In a smack-down to Georgia and Ukraine’s European aspirations, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said on May 21 that the two countries should not have expectations for a visa-free regime with the EU anytime soon.
Merkel’s comments came amid the European Union’s summit with its EU-curious neighbors in the Latvian capital, Riga. In the run-up to the summit, it was clear that the EU would not be granting a visa-waiver at this time, but Georgia and Ukraine expected to make significant progress toward such a waiver, as well as toward integration with the bloc.
As of early evening, Tbilisi had not yet responded officially to Merkel’s remarks. In comments earlier in the day in Riga, however, Georgian Foreign Minister Tamar Beruchashvili told Georgian reporters that Georgia has met with flying colors most of the EU’s requirements for a visa-free regime, and that it is “only a step “ away from heading toward receiving that status.
Kyiv’s reaction was not immediately available.
Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova are the main EU-enthusiasts among the six ex-Soviet republics courted by the EU under its Eastern Partnership Program. Moldova, Ukraine's southwestern neighbor, received its visa-free deal in 2014.
After the last Eastern Partnership in Vilnius, Lithuania, where Ukraine had pulled away from signing an association agreement with the EU, helping to set in motion a domestic conflict over Ukraine’s leadership, the bloc arrived at this next summit in Riga with far less enthusiasm for integrating the countries and to engage Russia in a full-on competition for the region.
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.
What a difference a month can make. In the final days of February, Kyrgyzstan’s President Almazbek Atambayev was engaged in an emotional and unseemly spat with Belarus over the death of a Kyrgyz gangster.
By the end of his 10-day European tour this week, Atambayev was positioning himself as a peacemaker between Brussels and Moscow – one eager to continue receiving Western aid. Kyrgyzstan is due to join the Russia-led Eurasia Economic Union next month.
Atambayev made some revealing comments during an April 1 interview with Euronews – an outlet notorious for softball questions and sympathetic interviews with regional leaders. He used the opportunity to praise Russia’s leadership, present himself as a wise leader dabbling in international diplomacy, and remind Western donors that their assistance hasn’t been enough.
Euronews: “Mr. President, welcome to Euronews. Can we regard your visit to Brussels as something of a farewell before Kyrgyzstan joins the Eurasian Economic Union in May and when you will stop getting closer to the European Union?”
Atambayev: “On the contrary. I think, as a part of the Eurasian Union, Kyrgyzstan will be pushing it towards tight engagement with the European Union. Europe should extend from Lisbon and Brussels – to Vladivostok, and of course, I think, to Bishkek.”
Keeping up with the regional fad of being annexed by Russia, the separatist territory issued terms of reference for how it would like to be absorbed.
The draft document offers to surrender to Russia such attributes of de-facto statehood as the army, police and courts. Not to mention, the "protection and patrolling of national borders."
Customs checkpoints (not generally accepted for South Ossetia internationally) would be eliminated between the region and the Russian Federation and any restrictions on citizens moving across the de-facto border would be abolished, the draft continues.
In other words, no need to send little green men. There is a catch, though -- South Ossetia, an impoverished region of some 50,000 residents, wants Russia to pretty much sustain it financially.
The region, which was recognized by Moscow in 2008 as an independent country, purportedly sees this takeover as a way of reuniting with its Ossetian kin in neighboring North Ossetia, part of the Russian Federation.
The notion has been around for awhile, but the annexation of Crimea and proclamations of independence by Russian-backed separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk in Ukraine, breathed new life into South Ossetia’s plans.
Georgia’s NATO-membership plans have come under attack from within the the country's government itself, embattled Georgian Defense Minister Irakli Alasania claimed on November 4, as a crisis over investigations into his ministry deepens within the ruling coalition.
Alasania, rated as Georgia’s favorite political figure, declared in a televised briefing that prosecutors’ sudden spate of inquiries into the defense ministry’s work is politically motivated. After the arrest of five former and current ministry officials last week as part of a probe into a tender, prosecutors today filed criminal charges against three army medical officers in a food-poisoning case.
“This is an attack on Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic choice. This is an attack on the agency with an outstanding record in achieving our foreign policy goals,” Alasania asserted. “I will not be intimidated by the prosecutors or by mud-slinging by certain media groups,” he added.
He challenged the ruling Georgian Dream coalition to convene to discuss in which direction the country is headed. Next to him stood State Minister for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration Aleksi Petriashvili.
There still might be room for a substantial partnership between the European Union and Armenia, says Brussels, but it will depend on how exclusive the Caucasus country’s relationship is going to be with the Eurasian Union, Russia’s planned alternative trade bloc.
But, ever the jealous lover, Russia wants exclusivity. If Armenia cold-shoulders the bloc, that could mean a Ukrainian-like upheaval, a Russian envoy warned this week.
In the year since it spurned the first EU's advances for those of the second EU, Armenia, putting its chess prowess into practice, has tried to keep its options still open. But things are getting confusing.
“For [a] broad and new definition or redefinition of our relations, we need to have a complete overview and idea from the Armenian side as to what they can do in the new circumstance created by Armenia’s membership in the Customs Union,” Peter Stano, spokesperson for the EU Enlargement Commissioner Štefan Füle, told RFE/RL on September 24.
Armenia itself would like to know these details. It is not yet a member of the Customs Union, the core of the planned Eurasian Union. The specifics of Armenia’s likely terms of engagement with the bloc remain unclear and a subject of dispute among the current Customs-Union members, Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus.
Armenia also has some hesitation. For one, about what the Customs-Union deal will mean for ethnic Armenian, breakaway Nagorno Karabakh, which depends on Armenia to keep it de-facto apart from Azerbaijan. There is also a dose of homegrown backlash among pro-Western circles against Armenia alienating the European Union.
But Moscow does not want to be dumped. Particularly, not again.
Armenia’s planned participation in this second Union has experienced repeated delays; according to some observers, because of the lack of consensus among the bloc’s members (Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia) about Yerevan’s political and economic requests.
The official line is that this merger still will happen. Nonetheless, Armenia clearly doesn’t want to miss out on all the easier access to Paris, Rome and beyond that three more EU-enthusiastic members of the Eastern Partnership Program are having (Moldova) or soon could be having (Georgia, Ukraine) .
The EU’s thoughts about Nalbandian’s petition do not appear to have been released yet. To enhance Yerevan’s chances on this front, the foreign minister also spoke about the possibility for stronger ties with Brussels and stressed the EU’s role in Armenia’s democratization reforms.
Georgia on July 18 legislatively cemented its European aspirations, while Armenia set a new date for a trip in the opposite direction— integration with the Russian-centric Eurasian Economic Union. The last but not least in the South Caucasus trio, Azerbaijan, remains content with its status as the region’s geopolitical maverick, but wants more appreciation from the European Union.
With EU officials on hand in Tbilisi, the Georgian parliament unanimously ratified the signed association and free-trade agreements with the European Union, and Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili declared, in case there was any doubt, that the country’s European path is "irreversible."
For one thing, they’ve drunk on it. “The ratification of this agreement will not be valid if we don’t chase it with a glass of wine,” observed Parliamentary Speaker Davit Usupashvili, inviting all to move on to the reception.
The session opened with the Georgian national anthem and closed with the EU anthem
Moldova, a fellow EU-enthusiast (and serious wine-producer), ratified the agreements earlier this month, while Ukraine is expected to do the same shortly.
But, as often happens in the South Caucasus, Armenia and Azerbaijan had their own tales to tell as well.
After missing a few earlier targets, Armenia set October as its date for entering the Eurasian Economic Union, Moscow’s response to the European Union. Speculation runs rife about the reasons for the repeated delays, but Yerevan says the deadline's for real this time, and the necessary
An Austrian citizen on June 24 won a Constitutional-Court case against Georgia’s parliament for a 2013 ban on the sale of agricultural land to foreigners. The reversal could have broad implications for the tiny South Caucasus country as it prepares to take on closer economic ties with the European Union.
Mathias Huter , a rule-of-law activist formerly employed by the anti- corruption watchdog Transparency International Georgia*, said that he sued because the ban discriminated against foreign nationals and could harm Georgia’s struggling agricultural sector, which he argued, “needs . . . foreign expertise and capital.”
“I felt the ban was… rushed and not thought through, [and came] just a few weeks before the  presidential election,” said Huter, who does not own farmland. TI Georgia filed the suit on Huter’s behalf.
In its ruling, the Court stated that, while the reasons cited for the ban — “national security, environmental protection and development of the agricultural sector” — were “correct,” and represent “important and valuable public interests,” they could have been realized “without violating foreigners’ property rights.”
Introduced by the ruling Georgian Dream coalition, the ban reversed an earlier government policy of encouraging foreign farmers, such as Punjabi from India and Boers from South Africa, to move to Georgia, a heavily agricultural country with relatively cheap land prices.
Moscow and Brussels have gone courting Azerbaijan, the last nonaligned place in the South Caucasus, where Russia and the European Union increasingly compete for influence.
Over the next week, two top officials from Russia and one from the European Union will be descending upon Azerbaijan to chat up Baku, which, unlike neighboring Armenia and Georgia, says it is not ready to commit to a serious relationship with anyone, be it the Brussels-based EU or the Moscow-led EU (Eurasian Union). But neither of the energy-rich country's big suitors seem to take no for an answer.
José Manuel Barroso, president of the EU's executive arm, the European Commission, will be visiting Baku on June 12 as a part of his tour of several ex-Soviet republics that Brussels corralled together to prime for integration with the EU. Two of these countries -- Moldova and Georgia -- will be signing association agreements, which include free-trade deals, with the EU in two weeks. Barroso will be checking on both countries to make sure all's set for the big day.
Breaking with the tradition of European leaders binge-visiting all three South Caucasus countries in one fell swoop, Barroso is conspicuously skipping Armenia. Brussels is still disgruntled about Yerevan discarding an association-agreement at the last minute to hop on a train headed in the opposite direction -- toward the Eurasian Union, and economic integration with Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus.