After securing support from an archipelago of Pacific island nations for the independence of breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia from Georgia, Moscow may now have netted a bigger catch -- Serbia.
During his visit to Moscow last week, Serbia's new president, Tomislav Nikolić, promised to push for recognition of the duo's independence in the Serbian parliament; a pledge that sparked optimism in Abkhazia. And, by now comfortably settled into its role in the two breakaway regions, Russia has made plain that it's happy to sweeten the deal.
Other Russian soul mates, the South Pacific countries of Nauru, Tuvalu and Vanuatu, also received or are believed to have received gifts from Moscow, but the Kremlin maintains their recognitions of the independence of the two Russian-guarded territories came from the heart.
Georgia may not have $800 million to spare, but Tbilisi also sees Belgrade as a soul mate.
Deputy Foreign Minister Nino Kalandadze noted that Georgia and Serbia share an Orthodox Christian faith (for that matter, so do Georgia and Russia), and an aspiration to integrate with the European Union. Beyond guilt-tripping Serbia's government into respecting Georgia’s territorial integrity, Tbilisi expressed hope that Belgrade will not choose to buck the EU’s position on the Georgian breakaways.
The once famous Ergneti swap meet, where otherwise antagonized Georgians and South Ossetians used to trade everything from bolts to refrigerators, may make a comeback. The possibility of the market’s return is already sparking hopes that Georgians and South Ossetians can smuggle their way to peace.
In 2004, the Georgian authorities closed down Ergneti, on the border between separatist South Ossetia and the neighboring region of Shida Kartli, to clamp down on the shadow economy. The closure ended rampant smuggling and led to a spike in tax revenues, but it also did away with the only major venue for peaceful interaction between people on either side of the conflict divide.
For Sokhumi, the timing could not be better. Breakaway Abkhazia has invited ethnic Abkhaz from chaotic Syria to resettle in their ancestors’ land and fill the population void left by the territory's 1992-1994 war with Tbilisi. The region’s de-facto authorities declare that the return has begun, as they have five takers already.
An Abkhaz de-facto official claimed, though, that the homecoming is not an immediate consequence of the ongoing violence in Syria. “The majority of people looking to return had been planning to do so long before the situation in Syria worsened, but developments in this country have expedited the process,” Kavkazsky Uzel news service quoted Inar Gitsba, head of the Turkey and Middle East Department of Abkhazia’s de-facto Foreign Ministry, as saying.
Earlier this year, Sokhumi sent a diplomatic mission to Syria to facilitate the repatriation of some 8,000 Syrians of Abkhaz descent. De-facto officials now say that some 90 Syrian-Abkhaz will resettle in Abkhazia by year’s end.
Returning Abkhaz have been offered a temporary stay in a Sokhumi hotel and, then, a permanent residence in the nearby region of Gulripshi.
It's unclear whether the century-and-a-half homecoming will be a large one, however. Sokhumi held similar expectations for Diaspora Abkhaz from Turkey, but, often discouraged by local living conditions, their return, for the most part, has been more sporadic than epic.
After a record-breaking number of de-facto presidential elections, embattled South Ossetia has finally got itself a de-facto president. Yet holding elections is proving to be a habit hard to kick. After four attempts to decide on a leader, now the breakaway region could be headed toward an early parliamentary election.
The current parliament, unrecognized by most of the world, is facing credibility issues at home as the majority of its 34 members are believed to be loyalists of former strongman Eduard Kokoity, a figure whose reputation for corruption is proving a not-so-endearing memory.
The new man at separatist South Ossetia's helm, ex-KGB chief Leonid Tibilov, may now need to upgrade the legislature to reinforce his own position with the territory's electorate, reports indicate.
Tibilov, of course, has described his victory at the polls as a victory shared by all the South Ossetian people, but, since quite a few voters disagree, he has also described the task ahead as building a sense of unity.
Jioyeva, who ended up in the hospital after a raid on her office, first vowed to fight to the end for the presidency, but now it looks like she is willing to entertain the option of participating in the early de-facto parliamentary vote, instead. Jioyeva and David Sanakoyev, the runner-up in de-facto election #2, are launching political parties to run for parliament.
Voting in de-facto presidential elections is becoming a regular pastime in the breakaway region of South Ossetia. After three attempts since November 2011 -- the latest, on March 25 -- to choose a successor to longtime strongman Eduard Kokoity, residents are now being asked to vote, yes, a fourth time on April 8.
"The people are tired of the election process . . . " candidate Leonid Tibilov, a former South Ossetian KGB boss who scooped up 42.48 percent of the latest de-facto vote, according to preliminary results, commented wryly to the Russian daily Kommersant. Without a clear majority, Tibilov will now face off against David Sanakoyev, the region's de-facto human rights ombudsman, with 24.58 percent of the vote.
Haunting the polls also, though, are the ghosts of (de-facto) elections past: Kokoity and opposition leader Alla Jioyeva, who claimed election in December 2011 and now is under house arrest in Tskhinvali after having attempted to proceed with her inauguration.
In interviews with Kommersant, both Tibilov and Sanakoyev took efforts to emphasize their distaste for or distance from Kokoity, and their fondness for the people's will; a sentiment no doubt enhanced after the large-scale public demonstrations that broke out in December in favor of Jioyeva.
Eight hundred million rubles -- part of the aid dished out by Moscow for post-war rehabilitation -- simply has disappeared, South Ossetia’s de-facto state auditors said last week. The who, where, when, why and how remain unknown. While eyes popped in Russia, South Ossetia’s de-facto official news agency reported the epic steal as casually as if a ballpoint pen had gone missing.
Whether a culprit will ever be found for Russia's missing millions, however, remains anybody's guess.
Gennady Ryabchenko, the de-facto official tasked to audit the breakaway territory's public finances, charged that prosecutors failed to act on reports of embezzlement. The de-facto Security Council requested the region’s tiny 34-seat parliament to probe into what's been going on exactly in the prosecutor's office.
Many Facebook users block other users for posting nasty comments on their wall, but few have blocked an entire country. Yet this is what happened yesterday when Russian President Dmitry Medvedev apparently decided he'd had it with angry posts from Georgia.
The onslaught against the Russian president’s Facebook page took place on the February 23 Homeland Defender’s Day, a Russian public holiday that commemorates military service. To mark the day, Georgians (and not only) in a loosely coordinated campaign bombarded Medvedev’s page with requests to withdraw Russian troops from separatist Abkhazia and South Ossetia, territories kept under heavy Russian military guard since the 2008 Russia-Georgia war.
The steady flow of comments ran the gamut from demands, to requests (for an IDP's return to Abkhazia, for instance) to coarse statements. “It was essentially an occupy-Medvedev’s-Facebook-page campaign to demand the de-occupation of Georgia,” one user commented to EurasiaNet.org.
At first, the comments kept disappearing almost instantly, and instead greetings from well-wishers started to pop up. “I wish you good health, Dmitry Anatoliyevich,” one kind user wrote, but her wishes got drowned in an avalanche of comments from Georgia.
Apparently unable to keep up with the stream, the Kremlin's Facebook men simply disabled the page for users from Georgia.
“They blocked users with Georgian IPs for a little bit,” said Giorgi Jakhaia, a Georgian blogger displaced from Abkhazia, and one of the organizers of the campaign. After briefly reopening, "the page got blocked again" when a fresh barrage of comments began, said Jakhaia, known by his nom de blog, Cyxymu.
Call it a milestone in the ongoing battle for the Pacific. Georgia and Tuvalu, separated by 45,000 kilometers of land and sea, are not on diplomatic terms anymore.
Last February, when Tbilisi and Funafuti established ties, it seemed they were in it for keeps. At first, the two got along really well. Georgia gave the cash-strapped island $12,000 worth of medicine. Tuvalu backed a pro-Tbilisi UN resolution calling for return of displaced ethnic Georgians to their homes in breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
To hear Tbilisi tell it, the relationship, all of a year-long, was both dynamic and mutually respectful, until along came Russia, and seduced tiny Tuvalu away.
The country reportedly recognized the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia last year, and the Georgians think the island government got an offer from Moscow they could not refuse. Russia is accused of a campaign to bribe small, South Pacific nations into recognizing the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia -- two regions whose names never before really resonated in the South Pacific -- in a bid to legitimize the stationing of thousands of Russian troops on the two territories.
Deciding that the relationship, based on the notion of the "inviolability of borders,” cannot work anymore, President Mikheil Saakashvili signed a decree on February 16 to call it a day.
Elsewhere in the South Pacific, Nauru shares Tuvalu's take on the two breakaways, and Vanuatu is on the fence. Neither country has diplomatic ties with Georgia.
“People with guns and in masks barged in, destroying the doors, furniture …and tried to take me away by force,” said Jioyeva describing to Russian Reporter how riot police (OMON) allegedly stormed her office on February 9, the eve of her planned inauguration as de-facto president of the tiny, breakaway region.
“One grabbed me by the hands; others by the feet. They picked me up and dragged me like an old watermelon,” she told the website. Those in her office who tried to resist the OMON were beaten with rifle butts; some were arrested, she alleged. “I started to feel bad, from the humiliation… from everything that I saw, from the screams. I lost consciousness,” she said.
South Ossetian de-facto opposition leader Alla Jioyeva, who planned to hold a presidential inauguration ceremony today, has been hospitalized in critical condition after receiving a summons for questioning by prosecutors about an alleged attempt to seize power in the breakaway region.
Tensions remain high, with news reports about what exactly happened to Jioyeva -- and even whether or not she is still conscious -- largely a he-said-she-said affair.
Jioyeva's spokesperson, Violetta Dasayeva, told Ekho Moskvy radio that 100 armed riot police stormed Jioyeva's headquarters late on February 9, "destroyed" it, and struck the 61-year-old opposition leader on the back with a rifle butt, knocking her to the floor. Dasayeva, who said she was an eyewitness, claimed the police were intent on killing Jioyeva.
The territory's de-facto provisional government, which has run South Ossetia after two failed attempts to elect a de-facto president, denies that any violence was used against Jioyeva. Doctors from the Tskhinvali hospital also report no sign of any trauma; the official line is that Jioyeva suffered a stroke.
The opposition leader's health "deteriorated," de-facto officials say, after investigators presented her with a summons on the evening of February 9 for questioning by prosecutors about an alleged attempt to seize power -- an apparent reference to supporters' attempt to enter the de-facto Central Election Commission late last year to protest the annulment of de-facto run-off election results that indicated Jioyeva's victory at the polls in November 2011.