The killing of an 18-year-old Georgian fighter in Syria has displayed Georgia’s homegrown radical Islam issue, just as this South-Caucasus country tries to contribute to the US-led efforts against Islamic-State terrorists.
Beso Kushtanashvili reportedly became the sixth Georgian to die fighting in Syria. Like all others, Kushtanashvili was from the largely Muslim Pankisi Gorge, an isolated area to the northeast of the capital, Tbilisi.
Whether or not he was fighting for ISIS is not clear. Villagers from the Pankisi Gorge told Georgian television channels that they last saw Kushtanashvili at a summer high-school graduation party before he left for neighboring Turkey. Friends and relatives say they are clueless about how he ended up in Syria.
Earlier on, one Pankisi resident Leila Achishvili lost two of her sons in the Syria war. She told Rustavi2 TV that she had travelled all the way to Syria to beg her sons to come back.
“I was telling them that this is not our war,” Achishvili told Rustavi2. She said that she even met Tarkhan Batirashvili, the Pankisi native who, under the name of Omar al-Shishani, commands a unit within the forces of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The US recently placed Al-Shishani on its black list of terrorists.
No official information has been released about the number of men who have gone from Pankisi to fight for the so-called Islamic State or other radical Islamic groups.
Georgia on July 18 legislatively cemented its European aspirations, while Armenia set a new date for a trip in the opposite direction— integration with the Russian-centric Eurasian Economic Union. The last but not least in the South Caucasus trio, Azerbaijan, remains content with its status as the region’s geopolitical maverick, but wants more appreciation from the European Union.
With EU officials on hand in Tbilisi, the Georgian parliament unanimously ratified the signed association and free-trade agreements with the European Union, and Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili declared, in case there was any doubt, that the country’s European path is "irreversible."
For one thing, they’ve drunk on it. “The ratification of this agreement will not be valid if we don’t chase it with a glass of wine,” observed Parliamentary Speaker Davit Usupashvili, inviting all to move on to the reception.
The session opened with the Georgian national anthem and closed with the EU anthem
Moldova, a fellow EU-enthusiast (and serious wine-producer), ratified the agreements earlier this month, while Ukraine is expected to do the same shortly.
But, as often happens in the South Caucasus, Armenia and Azerbaijan had their own tales to tell as well.
After missing a few earlier targets, Armenia set October as its date for entering the Eurasian Economic Union, Moscow’s response to the European Union. Speculation runs rife about the reasons for the repeated delays, but Yerevan says the deadline's for real this time, and the necessary
But that’s exactly how it has been perceived by Georgian Facebook and Twitter users. “Nice to know that all those people died in Afghanistan for nothing,” bristled one Facebook user, referring to the more than two dozen Georgian soldiers who have died in NATO’s Afghanistan campaign.
With experience also in Iraq and Kosovo, Georgia has supplied the largest number of troops to that operation out of any non-NATO country.
Government officials call that pragmatism. But, increasingly, some Georgians term it schizophrenia.
Georgia has shown signs of such an ailment before. In an attempt to establish what they term the border of breakaway South Ossetia, Russian troops, stationed in South Ossetia since the 2008 war with Georgia, have been weaving fences through Georgian-held territory, often cutting through villages and pasture-land.
Tbilisi also has protested the fence fetish, and alerted its friends in the West, who, in turn, have shook their heads with the requisite expression of concern, but gone no further.
Yet despite these affronts from Moscow, Tbilisi is still dispatching a team of athletes to the Olympics. To appease domestic criticism, though, no senior government officials will be tagging along. Team Georgia will include a mere four athletes.
As another overture, Georgia earlier had offered to help Russia in providing security for the Sochi Games. That’s kind of you, Moscow said, but added that to normalize ties, Tbilisi needs to perform a little “formality” and accept the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
So, where has the policy of "pragmatism" gotten Tbilisi?
As Georgia and Russia prepare to drown the memories of their 2008 war in wine and water, Georgia's legendary mineral-water company Borjomi, the nation's carbonated pride and joy, has been sold to a Russian firm.
Russian billionaire Mikhail Fridman’s Alfa Group, a Kremlin-friendly investment group, has purchased a controlling stake in the production of the salty-tasting Borjomi, Georgian and Russian news outlets reported on January 27. The family of the late Georgian oligarch Badri Patarkatsishvili, who owned the stake, confirmed the deal, estimated at $300 million, but noted that they will retain a role in the company's management.
The controversial sale -- some Georgians view it as part of a sell-out to the enemy -- comes against the backdrop of Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili's attempts to find a way to Russian hearts through Russian stomachs. Next week, Moscow will host key talks on canceling the prohibition on Georgian drinks, which has put the Russians on a Georgian-free diet since 2006. At the time, Gennady Onishchenko, Russia’s top food-taster, declared that beverages from NATO-aspiring, US-friendly Georgia were inimical to Russian health.
If the past is prelude to the future, a 2009 cable from former US Ambassador to Georgia John Tefft, released by WikiLeaks on December 2, reveals some of the reasoning that may have influenced President Mikheil Saakashvili’s surprise November 23 offer to sign a non-use-of-force agreement with Russia.
In a June 18, 2009 dispatch on military cooperation with Georgia, Tefft reportedly wrote Washington that "[i]n the months after" the August 2008 war with Russia, "senior Georgian officials expressed their willingness to pursue a non-use of force agreement if Russia made certain concessions." Noting that the concept had not yet been “explored” with Tbilisi, Tefft supposedly reasoned that "if Georgia were to call Russia's bluff and offer to sign such an agreement with Russia itself … the burden would shift to Russia to demonstrate the sincerity of its commitment to stability" in the South Caucasus.
"It is unlikely that Russia, which still maintains the fiction that it is not a party to the  conflict, would accept Georgia's offer, but it would be left on the defensive," the cable continues. "Meanwhile Georgia could pursue its defensive development with a ready answer to any Russian claims of belligerence or provocation."
Whether or not Russia privately has indicated any willingness to make concessions to Georgia following Saakashvili's non-use-of-force offer remains unknown. Publicly, however, the Kremlin has cold-shouldered the proposal, suggesting that Tbilisi ought to sign any such agreement with separatist Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Such an idea is a non-starter as far as Tbilisi is concerned.