Dispatch – March 31/April 1: Landslide

Are you Serious?! Tskhinvali Talks Referendum (Again) – That Sinking Feeling Zelenskyy’s Rocks Georgia (Again)

Discussions and concerns in Georgia these days centered around the loss of lands – be it the possible Russian landgrab in Tskhinvali region/South Ossetia, or residents of a small village in western Georgia having to flee their land as mining destroys habitat. Here is Nini with the usual updates from Georgia.

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This Land Is Mine

ON THIS DAY On March 31 in 1991, Georgia voted in a referendum to restore its independence: 99.08% of 3,326,100 Georgians voted to emancipate themselves from 70-year Soviet rule. Fast forward to 2022, and Georgians are preoccupied with the renewed talk about Russia’s plans to annex already occupied Tskhinvali Region/South Ossetia. The notion is not new: Tskhinvali leaders have repeatedly tried to consolidate electoral support by painting the greener pastures in Russia, but official Moscow was often dismissive. There are similarities now – Anatoly Bibilov is seeking reelection in two weeks. But with Russia’s failure to make much headway in its war on Ukraine, Georgians worry the Tskhinvali region may be presented as a consolation prize to Russians, who see their shop shelves emptying due to sanctions. The fact that the Kremlin-occupied Luhansk area of Ukraine has advanced similar demands for annexation into Russia fans suspicions even further.

IT’S NOT US The idea, with the declared aim to be eventually united with North Ossetia within the borders of the Russian Federation, has met a mixed reaction from Moscow: Press service of the ruling United Russia party cited Andrei Klimov, the deputy head of the party’s international cooperation commission, as saying that Tskhinvali should hold a referendum if it seeks unification with Russia. But Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, when asked about the Kremlin’s attitude, said he “cannot express any position,” noting that Moscow has “not taken any legal or other actions” in this regard. “But at the same time in this case we are talking about expressing the opinion of the people of South Ossetia and we respect them,” Peskov was quoted, cryptically.

OTHER SIDE Things look different in Abkhazia, another Kremlin-backed breakaway region, where de facto officials have spoken against joining Russia and in favor of keeping their independence (even though they endorse the wishes of Tskhinvali). Is Moscow happy with Sokhumi’s reticence? Judging by the recent visit of key Kremlin uber-propagandist Margarita Simonyan, not so much. Simonyan, editor-in-chief of Russian state outlet Russia Today, went to Abkhazia on March 29, opened a “media center” and met with Abkhaz leader Aslan Bzhania, discussing possible easing procedures to cross to Russian territory. Later, she tweeted that keeping the customs checkpoint with Abkhazia was a disgrace. Is Simonyan presaging policy or just expressing her personal wishes? The time will tell.

WHAT EXPERTS SAY Those with extensive knowledge of the occupied regions seem as confused as the rest of us. Former Reconciliation Minister, Paata Zakareishvili spoke with Formula TV about three possible explanations for Tskhinvali’s overture. First, it can merely be a campaign ploy, but – Zakareishvili notes – this came later than usual, as if “some order arrived the day before.” Second, a possible tacit agreement between Moscow and Georgian authorities, where the referendum might ultimately be rejected by Russia, and the Georgian Dream government will claim credit for its much-maligned détente with Moscow. And third – most pessimistic explanation – Moscow may not really care about Tbilisi’s stance and go for the annexation for its internal political reasons.

Giorgi Kanashvili, another veteran researcher on the respective regions, said that Bibilov’s relaunched campaign for unification came in an advantageous context amid the Ukraine developments. Kanashvili says Moscow had before ignored Tskhinvali’s wishes, opting to keep the possibility of annexation for pressure on Georgia, and finds it illogical for Russia to change tack now. “But we see a number of strategic mistakes of Russia,” he concludes, “that’s why, sadly, nothing can be ruled out.”

This Land Is Mined

SINKING Shocking images have emerged from the Itkhvisi village of the mining town of Chiatura, western Georgia. The manganese mining done nearby has apparently compromised land, and some residents wake up to find their homes falling apart. Others go to sleep to the sounds of ominous cracking of land and their walls. Locals say the houses in the entire neighborhood have quickly turned unsafe, and power and water supplies were cut. The villagers, struggling to hold back tears at the thought of their livelihood going to ruin, told the media they are also suffering due to the cold spell, unusual in March. The land started shattering two weeks ago and the dangers of further landslides persist. Itkhvisi residents call for help – saying they have nowhere to go.

SEEN IT BEFORE Locals complain that the destruction was caused by intensive mining works and sounds of subterranean explosions that are still heard. The mining company denies this and advises waiting for scientific forensic reports. Local authorities told RFE/RL the families affected will be paid rent for shelter. This is not Chiatura’s first village to suffer this sad lot: months ago, residents of Shukruti village had to resort to a hunger strike to get proper compensation for their houses lost to landslide damage. In Itkhvisi, the catastrophic land erosion seems to be going far quicker.

INEQUAL BATTLE The relevant human rights/environment protection watchdogs pointed at the lack of equal and effective framework through which the affected people could seek remedy and compensation from large corporations, such as Georgian Manganese, which is carrying out the mining. According to the watchdogs, the companies have been able to evade responsibility for the environmental and human impact of their works.

Details: Mining Blamed for Landslides Crashing Homes in West Georgia


PUZZLE The March 31 address of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy mentioned that he recalls the Ambassador from Georgia. A month earlier Zelenskyy already recalled Ukraine’s Tbilisi envoy Ihor Dolhov as a demarche over Tbilisi’s cautious stance about Russia sanctions. Zelenskyy’s remarks left Georgians guessing: has Kyiv simply made the earlier recall official or was Dolhov relieved from his duties for the failure to get support from the Georgian authorities?

QUOTE Here’s the quote: “There are those who work together to defend the state, so that Ukraine can win its future. We appreciate the work of every such person. And there are those who waste time and work only to keep their positions. Today, I signed the first decree to recall such a person, such an Ambassador of Ukraine from Morocco. The Ambassador from Georgia was also recalled. With all due respect: if there are no weapons, no sanctions, no restrictions for Russian business – please look for another job.” – It is our reading, that Ambassador Dolhov’s services are no longer required. But we leave you to make up your own mind.

RESPONSE What many agree about is that the address at least reminded us about the poor state of Tbilisi-Kyiv relations. The ruling party leaders are not happy either: GD Chair Irakli Kobakhidze, who calls Kyiv’s recent moves toward Tbilisi “illogical,” still sees Dolhov’s presumable dismissal as a logical consequence of recent rhetoric from Ukrainian authorities. The party chairman argued in an interview with the Public Broadcaster that Georgia has been showing firm political support to Kyiv. “Of course, we understand that the {Ukrainian} government finds itself in a difficult state, in a state of war, but this situation still does not excuse the steps which are, I will say it directly, an insult to the Georgian state,” he said. GD sees the hand of its arch-enemy, the United National Movement (UNM) in Zelenskyy’s ire. After all, some former officials – including now-imprisoned Mr. Saakashvili – have worked with Zelenskyy’s cabinet, and several still do. But the truth is, that Prime Minister Garibashvili has been more than cautious not to irritate Russia on Ukraine, and even got scolded by President Zurabishvili.

That’s the full lid for today. May the next issue come out in a more peaceful world. Join us every Tuesday and Friday for the incisive coverage of Georgia’s political life.