With this issue, Civil.ge is starting The Weekly Tripwire: a news digest covering the regions of Abkhazia and Tskhinvali region/South Ossetia, as well as related political and security developments domestically and internationally. We welcome your feedback.
Dispatch from Moscow – Kremlin is angry with Georgia: Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin believes Tbilisi’s foreign policy is unreasonable: in his mind, Tbilisi should stop all the talk of the Russian occupation, end partnership with NATO, and “establish good-neighborly and equal dialogue with its neighbors – Abkhazia and South Ossetia.” Karasin also thinks NATO has a “desire to gain its foothold in the South Caucasus,” while Tbilisi colludes by being “part of NATO’s containment policy towards the Russian Federation.” Moscow’s outrage with the Georgian authorities goes as far as for Karasin to compare them to “Saakashvili’s regime” – Putin government’s archenemy, but also the ruling Georgian Dream’s scarecrow. To leave no doubt as to whether all of this constitutes Moscow’s position, Karasin’s interview given to Izvestia newspaper, duly appeared on Russian Foreign Ministry’s official website.
Sokhumi Happenings – Tensions are rising: Opposition in Abkhazia is seriously upset with the region’s present rulers. Back in December 2016, when the tensions were peaking, the opposition and the authorities signed an agreement “on socio-political stability,” doling out certain posts to the opposition, including in the constitutional court and the election commission. But now Amtsakhara opposition party says the authorities are failing to honor commitments and threatens to withdraw from the deal, vaguely threatening “with all the ensuing consequences”. Another opposition group called Kyarazaa has already pulled out. Khajimba argues, they are doing what they can to implement the deal, but the opposition acts irresponsibly, while submitting its candidacies for the relevant posts. They also point out that since Kyarazaa had never signed the agreement in the first place, it could not have possibly withdrawn from it.
Sokhumi Happenings – Khajimba requests faster issue of documents: On June 28, Abkhazia’s Russian-backed leader Raul Khajimba asked his officials to speed up issuing of passports and resident permits for the region’s population. This “resident permit” is a new-fangled way of documenting the ethnic Georgians remaining in Abkhazia without giving them full political rights associated with the citizenship.
Tskhinvali Happenings – Bibilov wants “border security”: While meeting the head of the Russian FSB (security service) border guards in Tskhinvali Region/South Ossetia Anatoly Utkin, Tskhinvali leader Anatoly Bibilov said that new improvements in “border security” were required. Referring to the local ethnic Georgian residents, frequently detained for “border violations”, Bibilov said such “violations” were to be “not just minimized, but eradicated.”
Western voices – EU irked by the Abkhaz dropping charges on Khurcha murder… The European Union issued a statement on June 28, at the annual OSCE security conference, criticizing the Abkhaz decision to drop charges against Kanji-Ogli, saying that “impunity for serious crimes negatively impacts perceptions of security on the ground.” On May 19, 2016 security cameras captured how an ethnic Georgian, Giga Otkhozoria , who was trying to cross the boundary line separating Tbilisi-controlled Zugdidi municipality to Sokhumi-controlled Gali municipality, was shot dead by an Abkhaz serviceman, later identified as Rashid Kanji-Ogli. A Georgian court sentenced him for murder in absentia, as Kanji-Ogli remains out of the reach of the Georgian authorities. On June 2, 2017 Sokhumi dropped all charges against him, claiming that Tbilisi had not provided proper evidence of the killing, despite camera footage.
…while still “concerned” by Russia In the statement the EU and ten of its partner states (Macedonia, Montenegro, Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway, Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia) also expressed support to Georgia’s territorial integrity, as well as their concern due to “Russian military and security-related presence.” They also said that Geneva International Discussions remained “a crucial forum,” while they continued to believe “that a clear non-use of force commitment by Russia is necessary.”
The Military Aspect – Russian forces keep training, rigorously: Russian mechanized forces in Abkhazia are holding two-week series of exercises. The troops are engaged in “intensive tactical training.” This time Abkhaz forces are also practicing fighting together with the Russians in various environments, such as “mountains and sea coast.” Top brass was on inspection trail as the Commander of the Southern Military District Alexander Dvornikov personally visited and assessed the mechanized forces’ exercises in Abkhazia. Meanwhile, Russian missile and artillery forces all over the Southern Military District held their own drills on more than 20 firing grounds, including those in Abkhazia and Tskhinvali Region/South Ossetia. Not to be outdone by their mechanized and artillery colleagues, the Russian tank forces based in Abkhazia went to train for three weeks to the nearby Russian region of Adygea.
Russia’s Network – Russian security officers to be placed in Sokhumi and Tskhinvali… The format is called “Information-Coordination Center of Internal Affairs Agencies,” and it means that the Russian security agents will be permanently and officially stationed in both regions. The development appears to mean consolidation of the Russian control, which is already quite robust thanks to large Russian military forces stationed in the two regions, as well as a number of other levers, including Moscow’s financing.
…with a license to kill: In Tskhinvali the freedom to be exercised by the Russian officers seems especially peculiar – they are getting a right to carry and use firearms, and if they actually do use them, the “legal assessment” of such incidents will be conducted with participation of the Center’s other servicemen. The Russians are also getting the right to conduct “operative and search activities” - in practice, this jargon might mean anything from body searches to erecting roadblocks - in Tskhinvali Region/South Ossetia.
Russia’s Network – Interregional ties: Russian-backed leaders in various provinces of Russia’s embattled neighbors keep developing ties with each other, as well as with the constituent regions of the Russian Federation itself. On June 29, Sokhumi’s Daur Kove visited Moldova’s Transnistria region, meeting the local Russian-backed officials and pledging mutual friendship. Two days prior, representatives of “civic chambers” of Abkhazia and Sverdlovsk Oblast (a region in Urals federal district of Russia) met in Sokhumi to talk partnership. The Russian-backed authorities in Tskhinvali are particularly cozy with their counterparts in Ukraine’s Donbass region. During the last couple of weeks their leader Anatoly Bibilov made a point of publishing on his official website birthday congratulations to both Luhansk and Donetsk “people’s republics” leaders. Next time, he can try postcards, as Tskhinvali post service reportedly signed cooperation agreement with the “Post of Donbass”.
Russia’s Network – Soft power: Russian “St. Andrew the First-Called Foundation” is financing construction of a new large cathedral in Tskhinvali, while the Russian Ministry of Transport is trying to make it easier for Russians to travel to the summer resorts in Abkhazia and Crimea.
On the Line - Incident Prevention and Response Mechanism meeting: The 47th meeting within the IPRM mechanism took place in Gali, on June 28. Among the main issues discussed were the murder of Giga Otkhozoria and the fate of two ethnic Georgians who have been detained since early April for “an alleged crossing of the line of control at an “unauthorized location”.
This news digest is prepared with financial support from COBERM. The views are of authors’ own and may not reflect the position of COBERM. The article uses Civil.ge house style in toponymical designations and when referring to officials in the regions of Abkhazia and Tskhinvali region/South Ossetia.