“Mimino” truck driver Rubik Khachikian, no doubt, would be proud: Armenian truck drivers recently came close to securing a breakthrough in the bitter breakaway dispute between Georgia, Russia and the separatist enclave South Ossetia that has bedeviled diplomats for years.
Since June, Georgia has been facing an Armenian-truck traffic jam in its north, where a landslide and flooding clogged the highway leading to its only official border-crossing with Russia. The road is the sole way by land for Armenia to reach Russia, a key economic and diplomatic partner, and its main military ally.
With this trade lifeline blocked, Armenia late last month tried its luck asking Tbilisi for passage through separatist South Ossetia, which Moscow calls an independent state, and Tbilisi Georgian territory occupied by Russia.
The Georgian government proved unexpectedly amenable to the idea, first raised by Armenian Transportation and Communications Minister Gagik Beglarian.
But the Georgian public heavily criticized the proposal. Government critics insisted that allowing transit through the breakaway territory region means capitulation to Russia and violation of the Georgian law on the occupied territories, which bans the transportation of cargo via the separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Yet Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili and other proponents of Armenia’s proposal argued that it was in Georgia’s interests to ensure the continued passage of both Armenian and Georgian exports to Russia.
Dismissing the criticism as "hysteria," Kvirikashvili pointed out that using South Ossetia as a backup export route would be temporary.
Germany this week took its turn to appease and assure the South Caucasus about the European Union’s integration intentions by sending its top diplomat to the topsy-turvy region. Given Germany’s standing within the European Union and its structures, Frank-Walter Steinmeier came to the region not just as German foreign minister, but also as a key decision-maker for EU-South Caucasus ties.
As is par for the course with high-profile Western visitors to the region, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier’s visit was a triple-header. He zigzagged from Yerevan to Baku, and from Baku to Tbilisi on June 29, 30 and July 1, respectively. As also is usually the case with visiting Western diplomats, Steinmeier urged restraint on warring Armenia and Azerbaijan in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone, and patience on Euro-Atlantic-community hopeful Georgia.
On both of these counts, Germany holds a special role. Germany’s imprimatur is seen as decisive for granting Georgians much-desired visa-free access to the EU. Germany now holds the rotating presidency of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the continent’s top security and democracy-assurance body involved in negotiations and the monitoring of a ceasefire between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Steinmeier urged a greater role for the OSCE in the conflict-resolution effort, which Russia has pretty much dominated in the wake of April’s Four Day War, the deadliest flare-up of Armenian-Azerbaijani hostilities since the 1994 ceasefire.
Shortly after the explosions, hundreds of travelers from nearby countries checked in as safe on Facebook, underscoring the facility’s role as the region’s ultimate layover point. A place where rabbis and mullahs hang out in one lounge, Slavs snap up perfumes and purses at duty-free stores, and Georgians seem to permanently hold court in Starbucks, IST is the world’s third busiest airport and a veritable melting pot.
For many, it is much more than that.
“I spent endless hours there, watching people and munching on that free rahat lokum [Turkish delight],” one Azerbaijani businesswoman, Aygul, who passed through Istanbul two days before the attack, said via Facebook Messenger. “You sit there, look at all these people from everywhere and all the world’s differences seem so small and unimportant.”
Canadian artist Melanie Mehrer wrote Tamada Tales that, on the night of the attack, she had been drawing at an airport Starbucks when two Pakistani men, artists en route to an exhibit in Moscow, noticed her work and struck up a conversation. “We spent a good hour gabbing about art, Islam, Islamic Art, politics, weird stories in our countries' news, what it feels like to feel connected and rooted in your own culture . . .or not. “
For Georgians like Zurab Tatanashvili, an assistant professor of social work at Tbilisi State University, Istanbul airport became synonymous with a door to the West after the Soviet Union imploded in 1991. “Many other Georgians and I first went to the West through that airport and the West came here through it as well,” he commented by phone.
The fallout from the May 19 murder of Giga Otkhozoria has put to the test Tbilisi’s policy of piecemeal reconciliation with Abkhazia and its separatist twin, South Ossetia, and their overlord, Russia.
Georgian public anger over Otkhozoria’s slaying has been directed mainly at Russia, seen as the one calling the shots in both of the breakaways. Russian troops are stationed along both Abkhazia’s and South Ossetia’s administrative borders with Georgian-controlled territory.
That view of Russia’s role may not jive with that of Abkhazia’s separatist government, but, for now, Tbilisi is sticking with it.
Brexit is seen as a win for Russia over the European Union in countries wedged between the two powers. The British decision to leave the EU may be primarily a European affair, but its repercussions have rippled into the EU’s so-called Eastern Neighborhood, a longtime sparring ground for Brussels and Moscow.
“Great, now there is plenty of room for us,” many joked in Georgia, a longtime aspirant for EU membership and signatory of a 2014 Association Agreement with the bloc. For all the online giggling about the “United Yet Breakaway Kingdom” and how Georgia should sneak into the EU unnoticed while the door is still open, the South Caucasus country knows that the “out vote” was a blow to its EU hopes.
“The European Union… will be in a state of shock for some time and will not have time for others,” commented Georgian political scientist Ghia Nodia, a former education minister, to Netgazeti.ge. “In Georgia, unlike Britain, but much like other continental countries, a Eurosceptic primarily stands for pro-Russian.”
“The biggest loser is the EU, as a project,” while Russia is the biggest winner, he added.
Sensing the risk, Georgian officials on June 24 were publicly silent on the Brexit topic, until Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili released a diplomatic statement late in the afternoon that “This vote will not change the fact that the European Union is [one of] the most important and powerful regional political and economic unions in the world, and its strength will continue to grow."
“We have planned out concrete steps to boost the process of negotiations, and the presidents agreed on a trilateral statement, which reaffirms their commitment to normalization of the situation on the line of contact and also includes their consent to increasing the number of the OSCE monitors,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has a small ceasefire monitoring mission in Karabakh. For years, the OSCE has arranged peace talks on Karabakh through its Minsk Group, a mediation mechanism led by Russia, the US and France.
American singer Pharrell Williams became the only visiting celebrity to call for freedom in Azerbaijan during Baku's June 16-19 Formula One race, an event criticized for “sports-washing” the country’s authoritarian ways. Activists say it has been a struggle to coax world celebrities performing in Baku on its rich government’s tab to put human rights first.
The Sport for Rights coalition of international rights groups said most singers, who visited Baku to provide musical acts for the European Grand Prix, snubbed calls to push for change in the repressive ex-Soviet republic. “It has historically been very difficult to engage celebrities on human rights issues in Azerbaijan,” Rebecca Vincent, the coordinator of the Sport for Rights campaign, told EurasiaNet.org.
“Chris Brown and Enrique Iglesias completely ignored our calls,” Vincent said of two other star singers who performed in Baku during Formula One. “We received no response from their managers or publicists, and they have performed without uttering a single word about the situation in the country – [a] real shame, as they have become part of the Azerbaijani regime’s propaganda machine.”
F1 managers did not prove cooperative, either. Williams, who capped the entertainment program, was the only exception. “Make some noise for the youth of Azerbaijan!” he said at his June 19 performance. “Those beautiful children: they are the future! When they grow up they will change things not only here, but around the world and no one can stop them.”