The Weekly Tripwire 3-9 July

Tbilisi protests land-grab – …leaves Russia upset –  Abashidze-Karasin speak, bicker – Estonian president regrets west errors – Sokhumi simmers – Bibilov visits Khajimba – Maduro has good friends – Russian troops train again – Surkov supervises – Kulakhmetov back in saddle  – Rosneft taps local cadre

On the Line – Georgians upset about the land seizure: The Russian troops have installed a new “border sign” on the Tskhinvali Region/South Ossetia line of control, depriving another local farmer of 20 hectares of his land in the process. The Georgians are not amused, especially since this is just another instance in a long sequence of land seizures by the Russian forces in the area, which some call “borderization”. Georgian officials, the opposition and non-government organizations – all have expressed their outrage.

Dispatch from Moscow – Russia not pleased with the Georgian reaction: “Informational provocation” and “propaganda hoax” are the names the Russian Foreign Ministry is using to describe the Georgian response to the Russian activities on the line of control. According to the Russian MID, the issue was invented by “the opponents of the Russian-Georgian normalization,” who will, however, remain unsuccessful.

TalksAbashidze and Karasin discuss customs monitoring agreement: Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin and the Georgian Special Representative Zurab Abashidze held talks in Prague on July 7. They discussed commerce, including the future implementation of the customs monitoring agreement signed between Georgia and Russia back in 2011. At the time Georgia, as a WTO member, was blocking Russia’s entry into the organization, because Moscow disregarded the Georgian border and customs in Abkhazia and Tskhinvali Region/South Ossetia. After intense negotiations Georgia agreed to let Russia into the WTO in exchange for developing a customs monitoring mechanism for all goods moving between Georgia and Russia through these two regions. Implementation of the agreement proved to be protracted, however. Now Tbilisi is insisting it is ready to finalize the implementation, asking Russia to do the same.

…and bicker on policy Also during the talks on July 7, Karasin berated Tbilisi for “consolidation of cooperation with NATO” and “mounting hostile rhetoric” at international venues. Meanwhile, Abashidze mentioned “alarming developments” on the line of control, such as another “border sign” installation by the Russian forces.

Western Voices – Estonian President speaks about the West’s error: Kersti Kaljulaid, Estonia’s President, believes that the Western world erred when it didn’t make Russia pay for its 2008 invasion of Georgia. She sees Russia’s attack on Ukraine as a consequence of that error, and says that the purpose of Putin is to “rearrange” the existing world order.

Sokhumi Happenings – Opposition quits the “socio-political stability” agreement: After threatening to quit the cooperation deal with the authorities signed in December 2016, the Abkhaz opposition coalition has finally resolved to do just that. On July 7 the opposition issued a statement on the withdrawal from the agreement and placed all responsibility “for the further development of the situation” on the shoulders of the present Abkhaz leader Raul Khajimba. The reason for the move is Khajimba’s alleged failure to honor the agreement, which envisioned granting certain posts for the opposition’s representatives. It appears that the final straw was the Abkhaz parliament’s latest failure to approve the opposition candidacy for the constitutional court membership, which had been advanced in accordance with the “socio-political stability” agreement.

Sokhumi Happenings – Bibilov visits: Raul Khajimba was paid a visit by his colleague from Tskhinvali Anatoly Bibilov. The two did their best in front of the journalists to produce the spheres where the two territories might be able to cooperate despite being geographically asunder and having little to export. They also expressed hopes regarding Russia’s efforts to have any country other than current Venezuela, Nicaragua and Nauru recognize the two regions as independent.

Maduro comforted: President of Venezuela Nicolás Maduro is in deep trouble. The country’s economy has fallen into the abyss, while violent protests have brought Venezuela to the brink of a serious internal conflict. But at least Maduro still has some friends, and very keen ones too. The Russian-backed Abkhaz leader Raul Khajimba congratulated Maduro personally on Venezuela’s Independence Day. So did Tskhinvali’s Anatoly Bibilov. And Khajimba’s “foreign ministry”. And Bibilov’s one.

The Military Aspect – Russians train troops, send new soldiers to Abkhazia: One of the battalions of the Russian 7th Military Base – a brigade-sized unit permanently stationed in Abkhazia – completed tactical exercises together with the Abkhaz troops at Tsebelda firing ground. Meanwhile, 4 500 new troops have arrived to the Southern Military District, of whom 700 went to the Russian bases in Abkhazia and Armenia. Unwilling to leave their base in Tskhinvali Region without attention, the Russians raised the alarm to check readiness of the Russian troops stationed there, along with their equipment and vehicles.

Russia’s Network – Surkov in Abkhazia: Vladislav Surkov, Putin’s point man for Abkhazia and Tskhinvali Region/South Ossetia (as well as for the Russian-backed forces in the eastern Ukraine), went on a visit to Sokhumi. Surkov praised Russia’s relations with the locals and, despite the worsening conflict between the region’s ruling group and the opposition, said Abkhazia was exceedingly stable politically. Surkov did mention, however, the restrictions on property ownership, which can only exercised by “the citizens of Abkhazia.” The Russians have been pressuring the locals to ease the restriction, which would help them accommodate themselves in Abkhazia even more comfortably than at present. Surkov said the prohibition hampered Russian investments to the region.

Russia’s Network – Gazprom’s Miller meets Bibilov: While Sokhumi received Surkov, Tskhinvali’s Anatoly Bibilov went to Moscow, meeting with Gazprom’s chairman Alexey Miller. The latter agreed to spend over 2.5 billion rubles for the construction of natural gas supply pipelines in Tskhinvali Region. Presently only the town of Tskhinvali itself has natural gas, supplied from Russia. The construction is supposed to begin the next year and take a year-and-a-half.

Russia’s Network – Kulakhmetov is back to Tskhinvali: Marat Kulakhmetov, who commanded the force possessing the formal status of peacekeepers in Tskhinvali Region/South Ossetia when the Russo-Georgian War broke out in August 2008, is back in town. This time – as a new “Russian ambassador”. Kulakhmetov presented his credentials to Anatoly Bibilov on July 3.

Russia’s Network – Rosneft changes Abkhazian affiliate head: Russia’s energy giant Rosneft has changed the head of its affiliate company RN-Abkhazia. Instead of Alexander Scherbakov the company will be headed by Christina Ozgan, who had been the Abkhaz economy minister in 2005-2011, before moving to the “president’s administration”.