A former British army captain, who was branded a Russian spy and drubbed out of Georgia in 2008, is back as deputy head of the European Union’s cease-fire monitoring operation. Former Georgian officials are also back with their accusations against Ryan Grist, the ex-deputy head of the Georgian mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
Back in 2008, Grist caused quite a furor in Georgia when he vanished into wartime South Ossetia and, then, told the Western press that he questioned Tbilisi's claims that a pending Russian invasion had prompted its dispatch of troops into the territory. The OSCE mission to Georgia distanced itself from Grit’s words and, The Wall St. Journal reported, "forced him to resign." (The mission itself eventually closed, after Russia's objections to its presence in Georgia.)
The United National Movement (UNM), now an opposition party, condemned Grist’s appointment to the European Union Monitoring Mission (EUMM), saying that "a reasonable suspicion" exists that he had worked with "the Russian secret services."
“We call on the Georgian government to use all means at its disposal to make sure Mr. Grist leaves not just the EU observation mission, but also Georgia,” the UNM’s Zurab Jafaridze told Tabula TV. The ruling Georgian Dream, which is far less enthusiastic about exposing alleged pro-Russian enemies of state, has not publicly responded to the call.
In a throwaway remark made on the sidelines of the Sochi Olympics earlier this week, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that he is open to meeting Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili. Such an encounter, if it ever happens, would be the first top-level Russo-Georgian sit-down since the two countries' 2008 war.
Putin, who gave Georgian TV crews a wide smile and best wishes for the Georgian athletes in Sochi, only uttered the February 10 remark in passing after being asked by a Georgian reporter. “Yeah, why not if he wants to?” was his soundbite in reference to Margvelashvili before walking off to get back to the cares of the Olympics.
But it was enough for Tbilisi to conclude that it had been asked out and that it is time to start preparing for a rendez-vous with the country's Public Enemy Number One.
Georgian media has erupted into constant chitchat about what such an event could involve. President Margvelashvil appears to be busy scrutinizing Putin’s two-second line for hidden meaning, while Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili, who was not mentioned by Putin, says he will take up the offer.
“As the head of the Georgian government, I am ready for a direct dialogue with the Russian leadership,” Gharibashvili told Imedi news channel. The comment was duly scooped up by Russia's state-run RIA Novosti as "signifying a thaw in bilateral ties."
A choir of other officials from the ruling Georgian Dream, however, keep saying they need to think through any such get-together first.
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.
Moscow on August 6 issued a friendly reminder to Georgia that Russia’s got nuclear bombs; just something to keep in mind while weighing the costs and benefits of joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
Amidst a refrain (by now, hackneyed to many Georgians) about how politics and wars can’t get between the pair's centuries-old friendship, Medvedev had one key message -- the Kremlin’s unremitting disappointment over Georgia’s NATO fetish.
“We are against -- putting it mildly -- Georgia’s joining NATO,” Medvedev said, in remarks voiced-over into Georgian by Rustavi2. But don’t get us wrong, he continued. “Any country has the right to choose a preferred political and military alliance to join,” yet the Kremlin just can’t sit and watch a neighboring country, be it Georgia or Ukraine, become part of a strategic alliance that still has Russia in the crosshairs.
“May I remind you that Russia is a very big country with a huge nuclear arsenal and that is something not to be ignored . . .” he added. "Yes, we have a partnership with NATO, but a fact remains a fact."
Rustavi2 anchor Nino Shubladze pointed out that the Baltic countries had joined the Euro-Atlantic military club and it did not seem to lead to any doomsday developments.
Yes, and Moscow is not happy about it, Medvedev pointed out. Nothing good will come of Georgia’s following the Baltic example, he reiterated.
Five years after their 2008 war, Georgia and Russia appear to be busy getting nowhere toward any form of reconciliation. Russia’s Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has said that Moscow will restore diplomatic ties with Georgia if Tbilisi admits to starting the fight. In an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, who launched a charm offensive in Moscow, countered that Tbilisi is doing its darndest to be constructive, but stands firm with its demand that breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia return to Georgian control.
In an August 4 interview with the pro-Kremlin TV broadcaster Russia Today, Medvedev, who was Russia's president in 2008, claimed that military engagement with Georgia was his idea and that he had not been playing second fiddle to then Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. He also claimed that toppling the government in Georgia was never Russia’s goal -- but did not explain how that jives with Putin’s reported intention to hang Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili by his private parts.
Commenting on Georgia’s internationally backed calls for Russia to withdraw its recognition of the sovereignty of breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia (and with it, its troops), Medvedev passed the buck to the separatist regions' residents. Political choices “lie with the people who live there,” he underlined.
For the Russian military, any reconciliation with Georgia, it seems, will not extend to R&R in Georgia. Once a popular spot for Russian soldiers to go for vacation or for war, Georgia has been blacklisted as a spot for rest-and-recuperation by the Russian Ministry of Defense.
At first glance, that may not seem surprising. The two countries, after all, did fight a five-day war in 2008 that resulted in the rupture of diplomatic ties, and the introduction of Russian troops into breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which Georgia claims as its territory.
Yet with the advent of Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili to power last year, Moscow had suggested that the sun might shine, once more, on Russian-Georgian relations.
No more, it seems. The blacklist was preceded by moves by Gennadiy Onishchenko, head of the food-security agency Rospotrebnadzor, to defend Russia's food front against potential incursions by Georgian fruit, vegetables and wine, which he believes may be doctored by a US-run biological laboratory in Georgia to poison Russian consumers.
Whether or not this scenario is Onishchenko's creation alone is not clear. (The vision came to him after Ivanishvili announced expectations for Georgia to receive a Membership Action Plan from NATO next year.) But, now, it seems, the Russian military has a few fears of its own, too.
Try as he might, Russia's Dr. Strangelove, otherwise known as food security tsar Dr. Gennadiy Onishchenko, has not yet stopped worrying and learned to love a Georgian tomato. Or a peach. Or a bottle of wine.
Onishchenko, who apparently has a nose like no other for potential alimentary attacks, now has deduced that a US-sponsored biological lab in Georgia supposedly could be used to poison fruit, vegetables and wine bound for Russia.
To hear him describe it, the lab, named after former US Senator Richard Lugar, sounds like a military-guarded facility hemmed with barbed wire, and with a dark storm cloud constantly hovering overhead. It is a “powerful offensive” weapon and “is out of the control of the Georgian authorities,” Onishchenko said in a statement. The presence of such a force in the proximity of the Russian border is “a direct violation of the Biological Weapons Convention,” he asserted.
The upshot: If Georgia wants to keep selling its agricultural produce to Russia, it has to shut down the Lugar Lab.
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.
In a controversial undertaking by Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, Georgia plans to go down the slippery slope of re-investigating its 2008 war with Russia. But it is unclear if the new investigation is going to leave Georgia with a picture any clearer or more objective.
The proposal caused a stir among Georgian society, heretofore steadily treated to a black-and-white, big-bad-Russia narrative.
Georgia conducted its first probe of the war when President Mikheil Saakashvili and his United National Movement Party still held political court. The parliamentary investigation, predictably, put the then Georgian authorities in the right all around. One attempt to place part of the blame on Tbilisi resulted in an angry outburst by the parliamentary commission, complete with tossing a pen at the lone critic.
But, coming on the heels of dozens of other investigations into past doings under the United National Movement, the repeat investigation is unlikely to avoid the label of bias. It is already seen as part of the ongoing Ivanishvili-Saakashvili war.
The president, who was questioned during the first probe, declared that he will not obey any interrogation requests by the new commission, led by Ivanishvili’s Georgian-Dream coalition. Repeating previous allegations, the president accused the prime minister of being an apologist for Russia, and a new shouting match between the two camps began.
The prime minister’s team claims they do not intend to justify the Russian invasion and the uprooting of thousands of Georgians, but, rather, need to establish the facts. Why that need has moved to the forefront right now is less clear.
The agency claimed that negotiations in Moscow with its Russian counterpart, succinctly known as Rosselkhoznadzor, went well and that, after some changes in agricultural regulations, a taste of Georgia will soon reappear in Russian salads and pirogis.
But, of course, Russian officials want to be the first to get that taste. In what is slowly turning into supra diplomacy, they've been invited back to Georgia to munch on tomatoes and cucumbers at an unspecified date in the future.
Wine-tasting is a serious procedure that brooks no haste, especially when it comes as a form of post-conflict diplomacy and, also, when there is so much wine to taste. For months now, Russian federal wine-tasters have gotten to sniff, slurp, roll the wine around their mouths, look quizzically at each other and make sure the political terroir is acceptable for the Kremlin.