At war over territories and ideology, Russia and Ukraine are also fighting over World War II, the conflict that bonded the two countries together for over a half century as part of the Soviet Union. But this struggle over history is not a straightforward one.
In a smack-down to Georgia and Ukraine’s European aspirations, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said on May 21 that the two countries should not have expectations for a visa-free regime with the EU anytime soon.
Merkel’s comments came amid the European Union’s summit with its EU-curious neighbors in the Latvian capital, Riga. In the run-up to the summit, it was clear that the EU would not be granting a visa-waiver at this time, but Georgia and Ukraine expected to make significant progress toward such a waiver, as well as toward integration with the bloc.
As of early evening, Tbilisi had not yet responded officially to Merkel’s remarks. In comments earlier in the day in Riga, however, Georgian Foreign Minister Tamar Beruchashvili told Georgian reporters that Georgia has met with flying colors most of the EU’s requirements for a visa-free regime, and that it is “only a step “ away from heading toward receiving that status.
Kyiv’s reaction was not immediately available.
Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova are the main EU-enthusiasts among the six ex-Soviet republics courted by the EU under its Eastern Partnership Program. Moldova, Ukraine's southwestern neighbor, received its visa-free deal in 2014.
After the last Eastern Partnership in Vilnius, Lithuania, where Ukraine had pulled away from signing an association agreement with the EU, helping to set in motion a domestic conflict over Ukraine’s leadership, the bloc arrived at this next summit in Riga with far less enthusiasm for integrating the countries and to engage Russia in a full-on competition for the region.
Local news reported trapped residents jumping to their death from the burning high-rise in the Binagadi district. Harrowing footage shows friends and families rushing to the scene and arguing with police who blocked access to the building. Scores of apartment-dwellers were hospitalized for burns and smoke-poisoning.
Murisif Makhmudov, the head of the company, Global Construction, which allegedly put the facing on the building, has been charged with the use of low-quality materials and was arrested on May 19, news agencies have reported.
Outrage over the incident, strongly expressed on Facebook, is running strong and building. Five children, including a one-and-a-half-year-old, died in the fire. Sick of rampant corruption, many Azerbaijanis see this tragedy as the result of many officials and businesspeople’s willingness to go cheap on building materials or blind on safety standards. This was the second Baku-fire this year blamed on polyurethane-based sidings.
The closer it gets to the European Union’s May 21-22 summit in Riga, the clearer it becomes that the post-Soviet countries grouped together under the EU’s Eastern Partnership Program will not be making any big steps toward the EU.
Speaking from Brussels with reporters via a video-link, one senior EU official laid out priorities for the summit that likely will prove a disappointment to Georgia. The EU’s biggest fan in the South Caucasus is not going to get the much-touted visa-free arrangement with the EU this time around. Nor is it clear when Georgia, which signed an EU Association Agreement last June, should expect to get it.
Armenia and the EU will be weighing cooperation options that are limited by Armenia’s membership in the Moscow-led EU alternative, the Eurasian Economic Union. The EU official, who declined to be named, said that much of the future economic dealings between the EU and Armenia, will actually be dealings between the EU and the Eurasian Economic Union, rather than with Armenia per se.
Freewheeling Azerbaijan is essentially going to Riga to bargain on energy supplies to Europe. At the summit, EU is like to emphasize the importance of Azerbaijan as an energy partner. Not unpredictably.
Many observers see a slow-down in the EU’s interest in the region, as Russia becomes more aggressive in Ukraine and tries harder to keep the former Soviet area in its sphere of political and economic influence.
Many in Georgia heaved a collective sigh of relief after pro-LGBT rights rallies went without clashes on May 17, the International Day against Homophobia.
Groups of activists assembled in several locations in the capital, Tbilisi, mainly to highlight the European Court of Human Rights’ recent decision to impose penalties on the Georgian state for failing to prevent attacks against participants in an anti-homophobia demonstration in 2012.
One demonstration took place in a small downtown public garden. The rally was heavily guarded by police, with circles of cordons and busloads of police officers at the ready. Another group gathered on Vachnadze Street, where in 2013 police barely managed to rescue several LGBT activists from a de-facto lynch-mob. Still another group gathered in front of the justice ministry calling on it to implement the European Court of Human Rights’ decision.
A forensic investigation into the January massacre of a six-member family in the northern Armenian city of Gyumri has determined that the victims resisted their killer; allegedly a Russian soldier stationed at the town’s Russian military base. The information, released on May 14 by lawyers for relatives of the murdered Avetisians, has rekindled anger over the bloodshed, which seriously strained Armenia’s strategic partnership with Russia.
Video footage of the crime scene and a physical examination of the bodies suggest that the family’s grandfather, Seryozha Avetisian, grabbed the barrel and bayonet of the assailant’s weapon, lawyer Lusine Sahakian told a Yerevan press-conference. Bruises were found on Avetisian’s body purportedly inflicted by the rifle butt, she added.
Avetisian’s wife, Asmik, “tried to get up from the bed, perhaps she even managed to do that, as her feet were hanging down from the bed,” Sahakian claimed.
The murderer than proceeded to another room, where he shot dead the couple’s son, Armen, and his toddler-daughter, Asmik. Contrary to initial official claims, Armen was found dead on the floor next to his bed.
He then stabbed to death Armen’s wife, Araksia Pogosian, and baby-son, Seryozha, who later succumbed to his injuries in a hospital. “Araksia Pogosian tried to protect little Seryozha with her body,” claimed Sahakian. “She has a wound on her hand, which was most likely inflicted when she was trying to protect the child from a knife.”
The harrowing details have rekindled popular outrage against both Russia’s 102nd military base in Gyumri and at the Armenian authorities, who could not place the suspect in an Armenian jail. Permyakov, who has confessed to the killings, remains in Russian custody.
Mikheil Saakashvili, the former Georgian president-turned Ukrainian government adviser, says that he has gotten maverick US Senator John McCain and former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt to join his A-Team of political troubleshooters.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has reportedly approved the inclusion of McCain and Bildt in the International Advisory Group, a council led by former Georgian President that is supposed to provide guidance to the Ukrainian government.
Both the Ukrainian leader and Saakashvili may have jumped the gun with the announcement: McCain has indicated he has not made a final decision on whether to join.
To hear the Arizona Republican tell it, he expressed only general interest in the offer, but Poroshenko went ahead to appoint him before McCain had a chance to clear the proposal with the Senate, the website Buzzfeed reported. “Of course I would love [to] do anything to help Ukraine, but I’ve got to make sure it’s ok under senate rules,” McCain told Buzzfeed.
The former Swedish prime minister said he was honored by the invitation to join Team Saakashvili.
McCain and Bildt are well-known Saakashvili backers, as well as prominent supporters of both Georgia and Ukraine in their conflicts with Russia. McCain famously said “today we are all Georgians” during the 2008 Georgian-Russian war.
Georgian support for joining the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union appears to be on the increase, based on data from a survey conducted for the National Democratic Institute, a US-based NGO.
Thirty-one percent of the roughly 4,360 Georgian respondents surveyed expressed support for signing onto the trade-bloc; a twofold increase from 2014 and a threefold increase from 2013, respectively.
Yet considerably more of the respondents (41 percent) remain hostile to the idea of teaming up with Russia, according to data released on May 11. A solid majority of the interviewees – 68 percent and 65 percent, respectively – are rooting for joining the European Union and NATO.
Seventy-seven percent consider Russia a threat, though opinions vary on the immediacy of the threat. Ethnic minorities are most skeptical about Russia’s hostile intentions; half of those surveyed do not see Russia as a threat.
Pro-Russian activism remains on the fringes of the political mainstream in Georgia, but it has become more noticeable under the Georgian Dream coalition than it was during the fiercely anti-Moscow United National Movement, which lost power in 2012. The same poll said that Georgians can freely vent their views today.
Additionally, Russia’s state TV channels, formerly essentially barred from broadcast, now rate as the most-watched foreign channels in Georgia, the survey claimed.
In a Caucasus-first, Georgia has selected a woman, 41-year-old parliamentarian Tina Khidasheli, as its prospective defense minister. The appointment, relatively unexpected until this week, comes amidst a mini-cabinet-shakeup that once again lays bare divisions within the country’s political leadership.
Khidasheli, the chairperson of parliament’s European Integration Committee, and her husband, Parliamentary Speaker Davit Usupashvili, are a power couple leading the moderate Republican Party, a gathering of pro-Western intellectuals that are members of the ruling Georgian Dream coalition.
Trained in international law, she is a fluent English-speaker, who has had brief fellowships at Yale and Georgetown Universities and worked for over a decade at the Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association, a reform-minded legal-watchdog. *
While Khidasheli has a prominent public presence, the exact reasons for her nomination are open to some speculation. Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili announced on May 1 that the current defense minister, Mindia Janelidze, will return to his role as head of the prime minister’s security council.
An investigative report published by an Azerbaijani government-connected news agency alleges US Secretary of State John Kerry is orchestrating a campaign to discredit the government in Baku.
The report, published April 28 by the APA news agency, places Kerry “in the forefront” of a broad effort to undermine the Azerbaijani government during the run-up to the European Games, an Olympics-like event to be held in Baku in June.
Kerry, the report asserts, is known for “his Islamophobic mindset [and a] special closeness to Armenians, and supports pro-Armenian initiatives in the United States.” It also hints that the US government would favor regime change in Baku. Documents obtained by APA relating to the campaign put “an end to the statements expressed at the highest level that the United States does not interfere in the internal affairs of independent countries and develop coup plans,” the article says.
A group of Western non-governmental organizations, including the National Endowment for Democracy and the New York-based Open Society Foundations (OSF), was also cited in the report as participating in the campaign. [Editor’s Note: EurasiaNet.org operates under OSF’s auspices].
“These forces are realizing a plan of politicizing the first European Games, creating one-sided vacuum of information, directing the attention of the international community to the internal affairs of Azerbaijan in a distorted way,” the APA report alleges. On April 30, APA published documents that it said were obtained from a reliable source, that outline the objectives of the campaign, dubbed Sports for Rights. The documents that were published do not make a connection between the State Department and an NGO coalition.