A screenshot of a video released by the State Security Service of Georgia, showing the questioning of a suspect alleged to have plotted to blow up a gas pipeline between Russia and Armenia.
Georgia's security services have arrested five men they claim were planning to blow up a gas pipeline between Russia and Armenia, setting off speculation about who could have been behind the alleged plot.
The State Security Service of Georgia announced that it had broken up the plot and released a video showing the explosives they seized, the accused men being taken into custody and questioned, and schemes of the attempted plan. Two others were also arrested in connection with the plot, a police officer accused of "abuse of power" and someone accused of not reporting the plot.
So the question immediately became: who would want to blow up the pipeline? Taken together, Russia and Armenia -- the likely targets of the plot -- have plenty of foes. At a press conference, the authorities alluded to an intriguing Ukraine connection. From Civil.ge:
One of the journalists at the briefing asked the State Security Service official if the arrested men had “links to Ukraine” – the journalist said that his question was stemming from a post on a social media by one of the Georgian volunteer fighters in Ukraine, who wrote that their supporters had been arrested in Georgia.
An investigator from the State Security Service, Savle Motiashvili, responded: “According to available information, one of the arrested men was visiting Ukraine often, but it is not yet clear whether this criminal group was directed from Ukraine.”
Screenshot of a television ad, aired by Georgia's Centrist Party on state television, advocating for the legalization of Russian military bases in Georgia.
Geopolitics has taken center stage in Georgia's election campaign, with one party calling to legalize Russian military bases in the country, another calling for the constitution to enshrine Georgia's "non-bloc" status, and another calling for the constitution to reflect the country's NATO aspirations.
At the end of June, the Democratic Movement party called for Georgia to be officially neutral. The party leader, Nino Burjanadze, was once a leader of Georgia's pro-Western Rose Revolution but has since developed close ties with Russia.
“We believe that a clause should be added to the Georgian constitution, which would stipulate non-bloc status for Georgia,” she said, according to Civil.ge. “It means that Georgia should reject joining any kind of military bloc be it NATO or any other military alliance. There should be no troops of any foreign country or a bloc on the Georgian soil." She argued that Georgia's “authorities and significant part of country’s political elite act pursuant to NATO and the U.S. interests, instead of Georgia’s interests.”
Then, in response, the pro-NATO Republican Party introduced a counterproposal, to amend the constiution so that its preamble included the direction "to establish a full-fledged place in the Euro-Atlantic system of security and cooperation of democratic states."
Georgia appointed a new defense minister who immediately became the subject of controversy when the outgoing minister criticized the selection.
The new minister, Levon Izoria, was announced on Monday, and spoke to the press on Tuesday. From a policy perspective, he signaled little new, vowing to continue Georgia's "active participation in NATO Resolute Support – we will pursue it with our strategic partner, the United States,” he said, referring to the western military mission in Afghanistan. Izoria also emphasized the importance of the new security cooperation agreement with the U.S. which will focus on building up Georgia's ability to defend itself, reported Civil.ge.
But the woman whom Izoria is replacing, Tinatin Khidasheli, took a public shot at his appointment. Izoria comes from Georgia's internal security services; he had been serving as deputy head of the State Security Service, and before that deputy interior minister. That background is inappropriate for a defense minister, Khidasheli said shortly after the appointment was announced.
“It is a wrong message to our partners abroad, as well as internally, when at first Irakli Alasania, a political figure, was replaced by a security official [Mindia Janelidze] as defense minister and then Khidasheli was replaced again by a security [official]… It indicates on a very negative trend,” Khidasheli said. Her husband and speaker of the parliament Davit Usupashvili echoed the comments.
Two whisteblowers have gone public with allegations that Georgia's Ministry of Defense is loaded with unqualified officials who were appointed only because they were political allies of the minister, and that ministry officials are using their posts to promote the minister's political party.
While this sort of behavior is common in post-Soviet government structures, including in Georgia, it is relatively rare for allegations like this to be made publicly. And the claims could damage Georgia's reputation as a reform-oriented state aiming to join Western structures like NATO.
The two MoD employees made the allegations at a press conference in Tbilisi this week. Senior officials have been appointed illegally, not through open and transparent "Western-style" competition, but through a system of nepotism and party patronage, said Beka Kiria, a senior specialist at the ministry's Defense Policy and Planning Department. The minister, Tina Khidasheli (who has just stepped down for unrelated reasons) is a member of the Republican Party.
In addition, the Strategic Communications section of the ministry has devoted all of its resources to promoting party leadership rather than the activities of the ministry, said Mariam Takaishvili, head of the ministry's section on Communication with NATO and International Organisations. Both officials said they had been reprimanded for complaining about these issues internally.
The Ministry of Defense has not publicly responded to the allegations.
Georgian soldiers take part in U.S. Marine Corps training program in Georgia. (photo: U.S. Marine Corps)
The United States will devote more military aid towards arming and equipping the Georgian armed forces, direct more training towards building combat skills, and help Georgia build a local training center oriented towards helping it defend itself rather than only deploying to Afghanistan.
The broad contours of the policy shift were laid out in a new agreement between the two countries announced during a visit to Tbilisi by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry earlier this month. On Monday, a U.S. embassy official in Tbilisi provided more details to The Bug Pit.
“Much like in the U.S. Army, where we've focused on deployment requirements for several years, there's been a certain level of atrophy in the core warfighting capabilities, so much of our security assistance over the next few years will address those areas: territorial defense capabilities and readiness," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Georgian National Olympic Committee; Creator: Nugzar Metreveli
Georgia's Olympic team shows off their traditional garb for Rio, while Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili and Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili (front left) play it safe with suits and ties; A composite image widely circulated on Facebook shows Rio de Janeiro's iconic Christ the Redeemer statue modeling the Georgian women's conservative Olympic look..
Georgia will field one of the most conservatively and warmly attired teams for the Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, and the design choice is causing furor in the appearances-conscious ex-Soviet country.
The July 23 unveiling of the Georgian athletes’ Rio Olympic looks mortified much of this South Caucasus nation. Many cringed to see their favorite athletes buttoned up to the top, carefully covered in coats, slacks and ankle-length gowns. “Did we have the Islamic State come up with the design? They are going to bikini country, not the tundra, for crying out loud,” users fumed on social media.
In remarks to the Batumi broadcaster TV25, Consul Yasin Temizkan charged that the Refaiddin Şahin Friendship School, which teaches five to 12-year-old children, “is not serving the government; they’re serving terrorist groups.” The Gülen network, he claimed, uses such schools “to strengthen their own position.”
Temizkan said that he would petition Georgia’s education ministry “in the nearest future” to close the school. In the meantime, he called on parents to withdraw their children from the school.
Speaking with TV25, Refaiddin Şahin Friendship School Principal Elguja Davitadze, however, denied the allegations.
How the Georgian government will respond is unclear, but a demand from Ankara to close the school could put Tbilisi in an awkward situation. Turkey is a close economic and security partner for Georgia, yet, at the same time, the government can ill afford to shut the door on foreign investors without cause.
Russian politicians and state media sounded sharp alarm about the July 15 military-coup attempt in Turkey, Moscow's traditional regional rival, with some calling for "responsible organs" to come to the rescue of Russian citizens in Turkey. By contrast, officials in the South Caucasus, which borders directly on Turkey, expressed much greater caution .
The failed coup attempt led to the deaths of 1,661 people, and the injury of 1,440, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim announced at an afternoon briefing on July 16 in the Turkish capital, Ankara. Some 2,839 armed-forces personnel allegedly involved in the coup-plot have now been arrested, he said, according to Turkey's official Anadolu Agency.
Yet even as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced that the coup had been put down, Russia’s state-run TASS news agency led with a statement from Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev that “we should undertake all measures for the defense of the interests of our citizens, and also our companies, our entities . . . “ in Turkey.
What measures, if any, were under consideration is not clear, but Deputy Parliamentary Speaker Alexander Romanovich, citing alleged bombing by Turkish military planes, earlier in the morning of July 16 called for "our responsible organs" to organize the immediate evacuation of all Russian citizens from Turkey.
Islamic State terrorists may have confirmed the death of their Georgian military commander Omar al-Shishani (Omar the Chechen aka Tarkhan Batirashvili), but in the 30-year-old militant’s native Pankisi Gorge, locals appear to have adopted a wait-and-see attitude.
Georgia’s largest national broadcaster, Rustavi2, reported on July 14 that unnamed residents of Pankisi, a narrow valley about 161 kilometers/100 miles northeast of the capital, Tbilisi, did not confirm Batirashvili’s death, saying that his family knows nothing about it.
Over the past few years, multiple reports of Batirashvili’s death have surfaced periodically; the most recent, in March. His father, 72-year-old Temur Batirashvili, a Georgian Orthodox believer who says he has not heard from his son in years, has not responded to these latest reports of his death.
But in Georgia, as elsewhere in the South Caucasus, locals will still look to relatives first for confirmation.
Batirashvili’s older brother Tamaz is reportedly another ISIS military commander, supposedly handling security issues. For residents of Pankisi, the daily Rezonansi reported in June, this brother is “the most reliable” source of information.
“He’s always by his brother’s side and, as they say, they’ll confirm the information about [Tarkhan Batirashvili] with Tamaz as well,” Pankisi elder Khasan Khangoshvili commented to the paper, denying the March report of the younger Batirashvili's death.
The NATO-Georgia Commission meets in Warsaw on July 8. (photo: NATO)
Georgia and NATO announced their new program for cooperation at the alliance's summit in Warsaw, and it appears to contain little new for Tbilisi.
Ahead of the summit, Georgian officials had said they were hoping for "instruments" for self-defense. “Indicator of success [at the summit] will be having more self-defense capabilities, which means being more secure and having more instruments for deterrence,” said Defense Minister Tinatin Khidasheli in April.
By that measure, the summit results appear to be a disappointment. On Friday, at the end of the first day of the summit, the NATO-Georgia Commission released a statement laying out their position and plans. The key paragraph in the statement describing what NATO will offer Georgia is pretty vague:
We have also decided on new steps to intensify our cooperation, to help strengthen Georgia’s defence capabilities, interoperability and resilience capabilities. These initiatives include increased support for Georgia’s Training and Education, including through a possible trust fund project, and Strategic Communications. Allies will provide support to the development of Georgia’s air defence and air surveillance. Allies bilaterally are implementing programmes to enhance Georgia’s self-defence and resilience. We will also deepen our focus on security in the Black Sea region.