Russian President Vladimir Putin meets his de facto South Ossetian counterpart Leonid Tibilov in the Kremlin on March 21. (photo: kremlin.ru)
Upcoming elections for the presidency of South Ossetia have been thrown into turmoil after the de facto authorities refused to register former president Eduard Kokoity and his supporters took to the streets to protest.
South Ossetia's Central Election Commission on March 4 said that they would not allow Kokoity to run in the April 9 elections, on the grounds that he fails to satisfy the ten-year residency requirement. He has been living in Russia since leaving office in 2011. The vote will pick a new leader of South Ossetia, which considers itself an independent country, but is recognized as part of Georgia by Tbilisi and most of the rest of the world (with the conspicuous exception of Moscow).
Following the decision, Kokoity rallied his supporters in South Ossetia's capital, Tskhinval (which Georgians call Tskhinvali), to protest. In response, the authorities temporarily closed the center of Tskhinval to motorized traffic and deployed security forces. Not everyone has fond memories of Kokoity's time in power, though, and on March 21, around two thousand people attended a counter demonstration against Kokoity.
Abkhazia's Central Election Commission announces preliminary results of the March 12 parliamentary elections. (photo: www.abkhazinform.com)
Former Abkhazian President Alexander Ankvab has made a successful comeback in politics after winning a seat in Abkhazia's 35-member parliament, one of several surprise results in the March 12 elections.
The parliamentary vote was the fifth to be held in the breakaway territory since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, all of the which have been ritually condemned as illegal by Georgia and Western governments. Recent elections have been genuinely competitive and unpredictable, however, and dramatic defeats of veteran politicians by independent challengers have been a regular feature. This year's edition did not fail to deliver.
The stakes were high for Abkhazia's opposition after it failed to depose President Raul Khajimba in a referendum in July 2016, and after a tense stand-off between opposition and government protesters in December ended in a draw. In late January, news emerged that former president Alexander Ankvab, ousted from office in 2014, had been nominated in three constituencies. This triggered a protest by pro-government veterans of the 1992-1993 war with Georgia, who proclaimed that while Ankvab had the legal right to participate, he did not have the moral right, having fled to a Russian military base in 2014.
Parking tickets may be hated universally, but car owners in the Georgian city of Batumi took it to an extreme this past Saturday with mass rioting that revived old memories of civil unrest. The political blame-game that followed left little hope for a widely acceptable explanation of why one parking ticket led to fierce clashes between police and protesters in the country’s top seaside resort.
Authorities in Batumi, seat of the Black-Sea region of Achara, have been taking stock of the damage done on a night of rampage that left cars burnt, property vandalized and dozens arrested. City Mayor Giorgi Ermakov put the damage at 150,000 laris (about $60,000). He said that the local government already has repaved cobbled sidewalks that provided ammunition for protesters. Riot police responded with rubber bullets and tear gas.
The trouble began on the evening of March 11, after a Batumi man and his son came out of a drugstore to find police ticketing their car for being parked in a restricted area, eyewitnesses say. An altercation followed that ended in both men’s arrest. (Their names have not been released.)
Bystanders tried to intervene, blaming police for using excessive force. “They pushed [the son] in like a sack of potatoes,” an emotional woman told Rustavi2 television station.
The Abkhazia-Georgia de facto border crossing at Inguri in 2014. It has since been renovated. (photo: Joshua Kucera)
Abkhazia has closed all but two of its de facto border crossings with Georgia, triggering protests from Tbilisi, Washington, Brussels, and the ethnic Georgians of Abkhazia whose daily lives will be complicated by the new restrictions.
Abkhazia's government announced the closures of two crossing points on March 5, following a law passed last April reducing the number of border points “in order to better control the border” and raising fines for illegal border crossings. The crossing points are considered to be an international border by the Abkhazian authorities and an “administrative boundary line” by the Georgian government and most of the rest of the world. The border is guarded jointly by Abkhazian security forces and Russian border guards. In addition to the main border crossing, at the town of Inguri, one other one remains open: at Papynyrkhua,
The crossings are used mainly by residents of Gali District in Abkhazia and Zugdidi District in Georgia, on either side of the border, both inhabited almost exclusively by Mingrelian Georgians with many family ties between them. Many Gali residents have moved to Zugdidi while coming back regularly to look after family, property and crops.
A Georgian coast guard vessel at its base in Poti. (photo: Ministry of Internal Affairs.)
When NATO officials announced last month that they were planning to increase the alliance's presence on the Black Sea, they noted that the details of what that would look like are still being worked out. Since then, Georgia and Ukraine have offered creative solutions about how they might chip in -- with NATO's help, of course.
The Black Sea has become one of the most dynamic sites of confrontation between Russia and NATO since Russia's annexation of Crimea, with both sides substantially stepping up their military activities in, around, and over the sea. But one limitation to an expanded NATO presence in the sea is the Montreux Convention, the 1936 international agreement that regulates the use of the Bosphorus straits. It restricts the presence of warships from non-littoral states to 21 days in the Black Sea. That affects all NATO countries other than Bulgaria, Romania, and Turkey. But NATO aspirant Georgia had one idea.
"One of the possibilities for strengthening the capabilities of NATO in the Black Sea is frequent visits of alliance warships, but there is a restraining factor here -- the Montreux Convention," said Brigadier General Vladimir Chachibaia, Georgia's chief of general staff. "One possibility is if NATO helps Georgia and Ukraine strengthen their military fleets, which costs a lot of money. Or, for example, create a coast guard base on Georgia's coast." He suggested that such a base could be "near Poti -- a port with strategic significance."
Three Georgian Su-25s, in better days. (photo: MoD Georgia)
Georgia is planning to get rid of its entire fleet of attack airplanes and replace them with drones, the country's chief of general staff has said.
Nominally, Georgia operates around 12 Su-25 ground attack aircraft, but only one of them has been able to fly recently, said Brigadier General Vladimir Chachibaia in an interview with Georgian magazine Arsenali. The main supplier of components for the aircraft is Russia, "which we don't have access to," Chichibaia said.
The move also is occasioned by a frank recognition that Georgian aircraft would be of little use in a potential conflict with Russia. "We know that in the case of Russian aggression our aircraft have no chance," he said. "Taking into account the forward position of air defense systems on the territory of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, it would only be ten minutes after takeoff to shoot down any of our aircraft. And in the case of an unconventional threat, we don't need the Su-25."
That assessment was borne out in the 2008 war with Russia over South Ossetia, when Georgian air attacks, including using the Su-25s, were quickly neutralized by Russia. And one of Georgia's most notable successes in the conflict was that their air defense managed to shoot down three or four Russian Su-25s.
Instead, Georgia will attempt to replace the Su-25's using drones, Chachibaia said. "We're putting the emphasis on unmanned aerial vehicles, which have multiple uses." That's a big step down, as Georgia isn't known to have any armed drones in its arsenal, and even in the best case an armed drone is much less capable than the Su-25.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov delivers remarks at the Munich Security Conference on February 18, where he poured cold water on the prospects of visa-free travel for Georgians to Russia. (photo: Munich Security Conference)
After getting the green light for long-awaited visa-free travel to the European Union, Georgians will have to wait a little longer for the same privileges in Russia.
Speaking at the Munich Security Conference on February 18, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov dismissed the possibility of a visa free waiver with Georgia, which recently won visa liberalization with the European Union. While Lavrov said he was pleased the relationship “has begun to normalize,” he expressed reservations about allowing Georgians into Russia without a visa, arguing that it was premature to embark on such a step without closer formal cooperation between the two countries. More controversially, he appeared to cast Georgia as a major security concern.
“[A visa-free regime] is linked to the need to ensure security,” Lavrov told reporters. “Militants and extremists are trying to use not only Central Asia, but also the Caucasus as a transit route.”
Diplomatic relations between Georgia and Russia were severed after the 2008 war and, despite some steps towards normalization, the Georgian government has ruled out reestablishing formal diplomatic relations while Russian forces occupy its territory. However, Georgia allows Russians to enter their country without a visa—a policy established by the previously ruling United National Movement government—and over a million Russians visited the country in 2016, according to the Georgian National Tourism Administration. That was enough to make Russia the fourth-largest source of tourists, and represented a 12% increase over 2015.
The former NATO Central Asia liaison office in Tashkent. (photo: NATO)
Central Asians are more likely to see NATO as a threat rather than as a source of protection, according to a new survey.
The survey, by the American firm Gallup, polled residents of all the ex-Soviet republics except for Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. All of the Central Asian states saw NATO as more of a threat than as protection. Tajikistan was the most anti-NATO state, with 34 percent seeing it as a threat and eight percent as protection. Next is Kyrgyzstan, at 19 percent protection and 30 percent threat; then Kazakhstan, 25 percent protection and 31 percent threat.
It's hard to imagine what NATO would possibly threaten in Central Asia. And while it's tempting to attribute this to exposure to Russian narratives about NATO, Tajikistan is the least Russian-speaking of all these countries, and Kazakhstan the most Russian-speaking, so that explanation isn't satisfying. (The Bug Pit is unable to come up with a better one, though.)
Note that NATO closed down its Central Asia liaison office in Tashkent last year, deciding that it would henceforth operate all of its modest cooperation programs in the region from Brussels.
Armenia also had a mostly negative response, with 20 percent saying NATO is a threat and only eight percent as a protection. Armenia's government makes not-insignificant efforts to maintain real cooperation with NATO, in spite of being a member of the NATO rival Collective Security Treaty Organization. But the fact that the only NATO country on Armenia's border is Turkey no doubt colors public opinion on the alliance.
Ilia II, patriarch of the Georgian Orthodox Church, in an undated photo. (photo: Patriarchate of the Georgian Orthodox Church)
The arrest of a senior Georgian Orthodox priest accused of plotting to poison an unnamed high level church official has roiled the country, where the church plays an outsized role in politics and society.
The priest in question, Giorgi Mamaladze, was arrested on February 10 moments before boarding a flight to Germany, where the ailing, 84-year-old Georgian Orthodox Patriarch Ilia II is recovering from a bladder procedure -- leading to rampant speculation that the patriarch was the would-be assassin's intended target. According to a statement from Georgia’s Office of the State Prosecutor, Mamaladze was caught with cyanide in his baggage:
The investigation began on February 2, based on information from a citizen who informed the prosecutor's office that his acquaintance Giorgi Mamaladze had asked for the lethal poison cyanide because he wanted to murder a cleric at the highest level of the hierarchy.
Georgian Foreign Minister Mikheil Janalidze meets with U.S. National Security Adviser Michael Flynn in Washington on February 10. (photo: MFA Georgia)
Eager to keep relations with the United States on the front foot, Georgian Foreign Minister Mikheil Janelidze has traveled to Washington to meet with senior American officials as Tbilisi seeks to shore up ties with a new administration that has at times demonstrated an affinity with Georgia's nemesis, Russia.
Relations between the U.S. and Georgia have steadily grown closer since the early 2000s, when the distant Caucasian state found itself in a privileged position in the George W. Bush White House’s foreign policy agenda.
But Donald Trump’s ascension to the presidency has raised doubts about the future of cooperation between Washington and Tbilisi, given his new administration’s reputedly Russia-leaning inclinations.
No doubt hoping to keep ties on an even keel, Janelidze met on February 10 with U.S. National Security Advisor Michael Flynn and recently confirmed Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, along with an assortment of members of Congress. Janelidze’s visit was likely meant to both confirm U.S. support and use the opportunity to assert Georgia’s carefully cultivated image as a regional stalwart for the new administration.