Germany this week took its turn to appease and assure the South Caucasus about the European Union’s integration intentions by sending its top diplomat to the topsy-turvy region. Given Germany’s standing within the European Union and its structures, Frank-Walter Steinmeier came to the region not just as German foreign minister, but also as a key decision-maker for EU-South Caucasus ties.
As is par for the course with high-profile Western visitors to the region, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier’s visit was a triple-header. He zigzagged from Yerevan to Baku, and from Baku to Tbilisi on June 29, 30 and July 1, respectively. As also is usually the case with visiting Western diplomats, Steinmeier urged restraint on warring Armenia and Azerbaijan in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone, and patience on Euro-Atlantic-community hopeful Georgia.
On both of these counts, Germany holds a special role. Germany’s imprimatur is seen as decisive for granting Georgians much-desired visa-free access to the EU. Germany now holds the rotating presidency of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the continent’s top security and democracy-assurance body involved in negotiations and the monitoring of a ceasefire between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Steinmeier urged a greater role for the OSCE in the conflict-resolution effort, which Russia has pretty much dominated in the wake of April’s Four Day War, the deadliest flare-up of Armenian-Azerbaijani hostilities since the 1994 ceasefire.
Brexit is seen as a win for Russia over the European Union in countries wedged between the two powers. The British decision to leave the EU may be primarily a European affair, but its repercussions have rippled into the EU’s so-called Eastern Neighborhood, a longtime sparring ground for Brussels and Moscow.
“Great, now there is plenty of room for us,” many joked in Georgia, a longtime aspirant for EU membership and signatory of a 2014 Association Agreement with the bloc. For all the online giggling about the “United Yet Breakaway Kingdom” and how Georgia should sneak into the EU unnoticed while the door is still open, the South Caucasus country knows that the “out vote” was a blow to its EU hopes.
“The European Union… will be in a state of shock for some time and will not have time for others,” commented Georgian political scientist Ghia Nodia, a former education minister, to Netgazeti.ge. “In Georgia, unlike Britain, but much like other continental countries, a Eurosceptic primarily stands for pro-Russian.”
“The biggest loser is the EU, as a project,” while Russia is the biggest winner, he added.
Sensing the risk, Georgian officials on June 24 were publicly silent on the Brexit topic, until Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili released a diplomatic statement late in the afternoon that “This vote will not change the fact that the European Union is [one of] the most important and powerful regional political and economic unions in the world, and its strength will continue to grow."
Amidst objections from France, Germany and Italy, the European Union’s ambassadors on June 8 opted to postpone discussions about scrapping EU entry visas for Georgian citizens. Their second thoughts are causing concerns in Georgia, where the government has long touted visa-free travel to the EU as a major leap toward Tbilisi’s ultimate goal of Western integration.
Increased public wariness toward immigrants appears to be to blame for the EU dragging its feet on the visa liberalization plan, which has been plodding along through various EU structures.
France, Germany and Italy appear to be the main European opponents to the visa-liberalization plans for Georgia.
Politico reported in late April that Germany and France had crafted a proposal that argues that the “current migration and refugee trends make it necessary to have an efficient mechanism in place to suspend visa liberalization.”
Refugee concerns apparently prompted Italy to agree with that position.
The EU’s row with Turkey, Georgia’s western neighbor, over Ankara’s refusal to amend its anti-terrorism laws in exchange for visa-free travel may well have soured France, Germany and Italy further. That spells trouble not only for Georgia, but Ukraine and Kosovo as well.
Germany, though, had a bit of its own concern. German officials have recently expressed worries that the easing of visa requirements for Georgia could somehow result in a hike in city burglaries by “[i]nternational traveling gangs.”
The latest seasonal outbreak of conspiracy theories in Russia has it that the Americans are infecting the former Soviet Union with swine flu through a laboratory in Georgia.
A surge in H1N1 influenza in the Caucasus provided a fresh news peg for Russian paranoia about a US-funded biolab in Georgia, named after former US Senator Richard Lugar. The Kremlin long has declared the facility a bioweapon planted by the US next to the Russian border, and blamed it for spreading everything from anthrax to cow madness.
Now, Russian media, be it the Kremlin’s international propaganda arm Sputnik or local tabloids, are connecting the dots between post-Soviet sneezing and the Indiana Republican. Russian news cited concerns about the Georgian facility in neighboring Armenia, where the swine-flu death toll reached 18 last week, but all such headlines seem to be coming from Russia.
Even reporting on denials from Georgian health officials offers Russian media an opportunity to keep the theories in the spotlight.
“This is utter nonsense . . . spewed by the special services of a certain country,” said Paata Imnadze, deputy chief of the Georgian National Center for Disease Control and Public Health. The Lugar Lab’s mission, Innadze said, is to study and prevent the spread of diseases in humans and animals.
The video, apparently first posted on an ISIS-associated, Russian-language site, opens with a sleekly edited intro, Arab music and requisite praises to Allah. Then, a young man, flanked by three fellow Islamic fighters with rifles, calls on Georgia’s Muslim minority, in Arabic-accented, grammatically faulty Georgian, to come to Iraq and Syria to join the holy war. “Oh, my Muslim brothers, know that you are forbidden to live with the kafirs [infidels],” says the man.
The man urges Georgian Muslims to throw off the infidel’s rule — a reference to Georgia’s status as a majority Orthodox Christian society. He also lambasted the leader of Muslims in the Turkish-border region of Achara, describing the mufti as schismatic and conformist. “A great sin is on you,” he said. “People do not know true Islam, they are confused and you are confusing them even more…. Are not you afraid of Allah, who created you from a drop of blood?”
The diatribe ends with the man calling on Georgian Christians to relinquish “idols and crosses” and adopt Islam.
Then another fighter, with an accent typical of Georgia’s western region of Guria, takes to the floor to warn “Georgian infidels” to stop waging war against Islam. Citing Georgia’s time under a caliphate during the early middle ages, he singles out Georgian troops that contribute to NATO’s campaign in Iraq and Afghanistan. “The time will come to cut your heads off,” he warns.
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.