Chivers Me Timbers

EARLY THIS MORNING, Moscow-based New York Times correspondent C.J. Chivers was detained by the South Ossetian KGB as he tried to cross into Mogabruni, an Ossetian village on the border with Georgia, which claims its territory.

Told that he did not have the proper accreditation in South Ossetia, now technically an independent nation, Chivers was sent back to Georgia whence he came.

At least that’s what’s being reported in Russia.

“In truth, the whole thing amounted to nothing,” said Moscow bureau chief Clifford J. Levy in an email.

Chivers, it turns out, was not detained at all. He and his fixer, who had a Georgian passport, were stopped at a Russian-Ossetian checkpoint. They had been headed to nearby Akhalgori/Leningor to visit a local resident who had invited them over. The Ossetian guards called the resident, who confirmed the invitation, but Chivers and his fixer, Olesya Vartanyan, were told they had to wait: The supervisor, apparently, was in the shower.

Chivers waited for two hours, during which time he and Vartanyan were treated with utmost hospitality. “During this time, the men at the checkpoint gave us pears to eat, and offered seeds, and chatted amiably with us about a range of subjects,” Chivers wrote in a late-night email from Georgia. “Our passports/documents were returned to us midway through this time,” he added, “We never were told, and we never had the impression, that we were detained or under any sort of restriction or arrest.” His request to enter South Ossetia was denied this time around, and Chivers was told that, next time, he would have to enter South Ossetia through Vladikavkaz, a ridiculous and roundabout request since the village was visible from the checkpoint. Vladikavkaz is 30 miles away.

Contrary to alarmist reports in the Russian press, courtesy abounded. The Russians and Ossetians gave the two Times journalists a lift back to the Georgian checkpoint, but not before inviting Chivers on a trip to the countryside, “or perhaps for some trout fishing in the mountains.”

Within the hour, Chivers and Vartanyan were receiving frantic phone calls checking in on their welfare. A standard bureaucratic encounter had made it into the echo chamber, where it had morphed accordingly.

“I am quite surprised that this is a story, because it was numbingly normal interaction with a border checkpoint, and nothing else,” says Chivers. “The men at the checkpoint were rule- and security-conscious, but they also exhibited the hospitality and politeness I have long experienced on many trips to many places on both sides of the Caucasus.”

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