The customs-free wonderland that Russia is busy building around itself to counterbalance the European Union will come with still more unrecognized or half-recognized lands. On December 10, the Russian Duma approved a 2012 agreement to drop customs duties between Russia and the twin breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
“Ratification of the agreements will become an important step toward intensifying trade turnover between Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and Russia and members of the Customs Union,” pledged Eurasian Integration Parliamentary Committee Chairman Leonid Slutskiy, ITAR-TASS reported.
The two tiny enclaves -- in Moscow’s view, perfectly sovereign lands -- are tied to Russia’s apron both by their economies and their claims to independent statehood. Now, they can export customs-free to Russia anything but sugar, tobacco and alcohol. Russia also cancelled export duties on set volumes of petroleum exported to Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Of course, there is more in this for the territories than for Russia, which periodically injects aid into both breakaway territories. The Kremlin is pouring so much money into Abkhazia and South Ossetia that it will not even notice a revenue-drop from the removal of duties on imports from and petroleum exports into the regions, said Slutskiy.
In 2014-2015, Moscow plans to invest over 3 billion rubles (about $92 million) in Abkhazia alone, according to the region's de-facto official news agency, Apsnypress.
Earlier this week, two 30-something performance artists from Turkey and Armenia did what their countries have failed to do for decades -- put the violent past behind them and shake on it. For 43 hours straight.
But other Turkish-Armenian handshakes could prove more difficult. Tomorrow, another, more prominent one will occur, yet most likely will rank among the shortest ever.
Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu is coming to Yerevan on December 12 as part of an Organization for Black-Sea Economic Cooperation summit, and is expected to try to breath new life into the two countries' 2009 reconciliation plan. The bid failed amidst rancor over Ottoman Turkey's mass-slayings of ethnic Armenians and Ankara’s support for Azerbaijan in its conflict with Armenia.
Armenia has made its choice between the two EUs -- the European Union and the Eurasian Union-- but will it bring its de-facto addendum, the breakaway territory of Nagorno Karabakh along with it into the Russia-plus trade space? Some analysts believe that Karabakh will indirectly end up enjoying the benefits of the Kremlin’s economic promised land.
Bent on taking the territory back, Azerbaijan poses a stumbling block for the predominantly ethnic Armenian territory to reach out to the outside world; meaning that Armenia is essentially the only friend and trade partner Karabakh has.
In turn, since Russia is the main economic partner for semi-boycotted Armenia, Karabakh by default is expected to gain access to the economic zone coalesced around Moscow, some Armenians believe.
“Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh form one economic space,” Alexander Iskanderian, director of the Yerevan-based Caucasus Institute, told Russia’s Gazeta.ru. “Armenian money works in Stepanakert, the banking system and laws are closely integrated."
Officially, of course, it will not be a union of Russia, Belarus Kazakhstan, Armenia and Nagorno Karabakh. Not even Armenia has recognized Karabakh as an independent state.
Nor, with all members of the union, Russia included, wary of angering Azerbaijan, the formation of the Eurasian Union is not going to change the diplomatic status quo for Karabakh.
But, as often happens in the Caucasus, it's what happens apart from what's written that counts. Some observers expect that Karabakh's produce, be it mulberry brandy or construction materials, could be sold customs-free within the union as products of Armenia.
Compared with the gargantuan scale of the US National Security Agency’s surveillance machine, the 21,000 cell phones that the government of Georgia can supposedly monitor each day is miniscule. But anger over state snooping is still creating a PR challenge for officials in Tbilisi.
Georgia’s ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili is still in business doing two things he likes most – making speeches at protests and fighting his nemesis, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. This time, he got to do them both in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, where street protests continue to boil.
“Hello, Ukraine!” he said in Ukrainian on December 7, addressing thousands of demonstrators gathered in the city's Maidan Nezalezhnosty or Freedom Square to push the Ukrainian government into a rethink about giving Russia precedence over the European Union. “I’ve come here… to the beating, living and singing heart of Europe,” he went on.
Consulting a written text (Ukrainian is not known to be one of the multi-lingual Saakashvili's strongest languages), the leader of Georgia's 2003 Rose Revolution told demonstrators that "you are defending not just your future, the future of Ukraine, but also the future of all of us, all the freedom-loving nations of the region and the world."
If the European Union can prevail in Ukraine over Moscow, he argued, it can prevail also in Georgia, Moldova and elsewhere in the ex-Soviet world.
With Ukrainian opposition leaders Vitali Klychko and Arseniy Yatsenyuk by his side, he called for a united front against Putin's Russia, which, he claimed, is trying to gobble up one country at a time.
“The Ukrainian triumph will end the era of Vladimir Putin, and the end will start here, on this very square,” he said to ovations from the crowd. (Next stop for Misha: Moldova.)
Jumping on the make-your-own-national-gadget bandwagon, Armenia has come up with a smartphone and a tablet computer of its own. Presented to the Armenian government on December 6, Armphone and Armtab are expected to hit stores after New Year's Day.
As is often the case with such devices, Armphone and Armtab are only partly sovereign Armenian. Designed in Armenia, the devices run on an Android operating system and will be assembled in the US and Hong Kong. The creators – Technology and Science Dynamics/Armtab Technologies, described as an Armenian-American joint-venture – say that they hope the low price will attract first regional (Georgia and Ukraine) and, eventually, international customers.
The price of the 16-GB tablets will range from $225 to $280, Vahan Sahakian, the director of Technology and Science Dynamics/Armtab Technologies, told Armenpress. Sahakian presented Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian with a sample Armtablet at a government meeting, which then managed to segue from smart technologies to a discussion about Armenia's textile, knitting and shoe industries.
Georgia’s chain of public-service halls – a fast-food-style dispenser of everything from ID cards to property registrations – broke a mold in the post-Soviet world, where taking care of such tasks usually means taking a long journey though the labyrinths of government bureaucracy. The bold undertaking had been an achievement of ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili that has weathered the country's ongoing storm of revisionism. But it couldn't handle an actual storm.
The company that constructed the Tbilisi House of Justice was not chosen through an open tender, but via direct contracting; a practice that "is likely to result in wasteful spending, as there is no opportunity for another qualified bid for the same contract to bring down the price,”, the Georgia chapter of anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International argued at a December 6 presentation.
In 2012, under former President Saakashvili, the government dished out 1.17 billion lari (about $700 million) to companies under such contracts; an amount equivalent to "4.7 percent of the Georgian economy," according to TI. The deals "accounted for 18 percent of all government spending . . ."
The bill on local self-governance aims to give regional towns and communities more decision-making power via the election of local mayors and municipal officials. Today, only the mayor of Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, is elected, while regional heads are appointed by the central government.
The proponents of the bill argue that the change will help regional governments, including in highland communities, address local needs more efficiently.
But, in December 4 remarks, the patriarch cautioned that a devolution of authority could encourage more separatism, a phenomenon that already haunts Georgia with Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
“If this happens, it will lead us to disintegration of Georgia,” Ilia II said. “We will never tolerate this and will do our best to make sure this does not happen.”
"We should remember that when the [central] government was strong . . .
Georgia was strong as well," he continued, underlining that "the people
should consider whether or not [the draft law] is acceptable and good for Georgia."
The debate over decentralizing power, however, soon spun out into the realm of secularism vs. theocracy, another ongoing bugbear for Georgian society.
To be precise, the poll (of 1,000 respondents) found that Armenia's level of suffering stands at 37 percent. Georgia, a comparatively sized neighbor with its own economic and security problems, suffers by 16-percentage points less.
Azerbaijan, the richest yet least democratic of the South-Caucasus trio, apparently suffers the least, at 15 percent of its respondents.
Overall, the survey, released on December 2, makes the Russian maxim that “It is better to be rich and healthy than poor and sick” ring truer than ever. The line of inquiry is broad -- linking "thriving" to job-security and access to healthcare, for instance.
Nonetheless, some surprises did emerge: the UK and Uzbekistan allegedly sharing the same level of suffering, for one.
Yet the Gallup pollsters, who did both face-to-face and over-the-phone interviews, did not just call up randomly selected respondents to ask how they're doing on a given day. Criteria under examination included the amount of income, optimism, stress, physical pain, worry and anger.
The data, though, is based on how respondents rate their own lives. How the survey compensated for cultural differences toward public expressions of feelings is not clear.
The “corrupting influence of the West” is a catchphrase immortalized by the 1969 cult Soviet comedy, The Diamond Arm, in which a busy-body apartment-manager (portrayed by iconic actress Nonna Mordykova) becomes suspicious of the new, supposedly bourgeois ways of a neighbor after he returns from abroad.
You would not expect to hear a post-Soviet government official repeat this line today. Unless, that is, you happen to be in the oil-soaked Caucasus country of Azerbaijan.
In a December 2 speech in Baku, Ali Hasanov, a senior political aide to President Ilham Aliyev and a tireless guardian of public loyalty to his boss, called on all and sundry to fight back against the pernicious effects of Western influence that supposedly are pitting Azerbaijani young people and the media against their own people and the state.
“Each of us has a duty to protect youth from the corrupting influence of the West,” he instructed his audience, the APA news agency reported. “We can’t allow certain young men to engage in an anti-Azerbaijani activity for some 2 or 3,000 manats" via Western donor grants, he argued.
By "anti-Azerbaijani activity," Hasanov presumably means any action seen as presenting a challenge to the Aliyev family, in power for most of the past 44 years. Western grants meant to help democratize Azerbaijan inevitably translate into challenges to that status quo, in Hasanov's mind.
But, never fear, President Aliyev and his youth fund are here. In a bid to preserve Azerbaijan's "integrity," the fund is dishing out grants to match civil-society funding by Western democratization groups.