Amidst reports of gunfire, a homegrown controversy over breakaway South Ossetia's de facto presidential election on November 30 threatened to degenerate into violence.
To most of the outside world, the November 13 poll in South Ossetia was illegitimate to begin with, but it sparked a major power struggle. Alla Jioyeva, a onetime education minister, has claimed the presidency following a runoff that gave her over 56 percent of the vote.
But the Kremlin-backed candidate Anatoliy Bibilov, alleging funny business, wasn't buying it. Bibilov petitioned the region's de facto Supreme Court to throw out the results. On November 29, the court complied, with the de facto parliament setting a fresh election date in March 2012.
Jioyeva, however, went ahead and set up a "state council," and headed with her supporters (numbering in the high several hundreds, according to Russia's RIA Novosti) out into the streets of Tskhinvali, South Ossetia's capital, to protest the court's decision.
In response, the de facto government led by Eduard Kokoity accused Jioyeva of attempts to stage a "color revolution" -- an event portrayed within South Ossetia as the ultimate in dastardly deeds -- and threatened to take retaliatory measures. Apparently, those were limited to guards firing into the air as the Joiyeva crowd approached the de facto government headquarters, and tried to enter the region's de facto Central Election Commission.
The outcome of the fiercely contested de facto presidential election in breakaway South Ossetia is neither conclusive, nor legitimate as far as most of the world cares, but what is certain is that a female candidate has broken a glass ceiling there.
In a slap in the face for the region's macho-man-in-chief, de facto lame duck leader Eduard Kokoity, the early vote tally from South Ossetia's de facto November 27 run-off gave the lead to opposition candidate Alla Jioyeva, a former de facto education minister. Ahead of the poll, Kokoity had reasoned that a woman stands no chance of being elected in South Ossetia since, at the end of the day, the “Caucasus is the Caucasus."
But, at least at this stage, up to 57 percent of South Ossetia’s voters (minus the ethnic Georgian population expelled during the 2008 Russia-Georgia war) would beg to differ. Jioyeva’s strong showing is also an embarrassment for Moscow, South Ossetia’s big brother, which placed all its bets on her chief rival, the establishment candidate Anatoly Bibilov, the de facto emergency situations minister.
Yet another Kremlin favorite “fails to everyone’s dismay and to jeers from all observers, putting Russia in a highly unattractive light as a country, which despite all its territorial might, despite its status as a great power, cannot have the candidate it needs put into place in a tiny republic which 100 percent depends on Russia,” Pavel Svyatenkov, an analyst for Russia’s National Strategy Institute, commented to the Kommersant newspaper.
Forget about Russian military bases and separatist tensions. Georgia now faces a threat to its territorial integrity from some of the world's sharpest strategists. And they are already in breakaway Abkhazia. Soon, they will be smacking away at Tbilisi's claims to the territory with spotted tiles. These are, of course, domino players.
The Abkhaz capital of Sukhumi is about to become the epicenter of the world of domino. Over objections from Tbilisi, the world domino championship will be held in the seaside town from October 18-21. Abkhazia’s de facto leadership hopes the event, its largest sports shindig ever, will help place their territory on the world map as a sovereign country.
Bucking Washington’s take on Abkhazia, the president of the National Domino Federation USA, Manuel Oquendo, is already in Sukhumi to observe preparations for the tournament. The US domino grandmaster said that American players will arrive in Sokhumi next week despite Tbilisi’s opposition to holding the championship in Abkhazia, Kavkazsky Uzel news service reported.
One question might be from which direction they -- and the other 21 participating national domino teams -- plan on coming. Travel into Abkhazia via western Georgia is the route recognized under international law, but involves a one-kilometer trip across the Inguri River bridge in either a jam-packed, horse-drawn cart or on foot. And a preliminary chat with Georgian Interior Ministry representatives.
Travel via Russia may involve more comfortable transportation, but is deemed an illegal entry into Georgian territory.
Not exactly like flying into Las Vegas, where the championships were held last year.
South Ossetia is largely known to the outside world as a wrestling mat for Georgia and Russia, but little attention is paid to the breakaway region’s internal politics, which increasingly appear to be a mare’s nest of intrigue.
With the race heating up for the region's de facto presidential election on November 13, South Ossetia's miniature, 34-seat legislature on October 5 got busy and got rid of its speaker, Stanislav Kochiyev, who earlier had blocked attempts to extend the presidential term of de facto leader Eduard Kokoity.
Kochiyev, who ran against Kokoity in South Ossetia's 2006 presidential election, has described himself as one of the few guardians of constitutional discipline in a bare-knuckle race for power. "This was done to deny me the possibility of not permitting falsifications in the elections," Kochiyev, a Communist Party member, claimed in reference to his removal as parliamentary speaker.
Kokoity insists he will not run for a third term, but that insistence has done little to make for a snoozy election campaign. His supporters have gone out of their way to push for a constitutional change that would keep him in office for another five years. A group of thuggish Kokoity admirers even invaded the parliamentary building in June after the region’s de facto supreme court struck down the proposed amendments.
Just days after reportedly recognizing the independence of breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia -- news that still awaits official confirmation -- the South Pacific island of Tuvalu has struck up diplomatic relations with Russia. Given that Moscow has made it its job to chaperone the two runaway regions on their quest for international recognition, it is all too tempting to connect the dots.
On September 25, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov sat down with Tuvalu's prime minister, Willy Telavi, to bond over their shared interests in fishing and trade, and talk diplomatic ties. The meeting took place on the sidelines of the opening of the United Nations General Assembly, traditionally a venue for the consummation of new alliances.
Russian officials did not say much about the Tuvalu tête-à-tête, but Georgian wonks have already started surmising how much the new friendship will cost Moscow.
Tuvalu could definitely use some help in one realm -- rising sea levels in the Pacific, which threaten to wash the 26-square-kilometer island clean away, Prime Minister Telavi told the UN.
The island probably wouldn’t be missed much in Tbilisi, which earlier had made a gift of medicine to tiny Tuvalu in a bid to discourage it from following the wayward behavior of nearby Nauru, which recognized Abkhazia and South Ossetia's independence in 2009.
Size clearly does not matter for breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia in their quest for international acceptance of their de-facto independence from Georgia. Tuvalu, the world’s second-smallest island nation, reportedly has become the latest convert to join the Abkhazia and South Ossetia fan club by recognizing the two disputed territories as separate states, the de facto Abkhaz and South Ossetian governments announced today.
Tuvalu government officials could not be reached for confirmation of the reports, which have been disseminated primarily by Russian media.
In case you forgot, the world’s smallest island country, Nauru, which shares an ocean and (apparently) views on Abkhazia and South Ossetia with Tuvalu, recognized the two breakaway Caucasus regions back in 2009. Geographically speaking, the islands combined are many mega-times smaller than the controversial combo of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, but as UN members, they bring votes into the equation.
Speaking of the UN, if the reports are confirmed, officials in Tbilisi may well feel like they were just slapped in the face. Last year, Georgia, not a regular international aid donor, gave Tuvalu $12,000-worth of medicine after Tuvalu backed a UN resolution that called for the return of displaced ethnic Georgians to Abkhazia.
Some observers within Georgia, though, were quick to ascribe Tuvalu’s apparent change of mind to Russia, the main and deep-pocketed champion of Abkhazia and South Ossetia’s recognition as independent states.
With the holiday season over, the Tamada is back with news from exotic destinations. Nicaragua and South Ossetia are now busy trying to prove that a 12,000-kilometer distance and many other differences need not stand in the way of a perhaps random, but still beautiful friendship.
Separatist South Ossetia's de facto ambassador to Nicaragua and Venezuela, Narim Kozayev, dropped by to see Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega on September 6, just over a month after the tiny Caucasus enclave established its embassy to Nicaragua "with a residence" in the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali. Yes, you read that right. Put it down to budget discipline or a desire by Tskhinvali to keep a close tab on things, but, apparently, Kozayev will not have far to travel to take up his mission to Nicaragua.
But if the address of the embassy's residence struck Ortega as odd, he didn't let on. Accepting the de facto ambassador’s credentials, Ortega said that Nicaragua and South Ossetia had clicked right off and found that rare political chemistry that may help two misfits gain acceptance in the international community.
“We are small peoples, but we have a deep sense of identity,” Russia's state-run RIA Novosti news service quoted Ortega as saying. “We are in a battle for self-determination, sovereignty and independence. This battle is our common denominator.”
But the bigger common denominator Ortega chose to omit is Russia, which is believed to have motivated longtime ally Nicaragua (plus Venezuela and Nauru) to recognize South Ossetia’s independence from Georgia.
So far, South Ossetia maintains de facto embassies in Moscow and the fellow post-Soviet breakaway regions of Abkhazia and Transnistria.
Imagine an identification document with no citizenship -- no country and no religion, too, as the late John Lennon would say. Georgia on July 1 voted to issue such “status-neutral” papers for the residents of the breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
This is not because Tbilisi had a sudden fit of cosmopolitanism and does not believe in national borders anymore. Quite the opposite. The government hopes that the IDs and their attached benefits will help nudge residents of the two separatist regions back into the Georgian fold.
Holders of the IDs “will be entitled to the same civil rights and social benefits” available to all Georgian citizens, as well as the ability to travel abroad, according to the Georgian government's Action Plan for Engagement. Most residents of Abkhazia and South Ossetia now can only travel abroad with Russian passports.
Officially, Tbilisi maintains that the de facto governments of both Abkhazia and South Ossetia are passive offshoots of Moscow. The ID proposal is seen as an attempt to bypass those power structures and reach out to the territories' residents themselves.
Mission impossible? Nearly 20 years have passed since both territories effectively parted ways with Tbilisi, and, with recognition from four countries (Russia, Venezuela, Nicaragua and Nauru) now under their belts, said power structures see little reason for anyone to carry around a Georgia-issued ID card with them.
Georgia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs claims that, with a new government in place, the South Pacific island nation of Vanuatu this week revoked its recognition of separatist Abkhazia. If confirmed, this would make for the fourth twist in a hopelessly twisted tale.
After a long exchange with legislators (supposedly touching on "lawmaking practices and perspectives for the country's development," according to parliamentary spokesperson Inna Gabarayeva), the Kokoity fans finally left, but some news outlets described the incident as an attempt at a power grab. Several parliamentarians resigned in protest.
Kokoity distanced himself from the group and called on prosecutors to investigate the incident. Calling on South Ossetians not to overdramatize the situation, he asked his supporters to stop twisting his arm about running for a third term.
“Such manifestations of popular love for the president and support for his course create tensions among various groups in our society and lead to destabilization of the situation,” Kokoity said in a statement. “There will be no third term.”