U.S. Army officers load Abrams tanks on to a ferry in Varna, Bulgaria, to ship them to Georgia for NATO military exercises. (photo: U.S. Army)
The United States is for the first time shipping its tanks across the Black Sea for joint exercises with Georgia.
The U.S. Army's 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division loaded the tanks on to ferries in Varna, Bulgaria, in order to ship them to Batumi ahead of the second annual Noble Partner military exercises to be held later this month. The exercises will include 650 American troops, as well as 500 from Georgia and 150 from the United Kingdom.
Last year's Noble Partner (the first such exercise) was noteworthy for the fact that the U.S. shipped Bradley Fighting Vehicles across the Black Sea for the occasion. It was the first such movement of heavy U.S. materiel across the sea and was a vivid illustration of the U.S.'s ability to project power around Russia's periphery. This year's addition of tanks to the mix ups the stakes a little more.
With a potentially game-changing cabinet reshuffle underway in Ukraine, ex-Georgian President-Turned-Odessa-Governor Mikheil Saakashvili is having a déjà- vu moment. Today’s Ukraine, with its government in limbo and much in want for change, reminds him of pre-Rose Revolution Georgia, when, as a young and cheeky justice minister, he took on the late President Eduard Shevardnadze.
Back in 2001, Saakashvili, then justice minister, upbraided Shevardnadze for not doing anything to fix Georgia’s helter-skelter, corruption-infused governance system, and quit. Now, the former Georgian leader is back in controversial stride, calling out Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko on political cronyism and stasis in Ukraine, and failure to meet popular expectations for change. Saakashvili has threatened to cross over into the opposition against Poroshenko, a former university classmate, and take his team along.
At an April 11 press-conference, Saakashvili, flanked by his staff and supporters, accused Poroshenko and Ukraine’s central authorities of undermining his efforts to stomp out graft, red tape and the reign of oligarchs in the Odessa region, a promised petri-dish for nationwide reform. “Reforms delayed are reforms denied,” he said. “Not a single promise given after Maidan [the 2014 revolution also known as Euromaidan] . . . has been fulfilled.”
“If you cannot help, at least don’t hinder,” Saakashvili said, addressing Poroshenko, who, he claimed, is obstructing regional reforms by opting to maintain a balance among rivalling forces.
Gold mines for Azerbaijan’s presidential offspring, an ex-Georgian leader’s offshore company, a key Armenian official’s questionable income, the grounds for a clamoring public outcry in the South Caucasus over the Panama Papers were all there. But, so far, it hasn’t come.
Details about the Azerbaijani presidential family’s alleged control over Azerbaijan’s goldmines and its supposed business alliance with Tax Minister Fazil Mammadov hit on April 4, a day before a ceasefire which more or less ended three days of fighting with Armenian and separatist Karabakhi forces.
A 2012 report by RFE/RL, an OCCRP partner, had found that Aliyev’s daughters had stake in the goldmines; a revelation that OCCRP believes cost RFE/RL investigative journalist Khadija Ismyailova her freedom.*
Turkish and Ukrainian warships carry out joint exercises near Odessa. (photo: MoD Ukraine)
Turkey's naval ships have made simultaneous port calls to all the Black Sea countries except Russia, in an apparent military-diplomatic show of force as tensions on the sea continue to simmer.
As part of this year's iteration of the annual Deniz Yildizi (Sea Star) exercises, Turkish ships made port calls over last weekend to Batumi (Georgia), Varna (Bugaria), Constanta (Romania), and Odessa (Ukraine). These countries, all engaged in conflicts with Russia of varying severity, are increasingly finding common cause on the Black Sea. Turkey, though, is the only naval power with anything close to Russia's strength.
"The scope of the exercise shows that Turkish Navy intends to show a strong presence in the Black Sea," wrote Turkish naval blogger Can Devrim Yaylali. "This is an impressive way of showing the flag, an important message."
General Philip Breedlove, commander of U.S. European Command, visits a farmer in Georgia whose land was divided by a Russian-built fence on the administrative boundary with South Ossetia. (photo: MoD Georgia)
The top United States military official in Europe has visited Georgia, promising "bigger and better" joint military exercises and telling Georgians that to deter Russian aggression they should build ties with NATO and the U.S.
General Philip Breedlove, commander of U.S. European Command, visited Georgia March 22-23. Breedlove has become known as one of the most anti-Russia hawks among current U.S. officials, and in Tbilisi he did not disappoint:
As your brave valiant nation has witnessed, Russia continues to extend its coercive and corrosive influence on its periphery. Now it's also trying to reestablish leading and aggressive role in a world stage. Russia automatically seeks to overturn the established rules and principles of the international system, fracture the unity of the free world and to challenge our solidity.
Georgia is one sad post-Soviet place, according to the World Happiness Report, which for the second year running rated the Caucasus nation as the most downbeat country in the former Soviet Union. Out of this bunch, the Central Asian autocracy of Uzbekistan, ranked 49th out of 157 countries, is apparently having the most fun.
Judging by the report, Georgia has gone a long way from being the fun-in-the-sun spot of the USSR. American writer John Steinbeck once recalled that the Russians and Ukrainians he had met during his late 1940s travels to the Soviet Union all yearned for “magical” Georgia. “People who had never been there, and who possibly could never go there, spoke of Georgia with a kind of longing and admiration,” Steinbeck observed in his 1948 Russian Journal. “They spoke of Georgians as superman, as great drinkers, great dancers, great musicians, great workers and lovers. And they spoke of the country in the Caucasus and around the Black Sea as a kind of second heaven.”
Soviet media propaganda helped cultivate Georgia’s role as the place for happiness and abundance. In movies, female collective farmers in straw-hats picked tea leaves and warbled cheerful songs in piercing sopranos. News presenters on national TV were prone to smile when sharing news from what they persistently referred to as cолнечная Грузия, “sunny Georgia. “
Were Georgians faking it, then? Or have the economic struggles, civil turmoil and loss of territories of the post-Soviet era just ruined their mood?
As the country heads toward a highly contested parliamentary election, Georgia has become caught up in yet another sex-video scandal. Amidst a public outcry against the trend of using such footage to attack political opponents, Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili came out on March 14 to express solidarity with those threatened by the “dark force” behind the videos and to underline that “sex and a sex life are not shameful.”
“I had, have and will have a rich sex life,” the 46-year-old president underlined in televised comments at an official meeting.
The two recordings, which appeared online on March 11 and March 14, purportedly come from a massive cache of compromising videos, allegedly maintained by the police under a succession of governments. Apparently to prevent the further dissemination of videos, access to YouTube from within Georgia was blocked for a short time on Monday.
Although Georgia is generally regarded a conservative country, public anger is directed not at the two female politicians depicted in the two recordings, but rather at the authorities, politicians and media outlets that failed to protect the identities of the individuals shown.
Civil-rights advocacy groups have called on the authorities to bring to justice those who filmed, stored and leaked these recordings.
Top: A chart, by Security Assistance Monitor, measuring the level of dependency on U.S. military aid of various countries. Bottom: Georgian soldiers participate in U.S. military training in Germany in 2014 before being deployed to Afghanistan. (photo U.S. Army Spc. John Cress Jr)
By Pentagon budget standards, the countries of the former Soviet Union are relatively insignificant recipients of American military aid, dwarfed by the billions given annually to Israel, Egypt, and Pakistan. But a new study has shown that some of the security forces in the region are unusually dependent on American aid.
The survey, by the Washington advocacy organization Security Assistance Monitor, compared the amount of military and police aid the U.S. gave to every country in 2014 to the countries' respective defense budgets. And it found that among the ten countries where U.S. aid made up the largest proportion of the defense budget, three were former Soviet republics: Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan.
Georgia was the fourth-most dependent country, with $158 million in U.S. security assistance compared to a defense budget of $387 million. Tajikistan was seventh, its budget of $104 million supplemented by $29 million in U.S. aid. (Tajikistan will surely climb up the list soon, as it's slated to get $50 million over the next two years in additional anti-terrorism funding from the Pentagon.)
Kyrgyzstan was sixth on the list, but this is somewhat misleading: in 2014, Kyrgyzstan got $90 million in U.S. aid, but nearly all of that ($81 million) was payment for the Manas air base, which the U.S. was forced to leave that year. The $81 million is an estimate based on the best information SAM was able to get (a SAM analyst told The Bug Pit that they are working to try to get more precise information from the Pentagon). It may have simply been an accounting quirk. In any case, the Manas rent money wasn't really military aid, but a cash payment to the Kyrgyzstan government, even if for U.S. bookkeeping purposes it's classified as military aid.
“Nothing. I don’t know anything,” Temur Batirashvili told a Rustavi2 correspondent who visited al-Shishani’s native village, Birkani, in the Pankisi Gorge, about a 45-minute drive outside of the Georgian capital, Tbilisi. “I just came out of the house to see if perhaps someone knows something. . . This information will be a lie.”
Batirashvili added that he had not heard from his son, born Tarkhan Batirashvili, “in a long time.”
His neighbors, a primary source of information in Georgia, also know nothing, he added in a separate interview with PalitraTV on March 9. Compatriots of slain ISIS militants from the Caucasus reportedly often are the ones to relay news of their deaths to family members back home.
“God grant that he’s alive,” Batirashvili mumbled, looking down at the ground.
Omar al-Shishani's death has been reported multiple times, but never confirmed.