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.
Russia wants to revive a tsarist-era project for building a new road to Georgia, but Georgians remain uncertain about whether the intention has to do with transit for trade or tanks or both.
The topic was slotted for further discussion at a routine, October-16 meeting in Prague between Georgian and Russian officials, but details have not emerged.
The road, which would run from the restive Russian republic of Daghestan to Georgia’s Kakheti region, is meant as an alternative to the only fully functional road link between Georgia and Russia, known by its unfortunate historical name, the Georgian Military Highway.
The highway, at times barely two lanes, winds north through canyons and towering mountains in eastern Georgia, and is highly susceptible to the elements. Heavy snowfalls and landslides often block the road, leaving trucks queuing for weeks before they can go through.
To the west, there are two crossings into breakaway South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Both of these passages are outside Tbilisi’s control and remain closed to international traffic.
Increased transit would bring more income for Georgia’s lackluster economy, and especially for Russian ally Armenia, which heavily relies on exports to Russia. But many Georgians have qualms about giving their enemy number-one more options to roll in the tanks should the 2008 war repeat itself. Particularly in the wake of the uproar over the proposed Abkhazia-Russia treaty.
The fact that several months before the 2008 invasion, then Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin arrived in Daghestan and called for construction of this same road as another corridor to Georgia has offered little reassurance on this front.
A monument to the legendary Russian arms-designer, creator of the AK-rifle series, Mikhail Kalashnikov, has been erected in Armenia. The full-length statue of the man whose weapons came to epitomize Russian/Soviet military might was placed in the northern town of Gyuimri, the site of Russia’s lone military base in the South Caucasus.
The Kalashnikov monument will be unveiled officially and a museum will open on November 8, according to a press-release from the 102nd military base, cited by RIA Novosti. The base commander, Colonel Andrei Ruzinski, came up with the idea last year, when Kalashnikov passed away, leaving behind the legacy of what Russia says is the world’s most popular rifle.
“Vodka, matrioshkas, balalaikas, and commissars and Cossacks riding bears – all that kitsch can be dismissed as it has nothing to do with Russia,” RIA Novosti wrote in an obituary for Kalashnikov. “But the three-something kilograms of iron from Izhev [firearms manufacturer] put everything in its place, because that is the real Russia, from beginning to the end. This is a symbol that is immediately recognized everywhere, and no more explanations are needed.”
Russian guns are a controversial matter in the South Caucasus, but Armenia still is a willing host to the 102nd military base, seen as a deterrent against any possible assault from neighboring Azerbaijan, which has indicated it’s willing to retake breakaway, predominantly ethnic Armenian Nagorno Karabakh by force, if not by peace.
A brand new international travel option is underway for the Russian-annexed Crimean peninsula. An airline based in Russia’s North-Caucasus republic of Chechnya plans to launch direct flights between the Armenian capital, Yerevan, and Crimea’s main city of Simferopol, according to RIA-Novosti.
Grozny Avia, named after Chechnya's capital, Grozny (Russian for fearsome), was ordered into being by the obstreperous province's warlord-turned-president, Ramzan Kadyrov. The air company now conducts domestic flights within the Russian Federation.
Its twice-weekly Yerevan-Simferopol flights are tentatively expected to start on October 28, but may get pushed over into November, the carrier told the agency Crimea Media.
Grozny Avia operated its first international flight out of Simferopol to Istanbul in July, when Crimea was already under Russian control. Regular flights were cancelled thereafter for "political reasons," the official story goes. Some news reports claimed that the cancellation was a result of Turkey siding with Ukraine and its Western partners in the dispute with Russia over Crimea and eastern Ukraine.
Earlier this year, the International Civil Aviation Organization called on international carriers to avoid the Crimean airspace, which Russia hijacked from Ukraine, along with the land below it. Currently, all regular international flights to Crimea are mainly by Russia’s Aeroflot.
The renewed ruckus between Armenia and Azerbaijan has prompted calls for rehashing the international approach to finding a peaceful resolution to the 26-year-long Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. But, so far, it appears to be only Russian President Vladimir Putin who's planning to meet with the two countries' leaders.
The reasons for reviving the half-dormant ex-Soviet conflict remain moot. For years now, gusts of fighting have occasionally disrupted the 1994 ceasefire agreement, which ended a full-blown war over breakaway Karabakh. To quote Armenian Defense Minister Seyran Ohanian, Karabakh ever since has been a place of “no war, no peace.”
But with a record number dead in recent weeks, a real threat of another ex-Soviet war is in the air.
With reports of casualties coming in daily, Azerbaijani military officials have claimed that volunteers have been stepping forward to help national forces with the “liberation of the occupied lands.”
In Armenia, Defense Minister Ohanian said on August 5 that, so far, there is no need for mobilization or the deployment of an international peacekeeping force. “Karabakh is the only conflict zone in the world where relative peace is maintained through a balance between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces,” Ohanian declared at an August-6 press-conference.
With Russia and Ukraine facing off over the fate of the small separatist region in eastern Ukraine supported by Moscow, the two countries have been using food policy as a way to punish each other.
This Russian-Ukrainian food fight actually already started last year, when Moscow banned the import of a popular line of Ukrainian chocolates, apparently to punish Kiev's overtures to Europe. In response, the Ukrainian government put a halt to the import of certain Russian sweets.
But with things heating up in eastern Ukraine, so is the use of food import restrictions as a weapon. In late July, Kiev banned the import of Russian pork products, citing a concern about the presence in Asian Swine Flu in certain regions in Russia. Not to be outdone, Moscow soon after announced a ban on Ukrainian soy and a few other agricultural products due to "a breach of phytosanitary requirements" (whatever that means).
But recent moves by the Kremlin are dragging Ukraine's neighbors into the food battle. After the European Union announced new sanctions against Russia last week, Moscow retaliated by announcing a ban on most fruit and vegetable imports from EU-member Poland. The move, the Kremlin said, was due to "sanitary reasons" and could be extended to the entire EU.
For Poland, the ban is serious business, as Reuters explains: