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.
Gazprom, the Russian energy goliath, reportedly continues its shopping spree in Armenia; this time around, setting its eyes on the Caucasus country's power-distribution grid. Such a buy would get Gazprom closer to becoming the main source of light and heat in Armenia, second only to the sun.
If the deal is done, the electricity network will change hands from one Russian company, Inter RAO UES, to another. But then, Gazprom is, of course, not just another Russian company. It is the Kremlin’s magic wand for political clout and foreign policy.
As the main supplier of Armenia's natural gas and security (and possibly electricity), and its main trade partner, Russia, some fear, practically owns the country.
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.
The customs-free wonderland that Russia is busy building around itself to counterbalance the European Union will come with still more unrecognized or half-recognized lands. On December 10, the Russian Duma approved a 2012 agreement to drop customs duties between Russia and the twin breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
“Ratification of the agreements will become an important step toward intensifying trade turnover between Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and Russia and members of the Customs Union,” pledged Eurasian Integration Parliamentary Committee Chairman Leonid Slutskiy, ITAR-TASS reported.
The two tiny enclaves -- in Moscow’s view, perfectly sovereign lands -- are tied to Russia’s apron both by their economies and their claims to independent statehood. Now, they can export customs-free to Russia anything but sugar, tobacco and alcohol. Russia also cancelled export duties on set volumes of petroleum exported to Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Of course, there is more in this for the territories than for Russia, which periodically injects aid into both breakaway territories. The Kremlin is pouring so much money into Abkhazia and South Ossetia that it will not even notice a revenue-drop from the removal of duties on imports from and petroleum exports into the regions, said Slutskiy.
In 2014-2015, Moscow plans to invest over 3 billion rubles (about $92 million) in Abkhazia alone, according to the region's de-facto official news agency, Apsnypress.
A colossal, bronze Jesus Christ, cast in Armenia, has appeared in war-ravaged Syria “to save the world.”
Soaring higher than Rio’s famous Christ the Redeemer, the statue stands 39 meters tall in the mountaintop, Byzantine-era Cherubim Monastery, lording it over the city of Saidnaya, 27 kilometers north of Damascus, Armenian news outlets reported. Some Russian outlets said that the statue is one meter shorter than its Brazilian counterpart.
From its vantage point above the sea, the statue overlooks an historic pilgrimage route from Istanbul to Jerusalem. The statue, created by Armenian sculptor Artush Papoian, was installed on October 14, when Orthodox Christians celebrate a commemoration of the Virgin Mary, whose icon is a chief draw for the monastery.
But the statue was not born of recent events in Syria. While Syria's ethnic Armenian population has been fleeing the country in droves -- including to Armenia itself, which has built a "New Aleppo" to accommodate the arrivals -- the project has been in the works since 2005, Russia's Komsomol'skaya Pravda reports.
Some Armenian officials would have you believe that Yerevan's surprise decision to join the Russia-led Customs Union all came down to economic moxie. And, in a way, perhaps it did. But in gaseous form.
Armenian Energy and Natural Resources Minister Armen Movsisian told parliament on September 11 that the question of how to grapple with the higher prices Russia's state-owned Gazprom is now charging for natural gas would be decided within the framework of the Customs Union.
"The decision already has been found, and soon [everything] will be resolved," Movsisian said, expressing his support for the trade deal, Lragir.am reported.
Announced this summer, the 18-percent price hike by Gazprom, Armenia's chief provider of natural gas, had fueled not only further worries for the country's hard-pressed economy, but, also, predictions of widespread opposition to the government.
President Serzh Sargsyan had made no mention of gas when announcing on September 3 the plan to form a trade pact with Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus -- an unexpected decision that has ruined (at least for now) Armenia's chances of an Association Agreement with the European Union.
Officials since have scrambled to make it seem that the Customs Union was the only choice going.