Sometimes diplomatic breakthroughs can happen through unlikely channels. Although the Turkey-Armenia reconciliation process that resulted in the 2009 signing of protocols to reestablish relations between the two neighbors is now almost completely dead, it's worth recalling that it was "soccer diplomacy" -- mutual visits by the Turkish and Armenian presidents to watch their countries' national teams play each other -- that got the diplomatic ball rolling in the first place.
Now that sports have been used in an effort to get the two neighbors to talk to each other, could "cheese diplomacy" be the next thing that sparks a breakthrough in Turkey-Armenia relations? That's the hope of Armenian activist Artush Mkrtchyan, who for the last few years has been the driving force behind an effort to create a kind of Caucasian "peace cheese," one produced jointly be Turks and Armenians living near their shared border. From a New York Times story about the project:
Artush Mkrtchyan calls it cheese diplomacy. Others speak of informal, or “track-two,” diplomacy. By either name, it is all about building bridges between Turks and Armenians in the absence of formal, or “track-one,” diplomatic relations between their governments.
Mr. Mkrtchyan, 55, an engineer, art critic and activist from the Armenian town of Gyumri has made cheese the medium of contact and cooperation with the neighboring town of Kars, in Turkey.
Less than 70 kilometers, or 45 miles, apart but separated by a border that has been closed for nearly two decades, cheese makers in Gyumri and Kars, along with colleagues in the nearby Georgian town of Ninotsminda, produce and market a “Caucasian cheese,” invented by Mr. Mkrtchyan in 2008 to foster cross-border cooperation.
Though a decades-old Istanbul institution, the Gulluoglu baklava shop in the city's Karakoy neighborhood is not afraid to try out new things. Case in point: the store's "Baracklava," a tray of the syrupy, flaky confection that has for a top layer a portrait of American President Barack Obama. Gullugolu first created the "Baracklava" in 2009, ahead of a trip the newly-elected Obama made to Turkey, where he was received with great excitement by Turks.
Checking in at Gulluoglu four years down the road, Matthew Brunwasser of PRI's "The World" radio show, finds that while the "Baracklava" is still on display, the excitement has dissipated. From his report:
What is the size of a large cookie pan, made out of baklava, and looks like a lumpy version of the famous Hope portrait of Barack Obama? The “Baracklava”.
The idea was cooked up in the Gulloglu baklava shop in Istanbul. In the shop’s six decades in business, only three other historical figures, all Turks, have been so honored. Owner Nadir Gullu says the portraits require enormous craftsmanship.
“Under the command of one chef with five assistants, it takes 10 days to make one,” Gullu says. “In each piece of baklava there are 55 layers of pastry. It’s all handmade and is very hard. Obama’s big ears made it very difficult, but we managed.”
Gullu doesn’t like politics. But he says he and other Turks had high expectations of Obama and they were dashed.
While much of the focus (and occasional hand wringing) regarding Turkish foreign policy in recent years has been over Ankara's reengagement with the Middle East, the truth of the matter is that Turkey has been no less active in developing its diplomatic and economic presence in the Balkans. Like in other regions, in the Balkans Turkish diplomacy is working not only to deepen Turkey's political influence there, but also to open new door for Turkish business. (For some background, take a look at this previous post.)
Take a look, for example, at how Turkey is promoting its tea in Macedonia. As an interesting article from SETimes.com makes clear, the effort is about much more than just selling tea. From the article:
Chajkur, the largest producer of tea in Turkey, launched its national drink in several Macedonian cities. The promotional campaign, Friendly Greeting for Friendly Macedonia, offered sample tasting and production presentations.
Abdulkadri Bayraktar, Turkish consul in Macedonia, told SETimes that this investment will bring other Turkish investors to the country....
....Ismail Safi, president of the Turkish group in the parliamentary assembly of the Black Sea Economic Co-operation, told SETimes said that in visiting Macedonia, the goal is not only to offer tea to their Macedonian friends, but also search out for more investment opportunities.
"The main goal was to present the Turkish tea in Macedonia, because we found out that [the product] is not known here enough, and is hard to find. We want Macedonians to get used to it, discover the advantages of tea, and later make some investments … We hope to increase marketing relations in the future," Safi said.
"Macedonia is one of the most important allies and friends of Turkey," Gilaj Daljan, a Turkish MP, said.
Tbilisi-based journalist (and frequent Eurasianet contributor) Paul Rimple has a very interesting take on billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, whose Georgian Dream party was the big winner of Georgia's Oct. 1 parliamentary elections. How to understand the surprise contender? sit down with him for dinner, suggests Rimple. From an excellent post of his on the Roads & Kingdoms blog:
Dozens of guests are sitting around a table that is at least 20 meters long, piled high with plates of earthy east Georgian dishes. More home-cooked food is coming. I’ve got one eye on a bowl of khashlama that was just set down. So does the billionaire.
We are in Kakheti, the hilly wine region of eastern Georgia, where khashlama is the signature dish. It might look like boiled beef, but that’s like saying wine looks like vinegar. It’s actually a heroic mix of fresh herbs, salt and beef, slow-cooked in an open cauldron. The billionaire, sitting across from me, spoons a chunk onto his plate. He is the only person holding his utensils upright, like a proper European (the English journalist with us might have done the same, I suppose, but he was still holding a pen and notebook). It’s not that I hadn’t expected such upstanding usage of the cutlery—earlier I watched him taste the homemade wine as if it had been corked in France in 1981—but there are plenty of foods, including some of the herbs on the table, that are just expected to be eaten by hand in Georgia. There’s something unsettling about a man, no matter what his tax bracket, using knife and fork at a country table in Kakheti.
Are elected officials in Yerevan trying to take any local color out of the city's food scene? That certainly seems to be the case. Last year, the city's mayor issued a ban on street vendors -- many of them fruit and vegetable sellers -- in an effort to "clean up" Yerevan. More worrisome for Yerevan residents, it now looks like local leaders are turning a blind eye while the city's well-known indoor market, the now shuttered Pak Shuka, is in danger of being demolished by a businessman cum politician who reportedly wants to turn it into a supermarket.
In a detail-rich report, The Armenian Weekly lays out the whole sordid tale:
At this point, it's widely accepted that the 2006 embargo imposed by Russia on the import of Georgian wine ended up being a good thing for Georgia's wine industry. Previously dependent on a Russian market that favored low-quality, semi-sweet wine, Georgian wine makers have been forced to improve the quality of their product as they tried to break into other markets, especially in Europe and the United States.
In a very informative blog post on the website of the Wine Spectator, the publication's associate editor, Robert Taylor, takes a look at how the Georgian wine industry has evolved since the embargo and what its future might look like if the Russian market opens up to it again. From his post:
After independence, despite privatization, Georgian wine did not become better since, like many other industries, it suffered from disorientation, insufficient financing and a lack of regulation, Kaffka said. Russia's declaration of a sanitary embargo "was not completely groundless," he noted. "In the huge flow of what was marketed as 'Georgian wine' in the 1990s, surely there was a large amount of low quality and plain fake product."
But the 2006 embargo forced the Republic's wine industry to improve quality and seek out new markets, competing with—and hoping to join—the world's fine wine regions. Up to that point, more than 90 percent of its wine production had gone to Russia.
The end of summer and the return of cooler weather has traditionally signaled the beginning of fishing season in the waters around Istanbul and the rest of Turkey. These days, this time of the year also means the return of controversy and debate over the future of the country's fishing industry and government efforts to make sure that industry even has a future.
As reported in a previous Kebabistan blog post and in a subsequent Eursianet article, the previous fishing season turned violent after the government imposed a minimum catch-size limitation on certain types of fish. Following the imposition of the new regulations, the head of an Istanbul fisheries union that supported the change was shot in the face last January by a gunman who challenged him about it (the union leader survived, although he did lose an eye).
This year, the Turkish government is proposing more new regulations designed to prevent overfishing, most significantly forbidding dragnet fishing in waters that are less than 24-meters(78 feet) deep and completely banning the use of dragnets in certain sensitive areas, such as the waters around the Princes' Islands near Istanbul.
Perhaps not surprisingly, it didn't take long for the the European Union's decision to grant Georgia the exclusive right to market its wine bottles with the slogan "Georgia - The Cradle of Wine" to create some controversy in the Caucasus.
As the Hvino News website, which covers the Georgian wine scene, reports, the Union of Winemakers of Armenia is looking into how it might appeal Brussels' decision. From Hvino's report:
As noted by the Chairman of Union Mr. Avag Harutyunyan, not only Georgia can claim the status of "the cradle of wine", but also other countries in the region, primarily Armenia.
Armenian archeologists agree that in Georgia there are facts which prove the antiquity of the local wine. But for the moment the wine-making complex in Areni is considered the world's oldest, discovered during excavations "Areni-1" in 2011. According to the Director of Academic Institute of Archeology and Ethnography Mr. Pavel Avetisyan, both Georgia and Armenia can be considered the cradle of wine, as well as Iran, and even part of Azerbaijan, in view of the fact that the relevant archaeological materials have been found in all these countries.
This would not be the first time wine is dragged into the region's rivalries. In late June, Azeri hackers took over the website of an Armenian wine company in order to score some political points. More on that in this previous post.
In a previous post, Kebabistan reported on how in order to protest rising food prices in Iran (the result of the western-led sanctions against the country), shoppers recently participated in a "spontaneous" three-day boycott of grocery stores and bakeries.
The issue of the cost of food has clearly caught the attention of the Iranian authorities, particularly, it appears, regarding chicken, a staple of Persian cuisine whose price has skyrocketed in recent months, making it unaffordable for many average Iranians. The solution being offered by one official? Not to make more chickens available, but to make them invisible. Reports RFE/RL's Golnaz Esfandiari:
Chickens and their rising cost could soon join the list of censored topics in Iran.
Over the weekend, police chief Esmail Ahmadi Moghadam criticized state-controlled television for broadcasting images of people eating chicken. He suggested such footage could spur the underprivileged to revolt against affluent Iranians.
“Films are now the vitrine of the society, and some individuals witnessing this class gap might say, ‘We will take knives and take our rights from the rich,'” Ahmadi Moghadam warned during a July 14 press conference by law-enforcement officials.
In Iran, the government fixes the price of chicken at a point lower than the market rate, which has risen by some 60 percent since last year, presumably as a result of inflation and unprecedented tough Western sanctions imposed on Tehran for its controversial nuclear program. Nowadays Iranians pay as much as $5 for a kilogram of chicken. Pre-sanctions prices hovered around $2.
Georgia’s ongoing flirtation with Iran may be raising eyebrows in Washington, but there are signs Tbilisi and Tehran are taking their courtship to the next level: culinary affairs.
Iranian restaurants are popping up in Tbilisi’s popular dining districts, with eateries ranging from the height of touristy kitsch to night clubs. While there are just four in the central district so far, they appear to be taking root.
On Akhvlediani Street, a café-filled side street that runs parallel to the capital’s main boulevard, Farsi ads and Iranian flags are the newest addition to an eclectic mix of ethnic restaurants.
A large Iranian flag stakes out a swath of prime clubbing space for New Mask, an Iranian restaurant/night club. While the ambiance is thin – generic carnival masks make up the bulk of the décor – Iranian pop music sets a certain mood. Plus, at an average of 18 lari ($10.84) an entrée, sampling Iranian comfort food like zereshk polow ba morgh (roasted chicken with a sweet tomato sauce served with rice and barberries) is an affordably exotic treat.
The baby step from tourism to restaurants seems like a safe move in the diplomatic minefield of fostering relations with Iran. Georgia, long considered Washington’s main ally in the region - and recipient of $1billion in aid money over the past four years – has been understandably circumspect about forming close ties with Tehran.
In 2010, Tbilisi lifted visa requirements for Iranians – a move that has helped bolster tourism between the two countries and led to a small, but noticeable, increase in bilateral trade.
But Georgia has also been careful to seek a balance between closer commercial ties with Iran and its diplomatic responsibility with the West: during an interview with CNN on July 9, Economy Minister Vera Kobalia sidestepped a question about Georgia’s increasing ties with Iran.