Armenia may now sign on to the Moscow-led Eurasian Union by the end of April, roughly a month before neighboring Georgia is slated to enter a free-trade and political pact with the European Union. The signings of both agreements have been expedited as the competition for the South Caucasus picks up speed between Russia and Europe.
Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan is scheduled to travel to Belarus on April 29 for a meeting of the council of the Eurasian Union, an economic bloc roughly modeled by Moscow after (and against) the European Union. Armenian officials say that Sargsyan will sign an agreement in Minsk on Armenia’s joining the Customs Union, the flagship project of the Eurasian Union meant to create a shared economic space for Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and, Moscow hopes, more ex-Soviet states.
The new sign-on date is not a huge difference from the earlier deadline of May, but, apparently, as East-West ties deteriorate over Ukraine, someone feels the need to pick up the pace.
Wary of Ukraine-style pressure from Russia, the EU chiefs have been trying to fast-forward their plans with Georgia and Moldova. José Manuel Borroso, the president of the European Commission, the executive body of the EU, is expected in Tbilisi in June to sign an association agreement, which includes a free trade deal, with Georgia.
The Syrian war is giving a headache to both Azerbaijan and Armenia, with jihadists heading into Syria from Azerbaijan and refugees heading out of Syria into Armenia. Most recently, Azerbaijani news outlets have reported that the leader of an Azerbaijani militant group has been captured by the rebel Al-Nusra Front, which recently took control of the ethnic Armenian town of Kessab, and allegedly sentenced to death.
As often happens, though, details are sparse. The individual in question, Agil Gajiyev, supposedly headed an Azerbaijani Islamist group called Sumgait Jamaat, but some news services say he was embedded with the Syrian rebel group Jund Al-Sham.
Most Azerbaijani Islamist militants travel to Syria to support the rebel forces and it is unclear why Gajiyev was sentenced to death. Facing crackdowns at home, Azerbaijan’s radical Islamists, not believed to be a particularly numerous group, long have heeded the call for jihad in places like Chechnya, Afghanistan and Iraq.
We know what you’re thinking, but Georgia’s planned association with the European Union is not about some geopolitical war between Moscow and Brussels, the EU argues in its newly released Myth-Buster, a guide to reassure those Georgians not entirely sold on the idea of integration with the EU.
Yes, commercial farmers will have to meet new safety standards, says the guidebook, but, no, the “size and looks of tomatoes” will not be regulated -- in this tomato-obsessed society, no trivial matter. For now, Georgians also are free to decide in what kind of cages they put their chickens.
At first glance, the need for such pointers may not be obvious. Georgia is, after all, the country that started flying EU flags outside all public buildings before serious talk of an association agreement had even begun. Opposition to the deal has been marginal.
But the Ukraine crisis and Moscow's fancy footwork in Crimea apparently has encouraged Brussels to dip its pen in the ink and spell out the advantages of a free trade deal with Europe over certain customs unions . . . say, like, oh, the one proposed by Moscow.
Armenia appears to be settling down to a time of change -- via both the appointment of a new prime minister and, now, potentially, a new influx of refugees from Syria.
On April 13, President Serzh Sargsyan named 56-year-old Parliamentary Speaker Hovik Abrahamian, as Armenia's new prime minister. He replaces Tigran Sarkisian, who resigned on April 3 for unclear reasons.
Abrahamian, a former cognac-wine-and-brandy businessman-turned-politician, told parliament during his April 14 introduction by Sargsyan that he did not have a "clear vision" yet of the makeup of his cabinet. He has 20 days to decide.
One parliamentarian from the ruling Republican Party of Armenia (RPA), however, has said that the government's goals will not change, even if the methods for attaining them do. To get a deeper line on Abrahamian, an Ararat-region villager by birth, one Armenian outlet, Epress.am, turned to leaked US embassy cables published by WikiLeaks. The assortment may not raise optimism about chances for reform under an Abrahamian cabinet.
A 2008 cable from US Ambassador Marie L. Yovanovitch described Abrahamian, a senior RPA official, as representative of "the type of Republican politician that makes up a large chunk of the parliament and of the ruling party establishment: politico-oligarchs who use political power to advance their business interests and vice versa."
With possible changes afoot in the country's power structure, Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan has announced that he will not run for president again. “I would like to place on the record that I, Serzh Sargsyan, will never nominate my candidacy for President of Armenia,” he announced on April 10, RFE/RL's Armenian service reported.
Sargsyan does not intend to cut short his second term, expiring in 2018. But local political wonks sense fatigue in the erstwhile warrior.
Analyst Stepan Danyelian believes that Sargsyan, who already has experienced a run of anti-government protests, has moved from his usual strongman position to a sit-back-and-let-it-happen stance. “Serzh Sargsyan’s influence has weakened,” Danielian told the Hetq news site. “The fact that Sargsyan said he would appoint a new prime minister acceptable to all [the main political factions] proves that his position and that of the [ruling] Republican Party has weakened.”
Sargsyan's entourage indicated that the next cabinet chief, to be announced on April 14, may be selected from minority parties.
Danielian believes that the perceived symptoms of their leader’s mellowing will weaken the hold on power by the ruling Republican Party of Armenia, which Sargsyan heads.
But others believe that Sargsyan is giving up some power to gain power. Those, who have confidence in Sargsyan’s tactician skills believe that by agreeing to form a coalition government, he may take the wind of out the sails of an opposition-proposed vote of no confidence scheduled in parliament for April 28.
“Come out, come out,” chanted demonstrators, marching through Tbilisi's empty streets after midnight on April 9, 1989. The rhythmic, polyphonic call resounded eerily as the city held its breath for the culmination of Georgia’s push to end the rule of Soviet-era Moscow.
Several hours later, it woke up to the news that the Soviet army had brutally dispersed the pro-independence rally. A combination of beatings, stampede and tear-gas poisoning left 20 dead that night and hundreds injured.
Every April 9, the scenes are revisited. TV stations broadcast archival footage showing thousands of people holding candles on downtown Rustaveli Avenue; nationalist leaders making fiery speeches; Georgian Orthodox Church Patriarch Ilia II calling for demonstrators to disperse to a nearby church to avoid conflict; and, last, armored vehicles moving into the crowd, as violence and panic ensues.
The old footage revives memories of a more naive time when everyone, however briefly, united around a common cause. With all its songs, dances and lofty ideals, April 9 seems very distant compared to latter-day Georgia with its bare-knuckle politics. But for many Georgians, their country is still waging the same battle against the same enemy.
“Unfortunately, after 25 years ago [sic], it feels like we have never left that moment,” Tina Khidasheli, a leader of the Republican Party, part of the ruling Georgian Dream coalition, told the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) on April 9 this year.
“Year after another, we are seeing [the] Russian army, Russian boots marching from one independent country to another… pursuing their very imperial cause of restoring . .. their imperial pride,” Khidasheli went on.
In what is definitely not intended as a late April Fool's Day joke, Georgian Interior Minister Alexander Chikhaidze has warned that Euromaidan is coming to Georgia. In a sweeping accusation published on April 7, Georgia’s policeman-in-chief claimed that former President Mikheil Saakashvili's United National Movement, backed by Ukrainian nationalists, is plotting to overthrow the Georgian government.
Georgians well know that Saakashvili is doing some sort of post-revolution consultancy in post-Euromaidan Ukraine. But to hear Chikaidze tell it, that's not the half of it.
A delegation of Euromaidan activists have now allegedly come to Georgia to train the UNM in how to stock up car tires and pitch tents in the streets, declared Chikhaidze in an interview with the weekly Prime Time.
Using an old Soviet refrain, the 28-year-old minister vowed an adequate response to any provocations.
The UNM, its Rose Revolution days well behind it, has described the statement as “utter nonsense.”
It has accused Chikaidze, and the Georgian Dream of trying to divert attention away from the real issues.
In a valedictory Facebook message, Tigran Sarkisian said that he actually had tendered his resignation back in February -- his reasons for staying on were not specified -- and wished the best of luck to the government team. That team, led by President Serzh Sargsyan, might well need it, for their economic policies, including pension-reform, energy and public-transportation fees, have been putting an increasing number of Armenians on edge.
Under the Constitution, though, the cabinet must step down now that the prime minister has.
Few are buying that 54-year-old Sarkisian quit because he wants, as the line goes, to spend more time with his family. Most reports link Sarkisian’s departure after six years in office to the looming collapse of his controversial pet project on pension reform.
Against the darkness of night, an Armenian villager was filmed by the news service A1+ this week lighting candles around her tomato and potato seedlings. It was no occult ritual. Alina Ambardzumian was trying to protect her crops from а vicious late frost, feared by some to have wiped out most of this year's harvest.
Other farmers in the village of Ayanist also have been sticking candles around their crops, creating churchly scenes. They believe that the warmth of candlelight will save the seedlings. “We put over them four layers of cellophane and lit the candles. Now we just need to wait for what is God’s will,”Ambardzumian told A1+. “If we don’t do this, we will have nothing to eat throughout the year,” she added.
According to a local farmers’ association, Kavkazsky Uzel reports, last weekend's unseasonable blizzard has destroyed an estimated 90 percent of the apricots which are the pride-and-joy-fruit of Armenia.No official estimates of the apricot loss, or other agricultural damage is available yet, but Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty has reported about entire apricot orchards frozen over in the western agricultural region of Aragatsotn.
The blizzard, which raged through Armenia for several days, also wiped out other fruit, like cherries and grapes.
Farmers now worry about both this year's ration of fruits and veggies and about repaying their bank loans. Inevitably, many angry eyes have turned to the government.
Hovering on the brink of closer ties with the European Union, Georgia wants to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman.
When Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili last week proposed a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, it seemed that he had picked Georgia's biggest non-issue ever. In this predominantly Christian, conservative South-Caucasus country, the topic is not a hot one. The LGBT community is largely closeted, and LGBT-rights discussions usually get drubbed out.
But in Georgia, gay marriage is so much more than just gay marriage. It is geopolitics.
As it moves toward signing an association agreement with the European Union this June, Georgia is trying to make its legal environment more EU-compatible. As part of the change, an anti-discrimination bill is intended that would protect the oft-violated civil-rights of LGBT Georgians.
Gharibashvili’s move is largely meant to appease the most conservative and less EU-versed Georgian voters, who view the European Union as synonymous with gay marriage. Georgian law already defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman, but Gharibashvili argues that the constitutional ban on gay marriage will help prevent “speculations” about the anti-discrimination law and about EU association in general.
So, Georgia could end up protecting gay rights and banning gay marriage simultaneously. But the government sees no irony.