One week after the European Parliament granted Georgia visa-free access to the European Union, the South Caucasus country has entered into a rivalry with Russia over laying a road to the EU for breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Parliament’s February 2 approval of the visa-free plan marks a big leap forward for Georgia in its long journey from the Soviet Union into Europe, and it wants its Russian-backed separatists to get Georgian passports and come along for the ride.
The separatists have dismissed Tbilisi’s advances as wishful thinking, but it appears that Moscow, which recognizes Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states, and provides them with military and economic support, was put on guard.
It claims it can trump Tbilisi’s offer by convincing the EU to start accepting the breakaway regions’ own passports for travel.
In a February 7 remark, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin half-heartedly welcomed the EU’s decision to exempt Georgia from short-stay visas as a “positive act,” but advised that the EU should next start accepting visa applications from Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and “abandon its restrictions” for their “citizens.” Moscow, he said, will raise the matter with Brussels soon.
This might be the emptiest promise Moscow could make to its protectorates, as the EU is fairly strict about its policy of not recognizing the statehood of the Russian-backed breakaway regions.
It also is hardly in Moscow’s interest to let go of the two territories’ tight ties with Russia, which has backed separatism – in Ukraine, as well – as a way to curb the EU’s influence in the post-Soviet space.
“Mimino” truck driver Rubik Khachikian, no doubt, would be proud: Armenian truck drivers recently came close to securing a breakthrough in the bitter breakaway dispute between Georgia, Russia and the separatist enclave South Ossetia that has bedeviled diplomats for years.
Since June, Georgia has been facing an Armenian-truck traffic jam in its north, where a landslide and flooding clogged the highway leading to its only official border-crossing with Russia. The road is the sole way by land for Armenia to reach Russia, a key economic and diplomatic partner, and its main military ally.
With this trade lifeline blocked, Armenia late last month tried its luck asking Tbilisi for passage through separatist South Ossetia, which Moscow calls an independent state, and Tbilisi Georgian territory occupied by Russia.
The Georgian government proved unexpectedly amenable to the idea, first raised by Armenian Transportation and Communications Minister Gagik Beglarian.
But the Georgian public heavily criticized the proposal. Government critics insisted that allowing transit through the breakaway territory region means capitulation to Russia and violation of the Georgian law on the occupied territories, which bans the transportation of cargo via the separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Yet Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili and other proponents of Armenia’s proposal argued that it was in Georgia’s interests to ensure the continued passage of both Armenian and Georgian exports to Russia.
Dismissing the criticism as "hysteria," Kvirikashvili pointed out that using South Ossetia as a backup export route would be temporary.
The fallout from the May 19 murder of Giga Otkhozoria has put to the test Tbilisi’s policy of piecemeal reconciliation with Abkhazia and its separatist twin, South Ossetia, and their overlord, Russia.
Georgian public anger over Otkhozoria’s slaying has been directed mainly at Russia, seen as the one calling the shots in both of the breakaways. Russian troops are stationed along both Abkhazia’s and South Ossetia’s administrative borders with Georgian-controlled territory.
That view of Russia’s role may not jive with that of Abkhazia’s separatist government, but, for now, Tbilisi is sticking with it.
Thirty-year-old Giga Otkhozoria was beaten and shot dead on Georgian-controlled territory by Abkhaz border guards in broad daylight and full public view on May 19. The murder was caught on camera.
Otkhozoria, who was displaced from Abkhazia, but, like many in western Georgia, had relatives there, was trying to cross into Abkhazia but was not allowed by separatist border guards, which led to a brawl.
CCTV footage aired on Georgian television showed Otkhozoria pursued by four men into the Georgia-controlled side of Georgia-Abkhaz de-facto border crossing of Nabakevi-Khurcha.
An elderly woman tried to pull them apart, but one man pulled Otkhozoria down and another, uniformed assailant shot him twice, firing the second bullet into his head at near point-blank as people milled about the place. The attackers then scurried off back to the Abkhaz side.
Police on either side of the separatist line have launched investigations. Abkhazia’s de-facto military prosecutors acknowledged the incident took place, and said they would ask the Georgian side to share their own evidence. The Georgian prosecutors identified the shooter as Abkhaz resident Rashid Khajinogli. How they arrived at that conclusion is not clear.
Separatist Abkhazia wants to have a boat link to no less separatist Crimea to ship tourists and trade across the Black Sea.
A Crimea-based ferry company, which suspended commutes to Turkey out of supposed patriotic considerations in the wake of the hostility between Turkey and Russia, now plans to send its ferry shuttling to and from Abkhazia. De-facto officials on the peninsula, which Russia wrested away from Ukraine in 2014, hope that this water link with Abkhazia, another Moscow protégé, can help mitigate the economic impact of the diplomatic chill and severed trade ties between Russia and Turkey.
“[The Crimean capital of] Sevastopol is mainly interested in bringing food products – vegetables and fruits -- from Abkhazia to replace imports from Turkey,” said Kiril Moskalenko, spokesperson for the Sevastopol Governor’s Office, the Russian-government-financed Sputnik news service reported. He said he is not quite sure what products Crimea can offer Abkhazia in return. Some, especially Abkhazia’s de-facto government, hope that one such commodity could be tourists.
Russia-endowed Abkhazia reportedly is now a shell of its former Soviet Riviera self. Russian tourists often complain about the lack of infrastructure and basic services, but many are still drawn by the palm trees and mountain vistas, and Abkhazia’s former reputation as the most desirable seaside resort in the USSR.
For Crimeans, as for many Russians, Abkhazia likely appears as an affordably exotic vacation destination. The peninsula’s tour companies say that the West’s sanctions and refusal to call Crimea part of Russia made it harder for Crimean residents to travel abroad.
South Ossetia, a separatist region that sees itself as an independent country, has announced plans to hold a popular show of hands about joining its big neighbor and benefactor, Russia.
“Today’s political reality is such that we have to make our historic choice: we must reunite with brotherly Russia and ensure centuries of security and prosperity for our republic, our people,” the region’s de-facto leader, Leonid Tibilov, allegedly announced at an October 19 meeting with Vladislav Surkov, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s advisor for separatist matters.
What particularly attracts South Ossetia to Russia is neighboring North Ossetia, a Russian republic seen as part of an Ossetian homeland.
But Putin’s press person, Dmitry Peskov, has a different recollection of Tibilov’s words. Nothing was said about a referendum or the region becoming part of Russia, he claimed, the state-run RIA reported. Just South Ossetia's "age-old dream of reunification" with Russia; in other words, nothing new, he said.
Russia effectively pulled South Ossetia out of Georgia during the two countries’ 2008 war, and subsequently declared it an independent state, an entity that it had saved from abuse by Georgia. It has shelled out millions of rubles to sponsor South Ossetia’s statehood-building.
It apparently sees no reason to go a step further and absorb the region altogether. South Ossetia has not announced a date for its referendum, but the plain message from Moscow is "bad timing."
As anger builds in Georgia over Russia’s latest alleged attempt to redesign the country’s borders, Tbilisi is urging Georgians
not to let their emotions get in the way of attempts at rapprochement with Moscow.
“Let’s not be naïve and expect that some meeting will convince Russia to change its policy toward Georgia, toward neighboring countries,” commented Zurab Abashidze, Georgia’s envoy to talks with Russia, after meeting with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin in Prague on July 15.
The ever concerned Karasin had a few tips of his own.
“We have to do our utmost to make sure emotional explosions like this do not disrupt the process of normalization of Georgian-Russian relations,” RIA Novosti reported him as saying.
The calls for calm are easy for Karasin to make, many Georgians believe. His country’s borders and the de-facto frontiers of its separatist proteges are only expanding, while the space Moscow has allotted to neighbors Georgia and Ukraine is getting smaller.
In response to this latest land grab, various rallies have been staged, with a larger-scale event planned for downtown Tbilisi on July 18 in front of the government chancellory.
Separatist Abkhazia has been picked as the venue for the wannabe and stateless nations’ soccer championship in 2016.
It is soccer without borders in a direct sense. Arameans, Laplanders, Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians and all sorts of “sportingly isolated” peoples will be heading down to the Russian-backed, Georgian-claimed Black Sea region for the next installment of the soccer event that debuted in Sweden last year.
Twelve teams, including from Darfur and the Isle of Man, participated in the competition with the County of Nice as the winner.
The enthusiast group behind the event – the Confederation of Independent Football Associations (CONIFA) that some describe as the anti-FIFA – is on a mission to put unrecognized or less-recognized self-declared countries like Abkhazia “on the world map” to have them share “the joy of international soccer.
“We are sure that Abkhazia is a perfect choice to enjoy a perfect football and cultural experience,” CONIFA said in a statement. Although Abkhazia has the reputation of a twilight zone still recovering from the ruins of the early 1990s separatist war with Tbilisi, CONIFA claims that “top-class infrastructure” can be found there.
Russia has already poured big money into building bases in scenic, separatist Abkhazia, but now it claims that it plans to pour big money as well into the iconic resort town of Gagra — the ruble equivalent of about $25 million over the next two years.
The amount makes up a big chunk of both the 4 billion rubles ($76 million) in annual investment and 5 billion rubles ($95 million) in annual aid that Russian President Vladimir Putin pledged to Abkhazia when the breakaway region agreed in 2014to address many policy-areas with the Russian Federation's assistance.
The breakdown about how the cash will be used is not yet clear. But, with summer on the way, no public sign that anyone in Abkhazia is sweating the details.
Many older people throughout the former Soviet Union pine over Gagra, once the Saint-Tropez of the Soviet Union, and the times when it was synonymous with swanky beach-holidays. Getting a путёвка (putyovka) – a vacation voucher – for a trip to Gagra was like winning a jackpot and many a popular movie was set in the town.
(“Yakin broke up with his hag and talked me into going with him to Gagra!” enthused one parvenue in a famous moment in the 1973 Soviet comedy hit, “Иван Васильиевич Меняет Профессию" (released in the US as "Ivan Vasilievich: Back to the Future"). The line turned into a popular meme when Russian President Vladimir Putin divorced his wife, Lyudmila, in 2014.)
Yet the Wednesday deal does merge certain parts of key institutions (de jure in Russia's case; de facto in South Ossetia's) -- namely, in the army, intelligence, law enforcement and customs.
South Ossetians long have been going around Moscow asking to be annexed (and united with neighboring North Ossetia), but the Kremlin has been rolling its eyes at the idea as “out of the question.”
Last week, the region’s separatist leadership had an embarrassing moment, when they arrived with their agreement in Moscow, but could not even catch Putin, much less have him sign on the dotted line.
Still, happy as Russia seems with the status quo, it won’t pass up an opportunity to blur the distinction between it and South Ossetia a bit more.
Not amidst the war in Ukraine. And particularly not so close to the anniversary of Moscow's takeover of Crimea.