The Great Game Round-Up by Newsbud’s Christoph Germann brings you the latest newsworthy developments regarding Central Asia and the Caucasus region. We document the struggle for influence, power, hegemony and profits between a U.S.-dominated NATO, its GCC proxies, Russia, China and other regional players.
Georgia's Main Opposition Party Splits but the Drama Ain't Over
Georgia's largest opposition party, the United National Movement (UNM), has split amid disagreements over the role of UNM leader and former President Mikheil Saakashvili, who gave up his Georgian citizenship for a new political career in Ukraine.
Leading UNM members who regard Saakashvili as a liability announced last week that they would leave the party and start a new political movement to challenge the Georgian Dream government.
The split came after months of infighting fueled by the UNM's devastating defeat in the October 2016 parliamentary elections and the dispute over the upcoming party congress, which is scheduled for January 20.
Several UNM leaders, including former National Security Council Secretary Giga Bokeria, former Parliament Speaker Davit Bakradze and former Tbilisi Mayor Gigi Ugulava, decided that it was time to move on.
"This man does not radiate leadership anymore. It pains me to say this, but he is not the Mikheil Saakashvili who united the people in 2002 [ahead of the 2003 Rose Revolution] . . ." Ugulava said, calling on the party's supporters "to look forward."
Saakahvili, who had welcomed Ugulava's release from prison a few days earlier, responded on Facebook that he "felt pity" for Ugulava, "who spoke more about me than the Oligarch who imprisoned him."
In Saakashvili's world, the United National Movement just got rid of a few "losers" and foiled another plot by Georgian Dream godfather Bidzina Ivanishvili to take over the party.
In reality, the anti-Saakashvili faction includes half of the party's leadership and most of the party's Members of Parliament. 21 out of 27 United National Movement MPs defected, causing a parliament shake-up. 38 heads of municipal and regional organizations also left the party.
According to the transcript of a supposed conversation between Saakashvili and loyal UNM MP Koba Nakaopia published on the Ukrainian Wikileaks website, Saakashvili is already planning to take revenge on "those ungrateful idiots" who abandoned him.
Among other things, Saakashvili and Nakopia allegedly talked about paying a woman named Eliso who is "working on [Giga] Bokeria and others."
"I’m going to make her fully discredit Bokeria's followers and the Chergoids [possibly Bokeria's wife Tamara Chergoleishvili]," Saakashvili told Nakopia according to the transcript.
It is not the first time that the obscure Ukrainian Wikileaks website has published such material.
In 2015, the site published a transcript alleging that Saakashvili and Bokeria discussed staging an attack on UNM-linked TV station Rustavi 2 in order to provoke mass anti-government protests.
Both Saakashvili and Bokeria dismissed the transcript as a fabrication, but this didn't stop Georgia's State Security Service from launching an investigation. Shortly thereafter, another murky Ukrainian website released authentic recordings of two phone conversations that Saakashvili held with Bokeria and Rustavi 2 director Nika Gvaramia, lending some credence to the previous Saakashvili-Bokeria transcript.
Regardless of whether or not there is any truth to the latest Ukrainian Wikileaks release, it is safe to say that the United National Movement drama is far from over.
Kabul Doing Damage Control after Wild Accusations against Russia & Tajikistan
Current and former Afghan officials have leveled serious accusations against Russia and Tajikistan in recent weeks, forcing Kabul to start off the new year with damage control.
Last month, former Kunduz Governor Muhammad Omar Safi made the bold claim that Russian military engineers based in Tajikistan were repairing tanks and heavy weapons that Taliban fighters had seized from Afghan security forces. Such cooperation between the Russian military and the Taliban has been going on for nearly two years, according to Safi.
The statement came amid increasing criticism of Moscow's ties to the Taliban. A few weeks earlier, Afghan officials alleged - without providing any evidence - that Russia was supplying weapons to Taliban fighters.
Safi's wild claims were a bit too wild for Afghanistan's Defense Ministry. MoD deputy spokesman Mohammad Radmanish cast doubt on whether it was possible to transport heavy weaponry across the Amu Darya River that separates Afghanistan and Tajikistan.
"[The Taliban] usually drives small vehicles, such as pickup trucks with heavy weapons mounted on them, but they do not have heavy vehicles, such as tanks," Radmanish noted.
Tajikistan's border guard agency quickly dismissed the allegations and the Tajik Foreign Ministry described Safi's statement as "thoughtless and unfounded," concluding that the remarks were "aimed at creating a negative image of the Republic of Tajikistan in Afghan society."
The Tajik Foreign Ministry also harshly criticized remarks made by Afghanistan's Ambassador to Russia, Abdul Qayum Kochi, that caused further tensions.
Kochi, who is an uncle of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, appeared last month in a YouTube video with Afghan-American TV host Shafie Ayar, making a number of controversial statements.
"I met with a senior Russian official and told him that drug crops were grown in Afghanistan but that you [Russians] and the Tajik mafia were behind that," Kochi claimed.
To make matters worse, the Afghan diplomat also demonstrated his lack of knowledge about Tajikistan, saying: "Tajikistan is a very small country, it has five million population and over a million of them are Russians. They have Russian culture and Russian is their official language. They don't have the right to write in Farsi alphabets. Mafias are actively operating the country."
Tajikistan's Foreign Ministry responded by summoning the Afghan Ambassador in Dushanbe and lodging a diplomatic protest. This happened at the end of December, but it became only publicly known when Afghan media obtained Tajikistan's protest note about one week later.
The Afghan Foreign Ministry distanced itself from the remarks, stressing that it was Kochi's personal opinion and did not reflect Kabul's official views. But calls to remove Kochi have been getting louder.
"Russia is very important country for Afghanistan and government should appoint a capable envoy to the country," Mohammad Naim Nazari, the executive director of Afghanistan's Civil Society & Human Rights Network (CSHRN), was quoted as saying.
Zamir Kabulov, Russia's special envoy to Afghanistan called Kochi's remarks "absolutely unacceptable and abusive," noting that he would discuss the issue with the Ambassador during an upcoming meeting.
Afghan parliamentarians told Russian media that they already sent a letter to President Ghani demanding Kochi's removal. Russians and Tajiks wouldn't shed any tears.
# # # #
Christoph Germann, Newsbud Author & Analyst, is an independent analyst and researcher based in Germany, where he is currently studying political science. His work focuses on the New Great Game in Central Asia and the Caucasus region. You can visit his website here