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.
Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili has become another Georgian leader to go to Washington in search of US protection from Russia. This time around, Georgia hopes that the US can help make sure Russia does not try to pull a Ukraine in Georgia to prevent it from entering the European Union’s economic space.
“[The Sochi Olympic] Games are over, and we expect Russia to increase pressure on Georgia before signing the association agreement with the European Union,” Gharibashvili said after meeting President Barack Obama and Vice-President Joseph Biden on February 25. “[W]e would highly appreciate the US administration, Congress, think-tanks…. [expressing] support [to] us through constant and proper messaging to Russia, upholding the European choices of Georgia,” Gharibashvili commented at a talk the same day at the Atlantic Council.
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.*
For the Russian military, any reconciliation with Georgia, it seems, will not extend to R&R in Georgia. Once a popular spot for Russian soldiers to go for vacation or for war, Georgia has been blacklisted as a spot for rest-and-recuperation by the Russian Ministry of Defense.
At first glance, that may not seem surprising. The two countries, after all, did fight a five-day war in 2008 that resulted in the rupture of diplomatic ties, and the introduction of Russian troops into breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which Georgia claims as its territory.
Yet with the advent of Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili to power last year, Moscow had suggested that the sun might shine, once more, on Russian-Georgian relations.
No more, it seems. The blacklist was preceded by moves by Gennadiy Onishchenko, head of the food-security agency Rospotrebnadzor, to defend Russia's food front against potential incursions by Georgian fruit, vegetables and wine, which he believes may be doctored by a US-run biological laboratory in Georgia to poison Russian consumers.
Whether or not this scenario is Onishchenko's creation alone is not clear. (The vision came to him after Ivanishvili announced expectations for Georgia to receive a Membership Action Plan from NATO next year.) But, now, it seems, the Russian military has a few fears of its own, too.
Try as he might, Russia's Dr. Strangelove, otherwise known as food security tsar Dr. Gennadiy Onishchenko, has not yet stopped worrying and learned to love a Georgian tomato. Or a peach. Or a bottle of wine.
Onishchenko, who apparently has a nose like no other for potential alimentary attacks, now has deduced that a US-sponsored biological lab in Georgia supposedly could be used to poison fruit, vegetables and wine bound for Russia.
To hear him describe it, the lab, named after former US Senator Richard Lugar, sounds like a military-guarded facility hemmed with barbed wire, and with a dark storm cloud constantly hovering overhead. It is a “powerful offensive” weapon and “is out of the control of the Georgian authorities,” Onishchenko said in a statement. The presence of such a force in the proximity of the Russian border is “a direct violation of the Biological Weapons Convention,” he asserted.
The upshot: If Georgia wants to keep selling its agricultural produce to Russia, it has to shut down the Lugar Lab.
Wounded in Afghanistan by both weapons and words, Georgia appears to be busy with damage-control for its participation in the NATO-led mission there.
A June 6 truck-bomb attack that killed seven Georgian soldiers, the deadliest such incident to date for Georgian forces in Afghanistan, has sparked an unprecedented outpouring of domestic criticism of the Afghan campaign. With a presidential election just four months away, that criticism is something the Georgian government is eager to check.
In a TV talk-show interview on June 11, Defense Minister Irakli Alasania emphasized that troop security is first and foremost on the government's mind, and in its discussions with NATO. Among other security measures, he said, at Tbilisi's request, NATO's joint command will change the deployment areas for Georgian troops, currently stationed in the southern Helmand province.
The June 6 attack on the Shir Ghazay base happened just as Georgian forces were about to vacate the site, he added. He underlined that the risk to Georgian soldiers will decrease as the NATO pullout gets underway, and their mission shifts from combat to training.
Repeating previous warnings, he also advised Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili not to announce beforehand his plans to visit Afghanistan (as Saakashvili is wont to do), noting that the information puts soldiers' lives at risk.
Finally, he dismissed calls for bringing the troops home, saying that Georgia will see its Afghan mission through.
The latest and deadliest attack on Georgian troops in Afghanistan is putting to the test Georgia's patience with participation in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization campaign there. Many Georgians now say the price the country is paying for moving up on the defense alliance's membership waiting list is too high.
A truck bomb attack on June 6 in Afghanistan's Helmand province killed seven Georgian soldiers and wounded nine more. Less than a month ago, three Georgian servicemen were killed in a similar attack. The short interval between the attacks and the growing Georgian military death toll (a total of 30 servicemen) has led to the most vocal outpouring of frustration within Georgia about the campaign in Afghanistan, where the South Caucasus country is the largest non-NATO troop contributor.
The June 6 appearance of a questionable YouTube video, in which supposed Taliban fighters declare jihad on Georgia, has added to that debate.
A close inspection of the video, which was posted from Georgia, has raised suspicions of a domestic job or even of Russian intelligence, but the video's timing has contributed to the unease.
Anxious for peace with Russia, Georgian officials and businessmen recently have been taking turns bowing and refilling 62-year-old Russian food security tsar Gennadiy Onishchenko's glass with the finest beverages Georgia’s got to offer. But nothing seems to suit the delicate palate of Gennady Grigoryevich.
His complaints range from the quality-related to the political and downright philosophical. But the Onishchenkoisms, delivered with a stern face, always tend to hit whenever Tbilisi-Moscow ties are going south.
In 2006, with the Kremlin increasingly uneasy about Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili as a potential exporter of revolution, Onishchenko struck, slapping an embargo on Georgian wines, mineral waters and fruits and vegetables as unsafe.
But after Georgia’s new government began an active campaign of reconciliation with Russia, Onishchenko allowed long-banned Georgian wine and prized mineral water Borjomi back north of the Caucasus mountain range.
It has long been an open secret that some police officers in Kazakhstan turn a blind eye to criminal activity in exchange for a share of the proceeds. But rarely do male officers end up fleeing the scene of the crime dressed in drag.
This is what happened in the western city of Atyrau last week, according to a report carried in local newspaper Ak Zhayyk on May 26. Its correspondent on the scene described seeing two male police officers decked out in women’s clothes bolting from a brothel.
According to the newspaper, two officers arrived at an apartment block in Atyrau around 5 a.m. after a confrontation between alleged pimps and sex workers working out of an apartment and their infuriated neighbors.
The officers entered the apartment, but when they hadn’t emerged after an hour neighbors called another police squad, whose officers arrived and sat outside in their car.
A woman then emerged from the alleged brothel, got into the squad car and proceeded to hurl insults at the neighbors and throw a bottle at them while the newly arrived police looked on, Ak Zhayyk said.
A bizarre scene then ensued as, amid the disturbance, the first two police officers emerged from inside the brothel, “one in a long beige women’s jacket, under which [police] uniform pants were peeping out,” the other in “tight” women’s pants.
When the officers sitting outside failed to make a move, a pregnant woman and an elderly man resorted to giving chase themselves. But “the forces were unequal” and the two sergeants in drag escaped.