A sighting of Russian army trucks in Georgia, just as the country was remembering the Red Army’s 1921 invasion, has set off a fresh furore over that most contentious of topics — the country’s ties with muscular next-door neighbour, Russia.
As the video and photo proof of general-purpose, Russian-made ZIL 131 military trucks rolling down highways or parked on streets, including in the Georgian capital,Tbilisi, went viral online, TV crews went chasing the vehicles. "It has begun!" one Twitter user wrote.
Reactions ranged from indignant to baffled to plain curiosity about the reasons for the trucks’ presence in Georgia. "I am not doing anything illegal," a stressed-out Russian-speaking driver told skeptical TV crews, who chased him down late on February 25.
With Russian troops already stationed in breakaway South Ossetia, just over half-an-hour from Tbilisi, and in fellow separatist Abkhazia, the reason for the alarm was plain.
The opposition United National Movement (UNM) Party, the self-styled torchbearer of patriotism, was hot on the case, demanding an explanation from the defense ministry. "This image shows Russian military vehicles, with a Russian driver and Russian license plates headed toward the reserve military base in Senaki [town in the west]," charged parliament member Nugzar Tsiklauri, Tabula.ge reported.
Georgia’s NATO-membership plans have come under attack from within the the country's government itself, embattled Georgian Defense Minister Irakli Alasania claimed on November 4, as a crisis over investigations into his ministry deepens within the ruling coalition.
Alasania, rated as Georgia’s favorite political figure, declared in a televised briefing that prosecutors’ sudden spate of inquiries into the defense ministry’s work is politically motivated. After the arrest of five former and current ministry officials last week as part of a probe into a tender, prosecutors today filed criminal charges against three army medical officers in a food-poisoning case.
“This is an attack on Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic choice. This is an attack on the agency with an outstanding record in achieving our foreign policy goals,” Alasania asserted. “I will not be intimidated by the prosecutors or by mud-slinging by certain media groups,” he added.
He challenged the ruling Georgian Dream coalition to convene to discuss in which direction the country is headed. Next to him stood State Minister for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration Aleksi Petriashvili.
Georgia will strike up an “historic” alliance with the European Union by signing an association agreement on June 27, Tbilisi announced on May 14. And the agreement is not the country's final stop on the road to Europe, one key EU official, on hand in Tbilisi for the announcement, declared. Yet for all the high hopes, the announced schedule of Europeanization could be -- with apologies to the late Gabriel Garcia Márquez -- a chronicle of trouble foretold.
We know what you’re thinking, but Georgia’s planned association with the European Union is not about some geopolitical war between Moscow and Brussels, the EU argues in its newly released Myth-Buster, a guide to reassure those Georgians not entirely sold on the idea of integration with the EU.
Yes, commercial farmers will have to meet new safety standards, says the guidebook, but, no, the “size and looks of tomatoes” will not be regulated -- in this tomato-obsessed society, no trivial matter. For now, Georgians also are free to decide in what kind of cages they put their chickens.
At first glance, the need for such pointers may not be obvious. Georgia is, after all, the country that started flying EU flags outside all public buildings before serious talk of an association agreement had even begun. Opposition to the deal has been marginal.
But the Ukraine crisis and Moscow's fancy footwork in Crimea apparently has encouraged Brussels to dip its pen in the ink and spell out the advantages of a free trade deal with Europe over certain customs unions . . . say, like, oh, the one proposed by Moscow.
At the time, scoffers said Georgia was only attracted to Tuvalu’s vote at the United Nations General Assembly. For Georgia and Russia, every vote counts at the UN, where the two battle for the international non-recognition or recognition, respectively, of separatist Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
But Georgia severed ties with Tuvalu less than a year after learning where to find the island on a map. The split was caused by Tuvalu suddenly wanting to do its own thing and support breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia's independence in September 2011.
It was widely believed that Russia, ever the debonaire seducer, had wooed Funafuti away. Before Tuvalu, nearby Nauru also had stepped forth to recognize the independence of the breakaway couple. Vanuatu nearly went bipolar on the issue, changing its mood nearly every month.
After first trying to look the other way when Russia mugged Ukraine, Azerbaijan now has joined the international show of hands against the conquest of Crimea.
Aside from hitting its yes button in the United Nations on March 27 to declare Crimea's referendum on joining Russia invalid, Azerbaijan’s embassy in Kyiv issued a statement supporting the inviolability of Ukraine's borders. “Azerbaijan condemns extremism, radicalism and separatism in its every manifestation and once again confirms its adherence to the principles of sovereignty, independence and support of the territorial integrity of Ukraine,” the embassy said.
Until this point, Baku has treaded the ground carefully on Crimea. Moscow, along with the US and France, is one of three mediators for the critical Azerbaijani-Armenian conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh.
But within Armenia, many believe that Yerevan, under Russia’s thumb for both energy and homeland security, was just doing Moscow’s bidding. Earlier on, President Serzh Sargsyan pretty much congratulated Russia’s Putin on a happy annexation, according to an official release. These moves prompted a diplomatic slap from Kyiv, though Ukraine has refrained from severing ties with Armenia.
Georgia's ex-President Mikheil Saakaashvili is, by himself, controversial enough. But add two former prime ministers -- one dead, one living -- to the mix and you've got the makings of an HBO special.
The basic plot line is simple enough: busy reexamining the investigation into Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania's 2005 death, the Georgian government has summoned Saakashvili, Zhvania's political ally, to Tbilisi for questioning on this and a host of other issues.
But the ex-president, now on an international circuit of advising, teaching and commenting, has refused to come, saying he smells a plot. Namely, between Russian President Vladimir Putin and ex-Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, the billionaire founder of Georgia's ruling Georgian Dream coalition, to run him into the ground. And to shut him up on advising the acting Ukrainian government about how to respond to Putin's armed sally into Crimea.
"Of course, I will come to Georgia, but not now, to fulfil Putin's wishes . . ." he told Georgian TV reporters. He did not present any proof for his allegations.
In an interview published in the March 24 edition of Kviris Palitra, Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili warned that if Saajashvili does not obey the summons for March 27, "he will place himself in a dire situation and even more questions will arise."
The European Union has announced the approximate date for the signing of association agreements with Georgia and Moldova, and set the timer ticking for another potential face-off with Russia. The countdown began with both countries bracing for Russia to stir up Ukraine-style trouble to prevent seeing either former Soviet republic pass into the EU's camp.
A day before Ukraine hastily signed a redacted version of the agreement on March 21, an EU statement declared that Georgia and Moldova are coming up next, “no later than June.” This is the second time that the signing has been moved forward to leave less time for Moscow to jam sticks into the wheels -- a sign of the unease sparked by Russia absconding with Ukraine's Crimean peninsula.
And the geopolitical cogwheels are still in motion.
NATO is wary of Russia trying to bite off even a bigger chunk of Ukraine. Moldova fears that after Crimea, Moscow will try to annex Transdniester, which split away from Moldova in the 1990s. Transdniester’s separatist officials already have traveled to Moscow to discuss Russia taking on the territory.
A March 18 appeal to the EU from Moldova’s Prime Minister Nicolae Timofti to speed up the association process preceded a Twitter announcement from José Manuel Barroso, the president of the EU’s executive body, the European Council, that Moldova and Georgia will be signing association agreements by June.
Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili has become another Georgian leader to go to Washington in search of US protection from Russia. This time around, Georgia hopes that the US can help make sure Russia does not try to pull a Ukraine in Georgia to prevent it from entering the European Union’s economic space.
“[The Sochi Olympic] Games are over, and we expect Russia to increase pressure on Georgia before signing the association agreement with the European Union,” Gharibashvili said after meeting President Barack Obama and Vice-President Joseph Biden on February 25. “[W]e would highly appreciate the US administration, Congress, think-tanks…. [expressing] support [to] us through constant and proper messaging to Russia, upholding the European choices of Georgia,” Gharibashvili commented at a talk the same day at the Atlantic Council.
How and why the music was chosen is not known. But as EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and Georgian Foreign Minister Maia Panjikidze exchanged kisses and signatures, the melody eventually morphed into the more stately sounds of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, the European Union anthem, and the protocol faux-pas faded away.
Nonetheless, a dangerous hopak dance remains underway in Ukraine, a country especially on many people's minds in Georgia now and for several reasons.