Nettlesome neighbors Armenia and Azerbaijan are in a tug-of-war over pretty much everything, from disputed lands to, most recently, a loaf of bread. Armenia says it has succeeded in claiming something of a cultural copyright to lavash, a regionally popular thin bread, while Azerbaijan’s fierce attempts to thwart Armenian claims to the flatbread have fallen, well, flat.
Over Azerbaijani objections, UNESCO late last week did grant the bread a spot on its list of Intangible Cultural Heritage as an expression of Armenian culture. But the UN agency did so with a disclaimer that lavash is shared by communities in the region and beyond” and that “the inscription does not imply exclusivity.”
One Armenian media outlet claims that UNESCO committee purportedly chose the careful wording after Azerbaijan raised objections during UNESCO’s November 24-28 meeting in Paris. But the wording was enough for both countries to celebrate victory.
Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism announced that it has prevented Armenia from claiming the bread as its own. “Justice has prevailed in this matter,” said Culture and Tourism Minister Abulfas Garayev. “ UNESCO’s decision says that lavash is made all across the region and is not an exclusively Armenian bread.”
Ukraine thinks it could use a little bit of Misha — that is, ex-Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili — to fix its dyed-in-the-wool corruption problems. And not only Misha. Several former officials from Saakashvili’s 2004-2012 administration also reportedly have been offered important jobs in Ukraine’s post-Maidan government.
One of Saakashvili’s former cabinet members, though, may indeed be contemplating a move to Kyiv. On December 2, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko tweeted that he had granted Ukrainian citizenship to Aleksandre Kvitashvili, a former Misha-era health minister who had been offered the same position in the Ukrainian government.
Kvitashvili could not be reached by EurasiaNet.org to confirm whether or not he has accepted the post.
Now that separatist Abkhazia had been tied to Russia through an essentially federal pact, setting up a train link to the rest of Georgia may be the next stop in Vladimir Putin’s plan for cementing Russian hegemony over the region.
Strictly from a pragmatic point of view, in theory, everyone along the route could potentially benefit from it, including Georgian exporters. Landlocked, semi-blockaded Armenia would benefit the most from such a link to its main trade-partner, Russia.
But many Georgians fear that giving the green light to the project would reduce their chances for negotiating the return of hundreds of thousands of IDPs to Abkhazia and, also, precariously increase Georgia’s economic dependence on Russia. That could spell a potential threat to the country’s longheld EU and NATO ambitions, the thinking goes.
And signal a wider battle for the post-Soviet space as well. In response to Abkhazia’s agreement-signing with Moscow, Georgia has made a cry of creeping annexation of its territory, and the US and EU have denounced the document as a violation of Georgia’s territorial integrity.
The move fits in with the trend of the changing political order in the post-Soviet space, with countries and regions pulling in opposite directions of associating with the European Union or Russia.
The signing in Sochi by Putin and fellow former KGB'er, Raul Khadjimba, Abkhazia's de-facto leader, has touched off an outcry in Tbilisi. From the Georgian perspective, the pact marks the virtual annexation of its territory and the ultimate failure of the current Georgian government's latter-day policy of reconciliation with Moscow.
“Despite the many constructive steps… no progress in political terms has been achieved with Russia,” the Georgian foreign ministry announced in a statement. “Together with the Georgian government and the Georgian people, we will resist this absurd move,” said Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili.
There are not too many mechanisms in Georgia’s diplomatic or economic arsenal for resisting Russian expansionism other than requesting the international community to pressure Moscow away from its perceived attempts of stealing another piece of land.
Two self-proclaimed statelets that are widely viewed as creatures of the Kremlin, Novorossiya and South Ossetia, seem to be really hitting it off.
Oleg Tsarev, the speaker of the assembly representing the Ukrainian separatist entity, the People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk in Ukraine, recently visited Tskhinvali, the South Ossetian capital. There, he expressed thanks for Ossetian support for the ongoing separatist campaign in Ukraine.
“We would not have made it, had it not been for the support of the Russian and South Ossetian people,” said Tsarev. Many South Ossetians have volunteered to fight on the side of the Ukrainian separatists and appear in video dispatches from the war zone. “They are heroes who will remain in our memory forever,” Tsarev told South Ossetia’s separatist leader, Leonid Tibilov.
De-facto President Tibilov said that his South Ossetia hopes to provide military assistance to Ukrainian rebels on a regular, not volunteer basis. To cement their separatist bonds, Tibilov awarded Tsarev an order of friendship during the latter’s visit.
South Ossetia also plans to strengthen ties with Moscow, the benefactor it shares with Novorossiya, through a new bilateral agreement. That pact would potentially pave the way for Ossetia’s annexation by Russia. Details of the pact, prepped by presidential administrations of Russia and South Ossetia, are unknown. But the agreement should take relations “to a qualitatively” new level, intimated Tibilov’s chief of staff, Boris Chochiyev. South Ossetian officials have repeatedly expressed desire for the territory to become a part of the Russian Federation.
Russia and Iran, comrades-in-sanctions from the West, are connecting with each other . . . through a railway. And Azerbaijan intends to be the crucial middle link.
The Russian State Railroads Company earlier this week announced plans to build a railway link from Russia, across Azerbaijan, to Iran. An intergovernmental agreement on building the railway is expected to be signed in July next year and the Russian firm said it will foot the bill for the project.
Azerbaijan has its reasons to be suspicious of both countries, but, so far, has given no sign of skittishness about the deal.
How successful Azerbaijan will be in juxtaposing an Eastern train project with a Western one is unclear, however. The idea is not likely to earn warm support in the West, with which Baku already has a relatively schizophrenic relationship — chummy when it comes to energy and assistance for NATO in Afghanistan; far cooler when it comes to reported Azerbaijani abuses of civil rights.
Perhaps that last factor, at least to some degree, contributeAzerbaijan to think it's time to explore what it has in common with Russia and Iran, and express it through rail.
Russian Duma Speaker Sergei Narishkin, in Tehran from November 16-17, made no bones about the project being a slapback at the West.
Thousands of Georgians on November 15 took a stand against “Russia’s creeping annexation" of breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia in a Tbilisi rally that was as much patriotic as it was partisan. The demonstration, led by the opposition United National Movement, provided a venue for many to vent their anger with Moscow’s latest plans for integration with the two separatist regions, but also offered a chance for ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili force to make a push for a comeback.
“You don’t sell your homeland for parsley,” bristled one middle-aged woman who attended the protest, speaking in reference to the Georgian government’s efforts to restore trade relations with Russia. “Nobody is doing anything to help me and my children go back to my home in Abkhazia. They are just letting it slowly slip away to Russia. All the government is worried about is how much greens and wine we can sell to Russia.”
The perceived failure by the Georgian government to come up with a meaningful response to Russia’s proposed pacts with Abkhazia and South Ossetia has stoked such resentment. That, in turn, has opened a window of opportunity for the United National Movement (UNM), Georgia’s largest opposition movement, to take ownership of the territorial integrity issue, which now rates as the country’s second-largest national concern after unemployment.
Never one to miss a rally, Saakashvili, now wanted in Georgia on several criminal charges, addressed the crowd from Ukraine via large screens. Staying true to his flamboyant speaking style, he described his arch-foe Bidzina Ivanishvili, the ex-prime minister and founder of the ruling Georgian Dream coalition, as a “provincial dictator,” and described “Ivanishvili’s Georgia” as debased and degrading, to use polite terms for the actual words used.
Georgia’s beloved and hated economic guru Kakha Bendukidze has died at the age of 58 in a London hotel, leaving behind a legacy of both accomplishments and controversy.
A man of many epithets, Bendukidze was an oligarch, a scientist, a chef, an educator and a capitalist to his bones; an individual credited with helping bring the Georgian economy out of the post-Soviet pell-mell. Once one of the largest — in every sense of the word — figures in Georgian politics, Bendukidze was nabbed in 2004 by then President Mikheil Saakashvili to return from Russia, where he had run mega-heavy-machinery producer OMZ, to help overhaul the Georgian economy.
Bendukidze’s privatize-it-all philosophy, sometimes described as Bendunomics, earned him as many fans as it did ardent critics, but neither group doubted his intellect.
“Georgia should sell everything that can be sold, but its conscience,” Bendukidze was wont to say. The privatization campaign and dramatic slashing of bureaucracy did result in official double-digit economic growth rates and praise from global economic-watchdogs, but also criticism from social equality advocates.
Though a flaming libertarian, Bendukidze was bigger than just a skilled multi-millionaire, however. He was a media personality who even acted as Georgia’s Donald Trump in the Georgian version of the Apprentice show. A food enthusiast, he ran an agriculture school with cooking classes.
The government crisis that erupted in Georgia earlier in November was originally cast as a struggle over the country’s geopolitical orientation. But as time passes, it seems the real fulcrum of contention is connected with checks and balances on authority, and the potential influence of unaccountable public figures.
The United States embassy in Baku has categorically denied a report in The Times which claimed that Washington and Tehran will conduct “secret talks” in Baku this week about restoring some form of ties between the United States and Iran after an almost 35-year break.
Citing an anonymous Iranian government advisor, The Times’ Hugh Tomlinson reported on November 10 that the supposed talks would cover setting up in Tehran “an umbrella office for US trade” or, possibly, “a cultural office, purely for academic exchanges.”
The Times wrote that Mohammad Reza Sabzalipour, head of Iran’s World Trade Center, would lead the alleged talks with the US side in Baku. Azerbaijani officials so far have not made any comments.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is set to visit the Azerbaijani capital on November 12 for a state visit, but no public indication has been made that Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev intends to play intermediary for the US.
In a statement to the pro-government Azerbaijani news agency Trend, however, the US embassy to Baku rejected The Times story as “completely untrue.”
“[W]e have had no conversations, and have no plans to engage in conversations, in trade talks or any talks similar to those described in this misleading news story,” read the statement, published on November 11.
Sabzalipour, however, had his own take. On November 11, he remarked that “reciprocal visits by the Iranian and the US economic delegations” are "on the agenda" of Tehran's World Trade Center. Details will be forthcoming "when the grounds are prepared," he added.