Amidst mounting concerns in Washington about Russia’s military presence in war-ravaged Syria, one question persists — if existing air routes for Russian flights to Syria are closed, what will be Moscow’s backup plan? Long a corridor between Russia and fellow Syrian ally Iran, the South Caucasus countries of Georgia and Armenia appear an option to some.
It is unclear, however, what exact role US ally Georgia, to Russia's south, and Russian ally Armenia, to Iran's north, play or could play in any such corridor.
So far, government agencies in both Caucasus countries and US diplomats have equivocated on the matter.
On September 11, Georgian aviation officials announced that Russia, its northern neighbor, has not asked to use Georgia’s airspace for Syria-bound flights “in recent days or in the past two months.” Whether it did so before “the past two months” was not specified in the statement to GHN newswire.
In Armenia, with which Russia has just announced plans for a joint air defense union, the foreign ministry deferred questions on Russian military flights to Armenia’s Civil Aviation Authority.
Armenian Civil Aviation Authority Spokesperson Rouben Grdzelian told EurasiaNet.org that “there isn’t any restriction” on Russian military flights “as Russia can freely use Armenian airspace . . .” Russian military flights come into Erebuni, a military airport just outside of the capital, Yerevan, almost every day, he added.
In a Caucasus-first, Georgia has selected a woman, 41-year-old parliamentarian Tina Khidasheli, as its prospective defense minister. The appointment, relatively unexpected until this week, comes amidst a mini-cabinet-shakeup that once again lays bare divisions within the country’s political leadership.
Khidasheli, the chairperson of parliament’s European Integration Committee, and her husband, Parliamentary Speaker Davit Usupashvili, are a power couple leading the moderate Republican Party, a gathering of pro-Western intellectuals that are members of the ruling Georgian Dream coalition.
Trained in international law, she is a fluent English-speaker, who has had brief fellowships at Yale and Georgetown Universities and worked for over a decade at the Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association, a reform-minded legal-watchdog. *
While Khidasheli has a prominent public presence, the exact reasons for her nomination are open to some speculation. Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili announced on May 1 that the current defense minister, Mindia Janelidze, will return to his role as head of the prime minister’s security council.
The other day, NATO chief Anders fogh Rasmussen posted on his Facebook page a little video in which he soliloquized about the progress made by the allied forces in Afghanistan. The secretary-general, no doubt, was hardly expecting that another bland talk making the usual points would harness over 280 likes and get peppered by an endless litany of comments on the night of November 12.
But compulsively posting passionate comments under the video were not tax-paying citizens of NATO countries or the Afghans. Rather, these were NATO-aspiring Georgians, who hijacked the secretary-general’s page, turning it into a battleground of their own political differences that has very little to do with the Afghanistan campaign.
The Georgians, who tend to be the most ardent followers of Rasmussen's Facebook status reports, debated his November 12 comment that he is “extremely concerned” about the Georgian government's recent arrests of ex-Defense/Interior/Prisons Minister Bacho Akhalaia, Army Chief of Staff Giorgi Kalandadze and Fourth Brigade Commander Zurab Shamatava.
Rasmussen said this just as Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili made his debut foreign visit to Brussels.
In his home country, Ivanishvili is often seen as a messiah who defeated President Mikheil Saakashvili's powerful political machinery and arrested an ex-minister (Bacho Akhalaia) reputed to have abusive ways.
Georgia may maintain that its army is all grown-up now and ready to join NATO, but how criminal charges brought against ex-Defense Minister Bacho Akhalaia and two senior military figures will play in Brussels is grabbing attention within Tbilisi.
NATO's Military Committee, the Alliance's senior military-policy body, has postponed a visit to Georgia scheduled for late November -- the Georgian government claims it is because the post of joint chief of staff is vacant, but critics lay the blame on the recent arrests of Akhalaia, Joint Chief of Staff Giorgi Kalandadze and Zurab Shamatava, the commander of the Georgian army's elite 4th brigade.
The Alliance did not respond to a EurasiaNet.org request for comment.
Akhalaia, Kalandadze and Shamatava have been charged with abuse of office (literally, the physical abuse of subordinates), a crime that carries a maximum eight-year prison sentence.
Akhalaia also has been charged with the "illegal imprisonment" of an unnamed individual, a crime that carries a maximum 10-year prison sentence. In a November 9 statement, General Prosecutor Archil Kbilashvili claimed that both men had attacked the supposed victim in a restaurant, then summoned special forces to tie him up and hold him in a Tbilisi apartment. The motivation for these alleged actions was not clear.
Just get in better democratic and military shape and you are almost there, guys, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization told ever-aspiring NATO member Georgia during a November 9-10 visit to Tbilisi. The country may have heard this line before, but, for many Georgians, it still sounds like music to their ears.
Parliamentary Speaker Davit Bakradze took it a notch higher, saying “boldly” (in the words of one Georgian news service) that Georgia is now “closer to NATO than ever.” He expressed hope that the 2012 NATO summit in Chicago would bring Georgia still closer to the military club.
And, to sweeten the pitch, Tbilisi pledged to beef up its military presence to NATO's Afghanistan campaign still further next year, with another battalion. At 937 personnel, it currently ranks as the second largest non-NATO contributor (after Australia at 1,550). Even after the loss of ten personnel, it looks like Georgia wants to top the charts.
But, as it pulls itself toward the alliance -- ever closer, ever closer -- Georgia remains mired in a conflict with Russia and two separatist regions that make NATO accession far from a paint-by-the-numbers project.
A mine explosion in Afghanistan’s Helmand province killed Corporal Giorgi Avaliani, while two other corporals, Nikoloz Deisadze and Ednar Abuladze, suffered injuries, the Ministry of Defense announced on February 22.
The fatality is not expected to deter Georgia's parliament, dominated by the ruling United National Movement, from dispatching the artillery instructors, however. On February 6, party leader President Mikheil Saakashvili told the Munich Security Conference that Georgia would be beefing up its troop presence in Afghanistan “for the months to come.”
Domestic opposition to Georgia’s increasingly costly efforts in Afghanistan is feeble, as many hope that some day NATO will prove a solution for Georgia’s biggest problem, Russia.
But with Georgia's NATO membership plans facing steady headwind from heavy hitters within the Alliance, some critics say Georgia is now treading water in Afghanistan. Stronger democratic credentials will more easily cinch a membership deal with NATO than however many artillery instructors are sent to Afghanistan, they argue.
Three men were arrested for the negligent handling of a mortar that exploded on January 11, killing three soldiers and wounding 13 other service personnel at a military training center near Tbilisi, the Georgian Ministry of Defense has announced.
“The investigation indicates that the incident was caused by violation of safety norms,” said the ministry in a statement released late on January 11. Military trainer, Col. Tristan Tkesheladze, Col. Mamuka Fareshishvili and Lieutenant Major Malkhaz Kobalia were taken into custody. The three men were responsible for safety measures at Krtsanisi National Training Center, where US servicemen train Georgians for North Atlantic Treaty Organization operations in Afghanistan.
President Mikheil Saakashvili and opposition leaders have demanded a full and transparent investigation into the incident.
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