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.
Forget about Russian military bases and separatist tensions. Georgia now faces a threat to its territorial integrity from some of the world's sharpest strategists. And they are already in breakaway Abkhazia. Soon, they will be smacking away at Tbilisi's claims to the territory with spotted tiles. These are, of course, domino players.
The Abkhaz capital of Sukhumi is about to become the epicenter of the world of domino. Over objections from Tbilisi, the world domino championship will be held in the seaside town from October 18-21. Abkhazia’s de facto leadership hopes the event, its largest sports shindig ever, will help place their territory on the world map as a sovereign country.
Bucking Washington’s take on Abkhazia, the president of the National Domino Federation USA, Manuel Oquendo, is already in Sukhumi to observe preparations for the tournament. The US domino grandmaster said that American players will arrive in Sokhumi next week despite Tbilisi’s opposition to holding the championship in Abkhazia, Kavkazsky Uzel news service reported.
One question might be from which direction they -- and the other 21 participating national domino teams -- plan on coming. Travel into Abkhazia via western Georgia is the route recognized under international law, but involves a one-kilometer trip across the Inguri River bridge in either a jam-packed, horse-drawn cart or on foot. And a preliminary chat with Georgian Interior Ministry representatives.
Travel via Russia may involve more comfortable transportation, but is deemed an illegal entry into Georgian territory.
Not exactly like flying into Las Vegas, where the championships were held last year.
Eating a tie acquired a whole new significance in Georgia after President Mikheil Saakashvili was caught on camera nervously chewing on his tie during the 2008 war with Russia. And, now, if you ever hear a Georgian say “I'll eat my tie,” he (or she) may actually mean it. Some 500 "Reformist, Edible Ties," made from apple jam, were unveiled today at a presentation in Tbilisi.
“This could be a new Georgian brand,” declared Oleg Panfilov, a dissident Russian journalist who is one of the tie's creators and lives in Tbilisi.
Neatly packaged in plastic bags for five lari ($3.00) each, the ties carry a distinct political flavor. The image of Saakashvili gnawing on his tie became fodder for Russia’s propaganda machine, which tries to portray the Georgian president as mentally unstable. The September 14 presentation was meant to parry those attacks.
The ties come in a sweet flavor for "good people," according to event organizers, and in a sour flavor for, specifically, Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
Panfilov invited the Russian power pair to try the product so they could, in his words, also get a taste of the sweeping reforms enacted under Saakashvili. “Through this, we meant to deride the [Russian] propaganda,” Panfilov said.
It is unclear if commercial production of the candy ties is in the pipeline, but, at least for one day, Georgia can both have its tie and eat it, too.
With the holiday season over, the Tamada is back with news from exotic destinations. Nicaragua and South Ossetia are now busy trying to prove that a 12,000-kilometer distance and many other differences need not stand in the way of a perhaps random, but still beautiful friendship.
Separatist South Ossetia's de facto ambassador to Nicaragua and Venezuela, Narim Kozayev, dropped by to see Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega on September 6, just over a month after the tiny Caucasus enclave established its embassy to Nicaragua "with a residence" in the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali. Yes, you read that right. Put it down to budget discipline or a desire by Tskhinvali to keep a close tab on things, but, apparently, Kozayev will not have far to travel to take up his mission to Nicaragua.
But if the address of the embassy's residence struck Ortega as odd, he didn't let on. Accepting the de facto ambassador’s credentials, Ortega said that Nicaragua and South Ossetia had clicked right off and found that rare political chemistry that may help two misfits gain acceptance in the international community.
“We are small peoples, but we have a deep sense of identity,” Russia's state-run RIA Novosti news service quoted Ortega as saying. “We are in a battle for self-determination, sovereignty and independence. This battle is our common denominator.”
But the bigger common denominator Ortega chose to omit is Russia, which is believed to have motivated longtime ally Nicaragua (plus Venezuela and Nauru) to recognize South Ossetia’s independence from Georgia.
So far, South Ossetia maintains de facto embassies in Moscow and the fellow post-Soviet breakaway regions of Abkhazia and Transnistria.
Quite a macho act here by Russian President Dmitri Medvedev. In a televised interview on Russia’s ties with Georgia, released on the eve of the third anniversary of the 2008 Russia-Georgia war, he did everything short of blowing smoke off a gun.
Often seen as Moscow's good cop (with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in the role of bad cop), Medvedev claimed that the 2008 conflict with Georgia was his war, not Putin’s. He also, per tradition, had some unflattering descriptive adjectives for his Georgian counterpart, Mikheil Saakashvili.
Medvedev described the Georgian president as a “sticky” man, who stalked him at the pair’s last, pre-war meeting in Astana, Kazakhstan, when the Russian president just wanted to enjoy a glass of wine. Medvedev said that Saakashvili repeatedly approached him about talks on breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia. He denied allegations that he had been trying to ignore Saakashvili and claimed he would have been happy to hold those talks.
But then, one fateful day, an American woman came to Tbilisi and Saakashvili had a change of heart. “He stopped writing, stopped calling, stopping getting in touch,” Medvedev reminisced, a tad bitterly. This woman’s visit served perhaps as an unintentional incentive for Georgia to choose a different course of action toward South Ossetia, he continued.
The sight was apparently a bit too much for one embassy guard who threw a kick-and-punch fit when the topless protesters started demonstrating in front of the embassy, attracting a horde of male photographers in the process.
Holding fake cameras, the handful of women, members of Ukraine's FEMEN protest group, who routinely go au naturel to protest various ills, teetered around in underpants emblazoned with the word “press.” Their backs featured images of a crossed-out camera, a symbol used by many Georgian journalists to protest the photographers' arrest.
As a video clip of the incident made the rounds on Facebook, the embassy issued an apology for the guard's behavior to "those who attended the gathering, journalists and the Ukrainian people." The guard has since gotten the sack.
But the PR problems related to the photographers’ case do not end there.
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).