The deepening crisis in Ukraine over whether to integrate economically with the European Union or Russia is both sowing worry and sparking anti-Russian defiance in Georgia, arguably the last steadily pro-Western Eurasian country east of Moldova. Yet, according to new Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili, the Ukraine situation will only serve to further Georgia's integration with the EU.
This year, Georgia has seen two fellow ex-Soviet republics drop out of the pro-Europe club. First, next-door Armenia made a sudden choice to join the Moscow-led Customs Union; now Ukraine has taken a time-out from plans to sign off on a landmark agreement with the European Union.
The loss of Ukraine, arguably the Slavic country with which Georgian ties are chummiest, leaves some feeling a tad vulnerable.
“Ukraine would have been a very serious partner for us at the Vilnius summit. You stand more steadily on your feet when you have such a large country by your side,” said Tina Khidasheli, a senior parliamentarian for the ruling Georgian Dream coalition, Interpressnews reported.*
For the Russian military, any reconciliation with Georgia, it seems, will not extend to R&R in Georgia. Once a popular spot for Russian soldiers to go for vacation or for war, Georgia has been blacklisted as a spot for rest-and-recuperation by the Russian Ministry of Defense.
At first glance, that may not seem surprising. The two countries, after all, did fight a five-day war in 2008 that resulted in the rupture of diplomatic ties, and the introduction of Russian troops into breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which Georgia claims as its territory.
Yet with the advent of Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili to power last year, Moscow had suggested that the sun might shine, once more, on Russian-Georgian relations.
No more, it seems. The blacklist was preceded by moves by Gennadiy Onishchenko, head of the food-security agency Rospotrebnadzor, to defend Russia's food front against potential incursions by Georgian fruit, vegetables and wine, which he believes may be doctored by a US-run biological laboratory in Georgia to poison Russian consumers.
Whether or not this scenario is Onishchenko's creation alone is not clear. (The vision came to him after Ivanishvili announced expectations for Georgia to receive a Membership Action Plan from NATO next year.) But, now, it seems, the Russian military has a few fears of its own, too.
Try as he might, Russia's Dr. Strangelove, otherwise known as food security tsar Dr. Gennadiy Onishchenko, has not yet stopped worrying and learned to love a Georgian tomato. Or a peach. Or a bottle of wine.
Onishchenko, who apparently has a nose like no other for potential alimentary attacks, now has deduced that a US-sponsored biological lab in Georgia supposedly could be used to poison fruit, vegetables and wine bound for Russia.
To hear him describe it, the lab, named after former US Senator Richard Lugar, sounds like a military-guarded facility hemmed with barbed wire, and with a dark storm cloud constantly hovering overhead. It is a “powerful offensive” weapon and “is out of the control of the Georgian authorities,” Onishchenko said in a statement. The presence of such a force in the proximity of the Russian border is “a direct violation of the Biological Weapons Convention,” he asserted.
The upshot: If Georgia wants to keep selling its agricultural produce to Russia, it has to shut down the Lugar Lab.
Wounded in Afghanistan by both weapons and words, Georgia appears to be busy with damage-control for its participation in the NATO-led mission there.
A June 6 truck-bomb attack that killed seven Georgian soldiers, the deadliest such incident to date for Georgian forces in Afghanistan, has sparked an unprecedented outpouring of domestic criticism of the Afghan campaign. With a presidential election just four months away, that criticism is something the Georgian government is eager to check.
In a TV talk-show interview on June 11, Defense Minister Irakli Alasania emphasized that troop security is first and foremost on the government's mind, and in its discussions with NATO. Among other security measures, he said, at Tbilisi's request, NATO's joint command will change the deployment areas for Georgian troops, currently stationed in the southern Helmand province.
The June 6 attack on the Shir Ghazay base happened just as Georgian forces were about to vacate the site, he added. He underlined that the risk to Georgian soldiers will decrease as the NATO pullout gets underway, and their mission shifts from combat to training.
Repeating previous warnings, he also advised Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili not to announce beforehand his plans to visit Afghanistan (as Saakashvili is wont to do), noting that the information puts soldiers' lives at risk.
Finally, he dismissed calls for bringing the troops home, saying that Georgia will see its Afghan mission through.
The latest and deadliest attack on Georgian troops in Afghanistan is putting to the test Georgia's patience with participation in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization campaign there. Many Georgians now say the price the country is paying for moving up on the defense alliance's membership waiting list is too high.
A truck bomb attack on June 6 in Afghanistan's Helmand province killed seven Georgian soldiers and wounded nine more. Less than a month ago, three Georgian servicemen were killed in a similar attack. The short interval between the attacks and the growing Georgian military death toll (a total of 30 servicemen) has led to the most vocal outpouring of frustration within Georgia about the campaign in Afghanistan, where the South Caucasus country is the largest non-NATO troop contributor.
The June 6 appearance of a questionable YouTube video, in which supposed Taliban fighters declare jihad on Georgia, has added to that debate.
A close inspection of the video, which was posted from Georgia, has raised suspicions of a domestic job or even of Russian intelligence, but the video's timing has contributed to the unease.
Anxious for peace with Russia, Georgian officials and businessmen recently have been taking turns bowing and refilling 62-year-old Russian food security tsar Gennadiy Onishchenko's glass with the finest beverages Georgia’s got to offer. But nothing seems to suit the delicate palate of Gennady Grigoryevich.
His complaints range from the quality-related to the political and downright philosophical. But the Onishchenkoisms, delivered with a stern face, always tend to hit whenever Tbilisi-Moscow ties are going south.
In 2006, with the Kremlin increasingly uneasy about Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili as a potential exporter of revolution, Onishchenko struck, slapping an embargo on Georgian wines, mineral waters and fruits and vegetables as unsafe.
But after Georgia’s new government began an active campaign of reconciliation with Russia, Onishchenko allowed long-banned Georgian wine and prized mineral water Borjomi back north of the Caucasus mountain range.
It has long been an open secret that some police officers in Kazakhstan turn a blind eye to criminal activity in exchange for a share of the proceeds. But rarely do male officers end up fleeing the scene of the crime dressed in drag.
This is what happened in the western city of Atyrau last week, according to a report carried in local newspaper Ak Zhayyk on May 26. Its correspondent on the scene described seeing two male police officers decked out in women’s clothes bolting from a brothel.
According to the newspaper, two officers arrived at an apartment block in Atyrau around 5 a.m. after a confrontation between alleged pimps and sex workers working out of an apartment and their infuriated neighbors.
The officers entered the apartment, but when they hadn’t emerged after an hour neighbors called another police squad, whose officers arrived and sat outside in their car.
A woman then emerged from the alleged brothel, got into the squad car and proceeded to hurl insults at the neighbors and throw a bottle at them while the newly arrived police looked on, Ak Zhayyk said.
A bizarre scene then ensued as, amid the disturbance, the first two police officers emerged from inside the brothel, “one in a long beige women’s jacket, under which [police] uniform pants were peeping out,” the other in “tight” women’s pants.
When the officers sitting outside failed to make a move, a pregnant woman and an elderly man resorted to giving chase themselves. But “the forces were unequal” and the two sergeants in drag escaped.
The agency claimed that negotiations in Moscow with its Russian counterpart, succinctly known as Rosselkhoznadzor, went well and that, after some changes in agricultural regulations, a taste of Georgia will soon reappear in Russian salads and pirogis.
But, of course, Russian officials want to be the first to get that taste. In what is slowly turning into supra diplomacy, they've been invited back to Georgia to munch on tomatoes and cucumbers at an unspecified date in the future.
Wine-tasting is a serious procedure that brooks no haste, especially when it comes as a form of post-conflict diplomacy and, also, when there is so much wine to taste. For months now, Russian federal wine-tasters have gotten to sniff, slurp, roll the wine around their mouths, look quizzically at each other and make sure the political terroir is acceptable for the Kremlin.
With its territory torn apart by separatism and with Russian troops hanging around within a stone/missile-throw away from its capital, you might think Georgia already has too much on its plate as far as security threats go. But Tbilisi, as always, likes to think several moves ahead.
During her visit to Georgia last November, the EU foreign-policy chief Catherine Ashton invited Georgia to chip in some manpower for the bloc’s security projects, the Georgian Ministry of Defense has announced.
“We have received a proposal from [the] EU to consider Georgia’s cooperation with European security and defense institutions and contribution to its missions,” a March 18 ministry statement reads. Georgia said yes and is now working out the kinks, according to the ministry.
The details about the scope and nature of Georgia’s participation in the EU’s 500-men-strong Mali mission are not yet known. The mission will be training Mali's armed forces to deal with Al-Qaeda-linked Islamic militants who took over part of the West African country earlier this year before being repulsed mostly by French and Chadian forces, with help from Canada and the US.
The likely reasons for Georgia's decision to get involved are straightforward: Tbilisi owes a security favor to the EU for negotiating and monitoring the peace between Georgia and Russia, but, more importantly, the Mali job will help Georgia earn some points for its ultimate goal of joining the EU.
Vanuatu, a diplomatically schizophrenic island in the South Pacific, just had another of its many mood swings vis-à-vis the South Caucasus' territorial disputes. The island nation, which has been twitching between recognizing and not recognizing breakaway Abkhazia’s independence from Georgia, now says it is picking Tbilisi over Sokhumi, Radio New Zealand International reports.
The 12,000-square-kilometer archipelago with the self-conscious national motto of “Yumi, yumi, yumi” ("We, we, we") has asked Georgia to forget about the misunderstandings of the past and come into its diplomatic embrace.
Vanuatu threw itself into the middle of the international controversy over Abkhazia’s status in 2011 after the breakaway region's de-facto government reported that the country had become the sixth to recognize Abkhazia's Russia-backed independence from Georgia. Journalists and diplomats went chasing Vanuatu officials for confirmation, but they just could not get a definitive response.
Foreign Minister Alfred Carlot was first to confirm that his nation had recognized Abkhazia's recognition, then Vanuatu’s UN envoy Donald Kalpokas said it had not. Carlot responded by saying it had. Abkhazia's de-facto foreign ministry, for its part, waving a signed document establishing diplomatic relations "on the level of ambassadors," said it had the proof.