Tag Archives: Georgia

9 people kidnapped in 37 days near occupation line

An Incident Prevention and Response Mechanism (IPRM) meeting is now underway in Ergneti village several kilometers away from the Russian occupied Georgian region of Tskhinvali (South Ossetia), where security conditions along the occupation line are traditionally on the top of agenda.

Georgian Information-Analytical Department under the State Security Service reported that 9 people have been kidnapped since the last IPRM meeting in April. The six people have been released while one is about to be released in coming days.

Continue reading 9 people kidnapped in 37 days near occupation line

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Former Georgia president shakes up Odessa

Skashvilli

The treacherous six-hour drive from Odessa to Bolgrad, the rural town where Petro Poroshenko was born, helps explain why in May the Ukrainian president entrusted the job of regional governor to Mikheil Saakashvili, the maverick reformer and former president of nearby Georgia .

In these agricultural heartlands, impoverished locals struggle to get produce to markets. With deep potholes and dirt tracks, roads are more torn up than in Ukraine’s war-torn breakaway east.

After years of neglect, the 244km ride from the cosmopolitan regional capital and Black Sea port hub of Odessa to this southwest corner of Ukraine is like navigating a minefield.

“We feel abandoned, cut off and left for despair . . . Leaders from Kiev, including Poroshenko, aren’t welcome any more,” said Viktor, a resident in the largely ethnic Bulgarian town. “But we like Saakashvili so far,” he added.

Last year’s clashes in Odessa city between pro-Russian and pro-Ukraine forces fed fears that the Moscow-backed separatism fomented in the Donbas region could spread to Odessa, which has a high proportion of Russian speakers and is an ethnic melting pot.

Some feared the arrival of Mr Saakashvili, a foreigner and pro-western politician who in 2008 clashed with Russia over control over two Georgian separatist enclaves, could stoke fresh geopolitical tension.

Kiev’s hope was that he would repeat his success in Georgia, where he helped turn the economy around, and thus neuter support in Odessa for Russia.

So far, the arrival of the straight-speaking Mr Saakashvili, who studied in Kiev and speaks Russian, Ukrainian and English, has injected fresh energy and hope into a region that faces some of the same challenges Georgia did when he took over more than a decade ago. He is now exiled from his country by criminal charges that he says are politically motivated.

In Odessa, road reconstruction has accelerated and Mr Saakashvili has sacked corrupt regional officials and promised investment and new jobs, swiftly winning over desperate locals.

Hopping into a crowded and sweaty Odessa minibus last week, with no notice and without bodyguards, Mr Saakashvili made one of his regular trips around the region to get a glimpse into what works and what doesn’t.

At first his presence stunned his fellow passengers, tourists and residents alike. But the locals quickly made their feelings clear, pleading for reforms.

Mr Saakashvili told them his top priorities are fixing infrastructure and boosting business and tourism, tasks that will be financed by a crackdown on corruption.

“The old system is collapsing,” he said, as the minibus bounced erratically over potholes. “Revolutionary reforms are the answer and we need to act fast.”

“We know Putin is plotting to foment separatism here,” he added. “Without Odessa, there will be no Ukraine. It will be cut off from the Black Sea . . . its exports will be choked.”

As the bus rolled into the resort town of Serhiyivka, residents launched into accusations against a once-feared mayor who has controlled the city for more than a decade. They took Mr Saakashvili on a tour of dilapidated infrastructure, pointing out the luxurious estates built by local officials.

Sergei Lutenko, a 26-year-old who hopes to challenge the mayor in forthcoming elections, said Mr Saakashvili’s presence had “broken fear and offered hope”.

Hours later, in the governor’s office, Mr Saakashvili called in the heads of anti-corruption departments for a televised cabinet meeting.

He swiftly fired them and their staff after one admitted he had brought no officials to justice for corruption since the beginning of the year.

“Have you not seen the roads?” said Mr Saakashvili. “Where did the money go? I’m firing you for doing nothing.”

The ruthless accountability demanded by Mr Saakashvili has regional officials in a panic: many have started repaving roads at their own expense.

“They know I will come to their town next, and they are trying to hold on to their jobs by covering up their wrongdoings,” Mr Saakashvili said.

Broader plans include streamlining local government from about 8,000 to 3,000 staff and clamping down on the rampant evasion of customs duty at regional ports.

This, he says, will free resources to improve governance by replacing fat-cat bureaucrats with more motivated — and often western educated — young people. His flamboyant style strikes a chord in a region known for its sense of humour.

“We need to move fast . . . It will be messy; mistakes will be made,” he said. His combative approach may yet anger entrenched mafia interests and even put him in danger.

“First they will try character assassination, to discredit me. After that they will come after me with other methods,” he said.

Echoing the views of residents across the region, Viktor, from Bolgrad, said:

“It was strange at first to have a former president from another country as our new governor, but in one month we see him doing more than anyone did for us in years.”

Putin’s Armenia Shock — Protests break out against a Russian ally in the Caucasus

Demonstrators wave national flags during a protest rally against a hike in electricity prices in Yerevan, Armenia on June 27.
Demonstrators wave national flags during a protest rally against a hike in electricity prices in Yerevan, Armenia on June 27

Ten thousand protesters over the weekend poured into the streets of Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, defying the government’s crackdown. Russian-media reactions suggest the Kremlin is nervous, as Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan is a close Moscow ally.

The so-called Electric Yerevan protests erupted this month after the state utilities commission announced a 17% rise in electricity rates, and they have steadily grown.

At issue isn’t merely the electricity price-hike in a country with 17% unemployment but the Russian domination of the local economy and the corruption and cronyism that are hallmarks of the Kremlin business model.

The local electricity provider, the Armenian Electricity Network, is a subsidiary of Russia’s Inter RAO, whose chairman, Igor Sechin, is a close friend of President Vladimir Putin.

The protesters allege the company is corrupt, and on Saturday Mr. Sargsyan conceded their demand for an audit. He also suspended the price hike, which was set to begin in August, until the audit is complete.

The Armenian leader and his Russian patrons seem to have grasped the depth of national feeling. The Kremlin over the weekend lent $200 million in military aid to Armenia, which has a long-standing territorial dispute with neighboring Azerbaijan.

Moscow also agreed to move the trial of a Russian soldier suspected of murdering an Armenian family in January to an Armenian court.

At stake for Mr. Putin are his military investments in Armenia. Home to some 3,000 troops, the 102nd Military Base in Gyumri, Armenia, is a crucial Russian beachhead in the South Caucasus corridor, without which Moscow can’t control the Caspian Sea and Central Asia.

Mr. Putin considers the Caucasus part of Russia’s imperial domain, and the Kremlin carved out bits of sovereign territory in the region in its 2008 assault on Georgia. Mr. Putin also wants stability in his Eurasian Economic Union, which Armenia joined this year.

The U.S. and Europe should aim to deny further Russian encroachments by encouraging westward steps. But no such determination is in evidence.

The European Union last month diluted its commitment to the Eastern Partnership countries, which include the South Caucasus states of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia. By denying such states a clear path to association, Europe pushes them into Mr. Putin’s sphere.

The U.S., meanwhile, took a stance on Twitter. “Concerned by tense situation downtown,” the U.S. Embassy in Yerevan tweeted over the weekend. “Urge all sides to display peaceful, restrained behavior befitting democratic values.” That’s nice.

Penguin From Flooded Tbilisi Zoo Swims To Azerbaijani Border

The penguin is now headed back to Tbilisi
The penguin is now headed back to Tbilisi

After floods devastated the Tbilisi zoo, some of the surviving animals were rounded up in the Georgian capital — but a penguin made it all the way to the border with Azerbaijan.

An African penguin from the zoo was spotted swimming in a river near a bridge at the international border some 60 kilometers from Tbilisi, the zoo administration said on June 17.

“He is alive,” it said. “A group has gone to bring him back to Tbilisi.”

Twenty African penguins were moved to the Tbilisi Zoo in July 2014 from Living Coasts, a zoo in the town of Torquay in southern England, in a bid to set up a new breeding colony for the endangered species.

The penguin found near the border was among many animals that broke loose and roamed after the zoo was swamped by severe floods that killed at least 17 people and caused severe damage to the Georgian capital.

Many zoo animals drowned, and some were shot dead by police who cited safety concerns. The zoo said more than half of some 600 animals in its care had drowned or been killed by the authorities.

The African penguin originates from southern African waters
The African penguin originates from southern African waters

The latter includes a tiger that authorities said was shot on June 17 after it mauled a man to death in downtown Tbilisi.

Meanwhile, the zoo said a hippopotamus that was tranquilized and returned to the facility on June 14 had emerged from “depression.”

“Our beloved hippo…had lost some weight in the first two days,” the zoo administration said. “But the hippo is doing well now. He has got enough sleep and began to eat again.”

Putin Is Taking Control Of The East Black Sea

abkhazia and crimea

Throughout the Russia-Ukraine conflict, I’ve referred to the “Georgia precedent”: the idea that Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008 showed Vladimir Putin how much he could get away with in terms of violating the sovereignty of neighboring countries.

In truth, the Georgia precedent is about more than the invasion, which was, in Georgia’s case, the culmination of about a decade of Russia’s asymmetrical warfare and boosting separatist forces in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Russia essentially followed the same playbook in Ukraine, but took it one step further and actually annexed territory. Now Putin may be about to do the same in Georgia.

Over at Quartz, Steve LeVine points to news of Russia and South Ossetia signing an integration treaty. Thomas de Waal of the Carnegie Endowment explains at Carnegie’s website that much of this is formality: Russia was already effectively in control of South Ossetia. And as I’ve pointed out in the past, Russia had staffed key posts in the breakaway provinces and even distributed Russian passports. Nonetheless, this is clearly an escalation in the “frozen” conflict. Here’s de Waal:

The document goes much further than the treaty signed between Abkhazia and Russia in November. The Abkhaz re-drafted their treaty to keep several elements of their de facto sovereignty.

The South Ossetian version, also written by Kremlin adviser and spin-doctor Vladislav Surkov, envisages the Ossetians conducting an “agreed-upon foreign policy” and hands over full control of their security and borders to Russia. South Ossetia is being swallowed up.

The treaty should come as no surprise. Moscow has been fully in control of South Ossetia since it recognized it as independent in 2008. Compared to Abkhazia, the population is tiny. South Ossetia had 100,000 citizens in 1989 but, after years of conflict and the flight of most of the Georgian population, just 21,000 people voted in the parliamentary election last June.

The anomaly represented by South Ossetia’s supposed independent statehood, while North Ossetia, with a population of 700,000 is a mere autonomous region of Russia, has never been so glaring.

The obvious question is: Why is Putin doing this–or at least, why now? Only Putin knows for sure, but it does demonstrate how differently the conflict is viewed from Washington and from Moscow.

It further exposes the Obama administration’s “off-ramp” delusions. President Obama has operated under the impression that Putin is looking for a way out. In his estimation, Putin didn’t realize what he was getting himself into, acted rashly, and needed a way to save face that didn’t look like a retreat. That obviously failed. So the next idea was to essentially accept Putin’s land grabs and merely try to get him not to take any more.

As Josh Rogin reported last month, the Obama administration has been working on new “outreach” to Moscow. Believing that sanctions on Russia are having their desired effect, the administration has, apparently, been willing to offer Putin a pretty sweet deal: he gets to keep what he’s already taken. Here’s Rogin:

In several conversations with Lavrov, Kerry has floated an offer to Russia that would pave the way for a partial release of some of the most onerous economic sanctions.

Kerry’s conditions included Russia adhering to September’s Minsk agreement and ceasing direct military support for the Ukrainian separatists. The issue of Crimea would be set aside for the time being, and some of the initial sanctions that were put in place after Crimea’s annexation would be kept in place.

It’s true that the West is not going to dislodge Russia from Crimea. But there is still reasonable opposition to any agreement that would seem to bestow the West’s acceptance of the Crimean occupation and annexation on the criminal Putin regime. This opposition mainly stems from moral outrage, but now the Russian integration treaty with South Ossetia gives the West strategic reason to oppose treating Crimea as officially a fait accompli.

russian soldiersREUTERS/Maxim ShemetovRussia’s military spending makes up a greater percentage of its GDP than either of the other two nations.

What Putin is demonstrating is, first of all, patience. But also bad faith. If the West treats the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine–where Russian-armed and directed separatists shot down a passenger plane, remember–as the only aspect of the larger conflict in Ukraine that is open to negotiation and adjustment, Putin will pocket the concession of Crimea. Then he will simply wait out the president.

That will be the easiest part of all. As Max wrote earlier, Obama seems to want to drag out various foreign conflicts long enough to hand off to his successor. But just as in Georgia, Putin can be expected to escalate once again when he thinks the time is right.

In other words, if the West agrees to merely pause the conflict in eastern Ukraine right now, they are still abandoning Ukraine to Russia. Putin will see it as a victory in eastern Ukraine too, not just in Crimea. And we’ll have given him no reason to think otherwise.

US, Europe at odds over NATO expansion

Various leaders depicted on wooden toys symbolize the conflicts of the Cold War

The thought of Ukraine or Georgia as NATO members constitutes a horror scenario for most European states. But for many in the US, it’s both conceivable and desirable.

 

NATO is only obliged to collectively defend its own member states against attack from outside. Many European politicians must currently be secretly relieved by the existence of the principle.

 

If Ukraine were a member of NATO, the annexation of Crimea in March would have plunged the Western alliance into an immediate military confrontation with Russia.

Yet only a few years ago, there was serious discussion about inviting Ukraine and Georgia to join the alliance. At the 2008 NATO summit in Bucharest, the United States, under President George W. Bush, campaigned vehemently in favor.

However, several European states – including Germany – had misgivings, because even then they were concerned about the possibility of serious tensions with Russia.

Today, Berlin is more convinced of this than ever. Michael Gahler is the spokesperson on security policy issues for the conservative European People’s Party (EPP) group in the European parliament.

He points out that in 2008, there also wasn’t a clear majority of Ukrainians in favor of the idea. Gahler said that adopting restraint with regard to Russia was tied to the expectation “that Russia would respect this, and behave accordingly.”

Georgia as forerunner

The Americans, however, are still aggressively in favor of accession. Last weekend, on a visit to the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said that his country would continue to push for Georgia to join NATO. The US is also considering selling military helicopters to the country.

There are clear parallels between Georgia and Ukraine. Many people see the Russian occupation of the Georgian territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in 2008 as the forerunner for the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

There was a storm of protest back then, too, but the West did not intervene and appeared to come to terms with the new situation.

In the United States, both Democrat politician Robert Menendez, chairman of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and the Republican Senator John McCain have spoken out in favor of supplying weapons to the Ukrainian army.

But Western European politicians believe Russian President Vladimir Putin would see this as a provocation, and tantamount to handing him an excuse to invade.

A woman stands in Georgia at the Russian border

Will Ukraine become a second Afghanistan?

There are therefore two very different, conflicting interpretations of the situation. The majority of European NATO states do not want to unnecessarily provoke Russia, while the US and some of NATO’s eastern members who suffered under Soviet occupation argue the opposite.

They point out that if Ukraine were already a NATO member, it might have deterred Putin from his Crimean adventure.

Roland Freudenstein, a security policy expert with the Brussels think-tank Wilfried Martens Centre, believes that the refusal to make concrete plans for membership in 2008 “strongly encouraged Putin to embroil Georgia in a war.”

Stronger military ties to NATO would at least have made Russian aggression less likely, he told DW.

Freudenstein is now in favor of providing limited military support to the Ukrainian forces, “in order to repulse completely unprovoked aggression, or at least to drive the cost of it up so high that the Kremlin will reconsider such action.”

Russia, he said, does not have “unlimited possibilities for intervention,” and the “disaster in Afghanistan” will still be fresh in its memory.

The EPP’s Michael Gahler stressed that “not even Russia would claim that Ukraine intends to threaten Russian territorial integrity.” Ukraine’s military actions are, he said, purely defensive.

A soldier fires a gun

No sphere of influence for Russia

Both Freudenstein and Gahler reject the idea of granting Russia a “sphere of influence,” which many Western politicians have implied could be a possibility.

The two experts said that every country has the right to choose its alliances freely, and that NATO membership for the two countries must also remain a possibility, at least in principle. Freudenstein added that excluding Ukraine and Georgia “would constitute a reward for Russia’s conduct.”

However, Gahler said that “stable majority support from the population” would be a requirement, as would the approval of any such accession by all current NATO member states.

The latter is certainly not in the cards at present. Whether that changes, said Gahler, also depends on “what kind of a Russia we will be dealing with in future.” With Putin’s Russia it would not be feasible, he added.

But both experts agree that this doesn’t mean the West should simply stand by and do nothing. “NATO and the EU need a new Ostpolitik,” said Freudenstein.

The EU should, he said, make approaches to civil society and consolidate relationships with elites by way of trade, grants and the lifting of visa restrictions.

NATO should also, he said, continue military cooperation beneath the membership threshold, “whether or not that pleases the men in the Kremlin.”

Gahler also backed greater civil and military cooperation, but added that at the same time it’s important “to continue the dialogue between the EU and Russia,” and to closely follow the dialogues between Russia and Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova.

There are many differences between America and Europe where dealings with Russia are concerned, as well as among the Europeans themselves, but presumably these are demands on which all are able to agree.

Two burglaries every hour in Austria

Two burglaries every hour in Austria

 

 

There are at least two burglaries every hour in Austria.  From these, around half of opportunistic offenders could be deferred by simple preventive measures.

A survey conducted by the KFV shows that only 41 percent of Austrians take basic safety measures, despite burglaries having increased by 76 percent in the past few years.

Almost half of the 500 respondents claimed that there would be nothing of value lost if they were burglarized anyway, showing an uncomfortable degree of apathy on the question.

Despite this, the average loss from a burglary in Austria was around €2,200.  60 percent of Austrians gloomily explain that they can’t protect themselves anyway.  

The Vice President of the Insurance Association Hartwig Löger outlined that in many cases, even basic steps are effective at deterring offenders, including locking doors and closing windows when leaving the house.

Equally effective as a deterrent are attentive neighbours, and the regular trimming of hedges, to ensure that the house is clearly visible from the street.  

It’s generally known that criminals will often quickly evaluate the obstacles of a series of possible targets in a short time.  The more barriers to entry that exist, the smaller the chance of a break-in, according to Löger.  Around one third of intrusion attempts are abandoned at the outset, he said.

In 2013, there were 16,548 burglaries recorded by police.  These numbers rise in winter months, as the twilight makes it for burglars to avoid detection.  

The most effective deterrent is a functioning alarm system, said Löger, but only if it is turned on and all entry points are sealed.

Causes for the increase of domestic burglary

Without access to the dark figures and a very low clear-up rate of 7% it is hard to find convincing arguments for the increasing crime rates in this field.

Police experts refer to deep social and political changes in some post-soviet countries (Moldova, Georgia) causing a new wave of criminal activities of foreign offenders in Austria.

Austria in turn became a target for offenders operating in large geographical areas. The increase of mobility in south-eastern neighbouring countries also led to an increase of domestic burglary in Austria.

On the level of subjects psychologists argued that the production of needs for self-realisation and increasing economic pressure foster illegal activities.

Insurance experts and police prevention officers complained about low security standards in Austria, especially in Viennese households, which make domestic burglary more attractive for all kinds of offenders.

There are some indicators (value of stolen goods and overall damage per case) that suggest an increasing level of professionalization among burglars.

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