March 11 was supposed to be a big day for South Ossetia, the tiny breakaway region with a wish to become one with Russia. A South Ossetian delegation had arrived in Moscow with an engagement ring — the so-called Treaty on Alliance and Integration — but Russia was just not ready to commit. Perhaps because it has too much going on in its life right now.
The main battleground for the 2008 Georgian-Russian war, South Ossetia never made a secret of its desire to become the next Crimea. Its leadership had left for the signing-ceremony in Moscow to much fanfare at home and teeth-grinding in jilted Tbilisi, which claims the mountainous border region as its own.
But Russian President Vladimir Putin did not even receive the delegation, much less sign the agreement meant to merge the Russian and South Ossetian economies and government agencies.
Russian media was awash with speculation: Putin had a running nose or thinks the territory did a sloppy job with the agreement or is bogged down in Ukraine and does not feel like adding another region to his land-grab collection right now. “Indefinite postponement of such a document’s signing on the eve of an event is an unprecedented development,” wrote Russia’s Vzglyad newspaper.
Iran has assailed Georgia, in particular Justice Minister Tea Tsulukiani, for not being neighborly. Tehran’s burst of criticism came in response to recent comments by Tsulukiani that were seen as disparaging of Iran and Iranians.
Tsulukiani sparked the diplomatic spat on March 9, expressing approval in a television interview of changes to immigration procedures that have prevented thousands of potential Chinese, Iranian, Iraqi and Egyptian visitors from entering the country. Tsulukiani also said that in the future Georgia would only allow “well-wishers” to enter the country, prompting rights activists and the Iranian embassy to assume that Iranians were not regarded among the country’s well-wishers.
An Iranian government press release described the justice minister’s comments as “incompetent and ignorant.”
“The restrictions placed upon Iranian investors and tourists can be regarded as Georgia’s loss of Iranian friends’ skills, capital and valuable services,” the statement added.
The Georgian minister met with the Islamic Republic’s Ambassador Abbas Talebifar on March 10. After the meeting, Tsulukiani put down the incident to miscommunication and claimed that Iranian-Georgian friendship is as strong as ever.
The government insists that tightening immigration rules for Iranians and other nationals was required under an association agreement that Georgia signed with the European Union in 2014. However, some observers suspect that authorities had an additional motive for strengthening procedures: to pander to conservative, anti-immigrant voters.
Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan has not just dealt his deepest-pocketed rival, Gagik Tsarukian, a political knockout. Some now claim that, with the beefy tycoon's formal withdrawal from politics, Sargsyan has left punch-drunk arguably the most combat-capable part of Armenia’s opposition camp.
As members of Tsarukian's Prosperous Armenia Party start to drift away, the party, the country's largest legislative minority, is being forced to reinvent itself. The question is whether and how it can.
Don't expect Tsarukian to offer any public tips, however. “Henceforth, please do not bother me with any questions related to politics,” he said in a March 5 adieu to his party.
Coming on the heels of his threats to take to the streets with ex-President Levon Ter Petrossian, another Sargsyan-foe, to force early elections, it might seem some sort of detailed elaboration is required.
It hasn't happened. In fact, public disappointment over Tsarukian’s backdown, some observers believe, could mean that Prosperous Armenia does not have much of a future.
Call it Azerbaijan's interpretation of traditional Caucasian hospitality. Its citizens may be facing a bad currency-crunch, brought on by devaluation and depressed oil prices, but that’s not gonna stop this South Caucasus country from footing the bill for travel and accommodation for the “more than 6,000” athletes competing in this June’s European Olympic Games in the Azerbaijani capital, Baku.
But the European Olympic Committee, which is running the Baku games, claims that covering athletes’ costs is standard for Olympic-host countries.
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev’s government does, however, have a thing for “spectacular shows.” In 2012, almost $80 million was spent on Eurovision, a continental pop music extravaganza. Baku plans to foot a $8 billion bill for the European Olympic Games, even though its manat can buy 33.5 percent less per dollar now and fears persist that the nation’s hydrocarbon-supported revenues may halve this year.
Three-and-a-half tons of mimosas allegedly now are crossing each day from separatist Abkhazia into Russia, Russian news outlets allege. The tiny, subtropical region is hoping to make a roaring trade out of its resplendent yellow blossoms ahead of the March 8 International Women’s Day, a combination of Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day in the post-Soviet world.
As it blossoms early, mimosa, or acacia dealbata, makes a prime gift for the big day. Mother Nature has helped out as well. A moderate winter led to early blossoms this year on Abkhazia’s Black Sea coast, Russian media claim.
Yet contraband is also on the increase. Some smugglers are trying to hide Abkhazia’s mimosas in their car trunks, Russian customs officials complained, Vesti.ru reported, citing TASS.
A standard mimosa bouquet sells for 100 rubles, or $1.60, in Sochi, the largest Russian city near Abkhazia, according to one outlet.
But, soon, those mimosas may not rank as contraband. Russian President Vladimir Putin, ever land-hungry, would like to eliminate Russia’s de-facto border with flowering Abkhazia, which Moscow recognises as an independent country from Georgia.
A sighting of Russian army trucks in Georgia, just as the country was remembering the Red Army’s 1921 invasion, has set off a fresh furore over that most contentious of topics — the country’s ties with muscular next-door neighbour, Russia.
As the video and photo proof of general-purpose, Russian-made ZIL 131 military trucks rolling down highways or parked on streets, including in the Georgian capital,Tbilisi, went viral online, TV crews went chasing the vehicles. "It has begun!" one Twitter user wrote.
Reactions ranged from indignant to baffled to plain curiosity about the reasons for the trucks’ presence in Georgia. "I am not doing anything illegal," a stressed-out Russian-speaking driver told skeptical TV crews, who chased him down late on February 25.
With Russian troops already stationed in breakaway South Ossetia, just over half-an-hour from Tbilisi, and in fellow separatist Abkhazia, the reason for the alarm was plain.
The opposition United National Movement (UNM) Party, the self-styled torchbearer of patriotism, was hot on the case, demanding an explanation from the defense ministry. "This image shows Russian military vehicles, with a Russian driver and Russian license plates headed toward the reserve military base in Senaki [town in the west]," charged parliament member Nugzar Tsiklauri, Tabula.ge reported.
In a televised speech, President Aliyev said on February 24 that Azerbaijanis should have seen the devaluation coming, given the geopolitical oscillations afoot in the post-Soviet world and the drop in oil-prices. He appeared to have forgotten about the fact that only a month ago he had asserted that none of this would affect Azerbaijan’s currency.
He conceded, though, that if the manat-dollar rate had held, Azerbaijan’s foreign-currency reserves could have been reduced sharply by year's end. Five hundred million dollars, he alleged, was being bought a day; he did not name a time-period.
Nonetheless, in the Aliyev theory of economics, every dark cloud has a silver lining. The manat’s former strength just shows how successful Azerbaijan’s economic reforms have been, he argued. The catch is . . . “events in the neighborhood” made it too much of a good thing.
The mighty manat’s increase in value posed a problem for economic development, he claimed, making no mention of the currency’s nearly four-year-long peg to the US dollar. “This is why we decided to devalue the manat a little,” he said.
“A little” meant the Central Bank’s February-21 decision to slash the manat’s rate against the dollar by more than a third, and against the euro by 30 percent. It already had divorced the currency from the dollar.
Azerbaijan’s most prominent investigative reporter, Khadija Ismayilova remains in extended pre-trial detention, awaiting her day in court to face a variety of criminal charges. Meanwhile, Ismayilova’s fellow reporters at the Azeri service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty are experiencing a rising level of harassment.
Authorities seem intent on turning the screws slowly on Ismayilova. On February 23, following a closed-door trial, she was found guilty of libel and fined the equivalent of $2,400. Ismayilova was originally arrested on December 5 on charges of incitement of suicide. She denies all charges. Media freedom monitors consider the criminal case against her to be politically motivated.
In a recently published letter to The Washington Post, Ismayilova says she has no access to news and her family members are not allowed to visit her. “My cellmates are also my new audience, that most precious thing that every journalist must have, even a journalist whom the government is trying to silence,” Ismayilova wrote.
These days, Azerbaijani authorities are paying more attention to others with an RFE/RL affiliation. For example, Babek Bakirov, RFE/RL’s former Baku bureau chief, was not allowed to board an international flight on February 23, the same day when Ismayilova’s libel decision was announced. The RFE/RL bureau also revealed that one of its contributors was questioned by prosecutors. His name was not disclosed for safety concerns.
It was to national disappointment that Georgian director Zaza Urushadze’s Tangerines did not get an Oscar at last night’s Academy Awards. For Georgia’s glass-is-half-full crowd, however, the film’s nomination for Best Foreign Film was a sufficient accomplishment after almost two decades of creative stagnation in the country’s film-industry.
Technically, Tangerines is an Estonian film. But although it was submitted and also co-sponsored by Estonians, it is essentially a Georgian film, directed and mostly acted by Georgians.
Set during the 1992-1994 war with separatists in Abkhazia, the film tells the story of an Estonian carpenter and farmer Ivo (Lembit Ulfsak), who saves two wounded warring combatants, Akhmed, a Chechen (Giorgi Nakashidze) supporting the separatists, and the Georgian Niko (Mikheil Meskhi). As the enemies recover from their gun wounds at Ivo’s house, they also slowly recover from their hatred of each other.
Yet for all its noble aims, the film’s peace message is so loud that it comes at the expense of verisimilitude. In one awkwardly written and played bit, the fighters even exchange condolences to each other for their respective sides’ losses.
Such an exchange of courtesies may tick off all the boxes in a wish-list for a reconciliation-promoting NGO, but, for many Georgian viewers, who know how characters like Akhmed and Niko would normally speak and act in real life, such scenes damaged the movie’s artistic value.
Nonetheless, the film boasts a well-structured and paced script, with handsomely done visuals and an atmospheric setting for the three-men drama as a microcosm of the larger crisis happening outside Ivo’s house.