter flew over Poti -- presumably, it was a Russian military one. Even more forces could still arrive during the day.

The mayor of Poti, Vano Saghinadze, has said there's been no contact between the Russians and the authorities. "The occupying forces must leave Poti. There can be no dialogue with them. This is my unconditional demand," he said.

The town itself continues to live a normal life -- public transportation is working and shops are open. But among Poti's residents, the sense of anxiety and apprehension is on the increase.

Tags:poti, blog

New Russian Armor Arrives, Unannounced And Unwelcome

8 p.m. local time (4 p.m. GMT)

There's been a new development. Russian forces brought in additional military hardware today.

Six armored vehicles entered Poti. Two of them are now at the checkpoint at the entrance of the town. The remaining four are stationed at a second checkpoint, located at Nabada. 

The Russians did not let anyone know they were planning to do this. The authorities did not receive any notice before the hardware was brought in, nor have they been told anything since.

A short time ago I spoke to Poti's deputy in parliament, Temur Tsurtsumia, who thinks the new Russian armor is related to the presence of the destroyer "USS Mount Whitney," which is anchored outside Poti's harbor. Tsurtsumia said he believes the Russians are uneasy about this display of support from the United States and are trying to counter it by instilling fear among Poti's residents. 

Whether or not this is really what the Russians are aiming for, it has to be said that there’s definitely been a change in the overall atmosphere today.

In contrast to previous days, when the ambiance in town had grown increasingly relaxed, today there is certain anxiety in the air. People are now really skeptical that the Russians are going to leave Poti anytime soon.

I heard a lot of talk about possible incidents or provocations. Many families have already sent their children off to nearby villages, away from Poti.

On the surface, townspeople continue to live their normal lives; public transportation is working; shops and restaurants are open; and the parks are full of people. But everywhere you go, there are a lot of worried faces.

Tags:poti, Russia