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Posts tagged ‘Tamar Land of the Caucasus’

Georgia’s governing party wins parliamentary majority

October 31, 2016

TBILISI, Georgia (AP) — Early results in the former Soviet republic of Georgia show the governing party winning a large majority of seats following the second round of parliamentary voting. Three weeks ago, the Georgian Dream party took 67 of the parliament’s 150 seats. Runoffs had to be staged for 50 other seats in which no candidate received a majority.

Central Election Commission chief Tamar Zhvaniya told reporters on Monday that the Georgian Dream took 48 seats in the runoff, giving the party a healthy majority of 115. Only 37.5 percent of eligible voters participated in the runoffs.

Georgian Dream was started by tycoon Bidzina Ivanishvili, who made his fortune in Russia. He later became prime minister, but even after stepping down from the post he is still seen as the party’s dominant influence.

Georgia’s governing party seeks constitutional majority

October 30, 2016

TBILISI, Georgia (AP) — The governing party in the former Soviet republic of Georgia aimed to win a constitutional majority of parliament seats in the second round of national voting Sunday, which was marked by low turnout.

Only 37.5 percent of eligible voters took part in the runoffs, which will choose a third of the country’s parliament members, the central elections commission said. It also said no complaints of major violations were reported.

In voting three weeks ago, the Georgian Dream party took 67 of the parliament’s 150 seats. But 50 seats needed to undergo Sunday’s runoff vote because no candidate received a majority. Georgian Dream candidates polled the largest support in most of those races in the first round, but the likelihood of its winning the 46 seats needed for a three-quarters constitutional majority are unclear. In most districts, substantial first-round vote shares went to independents or candidates from a score of small parties.

Both Georgian Dream and main opponent the United National Movement are pro-West, seeking better relations and possible eventual membership in NATO and the European Union. But Georgian Dream has tried to balance these aspirations with developing better relations with Russia.

Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili said Sunday that Georgia will continue to pursue “the principle of integration with the EU and NATO, at the same time reducing tensions with Russia.” Russia and Georgia fought a short war in 2008 that ended with Georgia losing all control of two Russia-friendly separatist regions. Former Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili was a vehement critic of Russia and detested by the Kremlin.

Although Saakashvili was stripped of his citizenship after becoming governor of Ukraine’s Odessa region, he is still a key figure in the opposition UNM, which denounces the governing party as the creation of a Russian oligarch.

Georgian Dream was started by tycoon Bidzina Ivanishvili, who made his fortune in Russia. He later became prime minister, but even after stepping down from the post he is still seen as the party’s dominant influence.

If Georgian Dream gets the three-quarters majority in parliament that would allow it to change the constitution, an early move is likely to be an amendment to make the presidency a position appointed by parliament.

“We already know what (Ivanishvili) wants to do — he wants to take away our right to elect the president directly,” said Giga Boleria, foreign affairs secretary for UNM. Georgian Dream executive secretary Irakli Kobakhidze justifies the proposed change as “the opportunity to improve the constitution to strengthen the parliament as the main constitutional body in the country and to secure the principle of separation of powers.”

Aside from the 27 seats won by UNM in the first round, only one other political bloc entered the new parliament — the Russia-tolerant Alliance of Patriots, with six seats.

Exit polls: Georgian ruling party leads parliamentary vote

October 08, 2016

TBILISI, Georgia (AP) — Two exit polls in Georgia’s parliamentary election on Saturday showed the ruling party in the lead, but the polls differed sizably on the margin of victory. Regardless of the election’s outcome, the former Soviet republic appears determined to integrate more closely with the West, including keeping alive distant hopes of joining the European Union and NATO.

A poll conducted for Georgia’s public broadcaster and other stations showed the ruling Georgian Dream party with nearly 54 percent of the vote Saturday and the opposition United National Movement at 19.5 percent support.

But an exit poll for the independent channel Rustavi-2 put the figures at 39.9 percent for the ruling party and 32.7 percent for the opposition. The discrepancy could feed tensions after a campaign that included a car bombing of one prominent opposition politician and shots fired at another candidate.

About 100 assailants attacked a polling station Saturday in the town of Marneuli, 30 kilometers (19 miles) south of the capital, Tbilisi. Police said the assailants were supporters of the UNM. Based on the exit polls, Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili told Georgian Dream party members: “I congratulate you on a big victory.”

“These elections are a very important step forward toward reinforcing Georgia’s image as a democratic European state,” Kvirikashvili said after casting his ballot. But UNM leader David Bakradze told journalists he believes his party will prevail once single-constituency races are tallied. Of the 150 seats in parliament, 77 are chosen by proportional representation and 73 are in single districts.

The small, pro-Russian Alliance of Patriots was likely to pass the 5-percent threshold it needs to be allotted seats, according to the exit polls. The contest highlighted the often disorderly political climate in a country that has endured revolutions both violent and peaceful over the past three decades. Enthusiasm among the electorate was low; just 51 percent of eligible voters cast ballots, according to the national elections commission.

In all, 25 parties or groups competed for the 77 seats that will be chosen by party-list voting; more than 800 candidates ran for the 73 single-district seats. Each of the two main parties carries substantial baggage.

Georgian Dream, which came to power in the 2012 elections, is the creation of tycoon Bidzina Ivanishvili, a former prime minister who appeared prominently in the “Panama Papers” leak about officials with offshore accounts.

Although Ivanishvili does not currently hold office, he is believed to wield enormous influence. Many Georgians consider him a Trojan horse for Russia because of his business connections there and his attempts to improve relations with Moscow, which were badly damaged by the 2008 war between the two countries.

Adding to the tensions, one of the campaign’s most prominent figures has been Mikhail Saakashvili, the former president who was stripped of his Georgian citizenship after he became leader of one of Ukraine’s most troubled regions, Odessa.

Saakashvili is vowing a triumphant return if his UNM supporters in Georgia win power but he is a divisive figure. While Saakashvili and the UNM are credited with enacting important police and economic reforms after the peaceful Rose Revolution of 2003, opposition to him grew for being hot-tempered and uncompromising.

He had to address the rally in Tbilisi through a video linkup because he left the country after his term ended in 2013, then was charged in absentia with abuse of office. Saakashvili declared that if UNM regains power in Georgia, “I will cross the sea” to return to his homeland.

Georgian Dream continued the reform path that Saakashvili laid out and this year achieved an agreement with the EU that boosts trade and political relations. But Georgia remains troubled by high unemployment of about 12 percent, low pensions and other economic concerns.

The tensions underlying the election surfaced in violent incidents over the past week. On Sunday, two people were wounded by gunshots at a campaign rally for candidate and former defense minister Irakli Okruashvili. He claimed the gunmen were affiliated with Georgian Dream.

On Tuesday, an explosion destroyed the automobile of lawmaker Givi Targamadze, a Saakashvili ally. Georgia’s Interior Ministry says police have identified a suspect in the bombing and that weapons and explosives had been seized as part of the investigation.

Sophiko Megrelidze in Tbilisi and Jim Heintz in Moscow contributed to this story.

A Georgian region is fertile ground for Islamic State

May 21, 2015

BIRKIANI, Georgia (AP) — In the summer of 2012, a former Georgian Army corporal who had served prison time for illegal possession of ammunition burned his photo albums and quit his native village.

Tarkhan Batirashvili had wanted to become a policeman, but couldn’t get hired. Now, this offspring of a Christian father and a Muslim mother was about to start a new chapter in his military career — one in which he would be credited with some of Islamic State’s most stunning battlefield victories and rise to senior rank.

Last September, the U.S. Treasury Department placed Batirashvili — who now calls himself Omar al Shishani and is believed by some to be Islamic State’s chief of military operations — on its list of “specially designated global terrorists.” But to some in the Pankisi, the mountainous region of northeastern Georgia where he was born in 1986, the ginger-bearded commander is a hero and a role model.

To follow the path he blazed, as many as 200 of his young countrymen have left their villages. Batirashvili’s father Temur is aghast. “It’s monstrous what’s going on in the valley, that they are deceiving these kids and they’re leaving to fight in a foreign land,” the 72-year-old man told visitors to his one-story stone house in the hamlet of Birkiani. “My son should not be in Syria.”

The Pankisi is home to an estimated 5,000-7,000 descendants of Muslim Chechens who settled here in the 19th century. In the village of Omalo, locals say, a green-tile roofed building is used by preachers from the Wahhabi branch of Sunni Islam to enlist volunteers for jihad.

Residents say the recruiters promise money and provide ground transportation to Tbilisi airport more than 120 miles (200 km) away, as well as prepaid plane tickets to Turkey. “They are selling our children,” said Shariat Tsintsalashvili. “They earn dollars from it, drive around in expensive four-wheel drive vehicles. It’s a total mafia.”

On April 2, her 16-year-old grandson Muslim Kushtanashvili and schoolmate Ramzan Bagakashvili, 18, joined the valley’s recruits to Islamic State. That Thursday, the teens left as usual for their school in Omalo, next door to the building used by the Wahhabis. They never came home.

Muslim called friends later to say he was in Turkey. Then word came back the 10th grader had crossed into Syria. A legal minor, Muslim also had no passport, so his family can’t understand why Georgian border guards let him fly out of the country. Interior Minister Vakhtang Gomelauri has vowed an investigation and punishment for those responsible, but Muslim’s family suspect authorities are protecting the recruiters.

Bagakashvili’s mother agrees. “Here they are stirring up things, recruiting youths,” Tina Alkhanashvili said. “You can’t get authorities to watch them.” Within weeks, Georgian officials reported three more boys from the valley had disappeared.

Georgia accuses Russia of moving border near oil pipeline

July 14, 2015

KHURVALETI, Georgia (AP) — The Georgian government has accused Russian troops of redrawing a section of the border separating Georgia from its breakaway region of South Ossetia, seizing part of an international oil pipeline as a result.

Georgia says the de facto border was pushed nearly a kilometer (a half mile) deeper into its territory, leaving a section of the BP-operated Baku-Supsa pipeline in Russian-controlled territory. The new border also is only about 500 meters (yards) from the main highway running from the Georgian capital to the Black Sea.

Georgian journalists held a protest Tuesday at the border village of Khurvaleti to call for an end to “Russian occupation.” Russia has had troops based in South Ossetia since a 2008 war with Georgia, a former Soviet republic now aligned with the West.

Ex-Georgian president named governor of Ukraine region

May 30, 2015

MOSCOW (AP) — Former Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili on Saturday was appointed governor of Ukraine’s troubled Odessa region.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko posted the appointment announcement on his website and presented Saakashvili to officials in Odessa city, the region’s capital. Odessa is Ukraine’s largest seaport and has additional strategic importance as the major city between the Russia-annexed Crimean peninsula and the Moldovan separatist region of Transdniester, which is supported by Russian forces.

Although the city has not been hit by the fighting between government forces and separatists in the east, tensions between nationalists and pro-Russians have been strong. Last May, 48 people died in violence between supporters of both sides, most of them pro-Russians who took shelter in a building that caught fire after opponents threw firebombs into it.

Saakashvili’s appointment could aggravate relations with Russia that have been severely damaged by the Crimea annexation and the fighting in the east. Russian President Vladimir Putin disdains Saakashvili, who came to power in the 2003 Rose Revolution protests. The Kremlin points to those demonstrations as the beginning of the so-called “color revolutions” that it contends are engineered by the West to overthrow legitimate governments that pursue ties with Moscow.

Under Saakashvili, Georgia fought a short war with Russia in 2008, in which it lost control of two Russia-backed separatist territories. He faces accusation of abuse of power at home, and Ukraine last month rejected Georgia’s request for his extradition.

There was no immediate Kremlin comment on his Odessa appointment, but Andre Purgin, a top eastern Ukraine separatist leader, called it “mockery and an absolutely unprecedented step.”

Georgians hit by fallout from trouble in Russia, Ukraine

March 21, 2015

TBILISI, Georgia (AP) — For Mariam Matiashvili, Georgia’s crumbling tourist trade is a health risk.

The 64-year-old woman spends much of her meager pension of 150 lari ($68) a month on medicine and has long lived off selling cheap jewelry at a flea market to tourists, mainly from Russia and Ukraine. Now, the number of visitors is shrinking due to the economic crisis in those countries and people like her in this former Soviet republic are feeling the pain.

“There were some signs of life in January, when suddenly some tourists from Russia, Ukraine and Poland appeared, but since then it’s been a complete catastrophe,” said Matiashvili. Some days she makes five lari from tourists, sometimes only one.

Georgia, a mountainous nation in the South Caucasus, relies heavily on wine exports and on tourists attracted to the mountains and beaches that for decades made the country a favored holiday destination for the Soviet elites. While tourists might ordinarily be enticed as Georgia’s currency sinks, making travel cheaper, many of those who visit Georgia come from countries facing their own economic problems.

Georgia’s currency, the lari, has lost more than 20 percent of its value against the dollar since August — but Ukraine’s hryvnia currency has lost about 60 percent against the dollar and the Russian ruble roughly 50 percent.

Due to the economic tensions, tens of thousands took part in an opposition-led protest Saturday in the capital, Tbilisi. The demonstration was peaceful, despite the bitter political divide between the government team formed by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream party and supporters of former President Mikhail Saakashvili, whose party has been in opposition since losing the 2012 election.

Those at the protest spoke bitterly of their dashed economic hopes. “In the last elections, I voted for Georgian Dream; their promises were very pretty. But now it’s become clear that they’ve fulfilled almost nothing,” said demonstrator Tina Khomeriki, a 35-year-old teacher.

The government, led by Ivanishvili ally Irakli Garibashvili, insists the crisis has been talked up by political opponents and sensationalist media and is not the result of policy failings. “I think that really an artificial hysteria has been created, especially by the media,” Prime Minister Garibashvili said last month in a notably pugnacious response. “We have to calm, normalize and stabilize the situation. I want to say that we’re doing everything to correct the situation as quickly as possible.”

While it has been 24 years since Georgia voted for independence from the Soviet Union, the country retains close business links to Russia and Ukraine. As the war in eastern Ukraine, international sanctions against Russia and the sinking price of oil price worldwide have ravaged the economies of those two countries, Georgia has become collateral damage.

While the falling lari has made many imports more expensive, it has fallen by less than the Russian ruble over the last year, making exports to that key market more difficult. One affected industry is Georgian wine, long renowned in neighboring countries, and which has started to attract the attention of European and American connoisseurs in recent years. Despite producers branching out, Russia and Ukraine remain the top two wine export markets. In January and February this year, exports to Russia were down 85 percent and those to Ukraine fell by two-thirds.

Paata Sheshelidze, director of the Institute of Economic Freedom, said the economic difficulties have been made worse by government policies, including regulations and taxes that he said have restricted development of the private sector. The weakening of Georgia’s currency, he said, was largely due to an increase in the money supply to cover budget expenses.

The currency turbulence has also had a devastating effect on those Georgians who took out foreign-currency loans in search of lower interest rates. Igor Khuchua mortgaged his apartment to fund a bakery, but now, at 66, he faces being made homeless. Despite getting help from the bank to restructure his debt, Khuchua sees no way out.

“I’ve basically lost my apartment. I took out a loan on it to open my business, but the lari’s fall has had a negative effect,” he said. “I can’t blame anyone. I took the risk myself, but the situation’s objectively worsened with the fall of the national currency.”

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