Now that separatist Abkhazia had been tied to Russia through an essentially federal pact, setting up a train link to the rest of Georgia may be the next stop in Vladimir Putin’s plan for cementing Russian hegemony over the region.
Strictly from a pragmatic point of view, in theory, everyone along the route could potentially benefit from it, including Georgian exporters. Landlocked, semi-blockaded Armenia would benefit the most from such a link to its main trade-partner, Russia.
But many Georgians fear that giving the green light to the project would reduce their chances for negotiating the return of hundreds of thousands of IDPs to Abkhazia and, also, precariously increase Georgia’s economic dependence on Russia. That could spell a potential threat to the country’s longheld EU and NATO ambitions, the thinking goes.
And signal a wider battle for the post-Soviet space as well. In response to Abkhazia’s agreement-signing with Moscow, Georgia has made a cry of creeping annexation of its territory, and the US and EU have denounced the document as a violation of Georgia’s territorial integrity.
The move fits in with the trend of the changing political order in the post-Soviet space, with countries and regions pulling in opposite directions of associating with the European Union or Russia.
The signing in Sochi by Putin and fellow former KGB'er, Raul Khadjimba, Abkhazia's de-facto leader, has touched off an outcry in Tbilisi. From the Georgian perspective, the pact marks the virtual annexation of its territory and the ultimate failure of the current Georgian government's latter-day policy of reconciliation with Moscow.
“Despite the many constructive steps… no progress in political terms has been achieved with Russia,” the Georgian foreign ministry announced in a statement. “Together with the Georgian government and the Georgian people, we will resist this absurd move,” said Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili.
There are not too many mechanisms in Georgia’s diplomatic or economic arsenal for resisting Russian expansionism other than requesting the international community to pressure Moscow away from its perceived attempts of stealing another piece of land.
Two self-proclaimed statelets that are widely viewed as creatures of the Kremlin, Novorossiya and South Ossetia, seem to be really hitting it off.
Oleg Tsarev, the speaker of the assembly representing the Ukrainian separatist entity, the People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk in Ukraine, recently visited Tskhinvali, the South Ossetian capital. There, he expressed thanks for Ossetian support for the ongoing separatist campaign in Ukraine.
“We would not have made it, had it not been for the support of the Russian and South Ossetian people,” said Tsarev. Many South Ossetians have volunteered to fight on the side of the Ukrainian separatists and appear in video dispatches from the war zone. “They are heroes who will remain in our memory forever,” Tsarev told South Ossetia’s separatist leader, Leonid Tibilov.
De-facto President Tibilov said that his South Ossetia hopes to provide military assistance to Ukrainian rebels on a regular, not volunteer basis. To cement their separatist bonds, Tibilov awarded Tsarev an order of friendship during the latter’s visit.
South Ossetia also plans to strengthen ties with Moscow, the benefactor it shares with Novorossiya, through a new bilateral agreement. That pact would potentially pave the way for Ossetia’s annexation by Russia. Details of the pact, prepped by presidential administrations of Russia and South Ossetia, are unknown. But the agreement should take relations “to a qualitatively” new level, intimated Tibilov’s chief of staff, Boris Chochiyev. South Ossetian officials have repeatedly expressed desire for the territory to become a part of the Russian Federation.
Russia and Iran, comrades-in-sanctions from the West, are connecting with each other . . . through a railway. And Azerbaijan intends to be the crucial middle link.
The Russian State Railroads Company earlier this week announced plans to build a railway link from Russia, across Azerbaijan, to Iran. An intergovernmental agreement on building the railway is expected to be signed in July next year and the Russian firm said it will foot the bill for the project.
Azerbaijan has its reasons to be suspicious of both countries, but, so far, has given no sign of skittishness about the deal.
How successful Azerbaijan will be in juxtaposing an Eastern train project with a Western one is unclear, however. The idea is not likely to earn warm support in the West, with which Baku already has a relatively schizophrenic relationship — chummy when it comes to energy and assistance for NATO in Afghanistan; far cooler when it comes to reported Azerbaijani abuses of civil rights.
Perhaps that last factor, at least to some degree, contributeAzerbaijan to think it's time to explore what it has in common with Russia and Iran, and express it through rail.
Russian Duma Speaker Sergei Narishkin, in Tehran from November 16-17, made no bones about the project being a slapback at the West.
Thousands of Georgians on November 15 took a stand against “Russia’s creeping annexation" of breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia in a Tbilisi rally that was as much patriotic as it was partisan. The demonstration, led by the opposition United National Movement, provided a venue for many to vent their anger with Moscow’s latest plans for integration with the two separatist regions, but also offered a chance for ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili force to make a push for a comeback.
“You don’t sell your homeland for parsley,” bristled one middle-aged woman who attended the protest, speaking in reference to the Georgian government’s efforts to restore trade relations with Russia. “Nobody is doing anything to help me and my children go back to my home in Abkhazia. They are just letting it slowly slip away to Russia. All the government is worried about is how much greens and wine we can sell to Russia.”
The perceived failure by the Georgian government to come up with a meaningful response to Russia’s proposed pacts with Abkhazia and South Ossetia has stoked such resentment. That, in turn, has opened a window of opportunity for the United National Movement (UNM), Georgia’s largest opposition movement, to take ownership of the territorial integrity issue, which now rates as the country’s second-largest national concern after unemployment.
Never one to miss a rally, Saakashvili, now wanted in Georgia on several criminal charges, addressed the crowd from Ukraine via large screens. Staying true to his flamboyant speaking style, he described his arch-foe Bidzina Ivanishvili, the ex-prime minister and founder of the ruling Georgian Dream coalition, as a “provincial dictator,” and described “Ivanishvili’s Georgia” as debased and degrading, to use polite terms for the actual words used.
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.
Azerbaijan wrapped up its chairmanship on November 13 of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, one of the continent’s leading human rights organizations. Civil society activists used the occasion to lob verbal brickbats at Baku, assailing the Azerbaijani government for accelerating a domestic crackdown on dissent during its tenure at the helm in Strasbourg.
Azerbaijan took over as chair of the Committee of Ministers, the Council of Europe’s executive arm and decision-making body, back in May. Over the course of its six-month term, authorities in Baku bullied and imprisoned scores of local journalists and rights advocates, jailing some of the country’s most prominent civil society figures, including Leyla and Arif Yunus, on what watchdog groups contend are trumped-up, politically motivated charges.
Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov attended a ceremony in Strasbourg on November 13 marking the transfer of the chairmanship from Azerbaijan to Belgium. He also presented an assessment of Azerbaijan’s performance as the committee chair. A document posted on the Council of Europe’s website, titled “Stocktaking of the Azerbaijani Chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe,” said that “Azerbaijan deployed considerable efforts in furthering the objectives of the Council of Europe around its three key pillars – human rights, rule of law and democracy.”
In an act with potentially perilous consequences for the South Caucasus' longest running military conflict, Azerbaijan on November 12 shot down a MI-24 helicopter that it claims belongs to Armenian forces stationed near the Nagorno-Karabakh frontline. Armenia, however, asserts that the helicopter belongs to breakaway Karabakh’s military forces.
Additional information, for now, is scarce. The Azerbaijani defense ministry alleged that the helicopter “violated the country’s airspace,” and had “attempted to attack positions of the Azerbaijani army near Agdam district.,” the pro-government news agency Trend reported.
In a statement posted only in Azeri, the defense ministry claimed that three crew members were killed. A second helicopter “managed to get away” from the line of fire, it alleged.
The commander who oversaw the operation, one “M. Muradov,” has been “awarded with valuable prizes and awards” by Azerbaijani Defense Minister Zakir Hasanov, the ministry said.
Armenian defense ministry spokesperson Artsrun Hovhannisian has refused to confirm reports that three crew members were killed, a Karabakhi news outlet reported.
In a statement, Armenia’s defense ministry claimed only that the helicopter was downed while taking part in a regular training exercise, and that Azerbaijan had continued with “intensive fire . . . in the direction of the event.” Details are still being determined, it said.
The United States embassy in Baku has categorically denied a report in The Times which claimed that Washington and Tehran will conduct “secret talks” in Baku this week about restoring some form of ties between the United States and Iran after an almost 35-year break.
Citing an anonymous Iranian government advisor, The Times’ Hugh Tomlinson reported on November 10 that the supposed talks would cover setting up in Tehran “an umbrella office for US trade” or, possibly, “a cultural office, purely for academic exchanges.”
The Times wrote that Mohammad Reza Sabzalipour, head of Iran’s World Trade Center, would lead the alleged talks with the US side in Baku. Azerbaijani officials so far have not made any comments.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is set to visit the Azerbaijani capital on November 12 for a state visit, but no public indication has been made that Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev intends to play intermediary for the US.
In a statement to the pro-government Azerbaijani news agency Trend, however, the US embassy to Baku rejected The Times story as “completely untrue.”
“[W]e have had no conversations, and have no plans to engage in conversations, in trade talks or any talks similar to those described in this misleading news story,” read the statement, published on November 11.
Sabzalipour, however, had his own take. On November 11, he remarked that “reciprocal visits by the Iranian and the US economic delegations” are "on the agenda" of Tehran's World Trade Center. Details will be forthcoming "when the grounds are prepared," he added.
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.