A sighting of Russian army trucks in Georgia, just as the country was remembering the Red Army’s 1921 invasion, has set off a fresh furore over that most contentious of topics — the country’s ties with muscular next-door neighbour, Russia.
As the video and photo proof of general-purpose, Russian-made ZIL 131 military trucks rolling down highways or parked on streets, including in the Georgian capital,Tbilisi, went viral online, TV crews went chasing the vehicles. "It has begun!" one Twitter user wrote.
Reactions ranged from indignant to baffled to plain curiosity about the reasons for the trucks’ presence in Georgia. "I am not doing anything illegal," a stressed-out Russian-speaking driver told skeptical TV crews, who chased him down late on February 25.
With Russian troops already stationed in breakaway South Ossetia, just over half-an-hour from Tbilisi, and in fellow separatist Abkhazia, the reason for the alarm was plain.
The opposition United National Movement (UNM) Party, the self-styled torchbearer of patriotism, was hot on the case, demanding an explanation from the defense ministry. "This image shows Russian military vehicles, with a Russian driver and Russian license plates headed toward the reserve military base in Senaki [town in the west]," charged parliament member Nugzar Tsiklauri, Tabula.ge reported.
In 2011, under ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili, leader of the UNM, the Georgian parliament canceled a five-year military transit agreement that allowed Moscow to send supplies via Georgia to its army base in the Armenian town of Gyumri. The agreement allegedly was not implemented after the 2008 war between Georgia and Russia.
Its current status could not be immediately determined. Some Georgians, however, had assumed the ZILs were meant for Armenia.
The UNM, which is loyal to ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili, construed the trucks, however, as roaring testimony of the Georgian government’s alleged pro-Russian leanings. The interior ministry’s mundane explanation that the vehicles were brought in privately to be sold for spare parts did little to appease the critics.
Later on, ads for the mysterious trucks were found on a website that sells cars. The owner, Shmagi Tokhoshashvili, was charging $9,000 for two 1992 ZILs.
Tokhoshashvili told the Kviris Palitra news site that this is not the first time he is selling these trucks in Georgia. The uproar has put him in a state of panic, but he was also thankful for the publicity.
"People use them for all kind of things, mainly to move stuff around," he said.
He did not specify how he got the trucks or if he had to get any special permit for importing military vehicles into Georgia.
Perhaps next time he will bring a tank.