A flurry of high-level military visits between Washington and Tbilisi appears to be setting the stage for wider-scale exports of weaponry from the U.S. to Georgia.
Last week, the highest-ranking officers of the U.S. Marine Corps and U.S. Army in Europe both visited Georgia, and earlier this month, Chief of General Staff of Georgian Armed Forces Major General Vakhtang Kapanadze visited Washington, and met with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey, as well as top officials from the U.S. Army and Marine Corps and the head of the Defense Security Cooperation Agency, which regulates American arms exports.
During his visit to Tbilisi, General Ben Hodges, the commander of U.S. Army Europe, said that Maj Gen Kapanadze's visit included discussion of "weapons procurement." The statement was reported variously in various media, but U.S. Army Europe confirmed to The Bug Pit that Gen Hodges said:
I am aware of the discussions that happened in Washington DC last week with regards to the weapons procurement. First of all I think it would be inappropriate for me to talk specifics about a meeting that happened at a level way above my head between my Nation's representatives and Georgia.
Georgia’s beloved and hated economic guru Kakha Bendukidze has died at the age of 58 in a London hotel, leaving behind a legacy of both accomplishments and controversy.
A man of many epithets, Bendukidze was an oligarch, a scientist, a chef, an educator and a capitalist to his bones; an individual credited with helping bring the Georgian economy out of the post-Soviet pell-mell. Once one of the largest — in every sense of the word — figures in Georgian politics, Bendukidze was nabbed in 2004 by then President Mikheil Saakashvili to return from Russia, where he had run mega-heavy-machinery producer OMZ, to help overhaul the Georgian economy.
Bendukidze’s privatize-it-all philosophy, sometimes described as Bendunomics, earned him as many fans as it did ardent critics, but neither group doubted his intellect.
“Georgia should sell everything that can be sold, but its conscience,” Bendukidze was wont to say. The privatization campaign and dramatic slashing of bureaucracy did result in official double-digit economic growth rates and praise from global economic-watchdogs, but also criticism from social equality advocates.
Though a flaming libertarian, Bendukidze was bigger than just a skilled multi-millionaire, however. He was a media personality who even acted as Georgia’s Donald Trump in the Georgian version of the Apprentice show. A food enthusiast, he ran an agriculture school with cooking classes.
Being a parent is no easy task. Obedience is key. But when it comes to criticism from his political papa, 58-year-old billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, founder of Georgia's ruling Georgian Dream coalition, Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili appears willing to try and be the dutiful political son.
Following nationally televised criticism from Ivanishvili of his recent description of ex-Defense Minister Irakli Alasania as “an adventurist, foolish and ambitious,” Gharibashvili conceded in comments on November 10, that his remark, coming amidst a dramatic government shake-up last week, was perhaps a little out of line. “I, too, did not like what I said about Alasania,” he said.
He tried to amend his words after Ivanishvili, his career mentor and former boss, commented that “[e]motions must be reined in… “
Ivanishvili, though supposedly no longer interested in politics, has not restrained himself from weighing in heavily on last week’s dismissal of Alasania and the resignations of ex-Foreign Minister Maia Panjikidze and State Minister for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration Aleksi Petriashvil over Alasania's claims that NATO-membership plans are at risk.
Georgia's richest man may have no formal government status, but the main characters in the country’s ongoing political drama are now busy paying visits to billionaire ex-Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili.
Fired ex-Defense Minister Irakli Alasania had his tête-à-tête with Ivanishvili, founder of the ruling Georgian Dream coalition, last night; now, Ivanishvili, generally seen as the real power behind the government, at latest report is currently meeting with Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili.
"One thing that we agreed on is to handle all political processes in a fashion that does not damage the state,” Alasania told TV reporters on November 7. “This was the gist of our conversation. We spoke of many things, but it obviously is going to stay between the two of us."
The November 6 evening meeting was at the agreement of both, he added. After being fired as defense minister earlier this week, Alasania had categorically refused to talk with Ivanishvili, who, for all his assurances that he has retired from politics, decided to drop in on a Georgian Dream meeting to discuss the coalition’s future. The meeting resulted in Alasania’s Free Democrats pulling out of the coalition and potentially leaving the group without a parliamentary majority.
Ivanishvili has not yet commented about his Alasania chat. No word has yet emerged about his talks with Gharibashvili, a former business associate.
The firing of Georgia's defense minister and ongoing shakeup of the Georgian government is the biggest political crisis the country has faced since the coalition led by former President Mikheil Saakashvili left office two years ago. But does it threaten the country's ties with the West?
Many of the headlines in the Western press referred to the "pro-Western" orientation of the departed officials, with the implication that there was a geopolitical significance to the move. "Georgia's premier sacks pro-Western defense minister," wrote Reuters. "Georgia's Pro-West Foreign Minister Quits," reported Voice of America. "Georgian Pro-Western Foreign Minister Announces Resignation," reported Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
Although the sacked defense minister, Irakli Alasania, himself suggested that his firing was "an attack on Georgia's Euro-Atlantic choice," many other top Georgian officials took pains to ensure that that wasn't the case. "Our country's Euro-Atlantic integration is not only our government's, but our people's, choice and this process is and will be unchangeable," Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili said after firing Alasania.
Georgians’ fascination with cars is only surpassed by their ardor for vanity car plates. The South-Caucasus country may be strapped for cash, but it turns its pockets inside out to get the right car and personalized plates to go with it. As of early this month, Georgian car owners had paid a good 8,9 million lari ($5.6 million) over the past month and a half for some 30,000 car plates, Peradi.info reported, citing police records.
And all this in a country where the average monthly salary amounts to just over 773 laris, or $442, according to official data.
But, apparently, those low incomes didn’t stop these drivers. The most hardcore paid 10,000 laris ($5,718.53) to adorn their vehicles with their full names or some slogan. Less fancy plates that have repeated numbers and letters — such as 111 - AA - 111 — cost about 1,000 laris or $570, BHN reported. If you are a Georgian girl called Rusa, for about 250 laris ( $142), you can get a RU - 000 - SA plate.
By comparison, ordinary license plates cost 35 laris ($20). But, of course, who notices those?
After the government recently changed the format of the plates, drivers now have all kinds of messages to tell the rest of the traffic, too: Amen, Drunkard, Kisses. Several years back, one Georgian government-minister got himself MCCAIN plates in honour of his favorite US senator, Republican John McCain of Arizona, wrote Foreign Affairs.
Russia wants to revive a tsarist-era project for building a new road to Georgia, but Georgians remain uncertain about whether the intention has to do with transit for trade or tanks or both.
The topic was slotted for further discussion at a routine, October-16 meeting in Prague between Georgian and Russian officials, but details have not emerged.
The road, which would run from the restive Russian republic of Daghestan to Georgia’s Kakheti region, is meant as an alternative to the only fully functional road link between Georgia and Russia, known by its unfortunate historical name, the Georgian Military Highway.
The highway, at times barely two lanes, winds north through canyons and towering mountains in eastern Georgia, and is highly susceptible to the elements. Heavy snowfalls and landslides often block the road, leaving trucks queuing for weeks before they can go through.
To the west, there are two crossings into breakaway South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Both of these passages are outside Tbilisi’s control and remain closed to international traffic.
Increased transit would bring more income for Georgia’s lackluster economy, and especially for Russian ally Armenia, which heavily relies on exports to Russia. But many Georgians have qualms about giving their enemy number-one more options to roll in the tanks should the 2008 war repeat itself. Particularly in the wake of the uproar over the proposed Abkhazia-Russia treaty.
The fact that several months before the 2008 invasion, then Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin arrived in Daghestan and called for construction of this same road as another corridor to Georgia has offered little reassurance on this front.
The Russian government has criticized a NATO plan to construct military training facilities in Georgia, while coming under fire itself for hosting a NATO facility on Russian soil.
When NATO announced last month that it would set up a range of expanded cooperation programs with Georgia, including joint training facilities, the reaction from Moscow was inevitable. On October 8, Russia's foreign ministry issued a statement expressing “concern in connection to the Georgian media reports about plans to deploy military infrastructure on the territory of Georgia in the interests of NATO.... Such actions would create threat to emerging stability in the Transcaucasus region."
Left unmentioned was the increasingly uncomfortable fact that Russia itself hosts a NATO cargo transit facility in Ulyanovsk. It was set up in 2012 to help NATO forces get equipment to and from Afghanistan, and even then it was somewhat contrary to Russia's consistent anti-NATO rhetoric. Then-Russian ambassador to NATO Dmitry Rogozin -- one of the leading producers of that anti-NATO rhetoric -- was put in the unlikely position of defending the facility, saying it would only involve harmless items like toilet paper and Mars bars.
These days, this question is a subject of passionate debate in Georgia. Many recoiled in distaste to see Moscow this month hosting a so-called Tbilisoba, an annual, Oktoberfest-style festival of Georgian arts, national crafts and cuisine held in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi. Some accuse participating Georgian pop stars of selling out to the Kremlin, while others speak of the need of building cultural bridges amid animosity.
In Soviet and early post-Soviet times, Russia was as much of a main outlet for Georgian song and dance as it was for the country’s fruit and vegetables. Given the modest size of Georgia’s show business, many Georgian performers still turn to Russia, with its massive showbiz industry and remnants of nostalgic appreciation for Georgian culture.
After 2008, some Georgian showbiz stars quit on Russia, and Tbilisi discouraged cultural exchange events. That approach changed with the Georgian Dream’s advent to power in 2012, and the lifting of the Russian embargo on Georgian food-products.
Yet, still, part of Georgian society thinks such performances are inappropriate so long as Russian troops remain stationed in breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and help separatists prevent the homecoming of thousands of ethnic Georgians who fled these regions. They see irony in the same pop stars participating in Moscow’s Tbilisoba who previously performed in patriotic, anti-Kremlin concerts in Georgia.
Delta's armored vehicle, undergoing testing in Saudi Arabia. (photo: Delta)
A Georgian armored vehicle is a finalist in a tender for the Saudi Arabian military, potentially marking a big step forward for Georgia's young arms industry.
The vehicle is produced by the state arms manufacturer Delta and would be used for medical evacuation. Delta officials say that the contract would be for 600 vehicles in the first year and "a few thousand" over a ten-year period. (Which seems like a lot of medevac vehicles for Saudi Arabia, but...)
And a report Monday in Tbilisi newspaper Kviris Palitra "announced with pride" that Delta's entry beat out several other competitors in trials in Saudi Arabia and is now up against a vehicle from the American company Lenco (presumably this one). From Kviris Palitra:
Aside from the Georgian vehicle, three American and one Saudi Arabian and one United Arab Emirates vehicles “were hammered” in the Arab desert.
In the trial’s first stage, four participants – among them, the famous American OshKosh – gave up fighting, and only the Georgian and American armored vehicles remained for a face-off.
The trials are fairly complicated – in high-temperature conditions, it was necessary not only to cross the desert at high speed, but a mountainous track, too. Delta’s Rapid Armored Vehicle crossed the 300 kilometers with an average speed of 120 kilometers per hour.