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.
Moscow’s allegation that Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge is a playground for Islamic State fighters is spreading worry in Tbilisi, which recently has gone to great lengths to improve ties with its big, northern neighbor after severing diplomatic relations in 2008.
“Reports are coming in that the Islamic State of Levant and Syria fighters are using this remote territory to train, rest and restock their supplies,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov claimed during a January 27 press-conference. He did not substantiate or elaborate about the allegation, which came amidst a discussion of the obstacles for restoring diplomatic ties with Georgia and removing visa requirements for Georgian citizens.
In Lavrov’s telling, Islamic terrorist activity in the Pankisi Gorge, a reclusive valley inhabited by Kists, a Muslim people related to Chechens, prompted Russia to impose visas on Georgia in 2000. The problem is still there, said Lavrov. His boss, Russian President Vladimir Putin, stated earlier that Russia was ready to scrap visa requirements for Georgians.
The Russian minister’s comment alarmed many in Tbilisi, which long has maintained that Moscow uses Pankisi as an excuse for hostile actions against Georgia. In 2002, the Georgian government and its allies charged that Russia conducted repeated bombing raids in the Gorge against supposed Chechen rebels.The Kremlin denied it.
Pounded with threats and sanctions from Russia, Turkey on December 4 went to its Turkic cousin Azerbaijan to get some much-needed love and economic reassurance. Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu received not only an ardent, mi-casa-es-su-casa welcome in Baku, but also promises of more business and energy supplies just as Russia is trying to starve Turkey of both of those things.
Sitting next to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, the Turkish prime minister melted into a lengthy toast to kinship between Azerbaijan and Turkey; one country that fate divided in two, he said. Azerbaijan is Turkey’s “soul,” “spiritual homeland,” and Turkey’s ministers are Azerbaijan’s ministers, in Davutoğlu's telling.
For Azerbaijan, which relies on heavily on Turkey for energy transit projects and efforts to reclaimed breakaway Nagorno Karabakh, this means, in theory, that Turkey’s problems are Azerbaijan’s problems. “Turkish-Azerbaijani unity and politics have a stabilizing effect on the region,” said Azerbaijan’s Aliyev.
Yet, mindful of Moscow, Azerbaijan's Soviet-era overlord and still the region's traditional mover-and-shaker, Aliyev avoided calling Russia by name. After all, of late, Baku and the Kremlin have been making nice. Instead, Aliyev noted, diplomatically broadly, that “stability in the region has been regrettably disturbed, with new risks and threats taking shape.”
“We should be ready and we are ready for these challenges," he added, without elaboration.
Riling his Armenian hosts, the organization’s Russian deputy general secretary, General Valery Semerikov, made it abundantly clear on September 30 that the latest deadly escalation between the two countries is Armenia’s, not the security bloc’s, problem. In media comments in Yerevan, Semerikov said that the fast spiral of violence between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces is nothing that Armenia can’t handle on its own.
Armenian Army Chief of Staff Yuri Khachaturov did not conceal his frustration with these remarks in the middle of drills billed “Unbreakable Brotherhood 2015.” Khachaturov claimed that Armenia is, indeed, more than capable of handling the confrontation with Azerbaijan, but said that he would like to see some form of support from fellow members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) — Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
“After all we are in one organism, in one security system, so this [support] should be voiced,” RFE/RL's Armenian service quoted Khachaturov as saying. “We are not asking for help quite yet, but support, purely human support, we would like to hear.”
As tensions again flare up between Armenia and Azerbaijan, Moscow has agreed to lend Yerevan $200 million for weaponry purchases at reduced rates.
In a September 7 statement after meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin at his Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside of Moscow, Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan claimed the preferential credit will facilitate “upgrading” the Armenian military’s stockpile of arms. Financial details were not available.
With a base in Armenia, Russia long has served as Armenia’s primary source of arms, even as it co-chairs peace talks between the two countries. The Kremlin has long used both hands to maintain influence in the South Caucasus, but the aid to Armenia left observers wondering what Putin's current game in the region is.
Moscow had been believed to be trying to pull Baku closer in, but the announcement of the gun deal will only chafe Baku. Media reports suggested that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was dispatched to Baku last week with the goal of coaxing Azerbaijan into a closer alliance with Moscow amidst the chill with the West over Azerbaijan’s dismal human rights record.
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.
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.
Russia has already poured big money into building bases in scenic, separatist Abkhazia, but now it claims that it plans to pour big money as well into the iconic resort town of Gagra — the ruble equivalent of about $25 million over the next two years.
The amount makes up a big chunk of both the 4 billion rubles ($76 million) in annual investment and 5 billion rubles ($95 million) in annual aid that Russian President Vladimir Putin pledged to Abkhazia when the breakaway region agreed in 2014to address many policy-areas with the Russian Federation's assistance.
The breakdown about how the cash will be used is not yet clear. But, with summer on the way, no public sign that anyone in Abkhazia is sweating the details.
Many older people throughout the former Soviet Union pine over Gagra, once the Saint-Tropez of the Soviet Union, and the times when it was synonymous with swanky beach-holidays. Getting a путёвка (putyovka) – a vacation voucher – for a trip to Gagra was like winning a jackpot and many a popular movie was set in the town.
(“Yakin broke up with his hag and talked me into going with him to Gagra!” enthused one parvenue in a famous moment in the 1973 Soviet comedy hit, “Иван Васильиевич Меняет Профессию" (released in the US as "Ivan Vasilievich: Back to the Future"). The line turned into a popular meme when Russian President Vladimir Putin divorced his wife, Lyudmila, in 2014.)
The Kremlin has tried to placate Turkish anger at Vladimir Putin terming as genocide the killing of an estimated one to 1.5 million ethnic Armenians in Turkey during World War I.
An an April 28 press-conference, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, never one to conceal his feelings, let loose: “It is not the first time Russia used the word genocide on this issue,” said Erdogan, adding that he was personally disappointed by Putin’s words. “What is happening in Ukraine is evident. They should first explain this before calling it [the 1915 slaughter] genocide.”
On April 24 itself, the centennial of the 1915 massacre, the Turkish foreign ministry had delivered a sharper punch, noting that “[t]aking into account the mass atrocities and exiles in the Caucasus, in Central Asia and in eastern Europe committed by Russia for a century, collective punishment methods (...) as well as inhumane practices especially against Turkish and Muslim people in Russia’s own history, we consider that Russia is best-suited to know what exactly ‘genocide’ and its legal dimension are.”
The Kremlin said nothing at first. But now that Erdoğan has shown he’s riled, it’s responded with a backhanded reminder to Turkey of where some of its interests lie.
Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov expressed a hope that the Turkish leader’s reaction “would not influence the relationship between Moscow and Ankara, and, above all, the Turkish Stream,” a 63-billion-cubic-meter-per-year pipeline that would carry Russian gas under the Black Sea to Turkish territory, and on to European markets.
March 11 was supposed to be a big day for South Ossetia, the tiny breakaway region with a wish to become one with Russia. A South Ossetian delegation had arrived in Moscow with an engagement ring — the so-called Treaty on Alliance and Integration — but Russia was just not ready to commit. Perhaps because it has too much going on in its life right now.
The main battleground for the 2008 Georgian-Russian war, South Ossetia never made a secret of its desire to become the next Crimea. Its leadership had left for the signing-ceremony in Moscow to much fanfare at home and teeth-grinding in jilted Tbilisi, which claims the mountainous border region as its own.
But Russian President Vladimir Putin did not even receive the delegation, much less sign the agreement meant to merge the Russian and South Ossetian economies and government agencies.
Russian media was awash with speculation: Putin had a running nose or thinks the territory did a sloppy job with the agreement or is bogged down in Ukraine and does not feel like adding another region to his land-grab collection right now. “Indefinite postponement of such a document’s signing on the eve of an event is an unprecedented development,” wrote Russia’s Vzglyad newspaper.