Tbilisi had an unusual visitor on July 2. But one whose presence could have far-reaching consequences for the energy map of both the South Caucasus and Europe.
Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov’s two-day state visit to Georgia, his first, involves the usual meetings with the usual assortment of senior Georgian officials and the usual signing of various, vaguely described agreements.
The two countries have not divulged the details.
The Turkmen government is excited about how the use of “transportation-transit infrastructure between the Caspian and Black Sea regions will provide for the supply of broad inter-regional integration with the states of Europe, and the Near and Far East.”
Georgian Foreign Minister Tamar Beruchashvili, for her part, expressed a hope that the visit would bring “interesting results” for “deepening” the two countries’ relations as well as for “the execution of regional projects.”
Of course, bottom line, that means one thing – energy.
A few months ago, European Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic told Reuters that Turkmen gas would reach European markets by 2019.
The State Department has released its annual "Country Reports on Terrorism" reviewing terrorism activity from the past year and, perhaps unsurprisingly, the ISIS is the overwhelming focus throughout the report, but also in the former Soviet Union.
"The ongoing civil war in Syria was a significant factor in driving worldwide terrorism events in 2014," State wrote in the report's introduction. "The rate of foreign terrorist fighter travel to Syria – totaling more than 16,000 foreign terrorist fighters from more than 90 countries as of late December – exceeded the rate of foreign terrorist fighters who traveled to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen, or Somalia at any point in the last 20 years."
The report continues State's practice of describing governments' perceptions of the threat of terrorism, rather than Washington's own perception. The introduction of the section on South and Central Asia reads: "Central Asian leaders have expressed concern about the potential terrorist threat posed by the return of foreign terrorist fighters to the region in the wake of ISIL’s growth in the Middle East and the drawdown of U.S. and Coalition Forces in Afghanistan."
Last year's report expressed substantial skepticism about Central Asian government's claims about terror threats; that skepticism is less apparent in this report's newly written sections on ISIS. However, a senior State Department official testified before Congress earlier this month on ISIS in Central Asia and downplayed the threat, noting that the vast majority are not recruited in Central Asia but abroad, particularly in Russia.
After a deadly attack last week by an escaped zoo tiger, residents of the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, are starting to see or hear predator zoo animals everywhere. And coming up with some increasingly fantastic tips for how to survive an encounter.
In one Tbilisi suburb, police and a group of concerned citizens caught what they thought was one of the wolves that had escaped from the city zoo after the June 13-14 flood that literally turned Tbilisi’s center into an urban jungle.
“Trust me, I know a wolf when I see one,” one man assured skeptics in a video of the supposed capture.
“Shouldn’t some zoo representative come?” another asked.
Against a backdrop of police-car lights, a crowd took photos for posterity with the suspected runaway; some even hesitantly stroking its head.
But the detainee proved to be a dog.
It was released and cleared of all lupine charges.
The confusion, however, was not a one-off. In the central district of Vake, several young pranksters downloaded a lion’s roar and broadcast the sound via speakers to horrified neighbors. Before long, both the national guard and police came running as emergency calls flooded in.
Amidst building controversy over a fatal attack by an escaped zoo tiger, the Georgian government has emphasized that it is not planning to arrest Tbilisi Zoo Director Zurab Gurielidze for the June 17 slaying.
Scores of protesters gathered outside the government chancellery on the evening of June 17, after the general prosecutor’s office opened a criminal case for negligence and summoned Gurielidze and two other zoo employees for questioning.
In a meeting the next day with members of the emergency council dealing with the flood’s aftermath, Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili emphasized that the notion of a witch-hunt after Gurielidze is “absurd.”
“A conversation about a concrete person’s guilt for what happened is absolutely unacceptable,” news outlets reported him as saying.
The prosecutor’s office “should also question members of the crisis council and interior ministry employees to exclude any speculation,” he said.
In an earlier televised meeting of the emergency council, Gharibahvili had asked the zoo director not to take the blame for the killing, and expressed respect for him. Gurielidze earlier had taken responsibility for information that had prompted the government to announce before the attack that escaped zoo animals no longer posed a risk.
Police special forces have "liquidated" the tiger, Georgian news outlets reported.
The morning-attack at the abandoned, downtown Laguna Vera swimming pool complex shocked the already stressed city. Another man had been reported to be in critical condition.
Interior Minister Vakhtang Gomelauri, who later appeared on the scene, told reporters that the man, a middle-aged worker, had died on the scene. Zoo Director Zurab Gurielidze, also present, did not respond to journalists' questions, Interpressnews reported.
The attack happened just next to the zoo where scores of volunteers are still cleaning up the flood debris. The flood killed 19 people.
Just the day before, government officials had assured citizens there was no risk of a predator attack, and that reports of stray animals were baseless. The zoo stated that a tiger, bear and hyena were still missing, but presumed dead.
In a controversial move, heavily armed special forces, fearing for public safety, had killed many escaped predators.
Georgia and France have finalized a blockbuster air defense deal that was the source of a major political crisis in Tbilisi last year, though many of the details of the deal and the crisis remain shrouded in mystery.
Defense Minister Tina Khidasheli on June 15 signed an agreement with the company ThalesRaytheonSystems in Paris on the purchase of “advanced” air defense systems that will “guarantee country’s air defense,” Khidasheli said, according to Georgian news website Civil.ge.
But that's about all that is known: the exact type of system, its price, or anything else is being kept secret. “I cannot speak about the details of the agreement we signed today. Information about such type of procurements, weapon should be top state secret, otherwise we can now continue our conversation in Russian and they will not even need to spend money on translation to learn information about this agreement,” Khidasheli told the Georgian state broadcaster.
The June 14 arrest and later search of the house of Aiuf Borchashvili led to tensions in Pankisi, a predominantly Muslim area, which has recently seen dozens of its members head off to join jihadist groups in Iraq and Syria.
The arrest and a string of detentions appear to signal that Georgian officials are now trying to push back more actively against the departure of Muslim Georgians for Syria.
Family and friends of Borchashvili, who was also the imam of the village of Jokola, staged a protest against his arrest, however, and some clerics warned that the detention is spelling trouble for the Georgian authorities.
The imam's lawyer, Gela Nikolaishvili, has rejected the charges as "absurd," Civil.ge reported.
As part of a broader swoop, police also detained Merab Batirashvili, the alleged cousin of ISIS commander Omar al-Shishani (Tarkhan Batirashvili), a Pankisi native, who some suspect could coordinate recruitment in Georgia. Batirashvili was later released.
On top of moving against alleged recruitment, police took another unprecedented step and detained in the Tbilisi airport three young men suspected of planning to travel to Syria to join ISIS. They, too, were later released.
Few places are as silent as a city of 1.2 million the day unknown numbers of wolves, lions, tigers and bears are reported to be at large. But now, one day after a June 13-14 flash-flood destroyed Tbilisi’s city zoo, killing some 13 people, and wiping out houses and a highway, into that silence has come a cacophony of questions.
Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili has announced that an investigation will be held into the reasons for the massive damage caused by the flood, touched off when heavy rain prompted a stream that runs through a gorge in the city center to overflow.
Questions have been raised, he noted, about the way the highway that bordered the zoo – the so-called New Road, built at the end of President Mikheil Saakashvili’s administration – was constructed.
If the construction is found to be faulty, the question of the responsibility of “those people, who, for years, did not pay attention to the situation,” has to be asked, he stressed, Internews reported.
Finance Minister Nodar Saduri announced that the initial damage estimate of 40 million laris (about $19 million) would not “be sufficient” to repair all the damage done, news agencies reported.
In an effort to allieve the strain on roads from the loss of the highway, Gharibashvili on June 15 asked Tbilisi residents not to use their cars except in cases of emergency. Gigantic potholes have appeared in two main thoroughfares not far from the flooded area – a possible sign of underground water.
Such developments appear to have prompted President Giorgi Margvelashvili to raise the question of urban planning. “The question of the cause of the flooding shouldn’t go to politicians, but to urban-designers, architects and city-development specialists,” he claimed, news outlets reported.
June 15 was declared an official day of mourning and a non-working day.
He may have lost his Georgian citizenship, but even as a regional governor in Ukraine, ex-Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili appears to be planning a comeback in Georgia.
In an hour-long interview with the ever-Misha-friendly Georgian TV channel, Rustavi2, broadcast on June 2, the former Georgian leader shared grand plans for Georgia’s future and shook his fist at back-home foes.
Yes, he said, I shall return, and “we will” bring jobs, education and dignity to Georgia, which, he claims, has "become uncool" (gabandzda) under a government of amateurs and sycophants to billionaire ex-Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili.
Yes, the seaside metropolis of Lazika, which so far exists only in Misha’s head, will be built for all the separatists to see and to be dazzled by its skyscrapers.
And, yes, he said, drawing on “very good experience in Ukraine with how to make oligarchs return their money,” he will wreak vengeance upon Ivanishvili, whom, he alleged, without offering detailed proof, supposedly has run off with billions at taxpayers' expense.
But when directly asked if he plans to lead his homeland again, Saakashvili, wearing a Georgian-flag lapel-pin, demurred. “People will vote for the man or the group who best fits their vision of what kind of country they want to live in,” he said.
Voters may have gone for Ivanishvili and the Georgian Dream back in 2012 “because they were given a hope for a better life,” he conceded, but not because, “as [Ivanishvili] thinks . . . he is so handsome and magnificent, so eloquent and educated . . . .”
The pull of sakartvelo (Georgia), though, does not come as a surprise to some regional observers.
Some ex-presidents write their memoirs after leaving office. Others hit the speaking circuit or take up painting.
Leave it to Georgia’s 47-year-old ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili, never one to do things by the book, to become, it appears, the first former head of state to give up his own country’s citizenship so that he can act as a regional governor in another country.
But Saakashvili, showing up for work in jeans on Sunday, May 31 as the new head of the Ukrainian region of Odessa, takes it in stride. Those who consider “silly” his decision to run Odessa and adopt Ukrainian citizenship should stop and think, he told Georgia’s Rustavi2 TV station.
“Under the rules established by [ex-Prime Minister Bidzina] Ivanishvili, you know what Georgian citizenship is for me today? This is six square meters [in Tbilisi’s prison #9] . . .That’s what Georgian citizenship is for me. “