South Ossetia, a separatist region that sees itself as an independent country, has announced plans to hold a popular show of hands about joining its big neighbor and benefactor, Russia.
“Today’s political reality is such that we have to make our historic choice: we must reunite with brotherly Russia and ensure centuries of security and prosperity for our republic, our people,” the region’s de-facto leader, Leonid Tibilov, allegedly announced at an October 19 meeting with Vladislav Surkov, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s advisor for separatist matters.
What particularly attracts South Ossetia to Russia is neighboring North Ossetia, a Russian republic seen as part of an Ossetian homeland.
But Putin’s press person, Dmitry Peskov, has a different recollection of Tibilov’s words. Nothing was said about a referendum or the region becoming part of Russia, he claimed, the state-run RIA reported. Just South Ossetia's "age-old dream of reunification" with Russia; in other words, nothing new, he said.
Russia effectively pulled South Ossetia out of Georgia during the two countries’ 2008 war, and subsequently declared it an independent state, an entity that it had saved from abuse by Georgia. It has shelled out millions of rubles to sponsor South Ossetia’s statehood-building.
It apparently sees no reason to go a step further and absorb the region altogether. South Ossetia has not announced a date for its referendum, but the plain message from Moscow is "bad timing."
Hundreds of Georgians gathered on October 17 in Tbilisi to protest talks with Gazprom about increased supplies of gas to Georgia. Posters blamed the talks on former Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, a onetime Gazprom investor who supports closer trade ties with Russia.
Georgia could be on the cusp of a bargain with Gazprom, Russia’s device for exports of natural gas and foreign policy, that many Georgians deem Faustian. The Georgian government’s intention to increase its imports of Russian gas has been met with fervent resistance as a potential threat to the country's pro-Western track.
On October 17, a crowd gathered in front of Georgia’s central government building to protest ongoing negotiations with the Russian energy behemoth. Seeking more gas from Gazprom amounts to Georgia bucking the trend among “developed countries” to reduce Gazprom’s influence, declared former ombudsman Giorgi Tughushi, who served when Georgia’s Russia suspicions were at their height, under ex-President Mikhail Saakashvili.
“This is tantamount to relinquishing our statehood,” charged Tughushi, warning that Georgia should expect Russia’s President Vladimir Putin “to come out of that pipeline.”
Talks with Gazprom have taken many aback, and, some locals believe, also neighboring Azerbaijan, which provides the bulk of Georgia’s natural-gas supplies. Initially, a surprise September 25 meeting between Georgian Energy Minister Kakha Kaladze and Gazprom Chief Executive Officer Alexei Miller was put down to routine seasonal adjustments for gas transit to Armenia via Georgia. Later on, after Russia media reported plans for another meeting between Kaladze and Miller, the Georgian energy minister said that several Georgian corporate clients were interested in purchasing Russian gas.
International Criminal Court Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda arrived in Georgia on October 16 to test the ground for a pending investigation into what she “reasonably believes” are war crimes committed during the 2008 war between Georgia and Russia. The list includes the mass expulsion of ethnic Georgians from the war’s main battleground, separatist South Ossetia.
“The goal of this examination is to carefully assess whether or not as a prosecutor of the International Criminal Court I should proceed with an investigation of alleged crimes committed during the  conflict,” Bensouda told a briefing in Tbilisi.
Her office’s preliminary probe already has “identified war crimes and crimes against humanity that the court has the powers to prosecute; in particular, the killing, displacement and prosecution of ethnic Georgian civilians and and destruction and pillaging of their property by South Ossetian forces, with possible participation of Russian forces.”
The expulsion of an estimated 15,000 ethnic Georgians from South Ossetia, roughly 75 percent of the separatist region’s ethnic Georgian population before the war, “constitutes a crime against humanity and is undoubtedly very grave,” said Bensouda in an earlier video statement.
Georgian officials welcomed the prosecutor’s mission, even though Georgia is also likely to be investigated for war crimes if the ICC’s judges authorize a full investigation of the conduct of all three sides to the conflict — Russia, Tbilisi and South Ossetia.
Among the possible trouble areas — Georgian forces’ attacks against Russian peacekeepers, and South Ossetian fighters’ attacks against Georgian peacekeepers, Bensouda added.
Azerbaijan may follow Kazakhstan’s suit and abandon currency limits to help boost export revenues, hamstrung by the slump in oil prices.
Oil and gas are Azerbaijan’s bread and butter, and the decline in petro-revenue means that the surplus in the country's current accounts -- the degree to which Azerbaijan exports more than it imports -- could shrink from $10 billion in 2014 to $2 billion this year, predicted Central Bank Chairperson Elman Rustamov, Trend reported.
As he primed parliament for the idea of a free-floating currency, Azerbaijan’s banker-in-chief took the politically correct step of presenting the change as a reflection of the country's growing integration with the global economy. To stay competitive as key trade partners devalue their currencies, Azerbaijan, the South Caucasus’ largest economy, must take far-reaching measures, the reasoning goes.
“Starting from 2014, the Turkish lira depreciated by 34 percent, the Russian ruble by 86 percent, Kazakhstan’s tenge by 66 percent,” Rustamov told the national assembly on October 13.
Rustamov said that free-floating the manat first requires "serious economic and technical preparations" and a "cold-blooded approach," but, nonetheless,
his remarks appear to have spread worry among Azerbaijanis that the manat will again be devalued.
Some sellers at the October 10-11 Caucasus Cheese Festival in Tbilisi saw cheesemaking as a true art.
Cheese brought together dairy makers from assorted regions of the South Caucasus at a lactose-rich gathering in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, over the past weekend. Creamy, dry, pungent and stringy, cheeses of every description were up for grabs at the latest installment of the Caucasus Cheese Festival, an attempt to enhance Georgia’s reputation as the region’s gastronomic capital.
Georgia’s Ministry of Agriculture, which co-organized the October 10-11 event with a cheesemaker guild, could provide no specifics about makers of the “peace cheese.”
Yet Georgian cheese cognoscenti were not short on details about their homeland’s own 60-some makes. As with wine, Tbilisi’s sights are on Europe, and what Agriculture Minister Otar Danelia called a “worthy place” for Georgian cheese on the world market.
To meet that goal, part of the idea was to look beyond the usual business of Georgia’s stretchy, mozzarella-like sulguni and supple, crumbly imeruli, to less popular varieties and locally made versions of European cheeses. And there they lay – cured in honey, herbs or olive oil, aged and fresh, some molded into animal figurines or drinking vessels.
Cheese historians — even in this food-obsessed land, not a common calling — were on hand to note that the Georgian expression “Smile like a cheese seller” comes from medieval times, when vendors were eager to outshine the competition.
Ever eager to use its underground energy riches to fuel its above-ground ambitions, Azerbaijan has selected an unnamed manufacturer to produce a second satellite. But along with developing a space industry, the South Caucasus country has now forayed into another, far more down-to-earth business, too — producing bicycles.
The satellite, of course, is the celebrity. Azerbaijani officials said on October 5 that they have made their pick from international bidders to supply AzerSpace-2. The bidders include two US companies — the Dulles, Virginia-based Orbital ATK and Palo Alto, California-based Space System Loral; China’s Great Wall Industry Corp and France’s Airbus Defense and Space.
Communications Minister Ali Abbasov said the selection will be announced soon. “The launch of the satellite is expected in late 2017 or early 2018,” the minister told Trend.az.
Azerbaijan bought its first satellite, AzerSpace-1, from Orbital Sciences Corporation, now part of Orbital ATK, a few years back. The deal came with some help from the US Export-Import Bank. The satellite’s launch from a space center in French Guiana in 2013 came amidst various efforts by Azerbaijan, brimming with energy wealth, to boost its presence internationally.
Both the US and European Union have criticized Azerbaijan for its Soviet-style control of the media and roughshod treatment of political dissent, but American and European companies alike continue to take an interest in such strategic investments.
Joseph Stalin's monument now lies in an abandoned lot outside of Gori, his hometown in Georgia.
The city council in Joseph Stalin’s Georgian hometown of Gori struck down on October 2 a motion to restore the Soviet dictator’s monument in the town square. The fierce debate left unclear the fate of the grand, six-meter statue that just refuses to be consigned to the ash heap of history.
Gori’s Stalinists have made stubborn attempts to bring their icon’s statue back to the town center, but central government officials have resisted these efforts, which they view as an embarrassment to the country’s goals of Western integration.
Today’s debate on the topic at Gori’s city council erupted into a shouting match between Stalin supporters and opponents.
The Stalinists argue that Joseph Visarionovich is Gori’s (and Georgia’s) most famous son and the major tourist attraction in gritty Gori, a town some 40 kilometers west of the Georgian capital, Tbilisi. Visitors indeed flock to the Stalin Museum which features a massive collection of Stalin memorabilia, including his death mask and a tiny shack where the comrade-in-chief, then known as Soso, the Georgian diminutive for his first name, spent his early years.
Georgia’s top opposition-minded channel, the influential Rustavi2, claims that an October 1 court ruling that freezes a majority shareholder’s stake in the company will lead to the television station’s closure.
“Today we are as close to ceasing broadcasts as ever,” Rustavi2 Director Nika Gvaramia said at a news conference. “All sources of financing have been shut down,” he said.
A fierce critic of the ruling Georgian Dream Coalition and supportive of the opposition United National Movement, Rustavi2, the country's largest private TV station, has been bogged down in a property dispute with a former shareholder, Kibar Khalvashi, for some time. The dispute led the Tbilisi City Court first to freeze Rustavi2’s assets and, now, the 51-percent stake held in Rustavi2 by the channel’s majority shareholder company, Sakartvelo.
The freeze interrupted the sale of the company to a new owner, who, Gvaramia claimed, was planning to invest $6 million in the national broadcaster.
That new owner, Dimitri Chikovani, is the brother-in-law of ex-Defense Minister Davit Kezerashvili, a Saakashvili-era cabinet minister who was granted political asylum in France after being prosecuted by the Georgian government on various criminal charges.
Riling his Armenian hosts, the organization’s Russian deputy general secretary, General Valery Semerikov, made it abundantly clear on September 30 that the latest deadly escalation between the two countries is Armenia’s, not the security bloc’s, problem. In media comments in Yerevan, Semerikov said that the fast spiral of violence between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces is nothing that Armenia can’t handle on its own.
Armenian Army Chief of Staff Yuri Khachaturov did not conceal his frustration with these remarks in the middle of drills billed “Unbreakable Brotherhood 2015.” Khachaturov claimed that Armenia is, indeed, more than capable of handling the confrontation with Azerbaijan, but said that he would like to see some form of support from fellow members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) — Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
“After all we are in one organism, in one security system, so this [support] should be voiced,” RFE/RL's Armenian service quoted Khachaturov as saying. “We are not asking for help quite yet, but support, purely human support, we would like to hear.”
Georgia plays no small role in Europe’s efforts to diversify away from Russian natural gas, but the South-Caucasus country itself could find it needs to diversify back toward its enemy’s energy. Late last week, Russia and Georgia held talks on gas shipments, but have offered only scant details about the negotiations.
Observers in Georgia pricked up their ears when Gazprom’s Chief Executive Officer Alexei Miller met Georgian Energy Minister Kakha Kaladze on September 25 in Brussels. Gazprom said that exports to and through Georgia were discussed, prompting some local concern over the chance that Georgia would take on additional volumes of Russian gas, which for Moscow is as much a foreign policy instrument as it an export commodity. In comments to Georgian media, Gia Volski, chairperson of Georgia’s ruling Georgian Dream parliamentary faction, suggested that Tbilisi treads carefully on the topic of Russian gas imports.
Granted, most of Gazprom supplies to Georgia only go through the country to reach neighboring Armenia, which relies on Russia for most of its energy needs. Georgia retains 10 percent of shipments to Armenia as a transit fee. Last year, Georgia received 200 million cubic meters of Russia gas, which accounted for only nine percent of the gas consumed by Georgia in 2014, the energy ministry told EurasiaNet.org. Gazprom puts the figure at 300 million cubic meters.