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:
That gives an opening to Russia, one of three countries (along with the US and France) charged with keeping negotiations afloat between Baku and Yerevan. Russian President Vladimir Putin this week will meet in Sochi separately with Azerbaijan’s Ilham Aliyev and Armenia’s Serzh Sargsyan, Moscow has announced. A chat which, “when they all appear in the same place and at the same time,” doubtlessly will get down to Karabakh, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told the ITAR-TASS news agency.
As have the US and EU, Moscow has called for restraint. And — wink-wink — underscored the need for cooperation with the West to keep Armenia and Azerbaijan from coming to still more deadly blows.
“For many years, we have seen periodic flare-ups, but this time [the topic] is being perceived and will be taken up particularly strongly,” Lavrov commented.
The dates for these chats have been set for August 8-9, Armenian Prime Minister Hovik Abrahamian told reporters, according to RFE/RL.
Nobody much listened after separatists in Ukraine asked the world to recognize their newly declared People’s Republic of Luhansk. But the call was heard loud and clear in separatist South Ossetia.
Call it bonding between the self-proclaimed types. South Ossetia’s breakaway leadership announced on June 16 that they cannot stay indifferent to the will of the people of the so-called “People’s Republic.”
“Respecting the expression of the will of the people of the People’s Republic of Luhansk, the Republic of South Ossetia recognized the results of the [May 11] referendum [on secession from Ukraine] and is ready to make a constructive decision,” said Leonid Tibilov, the de-facto president of South Ossetia, the region’s Ossinfo agency reported.
Tibilov’s separatist counterpart in Luhansk, Valeriy Bolotov, promptly relayed the news to the Luhansk people. “Tomorrow, we will appoint an ambassador of the People’s Republic of Luhansk to the Republic of South Ossetia,” Bolotov proclaimed, reported Interfax.
But the so-called leader of the Luhansk people might want to hit the brakes here. South Ossetia’s de-facto foreign ministry told the Russian Dozhd’ (Rain) television channel that Tibilov’s statement does not mean official recognition.
South Ossetia, which relies on Russia for everything from arms to aid, is unlikely to make its decision final without consulting the big boss, Moscow.
Abkhazia’s hair-trigger uprising ended in less than a week, before it could be properly understood or even noticed by the outside world. The proximity to events in Ukraine, both in terms of geography and the pattern, grabbed attention, but in Abkhazia no geopolitical shifts are expected. Rather, it's a change from within.
De-facto President Aleksander Ankvab resigned on June 1 after putting up only token resistance to a diverse group of opposition groups who have taken over the building from which he governed. A new presidential vote was called for August 24. In the meantime, de-facto Parliamentary Speaker Valery Bganba is serving as the region's leader.
Local observers see this outcome as both the result of Ankvab's own policy-shortcomings and as a failure of the breakaway region's system of governance.
In commentary broadcast by the online Asarkia TV, Inal Khashig, editor-in-chief of the Sokhumi-based Chegemskaya Pravda newspaper, argued that earlier expectations that the 61-year-old Ankvab would serve as Abkhazia's "chief foreman" and fix all of the territory's many problems, ranging from limited jobs to a crumbling public order, had failed to be met. “What was expected of him was to set things in order in various fields,” Khashig said.
Armenia may now sign on to the Moscow-led Eurasian Union by the end of April, roughly a month before neighboring Georgia is slated to enter a free-trade and political pact with the European Union. The signings of both agreements have been expedited as the competition for the South Caucasus picks up speed between Russia and Europe.
Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan is scheduled to travel to Belarus on April 29 for a meeting of the council of the Eurasian Union, an economic bloc roughly modeled by Moscow after (and against) the European Union. Armenian officials say that Sargsyan will sign an agreement in Minsk on Armenia’s joining the Customs Union, the flagship project of the Eurasian Union meant to create a shared economic space for Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and, Moscow hopes, more ex-Soviet states.
The new sign-on date is not a huge difference from the earlier deadline of May, but, apparently, as East-West ties deteriorate over Ukraine, someone feels the need to pick up the pace.
Wary of Ukraine-style pressure from Russia, the EU chiefs have been trying to fast-forward their plans with Georgia and Moldova. José Manuel Borroso, the president of the European Commission, the executive body of the EU, is expected in Tbilisi in June to sign an association agreement, which includes a free trade deal, with Georgia.