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.
Terrorism and a personal vendetta are being explored as possible motives in the killing of a Russian Embassy official in the separatist enclave of Abkhazia.
A gunman reportedly opened fire September 9 on Russian Vice Consul Dmitry Vishernev and his wife Olga as they got into their car in Sukhumi, the capital of Russian protectorate of Abkhazia, to head to work. The 36-year-old diplomat died on the spot, while his wife was hospitalized and remains in a serious condition. Authorities have mobilized a massive manhunt for the suspect, but so far no individuals have been taken into custody.
The attack coincided with the fifth anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Moscow and Sukhumi. That fact prompted Russian Ambassador Semyon Grigoryev to suggest the murder was an act of terror meant to sabotage the friendship between Russia and its small Caucasus protégé. “Lots of people are not happy with deepening of Russian-Abkhaz relations and the fact that Abkhazia became a security shield of a kind for the [2014 Sochi] Olympic Games,” Grigoryev was quoted as saying by Abkhazia’s state news service, Apsnypress.
Abkhaz separatists broke free of Georgia following an armed conflict in the early 1990s. Soon after Russia crushed Georgian forces during their brief war in 2008, the Kremlin, along with a handful of client states, recognized the independence of Abkhazia and Georgia’s other separatist entity, South Ossetia. Russia maintains a strong military presence in Abkhazia to deter a possible Georgian attempt to reestablish its administrative authority over the territory.
Georgia on August 8 vowed to start direct talks with the representatives of breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia, but it may need first to deal with that uninvited party to the conversation, Russia.
Speaking on the fifth anniversary of Georgia's 2008 war with Russia over the two territories, Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili called on Georgians to wipe the slate clean and collectively reach out to the regions, now located behind a line of Russian troops. “We need to get the strength to forgive...but also we have to accept our own mistakes and undo what still can be undone,” Ivanishvili said, Georgian news outlets reported.
“We are ready for a direct dialogue with our Abkhaz and Ossetian brothers,” he went on to say. “I am confident that we will find a common language to work toward a shared future.”
One Georgian government minister specified later that Tbilisi does not intend to accept in any way the regions' Russian-backed claims to independence from Georgia. “This means restoring mutual trust between the peoples and by no means between subjects of international law,” said Alex Petriashvili, the state minister for Euro-Atlantic integration, Netgazeti.ge reported.
State Minister for Reintegration Paata Zakareishvili told RFE/RL's Georgian service that the new policy would mark a change from the more maximalist, nationalist sentiments that existed prior to the war and an attempt to be more accommodating to the interests of the breakaway regions.
Separatist Abkhazia and South Ossetia may be politically and financially tied to Moscow’s apron strings, but, lucky for them, there is no sugar daddy like Russia. Moscow just told breakaway Abkhazia that it has 1.1 billion Russian rubles to spend by year’s end. That’s a staggering $33.7 million for a tiny piece of mostly unrecognized territory. The high-maintenance Russian protégé promised it will spare no effort to use up the cash.
Ever since Russia claimed guardianship of what it calls the young and independent states of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in 2008, the twins have been a money pit for the Kremlin. Last year, South Ossetia showed up saying that it can’t seem to find $27 million that Russia spared, prompting Moscow to tighten the financial oversight, but not its wallet.
Abkhazia, apparently, has been using the aid more responsibly, though Russians auditors complained earlier in the year that Sokhumi was behind schedule with the spending of the aid. The latest 1.1. billion is what’s left of 10.9 billion rubles ($334 million) that Moscow gave to the separatist territory for 2010-2013 to get in shape.
As many as 145 Syrians have collectively moved to breakaway Abkhazia this week as part of the region’s latest social engineering experiment.
Entire peoples have for centuries been moved in, out and around in the Caucasus at imperial whims. The Abkhaz were among the nations banished from the Caucasus in the 19th century as Russia tried to consolidate its conquest of the region.
After the war with Tbilisi two decades ago resulted in the ousting of most of Abkhazia’s ethnic Georgian population -- again, not without Russia playing a role – the territory's separatist authorities tried to reconnect with Abkhaz Diasporas scattered around the Middle East in hopes they could help repopulate the area. No significant number of these groups took up the invite until war broke out in Syria.
The latest arrivals bring the total number of Syrian-Abkhaz migrants up to over 300 and Abkhazia’s de-facto government hopes to bring in thousands more. The breakaway authorities are paying for transportation, residences and the assimilation of the transplants, who are invariably described as “returnees” even if they have never been to Abkhazia and do not speak the Abkhaz language.
But, as elsewhere in the South Caucasus, in Abkhazia it is common to discuss century-old events as if they happened yesterday.
Russia is building up its military presence in the breakaway Georgian territory of Abkhazia in a way that suggests that Moscow anticipates a long-term presence there, according to a new report by the International Crisis Group. As is often the case with ICG reports, the whole thing (pdf) -- titled "Abkazia: The Long Road To Reconciliation" is worth reading. But Bug Pit readers will be especially interested in the details it provides on Russia's current military posture in Abkhazia:
The 2008 war with Georgia allowed Russia to greatly enhance its already considerable military presence. Russian officials say there are roughly 5,000 Russian personnel in Abkhazia: 3,500 military and 1,500 Federal Security Service (FSB) officers and “border guards”. Moscow allocated $465 million over four years to the rehabilitation and construction of military infrastructure. This included work on Bombora, the largest military airfield in the South Caucasus, in Gudauta. Though Russian media sources describe significant weapons at the base, Western military officials in late 2012 said intelligence indicated only four fighter craft there on a regular basis – two Sukhoi 27s and two MiG-29s.
The Russians also refurbished a smaller, though strategically and symbolically important naval port in Ochamchire, just 30km from Georgian-controlled territory. Eight Russian “border patrol” boats are reportedly there – including two new craft that arrived in 2012. According to FSB officials, they likewise set up several radar stations along the coast to cover Abkhazia’s “territorial waters” and monitor areas under Georgian naval control.
Vanuatu, a diplomatically schizophrenic island in the South Pacific, just had another of its many mood swings vis-à-vis the South Caucasus' territorial disputes. The island nation, which has been twitching between recognizing and not recognizing breakaway Abkhazia’s independence from Georgia, now says it is picking Tbilisi over Sokhumi, Radio New Zealand International reports.
The 12,000-square-kilometer archipelago with the self-conscious national motto of “Yumi, yumi, yumi” ("We, we, we") has asked Georgia to forget about the misunderstandings of the past and come into its diplomatic embrace.
Vanuatu threw itself into the middle of the international controversy over Abkhazia’s status in 2011 after the breakaway region's de-facto government reported that the country had become the sixth to recognize Abkhazia's Russia-backed independence from Georgia. Journalists and diplomats went chasing Vanuatu officials for confirmation, but they just could not get a definitive response.
Foreign Minister Alfred Carlot was first to confirm that his nation had recognized Abkhazia's recognition, then Vanuatu’s UN envoy Donald Kalpokas said it had not. Carlot responded by saying it had. Abkhazia's de-facto foreign ministry, for its part, waving a signed document establishing diplomatic relations "on the level of ambassadors," said it had the proof.
Venezuela is among six countries which have recognized the independence of one or both territories from Georgia. And in the Caucasus, the deed of "a good friend" is not easily forgotten.
At a March 8 funeral rally in the South Ossetian capital Tskinvali, officials and public figures took turns to remember the Chavez they knew, the Chavez they loved, and queued to sign a memorial book to be sent to Caracas.
The mourners said they were forever thankful to the Bolivarian revolutionary for standing up to the West and recognizing South Ossetia’s still largely unrecognized independence from Georgia. “Since then, the people and the president of Venezuela have become close friends to us,” elaborated the territory's de-facto president, Leonid Tibilov.
For a musical memorial, South Ossetia’s singing talent Alla Byazrova, of course, performed her serenade to the late Venezuelan leader. “Hugo Chavez, Hugo Chavez, my best friend, my faraway friend!” she sang to a catchy, syncopated beat.