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South-Caucasus Geopolitical Watch – From December 18 to December 24, 2021

12/19/2021: 10 Armenian soldiers detained in Azerbaijan returned to the Armenian side

Following the trilateral meeting on December 14 between Charles Michel, President of the European Council, Ilham Aliev, Azerbaijani President, and Nikol Pashinyan, Armenian Prime Minister, ten additional Armenian soldiers were returned to the Armenian side on December 19, a move welcomed by the French and American authorities and by European officials, in particular Toivo Klaar, EU special representative for the South Caucasus and the crisis in Georgia. Two Azerbaijani soldiers captured by the Armenian side on December 18 also returned to their country on December 20.

12/19/2021: Georgian detainee released from South Ossetia

Gela Gochoshvili, a Georgian citizen, captured on August 14 in South Ossetia for “illegal border crossing” and initially sentenced to one year in prison was released on December 19, according to georgian state security services who also reported on December 17 that Mamuka Chkhikvadzen imprisoned for the same reasons on December 12 had been sentenced to two months of detention, as were Kakhaber Natadze and Vladimir Kaliashvili imprisoned on December 9.

12/20/2021: Georgian Attorney General to seek extradition of ex-commander Giorgi Kalandadze from Germany

On December 20, Attorney General’s office from Georgia said it would seek Germany’s extradition of Giorgi Kalandadze, former commander of the Fourth Infantry Brigade between 2007 and 2009 and Chief of Joint Staff in 2012, currently a Ukrainian citizen wanted by Georgian law enforcement since 2015 for charges against him of “unlawful imprisonment” and “torture” against Elberd Koberidze on July 19, 2012, and arrested at the Berlin airport on December 19. Mikheïl Saakashvili immediately took his defense, calling him “a hero of the 2008 war” and recalling his military engagement in Ukraine against the Russian forces.

12/20/2021: Meeting of the Russian Foreign Minister with his de facto Abkhaz and Ossetian counterparts.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov met on December 20, in bilateral and trilateral meetings, his de facto Abkhaz counterparts, Inal Ardzimba, and South Ossetian Dimitri Medoev, in Sochi. During these meetings, the interlocutors expressed their mutual intentions to deepen the coordination of their foreign policies and in particular to develop the links between Sokhoumi and Tskhinvali with foreign countries. They agreed that there was no other alternative than the format of the Geneva International Discussions integrating the Abkhaz and South Ossetian authorities. These meetings are taking place against a backdrop of Russian military strengthening on the Ukrainian border and growing pressure from Russia to deny NATO any further membership from Ukraine and Georgia. The next day, Sergey Lavrov, spoke at a press conference, “of the processes not entirely legitimate with regard to the goods of the Russian citizens in Abkhazia” and he spoke of “unpleasant situations” with regard to the Russian tourists : he therefore urged the Abkhaz authorities to “intensify their actions in all these fields” in order to maintain and increase the “attractiveness of the Abkhaz market for Russian investments“.

12/21/2021: The biggest opposition protests in Sokhoumi since Aslan Bzhania took power in April 2020.

On the evening of December 21, the biggest demonstrations in power since the coming to power of the current de facto Abkhaz president, Aslan Bzhania, took place in the center of the capital, Sokhoumi, in front of the dramatic theater, then continued in front of Parliament following the president’s refusal to come and speak in public. These unauthorized demonstrations, which had already been the subject of a presidential warning the day before, organized by the “Patriotic Union of the People of Abkhazia” (PUPA) bringing together several opposition parties, gave rise to clashes demonstrators with the police for several hours, demonstrators who repeatedly tried to enter into the Legislative Assembly. The unrest comes amid the crisis in the energy and water supply of the secessionist region, the scandal of the Sokhoumi shooting on September 30 involving a deputy and veterans against police officials, recent statements by the president calling for “sharing the sovereignty of the country with Russia” and the sale of goods to the Russians, or the investigation into the recent privatization of a hydraulic power station owned by the opposition leader Kan Kvarchia of the “Aidgilara” party.

Opposition leaders Temur Gulia from the “Aruaa” veterans party, Adgur Ardzimba from the “Abkhaz People’s Movement”, Akhra Bzhania from the “Akhyatsa” party, and Deputy Speaker of the Legislative Assembly Mikheïl Sangulia have met Abkhaz President Aslan Bzhania, Prime Minister Alexander Ankvab and Presidential Administration Head Alkhas Kvitsinia in Parliament before the demonstrators dispersed around midnight. Following these negotiations, the leader of the opposition Akhra Bzhania gave the list of the demands of the protest movement: launching of the process of impeachment of the president in Parliament, one year extension of the current legislature, cancellation of parliamentary polls scheduled for March 12, moratorium on all security, property and foreign policy initiatives, abolition of the Prime Minister’s office, transition from the majority electoral system to a mixed parliamentary system, and establishment of parliamentary approval of the ministerial cabinet. According to Adgur Ardzimba, the president is said to have pledged to discuss the possible postponement of parliamentary elections at a later stage, to communicate the results of his cabinet’s work by the end of the year and to take reshuffle measures accordingly. On December 23, the Attorney General launched an investigation into the December 21 unrest.

12/22/2021: The United National Movement announces a hunger strike by 300 supporters of Mikheil Saakashvili in favor of his release

On December 22, Nika Mélia, leader of the main opposition party, “United National Movement” founded by Mikheïl Saakashvili, still imprisoned and tried for several charges including that of “abuse of power” and “embezzlement of public funds“,” illegal seizure of goods“,” illegal dispersal of assembly“,” illegal border crossing“, announced, during a demonstration in the city center of Tbilisi in honor of the 54th birthday of the former president, that a hunger strike of 300 sympathizers was launched for the release of the latter. 9 tents were pitched in front of the UNM headquarters to accommodate the strikers. On the same day, Volodymyr Zelensky, President of Ukraine, said he was “personally involved” in negotiations with the Georgian authorities, in particular to facilitate family visits or the involvement of Ukrainian doctors in his treatment.
This massive strike comes in the context of talks launched since December 10 by President Salome Zurabishvili in order to promote national reconciliation. She told the Ambassadorial Conference on December 22 that “the language of the ultimatum, hunger strikes do not ease tensions“.

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