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.
The Kremlin has warned breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia to beware of Georgians bearing gifts of travel documents. As part of its post-2008-war reintegration strategy, Tbilisi offered the separatists citizenship-blind identification documents. But Moscow says that those who take these papers will unwittingly become Georgians.
The so-called neutral travel documents do not carry Georgia's national symbols and do not specify the citizenship of their holders. But Moscow found a catch. “The ‘neutral passports’ are not neutral at all,” the Russian foreign ministry declared on February 8. “Georgia is indicated in the country code, while the issuing authority is the Georgian Ministry of Internal Affairs.”
Both breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia, for their part, say that they are not interested in any IDs printed by Tbilisi-- and whether or not any EU members promise to recognize them.
But, contrary to Russian fears or Georgian hopes, the documents are hardly an effective mechanism to lure the breakaways back into the Georgian fold.
Life in the Caucasus can often mean having the skills of a quick-change artist. Many Georgians themselves often hold both Russian and Georgian passports to make travel between the two estranged countries easier.
Warnings of possible bloodshed are coming from the politically discombobulated territory of South Ossetia as opposition leader Alla Jioyeva gets ready to inaugurate herself on February 10 as the region’s de-facto president and ignore plans to hold a repeat (de-facto) presidential election.
Describing Caucasians as "a hot-headed people," ex de-facto Defense Minister Anatoly Barankevich, a Jioyeva ally, warned that the inauguration “could lead to a civil war," an event "that will affect the entire Caucasus and even Russia," Kavkazsky Uzel reports.
But, so far, Jioyeva, who has the ice-cold determination to become South Ossetia's de-facto leader, in keeping with the apparent results of a 2011 run-off (de-facto) election, is not to be swayed. She says that the inauguration will take place with or without the interim de-facto government’s support. The de-facto government , for its part, wants to hold a third run-off presidential election on March 25.
The only international effort to defuse the tensions has come from Moscow, which recognizes the territory as a state independent from Georgia, but, with two competing centers of power now in South Ossetia, it's hard to argue that Russia's self-promoted skills as a crisis manager have amounted to much.
“Think of all the beautiful moments we had together. Think of your international commitments. Don’t do it, Fiji!”
That's essentially the message from Tbilisi as the tiny South Pacific country of Fiji prepares to welcome Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on February 1 for what Georgia fears could be a lot of sweet talk from Moscow about recognizing the independence of breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Moscow has denied having any plans to bribe Fiji, a developing country, in exchange for recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. It says it's just in the region for (with apologies to Rodgers and Hammerstein) some "happy talk."
Moscow appears to have had it with South Ossetian politicians who undermine the Kremlin’s influence in the breakaway Caucasus territory and besmirch its image. Days after South Ossetian politician Jambolat Tedeyev renewed his claims to the region's de-facto presidency, Russian Federal Security Service agents showed up at his door.
Russia recognizes South Ossetia as an independent country from Georgia, and the authority by which Tedeyev would be charged is not clear.
But such legal niceties matter little when a power struggle is at hand. Last September, when South Ossetia’s de-facto authorities barred Tedeyev from running in the region's de-facto presidential election, his supporters took to the streets in the capital, Tskhinvali. South Ossetia's then de-facto leader, Eduard Kokoity, accused Tedeyev of trying to stage a color revolution.
In response, Tedeyev, who belongs to an influential local clan, threw his support behind another opposition presidential hopeful, Alla Jioyeva. Jioyeva gained international name recognition late last year when her supporters took to the streets, and stayed there, over canceled de-facto runoff results which showed her the winner over the Russian-endorsed candidate, Anatoliy Bibilov.
And so we come to the present. With a third attempt to elect a new (de-facto) leader now scheduled for March, Tedeyev has declared that he wants to run again. But Moscow appears to be wearying of the surprisingly boisterous pace of South Ossetian politics.
Like anyone else, looks like breakaway South Ossetia's onetime de-facto presidential hopeful Alla Jioyeva made a few New Year's resolutions for 2012. Resolution #1: Don't put up with any perceived funny business.
Jioyeva says that her representative was not appointed a deputy prime minister in the de-facto provisional government, as the agreement stipulated. “We never got those two or three ministerial portfolios that could have helped decrease the public tensions…and media remains closed to us,” Jioyeva told Ekho Kavkaza news service.
She said that she called up de-facto Prime Minister Vadim Brovtsev to seek a meeting, but was surprised to get “Let me think about it” for an answer. A letter to Brovtsev, which was cc'd to the rest of the region’s population, was also ignored, she said.
Plans for new urban settlements in Georgian-controlled territory and the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia increasingly make this neck of the woods look like the setting for a SimCity-style strategy game, where players race to move populations around and build cities.
Two Russian-built towns in breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia will house Russian troops that guard the territories’ de-facto independence from Tbilisi and dependence on Moscow. The third proposed city, in the Georgian-controlled region of Samegrelo in western Georgia, will be situated not far from the administrative border of Abkhazia. In theory, its projected 500,00-strong population will be made up of a combination of villagers (including Internally Displaced Persons from Abkhazia) and, supposedly, expatriate Georgians eager to live near the Black Sea.
The Russian plans for the two new breakaway troop towns are very much real, while the Georgian project is seen as surreal so far.
Russia’s federal construction agency, Spetsstroy, said that construction of the military towns is 90 percent complete, and that they will be ready for use next year. The towns will house a total of 4,000 troops and their families. Spetsstroy claims that the Russian soldiers, not known for being spoilt by an abundance of good living, will have all the basic comforts of modern life in these settlements.
Kokoity, who is accused of trying to install a Kremlin-favored candidate as his replacement and to steal Jioyeva's purported election victory, said on December 11 that he was stepping down to avoid bloodshed. The resignation, preceded by the dismissal of several key officials in Kokoity’s administration, came as part of a deal with the Jioyeva team, brokered by Russia.
Earlier on, Jioyeva, claiming foul play by Kokoity, had threatened to proceed with the protests. The change of pace reportedly did not sit well with all her supporters, Ekho Kavkaza reported.
But the embattled region is not quite out of the woods yet. Jioyeva has demanded that her supporters be included in the interim de-facto government now led by de-facto Prime Minister Vadim Brovtsev.