The fallout from the May 19 murder of Giga Otkhozoria has put to the test Tbilisi’s policy of piecemeal reconciliation with Abkhazia and its separatist twin, South Ossetia, and their overlord, Russia.
Georgian public anger over Otkhozoria’s slaying has been directed mainly at Russia, seen as the one calling the shots in both of the breakaways. Russian troops are stationed along both Abkhazia’s and South Ossetia’s administrative borders with Georgian-controlled territory.
That view of Russia’s role may not jive with that of Abkhazia’s separatist government, but, for now, Tbilisi is sticking with it.
Brexit is seen as a win for Russia over the European Union in countries wedged between the two powers. The British decision to leave the EU may be primarily a European affair, but its repercussions have rippled into the EU’s so-called Eastern Neighborhood, a longtime sparring ground for Brussels and Moscow.
“Great, now there is plenty of room for us,” many joked in Georgia, a longtime aspirant for EU membership and signatory of a 2014 Association Agreement with the bloc. For all the online giggling about the “United Yet Breakaway Kingdom” and how Georgia should sneak into the EU unnoticed while the door is still open, the South Caucasus country knows that the “out vote” was a blow to its EU hopes.
“The European Union… will be in a state of shock for some time and will not have time for others,” commented Georgian political scientist Ghia Nodia, a former education minister, to Netgazeti.ge. “In Georgia, unlike Britain, but much like other continental countries, a Eurosceptic primarily stands for pro-Russian.”
“The biggest loser is the EU, as a project,” while Russia is the biggest winner, he added.
Sensing the risk, Georgian officials on June 24 were publicly silent on the Brexit topic, until Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili released a diplomatic statement late in the afternoon that “This vote will not change the fact that the European Union is [one of] the most important and powerful regional political and economic unions in the world, and its strength will continue to grow."
“We have planned out concrete steps to boost the process of negotiations, and the presidents agreed on a trilateral statement, which reaffirms their commitment to normalization of the situation on the line of contact and also includes their consent to increasing the number of the OSCE monitors,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has a small ceasefire monitoring mission in Karabakh. For years, the OSCE has arranged peace talks on Karabakh through its Minsk Group, a mediation mechanism led by Russia, the US and France.
American singer Pharrell Williams became the only visiting celebrity to call for freedom in Azerbaijan during Baku's June 16-19 Formula One race, an event criticized for “sports-washing” the country’s authoritarian ways. Activists say it has been a struggle to coax world celebrities performing in Baku on its rich government’s tab to put human rights first.
The Sport for Rights coalition of international rights groups said most singers, who visited Baku to provide musical acts for the European Grand Prix, snubbed calls to push for change in the repressive ex-Soviet republic. “It has historically been very difficult to engage celebrities on human rights issues in Azerbaijan,” Rebecca Vincent, the coordinator of the Sport for Rights campaign, told EurasiaNet.org.
“Chris Brown and Enrique Iglesias completely ignored our calls,” Vincent said of two other star singers who performed in Baku during Formula One. “We received no response from their managers or publicists, and they have performed without uttering a single word about the situation in the country – [a] real shame, as they have become part of the Azerbaijani regime’s propaganda machine.”
F1 managers did not prove cooperative, either. Williams, who capped the entertainment program, was the only exception. “Make some noise for the youth of Azerbaijan!” he said at his June 19 performance. “Those beautiful children: they are the future! When they grow up they will change things not only here, but around the world and no one can stop them.”
So far, the India-Russia railway project is not a fully rail-based route, rather a rail-sea-road-rail-shipment arrangement. Goods coming by rail from Mumbai will be ferried to the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas in the Persian Gulf, then carried north across Iran by rail to the city of Rasht. Trucks will carry the load to the Azerbaijani border town of Astara, and then a train will carry it to Moscow, said Javid Gurbanov, chairperson of Azerbaijan Railways.
Baku says the route, part of a north-south transit corridor, will carry 5 million tons of goods annually. For a smoother shipment, Iran and Azerbaijan are negotiating the construction of a rail link between the cities of Rasht and Astara. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is due in Baku in August to discuss funding and technical matters. Azerbaijani officials say they may lend part of the estimated $900 million to Iran for the railway project.
Amidst objections from France, Germany and Italy, the European Union’s ambassadors on June 8 opted to postpone discussions about scrapping EU entry visas for Georgian citizens. Their second thoughts are causing concerns in Georgia, where the government has long touted visa-free travel to the EU as a major leap toward Tbilisi’s ultimate goal of Western integration.
Increased public wariness toward immigrants appears to be to blame for the EU dragging its feet on the visa liberalization plan, which has been plodding along through various EU structures.
France, Germany and Italy appear to be the main European opponents to the visa-liberalization plans for Georgia.
Politico reported in late April that Germany and France had crafted a proposal that argues that the “current migration and refugee trends make it necessary to have an efficient mechanism in place to suspend visa liberalization.”
Refugee concerns apparently prompted Italy to agree with that position.
The EU’s row with Turkey, Georgia’s western neighbor, over Ankara’s refusal to amend its anti-terrorism laws in exchange for visa-free travel may well have soured France, Germany and Italy further. That spells trouble not only for Georgia, but Ukraine and Kosovo as well.
Germany, though, had a bit of its own concern. German officials have recently expressed worries that the easing of visa requirements for Georgia could somehow result in a hike in city burglaries by “[i]nternational traveling gangs.”
Armenia’s first-ever smart phone arrived in stores on June 6, as the latest result of the country's ongoing ambition to become the South Caucasus' high-tech capital.
The debut of Armphone, a touchscreen, Android cell phone, made Armenia the second ex-Soviet republic after Russia to foray into the smartphone-manufacturing industry. The maker, a joint American-Armenian venture, Technology & Science Dynamics (TSD), has created an Android-run tablet, too, called Armpad.
Armphone features a 5.1-inch, full HD-screen and a price for between $100-$300, depending on features, according to one news report. (TSD itself does not specify a retail price.)
The combination of an affordable price and national pride makes the manufaturers confident of sales success. TSD used the motto "It is time for Armenian products" in its promotion for the phones, which, it claims, "will satisfy the pickiest of customers."
"The buyers will be pleasantly surprised by the choice of ringtones based on music pieces by famous Armenian composers," the company said.
A country of some 3.3 million, Armenia has been banking heavily on developing a high-tech industry to jumpstart its modest, predominantly agricultural-and-service-based, $10-billion economy.
A sequel to the iconic Soviet comedy film “Mimino,” a must-see for anyone with an interest in the Soviet Union, is in the can, according to a Russian news report. Georgian media mogul Zurab Chigogidze has acquired the rights to continue the story which captivated Soviet citizens in 1977.
The original movie follows the adventures of Valiko Mizandari, aka Mimino (falcon), a helicopter pilot carrying people and goats around in rural Georgia. He moves to Moscow to pursue his dream of flying the big time with Aeroflot. There, Mimino befriends an Armenian truck driver Rubik Khachikian, the movie’s comic-relief-in-chief, and the two simple men from the Caucasus, speaking an accented, faulty Russian, get entrapped in various misadventures in the USSR’s top megapolis.
The banter between Mizandari and Khachikian, played to a tee by Georgian actor and singer Buba Kikabidze and the late Armenian actor Frunzik Mkrtchian, also encapsulates the eternal rivalry between Georgians and Armenians. At one point, Khachikian claims that the Armenian town of Dilijan has the second-best water in the world. “And the best one is in Yerevan, right?” asks Mizandari, annoyed. “Nope, San Francisco,” responds Khachikian. Mizandari throws a fit because Borjomi, the Georgian mineral water of Soviet fame, is snubbed in the Armenian’s aqua hall of fame.
Over protests from Turkey, Germany on June 2 passed a resolution recognizing the Ottoman Empire-era slaughter of ethnic Armenians as genocide.
The motion, backed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s bloc, also accepts a German share of the guilt in the 1915 mass murder. As Ottoman Turkey’s ally in World War I, the German Reich failed to prevent the destruction of ethnic Armenians, the resolution reads.
The vote in the Bundestag, the German parliament’s lower house, turned Berlin into a frontline for the ongoing feud between Armenia and Turkey over these events. Both Yerevan and Ankara have tried to sway the vote. Turkey, which denies that the 1915 massacre amounted to genocide, warned Germany against supporting the resolution. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan phoned Merkel on May 31 to warn that “diplomatic, economic, trade, political and military – we are both NATO members – will be damaged," Deutsche Welle reported.
An image of Ismayilova emerging from prison on May 25 with a smile and a here-I-am gesture spread online as a symbol of a collective victory over the powerful political machine that tried to silence her. "That's how you leave prison, smiling, [like] you've been to a nice vacation in Italy," said Keti Abashidze, South Caucasus coordinator for the Human Rights House Foundation. Abashidze along with several other of Ismayilova's friends, colleagues and supporters gathered in Tbilisi, Georgia on the reporter's 40th birthday, May 27.
They recalled that it was with that same smile that Ismayilova in late 2014 dismissed friends' pleas not to return from Strasbourg to Baku, where she was to face certain arrest. "Even the prison officials were asking me why I'm smiling all the time," Ismayilova said in videoed comments to RFE/RL, one of the outlets for which she worked.
Her globally acclaimed work and the positive attitude she has kept through her ordeal, which included blackmail with a sex tape, turned her into an international investigative journalism icon. As various celebrities and public figures spoke up for her, her imprisonment became an embarrassment for the international-spotlight-seeking Azerbaijani state.