There is clearly a serious armed crisis near Georgia's border with the Russian republic of Daghestan, but it is not fully clear what exactly the crisis is all about. Georgian officials speak cautiously of a hostage-taking situation; 14 are reported dead. Hearsay and conspiracy theories fill in the gaps.
All morning, Georgian TV and online media rolled footage of military trucks carrying troops, an emergency government meeting chaired by Prime Minister Vano Merabishvili (and featuring Defense Minister Dimitri Shashkin, Interior Minister Bacho Akhalaia and Justice Minister Zurab Adeishvili), and shots of scared residents of Lapankuri, the village home of some of the hostages. Security was tightened around military hospitals and officials kept talking about an ongoing pursuit of an unspecified armed group that purportedly had crossed into Georgia from Daghestan.
In short, it all went from a teaser to a thriller, when just enough action is shown not to reveal the plot.
Later in the afternoon, Georgian police posted videos showing two men from villages in the area who said they were taken hostage by about 15 “heavily armed” and “bearded” men; a description that, within the region, suggests a connection to fighters from Russia’s North Caucasus. Later, at about 4pm, the interior ministry said that three members of Georgia's special forces and 11 attackers had died in the standoff. Most of the Georgian hostages have been released, while another six hostage-takers have been surrounded by Georgian troops, the ministry said.
The new arrivals will be temporary -- the "permanent" troop presence at Gyumri, the northern Armenian site of Russia's 102nd Military Base, will stay at 5,000, according to Colonel Igor Gorbul, a spokesperson for Russia's Southern Military District, RIA Novosti reported -- and will receive a higher salary and undefined benefits to whet their interest in sticking around.
They'll arrive at a base that's been a bit on the bustling side of late. Russian jets have been busy drilling in Armenian airspace, and, in March, Moscow held war games in Gyumri. Earlier on, the head of the Collective Security Treaty Organization -- a Russian response to NATO -- said that the Moscow-led alliance will protect Armenia from enemy attacks. “If unfriendly actions are taken against Armenia, all member states will provide relevant assistance to Armenia,” pledged CSTO Secretary-General Nikolai Bordyuzha.
“Think of all the beautiful moments we had together. Think of your international commitments. Don’t do it, Fiji!”
That's essentially the message from Tbilisi as the tiny South Pacific country of Fiji prepares to welcome Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on February 1 for what Georgia fears could be a lot of sweet talk from Moscow about recognizing the independence of breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Moscow has denied having any plans to bribe Fiji, a developing country, in exchange for recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. It says it's just in the region for (with apologies to Rodgers and Hammerstein) some "happy talk."
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.
South Ossetia’s de facto regime keeps saying that a “color revolution” is not going to play out in the troubled enclave over its disputed de facto presidential election results, but events continue to be pretty, well, colorful.
But Jioyeva says that South Ossetians chose differently. She and her supporters are now baffled about why the current authorities and Russia refuse to accept her. “Why don’t you love me, Russia?” Jioyeva mused, adding that she is a “Russian by passport and in my spirit.”
The intramural tensions escalated after South Ossetia's de facto authorities cancelled results from the November 27 runoff for the region's de facto presidential poll; results that gave opposition candidate Alla Jioyeva the lead over establishment candidate Anatoliy Bibilov, the Kremlin favorite.
The outcome came as a serious humiliation for Moscow, which keeps South Ossetia under its political and military patronage, but failed to see its guy put in charge after two consecutive attempts.
Nevertheless, in times of trouble, South Ossetia can only turn to Moscow for help. The EU and US don’t see the region on the map and are telling it to go back to Georgia. Tbilisi demands that South Ossetia return to the Georgian fold and accept back the ethnic Georgian residents who fled during the 2008 war.
So, again it was Moscow that sent a representative to defuse tensions that are dangerous for locals and embarrassing for the Russians.
Jioyeva, though, emerged dissatisfied from today’s talks with Russian envoy Sergei Vinokurov. (Perhaps not surprisingly, given that the Kremlin had earlier supported the de facto Supreme Court's decision to throw out the runoff results and bar her from running again.) She said the talks will continue, but announced no plans to back off her claim to South Ossetia's de facto presidency.
Amidst reports of gunfire, a homegrown controversy over breakaway South Ossetia's de facto presidential election on November 30 threatened to degenerate into violence.
To most of the outside world, the November 13 poll in South Ossetia was illegitimate to begin with, but it sparked a major power struggle. Alla Jioyeva, a onetime education minister, has claimed the presidency following a runoff that gave her over 56 percent of the vote.
But the Kremlin-backed candidate Anatoliy Bibilov, alleging funny business, wasn't buying it. Bibilov petitioned the region's de facto Supreme Court to throw out the results. On November 29, the court complied, with the de facto parliament setting a fresh election date in March 2012.
Jioyeva, however, went ahead and set up a "state council," and headed with her supporters (numbering in the high several hundreds, according to Russia's RIA Novosti) out into the streets of Tskhinvali, South Ossetia's capital, to protest the court's decision.
In response, the de facto government led by Eduard Kokoity accused Jioyeva of attempts to stage a "color revolution" -- an event portrayed within South Ossetia as the ultimate in dastardly deeds -- and threatened to take retaliatory measures. Apparently, those were limited to guards firing into the air as the Joiyeva crowd approached the de facto government headquarters, and tried to enter the region's de facto Central Election Commission.
Just get in better democratic and military shape and you are almost there, guys, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization told ever-aspiring NATO member Georgia during a November 9-10 visit to Tbilisi. The country may have heard this line before, but, for many Georgians, it still sounds like music to their ears.
Parliamentary Speaker Davit Bakradze took it a notch higher, saying “boldly” (in the words of one Georgian news service) that Georgia is now “closer to NATO than ever.” He expressed hope that the 2012 NATO summit in Chicago would bring Georgia still closer to the military club.
And, to sweeten the pitch, Tbilisi pledged to beef up its military presence to NATO's Afghanistan campaign still further next year, with another battalion. At 937 personnel, it currently ranks as the second largest non-NATO contributor (after Australia at 1,550). Even after the loss of ten personnel, it looks like Georgia wants to top the charts.
But, as it pulls itself toward the alliance -- ever closer, ever closer -- Georgia remains mired in a conflict with Russia and two separatist regions that make NATO accession far from a paint-by-the-numbers project.