The duel between the West and Russia for the Caucasus might just be becoming a truel. In its continued fervor to embrace China and attract Chinese hunger for global investment and exports, Georgia has launched talks on free trade with Beijing.
“Our main goal is to make the most prudent use of our strategic location,” said Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili on September 10 at the World Economic Forum in the Chinese city of Dalian, where the Georgian leader met his Chinese counterpart, Li Kepiang.
Dalian is on the ancient East-West trade route known as the Silk Road, which China is looking to bring back to life by investing in transportation and energy infrastructure along the way.
“Georgia is Europe’s natural gateway to Asia, as it is Europe’s eastern most [syc] point both by land and sea,” Gharibashvili elaborated in a September 10 op-ed in the English-language China Daily, seen as a Beijing mouthpiece.
In his commentary Gharibashvili went through the selling points for Georgia as a critical hub in the Chinese government’s transnational project for integrating Chinese and Eurasian trade and investment.
With its economy still struggling for a breather, Tbilisi hopes that Georgia’s investment-friendly tax policy and free-trade agreement with the European Union will encourage more Chinese business to provide a much-needed financial boost. Gharibashvili’s office said that Chinese officials will visit Tbilisi in mid-October for a Silk Road conference.
As tensions again flare up between Armenia and Azerbaijan, Moscow has agreed to lend Yerevan $200 million for weaponry purchases at reduced rates.
In a September 7 statement after meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin at his Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside of Moscow, Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan claimed the preferential credit will facilitate “upgrading” the Armenian military’s stockpile of arms. Financial details were not available.
With a base in Armenia, Russia long has served as Armenia’s primary source of arms, even as it co-chairs peace talks between the two countries. The Kremlin has long used both hands to maintain influence in the South Caucasus, but the aid to Armenia left observers wondering what Putin's current game in the region is.
Moscow had been believed to be trying to pull Baku closer in, but the announcement of the gun deal will only chafe Baku. Media reports suggested that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was dispatched to Baku last week with the goal of coaxing Azerbaijan into a closer alliance with Moscow amidst the chill with the West over Azerbaijan’s dismal human rights record.
Georgian media have depicted the August 30 clash as a Free Willy-style drama. But counter to these reports, the activists claim they had no intention to release the facility's inhabitants into the open sea. Although Batumi's top attraction is located a quick walk from the beach, carrying to the water bottlenose dolphins that weigh, on average, 300 kilos might have proven problematic.
The Georgian Federation for Animal Protection claimed that its members, with a backup of Russian and Turkish animal rights activists, instead tried to unfurl banners that read “A dolphinarium is a prison!" and were physically assaulted by guards and dolphin handlers.
The dolphinarium’s administration says the opposite — the activists intruded on the premises and attacked the staff using pepper spray. Both sides uploaded videos in an attempt to prove their versions of the story.
Following an earlier theme, Azerbaijan’s foreign ministry said that the upbraiding by US, British and EU officials, and international human rights groups is nothing but meddling in a sovereign country’s home affairs.
"We categorically condemn and deem unacceptable interference in the trial of Khadija Ismayilova, the attempts to politicize the court decision and also reactions in the form of political statements to what in essense is a purely a matter of law," Report.az quoted foreign ministry spokesperson Hikmet Hajiyev as saying.
The US State Department had said it was "deeply troubled" by the seven-plus-year-long jail sentence handed down to Ismayilova, a freelance investigative journalist who has exposed various questionable business schemes tied to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev’s family and political circles.
"This case is another example in a broad pattern of increasing restrictions on human rights in Azerbaijan, including curtailing the freedom of the press," the State Department said in a statement, which called for the corruption-busting journalist's release.
Baku’s Court for Grave Crimes found 39-year-old Ismayilova guilty of tax evasion, illegal business activity, embezzlement and abuse of power — the types of alleged crimes which, ironically, she herself investigated in covering senior government officials and the family of President Ilham Aliyev.
"It is not a coincidence that these charges were brought against me. After all, I have talked and written in detail about these very same crimes myself," Ismayilova said in her final statement, as published by Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty, one of her employers.
To many, Ismayilova's story brings to mind “One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest” — a lone battle against an autocratic, ossified system and an inspiration for civil society kept in a straitjacket by an entrenched, ruling élite. Rights activists and many journalists alike see her conviction on spurious criminal charges as retribution for her exposes of corruption within President Ilham Aliyev’s family and circle.
Before prison, Ismayilova, who also has worked for EurasiaNet.org, faced an ugly character assassination campaign that culminated in a video of her intimate life being posted on the Internet. A pro-forma police investigation has led nowhere.
Whatever else it might wish, the Azerbaijani court hearing the controversial case against jailed investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova apparently does not wish that she has the last word. As Ismayilova lambasted the court on August 31 for a bumbling trial and the government for corruption, Judge Ramella Allahverdiyeva cut short her final statement before delaying sentencing until September 1.
In her comments, Ismayilova, 39, once again dismissed the criminal charges against her as “funny.” She faces a potential nine years in prison for alleged incitement to suicide, tax evasion, abuse of power, embezzlement, and “illegal business” — charges that most rights activists and Ismayilova herself see as retribution for investigative work that targeted the family of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev.
"Illegal business is one [of] my favorite charges," reads an English translation of her statement posted on RFE/RL. "Do you actually know what illegal business means? Illegal business is when the president, prime minister, or a parliament member engages in personal businesses even though they are not supposed to do so. Together with my colleagues, I was very surprised to see our president’s name as the founder of a number of companies registered in the Virgin Islands.”
As Ismayilova, following along these same lines, rebutted the charges against her, prosecutors objected to the statement, claiming it was not related to the case. As is her wont, Judge Allahverdiyeva, who also has been a target of the defendant’s criticism, upheld the objection and the court adjourned before Ismayilova had finished speaking.
Invariably, NATO is seen as either the cause or cure of all security ills in the South Caucasus. So, it was only predictable that Russia described as provocative the August 27 opening of a North Atlantic Treaty Organization training center in Georgia. And Tbilisi, in response, emphasized it as an expansion of “the frontier of freedom.”
For his part, NATO Secretary General Jen Stoltenberg, on his first trip to Georgia, appeared to try to play things in the center.
“There is more Georgia in NATO and more NATO in Georgia,” he added, in case anyone hadn’t noticed.
Georgia, NATO’s only eager ally in the South Caucasus, has heard this line before, albeit in the future tense. In December 2014, NATO promised that “there will be a lot more Georgia in NATO and lot of NATO in Georgia.”
The catchphrase refers to the so-called Substantial Package, a military-reform collaboration program that NATO adopted at its summit in Wales last September. The program also includes sending “embedded” NATO trainers to Georgia and holding joint exercises.
As far as Moscow is concerned, though, there is too much NATO in Georgia.
“Those, who in such a situation continue to actively drag Tbilisi into NATO, must be aware of their responsibility, especially given the regrettable experience in the region in 2008,” observed Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova, Interfax reported.
Ever starting and stopping, the trial of investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova on a range of criminal charges has again come to a halt — this time, until August 31.
At a short, August 26 session, Ismayilova’s lawyer, Fariz Namazli, alleging a disregard of previous defense documents, motioned for the court to reexamine the evidence against his client. The court had rejected materials that demonstrated that all the accusations against Khadija Ismayil are absurd,” he said, using the Azeri version of Ismayilova’s last name.
Ismayilova, facing a possible nine years in prison, requested a week to prepare her own final statement. Following a brief break, the judge announced the trial would resume on Monday, August 31.
"They are doing what [Azerbaijani President] Ilham [Aliyev] told them to do,” drily commented Ismayilova’s mother, Elmira, after the session, reported a live feed from RFE/RL, for whom Ismayilova worked as a freelance reporter.
Once again, journalists from non-government-associated news organizations and civil society representatives were denied access to the court proceedings.
Ever a strategic crossroads, ardently pro-Western Georgia on August 25 became the site where the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, billed as the Chinese counterweight to the World Bank, chose its first president.
China's former deputy finance minister, Jin Liqun, got the pick at the August 24-25 meeting in Tbilisi, but it’s the longer term implications of the bank’s role that could prove more intriguing.
Initially meant as an Asia-only lending club, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) has fast expanded to attract members across Europe and is set to help China build international clout.
The US has tried to discourage allies like the United Kingdom and South Korea from embracing the bank, a financial institution that Washington reportedly fears will lower international banking standards, but did not react publicly when Georgia, its strongest ally in the strategic South Caucasus, also decided to help midwife the AIIB into existence.
Granted, Georgia, which holds a mere .05 percent share in the bank, does not have the banking or economic muscle of the UK or South Korea, but its geo-strategic location means that those with influence here tend to keep a wary eye out for potential rivals.