The closer it gets to the European Union’s May 21-22 summit in Riga, the clearer it becomes that the post-Soviet countries grouped together under the EU’s Eastern Partnership Program will not be making any big steps toward the EU.
Speaking from Brussels with reporters via a video-link, one senior EU official laid out priorities for the summit that likely will prove a disappointment to Georgia. The EU’s biggest fan in the South Caucasus is not going to get the much-touted visa-free arrangement with the EU this time around. Nor is it clear when Georgia, which signed an EU Association Agreement last June, should expect to get it.
Armenia and the EU will be weighing cooperation options that are limited by Armenia’s membership in the Moscow-led EU alternative, the Eurasian Economic Union. The EU official, who declined to be named, said that much of the future economic dealings between the EU and Armenia, will actually be dealings between the EU and the Eurasian Economic Union, rather than with Armenia per se.
Freewheeling Azerbaijan is essentially going to Riga to bargain on energy supplies to Europe. At the summit, EU is like to emphasize the importance of Azerbaijan as an energy partner. Not unpredictably.
Many observers see a slow-down in the EU’s interest in the region, as Russia becomes more aggressive in Ukraine and tries harder to keep the former Soviet area in its sphere of political and economic influence.
Many in Georgia heaved a collective sigh of relief after pro-LGBT rights rallies went without clashes on May 17, the International Day against Homophobia.
Groups of activists assembled in several locations in the capital, Tbilisi, mainly to highlight the European Court of Human Rights’ recent decision to impose penalties on the Georgian state for failing to prevent attacks against participants in an anti-homophobia demonstration in 2012.
One demonstration took place in a small downtown public garden. The rally was heavily guarded by police, with circles of cordons and busloads of police officers at the ready. Another group gathered on Vachnadze Street, where in 2013 police barely managed to rescue several LGBT activists from a de-facto lynch-mob. Still another group gathered in front of the justice ministry calling on it to implement the European Court of Human Rights’ decision.
A forensic investigation into the January massacre of a six-member family in the northern Armenian city of Gyumri has determined that the victims resisted their killer; allegedly a Russian soldier stationed at the town’s Russian military base. The information, released on May 14 by lawyers for relatives of the murdered Avetisians, has rekindled anger over the bloodshed, which seriously strained Armenia’s strategic partnership with Russia.
Video footage of the crime scene and a physical examination of the bodies suggest that the family’s grandfather, Seryozha Avetisian, grabbed the barrel and bayonet of the assailant’s weapon, lawyer Lusine Sahakian told a Yerevan press-conference. Bruises were found on Avetisian’s body purportedly inflicted by the rifle butt, she added.
Avetisian’s wife, Asmik, “tried to get up from the bed, perhaps she even managed to do that, as her feet were hanging down from the bed,” Sahakian claimed.
The murderer than proceeded to another room, where he shot dead the couple’s son, Armen, and his toddler-daughter, Asmik. Contrary to initial official claims, Armen was found dead on the floor next to his bed.
He then stabbed to death Armen’s wife, Araksia Pogosian, and baby-son, Seryozha, who later succumbed to his injuries in a hospital. “Araksia Pogosian tried to protect little Seryozha with her body,” claimed Sahakian. “She has a wound on her hand, which was most likely inflicted when she was trying to protect the child from a knife.”
The harrowing details have rekindled popular outrage against both Russia’s 102nd military base in Gyumri and at the Armenian authorities, who could not place the suspect in an Armenian jail. Permyakov, who has confessed to the killings, remains in Russian custody.
Mikheil Saakashvili, the former Georgian president-turned Ukrainian government adviser, says that he has gotten maverick US Senator John McCain and former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt to join his A-Team of political troubleshooters.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has reportedly approved the inclusion of McCain and Bildt in the International Advisory Group, a council led by former Georgian President that is supposed to provide guidance to the Ukrainian government.
Both the Ukrainian leader and Saakashvili may have jumped the gun with the announcement: McCain has indicated he has not made a final decision on whether to join.
To hear the Arizona Republican tell it, he expressed only general interest in the offer, but Poroshenko went ahead to appoint him before McCain had a chance to clear the proposal with the Senate, the website Buzzfeed reported. “Of course I would love [to] do anything to help Ukraine, but I’ve got to make sure it’s ok under senate rules,” McCain told Buzzfeed.
The former Swedish prime minister said he was honored by the invitation to join Team Saakashvili.
McCain and Bildt are well-known Saakashvili backers, as well as prominent supporters of both Georgia and Ukraine in their conflicts with Russia. McCain famously said “today we are all Georgians” during the 2008 Georgian-Russian war.
Georgian support for joining the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union appears to be on the increase, based on data from a survey conducted for the National Democratic Institute, a US-based NGO.
Thirty-one percent of the roughly 4,360 Georgian respondents surveyed expressed support for signing onto the trade-bloc; a twofold increase from 2014 and a threefold increase from 2013, respectively.
Yet considerably more of the respondents (41 percent) remain hostile to the idea of teaming up with Russia, according to data released on May 11. A solid majority of the interviewees – 68 percent and 65 percent, respectively – are rooting for joining the European Union and NATO.
Seventy-seven percent consider Russia a threat, though opinions vary on the immediacy of the threat. Ethnic minorities are most skeptical about Russia’s hostile intentions; half of those surveyed do not see Russia as a threat.
Pro-Russian activism remains on the fringes of the political mainstream in Georgia, but it has become more noticeable under the Georgian Dream coalition than it was during the fiercely anti-Moscow United National Movement, which lost power in 2012. The same poll said that Georgians can freely vent their views today.
Additionally, Russia’s state TV channels, formerly essentially barred from broadcast, now rate as the most-watched foreign channels in Georgia, the survey claimed.
In a Caucasus-first, Georgia has selected a woman, 41-year-old parliamentarian Tina Khidasheli, as its prospective defense minister. The appointment, relatively unexpected until this week, comes amidst a mini-cabinet-shakeup that once again lays bare divisions within the country’s political leadership.
Khidasheli, the chairperson of parliament’s European Integration Committee, and her husband, Parliamentary Speaker Davit Usupashvili, are a power couple leading the moderate Republican Party, a gathering of pro-Western intellectuals that are members of the ruling Georgian Dream coalition.
Trained in international law, she is a fluent English-speaker, who has had brief fellowships at Yale and Georgetown Universities and worked for over a decade at the Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association, a reform-minded legal-watchdog. *
While Khidasheli has a prominent public presence, the exact reasons for her nomination are open to some speculation. Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili announced on May 1 that the current defense minister, Mindia Janelidze, will return to his role as head of the prime minister’s security council.
An investigative report published by an Azerbaijani government-connected news agency alleges US Secretary of State John Kerry is orchestrating a campaign to discredit the government in Baku.
The report, published April 28 by the APA news agency, places Kerry “in the forefront” of a broad effort to undermine the Azerbaijani government during the run-up to the European Games, an Olympics-like event to be held in Baku in June.
Kerry, the report asserts, is known for “his Islamophobic mindset [and a] special closeness to Armenians, and supports pro-Armenian initiatives in the United States.” It also hints that the US government would favor regime change in Baku. Documents obtained by APA relating to the campaign put “an end to the statements expressed at the highest level that the United States does not interfere in the internal affairs of independent countries and develop coup plans,” the article says.
A group of Western non-governmental organizations, including the National Endowment for Democracy and the New York-based Open Society Foundations (OSF), was also cited in the report as participating in the campaign. [Editor’s Note: EurasiaNet.org operates under OSF’s auspices].
“These forces are realizing a plan of politicizing the first European Games, creating one-sided vacuum of information, directing the attention of the international community to the internal affairs of Azerbaijan in a distorted way,” the APA report alleges. On April 30, APA published documents that it said were obtained from a reliable source, that outline the objectives of the campaign, dubbed Sports for Rights. The documents that were published do not make a connection between the State Department and an NGO coalition.
The defense ministry of Georgia will supply weapons, live ammunition and explosives to a TV channel run by the rap-artist—son, Bera Ivanishvili, of former Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, the Georgian government’s alleged éminence grise.
The list of supplies includes TNT, detonators, gunpowder, machine-guns and ammunition-belts. Out of these, the defense ministry would like the machine-guns and ammunition-belts back at some point.
The TV station, GDS, does not plan to start a war. It says it needs the weaponry for two historic drama series (“Tiflis” and “Lost Heroes”). But the news raises potentially explosive questions about the conditions for the deal.
Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili, who authorized the handover, formerly served as the director of Bera Ivanishvili’s production company, Georgian Dream, Ltd,. His April-24 order for the transaction no longer appears to be accessible online.
In an interview with Liberali Magazine, "Lost Heroes" producer Davit Kelekhsashvili claimed that GDS paid the defense ministry for the supplies, but would not specify the amount.
The Kremlin has tried to placate Turkish anger at Vladimir Putin terming as genocide the killing of an estimated one to 1.5 million ethnic Armenians in Turkey during World War I.
An an April 28 press-conference, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, never one to conceal his feelings, let loose: “It is not the first time Russia used the word genocide on this issue,” said Erdogan, adding that he was personally disappointed by Putin’s words. “What is happening in Ukraine is evident. They should first explain this before calling it [the 1915 slaughter] genocide.”
On April 24 itself, the centennial of the 1915 massacre, the Turkish foreign ministry had delivered a sharper punch, noting that “[t]aking into account the mass atrocities and exiles in the Caucasus, in Central Asia and in eastern Europe committed by Russia for a century, collective punishment methods (...) as well as inhumane practices especially against Turkish and Muslim people in Russia’s own history, we consider that Russia is best-suited to know what exactly ‘genocide’ and its legal dimension are.”
The Kremlin said nothing at first. But now that Erdoğan has shown he’s riled, it’s responded with a backhanded reminder to Turkey of where some of its interests lie.
Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov expressed a hope that the Turkish leader’s reaction “would not influence the relationship between Moscow and Ankara, and, above all, the Turkish Stream,” a 63-billion-cubic-meter-per-year pipeline that would carry Russian gas under the Black Sea to Turkish territory, and on to European markets.
In the latest installment in his televised current-affairs lectures, Ivanishvili on April 26 said such NGOs are biased and can’t do the right analysis. He has long deplored the supposed lack of proper analysis in Georgian media, and launched his own think-tank, 2030, and an eponymous TV show, to rectify this. (2030 stands for the year Ivanishvili expects Georgia to blossom into true, European-style democracy.)
Ivanishvili specifically targeted such major civil-society groups as the Georgian chapter of Transparency International (TI) and the Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association (GYLA). The former recently published a report about how employees of companies associated with Ivanishvili are taking up government posts.
The heads of these groups are now “suspected of bias and of being in synch with the [Saakashvili-led] United National Movement’s agitprop, the machine of lies,” he informed viewers.