Armenia needs a train to make full use of its upcoming economic integration with Russia's Customs Union, but the only track still accessible to it runs via separatist Abkhazia. Now, after years of firm opposition from Tbilisi, Yerevan appears to sense an opening.
It is vital, indeed. For landlocked Armenia, the land route to Russia – a prime market for Armenia exports and migrant workers – bottlenecks through the Georgian mountains. This route is susceptible to political and natural disasters, such as the 2008 war with Russia or a recent deadly landslide, and has limited cargo transit capacity.
Georgia did not leap at Sargsyan’s overture, but indicated that there is room for discussion. Georgian officials said that Moscow and Tbilisi may discuss the Abkhazia railway at their next round of talks, and that the National Security Council will also mull over the matter. Retired Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, who is widely seen as the real ruler of Georgia, has indicated in the past that he looks favorably on the railway both as a way to bridge Abkhaz and Georgian differences and as an economic boon for everyone involved.
Nobody much listened after separatists in Ukraine asked the world to recognize their newly declared People’s Republic of Luhansk. But the call was heard loud and clear in separatist South Ossetia.
Call it bonding between the self-proclaimed types. South Ossetia’s breakaway leadership announced on June 16 that they cannot stay indifferent to the will of the people of the so-called “People’s Republic.”
“Respecting the expression of the will of the people of the People’s Republic of Luhansk, the Republic of South Ossetia recognized the results of the [May 11] referendum [on secession from Ukraine] and is ready to make a constructive decision,” said Leonid Tibilov, the de-facto president of South Ossetia, the region’s Ossinfo agency reported.
Tibilov’s separatist counterpart in Luhansk, Valeriy Bolotov, promptly relayed the news to the Luhansk people. “Tomorrow, we will appoint an ambassador of the People’s Republic of Luhansk to the Republic of South Ossetia,” Bolotov proclaimed, reported Interfax.
But the so-called leader of the Luhansk people might want to hit the brakes here. South Ossetia’s de-facto foreign ministry told the Russian Dozhd’ (Rain) television channel that Tibilov’s statement does not mean official recognition.
South Ossetia, which relies on Russia for everything from arms to aid, is unlikely to make its decision final without consulting the big boss, Moscow.
In a win likely to inspire some celebratory gunfire this evening, South Ossetia on June 4 narrowly defeated its separatist sibling Abkhazia in a World Cup of soccer, and now will head to the semi-finals. No, not in that World Cup. In a championship in Sweden for breakaway territories, stateless peoples, micro-nations, and the like.
For the most part, the Caucasus breakaways have been doing well in the tournament. The South Ossetian team earlier destroyed Darfur United with a jaw-dropping 19 to 0 score, while the Abkhaz beat Lapland 2 to 1, and held even against Occitania, a fuzzy territorial concept that embraces parts of Italy and France.
Breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh, however, has been less successful, losing to teams from the Isle of Man and the long-dissolved Countea de Nissa.
If Russia is looking for more land to grab, breakaway South Ossetia is interested. “Inspired” by the example of Crimea, South Ossetia’s separatist leader said on June 2 that his tiny Caucasus region can’t wait to glue itself to the Russian Federation.
“This historic moment should come,” said de-facto President Leonid Tibilov, news agencies reported. “We have good chances of becoming part of Russia.”
Following Russia's gobbling of Crimea, many wondered what next separatism-prone territory would end up in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s annexation collection. So far, separatists in Ukraine’s East, Moldova’s Transnistria and Georgia’s South Ossetia have raised their hands.
“Here in South Ossetia we were excited to watch the Russian leadership deciding to reunite Crimea with Russia,” elaborated Tibilov dreamily. “We are happy for the people of Crimea, who finally have a home.”
The separatist leader said that the Crimea experience had created a wisp of hope in South Ossetian hearts that someday the same can happen to them.
The attraction for these individuals lies due north, in the Russian Federation's North Ossetia, seen locally as the region's Siamese twin. The two have been separated since 1922.
But whether or not Moscow has the incentive to try and reunite them remains unclear.
Abkhazia’s hair-trigger uprising ended in less than a week, before it could be properly understood or even noticed by the outside world. The proximity to events in Ukraine, both in terms of geography and the pattern, grabbed attention, but in Abkhazia no geopolitical shifts are expected. Rather, it's a change from within.
De-facto President Aleksander Ankvab resigned on June 1 after putting up only token resistance to a diverse group of opposition groups who have taken over the building from which he governed. A new presidential vote was called for August 24. In the meantime, de-facto Parliamentary Speaker Valery Bganba is serving as the region's leader.
Local observers see this outcome as both the result of Ankvab's own policy-shortcomings and as a failure of the breakaway region's system of governance.
In commentary broadcast by the online Asarkia TV, Inal Khashig, editor-in-chief of the Sokhumi-based Chegemskaya Pravda newspaper, argued that earlier expectations that the 61-year-old Ankvab would serve as Abkhazia's "chief foreman" and fix all of the territory's many problems, ranging from limited jobs to a crumbling public order, had failed to be met. “What was expected of him was to set things in order in various fields,” Khashig said.
Abkhazia’s two self-proclaimed governments took a break from both fighting and negotiations on May 30 as the embattled Black-Sea region entered into the fourth day of de-facto diarchy.
“Now, there is a bit of calm in the negotiation process . . . With this in mind, we are working on the next format of the meetings [with the opposition],” commented de-facto National Security Chief Nugzar Ashuba, the separatist administration’s point-man for talks with opposition groups which have claimed power.
Ankvab has ruled out the use of force against the opposition, but the opposition, for its part, warned on May 30 that responsibility for any violent clashes will lie with Abkhazia's 61-year-old de-facto leader.
A council of opposition parties continues to occupy the de-facto president’s office, which they took over by force on May 27, and claims that it is now the region's governing power. Ankvab has taken shelter at the Russian military base in Gudauta, northwest of the capital, Sokhumi, Ekho Kavkaza reported. His national security chief shuttles back and forth between him and the opposition. Two officials from Moscow, Abkhazia's chaperone, are on hand to facilitate the talks.
Protesters in breakaway Abkhazia on May 29 called for joining Russia's Customs Union with Kazakhstan and Belarus in an apparent bid to win Moscow over to their side as they push for the ouster of the Black-Sea territory's de-facto government.
“We count on Russia’s support in this matter,” declared a joint statement of the opposition groups who have defied the rule of de-facto President Alexander Ankvab, Kavkazsky Uzel news service reported.
Moscow, which has poured both hundreds of troops and millions of rubles into Abkhazia since recognition of its independence from Georgia in 2008, has not responded.
But events may soon veer in another direction. The region’s de-facto prime minister, Leonid Lakerbaia, said on the afternoon of May 29 that the de-facto government may resign as if tensions continue to escalate.
Accusing the region's authorities of misusing Russian aid, mismanaging the economy and authoritarianism, protesters on May 28 stormed the building that houses Ankvab's office in the Abkhaz capital, Sokhumi . Moscow, in the role of concerned big brother, dispatched two troubleshooters, President Vladimir Putin’s aide Vladislav Surkov and Deputy National Security Chief Rashid Nurgaliyev, to mediate.
Faced with demands to step down and having lost physical control of his own office, Ankvab says he is going nowhere, and has called for a peaceful resolution of the crisis.
Crowds storming a presidential building, a massive night vigil on the town square, a leader defying calls for resignation -- no, this is not Ukraine. This is Abkhazia and it is happening now.
Calling for an end to corruption and one-upmanship, angry protesters on May 27 in the Abkhaz capital, Sokhumi, stormed into the building that houses the office of de-facto President Alexander Ankvab . The government’s opponents, largely led by Raul Khajimba of the Forum of People’s Unity of Abkhazia, declared a provisional ruling body, and demanded Ankvab's resignation. The territory's so-called “siloviki” (“power”) agencies (the de-facto defense, interior and security ministries) have thrown their support behind Ankvab.
At latest report, the pause-button in the subtropical region's so-called "tangerine" or "eucalyptus revolution" has been pressed. The protesters remain on the presidential building's first and second floors, ITAR-TASS has specified. The de-facto parliament convened around midday to discuss next steps, while Ankvab said in a television interview that he was meeting with members of the de-facto Security Council to decide on a way to restore order without causing further upheavals.
The Russian drone and helicopter came whizzing in from Abkhazia and South Ossetia, respectively, and hovered over nearby Georgian police posts and villages, the foreign ministry reported. Tbilisi described the act as another violation of Georgia’s sovereignty and the 2008 ceasefire agreement with Russia.
In a March 7 TV appearance, though, Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili tried to allay mounting fears over Russian pressure; even though he himself has repeatedly told the public to expect such tactics as Georgia prepares to sign an association agreement and free-trade deal with the European Union this year.
“I’d like to ask everyone… not to overstate the threats expected from Russia,” Garibashvili said in an interview with Georgian Public Television. “We know what these threats are, but I have heard . . . exaggerated forecasts and I don’t think it is right. We don’t have to stress people too much.”
In a throwaway remark made on the sidelines of the Sochi Olympics earlier this week, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that he is open to meeting Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili. Such an encounter, if it ever happens, would be the first top-level Russo-Georgian sit-down since the two countries' 2008 war.
Putin, who gave Georgian TV crews a wide smile and best wishes for the Georgian athletes in Sochi, only uttered the February 10 remark in passing after being asked by a Georgian reporter. “Yeah, why not if he wants to?” was his soundbite in reference to Margvelashvili before walking off to get back to the cares of the Olympics.
But it was enough for Tbilisi to conclude that it had been asked out and that it is time to start preparing for a rendez-vous with the country's Public Enemy Number One.
Georgian media has erupted into constant chitchat about what such an event could involve. President Margvelashvil appears to be busy scrutinizing Putin’s two-second line for hidden meaning, while Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili, who was not mentioned by Putin, says he will take up the offer.
“As the head of the Georgian government, I am ready for a direct dialogue with the Russian leadership,” Gharibashvili told Imedi news channel. The comment was duly scooped up by Russia's state-run RIA Novosti as "signifying a thaw in bilateral ties."
A choir of other officials from the ruling Georgian Dream, however, keep saying they need to think through any such get-together first.