Autumn is a relatively busy time in Georgia -- the farmers are harvesting grapes, the kids are heading back to school, and the Russians are building more fences.
On September 17, Georgian journalists came within a gnat's nose of a trip to a South Ossetian prison when they arrived in a Georgian village, Ditsi, to film Russian soldiers fencing off access to a family cemetery.
Ditsi neighbors the separatist region of South Ossetia, an area babysat by Russian troops in contravention of the cease-fire agreement ending the 2008 Russia-Georgia war over the territory.
Overall since the war, in an alleged attempt to enhance security , Russian troops have erected 27 kilometers of fence through 15 Georgian villages close to South Ossetia.
Georgia on August 8 vowed to start direct talks with the representatives of breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia, but it may need first to deal with that uninvited party to the conversation, Russia.
Speaking on the fifth anniversary of Georgia's 2008 war with Russia over the two territories, Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili called on Georgians to wipe the slate clean and collectively reach out to the regions, now located behind a line of Russian troops. “We need to get the strength to forgive...but also we have to accept our own mistakes and undo what still can be undone,” Ivanishvili said, Georgian news outlets reported.
“We are ready for a direct dialogue with our Abkhaz and Ossetian brothers,” he went on to say. “I am confident that we will find a common language to work toward a shared future.”
One Georgian government minister specified later that Tbilisi does not intend to accept in any way the regions' Russian-backed claims to independence from Georgia. “This means restoring mutual trust between the peoples and by no means between subjects of international law,” said Alex Petriashvili, the state minister for Euro-Atlantic integration, Netgazeti.ge reported.
State Minister for Reintegration Paata Zakareishvili told RFE/RL's Georgian service that the new policy would mark a change from the more maximalist, nationalist sentiments that existed prior to the war and an attempt to be more accommodating to the interests of the breakaway regions.
Separatist Abkhazia and South Ossetia may be politically and financially tied to Moscow’s apron strings, but, lucky for them, there is no sugar daddy like Russia. Moscow just told breakaway Abkhazia that it has 1.1 billion Russian rubles to spend by year’s end. That’s a staggering $33.7 million for a tiny piece of mostly unrecognized territory. The high-maintenance Russian protégé promised it will spare no effort to use up the cash.
Ever since Russia claimed guardianship of what it calls the young and independent states of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in 2008, the twins have been a money pit for the Kremlin. Last year, South Ossetia showed up saying that it can’t seem to find $27 million that Russia spared, prompting Moscow to tighten the financial oversight, but not its wallet.
Abkhazia, apparently, has been using the aid more responsibly, though Russians auditors complained earlier in the year that Sokhumi was behind schedule with the spending of the aid. The latest 1.1. billion is what’s left of 10.9 billion rubles ($334 million) that Moscow gave to the separatist territory for 2010-2013 to get in shape.
To make sure that everyone takes seriously the Georgia-ends-here line it drew after the two countries’ 2008 war, Russia is doing what other countries have done to reinforce a porous border – it’s building a fence.
But this one is reportedly being built a few hundred meters within Georgian-controlled territory itself.
Like other walls before it, the fence serves a supposed security purpose – in this case, defending the breakaway region of South Ossetia, which Moscow views as an independent country, from the perilous threat of Georgian farmers and their cows.
Country folk in these parts do not let wars or separatism or Russian border guards distract them from the real job of gathering crops and firewood, and feeding the livestock, be it in breakaway South Ossetia or their own Georgian-controlled region of Shida Kartli.
But now they could be compelled to cross a border in their own backyards. One octogenarian farmer, whose house ended up falling behind the fence, told RFE/RL that his ailing wife, in need of medical assistance, had to crawl under the barbed wire to get picked up by a Georgian ambulance crew.
Moscow has offered no explanation for its fence-building activities, which have been widely interpreted in Tbilisi as the same-old, same-old – the Kremlin trying to pull a fast one.
The Russian fence, though, threatens to become a major foreign policy challenge for Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili’s government, which has promised voters that it will mend fences with Moscow.
It now needs to react without disrupting the fragile dialogue with the Kremlin that, so far, has led to the return of Georgian wines and mineral water to the Russian market. Yet there seems to be a lack of political consensus over the best course of action.
Vanuatu, a diplomatically schizophrenic island in the South Pacific, just had another of its many mood swings vis-à-vis the South Caucasus' territorial disputes. The island nation, which has been twitching between recognizing and not recognizing breakaway Abkhazia’s independence from Georgia, now says it is picking Tbilisi over Sokhumi, Radio New Zealand International reports.
The 12,000-square-kilometer archipelago with the self-conscious national motto of “Yumi, yumi, yumi” ("We, we, we") has asked Georgia to forget about the misunderstandings of the past and come into its diplomatic embrace.
Vanuatu threw itself into the middle of the international controversy over Abkhazia’s status in 2011 after the breakaway region's de-facto government reported that the country had become the sixth to recognize Abkhazia's Russia-backed independence from Georgia. Journalists and diplomats went chasing Vanuatu officials for confirmation, but they just could not get a definitive response.
Foreign Minister Alfred Carlot was first to confirm that his nation had recognized Abkhazia's recognition, then Vanuatu’s UN envoy Donald Kalpokas said it had not. Carlot responded by saying it had. Abkhazia's de-facto foreign ministry, for its part, waving a signed document establishing diplomatic relations "on the level of ambassadors," said it had the proof.
Venezuela is among six countries which have recognized the independence of one or both territories from Georgia. And in the Caucasus, the deed of "a good friend" is not easily forgotten.
At a March 8 funeral rally in the South Ossetian capital Tskinvali, officials and public figures took turns to remember the Chavez they knew, the Chavez they loved, and queued to sign a memorial book to be sent to Caracas.
The mourners said they were forever thankful to the Bolivarian revolutionary for standing up to the West and recognizing South Ossetia’s still largely unrecognized independence from Georgia. “Since then, the people and the president of Venezuela have become close friends to us,” elaborated the territory's de-facto president, Leonid Tibilov.
For a musical memorial, South Ossetia’s singing talent Alla Byazrova, of course, performed her serenade to the late Venezuelan leader. “Hugo Chavez, Hugo Chavez, my best friend, my faraway friend!” she sang to a catchy, syncopated beat.
In the true holiday spirit, Abkhazia's separatist authorities have requested seniors to show up in de-facto government offices after New Year’s and certify that they are alive. Only those with vital signs will receive a pension, the de-facto officials said, reasonably enough.
To get the allowance, pensioners “need to turn up at the social security agencies and prove the fact of being alive,” is the blunt way de-facto Minister of Labor and Social Development Olga Koltukova put it.
Responding to the request, scores of men and women in their 60s and older spent the festive period between New Year’s and Christmas (celebrated on January 7) doing just that.
One elderly man told the Kavkazsky Uzel news service that he was happy with how fast the certification that he's alive was going. “This is good,” he said.
Some even hold three passports - Abkhaz, Russian and Georgian – and, therefore, technically, could be entitled to state benefits from all three places.
But it is not clear just how the de-facto Abkhaz officials are testing that these elderly individuals are, in fact, alive. Perhaps the procedure involves a photo ID and mirror. In any case, by all accounts, the death check will become an annual winter holiday tradition, to be observed right after New Year’s.
Moscow is never happy to see a US secretary of state lounging about in what it considers to be its backyard; in other words, Georgia. Routine expressions of support for Georgia’s territorial integrity, democratic and NATO aspirations are one thing. But don't get talkin' about those "provocative" identification papers for residents of breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
The documents are meant to provide an international travel option to residents of the two regions -- their independence from Georgia still largely unrecognized -- without specifying their citizenship status. They also, though, are intended to encourage separatist Abkhaz and South Ossetians to come back to Tbilisi's still-waiting embrace.
Granted, the Abkhaz and South Ossetians are not exactly lining up for the Georgian-made documents and a hefty dose of skepticism persists about the prospects for reconciliation-through-IDs. But, still, securing Hillary Rodham Clinton’s public support for the documents was one tangible bonus for Tbilisi from her June 4-5 visit to Georgia.
Nonetheless, despite the IDs' less-than-certain chances for success, Moscow’s thin-skinned reactions suggested that the documents' existence do at least exert a certain psychological influence on the Kremlin.
Moscow, the chief lobbyist for international acceptance of Abkhazia and South Ossetia’s independence, had been quite happy for years to provide both regions with Russian passports for international travel -- even while, before 2008, still recognizing them as part of Georgia.
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.