The customs-free wonderland that Russia is busy building around itself to counterbalance the European Union will come with still more unrecognized or half-recognized lands. On December 10, the Russian Duma approved a 2012 agreement to drop customs duties between Russia and the twin breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
“Ratification of the agreements will become an important step toward intensifying trade turnover between Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and Russia and members of the Customs Union,” pledged Eurasian Integration Parliamentary Committee Chairman Leonid Slutskiy, ITAR-TASS reported.
The two tiny enclaves -- in Moscow’s view, perfectly sovereign lands -- are tied to Russia’s apron both by their economies and their claims to independent statehood. Now, they can export customs-free to Russia anything but sugar, tobacco and alcohol. Russia also cancelled export duties on set volumes of petroleum exported to Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Of course, there is more in this for the territories than for Russia, which periodically injects aid into both breakaway territories. The Kremlin is pouring so much money into Abkhazia and South Ossetia that it will not even notice a revenue-drop from the removal of duties on imports from and petroleum exports into the regions, said Slutskiy.
In 2014-2015, Moscow plans to invest over 3 billion rubles (about $92 million) in Abkhazia alone, according to the region's de-facto official news agency, Apsnypress.
The U.S. ambassador to Georgia has sparked controversy with comments that criticized Georgia's policy, in the early days of independence, toward the minority populations of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Ambassador Richard Norland was speaking to a group of students at Tbilisi State University on November 15, and was asked about the possibility of Georgia regaining control of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. His comments, apparently recorded by someone at the event, included the following:
If you ask me about my personal opinion I can tell you that when I was in Georgia 20 years ago I saw that Georgians were treating Abkhazians and Ossetians the same way as Russians were treating Georgians and Georgia will have to apologize for the mistakes of the past.
This isn't an especially controversial statement; Georgians frequently express similar sentiments as they rue the mistakes that were made in the 1990s that contributed to the loss of those territories. But it's apparently too sensitive for the U.S. ambassador to say such a thing in public. In American politics Norland's statement would be called a "gaffe," which is when a political figure accidentally tells the truth. And the predictable result was that Georgian officials lined up to criticize Norland's remarks, and Norland was forced to backtrack.
Some of the Georgian responses, from a report on Georgian television station Rustavi-2 (via BBC Monitoring):
Autumn is a relatively busy time in Georgia -- the farmers are harvesting grapes, the kids are heading back to school, and the Russians are building more fences.
On September 17, Georgian journalists came within a gnat's nose of a trip to a South Ossetian prison when they arrived in a Georgian village, Ditsi, to film Russian soldiers fencing off access to a family cemetery.
Ditsi neighbors the separatist region of South Ossetia, an area babysat by Russian troops in contravention of the cease-fire agreement ending the 2008 Russia-Georgia war over the territory.
Overall since the war, in an alleged attempt to enhance security , Russian troops have erected 27 kilometers of fence through 15 Georgian villages close to South Ossetia.
Georgia on August 8 vowed to start direct talks with the representatives of breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia, but it may need first to deal with that uninvited party to the conversation, Russia.
Speaking on the fifth anniversary of Georgia's 2008 war with Russia over the two territories, Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili called on Georgians to wipe the slate clean and collectively reach out to the regions, now located behind a line of Russian troops. “We need to get the strength to forgive...but also we have to accept our own mistakes and undo what still can be undone,” Ivanishvili said, Georgian news outlets reported.
“We are ready for a direct dialogue with our Abkhaz and Ossetian brothers,” he went on to say. “I am confident that we will find a common language to work toward a shared future.”
One Georgian government minister specified later that Tbilisi does not intend to accept in any way the regions' Russian-backed claims to independence from Georgia. “This means restoring mutual trust between the peoples and by no means between subjects of international law,” said Alex Petriashvili, the state minister for Euro-Atlantic integration, Netgazeti.ge reported.
State Minister for Reintegration Paata Zakareishvili told RFE/RL's Georgian service that the new policy would mark a change from the more maximalist, nationalist sentiments that existed prior to the war and an attempt to be more accommodating to the interests of the breakaway regions.
Venezuela is among six countries which have recognized the independence of one or both territories from Georgia. And in the Caucasus, the deed of "a good friend" is not easily forgotten.
At a March 8 funeral rally in the South Ossetian capital Tskinvali, officials and public figures took turns to remember the Chavez they knew, the Chavez they loved, and queued to sign a memorial book to be sent to Caracas.
The mourners said they were forever thankful to the Bolivarian revolutionary for standing up to the West and recognizing South Ossetia’s still largely unrecognized independence from Georgia. “Since then, the people and the president of Venezuela have become close friends to us,” elaborated the territory's de-facto president, Leonid Tibilov.
For a musical memorial, South Ossetia’s singing talent Alla Byazrova, of course, performed her serenade to the late Venezuelan leader. “Hugo Chavez, Hugo Chavez, my best friend, my faraway friend!” she sang to a catchy, syncopated beat.
Georgia says a Russian military buildup on the de facto border between South Ossetia and Georgia proper is intended to destabilize the country ahead of October 1 parliamentary elections. Georgia accusing Russia of nefarious deeds is nothing new, of course, including in connection with its elections. But over the last few days those accusations have become more specific and pointed.
For one, there are the Kavkaz-2012 military exercises, which Saakashvili said were timed in order to interfere with Georgia's elections:
“I know well what is happening in respect of Georgia in the condition when there is Russian money, Russian methods, Russian compromising materials and Russian army, deployed near our borders holding very dangerous military exercises, under conditions when the occupant of our territories has vowed to accomplish in next few weeks and months what it failed to do in 2008 and to use elections for this purpose,” Saakashvili said.
(For what it's worth, when Thomas Melia, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, testified before a Congressional committee last week, he was asked if he thought the Kavkaz-2012 exercises were intended by Russia to influence Georgia's elections, and he said he didn't.)
EU monitors observe the de facto Georgia-South Ossetia border
For the past several days, South Ossetia's de facto government has been warning about a Georgian military buildup along its border. On Tuesday, South Ossetia's president said that "Georgia is preparing seriously for a war," building up fortifications and arms stores. The following day, an "analysis" by the de facto government's press service suggested that Georgian President Saakashvili was planning to provoke a war to boost his party's prospects in upcoming parliamentary elections. On Thursday, South Ossetia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs warned that Georgia was positioning heavy weaponry, including multiple-launch rocket systems and armored vehicles, along the border.
But now the European Union Monitoring Mission, which keeps track of events along the border, said there's no such thing -- and noted that in fact Russia is building up its own forces along the de facto border:
In recent days, there have been claims about a possible change in posture of Georgian security personnel at the South Ossetian Administrative Boundary Line. The EU Monitoring Mission has been intensively engaged in monitoring and assessing these reports with the deployment of extra patrols and has been checking the situation with the relevant authorities. The Mission has not observed any evidence to support these claims. However, EUMM has further increased its patrolling to actively monitor the situation on the ground.
The EUMM has at the same time observed a build-up of Russian Federation armed personnel along the South Ossetian Administrative Boundary Line. The Mission has raised its concerns about this activity with the relevant Russian command structures.
If there is any conclusion that can already be made about the September 13 bomb attack against separatist South Ossetia’s de-facto deputy defense minister, it is that it is always a good idea to own a large plasma TV.
It was such a television set that shielded Ibragim Gaseyev, his mother and daughter from shrapnel and detritus as an explosion ripped through the door to their apartment in Tskhinvali in the wee hours this morning, investigators told the Russian newspaper Izvestia. Gaseyev and his family survived the attack.
Other deductions made by South Ossetia investigators are both speculative and predictable. Separatist officials claim that the blast is either a product of domestic turf wars or a result of the work of a foreign country's secret services; a list, which, in Tskhinvali’s books, can mean only one place -- Tbilisi.
De-facto General Prosecutor Merab Chigoyev reasoned that Gaseyev is one of South Ossetia’s better military minds, so an enemy state might have tried to cripple the territory’s army. But formidable as those forces may be, it, arguably, was Russia’s involvement, rather than the South Ossetians' display of military know-how, that decided the outcome of the 2008 war with Georgia.
That said, logic does not always come first in the Caucasus.
South Ossetia's de-facto leader, Leonid Tibilov, echoed Chigoyev’s assumptions, but he didn’t rule out the attack being homegrown, either. In the past, violence has marked the competition for political and economic clout in the territory.
Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili used a speech commemorating Georgia’s disastrous 2008 war with Russia to toss a few verbal brickbats at some present-day enemies.
Saakashvili’s nationally televised address August 7 was ostensibly a remembrance of the sacrifices and suffering that occurred during the five-day clash that began on August 8, 2008. But, with an eye toward Georgia’s parliamentary elections in October, the president also did a little politicking on behalf of his United National Movement party.
At one point in his speech, Saakashvili insinuated that Georgia’s leading opposition figure, billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, was acting as an unwitting accomplice of Georgia’s long-time bête noire, Russian leader Vladimir Putin.
“Now they [the Russians] have a new plan for Georgia, which is about breaking Georgia from within … with the hands of Georgians themselves,” Saakashvili said. He went on to deride “mummified figures” who were ready to sell out Georgia.
Saakashvili also baited Putin, saying that Russia couldn’t achieve its goal back in 2008 of installing a pro-Kremlin regime in Tbilisi. "They have failed,’ the president said. “Georgia has the same government, so it [Russia] is not a winner.”
Since Ivanishvili’s emergence as an opposition force to be reckoned with, Saakashvili and his allies have sought to portray the billionaire as a Kremlin hireling. Ivanishvili has tried to counter such allegations by accusing Saakashvili of engaging in reckless behavior that caused Georgian and Russian forces to start shooting back in 2008.
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.