[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.”
No sooner had Kyrgyz voters picked their fab five, then a gaggle of the winners were off to Moscow to seek instructions on how to form a coalition, and who should lead it.
In the days up to the October 10 vote, there were signs of a possible coalition involving Ar-Namys, Ata-Jurt, and Respublika, the three parties who’s leaders, according to Vremya Novostei, were in Moscow yesterday.
With the investigation still pending, Islamic rebels are widely believed to be behind the blast.
The Kremlin, in the past, though, has routinely issued statements accusing Georgia of aiding Islamic militancy in the North Caucasus. Tbilisi usually responds that Moscow is looking for a scapegoat to cover up its roughshod stewardship of its southern republics and for an excuse for fresh moves against Georgia.
One such exchange occurred just days before the September 9 suicide bombing in Vladikavaz.
Last year, the South Caucasus's self-styled sheriff, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev, came to town (in Sochi) with a message for the region's gun-slinging hombres: Russian bases in breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia are a “signal to those, who get the itching and who have idiotic ideas visit their head every once in a while.”
The message may have been meant for Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, but Azerbaijan’s Ilham Aliyev might also take note. Medvedev is expected to sign in Yerevan this month an agreement on keeping Russian troops in Armenia for half a century, and maybe more, to “protect” Armenia. And, of course, it is Azerbaijan that Armenia sees as enemy number one.
Yerevan sees the Russian guard as the main deterrent against Azerbaijan’s potential attempt to reclaim the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region by force. But the news of Russia’s plans left an unpleasant aftertaste behind for many Americans. Some see it as a threat to Armenia's independence.
Similar opinions also reportedly exist beneath the surface within breakaway Abkhazia, where Russian protection is sometimes seen as both vital and overbearing.
Armenian National Security Secretary Artur Bagdasarian was quick to assert that the move is not going to limit the nation’s ability of independent decision-making.
But critics say that in making decisions, Caucasians must stay mindful of the man with a gun.