As of December 4, there is one less Georgian and one more full-on Ukrainian out there. The indefatigable former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has been stripped of his Georgian citizenship, but effectively keeps his job as Georgia’s long-distance opposition leader.
“They may take away my passport, but they can’t take away my being a Georgian,” Saakashvili said in a video posted on his Facebook page. Apparently speaking from Ukraine, where he serves as Odessa's regional governor, he claimed it was “Russian oligarch” Bidzina Ivanishvili, the former prime minister and founder of Georgia's ruling Georgian Dream coalition, who ordered his “incompetent, straw-grasping government” to cancel his passport, to prevent him from seeking elected office in Georgia.
Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili has indicated that he signed the decree scrapping his predecessor's Georgian citizenship in response to Saakashvili's May decision to become a Ukrainian citizen. Dual citizenship is not allowed under Georgian law, but the rule is not uniformly applied.
Pounded with threats and sanctions from Russia, Turkey on December 4 went to its Turkic cousin Azerbaijan to get some much-needed love and economic reassurance. Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu received not only an ardent, mi-casa-es-su-casa welcome in Baku, but also promises of more business and energy supplies just as Russia is trying to starve Turkey of both of those things.
Sitting next to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, the Turkish prime minister melted into a lengthy toast to kinship between Azerbaijan and Turkey; one country that fate divided in two, he said. Azerbaijan is Turkey’s “soul,” “spiritual homeland,” and Turkey’s ministers are Azerbaijan’s ministers, in Davutoğlu's telling.
For Azerbaijan, which relies on heavily on Turkey for energy transit projects and efforts to reclaimed breakaway Nagorno Karabakh, this means, in theory, that Turkey’s problems are Azerbaijan’s problems. “Turkish-Azerbaijani unity and politics have a stabilizing effect on the region,” said Azerbaijan’s Aliyev.
Yet, mindful of Moscow, Azerbaijan's Soviet-era overlord and still the region's traditional mover-and-shaker, Aliyev avoided calling Russia by name. After all, of late, Baku and the Kremlin have been making nice. Instead, Aliyev noted, diplomatically broadly, that “stability in the region has been regrettably disturbed, with new risks and threats taking shape.”
“We should be ready and we are ready for these challenges," he added, without elaboration.
Sandwiched between Turkey and Russia, and for centuries a battleground for the erstwhile empires, the South Caucasus is bracing for fallout from the geopolitical furor sparked by the Turkish downing of a Russian fighter jet.
Discussion of the draft comes right after a fatal police raid last week, when special troops were sent to “quell rebels” in the Baku suburb of Nardaran, home to a conservative Shi’a community. Two law-enforcement officers and four men tagged as alleged militants were killed. Police arrested a local spiritual leader, Taleh Bagirzade, and members of his Movement for Muslim Unity. They accused the group of plans to overthrow the government and establish a sharia state.
Given the government’s practice of running roughshod over critics, some question its motivations in the Nardaran raid. The town, EurasiaNet.org has reported, has generally been seen as “a different world” from the rest of Azerbaijan, with no national police allowed on its territory.
Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine all know the routine.
In the past, Russia swore off Ukrainian candy and dairy products as relations between the two countries worsened over Crimea, the war against Moscow-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, and Kyiv’s pro-Western inclinations. In 2013, it took particular aim at Roshen chocolate, the source of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s personal wealth.
Russia also has closed its borders for European cheese and other foodstuffs as a payback for Western sanctions against Russia over Ukraine. European cheddar cheese was once literally bulldozed off Russian tables.
For years, the Russian dinner table has told the story of Russia’s foreign policy.
The video, apparently first posted on an ISIS-associated, Russian-language site, opens with a sleekly edited intro, Arab music and requisite praises to Allah. Then, a young man, flanked by three fellow Islamic fighters with rifles, calls on Georgia’s Muslim minority, in Arabic-accented, grammatically faulty Georgian, to come to Iraq and Syria to join the holy war. “Oh, my Muslim brothers, know that you are forbidden to live with the kafirs [infidels],” says the man.
The man urges Georgian Muslims to throw off the infidel’s rule — a reference to Georgia’s status as a majority Orthodox Christian society. He also lambasted the leader of Muslims in the Turkish-border region of Achara, describing the mufti as schismatic and conformist. “A great sin is on you,” he said. “People do not know true Islam, they are confused and you are confusing them even more…. Are not you afraid of Allah, who created you from a drop of blood?”
The diatribe ends with the man calling on Georgian Christians to relinquish “idols and crosses” and adopt Islam.
Then another fighter, with an accent typical of Georgia’s western region of Guria, takes to the floor to warn “Georgian infidels” to stop waging war against Islam. Citing Georgia’s time under a caliphate during the early middle ages, he singles out Georgian troops that contribute to NATO’s campaign in Iraq and Afghanistan. “The time will come to cut your heads off,” he warns.
The crackdown is the first application of new media-law provisions that allow courts to shut down news companies if they are found guilty of such transgressions twice in the space of one year.
Critics charge that claims of defamation long have become synonymous with government criticism in Azerbaijan, which international rights-watchdogs rank among countries with the least amount of press freedom.
Prosecutors, for now, have delivered a warning to eight-plus news outlets (Mia.az, Cumhuriyyət, Qaynarinfo, Gündəminfo, Criminal.az, Strateq.az, İstiqlal.az, JAM.az “and others” ), but warned that next time they might not spare the rod.
The press-freedom organization Reporters without Bordersearlier described the amendments, signed into law by President Ilham Aliyev on November 2, as fresh evidence of continued governmental harassment of independent media in Azerbaijan.
Russia is relaxing its visa requirements for Georgians, possibly trumping the European Union’s best card in the ongoing game of influence between the two powers.
“The Russian side confirmed its readiness to continue the liberalization of the visa regime for Georgian citizens visiting Russia,” the Russian foreign ministry announced in a November 19 précis of the latest bout of talks between Moscow and Tbilisi. Georgian officials confirmed that efforts are in progress to ease travel for their citizens to Russia, even though the two countries remain irreconcilably at odds over the location of Georgia’s borders.
Georgia ended its diplomatic relations with Russia after the 2008 war over the breakaway region of South Ossetia.
The visa-liberalization announcement came two days after Georgia went to Brussels for talks about visa-free travel to the European Union. The prospect of visa exemption, largely contingent on Georgia’s ability to keep illegal migration in check, is seen as the major impetus for keeping the Caucasus country on track to closer integration with Europe.
Visa-liberalization had been seen as a chance for Brussels to present a tangible benefit of Georgia’s EU alignment. In explaining Russia’s announcement, Georgian State Minister for European Integration Davit Bakradze emphasized that the talks with Moscow are centered on simplification, rather than cancelation of the visa regime.
A fire that left most of Azerbaijan offline on November 16 appears to speak to the insecurity of the Internet supply in the South Caucasus, where nationwide Internet dim-outs are nothing new.
Early on Monday, a cable caught fire in a ganglion of lines belonging to Delta Telecom, Azerbaijan’s all-but-monopoly Internet supplier. The blaze eventually affected roughly 90 percent of the country’s networks, according to internet connectivity tracker Renesys.
Careful in its wording, the communications ministry termed the problem “a partial breakdown” in equipment, caused by a melting cable and smoke.
The incident lead to a roughly seven-hour-long Internet outage and brought down many locally hosted websites. As Azerbaijan’s main gateway to the Internet, Delta Telecom sells international traffic to nearly all internet service providers. The company also hosts on its servers several government websites.
Azerbaijani officials stressed that mission-critical operations — banking and the country’s bread-and-butter, oil-and-gas extraction – were not affected. The Internet connection was mostly restored late on the same day, but the outage left Internet users, both corporate and individual, in a huff.
“The government should take immediate measures to prevent such incidents from happening again and also to make the field more competitive and make alternative infrastructure available,” advised the Azerbaijan Internet Forum, a non-governmental coalition.