Always with an eye out for international investment, Georgia had a national cringe moment last week when one lawmaker confused the acronym for the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) with a crude Russian word for sex, telling a startled parliament that he “could never screw around” ["could never do the EBRD"] since he is “a faithful husband.”
Fifty-eight-year-old Soso Jachvliani, a Georgian film-star-turned-legislator, decided to make a clean breast of it in response to accusations that his majoritarian Georgian Dream bloc is nostalgic for the Soviet era, when some Georgian men traveled on cheap flights to Moscow for informal sex tours. The parliamentary opposition, the United National Movement Party, routinely accuses the Georgian Dream of flirting with Russia, and Mr. Jachvliani took it quite literally.
“I have never been to prostitutes,” he declared on July 22 to the assembly. “It was demeaning for me to pay 10 rubles [apparently, the Soviet-era prostitute rate]. I have handled those matters without the 10-ruble thing.”
“For your information,” Jachvliani went on, warming to the subject, “if there was any pretty lady in the Soviet cinema, I have had a relationship with all of them without paying those 10 rubles.”
In vain did Deputy Parliamentary Speaker Manana Kobakidze, a fellow member of the Georgian Dream bloc, try to stop this stream of consciousness. “Batono [Mr.] Soso, I beg you, this is parliament,” she began.
Romanian and Georgian soldiers practice clearing a room during NATO exercises in Georgia. (photo: U.S. Marine Corps)
NATO militaries wrapped up joint exercises in Georgia this week, as the alliance tries to strengthen its position in the Caucasus as a counterweight to Russia, and Tbilisi tries to leverage NATO's newly sharpened confrontation with Russia to achieve its long-held goal of membership in the alliance.
The exercise, Agile Spirit, involved about 250 soldiers from Bulgaria, Georgia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Romania. It was the first NATO exercise held at the Vaziani base outside Tbilisi as a result of the decision, made at last year's NATO summit in Wales, to open a training base in Georgia. (Exercises named Agile Spirit have been held in Georgia in the past, but those were bilateral U.S.-Georgia exercises; those now have a new name. Noble Partner.)
The exercises took place in an atmosphere of heightened tension between Russia and Georgia; while the exercises were going on the former moved the border a bit in a possible attempt to provoke the latter or at least to visibly throw its weight around.
The US will prime the pump to help fix Ukraine’s corruption-sodden Odessa oblast, now run by former Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, and is looking to California to rev things up a little. The Golden State’s highway police will be coming to Odessa to help create a new generation of cops, meant to replace the legendarily payola-prone, post-Soviet police.
The plans were announced jointly on July 6 by US Ambassador to Kyiv Geoffrey Pyatt and Odessa Governor Mikheil Saakashvili, who has been tasked with a break-it-or-make-it reform mission in struggling Ukraine.
In describing the initiative, Ambassador Pyatt claimed that Ukraine faces two battles: “One is the war with Russia…The other is the war against corruption, the war for the reform, the war to move Ukraine towards the standards of modern European democracy that the Ukrainian people have sought,.” Odessa is the frontline for that second war, he added.
A successful police overhaul is seen as crucial for success in Odessa, where questions had been raised about the region’s allegiance to the government in Kyiv and its ability to shed the ossified system of dubious business interests. Gaishniki or officers of GAI (Russian acronym for State Auto Inspection) is used metonymically for a highway robber in much of the post-Soviet world, their disappearance is expected to make a noticeable difference on Ukrainian roads and symbolize a break with the Soviet and early post-Soviet past.
“You will see that none of it is going to be there by the summer’s end,” Saakashvili vowed in June. “Here will be a new patrol police, which will be very different both in its IQ, manners and quality of service.”
Tbilisi had an unusual visitor on July 2. But one whose presence could have far-reaching consequences for the energy map of both the South Caucasus and Europe.
Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov’s two-day state visit to Georgia, his first, involves the usual meetings with the usual assortment of senior Georgian officials and the usual signing of various, vaguely described agreements.
The two countries have not divulged the details.
The Turkmen government is excited about how the use of “transportation-transit infrastructure between the Caspian and Black Sea regions will provide for the supply of broad inter-regional integration with the states of Europe, and the Near and Far East.”
Georgian Foreign Minister Tamar Beruchashvili, for her part, expressed a hope that the visit would bring “interesting results” for “deepening” the two countries’ relations as well as for “the execution of regional projects.”
Of course, bottom line, that means one thing – energy.
A few months ago, European Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic told Reuters that Turkmen gas would reach European markets by 2019.
The State Department has released its annual "Country Reports on Terrorism" reviewing terrorism activity from the past year and, perhaps unsurprisingly, the ISIS is the overwhelming focus throughout the report, but also in the former Soviet Union.
"The ongoing civil war in Syria was a significant factor in driving worldwide terrorism events in 2014," State wrote in the report's introduction. "The rate of foreign terrorist fighter travel to Syria – totaling more than 16,000 foreign terrorist fighters from more than 90 countries as of late December – exceeded the rate of foreign terrorist fighters who traveled to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen, or Somalia at any point in the last 20 years."
The report continues State's practice of describing governments' perceptions of the threat of terrorism, rather than Washington's own perception. The introduction of the section on South and Central Asia reads: "Central Asian leaders have expressed concern about the potential terrorist threat posed by the return of foreign terrorist fighters to the region in the wake of ISIL’s growth in the Middle East and the drawdown of U.S. and Coalition Forces in Afghanistan."
Last year's report expressed substantial skepticism about Central Asian government's claims about terror threats; that skepticism is less apparent in this report's newly written sections on ISIS. However, a senior State Department official testified before Congress earlier this month on ISIS in Central Asia and downplayed the threat, noting that the vast majority are not recruited in Central Asia but abroad, particularly in Russia.
After a deadly attack last week by an escaped zoo tiger, residents of the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, are starting to see or hear predator zoo animals everywhere. And coming up with some increasingly fantastic tips for how to survive an encounter.
In one Tbilisi suburb, police and a group of concerned citizens caught what they thought was one of the wolves that had escaped from the city zoo after the June 13-14 flood that literally turned Tbilisi’s center into an urban jungle.
“Trust me, I know a wolf when I see one,” one man assured skeptics in a video of the supposed capture.
“Shouldn’t some zoo representative come?” another asked.
Against a backdrop of police-car lights, a crowd took photos for posterity with the suspected runaway; some even hesitantly stroking its head.
But the detainee proved to be a dog.
It was released and cleared of all lupine charges.
The confusion, however, was not a one-off. In the central district of Vake, several young pranksters downloaded a lion’s roar and broadcast the sound via speakers to horrified neighbors. Before long, both the national guard and police came running as emergency calls flooded in.
Amidst building controversy over a fatal attack by an escaped zoo tiger, the Georgian government has emphasized that it is not planning to arrest Tbilisi Zoo Director Zurab Gurielidze for the June 17 slaying.
Scores of protesters gathered outside the government chancellery on the evening of June 17, after the general prosecutor’s office opened a criminal case for negligence and summoned Gurielidze and two other zoo employees for questioning.
In a meeting the next day with members of the emergency council dealing with the flood’s aftermath, Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili emphasized that the notion of a witch-hunt after Gurielidze is “absurd.”
“A conversation about a concrete person’s guilt for what happened is absolutely unacceptable,” news outlets reported him as saying.
The prosecutor’s office “should also question members of the crisis council and interior ministry employees to exclude any speculation,” he said.
In an earlier televised meeting of the emergency council, Gharibahvili had asked the zoo director not to take the blame for the killing, and expressed respect for him. Gurielidze earlier had taken responsibility for information that had prompted the government to announce before the attack that escaped zoo animals no longer posed a risk.
Police special forces have "liquidated" the tiger, Georgian news outlets reported.
The morning-attack at the abandoned, downtown Laguna Vera swimming pool complex shocked the already stressed city. Another man had been reported to be in critical condition.
Interior Minister Vakhtang Gomelauri, who later appeared on the scene, told reporters that the man, a middle-aged worker, had died on the scene. Zoo Director Zurab Gurielidze, also present, did not respond to journalists' questions, Interpressnews reported.
The attack happened just next to the zoo where scores of volunteers are still cleaning up the flood debris. The flood killed 19 people.
Just the day before, government officials had assured citizens there was no risk of a predator attack, and that reports of stray animals were baseless. The zoo stated that a tiger, bear and hyena were still missing, but presumed dead.
In a controversial move, heavily armed special forces, fearing for public safety, had killed many escaped predators.
Georgia and France have finalized a blockbuster air defense deal that was the source of a major political crisis in Tbilisi last year, though many of the details of the deal and the crisis remain shrouded in mystery.
Defense Minister Tina Khidasheli on June 15 signed an agreement with the company ThalesRaytheonSystems in Paris on the purchase of “advanced” air defense systems that will “guarantee country’s air defense,” Khidasheli said, according to Georgian news website Civil.ge.
But that's about all that is known: the exact type of system, its price, or anything else is being kept secret. “I cannot speak about the details of the agreement we signed today. Information about such type of procurements, weapon should be top state secret, otherwise we can now continue our conversation in Russian and they will not even need to spend money on translation to learn information about this agreement,” Khidasheli told the Georgian state broadcaster.
The June 14 arrest and later search of the house of Aiuf Borchashvili led to tensions in Pankisi, a predominantly Muslim area, which has recently seen dozens of its members head off to join jihadist groups in Iraq and Syria.
The arrest and a string of detentions appear to signal that Georgian officials are now trying to push back more actively against the departure of Muslim Georgians for Syria.
Family and friends of Borchashvili, who was also the imam of the village of Jokola, staged a protest against his arrest, however, and some clerics warned that the detention is spelling trouble for the Georgian authorities.
The imam's lawyer, Gela Nikolaishvili, has rejected the charges as "absurd," Civil.ge reported.
As part of a broader swoop, police also detained Merab Batirashvili, the alleged cousin of ISIS commander Omar al-Shishani (Tarkhan Batirashvili), a Pankisi native, who some suspect could coordinate recruitment in Georgia. Batirashvili was later released.
On top of moving against alleged recruitment, police took another unprecedented step and detained in the Tbilisi airport three young men suspected of planning to travel to Syria to join ISIS. They, too, were later released.