Georgian officials are saying -- again -- that they will make some concrete progress towards NATO integration during the alliance's next summit in Wales in September. “There is a high probability that at the next summit we will have new instruments for closer integration with NATO. Whether it will be called a MAP [Membership Action Plan] or it will be a new instrument… it has yet to be decided,” said Defense Minister Irakli Alasania in an interview with Rustavi 2 TV, reported Civil.ge. But will that help Georgia regain its lost territories?
That's what Georgia's new cabinet minister in charge of affairs in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Paata Zakareishvili, told The Bug Pit. Not because those breakaway territories want to be part of NATO, but because it would signal strength. I didn't bring up NATO in our interview, but Zakareishvili did: "We need to see very serious steps toward NATO to show Abkhazia and South Ossetia.... the European institutions should have our back, so we feel strong. It's quite clear that it's too early to talk about MAP, but there are signals... that there is progress. If we had MAP, we'd be more confident talking with the Abkhaz and Russians, we could say 'Look. we're going there anyway.'"
He continues: "NATO is not attractive [to Abkhazia] but it's the reality. Georgia is not part of any regional security organization. We left Russia's, the CIS, we don't see any prospects there. Now we're in a transitional period. We left somewhere but we haven't reached anywhere else yet. And the Abkhaz see this. And they see that nobody accepts Georgia, or didn't accept us for a long time, so what's the point of talking with Georgia? Here is Russia, which is more secure -- maybe it's not the ideal system, but it's still more secure. So why should we follow Georgia, if Georgia has no prospects? We need to show that Georgia is clearly going toward Europe."
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?
When it comes to the Caucasus, cheeseburgers do not easily mix with conflicts.
A spokesperson for McDonald's Europe has denied to EurasiaNet.org that the US hamburger giant intends to open an outlet in the breakaway region of Abkhazia, located just to the south of Sochi, the Russian host city for the 2014 Winter Olympics.
Last week, Abkhazia, recognized by most of the world as part of Georgia, appeared on the McDonald's website in a list of potential international franchise sites. The inclusion, interpreted by many Georgians as a sign that McDonald's was recognizing Abkhazia's independence (as have Russia and and a handful of chums), sparked a wave of anger within Georgia against the popular restaurant chain.
The spokesperson wrote in a January 16 email, however, that, despite Abkhazia's appearance on the list, "we currently have no plans to develop restaurants there."
"We apologise if this has caused any offence or confusion," she said.
The territory has been removed from the rundown of target franchise locations. The spokesperson, who asked to be identified only as such, did not respond in time for publication to a question about how Abkhazia had ended up on the list.
Its appearance under the heading "Select a Country" had sparked some Georgians to discuss boycotting or launching protests against Georgia's four McDonald's restaurants.
The McDonald's Europe spokesperson, though, said that the drop-down menu "should have read 'select a market'," in keeping with the company's usual terminology.
In the wake of the outcry, Georgia's McDonald's franchisee, Temur Chkhonia, pledged to take the restaurant to Abkhazia, but that prospect appears one that neither the de-facto Abkhaz government (wary of all things Georgian), nor, now, McDonald's are eager to embrace.
An arms cache that Russian and Abkhazian security forces said they discovered in 2012, part of a plot to attack the upcoming Winter Olympic games. (photo: Russian Antiterrorism Committee)
A swathe of Abkhazian territory will be included in part of the large "security zone" being set up in advance of the Winter Olympics taking place in Sochi, Russia, next month. Starting today, anyone entering the zone will have to produce documents to police, according to a report by the Abkhazian news agency Apsny (and translated into English by civil.ge).
“[A] stationary checkpoint” will be established at the village of Bagripshi on the edge of the 11km zone, which will be manned by officers from the Abkhaz security service, interior ministry and migration service.
At this checkpoint the officers will be authorized to check identification cards of persons entering into the extended ‘border zone’ or heading towards the Russian border, as well as to inspect vehicles. Abkhaz law enforcement officers will be carrying out round-the-clock patrols in the villages falling within the zone, according to the decree.
This is a previously unannounced expansion of the already very extensive security zone that Russian security forces have imposed around Sochi. Security fears have mounted as the games approach; Islamist groups from the North Caucasus have vowed to attack the games and last month carried out suicide attacks in the city of Volgograd.
In a peace offering to its erstwhile countrymen, Georgia has renamed its ministry in charge of relations with its breakaway republics to emphasize "reconciliation" rather than "reintegration." While the move has gained praise from Georgia's Western partners, the de facto authorities of the breakaway territories, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, have been less impressed.
In renaming the ministry from "Office of State Minister for Reintegration of Georgia" to "State Minister for Reconciliation and Civil Equality of Georgia." "The term "reintegration" within the title held back communication with Abkhazian and Ossetian communities. The new title is both neutral and inclusive of those two directions and we hope that through introducing a new title, one of the arguments of our opponents will lose relevance," said Minister Paata Zakareishvili in announcing the move. Zakareishvili said that he had been trying to change the name for some time, but that former President Mikheil Saakashvili blocked the change.
The move was intended to help encourage the de facto authorities of Abkhazia and South Ossetia to communicate directly to Georgian authorities. But the response from Tskhinvali and Sukhumi, unsurprisingly, was that the move was merely cosmetic, and that a change of tone was not what they were looking for. Boris Chochiev, a senior South Ossetian government official, told the BBC:
Georgia claims it has averted an accidental encroachment on its sovereignty by one of the world's most powerful forces. No, not by Russia. By McDonald's.
The Illinois-based hamburger giant recently advertised on its website for a franchisee in Abkhazia, a breakaway region that Tbilisi and most of the international community (unlike Russia and a handful of pals) see as part of Georgia, and not, as the McDonald's ad suggested, an independent country.
Given Abkhazia's proximity to the 2014 Winter Olympics host city of Sochi, opening up a restaurant in the region may well have struck some at the Games' "Official Restaurant" as a swell idea. But in Tbilisi, the ad was construed as a plan to recognize Abkhazia’s de-facto independence from Georgia.
The question was how to respond. Severing ties with McDonald's was not in the cards. McDonald's has pretty much got Georgia hooked on its menu, free wifi and kids' parties.
Some people mooted the idea of boycotting the company's four Georgia-based restaurants. Or of protests, that ancient Georgian tradition.
But before matters reached such a head, the company deleted the statement, now found only in a Google cache or referenced in news stories.
McDonald’s franchisee for Georgia, businessman Temur Chkonia, took credit for the move. Calling the Abkhazia ad "a very primitive mistake," Chkonia told Netgazeti.ge that he had talked with a lawyer for McDonald's about the solicitation, and is awaiting a written explanation.
The customs-free wonderland that Russia is busy building around itself to counterbalance the European Union will come with still more unrecognized or half-recognized lands. On December 10, the Russian Duma approved a 2012 agreement to drop customs duties between Russia and the twin breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
“Ratification of the agreements will become an important step toward intensifying trade turnover between Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and Russia and members of the Customs Union,” pledged Eurasian Integration Parliamentary Committee Chairman Leonid Slutskiy, ITAR-TASS reported.
The two tiny enclaves -- in Moscow’s view, perfectly sovereign lands -- are tied to Russia’s apron both by their economies and their claims to independent statehood. Now, they can export customs-free to Russia anything but sugar, tobacco and alcohol. Russia also cancelled export duties on set volumes of petroleum exported to Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Of course, there is more in this for the territories than for Russia, which periodically injects aid into both breakaway territories. The Kremlin is pouring so much money into Abkhazia and South Ossetia that it will not even notice a revenue-drop from the removal of duties on imports from and petroleum exports into the regions, said Slutskiy.
In 2014-2015, Moscow plans to invest over 3 billion rubles (about $92 million) in Abkhazia alone, according to the region's de-facto official news agency, Apsnypress.
The U.S. ambassador to Georgia has sparked controversy with comments that criticized Georgia's policy, in the early days of independence, toward the minority populations of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Ambassador Richard Norland was speaking to a group of students at Tbilisi State University on November 15, and was asked about the possibility of Georgia regaining control of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. His comments, apparently recorded by someone at the event, included the following:
If you ask me about my personal opinion I can tell you that when I was in Georgia 20 years ago I saw that Georgians were treating Abkhazians and Ossetians the same way as Russians were treating Georgians and Georgia will have to apologize for the mistakes of the past.
This isn't an especially controversial statement; Georgians frequently express similar sentiments as they rue the mistakes that were made in the 1990s that contributed to the loss of those territories. But it's apparently too sensitive for the U.S. ambassador to say such a thing in public. In American politics Norland's statement would be called a "gaffe," which is when a political figure accidentally tells the truth. And the predictable result was that Georgian officials lined up to criticize Norland's remarks, and Norland was forced to backtrack.
Some of the Georgian responses, from a report on Georgian television station Rustavi-2 (via BBC Monitoring):
If the Abkhaz want to visit the Winter Olympics next February in the Russian city of Sochi, about 25 kilometers to the north, they might need to walk. And even then there is no guaranteed access through a gateway that Russia plans to keep ajar.
In a recent decree laying out the do's and don'ts during the Olympics, Russian President Vladimir Putin called for strictly limiting access to Sochi from the de-facto border crossing with breakaway Abkhazia, recognized by Moscow as a sovereign state.
Residents living in the border area will have some freedom of movement, though they might find interior ministry troops hanging out in their backyards. The troops also will be policing the coastline south of Tuapse, a seaside city north of Sochi.
The Sochi area itself will be broken up into restricted zones, entrance into which will be subjected to search. All demonstrations, unless part of the Olympics, will be prohibited. The sale of poisonous or potentially poisonous substances, save for prescription drugs, will also be banned.
Such restrictions are not exactly what Abkhazia, which largely depends on Russia for its economic survival and, itself, cannot participate in the Games, had in mind.
In what is making for a tale worthy of a John-le-Carré-thriller, de-facto officials in the breakaway region of Abkhazia have unearthed the bodies of a missing Russian businessman and his girlfriend, murdered in what they claim is a slaying linked to the fatal shooting of a Russian diplomat and his wife in Sokhumi last month.
Local police found the bodies of gravel manufacturer Sergei Klemantovich and his girlfriend, Oksana Skaredneva, in a well in the village of Adzyubzha (or Akhaldaba in Georgian) in the southern, predominantly ethnic Georgian district of Gali after arresting four suspects for their murder, the de-facto official Abkhaz news agency Apsnypress reported on October 13.
The pair had been missing since September 2012. Some Russian outlets have suggested that Klemantovich became a victim of local turf wars.
Almost exactly a year after the duo's disappearance, the Russian diplomat allegedly looking into their whereabouts, Russia’s vice-counsel to Abkhazia, Dmitry Vishernyev, was shot dead in a September 9 attack by an unknown gunman in Sokhumi. The diplomat’s wife, Olga, later died from her wounds in a local hospital.
Abkhazia’s de-facto prosecutors have reasoned that Vishernev's investigation could have led to the couple's slaying. Details have not yet been forthcoming.