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.
Georgia says a Russian military buildup on the de facto border between South Ossetia and Georgia proper is intended to destabilize the country ahead of October 1 parliamentary elections. Georgia accusing Russia of nefarious deeds is nothing new, of course, including in connection with its elections. But over the last few days those accusations have become more specific and pointed.
For one, there are the Kavkaz-2012 military exercises, which Saakashvili said were timed in order to interfere with Georgia's elections:
“I know well what is happening in respect of Georgia in the condition when there is Russian money, Russian methods, Russian compromising materials and Russian army, deployed near our borders holding very dangerous military exercises, under conditions when the occupant of our territories has vowed to accomplish in next few weeks and months what it failed to do in 2008 and to use elections for this purpose,” Saakashvili said.
(For what it's worth, when Thomas Melia, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, testified before a Congressional committee last week, he was asked if he thought the Kavkaz-2012 exercises were intended by Russia to influence Georgia's elections, and he said he didn't.)
EU monitors observe the de facto Georgia-South Ossetia border
For the past several days, South Ossetia's de facto government has been warning about a Georgian military buildup along its border. On Tuesday, South Ossetia's president said that "Georgia is preparing seriously for a war," building up fortifications and arms stores. The following day, an "analysis" by the de facto government's press service suggested that Georgian President Saakashvili was planning to provoke a war to boost his party's prospects in upcoming parliamentary elections. On Thursday, South Ossetia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs warned that Georgia was positioning heavy weaponry, including multiple-launch rocket systems and armored vehicles, along the border.
But now the European Union Monitoring Mission, which keeps track of events along the border, said there's no such thing -- and noted that in fact Russia is building up its own forces along the de facto border:
In recent days, there have been claims about a possible change in posture of Georgian security personnel at the South Ossetian Administrative Boundary Line. The EU Monitoring Mission has been intensively engaged in monitoring and assessing these reports with the deployment of extra patrols and has been checking the situation with the relevant authorities. The Mission has not observed any evidence to support these claims. However, EUMM has further increased its patrolling to actively monitor the situation on the ground.
The EUMM has at the same time observed a build-up of Russian Federation armed personnel along the South Ossetian Administrative Boundary Line. The Mission has raised its concerns about this activity with the relevant Russian command structures.
If there is any conclusion that can already be made about the September 13 bomb attack against separatist South Ossetia’s de-facto deputy defense minister, it is that it is always a good idea to own a large plasma TV.
It was such a television set that shielded Ibragim Gaseyev, his mother and daughter from shrapnel and detritus as an explosion ripped through the door to their apartment in Tskhinvali in the wee hours this morning, investigators told the Russian newspaper Izvestia. Gaseyev and his family survived the attack.
Other deductions made by South Ossetia investigators are both speculative and predictable. Separatist officials claim that the blast is either a product of domestic turf wars or a result of the work of a foreign country's secret services; a list, which, in Tskhinvali’s books, can mean only one place -- Tbilisi.
De-facto General Prosecutor Merab Chigoyev reasoned that Gaseyev is one of South Ossetia’s better military minds, so an enemy state might have tried to cripple the territory’s army. But formidable as those forces may be, it, arguably, was Russia’s involvement, rather than the South Ossetians' display of military know-how, that decided the outcome of the 2008 war with Georgia.
That said, logic does not always come first in the Caucasus.
South Ossetia's de-facto leader, Leonid Tibilov, echoed Chigoyev’s assumptions, but he didn’t rule out the attack being homegrown, either. In the past, violence has marked the competition for political and economic clout in the territory.
Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili used a speech commemorating Georgia’s disastrous 2008 war with Russia to toss a few verbal brickbats at some present-day enemies.
Saakashvili’s nationally televised address August 7 was ostensibly a remembrance of the sacrifices and suffering that occurred during the five-day clash that began on August 8, 2008. But, with an eye toward Georgia’s parliamentary elections in October, the president also did a little politicking on behalf of his United National Movement party.
At one point in his speech, Saakashvili insinuated that Georgia’s leading opposition figure, billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, was acting as an unwitting accomplice of Georgia’s long-time bête noire, Russian leader Vladimir Putin.
“Now they [the Russians] have a new plan for Georgia, which is about breaking Georgia from within … with the hands of Georgians themselves,” Saakashvili said. He went on to deride “mummified figures” who were ready to sell out Georgia.
Saakashvili also baited Putin, saying that Russia couldn’t achieve its goal back in 2008 of installing a pro-Kremlin regime in Tbilisi. "They have failed,’ the president said. “Georgia has the same government, so it [Russia] is not a winner.”
Since Ivanishvili’s emergence as an opposition force to be reckoned with, Saakashvili and his allies have sought to portray the billionaire as a Kremlin hireling. Ivanishvili has tried to counter such allegations by accusing Saakashvili of engaging in reckless behavior that caused Georgian and Russian forces to start shooting back in 2008.
Moscow is never happy to see a US secretary of state lounging about in what it considers to be its backyard; in other words, Georgia. Routine expressions of support for Georgia’s territorial integrity, democratic and NATO aspirations are one thing. But don't get talkin' about those "provocative" identification papers for residents of breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
The documents are meant to provide an international travel option to residents of the two regions -- their independence from Georgia still largely unrecognized -- without specifying their citizenship status. They also, though, are intended to encourage separatist Abkhaz and South Ossetians to come back to Tbilisi's still-waiting embrace.
Granted, the Abkhaz and South Ossetians are not exactly lining up for the Georgian-made documents and a hefty dose of skepticism persists about the prospects for reconciliation-through-IDs. But, still, securing Hillary Rodham Clinton’s public support for the documents was one tangible bonus for Tbilisi from her June 4-5 visit to Georgia.
Nonetheless, despite the IDs' less-than-certain chances for success, Moscow’s thin-skinned reactions suggested that the documents' existence do at least exert a certain psychological influence on the Kremlin.
Moscow, the chief lobbyist for international acceptance of Abkhazia and South Ossetia’s independence, had been quite happy for years to provide both regions with Russian passports for international travel -- even while, before 2008, still recognizing them as part of Georgia.
After securing support from an archipelago of Pacific island nations for the independence of breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia from Georgia, Moscow may now have netted a bigger catch -- Serbia.
During his visit to Moscow last week, Serbia's new president, Tomislav Nikolić, promised to push for recognition of the duo's independence in the Serbian parliament; a pledge that sparked optimism in Abkhazia. And, by now comfortably settled into its role in the two breakaway regions, Russia has made plain that it's happy to sweeten the deal.
Other Russian soul mates, the South Pacific countries of Nauru, Tuvalu and Vanuatu, also received or are believed to have received gifts from Moscow, but the Kremlin maintains their recognitions of the independence of the two Russian-guarded territories came from the heart.
Georgia may not have $800 million to spare, but Tbilisi also sees Belgrade as a soul mate.
Deputy Foreign Minister Nino Kalandadze noted that Georgia and Serbia share an Orthodox Christian faith (for that matter, so do Georgia and Russia), and an aspiration to integrate with the European Union. Beyond guilt-tripping Serbia's government into respecting Georgia’s territorial integrity, Tbilisi expressed hope that Belgrade will not choose to buck the EU’s position on the Georgian breakaways.
After spending weeks locked up in a hospital, breakaway South Ossetia’s embattled opposition leader has become the troubled region's de-facto deputy prime minister through a power-sharing pact with the ruling establishment.
It is hard to say if the appointment is a promotion or a demotion for Alla Jioyeva, the main opposition candidate in South Ossetia’s multiple attempts to elect a de-facto president. Her claims to the presidency over fierce opposition from the powers-that-be and their patrons in Moscow brought her homeland to the verge of civil war and left her confined in a hospital, many of her supporters jailed.
“I will try to save those who were jailed… because of my presidential campaign, although it was not my fault,” Jioyeva told Russia's official RIA news agency.
Jioyeva’s office was raided by police in MARCH as she was preparing for her Do-It-Yourself presidential inauguration. Jioyeva and her supporters claimed they were assaulted during the raid. The powers-that-were denied the allegations, but online photos showed Jioyeva in a hospital with bodily injuries.
That was then, but now is now. Jioyeva insists that the de-facto authorities illegally revoked her victory at the polls, but, apparently, she has come to terms with the fact that South Ossetia has a new (de-facto) president and it is not her.
The once famous Ergneti swap meet, where otherwise antagonized Georgians and South Ossetians used to trade everything from bolts to refrigerators, may make a comeback. The possibility of the market’s return is already sparking hopes that Georgians and South Ossetians can smuggle their way to peace.
In 2004, the Georgian authorities closed down Ergneti, on the border between separatist South Ossetia and the neighboring region of Shida Kartli, to clamp down on the shadow economy. The closure ended rampant smuggling and led to a spike in tax revenues, but it also did away with the only major venue for peaceful interaction between people on either side of the conflict divide.
Separatist South Ossetia finally has a new de-facto president: Leonid Tibilov, a former KGB boss, took the oath of office on April 19.
It took four tumultuous takes to elect the new leader. Comrades-in-separatism Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh and Transnistria sent representatives to attend Tibilov’s inauguration in the South Ossetian capital Tskhinvali. The highest-profile guest was Russian Duma Chairman Sergei Naryshkin. Also present was Nicaraguan Ambassador Luis Alberto Molina Quadra. Nicaragua and Venezuela, along with a couple of Pacific Islands, are the only states to follow Russia in recognizing the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
Perhaps the most important attendee was Alla Jioyeva, an opposition presidential candidate, who bucked both local authorities and Kremlin in her bid for the South Ossetian leadership. The annulment of her reported victory came close to sparking civilian unrest. Since many South Ossetians still believe that she was the rightful winner of the popular vote, Jioyeva’s presence at the April 19 inauguration raises hopes that South Ossetia’s domestic political strife has blown over.
But Tibilov still needs to sort out complicated relations with Moscow and deal with the legacy of massive embezzlement of Russian aid. His pro-Russian stance and KGB past may not be enough to earn Tibilov the full trust of Moscow. “I’d like to assure leadership of the Russian Federation that we will do our best to stay the course chosen by our people, and this choice is connected to Russia,” Tibilov told Naryshkin. “We will be a reliable partner to Russia on its southern flanks.”