Russia ratchets up the tension in Georgia

Despite Georgia’s decision to hand over four Russian’s suspected of espionage, Russia isn’t in any mood to let up the pressure on its southern neighbour

Russia’s migration service said on Thursday that the suspension of visas to Georgians would be extended, and that 180-day visas held by Georgians already in Russia would be cut to 90 days.

Russian parliamentarians are also expected to examine a bill this week that would prevent Georgians living in Russia from making bank transfers to relatives back home.

Estimates vary but it is believed that at least one million Georgians currently live in Russia. Many Georgian families depend on the remittances they send home.

I’m sure enterprising ‘businessmen’ will adapt very quickly to these new money transfer rules, by simply sending the money via a third country, but nonetheless, this represents a significant escalation of tensions. 

Georgia, in my opinion, handled the whole spying affair badly, but it’s time for Russia to take a step back, and consider the long term impact of its actions as well.  The Russian government must learn to be as gracious in victory as it is ungracious in defeat. 

Earlier this week, Georgia looked rather foolish, having done little more than embarras itself.  Today, it looks like a victim of Russian bullying again.     

Georgia – Russia tensions escalate

Georgia has arrested four Russian officers, accusing them of spying and planning a “major provocation”.

Mr Merabishvili [Georgia’s Interior Minister] said the detained Russians and Georgian citizens had been collecting information on Tbilisi’s relations with Nato, as well on its sea port and railway infrastructure, opposition parties and army.

“Today we neutralised a very serious and dangerous group,” he said.

Russia’s chief of army staff Yuri Baluyevsky, quoted by Russian news agencies, said the move was “sheer lawlessness”.

I must confess, the situation in Georgia is beginning to worry me.  Both sides seem to be ratcheting up the tension, with no real thought of the long term consequences. 

I think events to date have been little more than posturing – and I certainly can’t believe that either side wants to push the other too far.  But, all the same, I’m beginning to get the feeling that, sooner or later, someone’s going to miscalculate, and spark of a conflict that neither side really wants. 

Update 28/9: Georgia have upped the stakes by surrounding the Russian Army HQ in Tbilisi, preventing anyone from entering or leaving the building.  They’re demanding the surrender of a Russian intelligence officer – Lieutenant Colonel Konstantin Pugachin.

Euro elections

It’s been a busy weekend for election watchers around Europe.

Sweden voted in a new centre-right alliance, their (very) narrow victory breaking 12 years of Social Democrat control.  A Fistful of Euros has covered the election with not one, not two, but three posts – here, here and here.

The German regional elections brought an unexpected success for the far-right, where the National Democratic Party (NPD) won 7.3% in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania.  That takes them comfortably over the 5% needed to get a seat in the regional parliament.  Germany isn’t all far-right extremists, though, and the SDP managed a comfortable win in the Berlin elections.  The local SDP are led by Klaus Wowereit, who just happens to be gay, which has prompted A Fistful of Euros (who else?) to ask is Germany is ready for its first gay Chancellor? 

And, finally, the big news from Moldova is that the citizens of breakaway republic Trans-Dneister have turned out in overwhelming numbers in a referendum on the future of their statelet.  More than 97% of those who voted hated Moldova so much that they  so much that they would like to form a political union with Russia.  The Moldovan Foreign Minister clearly thinks the vote was rigged, and has refused to accept the result of the referendum.  Sensible man – it’s safe to say that any result of more than 90% in an election can automatically be discounted by people who know how to count.  Russia has remained rather tight-lipped.  Not all that surprisingly – the prospect of political union with a dirt-poor criminal statelet isn’t exactly something to be shouting about.

Belarus and Harvard

I’ve been remiss this week in not publicising the great work that Robert Mayer has been doing over at Publius Pundit recently.

He’s just been on a trip around Eastern Europe, investigating the failed attempts to remove Alexander Lukashenko from office in Belarus, and the more successful Orange Revolution in Ukraine.  Here, in One Student’s Struggle in Belarus, he interviews a Belarussian democracy activist, who is managing to continue the struggle in Ukraine.

And yesterday, he published his picture (and words!) report on former Iranian President Khatami’s visit to Harvard University.

Terrorism books being confiscated at British airports

The terrorist threat to air travel should be taken seriously – but probably not this seriously:

Ben Paarman turned up at Luton airport for a flight to Berlin. Having forgotten to remove toiletries from his hand luggage, he was hauled over for further inspection, and two books were discovered. A German novel passed without comment, but Murder in Samarkand, Craig Murray’s memoir of his incident-strewn stint as British ambassador to Uzbekistan, didn’t. “‘Is that about terrorism?’ asked the lady that examined my onboard luggage,” wrote Paarman on neweurasia.net, a collection of blogs by and about Central Asians. “‘Humm, well, it contains mentions of that, but it’s about your former ambassador to Uzbekistan and more about diplomacy,’ I replied politely. ‘Does it have al-Qaeda in it?’ I looked a bit confused. ‘Well, I have to check this with my manager, the rest of your stuff is fine, though.'” The manager arrived, asked Paarman where he got the book (Waterstone’s, Islington), then pronounced: “I am afraid you cannot take this onboard, Sir.” The book was duly confiscated.

Apparently the book, which the Foreign Office tried to prevent Craig Murray from publishing, has been confiscated a couple of times at British Airports recently. Murray, with his unerring eye for self publicity, is claiming that it is now British policy to seize every copy of the book it can copies of the book at airports, and is planning to seek a High Court injunction on the grounds that his (or perhaps the reader’s?) human rights have been curtailed.

Oddly, the Guardian article mentions that Paarman wrote about the incident on his blog- neweurasia. I’ve just had a quick look, and couldn’t find anything, but Ben’s a reputable guy, so I’m sure the article’s around there somewhere. (Update 9/11/06: I’ve just found Ben’s blog post, over on neweurasia’s Uzbekistan blog.  Now why on earth didn’t I think of looking there in the first place?).
Whatever, seizing books from passengers is an alarming precedent, which does absolutely nothing to make the skies a safer place. The practice deserves to be exposed and ended as soon as possible.

Update (11/9/06): Post amended at Craig’s request to correct my error – see comments.

Coup in Georgia?

While a bunch of Tony Blair supporters have been hyperventilating about a ‘coup’ against Britain’s Prime Minister, the government of a far less stable country is claiming that it has foiled a proper coup attempt.

Georgian police arrested 30 members of a Russian backed political party yesterday, claiming that they were plotting a coup.

Registan.net has news and analysis of the arrests.  To be honest, like Nathan and Joshua, I tend to the view that it’s more of a ‘housecleaning’ exercise by a Georgian government feeling the strain. 

If so then, on the face of it, it’s not a particularly positive development for democratic politics in Georgia. 

Japan in Central Asia

Registan.net is doing a great job of covering Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s visit to Central Asia.  Particularly interesting is this post about how Japan is trying to set itself up as an intermediary between Uzbekistan and the United States.

Koizumi’s taking on a tough job – it’ll be interesting to see how he gets on, although I certainly think it’s useful for the US and Uzbekistan to have some back channel communications.  And Japan gets a boost out of it too, raising its international profile that little bit more in its quest for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council.

Walking among Kiev’s tent camps

A year or two ago, back in my siberianlight days, Robert Mayer of Publius Pundit and I briefly discussed the idea of going to Belarus, to provide independent blog coverage of the Presidential election from on the ground.

I never got around to it, because I was too poor (and, let’s face it, too lazy).  But Robert is made of sterner stuff than I and, this summer, has spent several weeks travelling around Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, taking a long hard look at how democracy is faring.

Today, Robert has posted the first of a series of articles based on his travels – Walking Among the Tent Camps – which explores the mixture of disillusion and hope that is felt today by many of those who worked so hard to bring about Ukraine’s Orange Revolution.

Sergei is his name, a 23 year old student of political science who has been an activist for a few years now. He is one of the main coordinators of the camp, making sure that the little village of 52 volunteers, most between the ages of 20 and 30, runs smoothly. And it does. PORA’s base is well-regimented. Political leaflets are handed out as leaders try to persuade passersby to support their cause, the camp is kept clean, intruders are kept out, and volunteers are sent on missions to bring food and drinks for those staying in the tents.

He explained to me that he and the rest had been out on Maidan for nearly a month and would be out there until August 24th, Ukraine’s independence day, because they don’t like the coalition that was formed in parliament and believe that their country needs change. They know longer want to be part of Russia’s sphere of influence and because of it consider themselves true patriots of their country.

Robert has plans to visit more newly emerging democracies and totalitarian countries around the globe – but blog journalism like this doesn’t come cheap.  He’s looking for donations and, if you value quality independent journalism, I’d urge you to contribute a few dollars if you can.