Georgia claims it has averted an accidental encroachment on its sovereignty by one of the world's most powerful forces. No, not by Russia. By McDonald's.
The Illinois-based hamburger giant recently advertised on its website for a franchisee in Abkhazia, a breakaway region that Tbilisi and most of the international community (unlike Russia and a handful of pals) see as part of Georgia, and not, as the McDonald's ad suggested, an independent country.
Given Abkhazia's proximity to the 2014 Winter Olympics host city of Sochi, opening up a restaurant in the region may well have struck some at the Games' "Official Restaurant" as a swell idea. But in Tbilisi, the ad was construed as a plan to recognize Abkhazia’s de-facto independence from Georgia.
The question was how to respond. Severing ties with McDonald's was not in the cards. McDonald's has pretty much got Georgia hooked on its menu, free wifi and kids' parties.
Some people mooted the idea of boycotting the company's four Georgia-based restaurants. Or of protests, that ancient Georgian tradition.
But before matters reached such a head, the company deleted the statement, now found only in a Google cache or referenced in news stories.
McDonald’s franchisee for Georgia, businessman Temur Chkonia, took credit for the move. Calling the Abkhazia ad "a very primitive mistake," Chkonia told Netgazeti.ge that he had talked with a lawyer for McDonald's about the solicitation, and is awaiting a written explanation.
The customs-free wonderland that Russia is busy building around itself to counterbalance the European Union will come with still more unrecognized or half-recognized lands. On December 10, the Russian Duma approved a 2012 agreement to drop customs duties between Russia and the twin breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
“Ratification of the agreements will become an important step toward intensifying trade turnover between Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and Russia and members of the Customs Union,” pledged Eurasian Integration Parliamentary Committee Chairman Leonid Slutskiy, ITAR-TASS reported.
The two tiny enclaves -- in Moscow’s view, perfectly sovereign lands -- are tied to Russia’s apron both by their economies and their claims to independent statehood. Now, they can export customs-free to Russia anything but sugar, tobacco and alcohol. Russia also cancelled export duties on set volumes of petroleum exported to Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Of course, there is more in this for the territories than for Russia, which periodically injects aid into both breakaway territories. The Kremlin is pouring so much money into Abkhazia and South Ossetia that it will not even notice a revenue-drop from the removal of duties on imports from and petroleum exports into the regions, said Slutskiy.
In 2014-2015, Moscow plans to invest over 3 billion rubles (about $92 million) in Abkhazia alone, according to the region's de-facto official news agency, Apsnypress.
If the Abkhaz want to visit the Winter Olympics next February in the Russian city of Sochi, about 25 kilometers to the north, they might need to walk. And even then there is no guaranteed access through a gateway that Russia plans to keep ajar.
In a recent decree laying out the do's and don'ts during the Olympics, Russian President Vladimir Putin called for strictly limiting access to Sochi from the de-facto border crossing with breakaway Abkhazia, recognized by Moscow as a sovereign state.
Residents living in the border area will have some freedom of movement, though they might find interior ministry troops hanging out in their backyards. The troops also will be policing the coastline south of Tuapse, a seaside city north of Sochi.
The Sochi area itself will be broken up into restricted zones, entrance into which will be subjected to search. All demonstrations, unless part of the Olympics, will be prohibited. The sale of poisonous or potentially poisonous substances, save for prescription drugs, will also be banned.
Such restrictions are not exactly what Abkhazia, which largely depends on Russia for its economic survival and, itself, cannot participate in the Games, had in mind.
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.