Oh, that awkward moment when the head of state shows up uninvited at a milestone-event in a country’s history. Georgia had just that moment on July 18, when its parliament endorsed the Association Agreement with the European Union. Just about everyone — foreign ambassadors, civil society figures and government ministers – was invited to parliament to give a big hand to Georgia’s European future. But President Giorgi Margvelashvili was not.
The tension between Margvelashvili, Georgia’s directly elected head of state, and its appointed head of government, Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili, has been on everyone’s lips for quite some time now. This time, it played out in public.
Throughout the day on July 18, reporters had wondered why the president was not on the guest list for Georgia’s official European début. “Not everyone can fit in this building,” responded Eka Beselia, a senior lawmaker from the ruling Georgia Dream coalition, chaired by Prime Minister Gharibashvili.
Margvelashvili put paid to that when he walked in as the parliamentary session was about to kick off and plopped down in a chair with a contented smile. “See, I have fit, haven't I?” he quipped to Beselia, Tabula.ge reported. It was left to Parliamentary Speaker Davit Usupashvili to fill the awkward pause with bows and greetings for all guests of the legislature.
Parliament unanimously approved the Association Agreement, and Margvelashvili and Beselia walked out from the hall together, both wearing happy smiles for the TV cameras.
That is one of the few things about which Georgians can agree as they try to make sense of the mysterious gunshot to the head believed to have killed Kitsmarishvili, a co-founder of Georgia’s influential national broadcaster Rustavi2 and the supposed media-mind behind the 2003 Rose Revolution.
But the accuracy of the widespread supposition that suicide had nothing to do with this controversial businessman’s July-15 death could become increasingly sensitive — both for the Georgian government’s claims that, with an EU Association Agreement in its pocket, it can conduct impartial, fact-based investigations, and for the scandal-weary public’s trust in elected officials.
Investigators have filed a criminal case related to suicide, but claim that they are considering suicide as only one of the probable causes of death.
Shortly after a telephone call with a friend, Kitsmarishvili was found dead yesterday afternoon in his car, parked in the underground garage of his apartment building in an elite Tbilisi neighborhood. The prosecutor’s office has announced that a firearm found in the vehicle, and allegedly registered in Kitsmarishvili’s name that same day, “probably” fired the shot that killed him.
Writing on their ballots, they asserted that the dwarf jailed in the HBO series for the murder of another character, King Joffrey, is “no criminal,” Netgazeti.ge reported.
In a vote that managed to attract only about 34.3 percent of 920, 019 registered Tbilisi voters, that sentiment was a rare display of activism. Others used their ballots to express a wish for all the government to go to hell, to use a polite paraphrase.
The low turnout was reflected nationally, as well — only 36 percent of just over 1.7 million registered voters took part in 18 other run-offs for local elections that were, outside of Tbilisi, a first.
U.S. General Paul Selva gets a tour of Tbilisi's historic sites during a visit to discuss broadening Georgia's role in U.S. military logistics. (photo: USTRANSCOM)
The United States's top military logistics official has visited Georgia to discuss the country becoming a bigger part of U.S. military transportation network.
General Paul Selva, the head of U.S. Transportation Command, took a three-day trip to Georgia last week and met with President Giorgi Margvelashvili, Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili and military and defense ministry officials. Garibashvili discussed with Selva the "modernization plan of Georgian railway, Baku-Tbilisi-Kars and Anaklia port projects. As the head of the United States Transportation Command, General Paul Selva said during the meeting, Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway gives the new opportunities for shipment by railway," according to a release from Garibashvili's office.
In May, Georgian officials said that the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railroad, currently under construction by Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey, would be finished by the end of 2015, several years behind schedule and seemingly too late to get much business from the U.S./NATO "retrograde" transit out of Afghanistan. Azerbaijani and Turkish officials have blamed Georgia for the delay. In late May, Turkey's Minister of Transport, Maritime and Communications, Lutfi Elvan said that "although the work on the railway's Turkish section has been completed by over 80 percent, work in the Georgian territory is delayed," Trend.az reported. "In particular, delays are observed in the construction of 2,700-2,800 meters long tunnels in Georgia," Elvan said. "He went on to add that Azerbaijan and Turkey have called on Georgia to complete the work in its territory."
Georgia filed a complaint against Russia in Europe’s senior human-rights court in 2007, but it took nearly seven years for the EHCR to pass a verdict . “The Russian authorities had implemented a coordinated policy of arresting, detaining and expelling Georgians nationals” violating international law that bars the “collective expulsion of aliens” and “inhuman and degrading treatment,” the ECHR said in a press release on the July 3 verdict.
The long-awaited verdict put Tbilisi in a celebratory mood. “I would like to congratulate with this victory all those Georgians, who were subjected to degrading treatment, and to tell them that the European Court has stood up for their rights,” Justice Minister Tea Tsulukiani, a former ECHR employee, said in a statement.
Georgian Defense Minister Iraklia Alasania with his Latvian counterpart, Raimonds Vējonis, at a press conference June 25 in Tbilisi. (photo: Georgian MoD)
NATO officials are raising expectations for Georgia ahead of the alliance's summit this fall, saying that while the country won't get the coveted Membership Action Plan that would be a direct path to full membership, it will nevertheless get a "substantial," "unprecedented" boost that will help Georgia get closer to NATO.
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said definitively that Georgia will not get a MAP at the upcoming summit, which was news only to the most starry-eyed Georgians. "The summit in Wales will not be about a Membership Action Plan; but about more support to bring Georgia closer to NATO. And it will be a substantive package," Rasmussen said at a press conference in Brussels.
As to what that "package" will include, it is apparently not yet known, Rasmussen continued: "We will work on that package in close collaboration with Georgia from now until the summit. So I regret to say that I'm not able to outline the specific elements of that package at this stage. It will be elaborated on...from now until the summit."
Georgia's drawn-out courtship of NATO thus appears to be destined for years more of slow-motion drama. Some NATO members, notably the United States and many of the newer, post-communist members have pushed for faster NATO integration for Georgia (Latvia's defense minister, speaking Wednesday with his Georgian counterpart, endorsed MAP for Georgia). But several Western European members have been more reticent, for a variety of reasons: concern over the promise to defend a country which doesn't even control all of its de jure territory (i.e., the breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia), reticence to provoke Russia for the sake of unclear strategic gain, and Georgia's uncertain record on democracy and human rights.
Perhaps the most prickly question about the Eurasian Union -- the new, Russia-centric trade club -- is whether or not its members can bring to this neo-Soviet party their significant others. In other words, associated separatist dependencies.
Like with many Moscow clubs, there is face-control in the Eurasian Union. For now, Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus have it all to themselves. Disputed breakaway formations like Nagorno Karabakh, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, though, are also keen for inclusion.
But getting the separatist territories in would cause a wave of bad blood between the Eurasian Union members and the countries (Azerbaijan and Georgia, respectively) who demand these territories back. Leaving them out, in turn, may hamper the territories' ability to get economic sustenance from club-founder Russia and prospective member Armenia.
This is a pain in the neck, in particular, for Armenia, which already has been requested by the club to leave its own protégé, Nagorno Karabakh, in the cloakroom.
Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev last week quite curtly told his Armenian counterpart, Serzh Sargsyan, that none of the founding members have any desire to aggravate Azerbaijan. You only get in "within the boundaries recognised by the United Nations," he advised at an Astana roundtable.
Sargsyan, a Karabakh native, later said that Armenia never intended to slip the mountainous territory (which Yerevan essentially views as a separate country) into the club.
Georgian Defense Minister Irakli Alasania meets NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen in Brussels on June 4. (photo: NATO)
Georgia was one of the main topics of the discussion as defense ministers from NATO countries met in Brussels on Tuesday and Wednesday, which focused on the alliance's response to Russia's newly aggressive behavior. But in spite of the dramatically altered circumstances, the discussion about Georgia repeated the same themes and phrases that have been used for the last several years. Secretary Anders Fogh Rasmussen reiterated that he supports Georgia's territorial integrity and opposes Russia's recognition of the de facto independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and that Georgia is making progress towards NATO accession. And when journalists tried to pin him down about what, exactly, Georgia might expect at the upcoming summit in Wales, he was vague, saying "more remains to be done to open the door to NATO membership," without specifying who needs to do more.
The news, perhaps, was the dog that didn't bark: the request for NATO "defensive weapons" to be deployed to Georgia, which seemed not to be mentioned at all in Brussels. It was just a month ago that Defense Minister Irakli Alasania made the public request while in Washington, and NATO officials said they would look into it, comparing it to the deployment of air defense systems to Turkey's border with Syria. But since then, the proposal faced criticism from all sides.
Georgia is close to releasing a long-awaited official review of the 2008 South Ossetia war. And while critics of the government have expressed concern that the report will be a politically motivated attack on the former government, led by President Mikhail Saakashvili, the current defense minister is instead emphasizing how the report will have lessons for Ukraine as it, too, struggles with Russia.
At the end of April, the defense ministry announced that it had finished the report. That it was commissioned shortly after Saakashvili's defeat made some think it was going to be an attempt to blame him, rather than Russia, for the war. Alasania denied this last April: "Russia started an aggressive war campaign against Georgia, a sovereign country, and occupied its territories. No-one questioned this and no-one will question it in the future." Instead, Alasania insisted that the report would be focused on military, rather than political, questions and would be used to plan future development of the armed forces. That criticism has not gone away, with Saakashvili's United National Movement claiming "that the research might be politically motivated, aiming at political pressure on the [UNM] prior to the local self-government elections scheduled for June 15."
Go ask the EU and the US, said Russia Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov when asked if Georgia should worry about Ukraine-style troubles this summer. “You should ask the EU and the US if they have some plans in mind for the Georgian government if it fails to do what is expected of it,” Lavrov told journalists on May 6.
Georgia is expected to sign an association pact with the European Union this June. Commotion over Ukraine's similar plans contributed to pulling that country into a separatist war. But Moscow squarely puts the blame on the West. “The EU had a near-hysterical reaction to the legitimate decision of the Ukrainian president [Victor Yanukovich] to postpone the agreement,” Lavrov said. “Then, public rallies were organized and the radicals jumped on the bandwagon.”
He passed the buck to Brussels and Washington for any potential similar developments in Georgia after pen meets paper on the EU association agreement. “Not to sound rude, but this question is better put to people there [the EU and US],” Lavrov said. “We do not go around changing regimes and making color revolutions; especially with a brown hue, as is the one in Ukraine,” he added, referring to Russian allegations of the interim Ukrainian government's so-called "fascist" inclinations.
He expressed the hope that Georgia has a sober understanding of current events in the region.
Perhaps to help Tbilisi stay clear-headed on this score, Moscow announced plans to move 80,000 new armored personnel carriers to separatist Abkhazia; like Crimea, another Black-Sea Russian hangout.