The fallout from the May 19 murder of Giga Otkhozoria has put to the test Tbilisi’s policy of piecemeal reconciliation with Abkhazia and its separatist twin, South Ossetia, and their overlord, Russia.
Georgian public anger over Otkhozoria’s slaying has been directed mainly at Russia, seen as the one calling the shots in both of the breakaways. Russian troops are stationed along both Abkhazia’s and South Ossetia’s administrative borders with Georgian-controlled territory.
That view of Russia’s role may not jive with that of Abkhazia’s separatist government, but, for now, Tbilisi is sticking with it.
“We have planned out concrete steps to boost the process of negotiations, and the presidents agreed on a trilateral statement, which reaffirms their commitment to normalization of the situation on the line of contact and also includes their consent to increasing the number of the OSCE monitors,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has a small ceasefire monitoring mission in Karabakh. For years, the OSCE has arranged peace talks on Karabakh through its Minsk Group, a mediation mechanism led by Russia, the US and France.
Thirty-year-old Giga Otkhozoria was beaten and shot dead on Georgian-controlled territory by Abkhaz border guards in broad daylight and full public view on May 19. The murder was caught on camera.
Otkhozoria, who was displaced from Abkhazia, but, like many in western Georgia, had relatives there, was trying to cross into Abkhazia but was not allowed by separatist border guards, which led to a brawl.
CCTV footage aired on Georgian television showed Otkhozoria pursued by four men into the Georgia-controlled side of Georgia-Abkhaz de-facto border crossing of Nabakevi-Khurcha.
An elderly woman tried to pull them apart, but one man pulled Otkhozoria down and another, uniformed assailant shot him twice, firing the second bullet into his head at near point-blank as people milled about the place. The attackers then scurried off back to the Abkhaz side.
Police on either side of the separatist line have launched investigations. Abkhazia’s de-facto military prosecutors acknowledged the incident took place, and said they would ask the Georgian side to share their own evidence. The Georgian prosecutors identified the shooter as Abkhaz resident Rashid Khajinogli. How they arrived at that conclusion is not clear.
Russia’s plans to keep selling guns to both Armenia and Azerbaijan, no matter if the Caucasus’ two irascible neighbors use them against each other, is feeding growing Armenian frustration with their only strategic ally.
Despite the ceasefires issued by Azerbaijan, Armenia and Armenia-backed separatist forces on April 5, questions still persist within the South Caucasus about what happens if the resurge of violence over breakaway Nagorno Karabakh and surrounding Armenian-occupied territories gets completely out of hand.
Azerbaijan’s defense ministry described its own ceasefire, its second since hard-core fighting broke out on April 2, as “mutual” with Armenia’s military. Baku does not deal directly with Karabakh’s separatist government, but later in the day, an unidentified Karabakhi de facto official told Reuters that the region’s forces also had been ordered to stop firing.
How long these ceasefires will last is anyone’s guess. During Baku's earlier ceasefire, Azerbaijani bombardments of Armenian and Karabakhi positions continued nonetheless, local media reported.
With the risk that a continued Armenia-Azerbaijani confrontation could prove explosive in this strategic region, a vital oil-and-gas corridor, global powers have begun making moves to bring an end to the risk for what Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan terms “all-out war.” But with what result remains unclear.
Longtime mediators in the Karabakh conflict, Russia, the United States and France, convened for an ad-hoc meeting in Vienna on April 5. The group will visit Yerevan, Baku and Karabakh “in the near future,” French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault announced, Russia’s state-run TASS news service reported.
Yerevan already has fixed a date for these guests -- April 9, when the envoys will meet with Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan and Foreign Minister Eduard Nalbandian.
Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine all know the routine.
In the past, Russia swore off Ukrainian candy and dairy products as relations between the two countries worsened over Crimea, the war against Moscow-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, and Kyiv’s pro-Western inclinations. In 2013, it took particular aim at Roshen chocolate, the source of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s personal wealth.
Russia also has closed its borders for European cheese and other foodstuffs as a payback for Western sanctions against Russia over Ukraine. European cheddar cheese was once literally bulldozed off Russian tables.
For years, the Russian dinner table has told the story of Russia’s foreign policy.
Russia is relaxing its visa requirements for Georgians, possibly trumping the European Union’s best card in the ongoing game of influence between the two powers.
“The Russian side confirmed its readiness to continue the liberalization of the visa regime for Georgian citizens visiting Russia,” the Russian foreign ministry announced in a November 19 précis of the latest bout of talks between Moscow and Tbilisi. Georgian officials confirmed that efforts are in progress to ease travel for their citizens to Russia, even though the two countries remain irreconcilably at odds over the location of Georgia’s borders.
Georgia ended its diplomatic relations with Russia after the 2008 war over the breakaway region of South Ossetia.
The visa-liberalization announcement came two days after Georgia went to Brussels for talks about visa-free travel to the European Union. The prospect of visa exemption, largely contingent on Georgia’s ability to keep illegal migration in check, is seen as the major impetus for keeping the Caucasus country on track to closer integration with Europe.
Visa-liberalization had been seen as a chance for Brussels to present a tangible benefit of Georgia’s EU alignment. In explaining Russia’s announcement, Georgian State Minister for European Integration Davit Bakradze emphasized that the talks with Moscow are centered on simplification, rather than cancelation of the visa regime.
Hundreds of Georgians gathered on October 17 in Tbilisi to protest talks with Gazprom about increased supplies of gas to Georgia. Posters blamed the talks on former Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, a onetime Gazprom investor who supports closer trade ties with Russia.
Georgia could be on the cusp of a bargain with Gazprom, Russia’s device for exports of natural gas and foreign policy, that many Georgians deem Faustian. The Georgian government’s intention to increase its imports of Russian gas has been met with fervent resistance as a potential threat to the country's pro-Western track.
On October 17, a crowd gathered in front of Georgia’s central government building to protest ongoing negotiations with the Russian energy behemoth. Seeking more gas from Gazprom amounts to Georgia bucking the trend among “developed countries” to reduce Gazprom’s influence, declared former ombudsman Giorgi Tughushi, who served when Georgia’s Russia suspicions were at their height, under ex-President Mikhail Saakashvili.
“This is tantamount to relinquishing our statehood,” charged Tughushi, warning that Georgia should expect Russia’s President Vladimir Putin “to come out of that pipeline.”
Talks with Gazprom have taken many aback, and, some locals believe, also neighboring Azerbaijan, which provides the bulk of Georgia’s natural-gas supplies. Initially, a surprise September 25 meeting between Georgian Energy Minister Kakha Kaladze and Gazprom Chief Executive Officer Alexei Miller was put down to routine seasonal adjustments for gas transit to Armenia via Georgia. Later on, after Russia media reported plans for another meeting between Kaladze and Miller, the Georgian energy minister said that several Georgian corporate clients were interested in purchasing Russian gas.
In a setup indicative of the changing economic and, possibly, geopolitical dynamics in the South Caucasus, Armenia hopes China soon will agree to pay for a planned railway to Iran. At the same time, it also is lobbying for a free-trade agreement between Iran and the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union.
Economically and otherwise dependent on the big brother to the north, Russia, and sandwiched between hostile Azerbaijan and Turkey to the east and west, Armenia hopes that things can go south, to Iran. The planned railway could give Iran access to the Black Sea for large-scale shipments of exports and landlocked Armenia a significant role as a transit country.
The state of the railway link is not clear yet. Iranian officials said they are building their portion of it, while Armenia is looking for the means to construct its own. Armenian Prime Minister Hovik Abrahamian hopes to scare up investment for the railroad from China during his upcoming September 23-25 visit. Yerevan and Beijing have already been in touch about the railway, according to Abrahamian.
A fresh scuffle between police and demonstrators in Armenia’s capital, Yerevan, suggests that widespread complaints about officials' handling of a 16.5-percent increase in electricity prices could still have legs.
The latest rally, scattered by police on September 12, did not boast the numbers comparable to the “high-voltage rallies,” a series of sit-ins in the city center in June known as Electric Yerevan. It was a much smaller crowd, made up mainly of activists from the No to Plunder group, which claims that the government, counter to its earlier promises, has not entirely covered the cost of the higher power prices.
Most businesses, the group alleges, have been left out.
At first glance, to many outsiders, paying roughly ten cents (48.78 drams) per kilowatt hour of daytime energy use may not seem high. But protesters claim the real issue relates to the practice of officials handing out special favors for the government's corporate chums -- a longtime complaint in Armenia. The government, they charge, always covers up accordingly.
No to Plunder has demanded that the new prices, seen as the result of government collusion with the Russian-owned Electricity Networks of Armenia (ENA), be scrapped entirely. “We will go to the end,” the protesters told Interfax.