The European Union has announced the approximate date for the signing of association agreements with Georgia and Moldova, and set the timer ticking for another potential face-off with Russia. The countdown began with both countries bracing for Russia to stir up Ukraine-style trouble to prevent seeing either former Soviet republic pass into the EU's camp.
A day before Ukraine hastily signed a redacted version of the agreement on March 21, an EU statement declared that Georgia and Moldova are coming up next, “no later than June.” This is the second time that the signing has been moved forward to leave less time for Moscow to jam sticks into the wheels -- a sign of the unease sparked by Russia absconding with Ukraine's Crimean peninsula.
And the geopolitical cogwheels are still in motion.
NATO is wary of Russia trying to bite off even a bigger chunk of Ukraine. Moldova fears that after Crimea, Moscow will try to annex Transdniester, which split away from Moldova in the 1990s. Transdniester’s separatist officials already have traveled to Moscow to discuss Russia taking on the territory.
A March 18 appeal to the EU from Moldova’s Prime Minister Nicolae Timofti to speed up the association process preceded a Twitter announcement from José Manuel Barroso, the president of the EU’s executive body, the European Council, that Moldova and Georgia will be signing association agreements by June.
Georgia’s billionaire kingmaker, Bidzina Ivanishvili, has said he is disappointed in the man he tapped to be president of Georgia, Giorgi Margvelashvili.
Such musings are no mere tittle-tattle. In Georgia, where ex-Prime Minister Ivanishvili, the country's richest resident, is seen as the real power behind the government, they invariably become the talk of the town.
In a March 18 interview with Imedi TV, the tycoon commented that he can no longer recognise the man whom, less than a year ago, he told voters would make "the best president ever."
But since Margvelashvili became president last October, the two have grown estranged, the billionaire confided sorrowfully. “I can’t think of any instance of a man changed like this,” he complained.
The two no longer talk, he continued. “We don’t have informal relations,” said Ivanishvili. But he will find the strength to get over it. “This is not a tragedy; we both decided that we don’t need this [relationship].”
There is virtually no space for opposition in Azerbaijan’s parliament, but the government often appears happy to provide room for its rivals in prison. Some prominent faces from the country's drubbed-into-a-corner opposition were handed prison sentences on March 17 on controversial charges of inciting riots in a provincial town last year.
A court in the northeastern city of Sheki sentenced Tofi Yagublu, deputy chairperson of the Musavat Party, and Ilgar Mammadov, leader of the Republican Alternative (ReAl) rights group*, to five and seven years in jail, respectively. The court found the two guilty of sparking riots in Ismayilli, where thousands last January took to the streets, burning a hotel and laying siege to the local governor’s office. The government responded with sending riot police and keeping the city in a lockdown for several days.
Yagublu and Mammadov counter that they trekked out to Ismayilli to support the protesters and arrived when the unrest, sparked by a traffic accident involving the son of a cabinet minister, was already in full rage. Nevertheless, the Sheki court turned a deaf ear to the protests from defense lawyers, as well as local and international rights groups.
As Crimea moves to join Russia, it is also joining a neighborhood club of unrecognized territories. Not surprisingly, Moscow-backed separatist Abkhazia and South Ossetia welcomed Crimea's March 16 referendum on seceding from Ukraine and acceding to Russia. Georgia, which feels for Ukraine, dismissed the vote as illegal, while Armenia and Azerbaijan froze in an awkward silence.
The differences between Crimea and the rest of the disputed pack -- Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Transdniester and Nagorno Karabakh -- cannot be underscored enough. After all, the peninsula is dominated by ethnic Russians and is reuniting with Russia, while the others underline their independence from everyone.
Nonetheless, while not universally recognized, the 97-percent vote in Crimea for joining Russia has put governments throughout the region on edge.
Azerbaijan's close ally, Turkey, which openly condemned the referendum, has announced it plans to consult with Baku and fellow Turkic cousin Kazakhstan about a response to Crimea. The Crimean Tatars are the ethnic kin of Turks, Kazakhstanis and Azerbaijanis.
Everyone in the Caucasus has reasons to worry about which direction Crimea’s vote goes this Sunday, but for their own reasons. For the breakaway regions, the conflict may have implications for their own future.
Already, it is affecting their actions. On March 12, the de-facto authorities in Abkhazia detained a Ukrainian TV crew that had come to gauge local reactions to the Crimea crisis. After hours of interrogation, which caused alarm and worry back in their station’s newsroom, the journalists were kicked out of Abkhazia into next-door Russia, the Ukrainian site Censor.net.ua reported.
Two more reporters with the same Ukrainian station, 1+1, have been detained in North Ossetia, the Russian twin of breakaway South Ossetia, on the Georgian side of the Caucasus mountains. The journalists, who were released after five hours of questioning, said that local officials have orders to watch out for sightings of Ukrainians.
Journalists are now asking both regions' de-facto authorities questions about any plans to follow Crimea’s suit and seek merger with Russia.
In South Ossetia specifically, such ideas, linked with the idea of union with North Ossetia, have significant backing. The de-facto administration in Tskhinvali told Russia’s Dozhd’ TV that it needs to wait for a national plebiscite law that would simplify the procedure of joining Russia.
The Crimea crisis has inspired hopes for a speedier ride for Georgia to NATO membership, but the Alliance appears to be sticking to an adagio pace for now. “Georgia is not there yet,” James Appathurai, the NATO secretary general’s special representative for the Caucasus and Central Asia, commented to EurasiaNet.org.
While noting "a positive dynamic in Georgia's democratic development," he suggested staying focused on ongoing reforms that “will enable Georgia to live up to the duties resulting from the membership.”
“There cannot be shortcuts and Georgia is not seeking them,” he said.
Tbilisi, though, believes it's done the necessary homework. “Georgia is ready and deserves to move to a qualitatively higher level [of] cooperation with NATO that will be a next logical step forward in [the] NATO membership process,” Georgian Defense Minister Irakli Alasania told EurasiaNet.org.
He argues that the country, with a change of power by election behind it, has matured politically, made an impressive contribution to the Afghanistan campaign and achieved a high level of interoperability with NATO.
From Tbilisi’s perspective, at this stage, it is all about whether NATO is ready for Georgia; not the other way round.
Fingers are crossed here in hopes to get the coveted Membership Action Plan (MAP) at the NATO summit this September in Wales in the United Kingdom. Apart from securing the long-wanted deterrent against Russian pressure, receiving a MAP alongside closer ties with the EU would be a major foreign policy success for the current administration.
Gazprom, the Russian energy goliath, reportedly continues its shopping spree in Armenia; this time around, setting its eyes on the Caucasus country's power-distribution grid. Such a buy would get Gazprom closer to becoming the main source of light and heat in Armenia, second only to the sun.
If the deal is done, the electricity network will change hands from one Russian company, Inter RAO UES, to another. But then, Gazprom is, of course, not just another Russian company. It is the Kremlin’s magic wand for political clout and foreign policy.
As the main supplier of Armenia's natural gas and security (and possibly electricity), and its main trade partner, Russia, some fear, practically owns the country.
In the cellars of the Yerevan Brandy Company sits a barrel of brandy that has been waiting 13 years for resolution of Armenia’s conflict with neighboring Azerbaijan over the breakaway region of Nagorno Karabakh.
Armenia's favorite drink, brandy became widely popular in Soviet days when the country (and Georgia) ranked as the USSR's alternative to the south of France. For many visitors, touring the Yerevan Brandy Company, now owned by French booze giant Pernod Ricard, remains a must.
It may seem a bold move to ply a Frenchwoman with a beverage Armenians call "cognac," yet Kaas had no reason to complain; the Yerevan Brandy Company sponsored her March 9 concert in Yerevan.
In the company's cellar, she was introduced to the “Barrel of Peace,” a cask containing brandy from 1994, when Armenia and Azerbaijan agreed to a (constantly violated) cease-fire. The cask was sealed in 2001, when the US, Russian, and, of course, French chairpersons of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Minsk Group, the body overseeing the Karabakh talks, visited Yerevan and toured the factory. The brandy-makers vowed to open the barrel when the Karabakh conflict is resolved.
Unfortunately for peace and brandy-lovers, the conflict remains a powder keg with occasional deadly escalations, and Armenia and Azerbaijan are not expected to drink themselves to peace anytime soon. The ongoing international conflict over Russia's incursion into Ukraine's Crimea is not expected to improve those chances.
Four days after Crimean Tatars sent an SOS to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, nothing has been heard from Baku but silence. For all its grievances with Moscow, chances are slim that Azerbaijan, the Tatars' rich South-Caucasus cousin, will stick its neck out over Crimea.
But Crimean Tatar community leader Mustafa Dzhemilyev, a Ukrainian parliamentarian, gave it his best shot in a March 6 interview with the news site Haqqin. “Do not leave your Crimean brothers and sisters at this difficult time,” Dzhemilyev implored Aliyev.
Recalling repressions by Tsarist and Soviet Russia, he underlined that the Tatars will never put up with a Russian takeover of the Crimean peninsula, and asked Aliyev to use his influence with Russian President Vladimir Putin to prevent such an event.
The request was cc-ed to Turkish President Abdullah Gül and another Turkic leader, Kazakhstani President Nursultan Nazarbayev.
Turkey has so far weighed in the strongest on the issue, while Aliyev and Nazarbayev have been slow to provide even a non-binding, thinking-of-you response.
Azerbaijani officials routinely emphasize Azerbaijan's emergence as a regional power, but don’t expect Aliyev to snap his fingers in Putin’s face over Crimea. Through its economic and political involvement in the region and its many conflicts, Nagorno-Karabakh included, Russia could hurt Azerbaijan.
The Russian drone and helicopter came whizzing in from Abkhazia and South Ossetia, respectively, and hovered over nearby Georgian police posts and villages, the foreign ministry reported. Tbilisi described the act as another violation of Georgia’s sovereignty and the 2008 ceasefire agreement with Russia.
In a March 7 TV appearance, though, Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili tried to allay mounting fears over Russian pressure; even though he himself has repeatedly told the public to expect such tactics as Georgia prepares to sign an association agreement and free-trade deal with the European Union this year.
“I’d like to ask everyone… not to overstate the threats expected from Russia,” Garibashvili said in an interview with Georgian Public Television. “We know what these threats are, but I have heard . . . exaggerated forecasts and I don’t think it is right. We don’t have to stress people too much.”