Armenia may now sign on to the Moscow-led Eurasian Union by the end of April, roughly a month before neighboring Georgia is slated to enter a free-trade and political pact with the European Union. The signings of both agreements have been expedited as the competition for the South Caucasus picks up speed between Russia and Europe.
Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan is scheduled to travel to Belarus on April 29 for a meeting of the council of the Eurasian Union, an economic bloc roughly modeled by Moscow after (and against) the European Union. Armenian officials say that Sargsyan will sign an agreement in Minsk on Armenia’s joining the Customs Union, the flagship project of the Eurasian Union meant to create a shared economic space for Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and, Moscow hopes, more ex-Soviet states.
The new sign-on date is not a huge difference from the earlier deadline of May, but, apparently, as East-West ties deteriorate over Ukraine, someone feels the need to pick up the pace.
Wary of Ukraine-style pressure from Russia, the EU chiefs have been trying to fast-forward their plans with Georgia and Moldova. José Manuel Borroso, the president of the European Commission, the executive body of the EU, is expected in Tbilisi in June to sign an association agreement, which includes a free trade deal, with Georgia.
We know what you’re thinking, but Georgia’s planned association with the European Union is not about some geopolitical war between Moscow and Brussels, the EU argues in its newly released Myth-Buster, a guide to reassure those Georgians not entirely sold on the idea of integration with the EU.
Yes, commercial farmers will have to meet new safety standards, says the guidebook, but, no, the “size and looks of tomatoes” will not be regulated -- in this tomato-obsessed society, no trivial matter. For now, Georgians also are free to decide in what kind of cages they put their chickens.
At first glance, the need for such pointers may not be obvious. Georgia is, after all, the country that started flying EU flags outside all public buildings before serious talk of an association agreement had even begun. Opposition to the deal has been marginal.
But the Ukraine crisis and Moscow's fancy footwork in Crimea apparently has encouraged Brussels to dip its pen in the ink and spell out the advantages of a free trade deal with Europe over certain customs unions . . . say, like, oh, the one proposed by Moscow.
Hovering on the brink of closer ties with the European Union, Georgia wants to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman.
When Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili last week proposed a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, it seemed that he had picked Georgia's biggest non-issue ever. In this predominantly Christian, conservative South-Caucasus country, the topic is not a hot one. The LGBT community is largely closeted, and LGBT-rights discussions usually get drubbed out.
But in Georgia, gay marriage is so much more than just gay marriage. It is geopolitics.
As it moves toward signing an association agreement with the European Union this June, Georgia is trying to make its legal environment more EU-compatible. As part of the change, an anti-discrimination bill is intended that would protect the oft-violated civil-rights of LGBT Georgians.
Gharibashvili’s move is largely meant to appease the most conservative and less EU-versed Georgian voters, who view the European Union as synonymous with gay marriage. Georgian law already defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman, but Gharibashvili argues that the constitutional ban on gay marriage will help prevent “speculations” about the anti-discrimination law and about EU association in general.
So, Georgia could end up protecting gay rights and banning gay marriage simultaneously. But the government sees no irony.
Georgia's ex-President Mikheil Saakaashvili is, by himself, controversial enough. But add two former prime ministers -- one dead, one living -- to the mix and you've got the makings of an HBO special.
The basic plot line is simple enough: busy reexamining the investigation into Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania's 2005 death, the Georgian government has summoned Saakashvili, Zhvania's political ally, to Tbilisi for questioning on this and a host of other issues.
But the ex-president, now on an international circuit of advising, teaching and commenting, has refused to come, saying he smells a plot. Namely, between Russian President Vladimir Putin and ex-Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, the billionaire founder of Georgia's ruling Georgian Dream coalition, to run him into the ground. And to shut him up on advising the acting Ukrainian government about how to respond to Putin's armed sally into Crimea.
"Of course, I will come to Georgia, but not now, to fulfil Putin's wishes . . ." he told Georgian TV reporters. He did not present any proof for his allegations.
In an interview published in the March 24 edition of Kviris Palitra, Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili warned that if Saajashvili does not obey the summons for March 27, "he will place himself in a dire situation and even more questions will arise."
The European Union has announced the approximate date for the signing of association agreements with Georgia and Moldova, and set the timer ticking for another potential face-off with Russia. The countdown began with both countries bracing for Russia to stir up Ukraine-style trouble to prevent seeing either former Soviet republic pass into the EU's camp.
A day before Ukraine hastily signed a redacted version of the agreement on March 21, an EU statement declared that Georgia and Moldova are coming up next, “no later than June.” This is the second time that the signing has been moved forward to leave less time for Moscow to jam sticks into the wheels -- a sign of the unease sparked by Russia absconding with Ukraine's Crimean peninsula.
And the geopolitical cogwheels are still in motion.
NATO is wary of Russia trying to bite off even a bigger chunk of Ukraine. Moldova fears that after Crimea, Moscow will try to annex Transdniester, which split away from Moldova in the 1990s. Transdniester’s separatist officials already have traveled to Moscow to discuss Russia taking on the territory.
A March 18 appeal to the EU from Moldova’s Prime Minister Nicolae Timofti to speed up the association process preceded a Twitter announcement from José Manuel Barroso, the president of the EU’s executive body, the European Council, that Moldova and Georgia will be signing association agreements by June.
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.”
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.
Defending his choice to enter a Moscow-centered Customs Union, Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan commented on February 4 that Armenia joining the European Union was never part of Yerevan's game-plan, Public Radio of Armenia reported.
It has been lovely to work with the EU on democratization and human rights and all, but Armenia never considered committing to a more serious relationship, said Sargsyan, whose pro-Moscow choice last September took Brussels by surprise.
Speaking about another Western club with which Yerevan has had a standing flirtation, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Sargsyan expressed dismay that NATO, as he put it, had allowed member Turkey, Armenia’s bête noire, to take certain undefined "actions" that damage NATO's "security system."
That said, Armenia will not shy away from being "just friends" with the EU and NATO. Still, its "steady" remains Russia; namely, Moscow's Customs Union and Collective Security Treaty Organization. One provides duty-free access to the vast and nearby Russian market, while the other keeps hostile neighbor Azerbaijan at bay. (At least in theory. )
Yerevan announced on February 3 that it will complete the road map to membership in the Customs Union by year-end, and set January 1, 2015 as the date for its trade-nuptials with Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus.
How and why the music was chosen is not known. But as EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and Georgian Foreign Minister Maia Panjikidze exchanged kisses and signatures, the melody eventually morphed into the more stately sounds of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, the European Union anthem, and the protocol faux-pas faded away.
Nonetheless, a dangerous hopak dance remains underway in Ukraine, a country especially on many people's minds in Georgia now and for several reasons.
The deepening crisis in Ukraine over whether to integrate economically with the European Union or Russia is both sowing worry and sparking anti-Russian defiance in Georgia, arguably the last steadily pro-Western Eurasian country east of Moldova. Yet, according to new Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili, the Ukraine situation will only serve to further Georgia's integration with the EU.
This year, Georgia has seen two fellow ex-Soviet republics drop out of the pro-Europe club. First, next-door Armenia made a sudden choice to join the Moscow-led Customs Union; now Ukraine has taken a time-out from plans to sign off on a landmark agreement with the European Union.
The loss of Ukraine, arguably the Slavic country with which Georgian ties are chummiest, leaves some feeling a tad vulnerable.
“Ukraine would have been a very serious partner for us at the Vilnius summit. You stand more steadily on your feet when you have such a large country by your side,” said Tina Khidasheli, a senior parliamentarian for the ruling Georgian Dream coalition, Interpressnews reported.*