Armenia may be Moscow’s best bet for a sovereign friend south of the Caucasus mountains, but careful political maneuvering by Yerevan suggests that Armenia is committed to maintaining personal space in this relationship and to keeping its options open.
New Russian ballistic missiles were reportedly moved to the Gyumri base, the only remaining military outpost for Russia in the undisputed part of the South Caucasus. Armenia also lets the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) -- Russia’s response to NATO -- hold war games, move troops and set up training facilities on its territory. Plans are reportedly also underway to set up the CSTO’s joint air force headquarters in Armenia.
All of this prompts internal complaints that Armenia is becoming little more than a Russian garrison, with national security, economy and culture all tied to Moscow.
Anxious for peace with Russia, Georgian officials and businessmen recently have been taking turns bowing and refilling 62-year-old Russian food security tsar Gennadiy Onishchenko's glass with the finest beverages Georgia’s got to offer. But nothing seems to suit the delicate palate of Gennady Grigoryevich.
His complaints range from the quality-related to the political and downright philosophical. But the Onishchenkoisms, delivered with a stern face, always tend to hit whenever Tbilisi-Moscow ties are going south.
In 2006, with the Kremlin increasingly uneasy about Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili as a potential exporter of revolution, Onishchenko struck, slapping an embargo on Georgian wines, mineral waters and fruits and vegetables as unsafe.
But after Georgia’s new government began an active campaign of reconciliation with Russia, Onishchenko allowed long-banned Georgian wine and prized mineral water Borjomi back north of the Caucasus mountain range.
After several near-break-ups, Azerbaijan and the National Democratic Institute may get back together again. US Ambassador Richard Morningstar has announced that Baku is willing to let the US non-profit continue its democracy-building in Azerbaijan, local news services report.
Azerbaijani authorities had accused the local chapter of the National Democratic Institute (NDI) of illegal financial operations, but many in Azerbaijan think that the real problem was in public expressions of government criticism by the group and its chief of party Alex Grigoriev’s role.
Soon after, Azerbaijani authorities discovered alleged glitches in the financial practices of NDI, local press began implying that the group was a US intelligence operation. Washington and Baku tried to avoid public exchanges on the topic, but negotiations reportedly were going on behind closed doors.
With Baku busy courting Washington these days, both with flowers and conventions, the US government is in a position to exact some influence on Azerbaijani authorities.
“The Government of Azerbaijan has informed us that the issues relating to the National Democratic Institute have been resolved,” Morningstar was quoted by APA news agency as saying. “NDI will continue working in Azerbaijan to help develop civil society.”
It is unclear, however, if the authorities have drawn a line in the sand for the group, and if it can continue cooperating with any organization of its choice.
He may have retired from the American airwaves, but within the ex-USSR, former CNN star Larry King remains a hot commodity. King's decision to sign on with Russia Today, the Kremlin’s English-language TV mouthpiece, has caused jaws to drop, but the coverage mostly misses one side to the story that adds to the irony.
Russia Today is not Larry's first post-CNN gig in the post-Soviet world -- there also was a short stint on the advisory board of a TV station in Georgia, Russia's longtime foe.
King could not be reached for comment, but, according to one TV9 statement, his passion about freedom of media motivated his Georgia move. “I hope to lend my voice to the cause of media freedom in Georgia,” King was quoted as saying.
When it comes to a long-distance relationship, it's always good to know what attracts the other side. And, as shown at a shindig in Baku this week to mark 21 years of official ties with the US, Azerbaijan has its attractions for Washington down pat.
They number four: a supply corridor for NATO's military campaign in Afghanistan; a foothold for American interests in regional stability (Iran is just next-door) and fighting terrorism; and, finally, oil and gas for Europe.
This is no co-dependent relationship, however. Aliyev made clear that, as a return for its attractions, Azerbaijan expects Washington to support its efforts to reclaim breakaway Nagorno Karabakh from Armenian and separatist control. Armenia's American Diaspora runs a well-organized lobbying operation across the US to make sure that many US politicians view Armenia's problems as their own.
To make sure that everyone takes seriously the Georgia-ends-here line it drew after the two countries’ 2008 war, Russia is doing what other countries have done to reinforce a porous border – it’s building a fence.
But this one is reportedly being built a few hundred meters within Georgian-controlled territory itself.
Like other walls before it, the fence serves a supposed security purpose – in this case, defending the breakaway region of South Ossetia, which Moscow views as an independent country, from the perilous threat of Georgian farmers and their cows.
Country folk in these parts do not let wars or separatism or Russian border guards distract them from the real job of gathering crops and firewood, and feeding the livestock, be it in breakaway South Ossetia or their own Georgian-controlled region of Shida Kartli.
But now they could be compelled to cross a border in their own backyards. One octogenarian farmer, whose house ended up falling behind the fence, told RFE/RL that his ailing wife, in need of medical assistance, had to crawl under the barbed wire to get picked up by a Georgian ambulance crew.
Moscow has offered no explanation for its fence-building activities, which have been widely interpreted in Tbilisi as the same-old, same-old – the Kremlin trying to pull a fast one.
The Russian fence, though, threatens to become a major foreign policy challenge for Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili’s government, which has promised voters that it will mend fences with Moscow.
It now needs to react without disrupting the fragile dialogue with the Kremlin that, so far, has led to the return of Georgian wines and mineral water to the Russian market. Yet there seems to be a lack of political consensus over the best course of action.
Prince Charles, the 64-year-old heir to the British throne, arrived in Armenia on May 28 in the first instance of British royalty gracing the ancient South Caucasus country with a visit.
His younger brother, Prince Andrew, the Duke of York, tends to favor Armenia’s arch-enemy, energy-rich Azerbaijan, and enjoys hanging out with its president, Ilham Aliyev. So, now the two rivals -- the countries, not the brothers -- are evenly paired.
Granted, the Prince of Wales was traveling on private, charity business, but that didn't keep Armenian media from buzzing. Some ponder which Armenian specialties are worthy of the royal visitor; others see a connection between the visit and British interests in Armenian gold mines; while still others have made open-ended inquires about whether the visit's timing betrays a diplomatic gesture.
On May 28, Armenia marks the 95th anniversary of the First Republic, the independent Armenian state that existed briefly between the fall of Tsarist Russia and the rise of Bolshevik Russia.
Many Armenians believe that Great Britain dropped the ball in 1919 when it withdrew its troops from the region, and shares the responsibility for the 1920 Bolshevik conquest of their republic. In a country where, as elsewhere in the Caucasus, century-old events are often discussed as if they happened yesterday, that thought carries significance. Consequently, Prince Charles's arrival is partly seen as a compensatory gesture, the Lragir news service wrote.
Father Iotam rose to fame as a Georgian Internet meme after being filmed chasing gay-rights activists in Tbilisi with a three-legged stool.
Georgian police on May 23 pressed charges against two priests for participating in a mass disturbance of an anti-homophobia rally in Tbilisi that injured dozens and sparked international censure.
The two priests detained were caught on camera as they participated in the mayhem that erupted on May 17 when a crowd of protesters, including Georgian Orthodox Church priests, broke through a police cordon to disperse a small number of people meeting in a downtown square to mark the International Day against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia .
The clash has sparked a sharp debate over the power of the Georgian Orthodox Church, Georgia's most popular institution, and the degree to which the government is prepared to hold priests to account for violating the law. Arresting priests is not a move easily digested within Georgia's highly religious society.
Iotam Basilaia, the father superior at the Iione-Tornike Eristavi Monastery, and Antimoz Bichanashvili, an arch-priest at Tbilisi's Holy Trinity Cathedral, are charged with defying police orders and preventing citizens’ rights to free assembly. The two men may face a fine or even a prison term. Police did not specify if the clerics were being held in jail.
President Mikheil Saakashvili's opposition United National Movement was quick to describe their secretary-general's detention as a further step in the party's alleged ongoing harassment by Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili's government. Merabishvili, who served as interior minister from 2004 to 2012, is on a short-list of contenders that the party was considering for a primary for nomination as its candidate for this October's presidential election.
Ex-Health Minister Zurab Chiaberashvili, a former ambassador who was detained on May 21 together with Merabishvili on corruption and abuse of power charges, was offered bail of 20,000 lari (about $12,300), payable within 30 days.
Both men have denied the charges against them. Chiaberashvili is one of the few remaining governors loyal to Saakashvili.
The European Union pledged to cast a cautious eye on the proceedings against them. In a joint statement on May 22, the EU's chiefs for foreign affairs and neighborhood relations – Catherine Ashton and Stefan Fule, respectively – said that they “take a careful note” of the double detention.