Armenia has made its choice between the two EUs -- the European Union and the Eurasian Union-- but will it bring its de-facto addendum, the breakaway territory of Nagorno Karabakh along with it into the Russia-plus trade space? Some analysts believe that Karabakh will indirectly end up enjoying the benefits of the Kremlin’s economic promised land.
Bent on taking the territory back, Azerbaijan poses a stumbling block for the predominantly ethnic Armenian territory to reach out to the outside world; meaning that Armenia is essentially the only friend and trade partner Karabakh has.
In turn, since Russia is the main economic partner for semi-boycotted Armenia, Karabakh by default is expected to gain access to the economic zone coalesced around Moscow, some Armenians believe.
“Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh form one economic space,” Alexander Iskanderian, director of the Yerevan-based Caucasus Institute, told Russia’s Gazeta.ru. “Armenian money works in Stepanakert, the banking system and laws are closely integrated."
Officially, of course, it will not be a union of Russia, Belarus Kazakhstan, Armenia and Nagorno Karabakh. Not even Armenia has recognized Karabakh as an independent state.
Nor, with all members of the union, Russia included, wary of angering Azerbaijan, the formation of the Eurasian Union is not going to change the diplomatic status quo for Karabakh.
But, as often happens in the Caucasus, it's what happens apart from what's written that counts. Some observers expect that Karabakh's produce, be it mulberry brandy or construction materials, could be sold customs-free within the union as products of Armenia.
Compared with the gargantuan scale of the US National Security Agency’s surveillance machine, the 21,000 cell phones that the government of Georgia can supposedly monitor each day is miniscule. But anger over state snooping is still creating a PR challenge for officials in Tbilisi.
Georgia’s ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili is still in business doing two things he likes most – making speeches at protests and fighting his nemesis, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. This time, he got to do them both in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, where street protests continue to boil.
“Hello, Ukraine!” he said in Ukrainian on December 7, addressing thousands of demonstrators gathered in the city's Maidan Nezalezhnosty or Freedom Square to push the Ukrainian government into a rethink about giving Russia precedence over the European Union. “I’ve come here… to the beating, living and singing heart of Europe,” he went on.
Consulting a written text (Ukrainian is not known to be one of the multi-lingual Saakashvili's strongest languages), the leader of Georgia's 2003 Rose Revolution told demonstrators that "you are defending not just your future, the future of Ukraine, but also the future of all of us, all the freedom-loving nations of the region and the world."
If the European Union can prevail in Ukraine over Moscow, he argued, it can prevail also in Georgia, Moldova and elsewhere in the ex-Soviet world.
With Ukrainian opposition leaders Vitali Klychko and Arseniy Yatsenyuk by his side, he called for a united front against Putin's Russia, which, he claimed, is trying to gobble up one country at a time.
“The Ukrainian triumph will end the era of Vladimir Putin, and the end will start here, on this very square,” he said to ovations from the crowd. (Next stop for Misha: Moldova.)
Jumping on the make-your-own-national-gadget bandwagon, Armenia has come up with a smartphone and a tablet computer of its own. Presented to the Armenian government on December 6, Armphone and Armtab are expected to hit stores after New Year's Day.
As is often the case with such devices, Armphone and Armtab are only partly sovereign Armenian. Designed in Armenia, the devices run on an Android operating system and will be assembled in the US and Hong Kong. The creators – Technology and Science Dynamics/Armtab Technologies, described as an Armenian-American joint-venture – say that they hope the low price will attract first regional (Georgia and Ukraine) and, eventually, international customers.
The price of the 16-GB tablets will range from $225 to $280, Vahan Sahakian, the director of Technology and Science Dynamics/Armtab Technologies, told Armenpress. Sahakian presented Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian with a sample Armtablet at a government meeting, which then managed to segue from smart technologies to a discussion about Armenia's textile, knitting and shoe industries.
Georgia’s chain of public-service halls – a fast-food-style dispenser of everything from ID cards to property registrations – broke a mold in the post-Soviet world, where taking care of such tasks usually means taking a long journey though the labyrinths of government bureaucracy. The bold undertaking had been an achievement of ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili that has weathered the country's ongoing storm of revisionism. But it couldn't handle an actual storm.
The company that constructed the Tbilisi House of Justice was not chosen through an open tender, but via direct contracting; a practice that "is likely to result in wasteful spending, as there is no opportunity for another qualified bid for the same contract to bring down the price,”, the Georgia chapter of anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International argued at a December 6 presentation.
In 2012, under former President Saakashvili, the government dished out 1.17 billion lari (about $700 million) to companies under such contracts; an amount equivalent to "4.7 percent of the Georgian economy," according to TI. The deals "accounted for 18 percent of all government spending . . ."
The bill on local self-governance aims to give regional towns and communities more decision-making power via the election of local mayors and municipal officials. Today, only the mayor of Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, is elected, while regional heads are appointed by the central government.
The proponents of the bill argue that the change will help regional governments, including in highland communities, address local needs more efficiently.
But, in December 4 remarks, the patriarch cautioned that a devolution of authority could encourage more separatism, a phenomenon that already haunts Georgia with Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
“If this happens, it will lead us to disintegration of Georgia,” Ilia II said. “We will never tolerate this and will do our best to make sure this does not happen.”
"We should remember that when the [central] government was strong . . .
Georgia was strong as well," he continued, underlining that "the people
should consider whether or not [the draft law] is acceptable and good for Georgia."
The debate over decentralizing power, however, soon spun out into the realm of secularism vs. theocracy, another ongoing bugbear for Georgian society.
To be precise, the poll (of 1,000 respondents) found that Armenia's level of suffering stands at 37 percent. Georgia, a comparatively sized neighbor with its own economic and security problems, suffers by 16-percentage points less.
Azerbaijan, the richest yet least democratic of the South-Caucasus trio, apparently suffers the least, at 15 percent of its respondents.
Overall, the survey, released on December 2, makes the Russian maxim that “It is better to be rich and healthy than poor and sick” ring truer than ever. The line of inquiry is broad -- linking "thriving" to job-security and access to healthcare, for instance.
Nonetheless, some surprises did emerge: the UK and Uzbekistan allegedly sharing the same level of suffering, for one.
Yet the Gallup pollsters, who did both face-to-face and over-the-phone interviews, did not just call up randomly selected respondents to ask how they're doing on a given day. Criteria under examination included the amount of income, optimism, stress, physical pain, worry and anger.
The data, though, is based on how respondents rate their own lives. How the survey compensated for cultural differences toward public expressions of feelings is not clear.
The “corrupting influence of the West” is a catchphrase immortalized by the 1969 cult Soviet comedy, The Diamond Arm, in which a busy-body apartment-manager (portrayed by iconic actress Nonna Mordykova) becomes suspicious of the new, supposedly bourgeois ways of a neighbor after he returns from abroad.
You would not expect to hear a post-Soviet government official repeat this line today. Unless, that is, you happen to be in the oil-soaked Caucasus country of Azerbaijan.
In a December 2 speech in Baku, Ali Hasanov, a senior political aide to President Ilham Aliyev and a tireless guardian of public loyalty to his boss, called on all and sundry to fight back against the pernicious effects of Western influence that supposedly are pitting Azerbaijani young people and the media against their own people and the state.
“Each of us has a duty to protect youth from the corrupting influence of the West,” he instructed his audience, the APA news agency reported. “We can’t allow certain young men to engage in an anti-Azerbaijani activity for some 2 or 3,000 manats" via Western donor grants, he argued.
By "anti-Azerbaijani activity," Hasanov presumably means any action seen as presenting a challenge to the Aliyev family, in power for most of the past 44 years. Western grants meant to help democratize Azerbaijan inevitably translate into challenges to that status quo, in Hasanov's mind.
But, never fear, President Aliyev and his youth fund are here. In a bid to preserve Azerbaijan's "integrity," the fund is dishing out grants to match civil-society funding by Western democratization groups.
How and why the music was chosen is not known. But as EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and Georgian Foreign Minister Maia Panjikidze exchanged kisses and signatures, the melody eventually morphed into the more stately sounds of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, the European Union anthem, and the protocol faux-pas faded away.
Nonetheless, a dangerous hopak dance remains underway in Ukraine, a country especially on many people's minds in Georgia now and for several reasons.
Scores of former drug addicts and rights activists holding symbolic urine test cups gathered in front of the interior ministry in Tbilisi on November 24 to protest Georgia's practice of mass roundups of citizens for drug tests.
Since 2007 as many as 200,000 Georgians have been taken straight from the streets to police stations and requested to urinate in a cup, according to the Harm Reduction Center, a non-profit involved in advocacy for addicts. The NGO alleges that police had little more than probable cause to haul in these individuals. "Two-thirds of these people tested negative for drugs, but all were subjected to that humiliating procedure,” said Paata Sabelashvili, a programs manager at the Harm Reduction Center.
Those who tested positive paid a fine of 500 lari ($297) . The protesters argue that the fines have become a drug tax and an effective revenue source for the state without doing much to solve Georgia's problems with substance-addiction.
To make that point sink in, protest participants emptied test cups, filled with beer, into a giant container that read “The Georgian Budget.”