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.”
The Russia-Ukraine crisis is putting the South Caucasus country of Georgia on a faster track toward closer ties with the European Union; less clear are the implications of the Crimean standoff for Georgia’s bid to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
With the Ukrainian crisis in mind, the top European Union official in charge of EU enlargement arrived in Tbilisi on March 4 to underline that Brussels is considering a host of measures to support Georgia’s eagerness for closer ties with the EU and to help resist potential pressure from Russia.
Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighbourhood Policy
Štefan Füle spoke generally of economic aid and support for Georgia’s struggle to preserve its territorial integrity, but keeping an eye out for renewed Russian pressure on Georgia does not just apply to these areas. It also appears to mean convincing skeptical Georgians that associating with Europe does not make a country gay by association.
All ex-Soviet countries which Moscow last year tried to discourage from initialing an association agreement with the EU, including Ukraine, have seen propaganda campaigns claiming that joining the EU economic space comes with a requirement to permit gay marriages.
There is a guerrilla war going on in the middle of the Georgian capital, Tbilisi. But this is no armed conflict. It’s a struggle over green space and greenbacks, and one with important implications for grassroots activism throughout the region.
A lengthy court case on a controversial police crackdown has ended in a guilty verdict for ex-Georgian Prime Minister Vano Merabishvili, once one of the most powerful figures of former President Mikheil Saakashvili's era.
A Kutaisi court on February 27 gave 45-year-old Merabishvili a prison sentence of just over four and a half years for allegedly having overstepped his power as interior minister during the brutal dispersal of an anti-government rally in Tbilisi on May 26, 2011. The tumult, in which two people were killed, plus scores injured and arrested, sparked a general outcry among Georgian society and served to harden opposition to Saakashvili.
This time, the debate was more localized.
Outside the courthouse in Tbilisi, a fight broke out between supporters and critics of Merabisvhili, who remains the secretary-general of Saakashvili's United National Movement. Police made arrests.
Fellow UNM members claimed that the judge gave in to pressure from the ruling Georgian Dream -- a claim not without its irony, given occasions in the past when the same was said of the UNM.
Ten days earlier, Merabishvili also was sentenced to nine years in prison on separate embezzlement and extortion charges. Even with time subtracted for the nine months he already has spent in jail in pre-trial detention, at this rate, the former power broker will be approaching the age of retirement before he gets out of prison.