Russian President Vladimir Putin has modestly understated the number of military bases that Russia operates outside its borders, apparently forgetting about the several bases Russia has in the Caucasus and elsewhere.
In his big annual press conference on December 18, the BBC's John Simpson asked Putin about the breakout of a "new Cold War" and Russia's aggressive moves around its Western borders. Putin said that it was in fact the West who was aggressive:
We have basically only two bases abroad, and those are in terroristically dangerous directions: in Kyrgyzstan after militants from Afghanistan entered that country, at the reqyest of the Kyrgyz authorities, then President Akayev, and in Tajikistan -- also on the border with Afghanistan. I think you also would be interested in everything being stable there, too.
American bases are all over the globe. And you want to say that we're acting aggressively? Does that make sense? What are American armed forces, including tactical nuclear weapons, doing in Europe? What are they doing there?
Keeping up with the regional fad of being annexed by Russia, the separatist territory issued terms of reference for how it would like to be absorbed.
The draft document offers to surrender to Russia such attributes of de-facto statehood as the army, police and courts. Not to mention, the "protection and patrolling of national borders."
Customs checkpoints (not generally accepted for South Ossetia internationally) would be eliminated between the region and the Russian Federation and any restrictions on citizens moving across the de-facto border would be abolished, the draft continues.
In other words, no need to send little green men. There is a catch, though -- South Ossetia, an impoverished region of some 50,000 residents, wants Russia to pretty much sustain it financially.
The region, which was recognized by Moscow in 2008 as an independent country, purportedly sees this takeover as a way of reuniting with its Ossetian kin in neighboring North Ossetia, part of the Russian Federation.
The notion has been around for awhile, but the annexation of Crimea and proclamations of independence by Russian-backed separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk in Ukraine, breathed new life into South Ossetia’s plans.
The detention of the head of a non-governmental organization promoting transparent government in Georgia has raised suspicions over the authorities' motivation.
Institute for Development of Freedom of Information Director Giorgi Kldiashvili was detained on December 12 while carrying a dismantled firearm in Tbilisi. His license did not allow taking the gun out of his house, but he admitted to taking the weapon to a repair shop, according to an IDFI statement.
The group, though, maintains that the nature of the offense and Kldiashvili’s reputation did not warrant the arrest that followed.
After being stopped for carrying the gun, Kldiashvili himself showed up for questioning by police, who arrested him on the grounds that he supposedly could try to avoid prosecution. Two days later, a Tbilisi court found that there were no grounds for remanding Kldiashvili and he was released straight from the courtroom.
It has accused both the interior ministry and prosecutor's office of trying to intimidate Kldiashvili. The organization already is suing the interior ministry for allegedly failing to meet a request to release public information,
A senior parliamentarian from the ruling Georgian Dream coalition, Tina Khidasheli, however, has spoken out against the steps taken by police.
Georgian Defense Minister Mindia Janelidze sees off troops on their way to Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan. (photo: MoD Georgia)
The Georgian armed forces have begun their new mission in northern Afghanistan, serving as the rapid-reaction force under German command in Mazar-e-Sharif.
A reconnaissance company totaling about 170 soldiers was sent off at a ceremony in Georgia December 16. It will take part in NATO's new Resolute Support mission, which is set to formally begin on January 1. While the mission will no longer be oriented toward combat, the rapid-reaction forces will be there to protect coalition troops.
And so Georgia, again, has taken on one of the "tip-of-the-spear" (as the U.S. military might put it) roles in Afghanistan. For four years Georgian troops conducted combat missions in Helmand province, a Taliban stronghold. Now, in addition to the company in Mazar-e-Sharif (where they'll be serving alongside neighbors Armenia), a Georgian battalion has been deployed to Bagram since November, under U.S. command, guarding the base there.
Georgia will have a total of 750 soldiers serving in Resolute Support, remaining the largest non-NATO contributor of troops to Afghanistan. The send-off ceremony was attended by Defense Minister Mindia Janelidze, as well as representatives from NATO and the German armed forces.
Echoing a string of Georgian officials across several changes of government, Janelidze explicitly tied Georgia's contribution in Afghanistan to its aspirations to join NATO.
The Russian-owned mining company RMG Gold this past Saturday, December 13, overlooked an earlier court order and went ahead and started working a piece of Georgian land, Sakdrisi, that many archeologists claim contains the world’s oldest known gold mine. Opponents to the mining operation are putting up a fight, but, as yet, the economic odds appear stacked against them.
The battle began in July 2013, when Georgia’s Ministry of Culture abolished Sakdrisi’s seven-year-old status as a permanently protected historical site. The decision produced a sharp reaction from local civil society activists and international academics.
In June, the Tbilisi City Court overruled the Ministry of Culture’s decision about Sakdrisi’s status, putting a hold on mining operations. RMG Gold and archaeologists were supposed to discuss a compromise, but, apparently, matters were taking too long for the mining company, believed to be one of Georgia's largest taxpayers.
Unexpectedly, the culture ministry late last week gave the green-light for mining operations to start up again.
The archeological site sits on a 22.24-acre plot of land believed to contain 75 percent of an estimated 20 tons of gold. At $38.83 per gram, that’s nothing to sneer at.
Gold happens to be one of Georgia’s top ten exports and brought in $3.52 million in 2013, or 2.9 percent of the country’s total export earnings. As of earlier this year, RMG, which owns the plot of land on which Sakdrisi stands, has invested $300 million into the cash-strapped Georgian economy, according to Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili.
Kyrgyzstan’s government has de facto blocked a popular and hard-hitting news website with the argument that reporting on terrorism is akin to supporting terrorists. Authorities seem to have pressured the website’s local host to disconnect its servers.
ProHost said on December 15 that it would immediately kick Kloop.kg off its servers following a request from the State Agency for Communications, Kloop co-founder Bektour Iskender informed readers through Facebook.
The block has been looming since November 24, when Kloop reposted a video from Britain’s Daily Mail featuring a propaganda video that showed Kazakh children allegedly training as jihadists in Syria. Officials in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan both insist Kloop has aided the terrorist Islamic State by republishing the video.
Kloop was swiftly blocked in Kazakhstan after refusing a written request from the Kazakh prosecutor’s office to remove the offending material; harassment from Kyrgyzstan’s Interior Ministry quickly followed.
Kyrgyz authorities have stepped up pressure on the media in recent months. In October President Almazbek Atambayev broadly blamed journalists for sullying Kyrgyzstan’s reputation abroad.
Georgia has just had a telenovela moment when a vengeful ex comes out of the woodwork. A certain Inga Pavlova, a Russian citizen who claims to be the former wife of Georgia’s perceived shadow-ruler, billionaire ex-Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, has emerged from the shadows to accuse Ivanishvili of bigamy and financial funny business.
In a video posted this weekend on YouTube, the little known Pavlova announced that she intends to sue Ivanishvili, who continues to tower over Georgian politics, for supposedly using her name without her knowledge to set up companies and for divorcing her without compensation.
But Pavlova did not just air her personal grievances. She also questioned Ivanishvili's political record and praised his arch-foe, ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili, who is wanted in Georgia on several criminal charges and continues to shake his fist at Ivanishvili from self-imposed exile.
Last month, Kyrgyzstan’s Education Ministry announced two tenders worth almost $3 million to print more than 1 million textbooks. But it appears the ministry did not want just anyone to bid.
Someone involved in posting the tenders on the government’s procurement website included a couple of Latin-script vowels within Russian keywords (written in the Cyrillic script), making it impossible to search for the announcement.
For example, there is no difference to the naked eye between these two words: books and bооks. But the second word contains two Cyrillic o’s. That makes it impossible to find with an Internet search, which requires an exact match.
In the same way, the Education Ministry used the Latin letters a, e and o (which also appear in the Cyrillic alphabet) in its tender announcements, which are worth a total of $2.8 million. Reporters at Kloop.kg, who revealed the trick, recorded video evidence of how the announcements were hidden.
Anyone who didn’t know about the Latin letters would struggle to find the tender announcements. Anyone who did – someone colluding with a ministry official, for example – would have a massive advantage.
Kyrgyz officials didn’t think up this scheme on their own.
Back in 2012, Russian anti-corruption crusader Alexei Navalny, known for revealing fraud in state procurements there, described how officials “embezzle millions and billions” using this tactic.
The United States Congress has passed a bill authorizing lethal military aid to Ukraine and additional sanctions on Russia, as well as additional measures to support Georgia and Moldova. It declined, however, to give Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine "major non-NATO ally status," which would have made it easier for those countries to get American military equipment.
The bill, the Ukraine Freedom Support Act of 2014, passed both houses of Congress on December 13. It would apply sanctions to Rosoboronexport, the major state arms exporter, or any other country deemed to be involved in transferring weapons to Syria, or "Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova; and ... any other country designated by the President as a country of significant concern ... such as Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and the Central Asia republics" against the will of the "internationally recognized governments" of those countries.
It also calls for sanctions if the Russian state gas company Gazprom withholds gas from those countries and "prioritizes" broadcasting into Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova by the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
“This legislation sends a very direct message to President [Vladimir] Putin who must change his calculus in Ukraine and abandon this disruptive path,” said Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez.
Kyrgyzstan’s problems probably featured pretty low on Vladimir Putin’s to-do list when he traveled to Tashkent this week.
Some in Kyrgyzstan believe the Russian president, and only he, can end their country’s intractable disputes with its neighbor. There was hope, for example, that Putin could get Karimov to resume gas supplies to southern Kyrgyzstan.
Though Putin had a nice package of goodies for his Uzbek counterpart on December 10 – he wrote off most of Tashkent’s debt and showed support only a few months before Karimov is expected to stand for reelection – it is unclear what he got for Russia.
Per usual, Karimov ducked a press conference. And he did not publically opine on the elephant in the room: Tashkent’s future role, if any, in relation to Putin's Eurasian Economic Union.
One of the items supposedly on the agenda, however, was gas.
The standoff in the Fergana Valley directly involves Russia. Russia’s Gazprom had just taken control of Kyrgyzgaz in April when UzTransGaz said it had no obligation to supply Gazprom. Kyrgyzstan’s second-largest city has been without gas ever since.
The meeting failed to produce a breakthrough, Kyrgyz media reported.
Many analysts assume Uzbekistan is using gas to gain leverage over its poverty-stricken upstream neighbor as well as that neighbor's benefactor—Russia.