Sluggish turnout for Georgia’s June-15 local elections suggests that, nearly two years after the country’s first change of power by election, most voters don’t care enough about politics to make it to the polls.
The post of mayor of Tbilisi, the Georgian capital of about 1.2 million, was the biggest prize in the election, which included 12 mayoral and a potpouri of city-council races. But interest ran at a mere 43.31 percent of over 3.4-million registered voters — a lower turnout than in any recent election.
Many voters crossed out all candidates and parties on the ballots, instead leaving messages like “Screw this,” Netgazeti.ge reported.
In the Tbilisi mayor race, early returns placed the ruling Georgian Dream’s mayoral candidate, 35-year-old Minister of Regional Development and Infrastructure Davit Narmania, in the lead, though some three percentage points short of the 50-percent cut required for victory. In a second round, Narmania would face the opposition United National Movement candidate Nika Melia, who garnered just under 27 percent of the vote. Whoever gets a simple majority of votes in the runoff will move into the mayor’s office, which is now controlled by the United National Movement.
Tbilisi’s traditional snobbery toward ambitious politicians from the regions (who don't have the moneyed patina of billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvilli, that is) may have prevented the Georgian Dream from winning the race in the first go. As an extract from rural Georgia, Narmania has been the target of arrogant attacks by many Tbilisi personalities, including members of the ruling party.
Georgia plans to finalize a pact with the European Union on June 27 that would bring Tbilisi closer to Brussels. Even so, the campaign environment ahead of Georgia’s local elections suggests that the country has quite a bit of distance to cover before it reaches the standards of a European democracy.
If Armenians want to feel safe, they have got to speak Russian, Moscow’s propagandist-in-chief, Russian media-personality Dmitry Kiselyov, has instructed Russia’s somewhat reluctant Caucasus ally, Armenia.
While the line may sound like an ignorant tourist's throwaway complaint, the comments, in the context of Russian-Armenian relations, chafed a sensitive nerve. Many Armenians think that their country already has compromised much of its sovereignty by becoming increasingly dependent on Russian money, energy and defense. Criticism delivered in the style of a colonial master does nothing to correct that view.
By July 1 (after a few delays), Armenia is expected to enter the Eurasian Union, essentially Moscow’s response to the European Union. It already is part of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), the Moscow-led counterweight to NATO. The country has effectively surrendered much of its energy supply system to Russian energy monolith Gazprom and much of its income generation depends on what migrants send home from Russia.
Moscow and Brussels have gone courting Azerbaijan, the last nonaligned place in the South Caucasus, where Russia and the European Union increasingly compete for influence.
Over the next week, two top officials from Russia and one from the European Union will be descending upon Azerbaijan to chat up Baku, which, unlike neighboring Armenia and Georgia, says it is not ready to commit to a serious relationship with anyone, be it the Brussels-based EU or the Moscow-led EU (Eurasian Union). But neither of the energy-rich country's big suitors seem to take no for an answer.
José Manuel Barroso, president of the EU's executive arm, the European Commission, will be visiting Baku on June 12 as a part of his tour of several ex-Soviet republics that Brussels corralled together to prime for integration with the EU. Two of these countries -- Moldova and Georgia -- will be signing association agreements, which include free-trade deals, with the EU in two weeks. Barroso will be checking on both countries to make sure all's set for the big day.
Breaking with the tradition of European leaders binge-visiting all three South Caucasus countries in one fell swoop, Barroso is conspicuously skipping Armenia. Brussels is still disgruntled about Yerevan discarding an association-agreement at the last minute to hop on a train headed in the opposite direction -- toward the Eurasian Union, and economic integration with Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus.
Street-art in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, takes aim at police for allegedly indiscriminate use of urinanalyses to detect drug use.
Urine cups appeared in front of Georgia's main government building the other day as a remonstration against government-performed urinalyses to detect drug users. The pee-protest capped a recently invigorated push to decriminalize the use of marijuana and showcased growing frustration about what many see as the country's overly harsh narcotics laws.
Proclaiming "You Can't Find Crime in Urine," the June 9 rally was sparked when police crashed a private party in the capital, Tbilisi, and hauled off 14 people for drug tests. Street art also appeared around the city, with one graphic portraying policemen offering a test cup to a line of characters ranging from Manneken Pis, Brussels' landmark peeing boy statue, to Star War’s Yoda.
One widely distributed Facebook photo goes a step further and shows the Brussels boy taking aim at the Georgian interior ministry.
But the police maintain they were within their rights. They say they'd arrived on the scene after neighbors complained about the party.
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.
In a win likely to inspire some celebratory gunfire this evening, South Ossetia on June 4 narrowly defeated its separatist sibling Abkhazia in a World Cup of soccer, and now will head to the semi-finals. No, not in that World Cup. In a championship in Sweden for breakaway territories, stateless peoples, micro-nations, and the like.
For the most part, the Caucasus breakaways have been doing well in the tournament. The South Ossetian team earlier destroyed Darfur United with a jaw-dropping 19 to 0 score, while the Abkhaz beat Lapland 2 to 1, and held even against Occitania, a fuzzy territorial concept that embraces parts of Italy and France.
Breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh, however, has been less successful, losing to teams from the Isle of Man and the long-dissolved Countea de Nissa.
If Russia is looking for more land to grab, breakaway South Ossetia is interested. “Inspired” by the example of Crimea, South Ossetia’s separatist leader said on June 2 that his tiny Caucasus region can’t wait to glue itself to the Russian Federation.
“This historic moment should come,” said de-facto President Leonid Tibilov, news agencies reported. “We have good chances of becoming part of Russia.”
Following Russia's gobbling of Crimea, many wondered what next separatism-prone territory would end up in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s annexation collection. So far, separatists in Ukraine’s East, Moldova’s Transnistria and Georgia’s South Ossetia have raised their hands.
“Here in South Ossetia we were excited to watch the Russian leadership deciding to reunite Crimea with Russia,” elaborated Tibilov dreamily. “We are happy for the people of Crimea, who finally have a home.”
The separatist leader said that the Crimea experience had created a wisp of hope in South Ossetian hearts that someday the same can happen to them.
The attraction for these individuals lies due north, in the Russian Federation's North Ossetia, seen locally as the region's Siamese twin. The two have been separated since 1922.
But whether or not Moscow has the incentive to try and reunite them remains unclear.
Abkhazia’s hair-trigger uprising ended in less than a week, before it could be properly understood or even noticed by the outside world. The proximity to events in Ukraine, both in terms of geography and the pattern, grabbed attention, but in Abkhazia no geopolitical shifts are expected. Rather, it's a change from within.
De-facto President Aleksander Ankvab resigned on June 1 after putting up only token resistance to a diverse group of opposition groups who have taken over the building from which he governed. A new presidential vote was called for August 24. In the meantime, de-facto Parliamentary Speaker Valery Bganba is serving as the region's leader.
Local observers see this outcome as both the result of Ankvab's own policy-shortcomings and as a failure of the breakaway region's system of governance.
In commentary broadcast by the online Asarkia TV, Inal Khashig, editor-in-chief of the Sokhumi-based Chegemskaya Pravda newspaper, argued that earlier expectations that the 61-year-old Ankvab would serve as Abkhazia's "chief foreman" and fix all of the territory's many problems, ranging from limited jobs to a crumbling public order, had failed to be met. “What was expected of him was to set things in order in various fields,” Khashig said.
Abkhazia’s two self-proclaimed governments took a break from both fighting and negotiations on May 30 as the embattled Black-Sea region entered into the fourth day of de-facto diarchy.
“Now, there is a bit of calm in the negotiation process . . . With this in mind, we are working on the next format of the meetings [with the opposition],” commented de-facto National Security Chief Nugzar Ashuba, the separatist administration’s point-man for talks with opposition groups which have claimed power.
Ankvab has ruled out the use of force against the opposition, but the opposition, for its part, warned on May 30 that responsibility for any violent clashes will lie with Abkhazia's 61-year-old de-facto leader.
A council of opposition parties continues to occupy the de-facto president’s office, which they took over by force on May 27, and claims that it is now the region's governing power. Ankvab has taken shelter at the Russian military base in Gudauta, northwest of the capital, Sokhumi, Ekho Kavkaza reported. His national security chief shuttles back and forth between him and the opposition. Two officials from Moscow, Abkhazia's chaperone, are on hand to facilitate the talks.