The Kremlin has warned breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia to beware of Georgians bearing gifts of travel documents. As part of its post-2008-war reintegration strategy, Tbilisi offered the separatists citizenship-blind identification documents. But Moscow says that those who take these papers will unwittingly become Georgians.
The so-called neutral travel documents do not carry Georgia's national symbols and do not specify the citizenship of their holders. But Moscow found a catch. “The ‘neutral passports’ are not neutral at all,” the Russian foreign ministry declared on February 8. “Georgia is indicated in the country code, while the issuing authority is the Georgian Ministry of Internal Affairs.”
Both breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia, for their part, say that they are not interested in any IDs printed by Tbilisi-- and whether or not any EU members promise to recognize them.
But, contrary to Russian fears or Georgian hopes, the documents are hardly an effective mechanism to lure the breakaways back into the Georgian fold.
Life in the Caucasus can often mean having the skills of a quick-change artist. Many Georgians themselves often hold both Russian and Georgian passports to make travel between the two estranged countries easier.
Warnings of possible bloodshed are coming from the politically discombobulated territory of South Ossetia as opposition leader Alla Jioyeva gets ready to inaugurate herself on February 10 as the region’s de-facto president and ignore plans to hold a repeat (de-facto) presidential election.
Describing Caucasians as "a hot-headed people," ex de-facto Defense Minister Anatoly Barankevich, a Jioyeva ally, warned that the inauguration “could lead to a civil war," an event "that will affect the entire Caucasus and even Russia," Kavkazsky Uzel reports.
But, so far, Jioyeva, who has the ice-cold determination to become South Ossetia's de-facto leader, in keeping with the apparent results of a 2011 run-off (de-facto) election, is not to be swayed. She says that the inauguration will take place with or without the interim de-facto government’s support. The de-facto government , for its part, wants to hold a third run-off presidential election on March 25.
The only international effort to defuse the tensions has come from Moscow, which recognizes the territory as a state independent from Georgia, but, with two competing centers of power now in South Ossetia, it's hard to argue that Russia's self-promoted skills as a crisis manager have amounted to much.
Moscow appears to have had it with South Ossetian politicians who undermine the Kremlin’s influence in the breakaway Caucasus territory and besmirch its image. Days after South Ossetian politician Jambolat Tedeyev renewed his claims to the region's de-facto presidency, Russian Federal Security Service agents showed up at his door.
Russia recognizes South Ossetia as an independent country from Georgia, and the authority by which Tedeyev would be charged is not clear.
But such legal niceties matter little when a power struggle is at hand. Last September, when South Ossetia’s de-facto authorities barred Tedeyev from running in the region's de-facto presidential election, his supporters took to the streets in the capital, Tskhinvali. South Ossetia's then de-facto leader, Eduard Kokoity, accused Tedeyev of trying to stage a color revolution.
In response, Tedeyev, who belongs to an influential local clan, threw his support behind another opposition presidential hopeful, Alla Jioyeva. Jioyeva gained international name recognition late last year when her supporters took to the streets, and stayed there, over canceled de-facto runoff results which showed her the winner over the Russian-endorsed candidate, Anatoliy Bibilov.
And so we come to the present. With a third attempt to elect a new (de-facto) leader now scheduled for March, Tedeyev has declared that he wants to run again. But Moscow appears to be wearying of the surprisingly boisterous pace of South Ossetian politics.
Like anyone else, looks like breakaway South Ossetia's onetime de-facto presidential hopeful Alla Jioyeva made a few New Year's resolutions for 2012. Resolution #1: Don't put up with any perceived funny business.
Jioyeva says that her representative was not appointed a deputy prime minister in the de-facto provisional government, as the agreement stipulated. “We never got those two or three ministerial portfolios that could have helped decrease the public tensions…and media remains closed to us,” Jioyeva told Ekho Kavkaza news service.
She said that she called up de-facto Prime Minister Vadim Brovtsev to seek a meeting, but was surprised to get “Let me think about it” for an answer. A letter to Brovtsev, which was cc'd to the rest of the region’s population, was also ignored, she said.
Azerbaijan continues to take the flak for roughshod treatment of the media and political critics. But sitting on an embarrassment of hydrocarbon wealth, the country is in no hurry to change its ways. Behind the maquillage of spruced-up buildings and streets in Baku, rights groups see a ruling political dynasty plagued by rampant nepotism and corruption.
Russia will be holding a series of military exercises in the North Caucasus, Armenia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia this fall, reportedly in preparation for a possible U.S.-Israeli attack on Iran. The exercises, called Kavkaz-2012, will be held in September and won't be tactical/operational but strategic (i.e. won't involve large numbers of troops). The exercises will, however, include officers from the breakaway Georgian territories. The focus on surveillance, air defense and logistics suggests that Russia is tailoring the exercise to prepare for a U.S.-Israel-Iran war, says Russian newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta:
As suggested by the head of the Center for Military Forecasting, Colonel Anatoly Tsyganok, "Preparations for the Kavkaz-2012 exercises seems to have begun already largely due to the increasing military tensions in the Persian Gulf." "In a possible war against Iran may be drawn some former Soviet countries of South Caucasus. How, then, to ensure the viability of Russian troops stationed abroad, for example, in Armenia? Apparently, the General Staff will plan some proactive measures, including learning to organize in critical logistic supply of troops," said the expert.
Plans for new urban settlements in Georgian-controlled territory and the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia increasingly make this neck of the woods look like the setting for a SimCity-style strategy game, where players race to move populations around and build cities.
Two Russian-built towns in breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia will house Russian troops that guard the territories’ de-facto independence from Tbilisi and dependence on Moscow. The third proposed city, in the Georgian-controlled region of Samegrelo in western Georgia, will be situated not far from the administrative border of Abkhazia. In theory, its projected 500,00-strong population will be made up of a combination of villagers (including Internally Displaced Persons from Abkhazia) and, supposedly, expatriate Georgians eager to live near the Black Sea.
The Russian plans for the two new breakaway troop towns are very much real, while the Georgian project is seen as surreal so far.
Russia’s federal construction agency, Spetsstroy, said that construction of the military towns is 90 percent complete, and that they will be ready for use next year. The towns will house a total of 4,000 troops and their families. Spetsstroy claims that the Russian soldiers, not known for being spoilt by an abundance of good living, will have all the basic comforts of modern life in these settlements.
Kokoity, who is accused of trying to install a Kremlin-favored candidate as his replacement and to steal Jioyeva's purported election victory, said on December 11 that he was stepping down to avoid bloodshed. The resignation, preceded by the dismissal of several key officials in Kokoity’s administration, came as part of a deal with the Jioyeva team, brokered by Russia.
Earlier on, Jioyeva, claiming foul play by Kokoity, had threatened to proceed with the protests. The change of pace reportedly did not sit well with all her supporters, Ekho Kavkaza reported.
But the embattled region is not quite out of the woods yet. Jioyeva has demanded that her supporters be included in the interim de-facto government now led by de-facto Prime Minister Vadim Brovtsev.
With all revolution-chasers focused on Russia's post-election turmoil, the prospects of a mini-revolution in the neighboring breakaway region of South Ossetia, a Russian protectorate, have gotten little international spotlight. But the enclave that Moscow vowed to love and cherish as a sovereign state after Russia's 2008 war with Georgia is in trouble and things may still get ugly.
Faced with calls to step down, the de facto president, Eduard Kokoity, has looked around his cabinet for possible scapegoats and found some. On December 7, he fired several high-ranking officials, including the de facto minister of education and the mayor of the capital, Tskhinvali, as an apparent sop to the protesters. More heads will roll soon, he claimed.
Come December 10, protesters in the discombobulated Caucasus region of South Ossetia plan to inaugurate their leader, Alla Jioyeva, as the territory's new de facto president with or without the consent of the current de facto president, longtime strongman Eduard Kokoity.
The protesters insist they already have a president so both Kokoity and the pick for his successor, de facto Emergency Situations Minister Anatoliy Bibolev, as well as their backers in the Kremlin, need to get used to it.
Despite any disillusionment with Moscow, though, Jioyeva’s supporters still hope that the Kremlin will help the tiny region step back from civil unrest. To prove that the protests are not anti-Moscow, the Jioyeva camp called on demonstrators to back Russia's ruling United Russia party in its December 4 parliamentary elections. (Most South Ossetians hold Russian passports.)
Still, the demonstrators are trying to put their eggs in other baskets, too. On December 4, they also asked that the United Nations and European Parliament help avert a political crisis in South Ossetia that may destabilize the wider region.