Moscow is never happy to see a US secretary of state lounging about in what it considers to be its backyard; in other words, Georgia. Routine expressions of support for Georgia’s territorial integrity, democratic and NATO aspirations are one thing. But don't get talkin' about those "provocative" identification papers for residents of breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
The documents are meant to provide an international travel option to residents of the two regions -- their independence from Georgia still largely unrecognized -- without specifying their citizenship status. They also, though, are intended to encourage separatist Abkhaz and South Ossetians to come back to Tbilisi's still-waiting embrace.
Granted, the Abkhaz and South Ossetians are not exactly lining up for the Georgian-made documents and a hefty dose of skepticism persists about the prospects for reconciliation-through-IDs. But, still, securing Hillary Rodham Clinton’s public support for the documents was one tangible bonus for Tbilisi from her June 4-5 visit to Georgia.
Nonetheless, despite the IDs' less-than-certain chances for success, Moscow’s thin-skinned reactions suggested that the documents' existence do at least exert a certain psychological influence on the Kremlin.
Moscow, the chief lobbyist for international acceptance of Abkhazia and South Ossetia’s independence, had been quite happy for years to provide both regions with Russian passports for international travel -- even while, before 2008, still recognizing them as part of Georgia.
After securing support from an archipelago of Pacific island nations for the independence of breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia from Georgia, Moscow may now have netted a bigger catch -- Serbia.
During his visit to Moscow last week, Serbia's new president, Tomislav Nikolić, promised to push for recognition of the duo's independence in the Serbian parliament; a pledge that sparked optimism in Abkhazia. And, by now comfortably settled into its role in the two breakaway regions, Russia has made plain that it's happy to sweeten the deal.
Other Russian soul mates, the South Pacific countries of Nauru, Tuvalu and Vanuatu, also received or are believed to have received gifts from Moscow, but the Kremlin maintains their recognitions of the independence of the two Russian-guarded territories came from the heart.
Georgia may not have $800 million to spare, but Tbilisi also sees Belgrade as a soul mate.
Deputy Foreign Minister Nino Kalandadze noted that Georgia and Serbia share an Orthodox Christian faith (for that matter, so do Georgia and Russia), and an aspiration to integrate with the European Union. Beyond guilt-tripping Serbia's government into respecting Georgia’s territorial integrity, Tbilisi expressed hope that Belgrade will not choose to buck the EU’s position on the Georgian breakaways.
After spending weeks locked up in a hospital, breakaway South Ossetia’s embattled opposition leader has become the troubled region's de-facto deputy prime minister through a power-sharing pact with the ruling establishment.
It is hard to say if the appointment is a promotion or a demotion for Alla Jioyeva, the main opposition candidate in South Ossetia’s multiple attempts to elect a de-facto president. Her claims to the presidency over fierce opposition from the powers-that-be and their patrons in Moscow brought her homeland to the verge of civil war and left her confined in a hospital, many of her supporters jailed.
“I will try to save those who were jailed… because of my presidential campaign, although it was not my fault,” Jioyeva told Russia's official RIA news agency.
Jioyeva’s office was raided by police in MARCH as she was preparing for her Do-It-Yourself presidential inauguration. Jioyeva and her supporters claimed they were assaulted during the raid. The powers-that-were denied the allegations, but online photos showed Jioyeva in a hospital with bodily injuries.
That was then, but now is now. Jioyeva insists that the de-facto authorities illegally revoked her victory at the polls, but, apparently, she has come to terms with the fact that South Ossetia has a new (de-facto) president and it is not her.
The once famous Ergneti swap meet, where otherwise antagonized Georgians and South Ossetians used to trade everything from bolts to refrigerators, may make a comeback. The possibility of the market’s return is already sparking hopes that Georgians and South Ossetians can smuggle their way to peace.
In 2004, the Georgian authorities closed down Ergneti, on the border between separatist South Ossetia and the neighboring region of Shida Kartli, to clamp down on the shadow economy. The closure ended rampant smuggling and led to a spike in tax revenues, but it also did away with the only major venue for peaceful interaction between people on either side of the conflict divide.
Separatist South Ossetia finally has a new de-facto president: Leonid Tibilov, a former KGB boss, took the oath of office on April 19.
It took four tumultuous takes to elect the new leader. Comrades-in-separatism Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh and Transnistria sent representatives to attend Tibilov’s inauguration in the South Ossetian capital Tskhinvali. The highest-profile guest was Russian Duma Chairman Sergei Naryshkin. Also present was Nicaraguan Ambassador Luis Alberto Molina Quadra. Nicaragua and Venezuela, along with a couple of Pacific Islands, are the only states to follow Russia in recognizing the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
Perhaps the most important attendee was Alla Jioyeva, an opposition presidential candidate, who bucked both local authorities and Kremlin in her bid for the South Ossetian leadership. The annulment of her reported victory came close to sparking civilian unrest. Since many South Ossetians still believe that she was the rightful winner of the popular vote, Jioyeva’s presence at the April 19 inauguration raises hopes that South Ossetia’s domestic political strife has blown over.
But Tibilov still needs to sort out complicated relations with Moscow and deal with the legacy of massive embezzlement of Russian aid. His pro-Russian stance and KGB past may not be enough to earn Tibilov the full trust of Moscow. “I’d like to assure leadership of the Russian Federation that we will do our best to stay the course chosen by our people, and this choice is connected to Russia,” Tibilov told Naryshkin. “We will be a reliable partner to Russia on its southern flanks.”
After a record-breaking number of de-facto presidential elections, embattled South Ossetia has finally got itself a de-facto president. Yet holding elections is proving to be a habit hard to kick. After four attempts to decide on a leader, now the breakaway region could be headed toward an early parliamentary election.
The current parliament, unrecognized by most of the world, is facing credibility issues at home as the majority of its 34 members are believed to be loyalists of former strongman Eduard Kokoity, a figure whose reputation for corruption is proving a not-so-endearing memory.
The new man at separatist South Ossetia's helm, ex-KGB chief Leonid Tibilov, may now need to upgrade the legislature to reinforce his own position with the territory's electorate, reports indicate.
Tibilov, of course, has described his victory at the polls as a victory shared by all the South Ossetian people, but, since quite a few voters disagree, he has also described the task ahead as building a sense of unity.
Jioyeva, who ended up in the hospital after a raid on her office, first vowed to fight to the end for the presidency, but now it looks like she is willing to entertain the option of participating in the early de-facto parliamentary vote, instead. Jioyeva and David Sanakoyev, the runner-up in de-facto election #2, are launching political parties to run for parliament.
Voting in de-facto presidential elections is becoming a regular pastime in the breakaway region of South Ossetia. After three attempts since November 2011 -- the latest, on March 25 -- to choose a successor to longtime strongman Eduard Kokoity, residents are now being asked to vote, yes, a fourth time on April 8.
"The people are tired of the election process . . . " candidate Leonid Tibilov, a former South Ossetian KGB boss who scooped up 42.48 percent of the latest de-facto vote, according to preliminary results, commented wryly to the Russian daily Kommersant. Without a clear majority, Tibilov will now face off against David Sanakoyev, the region's de-facto human rights ombudsman, with 24.58 percent of the vote.
Haunting the polls also, though, are the ghosts of (de-facto) elections past: Kokoity and opposition leader Alla Jioyeva, who claimed election in December 2011 and now is under house arrest in Tskhinvali after having attempted to proceed with her inauguration.
In interviews with Kommersant, both Tibilov and Sanakoyev took efforts to emphasize their distaste for or distance from Kokoity, and their fondness for the people's will; a sentiment no doubt enhanced after the large-scale public demonstrations that broke out in December in favor of Jioyeva.
Eight hundred million rubles -- part of the aid dished out by Moscow for post-war rehabilitation -- simply has disappeared, South Ossetia’s de-facto state auditors said last week. The who, where, when, why and how remain unknown. While eyes popped in Russia, South Ossetia’s de-facto official news agency reported the epic steal as casually as if a ballpoint pen had gone missing.
Whether a culprit will ever be found for Russia's missing millions, however, remains anybody's guess.
Gennady Ryabchenko, the de-facto official tasked to audit the breakaway territory's public finances, charged that prosecutors failed to act on reports of embezzlement. The de-facto Security Council requested the region’s tiny 34-seat parliament to probe into what's been going on exactly in the prosecutor's office.
The Russian military base in South Ossetia will soon include a battalion for Ossetians, which government officials say will act as a "forge" to build a capable military in the quasi-independent country, but which looks just as much like a blow against the territory's fragile sovereignty. The government news agency RES quotes Ministry of Defense of South Ossetia spokeswoman Galina Guchmazovа:
"The citizens of South Ossetia, who want to continue to serve in the army, now will be provided with opportunity to acquire new knowledge, learn military discipline and matériel at a level consistent with the Russian armed forces. - Ossetian battalion of the Russian military base will be the forge of professional military personnel for the Republic of South Ossetia."
Emphasis added. What does it mean, those who want to "continue to serve"? Does that imply that South Ossetia's own defense forces are to be discontinued?
The Georgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs responded quickly, connecting the creation of the battalion to a more general militarization of the territory and the Russian military threat:
[T]he Russian Federation is continuing to build up its military forces, to strengthen its military infrastructure and to deploy offensive weapons in Georgia's occupied regions. These regions have, in fact, been turned into large military bases and their inhabitants are either employed in the Russian military bases themselves or are serving with the Russian occupation troops, as most recently attested by the fact of the creation of the so-called "Ossetian battalion".
“People with guns and in masks barged in, destroying the doors, furniture …and tried to take me away by force,” said Jioyeva describing to Russian Reporter how riot police (OMON) allegedly stormed her office on February 9, the eve of her planned inauguration as de-facto president of the tiny, breakaway region.
“One grabbed me by the hands; others by the feet. They picked me up and dragged me like an old watermelon,” she told the website. Those in her office who tried to resist the OMON were beaten with rifle butts; some were arrested, she alleged. “I started to feel bad, from the humiliation… from everything that I saw, from the screams. I lost consciousness,” she said.