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.
Rainbow-colors represent "invisible" LGBT-Georgians at this downtown Tbilisi stairway, near the city's Freedom-Square subway station.
Opting against a public protest, Georgia’s gay community instead staged a “invisible” rally in the capital, Tbilisi, on May 17, the International Day against Homophobia and Transphobia. Passers-by on May 18 found downtown stairs emblazoned with rainbow colors, while, the day before, dozens of shoes appeared in a nearby park. “This art installation is for the invisible people, for those who are not seen, are not heard, and whose existence is not recognized,” read a poster.
Gay-rights have become a major civil-rights issue in this conservative city after an angry mob last May 17 chased LGBT-rights supporters from the streets. This year, the powerful Georgian Orthodox Church declared May 17 a “family day” and mobilized thousands of believers, many of whom vowed to prevent any repeat demonstration by LGBT activists.
But Georgia’s embattled LGBT community still tried to leave a footprint in Tbilisi through the “invisible” rallies. While a conservative group collected signatures on May 19 against a recently passed anti-discrimination law, just steps away the rainbow-colored stairs maintained their mute presence.
Georgia will strike up an “historic” alliance with the European Union by signing an association agreement on June 27, Tbilisi announced on May 14. And the agreement is not the country's final stop on the road to Europe, one key EU official, on hand in Tbilisi for the announcement, declared. Yet for all the high hopes, the announced schedule of Europeanization could be -- with apologies to the late Gabriel Garcia Márquez -- a chronicle of trouble foretold.
Banning bigotry toward sexual minorities is no small event in socially conservative Georgia, which, for the past few days, has experienced a maelstrom of emotions over an anti-discrimination bill. On May 2, the legislation passed parliament without a single vote against it. But the debate, set against the backdrop of a struggle between Europe and Russia for influence, looks likely to rage on.
A recently released poll of 3,942 Georgians shows, though, that minority rights are not a pressing concern nationwide. More people are troubled about making ends meet. Out of those minorities named in the survey (commissioned by the National Democratic Institute), rights protection for sexual minorities ranked dead last as a priority.
So, why pass the bill now? Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili sees it as part and parcel of Georgia's integration with the European Union; a goal desired by 65 percent of those surveyed in the NDI poll.
The Patriarchy also has expressed its support for Georgia’s EU integration, but despite many assurances to the contrary, many prelates remain suspicious that, by introducing legal protection for the LGBT community, Brussels will eventually trick Georgia into adopting gay marriage.
A group of Georgian Orthodox priests has threatened to curse those lawmakers who sign off on an anti-discrimination bill meant to introduce legal protections for minorities as part of Georgia's integration with the European Union. Confronted by influential clerics who claim the law will turn Georgia into a modern-day Sodom and Gomorrah, many lawmakers face a tough choice between principle and populism.
“Behave wisely,” warned one of the bearded men in cassocks and skufias who formed a black, nay-saying corner at a parliamentary human-rights committee hearing on April 29. From the other corner, a group of rights activists fired back, saying that there should be no place for discrimination and sectarian interference with political processes in a modern state.
Most lawmakers responded to the priests patiently. But in this Orthodox country, where many fast and cross themselves at any sight of a church steeple, a priest's warning is nothing to brush off.
Last year, a mob led by priests overpowered police at an anti-homophobia rally. Now, priests have warned that support for the anti-discrimination bill, slotted for a second parliamentary hearing on April 30, would spell trouble for the government.
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.