Armenia needs a train to make full use of its upcoming economic integration with Russia's Customs Union, but the only track still accessible to it runs via separatist Abkhazia. Now, after years of firm opposition from Tbilisi, Yerevan appears to sense an opening.
It is vital, indeed. For landlocked Armenia, the land route to Russia – a prime market for Armenia exports and migrant workers – bottlenecks through the Georgian mountains. This route is susceptible to political and natural disasters, such as the 2008 war with Russia or a recent deadly landslide, and has limited cargo transit capacity.
Georgia did not leap at Sargsyan’s overture, but indicated that there is room for discussion. Georgian officials said that Moscow and Tbilisi may discuss the Abkhazia railway at their next round of talks, and that the National Security Council will also mull over the matter. Retired Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, who is widely seen as the real ruler of Georgia, has indicated in the past that he looks favorably on the railway both as a way to bridge Abkhaz and Georgian differences and as an economic boon for everyone involved.
In a perceived nod to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Azerbaijan on June 18 shut down a school network associated with the influential Turkish cleric Fethullah Gülen, Erdoğan's bête noire.
Erdoğan has accused the US-based religious leader and his followers of conspiring against his government — a charge viewed by outsiders as largely entangled with the ruling Justice and Development Party’s own domestic political struggles — and earlier urged ally Azerbaijan to help him in this fight. Looks like he didn't have to ask twice.
Azerbaijan's energy giant, the State Oil Company of the Azerbaijani Republic, already had taken over 11 high schools, 13 university-exam preparation centers and a private university believed to be linked to the Gülen movement.
As in Turkey, the facilities enjoyed a good academic reputation, and had a nationwide presence. Experts earlier interviewed by EurasiaNet.org about the takeover generally saw political motivations for the takeover.
But the schools’ parent company, the Azerbaijan International Education Company, in which SOCAR holds shares, claims its eye is just on the bottom line. The schools, the company claimed, were not financially viable.
Nobody much listened after separatists in Ukraine asked the world to recognize their newly declared People’s Republic of Luhansk. But the call was heard loud and clear in separatist South Ossetia.
Call it bonding between the self-proclaimed types. South Ossetia’s breakaway leadership announced on June 16 that they cannot stay indifferent to the will of the people of the so-called “People’s Republic.”
“Respecting the expression of the will of the people of the People’s Republic of Luhansk, the Republic of South Ossetia recognized the results of the [May 11] referendum [on secession from Ukraine] and is ready to make a constructive decision,” said Leonid Tibilov, the de-facto president of South Ossetia, the region’s Ossinfo agency reported.
Tibilov’s separatist counterpart in Luhansk, Valeriy Bolotov, promptly relayed the news to the Luhansk people. “Tomorrow, we will appoint an ambassador of the People’s Republic of Luhansk to the Republic of South Ossetia,” Bolotov proclaimed, reported Interfax.
But the so-called leader of the Luhansk people might want to hit the brakes here. South Ossetia’s de-facto foreign ministry told the Russian Dozhd’ (Rain) television channel that Tibilov’s statement does not mean official recognition.
South Ossetia, which relies on Russia for everything from arms to aid, is unlikely to make its decision final without consulting the big boss, Moscow.
Sluggish turnout for Georgia’s June-15 local elections suggests that, nearly two years after the country’s first change of power by election, most voters don’t care enough about politics to make it to the polls.
The post of mayor of Tbilisi, the Georgian capital of about 1.2 million, was the biggest prize in the election, which included 12 mayoral and a potpouri of city-council races. But interest ran at a mere 43.31 percent of over 3.4-million registered voters — a lower turnout than in any recent election.
Many voters crossed out all candidates and parties on the ballots, instead leaving messages like “Screw this,” Netgazeti.ge reported.
In the Tbilisi mayor race, early returns placed the ruling Georgian Dream’s mayoral candidate, 35-year-old Minister of Regional Development and Infrastructure Davit Narmania, in the lead, though some three percentage points short of the 50-percent cut required for victory. In a second round, Narmania would face the opposition United National Movement candidate Nika Melia, who garnered just under 27 percent of the vote. Whoever gets a simple majority of votes in the runoff will move into the mayor’s office, which is now controlled by the United National Movement.
Tbilisi’s traditional snobbery toward ambitious politicians from the regions (who don't have the moneyed patina of billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvilli, that is) may have prevented the Georgian Dream from winning the race in the first go. As an extract from rural Georgia, Narmania has been the target of arrogant attacks by many Tbilisi personalities, including members of the ruling party.
Georgia plans to finalize a pact with the European Union on June 27 that would bring Tbilisi closer to Brussels. Even so, the campaign environment ahead of Georgia’s local elections suggests that the country has quite a bit of distance to cover before it reaches the standards of a European democracy.
If Armenians want to feel safe, they have got to speak Russian, Moscow’s propagandist-in-chief, Russian media-personality Dmitry Kiselyov, has instructed Russia’s somewhat reluctant Caucasus ally, Armenia.
While the line may sound like an ignorant tourist's throwaway complaint, the comments, in the context of Russian-Armenian relations, chafed a sensitive nerve. Many Armenians think that their country already has compromised much of its sovereignty by becoming increasingly dependent on Russian money, energy and defense. Criticism delivered in the style of a colonial master does nothing to correct that view.
By July 1 (after a few delays), Armenia is expected to enter the Eurasian Union, essentially Moscow’s response to the European Union. It already is part of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), the Moscow-led counterweight to NATO. The country has effectively surrendered much of its energy supply system to Russian energy monolith Gazprom and much of its income generation depends on what migrants send home from Russia.
Moscow and Brussels have gone courting Azerbaijan, the last nonaligned place in the South Caucasus, where Russia and the European Union increasingly compete for influence.
Over the next week, two top officials from Russia and one from the European Union will be descending upon Azerbaijan to chat up Baku, which, unlike neighboring Armenia and Georgia, says it is not ready to commit to a serious relationship with anyone, be it the Brussels-based EU or the Moscow-led EU (Eurasian Union). But neither of the energy-rich country's big suitors seem to take no for an answer.
José Manuel Barroso, president of the EU's executive arm, the European Commission, will be visiting Baku on June 12 as a part of his tour of several ex-Soviet republics that Brussels corralled together to prime for integration with the EU. Two of these countries -- Moldova and Georgia -- will be signing association agreements, which include free-trade deals, with the EU in two weeks. Barroso will be checking on both countries to make sure all's set for the big day.
Breaking with the tradition of European leaders binge-visiting all three South Caucasus countries in one fell swoop, Barroso is conspicuously skipping Armenia. Brussels is still disgruntled about Yerevan discarding an association-agreement at the last minute to hop on a train headed in the opposite direction -- toward the Eurasian Union, and economic integration with Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus.
Street-art in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, takes aim at police for allegedly indiscriminate use of urinanalyses to detect drug use.
Urine cups appeared in front of Georgia's main government building the other day as a remonstration against government-performed urinalyses to detect drug users. The pee-protest capped a recently invigorated push to decriminalize the use of marijuana and showcased growing frustration about what many see as the country's overly harsh narcotics laws.
Proclaiming "You Can't Find Crime in Urine," the June 9 rally was sparked when police crashed a private party in the capital, Tbilisi, and hauled off 14 people for drug tests. Street art also appeared around the city, with one graphic portraying policemen offering a test cup to a line of characters ranging from Manneken Pis, Brussels' landmark peeing boy statue, to Star War’s Yoda.
One widely distributed Facebook photo goes a step further and shows the Brussels boy taking aim at the Georgian interior ministry.
But the police maintain they were within their rights. They say they'd arrived on the scene after neighbors complained about the party.
Perhaps the most prickly question about the Eurasian Union -- the new, Russia-centric trade club -- is whether or not its members can bring to this neo-Soviet party their significant others. In other words, associated separatist dependencies.
Like with many Moscow clubs, there is face-control in the Eurasian Union. For now, Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus have it all to themselves. Disputed breakaway formations like Nagorno Karabakh, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, though, are also keen for inclusion.
But getting the separatist territories in would cause a wave of bad blood between the Eurasian Union members and the countries (Azerbaijan and Georgia, respectively) who demand these territories back. Leaving them out, in turn, may hamper the territories' ability to get economic sustenance from club-founder Russia and prospective member Armenia.
This is a pain in the neck, in particular, for Armenia, which already has been requested by the club to leave its own protégé, Nagorno Karabakh, in the cloakroom.
Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev last week quite curtly told his Armenian counterpart, Serzh Sargsyan, that none of the founding members have any desire to aggravate Azerbaijan. You only get in "within the boundaries recognised by the United Nations," he advised at an Astana roundtable.
Sargsyan, a Karabakh native, later said that Armenia never intended to slip the mountainous territory (which Yerevan essentially views as a separate country) into the club.
In a win likely to inspire some celebratory gunfire this evening, South Ossetia on June 4 narrowly defeated its separatist sibling Abkhazia in a World Cup of soccer, and now will head to the semi-finals. No, not in that World Cup. In a championship in Sweden for breakaway territories, stateless peoples, micro-nations, and the like.
For the most part, the Caucasus breakaways have been doing well in the tournament. The South Ossetian team earlier destroyed Darfur United with a jaw-dropping 19 to 0 score, while the Abkhaz beat Lapland 2 to 1, and held even against Occitania, a fuzzy territorial concept that embraces parts of Italy and France.
Breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh, however, has been less successful, losing to teams from the Isle of Man and the long-dissolved Countea de Nissa.