While a large part of Georgian media rallied in his support, freelance photographer Giorgi Abdalaze, who worked for the Georgian foreign ministry and various news outlets, went on the record this weekend with a detailed account of his supposed cooperation with Russian secret services over the past several years.
In a videotaped statement released by prosecutors on July 18, Abdaladze, who earlier protested his innocence, recounted that he was recruited by the Russian secret services back in 2002, when, as a reporter for a Georgian newspaper, he went to cover a story in South Ossetia, and was detained by separatist South Ossetian militia. He claimed that the South Ossetians took him to Russian military officials, who blackmailed him into cooperation with Russian intelligence. “They put [down] photos of my brothers, and my mother and said that my family would be assassinated if I did not agree [to cooperate],” Abdaladze said.
Among his supposed assignments was shooting rallies allegedly organized by Russian secret services in Georgia. After starting work at parliament's press office in 2007, his intelligence handler also requested photos of "all meetings between the parliamentary chairperson [current opposition leader Nino Burjanadze] and visitors," he said.
Forget the story about American soldiers staring goats to death in Iraq. Russia's state-run Perviy Kanal television station can top that; it claims that the US military is now busy waging bacterial warfare against wild boars in Russia's North Caucasus.
In a documentary opus that aired this week, reporter Anton Vernitskiy alleges that Washington has been setting up labs in Azerbaijan and Georgia to spread death and disease on the home turf of its former Cold War foe. Soon after US-financed disease monitoring labs appeared in Azerbaijan and Georgia, Vernitskiy tells viewers (as a gong sounds in the background), a strange flu started decimating wild boar populations in the region.
Vernitskiy even took the pains to travel to Tbilisi to interview US Ambassador John Bass, who told him that the labs are perfectly harmless.
But this is not all. Citing disgruntled ex-Georgian Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili, the documentary argues that former President George W. Bush in 2005 egged on Tbilisi to use force against breakaway South Ossetia -- a suggestion that allegedly led to war with Russia three years later.
In the meantime, Vernitskiy continues, Georgia has also been busy lending financial and logistical support to Islamic militants -- a claim that has nearly become old hat for pro-government Russian news outlets.
Vernitskiy’s saga may not be worth retelling if did not air on Perviy Kanal, the Kremlin's main TV messenger. The documentary may not cause more than eye rolling in Washington, but Russia and Georgia both use media to keep their official animosity alive.
So if bears in Russia suddenly start having asthma attacks, you can be sure Perviy Kanal will know where to look for the culprit.
If you listen to Georgia's and Russia's leaders long enough, you may really start to feel that you should double-check the size of Georgia on a world map. At a two-hour-long banter with reporters on May 18, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev claimed that the 2008 war with Georgia had been about, yes, defending Russia's independence.
“[W]e have managed to protect ourselves, our independence, our sovereign ways,” Medvedev told journalists. “Here, I mean the most challenging events, including the 2008 events,” said Medvedev, who once described the confrontation with Georgia as Russia’s 9/11.
Blowing things out of proportion may be de rigueur in political rhetoric, but implying that Russia’s sovereignty was at stake in the five-day war, which did not even spill onto Russian soil, is a bit much.
Sure, Georgia is home to many larger-than-life characters with grand plans and the 2008 war resonated around the world, but, to hear Medvedev tell it, it sounds as if Russia survived (just barely) a sequel of the 1812 Napoleonic invasion, with Georgian troops on the verge of taking Moscow.
Nonetheless, there appears to be a political moral to this Russian version of "The Little Dutch Boy." As in any good fairy tale, those who heroically sacrifice themselves deserve a reward. In the 2012 presidential elections, the underlying message appears to be, Russians should really vote for one of the two guardians of the nation’s sovereignty -- either Dima (Medvedev) or Vova (Prime Minister Vladimir Putin).
[This post was updated on April 27, 2011 to clarify Georgia's position on Russia's WTO accession.]
A hazardous, bubbling substance was discovered in Moscow markets the other day. Russian food police arrested bottles of the Georgian mineral water Borjomi, which stubbornly appeared on stalls in the Russian capital despite a nationwide ban on beverage imports from Georgia.
Russian food security officials maintain that Georgian wine and mineral water -- the cause and cure of hangovers -- are not safe for Russians to consume. The smuggled bottles were confiscated before more Russians could imbibe the enemy-produced water.
In response to the security breach, Gennadiy Onishchenko, director of the Rospotrebnadzor food security agency, said that his ever-alert office is suing a Belarusian company that allegedly sold the bottled menace. The same official earlier hinted that his office may drop the charges against Georgian water and wine if Tbilisi agrees to support Russia’s US-backed bid to enter the World Trade Organization.
Israel may soon have another Caucasus client for its weaponry -- the breakaway region of Abkhazia.
Abkhazia’s de facto official news agency Apsny Press reported on April 14 that separatist leader Sergei Bagapsh has struck a deal in Moscow with Israeli company Global CST to supply unspecified defense technologies to Abkhazia. Former defense officials participated in the negotiations, which, the agency claims, had the Israeli government's blessing. A delegation of ex-officials and representatives of the company are Sokhumi-bound this week, the agency reported.
As if Abkhazia were not small enough, now the world’s largest country, Russia, has laid claim to a 160-square-kilometer slice of the tiny breakaway region, a territory it recognizes as an independent state.
The sliver of land in question -- up for discussion at March 28-April 1 border demarcation talks in Moscow -- is in Abkhazia's seaside Gagra region, a popular resort area.
Separatist officials are under pressure to cling to every square meter of Abkhazia, but Sokhumi is not easily situated to pound its fist on the Russian table. The breakaway region receives Russia's economic aid, and military protection against any possible Georgian attempt to retake the territory.
One commentator in Abkhazia suggested that Moscow made the controversial claim only to bargain the Abkhaz down to a smaller deal -- splitting a border village between Russia and Abkhazia.
Popular opposition to the deal is on the increase among the Abkhaz, said Chegemskaya Pravda Editor-in-Chief Inal Khashig. "It's a question of principle. This is Abkhaz land, and we don't intend to sacrifice either a meter or a square kilometer."
That argument is likely to fall on deaf ears in both Moscow and Sokhumi.
In 2009, the breakaway government invited Russian border guards to help train its own border forces. The largest of four Russian border guard compounds in Abkhazia -- five hectares in area, with room for 50 servicemen and their families -- just opened in the village of Otobaia, in the southern district of Gali. Russian soldiers are now the main line of defense against any Georgian attempt to retake the territory.
Russia apparently believes that the way to the World Trade Organization lies through Georgian grape vineyards. Failing to override Georgian opposition to Russia’s US-backed WTO bid, Moscow is applying pressure on Tbilisi by tempting Georgian winemakers to return to Russia, once the main consumer of Georgian alcohol.
The Georgian government may be ignoring Moscow’s offer to re-admit Georgian wine that passes quality control tests, but Georgian winemakers themselves want to regain access to Russian markets, Onishchenko claimed.
In response,Tbilisi, more interested in territorial than economic concessions from Moscow, has warned Georgian winemakers to beware of Russians bearing gifts. “Seventy percent of the Russian economy runs on hush money,” asserted Georgian Foreign Minister Grigol Vashadze. “Officials do not sign off on anything until they get that infamous envelope.”
Suit yourself, businesses, the minister added, but would you really want to face all the hassle associated with marketing in Russia while the chances are that you will get kicked out again?
Georgian businesspeople, who have a long record of doing business in Russia, may not mind that hassle, but Georgia is not quite the place where corporate pressure can alter foreign policy.
Russia’s Prime Minister Vladimir Putin may be best known for his harsh comments and policies, but it turns out that -- with apologies to ABBA -- he has a talent for a wonderful thing, 'cause everyone listens when he starts to sing.
The happy entertainer behind Putin's icy shell finally came out on December 10 at a charity fund-raiser in St. Petersburg. First making a ham-handed intro on a grand piano, Putin then performed “Blueberry Hill” in English to a clapping world celebrity audience that included Sharon Stone, Kevin Costner and Goldie Hawn.
Aided by a band and back-up singers, a gesticulating Putin, sporting an accent that makes Borat Sagdiyev sound mild, went full out, rasping into a microphone about love's sweet melody and how " all of those vows we made were never to be."
It comes as little surprise the Putin’s act received perhaps the most critical reviews from Russia’s neighbor, Georgia -- a country with a keen sensitivity to music that already knows something about Russian officials and broken vows.
“Why did nobody stop this?” read one post in a long list of comments in an online forum. “Could not at least Sharon Stone go up to him, smack him in the face and grit through her teeth: ‘Stop this, now!’”
One Georgian blogger pled with Putin's archival, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, to spare his country any similar embarrassment and never do the same. “Please, do not do that, Mr. President,” he begged.
The network could have sent Moscow much more information if the Russian special services had not worked "unprofessionally," Merabishvili charged. “Who plants five or six agents in the same helicopter squad?” he mused.
The image of clumsy Russian special services again surfaced in the Georgian media on December 7 with revelations about a series of allegedly Moscow-orchestrated explosions in Tbilisi and western Georgia -- all of which failed.
After taking a short pause, the Russians retaliated in kind.
Commenting on the explosions, the Russian foreign ministry on December 9 termed the blasts "yet another show staged by the Georgian authorities" that " may have warranted a smile in sane people, if not for the news about the death of an elderly woman" during a November 28 explosion in Tbilisi. “This only speaks to the poor professional skills of the Georgian special services.”
The blasts were again an attempt by “Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili . . . to attract attention to himself as the leader of ‘the most democratic and successful state’ in the post-Soviet space, who is up against certain ‘evil forces’ in his reform efforts," the ministry charged. "Comments, as they say, are unnecessary here.”