Tbilisi had an unusual visitor on July 2. But one whose presence could have far-reaching consequences for the energy map of both the South Caucasus and Europe.
Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov’s two-day state visit to Georgia, his first, involves the usual meetings with the usual assortment of senior Georgian officials and the usual signing of various, vaguely described agreements.
The two countries have not divulged the details.
The Turkmen government is excited about how the use of “transportation-transit infrastructure between the Caspian and Black Sea regions will provide for the supply of broad inter-regional integration with the states of Europe, and the Near and Far East.”
Georgian Foreign Minister Tamar Beruchashvili, for her part, expressed a hope that the visit would bring “interesting results” for “deepening” the two countries’ relations as well as for “the execution of regional projects.”
Of course, bottom line, that means one thing – energy.
A few months ago, European Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic told Reuters that Turkmen gas would reach European markets by 2019.
Many eyes, especially in Moscow, are on Yerevan for hints that the resistance to higher electricity prices will turn into another post-Soviet revolution with geopolitical implications. But the wait for Molotov cocktails to start flying is proving meaningless.
Rather, now that the risk of police intervention has faded, the mass protests are again looking like a national festival, with the mostly young demonstrators breaking into song and dance on Yerevan’s central Bahgramian Avenue that they have blocked for days now.
The choice of weapons includes the traditional Armenian circle dance, Kochari, performed to the pounding of drums and shrieks of the zurna, a folk oboe. Others do a bit of sports. One morning earlier, protesters used the space between a line of police and a barricade of recycling bins as a soccer pitch. The demonstrators also worked together to keep the avenue clean.
The government, in some ways, also appears to be performing a circle dance of its own. Prime Minister Hovik Abrahamian on June 30 said that the state would use extrabudgetary funds to cover the August 1 price-hike for consumers, but claimed the explanation would come later, RFE/RL's Armenian service reported.
The European Games and its implicit race between hydrocarbon dollars and human rights have come to an end after a grandiose closing show on June 28 in Baku and divergent opinions about what the Olympics-style event has done for Azerbaijan.
Officials in the oil capital of the Caucasus say, all puns aside, that the event has been a gas. Government-influenced media (in other words, mainstream Azerbaijani media) is busy cultivating a sense of achievement and President Ilham Aliyev’s government is promising to host more sporting events that raise Azerbaijan’s international profile.
But some critics question the need for the Games. The Guardian wrote that Baku 2015 left the impression of “ghost games;” that “there is no real need for in a crowded calendar and willed into existence by the endless expansionism of the Olympics movement and an authoritarian state.”
Sports Minister Azad Rahimov was a bit on the defensive amid reports of excessive spending. He claimed that the alleged 960 million manats ($914.55 million) price-tag for the Games was within range of initial estimates, but there are reports of much higher spending.
But that’s not all – it’s co-hosting the European soccer championship in 2020 and has set its sights on perhaps even the Summer Olympic Games in 2024.
Baku’s earlier Olympics bids failed, but the European Games left the city with some new, glittering sports infrastructure and the authorities are bent on making the most of it.
Azerbaijan’s big decision about going for the 2024 Olympics won’t come until September, however, and rests with President Ilham Aliyev, who also doubles as the chair of the Azerbaijani National Olympics Committee, Sports Minister Azad Rahimov specified on June 26.
Rahimov, though, believes that the European Games have put Baku on the right road. Holding large-scale sports events puts Azerbaijan "on the road leading to the Olympics,” the minister said.
When a Russian TV reporter went live from the Yerevan protests last night, a poster behind her read “Russia 24: Go to hell,” to use a mellow translation of the original choice of words.
The crowd gathered around the journalist was angry that Russian media draws parallels between their protest against higher electricity fees from a Russian-owned power company and Ukraine’s pro-Western uprising in 2013.
“People here do not want the word Yerevan to be used in the same sentence with Kyiv,” the LifeNews journalist explained.
Igor Morozov, a member of Russia’s legislative upper house, the Federation Council, opined on June 24 that Yerevan’s protests carbon-copy the build-up to EuroMaidan, and will end in a coup if “the nation’s President Serzh Sargsyan does not learn lessons from Ukraine’s Maidan and does not draw the right conclusions," RIA Novosti reported.
And, in the time-honored fashion of Russian politicians, Morozov is eager to make sure he does. Morozov and his colleague in the lower house, the State Duma, Valery Rishkin, advised Sargsyan to boot US Ambassador Richard Mills out of Armenia.
In Russian political folklore, US embassies in Ukraine, Armenia and elsewhere in the post-Soviet world work as regional headquarters of an anti-Kremlin conspiracy thought up in Washington, DC.
As the tense standoff between protesters and police in the Armenian capital, Yerevan, continues, Moscow is keeping a cautious eye on events. Armenia is Russia’s only sure ally in the South Caucasus, and, the Kremlin, no doubt with Ukraine on its mind, wants to be sure of its friend.
“Armenia is our closest partner… Of course, we closely follow the developments and hope the situation will be settled in the near future in strict accordance with the law,” Public Radio of Armenia quoted Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov as saying.
Russian media continues to look at the “Maidan-ability” of the demonstrations; in other words, if the protests against a 16-percent hike in electricity prices can become a real threat to Armenia’s government and its close alliance with Moscow.
Although some anti-Moscow (and anti-Putin) notes were sounded at the Electric Yerevan protest, protesters do not appear to be calling for grand shifts in Armenia’s geo-strategy.
Facing rows of police, the demonstrators whistled, clapped and chanted on the city’s central Liberty Square to condemn the government’s strong-arm response to their overnight sit-in against a 16-percent increase in electricity prices.
The renewed protests challenge the administration of President Serzh Sargsyan, long familiar with large-scale protests, to come up with a ready solution to the price problem. The website for the Armenian police was disabled earlier in the day in what some viewed as a hacker attack.
Armenian police made 237 arrests on June 23 after roughly breaking up a Yerevan sit-in against a planned fee hike by the country’s Russian-owned power distribution network. The protest appears to be serving as a multiplier for longstanding economic grievances against the government of President Serzh Sargsyan.
Despite the police pushback, protesters have announced on Facebook that they will attempt another demonstration this evening, ArmeniaNow.com reported.
Led by a group called No to Plunder, the initial demonstration, a three-day sit-in, targeted a 16-percent increase in power prices by Electricity Networks of Armenia, a company owned by Russia’s Kremlin-friendly Inter RAO UES. That price increase, introduced on June 17 amidst protests, replaced plans for a 40-percent hike.
But the move did nothing to assuage many Armenians frustrated by scanty incomes, insufficient employment and perceived rampant corruption.
Protesters, en route to the presidential office, declined an offer on June 22 to meet with Sargsyan to discuss their grievances. Faced by police, last night they headed for a central thoroughfare, Baghramian Avenue. Riot police and water canons that remained at the ready moved in on the group at dawn.
After a deadly attack last week by an escaped zoo tiger, residents of the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, are starting to see or hear predator zoo animals everywhere. And coming up with some increasingly fantastic tips for how to survive an encounter.
In one Tbilisi suburb, police and a group of concerned citizens caught what they thought was one of the wolves that had escaped from the city zoo after the June 13-14 flood that literally turned Tbilisi’s center into an urban jungle.
“Trust me, I know a wolf when I see one,” one man assured skeptics in a video of the supposed capture.
“Shouldn’t some zoo representative come?” another asked.
Against a backdrop of police-car lights, a crowd took photos for posterity with the suspected runaway; some even hesitantly stroking its head.
But the detainee proved to be a dog.
It was released and cleared of all lupine charges.
The confusion, however, was not a one-off. In the central district of Vake, several young pranksters downloaded a lion’s roar and broadcast the sound via speakers to horrified neighbors. Before long, both the national guard and police came running as emergency calls flooded in.
Azerbaijani athletes competing in the European Games have been allowed to dispense with fasting for Ramadan in a bid to boost predominantly Shi’a Muslim Azerbaijan’s results in the Olympics-style competition.
With 29 medals to its name, Azerbaijan currently ranks second to Russia for medal-results among the 50 countries taking part in the Games. How many of its 285 athletes are observant Muslims is open to speculation, but, apparently, the Caucasus Muslim Authority, a close ally of the secular Azerbaijani government, wants to do its part for the team effort, too.
Victory on the playing field “pleases God,” local clerics ruled in a recent fatwa and blessed athletes who opt to skip the fast, which bans food, drink and sex from dawn to sunset, APA news agency reported on June 19.
The month-long celebration of Ramadan started in Azerbaijan on June 18, less than a week after the Games began.
“To make sure that the valiant Islamic sportsman is stronger than his competitor in the month of Ramadan, he cannot observe oruj [fast],” said the Baku-based Caucasus Muslim Authority. “To defeat a competitor on a sports field, to defend the honor of your country and raise the flag of your homeland is important and pleases God.”
The fact that this is the first time that Azerbaijan has hosted the Games qualifies as a special circumstance, the body held.
Azerbaijan was the only country that bid to host the Games, a pet project for President Ilham Aliyev, who heads up the National Olympic Committee.