That Bush connection

Josh Keating over on FP gives us the top 10 stories you might have missed in 2008. I particularly like this one:

So why was $176 million of the aid money earmarked for loans to businesses—including $30 million to a real estate developer for a luxury hotel: the 127,000-square-meter Park Hyatt in downtown Tbilisi, an area that was not at all damaged in the war? The 183-room, five-star hotel will include 70 luxury condominiums, a fine-dining restaurant, conference facilities, and a health spa with juice bar.

No answer is given, but I think you could make a stab at it.

There are actually lots of new plush hotels being built in Tbilisi at the moment, and the Park Hyatt is just another. I was told all about them when I was in Georgia in September. I have sent an email to a friend in Georgia asking for some details but as best I can remember the firm building the Park Hyatt is backed by one of those nice oligarchs. That oligarch has particular connections to George Bush’s brother Neil.

Not that I’m implying anything untoward, mind you. I won’t say anything else unless I have some information confirmed.

The troublesome Caucasus

As ever, the Economist has an excellent analysis of the situation in the Caucasus. They mention many of the strategic and historical interests in the region that I heard directly from Georgians themselves. The situation is extremely complex, and via translator it was explained to me over several days.

The map they use is extremely good too. I actually stayed the night in Supsa, just south of Poti, and saw markers in the ground where the pipeline they mark is placed.

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The Economist suggests a process to help Armenia and Azerbaijan to move closer to the West.

Two keys could help to unlock this process. The first is to dangle the prospect, however distant, that all three countries might one day qualify as members of the EU. As experience in eastern Europe has shown, this is the best way to lure countries towards reform. The EU may offer a better route than NATO membership, which is both more problematic and further off after Georgia’s war.

The second key is to work with Turkey, which as the only NATO country in the region is well-placed to offset Russia’s influence. Shortly after the war, Turkey launched a proposed “Caucasus Stability and Co-operation Platform”, which even the Russians applauded. Turkish companies are active in the region, conspicuously so in Georgia and Azerbaijan and (in disguise) even in Armenia. If the Turks can improve relations with Armenia, including opening the border, they could play a more constructive role in the Caucasus than the Russians have ever done.

But both Turkey and the three Caucasus countries will need encouragement. That could start with a firm EU decision to back the Nabucco gas pipeline. It would also help if the Caucasus countries were less nationalist and better at working together. Paradoxically, Georgia’s war with Russia may enhance the chances of peaceful progress in the whole region.

We shall see.

Russian consulate, Tbilisi

I visited the former Russian Embassy (it was reduced to a consulate while I was there) in Tbilisi a couple of weeks ago. Across the street, boards are littered with anti-Russian grafitti, while directly outside the consulate people had dumped various forms of household waste and litter.

Russian consulate, Tbilisi

Russian consulate, Tbilisi

Russian consulate, Tbilisi

Russia pulled their ambassador, Vyacheslav Kovalenko, and pretty much all diplomatic activity at the building has apparently ceased.

Saakashvili's Camp David – Borjomi

Don’t ask me how I got access.

When I was in Borjormi I managed to get into the grounds of the summer residence of the Georgian president, Mikhail Saakasvhili. The house was formerly occupied by Eduard Shevardnadze, and before Soviet times it was a Dacha of Tsar Nicholas II and the Romanov Dynasty.

The residence was where Saakashvili and his Ukrainian counterpart signed the Borjomi Declaration recently.

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No photos of the interior I’m afraid – it was off limits.

In Telavi

Internet access is proving problematic in the last week, especially since I was all over western Georgia. Uploading pictures is not easy either, but I did get some good photos north of Zugdidi, in Poti naval base, in the tank base in Gori, and near Senaki. I am now in the north east of the country, in the town of Telavi, Georgian wine country.

I have tonnes of photos taken, I hope to upload some soon.

Here is a sample for now:

The bombed Georgian tank base in Gori:

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The naval base at Poti, where Russian soldiers destroyed most of Georgia’s navy:

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And the border of the Russian buffer zone, about 3km north of Zugdidi. You can make out an armoured vehicle on the right. There was no international presence near Zugdidi or at the border post. I was told Russia is trying to force the people in the occupied town of Gali to take Russian passports.

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It’s been a safe trip mostly. Though Ossetian fighters attacked Turkish road builders between Tbilisi and Gori on Wednesday. And we nearly got arrested near Abkhazia, more of that anon.

More when I get reliable internet and some time!

Who started it?

Kirsty Wark is still using the line that Saakashvili himself started the war. At the very least, we do not know who started the conflict on August 7/8, and for the BBC to assume that they do is unprofessional. There are various accounts of who started the conflict, most recently from Michael Totten in Georgia, who asserted in no unncertain terms that it was Russia who started the most recent conflict. Saakashvili himself denies starting it.

At this juncture it might be better to stop asking Saakashvili how or why he miscalculated. It might be better to ask who did start it.

This video from Fox is all rather strange. It’s very emotive, and it looks scripted and rehearsed. What do you think?

Russia revises Ossetia death toll

Surprise surprise. I, along with many others, indicated recently that the alleged death tolls as high as 2,500 put forward by Russia were entirely without a basis in fact. Now, according to the BBC:

Russia has issued new, reduced casualty figures for the Georgian conflict, with 133 civilians now listed as dead in the disputed region of South Ossetia. The figure is far lower than the 1,600 people Russia initially said had died.

133? That sounds closer to fact. But Russia Today has been using the 2,000 figure across its ticker for over a week. This would polarise viewers very quickly, and I imagine now many would accept that figure as fact. It was a figure largely accepted by Western media, though always with the proviso that it was based on Russian media/government reports.

And in a further chilling of Western-Russian relations, Russia has said it is to cut all military ties with NATO.

Bloggin and links

Big thanks to Niall Paterson in Sky News for the link, praise indeed from a much appreciated longtime reader.

Eamonn has also been kind enough to offer advice and link up. I have also been in touch with Michael Totten, who I have exchanged emails and tips with, but unfortunately we won’t be in Georgia around the same time. I have left a comment with Doug Merrill, hopefully we can meet up in Tbilisi for a chat. I’ve been linked to by afoe in the past, and hopefully again in the future.