Georgia’s jailed, former Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili was sentenced to three years in prison on October 20 for his alleged role in a haunting 2006 murder case. Once the all-powerful muscle of ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili’s administration, Merabishvili was found guilty of obstructing justice in the high-profile death of a 28-year-old banker, Sandro Girgvliani.
The court ruled that Merabishvili used his office to cover up evidence against his employees who abducted and beat Girgvliani, and left him to die. Grigvliani’s death, which followed an altercation in a Tbilisi cafe that involved Merabishvili’s wife, grew into a national scandal that would haunt the Saakashvili administration for years to come.
Merabishvili’s wife, Tako Salakia, and many interior ministry officials were present at the fateful birthday gathering, when Girgvliani showed up with a friend and got into an argument with the group. Several interior ministry officials allegedly later abducted Girgvliani and his friend, Levan Bukhaidze, and took them to the city’s outskirts to beat them. Girgvliani is believed to have died of his injuries or have frozen to death; Bukhaidze escaped.
Girgviliani’s mother, Irina Enukidze, engaged in a long and daring battle with the authorities, accusing them of covering up the murder. Her claims mushroomed into what became, essentially, the first large-scale public pushback against Saakashvili’s administration. With opposition parties and opposition-minded media by her side, she called for the resignation of Merabishvili and the arrest of his wife; both of whom she was convinced had given the order to teach Girgvliani a lesson.
Russia wants to revive a tsarist-era project for building a new road to Georgia, but Georgians remain uncertain about whether the intention has to do with transit for trade or tanks or both.
The topic was slotted for further discussion at a routine, October-16 meeting in Prague between Georgian and Russian officials, but details have not emerged.
The road, which would run from the restive Russian republic of Daghestan to Georgia’s Kakheti region, is meant as an alternative to the only fully functional road link between Georgia and Russia, known by its unfortunate historical name, the Georgian Military Highway.
The highway, at times barely two lanes, winds north through canyons and towering mountains in eastern Georgia, and is highly susceptible to the elements. Heavy snowfalls and landslides often block the road, leaving trucks queuing for weeks before they can go through.
To the west, there are two crossings into breakaway South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Both of these passages are outside Tbilisi’s control and remain closed to international traffic.
Increased transit would bring more income for Georgia’s lackluster economy, and especially for Russian ally Armenia, which heavily relies on exports to Russia. But many Georgians have qualms about giving their enemy number-one more options to roll in the tanks should the 2008 war repeat itself. Particularly in the wake of the uproar over the proposed Abkhazia-Russia treaty.
The fact that several months before the 2008 invasion, then Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin arrived in Daghestan and called for construction of this same road as another corridor to Georgia has offered little reassurance on this front.
Tbilisi has accused Moscow of plans to pull a Crimea in breakaway Abkhazia through a treaty that proposes a merger of military forces, coordination of police and an alignment with the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union.
On the surface, it may seem that Abkhazia's fate could not be any more tied to Moscow than it already is. The Russian military is the only outside guarantee of the region's de-facto independence from Georgia, while the Russian market provides an economic lifeline. But for all that, Abkhazia is actually serious about its claim to independence from everyone, Russia including.
In an interview with Ekho Kavkaza, the speaker of Abkhazia's de-facto parliament, Valery Bganba, complained that the document "in many places" amounts to a "loss of sovereignty."
The cornerstone of the treaty is the formation of a collective military force, with Russia appointing an ad-hoc command in times of crisis. Many Abkhaz think such force is necessary to repel any attempt from Georgia to retake the territory; an event which Abkhazia has been expecting ever since its 1992-1994 war with Tbilisi. Many believe that events in Ukraine have increased the likelihood of such an attack.
When you think caviar, you don’t necessarily think of breakaway Nagorno Karabakh, a remote South-Caucasus region over which Azerbaijan has been warring with separatists and Armenia for years. But that is about to change. Karabakh claims it has just entered into the caviar industry and, potentially, in a big way.
The region’s de-facto prime minister, Ara Arutiunian, believes that Karabakh is destined to become a global player in the caviar industry by dint of a new fishery business in the village of Magatis set up in part by Armenian Diaspora investments, Armenian and Russian news sites reported, citing a Karabakhi media outlet. The first batch of black caviar is expected to be produced as early as this December.
Aqua-farming may seem a peculiar economic-development choice for the landlocked region, but Arutiunian insists production levels will hit 30 tons annually in seven years — a level that appears to be a drop in the bucket compared with Azerbaijan or Russia, both caviar-majors.
How exactly Karabakh ("black garden" in Turkish and Persian) would get its caviar to outside markets is a larger question. The only way out of the region for ordinary vehicles is via Armenia, the region’s protector, but Armenia has just joined the Eurasian Economic Union, a Moscow-led trade club that, in theory, would require it to set up a customs post with Karabakh, as the internationally recognized property of Azerbaijan.
That little detail, though, was brushed to one side during Armenia’s October 10 signing of the Union treaty. To hear officials (de-jure or de-facto) in Armenia and Karabakh tell it, no customs post will be built.
In a major victory for Georgian human-rights activists, the country’s Constitutional Court on October 9 declared sweeping limitations on basic rights for the mentally disabled to be unconstitutional.
Under Georgian law, individuals recognized by a court as mentally handicapped or with developmental difficulties can lose all personal freedoms, including even the ability to buy a loaf of bread or a chocolate bar on their own, Giorgi Gotsiridze, a lawyer with the Georgian Young Lawyers Association (GYLA), an advocacy group, wrote in an op-ed .*
In one case, he noted, a Georgian court ruled that a “mentally deficient person cannot defend their [own] dignity because they cannot perceive libel or insults.”
The law’s biggest flaw was that it did not allow for differentiations between levels of mental incapacity, GYLA said. Getting married, running a business or going to the store were barred all the same.
GYLA long argued that the law, which referred to the mentally disabled as “dim-witted,” was a post-Soviet anachronism that fell short of legal standards in a democratic state.
The ruling by the Constitutional Court requires parliament to come up with new legislation that would require rulings for any restrictions on freedom of movement to be on a case-by-case basis.
The topic, as yet, has not been widely covered by Georgian mainstream media.
*GYLA receives funding from the Open Society Georgia Foundation, part of the network of Open Society Foundations. EurasiaNet.org is financed through the Open Society Foundation-New York City, a separate part of that network.
The Georgian government is promising to review recent visa and immigration restrictions on foreigners amid concerns that the reforms may curtail foreign investment and encourage expats to leave the country.
A monument to the legendary Russian arms-designer, creator of the AK-rifle series, Mikhail Kalashnikov, has been erected in Armenia. The full-length statue of the man whose weapons came to epitomize Russian/Soviet military might was placed in the northern town of Gyuimri, the site of Russia’s lone military base in the South Caucasus.
The Kalashnikov monument will be unveiled officially and a museum will open on November 8, according to a press-release from the 102nd military base, cited by RIA Novosti. The base commander, Colonel Andrei Ruzinski, came up with the idea last year, when Kalashnikov passed away, leaving behind the legacy of what Russia says is the world’s most popular rifle.
“Vodka, matrioshkas, balalaikas, and commissars and Cossacks riding bears – all that kitsch can be dismissed as it has nothing to do with Russia,” RIA Novosti wrote in an obituary for Kalashnikov. “But the three-something kilograms of iron from Izhev [firearms manufacturer] put everything in its place, because that is the real Russia, from beginning to the end. This is a symbol that is immediately recognized everywhere, and no more explanations are needed.”
Russian guns are a controversial matter in the South Caucasus, but Armenia still is a willing host to the 102nd military base, seen as a deterrent against any possible assault from neighboring Azerbaijan, which has indicated it’s willing to retake breakaway, predominantly ethnic Armenian Nagorno Karabakh by force, if not by peace.
These days, this question is a subject of passionate debate in Georgia. Many recoiled in distaste to see Moscow this month hosting a so-called Tbilisoba, an annual, Oktoberfest-style festival of Georgian arts, national crafts and cuisine held in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi. Some accuse participating Georgian pop stars of selling out to the Kremlin, while others speak of the need of building cultural bridges amid animosity.
In Soviet and early post-Soviet times, Russia was as much of a main outlet for Georgian song and dance as it was for the country’s fruit and vegetables. Given the modest size of Georgia’s show business, many Georgian performers still turn to Russia, with its massive showbiz industry and remnants of nostalgic appreciation for Georgian culture.
After 2008, some Georgian showbiz stars quit on Russia, and Tbilisi discouraged cultural exchange events. That approach changed with the Georgian Dream’s advent to power in 2012, and the lifting of the Russian embargo on Georgian food-products.
Yet, still, part of Georgian society thinks such performances are inappropriate so long as Russian troops remain stationed in breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and help separatists prevent the homecoming of thousands of ethnic Georgians who fled these regions. They see irony in the same pop stars participating in Moscow’s Tbilisoba who previously performed in patriotic, anti-Kremlin concerts in Georgia.
In a move that many Georgians believe bodes ill for their remaining links with breakaway Abkhazia, the region’s new de-facto leader, Raul Khajimba, has stated he wants to eliminate all crossing points but one into Georgian-controlled territory.
“The national border with Georgia on the Enguri River will be reinforced,” RIA Novosti quoted Khajimba as saying in reference to what most of the rest of the world sees as an administrative boundary line between Abkhazia and the Tbilisi-controlled region of Samegrelo.
“There should be only one checkpoint for reasons of national security,” Khajimba told an assembly of his party, the Forum of People’s Unity of Abkhazia.
For now, there are five crossing-points – four pedestrian and one vehicular – operating across the Russian-policed administrative boundary between breakaway Abkhazia and Samegrelo.
Residents of Abkhazia’s ethnic Georgian-dominated Gali region regularly use these so-called official crossings to travel into Samegrelo, the best local place for shopping, and where most have family or friends.
“Russian border guards often turn a blind eye if we show them an Abkhaz or Soviet passport or residency documents provided by the local administration and they let us herd livestock to pastures on the Georgian-controlled side,” one Gali resident told Ekho Kavkaza.
A brand new international travel option is underway for the Russian-annexed Crimean peninsula. An airline based in Russia’s North-Caucasus republic of Chechnya plans to launch direct flights between the Armenian capital, Yerevan, and Crimea’s main city of Simferopol, according to RIA-Novosti.
Grozny Avia, named after Chechnya's capital, Grozny (Russian for fearsome), was ordered into being by the obstreperous province's warlord-turned-president, Ramzan Kadyrov. The air company now conducts domestic flights within the Russian Federation.
Its twice-weekly Yerevan-Simferopol flights are tentatively expected to start on October 28, but may get pushed over into November, the carrier told the agency Crimea Media.
Grozny Avia operated its first international flight out of Simferopol to Istanbul in July, when Crimea was already under Russian control. Regular flights were cancelled thereafter for "political reasons," the official story goes. Some news reports claimed that the cancellation was a result of Turkey siding with Ukraine and its Western partners in the dispute with Russia over Crimea and eastern Ukraine.
Earlier this year, the International Civil Aviation Organization called on international carriers to avoid the Crimean airspace, which Russia hijacked from Ukraine, along with the land below it. Currently, all regular international flights to Crimea are mainly by Russia’s Aeroflot.