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.
Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili has become another Georgian leader to go to Washington in search of US protection from Russia. This time around, Georgia hopes that the US can help make sure Russia does not try to pull a Ukraine in Georgia to prevent it from entering the European Union’s economic space.
“[The Sochi Olympic] Games are over, and we expect Russia to increase pressure on Georgia before signing the association agreement with the European Union,” Gharibashvili said after meeting President Barack Obama and Vice-President Joseph Biden on February 25. “[W]e would highly appreciate the US administration, Congress, think-tanks…. [expressing] support [to] us through constant and proper messaging to Russia, upholding the European choices of Georgia,” Gharibashvili commented at a talk the same day at the Atlantic Council.
With Ukraine now a lost cause for the Customs Union, Russia’s Vladimir Putin has checked in with Armenian Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian to see how Armenia's plans to join the Customs Union are coming along.
For Russia, Armenia is a poor substitute for Ukraine, but still a victory in Moscow's efforts to assert its broader economic clout through the trade bloc.
Prime Minister Sarkisian seems to have seized on that status to lodge a request with Moscow to keep the investments coming and to underwrite some of the legal and institutional changes that Armenia needs to meet the upcoming trade club’s membership rules by 2015. Yerevan also needs resources to keep selling Armenians on the idea of pushing the country into what many claim will be an economic throwback to the USSR.
How far Kocharian could go with this is unclear. Memories of the 2008 bloodshed under his administration do not endear him uniformly to Armenian voters. But his choice of topic could add at least some fuel to the fire.
Controversial as he is back home, former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili seems to have found a receptive audience in Ukraine. There now have been two Misha sightings in Kyiv; the latest on February 23 when he popped up to congratulate Ukraine on giving the boot to President Viktor Yanukovich and his plans to keep Ukraine aligned with Russia.
“The Russian Empire has ended its existence right here, in this very place,” Saakashvili thundered in Ukrainian to a street gathering, outlets reported. That line might sound like old hat for Misha. But the revolution in Ukraine is a bit personal.
For one, it has offered him an opportunity to become relevant again. Tbilisi's measured response to the Ukrainian crisis has disappointed many Georgians, who strongly believe the struggle mirrors Georgia's own tug-of-war with Russia. (Particularly after the death of two Georgians -- for reasons under investigation -- during the protests.) Consequently, even some Misha critics have wished of late for "a Misha moment" of impassioned oratory in support of the Ukrainian protesters.
Leave it to Georgia's ex-president, a public speaker to the bone, to step up to the plate.
And in writing, too. In a recent piece for Politico, he shared his recipe for a successful revolution, and called on the US and Europe to help Ukraine create a working government and keep Moscow in check.