Georgian support for joining the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union appears to be on the increase, based on data from a survey conducted for the National Democratic Institute, a US-based NGO.
Thirty-one percent of the roughly 4,360 Georgian respondents surveyed expressed support for signing onto the trade-bloc; a twofold increase from 2014 and a threefold increase from 2013, respectively.
Yet considerably more of the respondents (41 percent) remain hostile to the idea of teaming up with Russia, according to data released on May 11. A solid majority of the interviewees – 68 percent and 65 percent, respectively – are rooting for joining the European Union and NATO.
Seventy-seven percent consider Russia a threat, though opinions vary on the immediacy of the threat. Ethnic minorities are most skeptical about Russia’s hostile intentions; half of those surveyed do not see Russia as a threat.
Pro-Russian activism remains on the fringes of the political mainstream in Georgia, but it has become more noticeable under the Georgian Dream coalition than it was during the fiercely anti-Moscow United National Movement, which lost power in 2012. The same poll said that Georgians can freely vent their views today.
Additionally, Russia’s state TV channels, formerly essentially barred from broadcast, now rate as the most-watched foreign channels in Georgia, the survey claimed.
In a Caucasus-first, Georgia has selected a woman, 41-year-old parliamentarian Tina Khidasheli, as its prospective defense minister. The appointment, relatively unexpected until this week, comes amidst a mini-cabinet-shakeup that once again lays bare divisions within the country’s political leadership.
Khidasheli, the chairperson of parliament’s European Integration Committee, and her husband, Parliamentary Speaker Davit Usupashvili, are a power couple leading the moderate Republican Party, a gathering of pro-Western intellectuals that are members of the ruling Georgian Dream coalition.
Trained in international law, she is a fluent English-speaker, who has had brief fellowships at Yale and Georgetown Universities and worked for over a decade at the Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association, a reform-minded legal-watchdog. *
While Khidasheli has a prominent public presence, the exact reasons for her nomination are open to some speculation. Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili announced on May 1 that the current defense minister, Mindia Janelidze, will return to his role as head of the prime minister’s security council.
An investigative report published by an Azerbaijani government-connected news agency alleges US Secretary of State John Kerry is orchestrating a campaign to discredit the government in Baku.
The report, published April 28 by the APA news agency, places Kerry “in the forefront” of a broad effort to undermine the Azerbaijani government during the run-up to the European Games, an Olympics-like event to be held in Baku in June.
Kerry, the report asserts, is known for “his Islamophobic mindset [and a] special closeness to Armenians, and supports pro-Armenian initiatives in the United States.” It also hints that the US government would favor regime change in Baku. Documents obtained by APA relating to the campaign put “an end to the statements expressed at the highest level that the United States does not interfere in the internal affairs of independent countries and develop coup plans,” the article says.
A group of Western non-governmental organizations, including the National Endowment for Democracy and the New York-based Open Society Foundations (OSF), was also cited in the report as participating in the campaign. [Editor’s Note: EurasiaNet.org operates under OSF’s auspices].
“These forces are realizing a plan of politicizing the first European Games, creating one-sided vacuum of information, directing the attention of the international community to the internal affairs of Azerbaijan in a distorted way,” the APA report alleges. On April 30, APA published documents that it said were obtained from a reliable source, that outline the objectives of the campaign, dubbed Sports for Rights. The documents that were published do not make a connection between the State Department and an NGO coalition.
The defense ministry of Georgia will supply weapons, live ammunition and explosives to a TV channel run by the rap-artist—son, Bera Ivanishvili, of former Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, the Georgian government’s alleged éminence grise.
The list of supplies includes TNT, detonators, gunpowder, machine-guns and ammunition-belts. Out of these, the defense ministry would like the machine-guns and ammunition-belts back at some point.
The TV station, GDS, does not plan to start a war. It says it needs the weaponry for two historic drama series (“Tiflis” and “Lost Heroes”). But the news raises potentially explosive questions about the conditions for the deal.
Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili, who authorized the handover, formerly served as the director of Bera Ivanishvili’s production company, Georgian Dream, Ltd,. His April-24 order for the transaction no longer appears to be accessible online.
In an interview with Liberali Magazine, "Lost Heroes" producer Davit Kelekhsashvili claimed that GDS paid the defense ministry for the supplies, but would not specify the amount.
The Kremlin has tried to placate Turkish anger at Vladimir Putin terming as genocide the killing of an estimated one to 1.5 million ethnic Armenians in Turkey during World War I.
An an April 28 press-conference, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, never one to conceal his feelings, let loose: “It is not the first time Russia used the word genocide on this issue,” said Erdogan, adding that he was personally disappointed by Putin’s words. “What is happening in Ukraine is evident. They should first explain this before calling it [the 1915 slaughter] genocide.”
On April 24 itself, the centennial of the 1915 massacre, the Turkish foreign ministry had delivered a sharper punch, noting that “[t]aking into account the mass atrocities and exiles in the Caucasus, in Central Asia and in eastern Europe committed by Russia for a century, collective punishment methods (...) as well as inhumane practices especially against Turkish and Muslim people in Russia’s own history, we consider that Russia is best-suited to know what exactly ‘genocide’ and its legal dimension are.”
The Kremlin said nothing at first. But now that Erdoğan has shown he’s riled, it’s responded with a backhanded reminder to Turkey of where some of its interests lie.
Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov expressed a hope that the Turkish leader’s reaction “would not influence the relationship between Moscow and Ankara, and, above all, the Turkish Stream,” a 63-billion-cubic-meter-per-year pipeline that would carry Russian gas under the Black Sea to Turkish territory, and on to European markets.
In the latest installment in his televised current-affairs lectures, Ivanishvili on April 26 said such NGOs are biased and can’t do the right analysis. He has long deplored the supposed lack of proper analysis in Georgian media, and launched his own think-tank, 2030, and an eponymous TV show, to rectify this. (2030 stands for the year Ivanishvili expects Georgia to blossom into true, European-style democracy.)
Ivanishvili specifically targeted such major civil-society groups as the Georgian chapter of Transparency International (TI) and the Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association (GYLA). The former recently published a report about how employees of companies associated with Ivanishvili are taking up government posts.
The heads of these groups are now “suspected of bias and of being in synch with the [Saakashvili-led] United National Movement’s agitprop, the machine of lies,” he informed viewers.
Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka on April 23 made his first-ever visit to Tbilisi, becoming an unusual guest in a country generally seen as headed in a direction diametrically opposite to that of Belarus.
But that did not faze this 60-year-old strong-armed leader. Sounding all the key notes, Lukashenka promised investment, unwavering support for Georgia’s territorial integrity and even to play a role in helping reconcile Georgia and Russia.
“Let’s think of what steps can be taken to make sure… we live in one family, as we used to live once,” he said at a press-conference in reference to the days when Belarus and Georgia shared a home, the Soviet Union.
It is a story of two presidential palaces, three nettlesome leaders and millions of wasted taxpayer money. And it has left many Georgians rolling their eyes at the government’s apparent preoccupation with petty politics rather than on such challenges as creating badly needed jobs and kickstarting the languishing economy.
But, beyond that, the palace-fight once again has focused a spotlight on the ever shadowy role of the billionaire believed to be the real power behind the Georgian government — ex-Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili.
A president with newly limited powers (under 2010 constitutional reforms) must be matched by a limited workspace, the thinking goes. Under Ivanishvili, Georgia purchased a 19th century downtown mansion in Tbilisi to serve as a new presidential headquarters.
But the Saakashvili palace seems to have grown on Margvelashvili and he has refused to swap offices
The government thus ended up allegedly spending 28 million lari (about $12 million) on preparing a presidential office that now has no president in it.
Azerbaijan, faced with growing tensions with Armenia over Nagorno Karabakh, has not yet indicated a willingness to buy. But Iran’s offers for military cooperation go in other directions, too.
At a press-conference on April 21, Iranian Ambassador Mohsen Pak Ayeen said the two neighbors will set up a joint mechanism to tackle defense challenges.
“There are developments in the world and in the region that have an impact on our region,” the ambassador said after Dehqan and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev agreed that there is room for expanding military cooperation between their countries. “Threats coming from ISIS and al Qaeda have been discussed [by Azerbaijani and Iranian officials]. It was decided to make joint efforts to tackle religious fundamentalism,” APA reported Pak Ayeen as saying.
Giorgi Janelidze, a self-described experienced fighter, was with the Azov Battalion, a pro-Kyiv volunteer grouping, when his position near the southeastern city of Mariupol came under fire from Russian-backed separatist forces, Georgian media report.
Scores of Georgians have been fighting in Ukraine to help quell Russian-aided separatism. Many Georgians take Ukraine’s struggle as their own and view Russian President Vladimir Putin as a common enemy. There is a Georgian Legion, a volunteer platoon made up entirely of Georgian nationals, most of them veterans of Tbilisi’s 1992-1994 war with separatist Abkhazia.
Shortly before his death, the 30-something Janelidze, apparently already suffering from a head-wound, and another Georgian fighter recorded a video-greeting for a Georgian friend being treated for his wounds in Kyiv.