Sunday, 25 August 2013

Syria and Impenitent Evil

(Originally on 23 August, 2013.)

Hannah Arendt, who pondered a lot upon the nature of totalitarianism, wrote about the difficulty of applying the conception of forgiveness in situations where faced with impenitent evil, like for instance in the case of Nazi Germany. She made the point that even though Jesus recommended forgiveness, this was not automatic and unconditional, but instead, took place in response to apology. In a parallel manner, mercy responsed to repentance. Unrepenting, impenitent evil was doomed to perdition.

Yesterday (22 August 2013) the world was faced by countless videos from the suburban areas of the Syrian capital Damascus, where the regime of Bashar al-Assad, supported by Russia and Iran, used chemical weapons of mass destruction to kill civilians. Still today, the most modest accounts reported at least hundreds dead, while the highest accounts referred to around two thousand. Part of the video material shows rows after rows of dead children lain on floors, while others document the efforts of medical staff and volunteers to help those suffering the impacts or dying as a result of being exposed to nerve gas. Some of the helpers suffer from symptoms themselves and die.

A large number of those dead seem to be children. The Syrian regime and the propaganda and useful idiots backing it have claimed the victims were terrorists, or try to suggest the Syrian opposition bombed their own supporters with chemical weapons.

This WMD attack was not the first of its kind in Syria, although the number of victims seems to be much higher than in any of the dozen to twenty previous chemical weapons attacks that have been reported from Syria. The Assad regime is also not the first one in the region to use chemical weapons as a means of genocide on civilians. Saddam Hussein used them against the Kurds in the famous massacre of Halabja, and also against Iraqi Shi'ites and against Iran.

Wait a minute: haven't we been told since 2003 that Saddam never had any weapons of mass destruction? Of course that's what we've been told with high volume, but it doesn't make it true. Saddam not only had WMD, he was also one of those Middle Eastern dictators to use these weapons against his own people. When he did so, the United States did not make a punitive attack on Iraq - and neither did anyone else. On the other hand, the US did invade Iraq much later, when it happened to suit the US interests.

That Saddam had WMD was not the big lie of the Iraq War. What you could take as the lie was instead the claim that those weapons would have posed an immediate threat to the US, and that they would have been the main reason for the war to overthrow Saddam's regime and to replace it with a more cooperative one. The Syrian dictator Assad - who shares the ideology of Ba'athist national-socialism with late Saddam - knows this very well. He has assessed that he is in the same position where Saddam was at the time of Halabja - not in the same position where Saddam was in 2003. You see, the difference between these two is the calculation over the probability of the leading Western great powers having both capability and willingness to defy Russia, the eternal supporter of cruel dictators, by overthrowing dictators by means of force.

At the time of Halabja, Western powers did not have such willingness. In 2003 they had. The Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi calculated that he would not be stopped by means of force, so he could launch a campaign of unscrupulous mass destruction to the popular uprising. He miscalculated. Even though the US was extremely unwilling to make a military intervention to Libya, it changed its mind when not just the entire Arab World but also the leading European powers France and Britain took a stand to support military intervention and finally persuaded the US to provide the muscle.

Without the intervention, Libya would today face the same situation as Syria. Libyan people would have most cruelly murdered in perhaps hundreds of thousands, and the escalating war would have a catastrophic impact on entire North Africa - especially the neighbours Tunisia and Egypt - as well as on the Sahel. Without Western intervention to Libya, Qaddafi would have got continued support from Russia and perhaps also from Iran, Venezuela, North Korea and other supporters of cruel authoritarianism. These countries would have armed Qaddafi, sent special troops to North Africa and destabilized the region a lot, to the great detriment of the West and the Western-minded constituencies in the Arab countries.

Of course the Libyan situation still continued long enough to have some negative impact. The mercenary troops Qaddafi had recruited from the Sahel countries were expelled from Libya but they took refuge in the deserts of the Sahel, regrouped and aligned themselves and their heavy weaponries with the previously marginal regional Islamist groups and Tuareg rebels, proceeding to eventually conquering all of northern Mali. France, however, dealed with the situation quite elegantly and with minimal casualties to their own.

The successful interventions to Libya and Mali have not removed the threat of extremist movements from North Africa and the Sahel, but they have significantly limited it. Most importantly, they have isolated it to the non-state sphere, to be a threat posed by relatively weak illegal combat groups. That is not a very significant threat to the wider security policy, even though it will keep making some headlines. If the US did not intervene in Libya, and France in Mali, the situation in the entire region would be remarkably more horrible. Syria, if anything, should make this point clear.

Although the war propaganda supporting the Assad regime - backed by the global reach of Russia and its allies - attempts to make us at least doubt that the WMD attack on civilians in Damascus suburbs was not committed by the Assad regime, those with better knowledge have probably little doubt about it.

The Assad regime is the only actor in Syria with large quantities of chemical weapons and the means to use them in such a large attack against civilians. Assad's regime has previously used these chemical weapons against the Syrian people. Assad's regime has had no inhibitions or hesitation to murder hundreds of thousands of civilians and to bomb the largest cities of Syria into dust.

Yet for the sake of assurance we do well to consider the four most common alternative conspiracy theories: 1) That the attack was staged by the Syrian opposition to frame the Assad regime as the culprits and thereby to internationalize the conflict. 2) That the attack was a provocation by one of the jihadi groups fighting Assad but outside the actual opposition. These jihadi groups largely consist of foreigners. 3) That the attack was done by a foreign country, for example the US or Israel, in order to gain an excuse to invade Syria. 4) That the attack was done by a "rogue element", a local commander or militia fighting on Assad's side but without authorization from the president.

In my opinion, all these four conspiracy theories are implausible, but let me look at all of them shortly before coming back to the reasons I believe were on the background of the decision by the Assad regime and its state supporters to use WMD against civilian population.

1) At the same time when the attack took place, the pro-Assad war propaganda started spreading the idea that the Syrian opposition would have bombed itself with nerve gas in order to blame the regime. This theory would presuppose that the opposition had got possession of WMD. Who would have given such weapons to them? In addition, the theory would presuppose they had the means and the opportunity to use these weapons in the capital Damascus. Moreover, the theory would require that once having got possession of WMD the opposition would have made the absurd decision to use them against their own people instead of striking against the Syrian army or the shabiha.
Unlike the Assad regime that depends on the foreign support provided by Russia and Iran, the Syrian opposition is completely dependent on the support, combatants and protection provided by the Syrian population. Getting caught for such an outrageous act would be extremely high, even if one would try to put the blame on someone else.
Besides, this conspiracy theory is made unreliable by the fact that it repeats almost identically the similar propaganda that was used to question the war crimes of Russia's allies in the Balkans and in the Caucasus. Also in those cases the world was flooded with disinformation claiming that Bosnians, Kosovars, Chechens and Georgians had bombed themselves or committed massacres in order to engage Western powers on their side. Later it became evident that only Serbia and Russia had committed the mentioned kind of mass destruction on civilians. When the contents, narratives and means of spreading such propaganda continue same from conflict to conflict, there's reason to suspect they originate in the same or related spin factories.
2) Some of the groups fighting Assad are about as repulsive as the Assad regime and its militias. As the Syrian War has dragged on and the Syrian opposition has remained isolated and lacking hard international support (while receiving some soft support), Syria started receiving many fanatic jihadists from the surrounding countries and from Europe. They saw in Syria a religious jihad rather than the struggle for freedom and better future against cruel tyranny that the Syrians saw in it. Some of the jihadi groups are wicked in their thought to the extent that one could basically expect from them provocations that are totally contrary to the goals of the Syrian opposition. Some of these groups also seem to give as little value to human life as the Assad regime.
Yet it is implausible that the jihadists committed the attack to Damascus suburbs. These groups would have even bigger difficulties than for instance the Free Syrian Army to convince anyone to hand them chemical WMD. In spite of their separateness, they are still to some extent dependent on a level of support from the Syrian population, and in order to avoid condemnation they would have to hide their complicity to such an outrageous attack both from outsiders and from the rest of the Syrian opposition. Getting caught of such an act would mean certain condemnation even among those international jihadi circles, whose support is necessary for the groups fighting in Syria. It would be a risk they could not afford taking.
The jihadists would finally lack an actual motive. The thing these groups want least is that Westerners get involved in the Syrian situation. On the contrary, the jihadists have benefitted from the isolation of the Syrian opposition, and gained foothold for the very reason that the West has not helped the Syrians. The jihadists do not absolutely not want to see Assad's rule replaced by a pro-Western and Western-backed coalition. They want Islamic rule. That cannot be built up by nerve-gasing Muslims. 
The best known jihadi groups fighting in Syria, such as Jabhat an-Nusra and Dawlat al-Islamiyya, are sure to be religious fanatics, but they have tried to win the population's trust with their discipline and by punishing criminals. The hard-earned reputation would be lost forever by making massive attacks against Muslim civilians. If one of the jihadi groups would happen to obtain chemical weapons, they could be believed to have a temptation to use those weapons in terrorism against the West or Israel. They might also be interested in passing such weapons on to extremist groups operating somewhere else, which is one of the traditional fears on the background of containing the proliferation of WMD.
3) The third conspiracy theory - the one supposing the attack was done by an external state that seeks an excuse to invade Syria - usually points finger at either Israel or the US. This theory would presuppose these states are prepared to risk their international reputation by resorting to such an outrageous provocation. Yet both the US and Israel depend on the support of the Western World - not for example on that of the morally more flexible Russia. Getting exposed for such an attack would be devastating to them even after decades - something that has never really been a burden for Russia or Iran (both exposed for outrageous provocations by research years after the actual acts). At least in the US large-scale unscrupulous political conspiracies are made very difficult by the high risk of leaks.
Even if we believe that either the US or Israel would be prepared for such an attack only to gain an excuse for invasion, we would then have to assume two things: First, that these countries want to invade Syria. Secondly, that they have not previously had a sufficient excuse for such invasion. I think both these assumptions are false. Both the US and Israel have been extremely reluctant to intervene militarily in the Syrian situation, and the Assad regime and its backers know this. Moreover, even if the Americans and the Israelis had now changed their minds and desired to launch a major military intervention, there would have been plenty of excuses for this from the last two years.
The US has known all the way that it will not be able to get acceptance from Russia, Assad's strongest supporter, for any UN-authorized action against Assad. Meanwhile, Russia and Iran are not bound by UN authorizations; their military intervention has continued ruthlessly and with impunity throughout the Syrian conflict. If the US wanted an intervention, it could any time gather a unilateral coalition of the willing, since Britain, France, Turkey and a significant group of Arab countries have for long wished the use of force against Assad. They have lacked courage due to the absence of the American muscle. One of the most important reasons for the US reluctance is the experience that as soon as the US takes a stand backing an intervention, the others would load main responsibility and most of the costs on the Americans.
4) The fourth conspiracy theory is a kind of face-saving formula. People want to believe that the attack was committed by a local commander without Assad's authorisation, or perhaps one of the militias and extremist groups fighting on Assad's side, like the shabiha or the Lebanese Hizbullah, which for the last months had been responsible for most of Assad's military gains in Syria. Hizbullah is likely to have the means for such an attack, given that it gets the WMD from the Syrian regime. Yet it faces the same problems I mentioned in reference to the jihadi groups opposing Assad. Hizbullah is not independent from the support it gets from Arab populations around the region.
It is extremely unlikely that any local commander under the Assad regime could make a decision on the use of WMD, especially against civilian population sleeping in their residential areas. I find it obvious that the decision has been made on the highest political level, and that Russia and Iran have been at least informed, more likely consulted on the decision. I find it likely that Russia and Iran have been conscious and even given their active aceptance for the attack, which of course makes it the more frightening. 

Why then would Assad resort to such an attack at the time when exactly one year has been passed from Obama's red line claim on the use of chemical weapons, and when the UN observers have just arrived in the country? Exactly that's why. What we see here is a shocking demonstration of power, meant to paralyze opposition, to frighten off neighbouring countries, and to humiliate especially Obama but at the same time the entire Western international community. The UN is blocked by Russia's veto and will not be capable of investigating these attacks. The Assad regime already prevented observers from getting access to the alleged sites where chemical weapons were used. Is it likely the regime would do this if the attacks were committed by the opposition?

So far every time when the UN observers arrived in Syria, the Assad regime has committed some kind of "terrorist" provocation to back its propaganda. Yesterday's attack was of course much larger and claimed much more victims than the previous ones, but the propaganda materials seemed prepared in advance and were fed to the world in the usual order.

Therefore, the conclusion concerning the case seems to take the most horrifying shape. It is impenitent evil we're dealing with here. The political message of the attack is: "We can do whatever - and we do it with impunity. The world will not intervene." This message is addressed to all the domestic resistance: "Look what cowards your supposed supporters are - they are now shivering in fear and are incapable of doing anything for you. Surrender unconditionally or we're prepared to kill even the entire population if we have to."

It is likely that the message is also addressed to the neighbouring countries, especially Jordan and Turkey. If this is the case, a secret outrageous threat has probably been communicated to these countries in advance, and the Damascus attack was a demonstration of Syria being serious about the threat. Russia has probably worked Israel day and night to ensure inaction. At the same time it's likely that the neighbouring countries have received assurances that if they back off, WMD is only used against the Syrian people. This is what the regime can do with impunity as long as Russia uses its veto in the UN and no Western power is prepared for unilateral intervention.

As a precendent this case is most terrible. If the leading Western powers do not react, the risk increases significantly that also other dictators will once again resort to open genocidal action against their populations - and some even against small neighbouring countries. The United States is thoroughly humiliated and its credibility in the entire world and especially in the Middle East will plunge. Saudi Arabia and Russia have already approached each other and the Saudi chief of intelligence has offered agreement on weapons sales with Russia, "because it seems the US is retreating in the region".

It may also happen that Assad and his supporters take their gamble one step too far, and the red lines that at the moment have no credibility whatsoever will suddenly become real. Qaddafi did lose his gamble. Assad, too, can still lose it. Russia and Iran, however, are world champions in gambling, and they've calculated that the US doesn't dare to check the cards but will retreat instead. The following months will show whether that calculation is correct.

Even if Assad finally loses the game, Russia and Iran have already been successful for the gamble they're waged for two years in order to stop the Arab Spring and turn it upside down. They have managed to once again trap the US and the international community in a situation where all their options are bad. Retreating would mean huge defeats in the MENA region, both measured in stability and influence but especially in Western prestige. An intervention, on the other hand, would mean getting once agian tied up with large economic, political and diplomatic risks, which Russia and Iran will seek to exploit to the maximum - trying to maximize Western losses. For Russia and Iran, Assad's defeat would be an important loss, but in no way the end of the game.

Wednesday, 21 August 2013


(Originally on 7 June, 2011: introductory post for a series from a trip to Morocco.)

In May [2011] I travelled to Morocco, where I took part in a remarkable biological expedition. The main target areas where in the mountains of the Middle and High Atlas, but as side trips we also visited the Anti-Atlas and the Draa Valley. Our flights were both through Spain, so we also came to spend nights both in Madrid, the capital of Castile and the entire Spain, and in Barcelona, the capital of Catalonia.

My previous trip to Morocco took place in December 2003, and at that time I travelled quite extensively on the country's coastal rim, including the northwestern wetlands, as well as in the Middle Atlas and in the Draa Valley. Therefore some of the places we visited this summer were familiar to me. Already back then Morocco was a nice country to travel around: tourist infrastructure was well developed, roads were good, access to places good and traffic relatively safe.

The upheavals of this year's Arab Spring were much less visible in Morocco than in many of the other countries in the region, because the Kingdom of Morocco wisely started reforms well in advance and therefore Moroccans already enjoyed many such liberties and rights that the Libyans and Syrians could only dream about. The Moroccan government, from the beginning of the Arab Spring, allowed demonstrations and abstained from beating up the crowds of youth. As a result, demonstrations in Morocco have remained mostly peaceful. Only in one industrial city in northern Morocco there were casualties; the riots there seem to have been organized by the radical left.

Shortly before our trip, terrorists blew up a bomb at Café Argan, popular among tourists and locals alike at the most famous square in old Marrakesh. It is believed that the culprits were local radical Islamists, but their motive was more opposition against the government than international jihadism. As a result of the attack, however, we saw more policemen and gendarme during our trip than my companion had seen the previous year on a similar expedition. Otherwise no insecurity was visible in Morocco, although in several minor towns we saw small and peaceful demonstrations focusing on employment and other local issues.

The Arabic name for Morocco, Maghreb, means the Land of Sunset - in an other word, the West. In its general English use the term has been expanded to mean all of the western parts of North Africa in addition to Morocco. Usually it covers Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, sometimes also Morocco's southern neighbour Mauritania, which can be counted as an Arab country. The Arab reached the Atlantic coast in Morocco and Mauritania as early as in the seventh century, overthrowing the Berber kingdom that had previously ruled the area. The Arab rule led to wide assimilation and Arabianization of the Berbers. In spite of this, a significant part of the population in Maghreb, especially in mountain and desert areas, considers themselves as Berbers, and many also speak the various Berber languages as their mother tongue. In addition, there are many Tuaregs living in the southern desert areas.

During the Idrisid, Almoravid and Almohad dynasties, Morocco was a regional great power, dominating the western parts of North Africa as well as the Iberian Peninsula, which was ruled by the Muslim Moors until the Reconquista. Arab Andalusia, with its capital shifting between Córdoba and Granada, was an impressive cradle of civilization up until 1492, when the last Muslim state in Iberia, the Emirate of Granada, was destroyed. (Even before that, Granada had been for nearly 250 years subjected as a vassal of the Kingdom of Castile.) The Reconquista and later the Inquisition led to genocide, persecution and expulsions of Muslims, Jews, and later also of Moriscos, the former Muslims who had converted into Christianity. The roots of a large segment of the modern Arabs of Morocco and Mauritania are in Iberia.

In addition to the diversity already mentioned, the Arabic dialect spoken in Morocco is quite far from Middle Eastern Arabic. It contains many influences from Berber languages as well as more recent influences from French and Spanish as remainders of the colonial period during which France and Spain ruled their zones in Morocco. The modern Kingdom of Morocco gained independence from French colonial power in the 1950s and some of the Spanish-controlled areas were annexed at the same time, whereas Ifni was annexed only in 1969 and Western Sahara in the seventies. Spain still rules two towns in northern Morocco: Ceuta and Melilla.

In Western Sahara, Morocco's rule has been contested by Polisario, a radical leftist militant organization backed by Algeria, but nowadays mainly operates in Algeria and abroad, and Western Sahara is relatively calm and safe area to travel. The Western Saharans consider themselves as Arabs belonging to the Sahrawi tribe, although they, like other Moroccans, are mixed a lot with Berbers and the descendants of African former slaves.

Since the current King Muhammad VI came to power, Morocco has actively sought democratic reforms, and besides Jordan, it has been an exemplary country for developing Arab democracy. Morocco has traditionally maintained close relationship with France, and through, to the European Union, while the quarrel over Western Sahara has strained its relations with Spain. Morocco's main security threat has come from the larger eastern neighbour Algeria, which has for long aspired for regional dominance and used Polisario as a tool to reach the Atlantic and to isolate Morocco. The Moroccan-Algerian land border is still closed and one can only travel between the two countries through a third country or by flight.

Recently the antagonism within the Arab World - especially the authoritarian governments of Syria, Libya and Algeria versus the reformist and/or Western-oriented countries - has pushed the kingdoms of Jordan and Morocco to seek closer relations with the monarchies of the Arabian Peninsula. One can easily understand Jordan's membership in the Gulf Cooperation Council, but now membership is also sought by Morocco, which is located far from the Gulf, in the other end of the Arab World. It seems as if the GCC is becoming a club for monarchies, sharing little more in common but a common foe: Iran.

Monday, 19 August 2013

The Land of Saint George

(Originally on 5 July 2012.)

Two years ago in summer 2010 I visited Georgia and Armenia, and wrote about the experiences of that journey in Tbilisi, Mtskheta, Yerevan and the mountains around the Kazbek in my Finnish blog. Back then I travelled with a Lebanese American friend. This time we were a group of four young men. Besides myself, only one of my three companions had been to the Caucasus before, as his mother's roots were there.

We flew into Tbilisi from Estonia and rented a car, which we used to drive around most of Georgia. I and one of my companions had to return a bit earlier due to other commitments, whereas the other two continued to visit even Abkhazia and Karabagh. The areas that were not visited this time consisted of Svanetia in the northwest, Djavakhetia in the southwest, and Kakhetia in the east, where I ventured before the era covered by my blog together with a friend of mine now residing in East Africa. We even visited the famous Pankisi Gorge. Back then we were still jolly little undergraduates, and on the same long journey we also revisited the cultural diversity of Eastern Anatolia, the Qamishli Spring in Syria, and the bazaars and internet cafés of Hawler, Suleymaniya, Kirkuk and Mosul in northern Iraq. "There may be enough destination in our journey, but what makes it worthy of the trouble is the way there itself."

Also this time, travelling took place in an outstanding atmosphere. One would think that taking four confident, cosmopolitan and verbally talented young men, whose summed IQ probably exceeds six hundred, and putting them for a couple of weeks into a Renault Mégane in the middle of the Caucasian honour culture, throwing in some hatchapuris and a few bottles of Saperavi wines per man, one could not avoid clashes of egos. Yet no, the good spirits of our expedition survived even all the debates on sensitive questions of international politics and cultural clashes in a civilized and lofty atmosphere. All my three travel companions shared respectably wide general knowledge and they were socially active promises of our internationalizing homeland; two of them active web discussants and the third one an otherwise important eminence gris.

Compared with two years ago, Georgia has actually just increased its attractiveness as a travel destination. With the exceptions of Batumi (marketed for the newly rich) and the core centre of Tbilisi, the price level in Georgia has remained very affordable, while the quality of everything has steadily risen as a result of large-scale improvement of infrastructure, renovation of the city centres, and the new, more international generations taking over. Georgia is a safe country for tourism. Roads are mostly in good condition, although one should carry a map along, because signs are generally insufficient or illogically placed - even if one's able to read the Georgian alphabets.

For the beginning, Tbilisi: located in Kartli, in the gorge of the Kura River that flows towards the Caspian Sea, the Georgian capital has continued its remarkable face-lift. Two years ago the Rustaveli Avenue leading to the Freedom Square, and the Old Town were already nicely restored, and I wrote about how there was now a concentration of bar and café streets in Old Town that was reminiscent of Beirut. Also across the river in Metekhi restoration has proceeded with speed and we could now see that also the Mardjanishvili district has been restored with its imperial nineteenth-century buildings, fountains and parks. I recall anticipating two years ago that there could be yet another concentration of social and evening activities in Mardjanishvili, and this seems to have happened.

In spite of the Russian invasion four years ago and the economic blockade and political attempts at destabilization ever since, Georgia has continued its development with a surprising pace. Russian activities and the global depression, however, have had an impact on the spirits of the Georgians. They have kept that somewhat bitter, disillusioned and frustrated tone I observed already two years ago. The economic depression seems to have hit the country even worse than the Russian invasion, which after all resulted in the loss of only a couple of additional border valleys, in addition to what Russia had been occupying since early 1990s already.

Georgia's response to the constant Russian bullying has been quite interesting. Georgia has, for instance, unilaterally opened its borders with Russia and granted all Russian citizens a unilateral visa freedom to visit Georgia. Georgia also allows the inhabitants of the occupied territories (Abkhazia and South Ossetia) to travel to Georgia. Russia, however, does not allow Georgians any access to its own territory or the Georgian territories it continues to occupy.

Along the road to Kazbek in the Caucasus Mountains we saw how numerous Russian families had entered Georgia with their own cars, to have vacation and look around in Georgia. They cannot miss sensing the greater freedom prevailing there and witnessing with their own eyes and ears the falsehood of the propagandistic image that the Russian media gives of the neighbouring country. Seen from this point of view, Georgia's unilateral concessions actually constitute a potentially successful charm offensive, as many ordinary Russians can now acquaint with a reality quite different from the image they would get in Russia.

Since Russia occupied Sukhumi and bombed Poti, Georgia has paid a lot of effort to improve its third port city, Batumi, the third-largest city of Georgia and the capital of the autonomous region of Adjaria. Batumi is located on the Black Sea coast near the Turkish border. Two years ago I didn't visit there, so I couldn't witness what had been built by then, but still eight years ago it used to be in a quite dilapidated and post-Soviet condition.

Now an amazing kitchyland has been erected in Batumi in a short period of time - some kind of a Black Sea version of Dubai with grandiose marble palaces, neon-lighted glass towers, pompous restaurants, casinos and luxury villas, gold-covered statues, seraphs, cherubs, dancing nymphs and fountains. Batumi intends to go even further since everywhere around the city one can see new construction projects, offers of luxury real estate, and there is apparently a plan to construct a fountain spraying Georgia's national booze chacha. That is sure to attract Russian tourists and might also constitute a good trump card to market Batumi for Finnish tourists.

I have no idea where all the initial investment has come from but the place is far from being deserted. There is apparently a sizable and affluent constituency of holiday-makers who have discovered Batumi. Some undoubtedly are newly rich Georgians living abroad, but judging from the fragments of Russian, Ukrainian and Turkish heard around, a large part of the people here are Azerbaijani, Ukrainian and Russian newly rich, including the upper middle class of the oil-wealthy Baku, Turks with Caucasian roots, and amazingly enough, lots of Israelis and Iranians, too. An Estonian contact we met cracked a joke about dawn in Batumi's nightclubs where the last ones to linger on the dance floors are the Israelis and the Iranians since they have so much to talk about.

A short drive north of Batumi there's another resort town, the much more moderate Kobuleti, which was full of smaller and more affordable family hotels. There most of the holiday-makers seemed to be of the domestic stock. It is good that also ordinary Georgians have a Black Sea beach resort so close to Batumi, which has turned Mediterranean by its price level. We also visited the port city of Poti, which seemed quite dormant compared with the coastal towns further south, although even there the destruction inflicted by Russian bombings had been quickly repaired and the commercial harbour was functional again.

Georgia's second-largest city and an important cultural centre Kutaisi was once upon the time the capital of the Imeretian Kingdom. There we lived for the astonishingly inexpensive price of 40 lari in a white marble villa, across the river in a hillside near the cathedral and overlooking a wonderful scene over the city. The villa now hosted a family hotel, and we could chill out at its terrace, enjoy the scenery over the town's skyline and consume the five litre canister of Saperavi wine that we had picked from a vineyard on the way here.

The climate of Kartli and Kakhetia, inhabited by the Karts of East Georgia, is more continental - hot in summers, and also drier as one moves further east. On the western side of the watershed forested mountain range where Gori and Surami are located, it turns into the hot and humid subtropical climate of the Black Sea, and the mountains descend towards Kutaisi to form the plains of the Rioni Valley. The Rioni River lets into the Black Sea at Poti, where also the protected delta area of Kolkheti is located. We returned from Batumi through Guria and the Supsa Valley into Central Georgia. There's also an ethnic difference between western and eastern Georgia: The East is inhabited by the majority ethnic group of the Karts, while the West is home to the speakers of Western Georgian languages, the Megrelians (Mingrelians), the Svans, the Adjarians and the Lazis - the last of whom live partly on the Turkish side. Historically majority of the Adjarians and Lazis were Muslims whereas the Karts, the Megrelians and the Svans are Christian.

We also visited the northwestern town of Zugdidi and the Enguri River that forms the boundary to Abkhazia. Atmosphere up there was surprisingly phlegmatic and sleepy. The soldiers gave us permission to go to the side of occupied Abkhazia and come back. Still in the early 2000s Zugdidi was the base of Georgia's radical nationalists who wanted to win Abkhazia back, but now it was just like any Georgian town. Zviad Gamsakhurdia's statue and memorial decorated the central park, but otherwise the Abkhazian conflict was hardly visible at all in the streets of Zugdidi.

One cannot claim to have really been to the Caucasus if one one has not visited the Caucasus Mountains. It is there one can also find the cultural soul of the region. Had we had more time, we would have gone to Svanetia or some other slightly more difficult mountain area, but as time was limited, we chose again the simpler solution and drove through Ananuri, Pasanauri and Gudauri along the Georgian Military Highway up to Stepantsminda, at the foothills of the Kazbek.

We drove to the border crossing leading to the Russian Republic of North Ossetia to see the ruins of Queen Tamara's castle, and we climbed up to the mountain to the Tsminda Sameba churche, where patriotic Georgian youth make spirited excursions, carrying the Georgian flags for good poses and singing patriotic songs. And we also visited the Darial Gorge to wonder the breathtaking sceneries that had so inspired Lermontov and Pushkin. Griffon Vultures were soaring over the mountain paths of Gveleti, and Alpine Choughs around the concrete abomination from the Soviet era that has been erected in the middle of most majestic gorge landscape before the Djvari Pass, to celebrate the "friendship of peoples" between Georgians and Russians.

I recommend my readers, too, to make the trip to Georgia as long as it is still there, and as long as you can experience it as a free country. Renting a car is an excellent way to acquaint with that fascinating, regionally and culturally diverse country, where every valley and region has its own character. Travelling in Georgia is easy and safe. It is easy to find inexpensive hotels and guesthouses in towns, while in smaller villages one can often find "granny accommodation". Finns and most Westerners don't need visa to Georgia, and also otherwise Georgia hasn't obsessed it with controlling foreigners since the Rose Revolution in 2003. Only one of the hotels we visited during the entire trip actually wanted to see our passports.

For those who do not have the opportunity to travel, I could recommend for example an armchair trip into the eleventh-century chivalry romantics in the form of reading Georgia's national epic, the Knight in the Panther's Skin. Let us quote what the Finnish Wikipedia writes about the book:

The epic strongly reflects Georgia's location in a crossroads of cultures and trade routes. At Rustaveli's time, the country had been part of the Christian world for almost thousand years already, but it was situated at the edge of the strengthening Islamic culture that lived its golden age of prosperity. Also the characters of the story represent different cultures and traditions, yet they live in a tolerant coexistence. Although the Knight in the Panther's Skin has been written in the Middle Ages and it carries lots of similarities with European chivalry romantics, it anticipates the Renaissance in its humanist and liberal spirit. [...]
Rustaveli makes personal freedom, pure love, and justice central themes in his epic. The heroes of the story are pure-hearted, brave fighters for justice and happiness. In its basic tone the epic is optimistic. Although Rustaveli's patriotic, political view on a powerful central state steered by an enlightened autocrat is strongly present in the story, the story is not limited in its national scope, but instead delivers its message generally to the humankind. Even the theme of intellectual and moral equality between man and woman is visible in the Knight in the Panther's Skin.

Unlike the grotesque Soviet monument of forced Druzhba, which was mentioned above, the heroic epic penned by the poet and courtier Shota Rustaveli is a genuine cultural monument for a peaceful coexistence of different civilizations. Like Georgia itself, the epic places itself to the border zone, where it guards the gates between the East and West, and cultivates flourishing rose gardens along the gateposts. Like Georgia's national saint, it protects civilization, sometimes in a seemingly desperate struggle against the roaring mouths of fire-spitting dragons.