Amidst mounting concerns in Washington about Russia’s military presence in war-ravaged Syria, one question persists — if existing air routes for Russian flights to Syria are closed, what will be Moscow’s backup plan? Long a corridor between Russia and fellow Syrian ally Iran, the South Caucasus countries of Georgia and Armenia appear an option to some.
It is unclear, however, what exact role US ally Georgia, to Russia's south, and Russian ally Armenia, to Iran's north, play or could play in any such corridor.
So far, government agencies in both Caucasus countries and US diplomats have equivocated on the matter.
On September 11, Georgian aviation officials announced that Russia, its northern neighbor, has not asked to use Georgia’s airspace for Syria-bound flights “in recent days or in the past two months.” Whether it did so before “the past two months” was not specified in the statement to GHN newswire.
In Armenia, with which Russia has just announced plans for a joint air defense union, the foreign ministry deferred questions on Russian military flights to Armenia’s Civil Aviation Authority.
Armenian Civil Aviation Authority Spokesperson Rouben Grdzelian told EurasiaNet.org that “there isn’t any restriction” on Russian military flights “as Russia can freely use Armenian airspace . . .” Russian military flights come into Erebuni, a military airport just outside of the capital, Yerevan, almost every day, he added.
The duel between the West and Russia for the Caucasus might just be becoming a truel. In its continued fervor to embrace China and attract Chinese hunger for global investment and exports, Georgia has launched talks on free trade with Beijing.
“Our main goal is to make the most prudent use of our strategic location,” said Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili on September 10 at the World Economic Forum in the Chinese city of Dalian, where the Georgian leader met his Chinese counterpart, Li Kepiang.
Dalian is on the ancient East-West trade route known as the Silk Road, which China is looking to bring back to life by investing in transportation and energy infrastructure along the way.
“Georgia is Europe’s natural gateway to Asia, as it is Europe’s eastern most [syc] point both by land and sea,” Gharibashvili elaborated in a September 10 op-ed in the English-language China Daily, seen as a Beijing mouthpiece.
In his commentary Gharibashvili went through the selling points for Georgia as a critical hub in the Chinese government’s transnational project for integrating Chinese and Eurasian trade and investment.
With its economy still struggling for a breather, Tbilisi hopes that Georgia’s investment-friendly tax policy and free-trade agreement with the European Union will encourage more Chinese business to provide a much-needed financial boost. Gharibashvili’s office said that Chinese officials will visit Tbilisi in mid-October for a Silk Road conference.
Invariably, NATO is seen as either the cause or cure of all security ills in the South Caucasus. So, it was only predictable that Russia described as provocative the August 27 opening of a North Atlantic Treaty Organization training center in Georgia. And Tbilisi, in response, emphasized it as an expansion of “the frontier of freedom.”
For his part, NATO Secretary General Jen Stoltenberg, on his first trip to Georgia, appeared to try to play things in the center.
“There is more Georgia in NATO and more NATO in Georgia,” he added, in case anyone hadn’t noticed.
Georgia, NATO’s only eager ally in the South Caucasus, has heard this line before, albeit in the future tense. In December 2014, NATO promised that “there will be a lot more Georgia in NATO and lot of NATO in Georgia.”
The catchphrase refers to the so-called Substantial Package, a military-reform collaboration program that NATO adopted at its summit in Wales last September. The program also includes sending “embedded” NATO trainers to Georgia and holding joint exercises.
As far as Moscow is concerned, though, there is too much NATO in Georgia.
“Those, who in such a situation continue to actively drag Tbilisi into NATO, must be aware of their responsibility, especially given the regrettable experience in the region in 2008,” observed Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova, Interfax reported.
Ever a strategic crossroads, ardently pro-Western Georgia on August 25 became the site where the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, billed as the Chinese counterweight to the World Bank, chose its first president.
China's former deputy finance minister, Jin Liqun, got the pick at the August 24-25 meeting in Tbilisi, but it’s the longer term implications of the bank’s role that could prove more intriguing.
Initially meant as an Asia-only lending club, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) has fast expanded to attract members across Europe and is set to help China build international clout.
The US has tried to discourage allies like the United Kingdom and South Korea from embracing the bank, a financial institution that Washington reportedly fears will lower international banking standards, but did not react publicly when Georgia, its strongest ally in the strategic South Caucasus, also decided to help midwife the AIIB into existence.
Granted, Georgia, which holds a mere .05 percent share in the bank, does not have the banking or economic muscle of the UK or South Korea, but its geo-strategic location means that those with influence here tend to keep a wary eye out for potential rivals.
Geopolitics rather than terroir may be affecting the quality of Georgian wine, at least as far as Russia, the world’s largest Georgian alcohol tippler, is concerned. After the Kremlin said it would retaliate against countries that support Western sanctions against Moscow, Russia tried Georgia’s wine and found it wanting.
Rospotrebnadzor, the Russian federal food safety agency as formidable as its name, declared on August 4 that both Georgian winemakers and government services for food quality oversight consistently fail to assure the quality of alcoholic beverages exported to Russia. Almost 7 million liters of booze imported from Georgia in 2015 did not meet Russia’s high standard for alcohol safety, in Rospotrebnadzor’s telling.
The agency, long a Russian foreign-policy tool toward post-Soviet countries with Western aims, took issue with Georgia’s staple dry red Saperavi, produced by the company Agora, and two types of brandy, Old Kakheti and Kolkhida, produced by Telavi Wine Cellar. A number of batches of these beverages lacked the required quality-assurance documentation, Rospotrebnadzor claimed.
Georgia’s agriculture ministry responded that it carefully controls the quality of alcohol exported to Russia, but added that it will look into the allegations. At the same time, Georgia’s point man for talks with Russia, Zurab Abashidze, went explaining to Russian media that Tbilisi had not signed on to any of the European Union’s new sanctions against Moscow.
A sighting of Russian army trucks in Georgia, just as the country was remembering the Red Army’s 1921 invasion, has set off a fresh furore over that most contentious of topics — the country’s ties with muscular next-door neighbour, Russia.
As the video and photo proof of general-purpose, Russian-made ZIL 131 military trucks rolling down highways or parked on streets, including in the Georgian capital,Tbilisi, went viral online, TV crews went chasing the vehicles. "It has begun!" one Twitter user wrote.
Reactions ranged from indignant to baffled to plain curiosity about the reasons for the trucks’ presence in Georgia. "I am not doing anything illegal," a stressed-out Russian-speaking driver told skeptical TV crews, who chased him down late on February 25.
With Russian troops already stationed in breakaway South Ossetia, just over half-an-hour from Tbilisi, and in fellow separatist Abkhazia, the reason for the alarm was plain.
The opposition United National Movement (UNM) Party, the self-styled torchbearer of patriotism, was hot on the case, demanding an explanation from the defense ministry. "This image shows Russian military vehicles, with a Russian driver and Russian license plates headed toward the reserve military base in Senaki [town in the west]," charged parliament member Nugzar Tsiklauri, Tabula.ge reported.
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.
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.
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.
At the time, scoffers said Georgia was only attracted to Tuvalu’s vote at the United Nations General Assembly. For Georgia and Russia, every vote counts at the UN, where the two battle for the international non-recognition or recognition, respectively, of separatist Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
But Georgia severed ties with Tuvalu less than a year after learning where to find the island on a map. The split was caused by Tuvalu suddenly wanting to do its own thing and support breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia's independence in September 2011.
It was widely believed that Russia, ever the debonaire seducer, had wooed Funafuti away. Before Tuvalu, nearby Nauru also had stepped forth to recognize the independence of the breakaway couple. Vanuatu nearly went bipolar on the issue, changing its mood nearly every month.