Armenia may now sign on to the Moscow-led Eurasian Union by the end of April, roughly a month before neighboring Georgia is slated to enter a free-trade and political pact with the European Union. The signings of both agreements have been expedited as the competition for the South Caucasus picks up speed between Russia and Europe.
Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan is scheduled to travel to Belarus on April 29 for a meeting of the council of the Eurasian Union, an economic bloc roughly modeled by Moscow after (and against) the European Union. Armenian officials say that Sargsyan will sign an agreement in Minsk on Armenia’s joining the Customs Union, the flagship project of the Eurasian Union meant to create a shared economic space for Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and, Moscow hopes, more ex-Soviet states.
The new sign-on date is not a huge difference from the earlier deadline of May, but, apparently, as East-West ties deteriorate over Ukraine, someone feels the need to pick up the pace.
Wary of Ukraine-style pressure from Russia, the EU chiefs have been trying to fast-forward their plans with Georgia and Moldova. José Manuel Borroso, the president of the European Commission, the executive body of the EU, is expected in Tbilisi in June to sign an association agreement, which includes a free trade deal, with Georgia.
Azerbaijan, unsurprisingly, was the region's leader, with defense expenditure nearly quintupling over the last decade. And that was the second-greatest increase in the world over that period, beaten only by Afghanistan, which obviously started from a relatively low level in 2004. The data from the Caucasus and Central Asia:
Armenia: $427 million in 2013, up 115 percent since 2004.
Azerbaijan: $3.44 billion in 2013, up 493 percent since 2004
Georgia: $443 million in 2013, up 230 percent since 2004
Kazakhstan: $2.8 billion in 2013, up 248 percent since 2004
Among the report's other findings:
-- Over the last year, Russia’s military spending increased by 4.8 per cent, "and for the ﬁrst time since 2003 it spent a bigger share of its GDP on the military than the USA."
-- Over the same period, Kazakhstan saw among the biggest defense spending increases in the Asia-Pacific region, with a ten percent increase, despite enjoying what SIPRI called an "essentially peaceful security environment."
-- Turkey entered the list of 15 top defense spenders worldwide, spending $19.1 billion in 2013.
-- China's defense spending in 2013 increased 7.4 percent over the previous year.
“Come out, come out,” chanted demonstrators, marching through Tbilisi's empty streets after midnight on April 9, 1989. The rhythmic, polyphonic call resounded eerily as the city held its breath for the culmination of Georgia’s push to end the rule of Soviet-era Moscow.
Several hours later, it woke up to the news that the Soviet army had brutally dispersed the pro-independence rally. A combination of beatings, stampede and tear-gas poisoning left 20 dead that night and hundreds injured.
Every April 9, the scenes are revisited. TV stations broadcast archival footage showing thousands of people holding candles on downtown Rustaveli Avenue; nationalist leaders making fiery speeches; Georgian Orthodox Church Patriarch Ilia II calling for demonstrators to disperse to a nearby church to avoid conflict; and, last, armored vehicles moving into the crowd, as violence and panic ensues.
The old footage revives memories of a more naive time when everyone, however briefly, united around a common cause. With all its songs, dances and lofty ideals, April 9 seems very distant compared to latter-day Georgia with its bare-knuckle politics. But for many Georgians, their country is still waging the same battle against the same enemy.
“Unfortunately, after 25 years ago [sic], it feels like we have never left that moment,” Tina Khidasheli, a leader of the Republican Party, part of the ruling Georgian Dream coalition, told the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) on April 9 this year.
“Year after another, we are seeing [the] Russian army, Russian boots marching from one independent country to another… pursuing their very imperial cause of restoring . .. their imperial pride,” Khidasheli went on.
In what is definitely not intended as a late April Fool's Day joke, Georgian Interior Minister Alexander Chikhaidze has warned that Euromaidan is coming to Georgia. In a sweeping accusation published on April 7, Georgia’s policeman-in-chief claimed that former President Mikheil Saakashvili's United National Movement, backed by Ukrainian nationalists, is plotting to overthrow the Georgian government.
Georgians well know that Saakashvili is doing some sort of post-revolution consultancy in post-Euromaidan Ukraine. But to hear Chikaidze tell it, that's not the half of it.
A delegation of Euromaidan activists have now allegedly come to Georgia to train the UNM in how to stock up car tires and pitch tents in the streets, declared Chikhaidze in an interview with the weekly Prime Time.
Using an old Soviet refrain, the 28-year-old minister vowed an adequate response to any provocations.
The UNM, its Rose Revolution days well behind it, has described the statement as “utter nonsense.”
It has accused Chikaidze, and the Georgian Dream of trying to divert attention away from the real issues.
Hovering on the brink of closer ties with the European Union, Georgia wants to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman.
When Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili last week proposed a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, it seemed that he had picked Georgia's biggest non-issue ever. In this predominantly Christian, conservative South-Caucasus country, the topic is not a hot one. The LGBT community is largely closeted, and LGBT-rights discussions usually get drubbed out.
But in Georgia, gay marriage is so much more than just gay marriage. It is geopolitics.
As it moves toward signing an association agreement with the European Union this June, Georgia is trying to make its legal environment more EU-compatible. As part of the change, an anti-discrimination bill is intended that would protect the oft-violated civil-rights of LGBT Georgians.
Gharibashvili’s move is largely meant to appease the most conservative and less EU-versed Georgian voters, who view the European Union as synonymous with gay marriage. Georgian law already defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman, but Gharibashvili argues that the constitutional ban on gay marriage will help prevent “speculations” about the anti-discrimination law and about EU association in general.
So, Georgia could end up protecting gay rights and banning gay marriage simultaneously. But the government sees no irony.
Georgia's ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili has repeated his earlier defiance of Tbilisi's summons for questioning on March 27 about a range of controversial issues, including the death of the late Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania. He claims, albeit without definitive evidence, that the measure is part of a larger confrontation between Russia and the West.
Speaking late on March 25 with the ever-friendly Georgian TV station Rustavi2 in Kyiv, where he is advising the acting Ukrainian government, Saakashvili again dismissed the subpoena as allegedly another attempt by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, the former Georgian prime minister and founder of the country's ruling Georgian Dream coalition, to "shut me up."
Georgian government members have expressed frustration about Saakashvili's frequent appearances on international news channels to denounce Russia's invasion of Crimea. To many, this criticism appeared to stem more from the government's ongoing feud with Misha than from any sympathy for Russia. But Saakashvili, long wary of Ivanishvili's business ties to Russia, apparently doesn't see it that way.
"Should I return to Georgia and fulfill Putin's dream?" he asked rhetorically. "I will continue to do that which I'm doing as a free person."
Specific grounds for any questioning were not furnished, he added.
When a dismal and sensational video hits the Internet, you know it is election time in Georgia. A YouTube video showing the corpse of the late Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania has rocked the country ahead of local elections this June, and raised questions about the government's involvement in its release.
Zhvania and a young regional official, Raul Usupov, were found dead on February 3, 2005 in a rented Tbilisi apartment; the official cause of death was carbon-monoxide poisoning from a faulty gas heater, but has been widely disputed.
The ruling Georgian Dream coalition has long made ample promise to shed light on the deaths of both men, yet, so far, has unearthed little new information.
The leaked video offers more shock-value than conclusive evidence. (Warning: Some viewers may find the scenes disturbing.)
The identity of the YouTube user who posted it is unknown, but generally suspected to be somehow linked with the government. A former chief prosecutor told Georgian media that the footage had been kept in a safe under lock and key in his office.
Like a teaser from some sinister TV series, the video opens with a close-up of Zhvania’s lifeless face. After a relay of photos from the autopsy, the video shows Usupov lying lifeless on the apartment floor.
For viewers’ convenience, the anonymous YouTube user has highlighted suspicious marks on the dead bodies, which could be anything from bruises to Photoshop. The photos do not eliminate any existing explanations for Zhvania’s death or validate the YouTube user’s claim that “[President Mikheil] Saakashvili killed Zhvania.”
Georgia’s billionaire kingmaker, Bidzina Ivanishvili, has said he is disappointed in the man he tapped to be president of Georgia, Giorgi Margvelashvili.
Such musings are no mere tittle-tattle. In Georgia, where ex-Prime Minister Ivanishvili, the country's richest resident, is seen as the real power behind the government, they invariably become the talk of the town.
In a March 18 interview with Imedi TV, the tycoon commented that he can no longer recognise the man whom, less than a year ago, he told voters would make "the best president ever."
But since Margvelashvili became president last October, the two have grown estranged, the billionaire confided sorrowfully. “I can’t think of any instance of a man changed like this,” he complained.
The two no longer talk, he continued. “We don’t have informal relations,” said Ivanishvili. But he will find the strength to get over it. “This is not a tragedy; we both decided that we don’t need this [relationship].”
The Crimea crisis has inspired hopes for a speedier ride for Georgia to NATO membership, but the Alliance appears to be sticking to an adagio pace for now. “Georgia is not there yet,” James Appathurai, the NATO secretary general’s special representative for the Caucasus and Central Asia, commented to EurasiaNet.org.
While noting "a positive dynamic in Georgia's democratic development," he suggested staying focused on ongoing reforms that “will enable Georgia to live up to the duties resulting from the membership.”
“There cannot be shortcuts and Georgia is not seeking them,” he said.
Tbilisi, though, believes it's done the necessary homework. “Georgia is ready and deserves to move to a qualitatively higher level [of] cooperation with NATO that will be a next logical step forward in [the] NATO membership process,” Georgian Defense Minister Irakli Alasania told EurasiaNet.org.
He argues that the country, with a change of power by election behind it, has matured politically, made an impressive contribution to the Afghanistan campaign and achieved a high level of interoperability with NATO.
From Tbilisi’s perspective, at this stage, it is all about whether NATO is ready for Georgia; not the other way round.
Fingers are crossed here in hopes to get the coveted Membership Action Plan (MAP) at the NATO summit this September in Wales in the United Kingdom. Apart from securing the long-wanted deterrent against Russian pressure, receiving a MAP alongside closer ties with the EU would be a major foreign policy success for the current administration.
Four days after Crimean Tatars sent an SOS to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, nothing has been heard from Baku but silence. For all its grievances with Moscow, chances are slim that Azerbaijan, the Tatars' rich South-Caucasus cousin, will stick its neck out over Crimea.
But Crimean Tatar community leader Mustafa Dzhemilyev, a Ukrainian parliamentarian, gave it his best shot in a March 6 interview with the news site Haqqin. “Do not leave your Crimean brothers and sisters at this difficult time,” Dzhemilyev implored Aliyev.
Recalling repressions by Tsarist and Soviet Russia, he underlined that the Tatars will never put up with a Russian takeover of the Crimean peninsula, and asked Aliyev to use his influence with Russian President Vladimir Putin to prevent such an event.
The request was cc-ed to Turkish President Abdullah Gül and another Turkic leader, Kazakhstani President Nursultan Nazarbayev.
Turkey has so far weighed in the strongest on the issue, while Aliyev and Nazarbayev have been slow to provide even a non-binding, thinking-of-you response.
Azerbaijani officials routinely emphasize Azerbaijan's emergence as a regional power, but don’t expect Aliyev to snap his fingers in Putin’s face over Crimea. Through its economic and political involvement in the region and its many conflicts, Nagorno-Karabakh included, Russia could hurt Azerbaijan.